I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
The Civil Partnerships Bill marks an important stage in the ongoing progress towards equality for lesbian and gay people. Over recent years we have seen legislative and cultural changes that mark the growing confidence and maturity of our civil society. We have removed laws that stigmatised and excluded lesbian, gay and bisexual people from full involvement in the life of the nation. However, as my hon. Friend Angela Eagle rightly observed, just when we may feel that progress is being made, we are confronted with events that remind us, in the most appalling ways, of how much more is to be done. Incidents such as the senseless murder of David Morley, a survivor of the bomb attack on the Admiral Duncan pub, and another recent attack in which a man was stabbed on his way home from a night out, apparently simply because he was gay, demonstrate that we must continue to combat prejudice and hatred wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head.
The way in which we legislate and conduct our discussions in this House sends an important signal about the respect and recognition that is due to lesbian, gay and bisexual people.
I hope that the Minister will accept unreservedly that those of us who oppose the Bill, however passionately, in no way condone any of the actions to which she referred. We find it as outrageous and unacceptable as she does, and I hope that she would not try to persuade the House that we were complicit in the horrendous actions that have taken place.
I certainly would not, and I commend the hon. Gentleman for his remarks.
The fact that we have introduced the Bill and will, I hope, pass it into legislation, sends a very important message about the respect in which we, as a country and as individuals, hold the many people in this country who are in long-term same-sex relationships. I have always argued that the Bill is not only about dealing with the considerable day-to-day practical and legal difficulties involved in those relationships, but is a manifestation of the respect and dignity that we give to them.
This new legal relationship comes with both rights and responsibilities, and the Bill sends out a clear message about the importance of stable and committed relationships. It will enshrine in law a comprehensive structure through which same-sex couples can form a civil partnership and make provision for organising their joint lives together.
Most of the time, our debates on the Bill have shown the House at its best. I thank all hon. Members who have spoken with intelligence, thoughtfulness and temperance. I believe that we have listened to hon. Members' concerns and, when appropriate, sought to amend the Bill to tackle them. On the whole, the process has been constructive, due to various hon. Members' contributions. I express my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland for her contribution and the important issues that she has tackled, including those that relate to Scotland. I assure hon. Members that she has a close and intimate knowledge of Scottish succession legislation. I put on record my appreciation of the work in another place of Baroness Scotland, Baroness Hollis, Baroness Amos, Baroness Crawley, Lord Filkin and Lord Evans of Temple Guiting.
I thank hon. Members of all parties who have made an important contribution to the scrutiny of the Bill. The mature and constructive approach of Mr. Duncan—perhaps I should call him Mr. December—is a credit to him and, I hope, to his party. The hon. Gentleman was unfortunately not in his place when the Government amendment on religious premises was agreed earlier. It is therefore worth while to put on record again that it arose from discussions that he in particular prompted.
I pay tribute to Mr. Bercow, who has on every occasion actively supported the Government's commitment to reject amendments that would have rendered the Bill unworkable. He has been diligent in his attendance and his contributions.
Mr. Carmichael made thoughtful contributions and has played an important role in consideration of the Bill.
I want to place on record my appreciation of all my hon. Friends who served on the Committee and perhaps especially of my hon. Friends the Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and for Wallasey, who have ensured an informed and passionate debate inside and outside the Chamber. They brought all the force of their argument to bear in the discussions, which led to a Government amendment that was agreed today and will ensure fair and equitable pensions treatment for civil partners.
I thank our Committee Chairmen for the excellent way in which they chaired our proceedings, the parliamentary officials who served during the Bill's passage and the Whip, my hon. Friend Mr. Watson, who played an important role in ensuring that we kept to order.
That was a churlish intervention.
The Bill has taken some time to develop and, throughout, it has had the benefit of the work of an extraordinarily dedicated and proficient group of officials. They deserve congratulations.
In a spirit of conciliation, will the Minister also pay tribute to those who have honourably opposed the Bill and are not in any way at odds with her comments about the community who will benefit but simply believe that the measure is the wrong way to proceed? Some of us have not been able to take a great part in the proceedings but my hon. Friends the Members for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) deserve the thanks of the House for the dignity and force with which they have advanced arguments that many people support. Will the right hon. Lady acknowledge that?
I acknowledge that they have put their case strongly.
As the Bill leaves the House, it is complete and comprehensive, wide-ranging and detailed. It is carefully drafted and its clauses are tightly interwoven.
It is indeed ground-breaking, in that it is the first Bill of its kind to include comprehensive international recognition provisions that could be used as a template by other countries in the years to come. The Bill also provides equality in pension rights.
This is a Bill to be proud of and this House has done an excellent job in salvaging it from the unfortunate state in which it arrived here. It is perhaps no surprise that it has received massive support from the lesbian, gay and bisexual communities. What is truly heartening, however, is the level of support that has come from the population at large—from trade unions, religious groups, legal experts, groups such as Age Concern and Carers UK, and the hundreds of individuals who have written to express their delight that, at last, an important injustice is being addressed.
Many same-sex couples will be very keen to avail themselves of the Bill's provisions, once they come into effect. It is expected that the Act will take effect roughly a year after Royal Assent, to enable the necessary secondary legislation to be introduced and other operational changes to be made. I have no doubt that many people will want to take advantage of its provisions at that point. Many of us who are married know well how our lives have been enriched beyond measure by the support of our husbands and wives. Indeed, our achievements are all the greater and all the more enjoyable because we have someone to share them with. Our lesbian and gay family members, colleagues and friends deserve an equivalent chance, and they deserve the current legal injustices to be put right. The Civil Partnership Bill remedies those injustices and provides that opportunity, and I commend it to the House.
May I echo the Minister's comments and thank her and her fellow Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Mrs. McGuire for the courtesy with which they have conducted all our proceedings throughout the passage of the Bill? I also echo her thanks to the civil servants and to the Chairmen of the Committee, singling out in particular Mr. Cook, who returned from having a hospital operation and, despite being in considerable pain, continued to chair our Committee.
I should like to turn my attention, as my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack urged the Minister to do, to those who disagree with the Bill. Democracy involves the settling of difference by decent means, and I should like to express my respect for the manner in which those who have opposed the Bill, or elements of it—most, if not all, of whom are sitting behind me—have expressed that difference. Out of that respect, I should like to address the overarching religious objections that have been voiced throughout the passage of the Bill.
Over the centuries, political difference has been defined by various distinct positions: Church and state; Crown and people; rich and poor; left and right; pro and anti-Europe; wets and drys. However, rising nearer to the top of our political deliberations once again is the distinction between libertarian and authoritarian strands of thought. One strand of that debate involves the question of whether it is right for the state to use its supposed power to shape a moral template and to impose it on a country through the force of law.
The recent presidential election in the United States has sparked a debate about whether moral values are an electoral force that can be harnessed for the national and political good, and whether they mean the same thing in the United Kingdom as they do in the United States. We might set ourselves the task of comparing and contrasting the effects of moral opinion on the democratic process in the US and the UK. We have already seen some fairly manic articles on the subject, in which writers on each side of the argument have wilfully misconstrued the position of those on the other side. Each side deserves more respect from the other.
The Bill, with its merits and demerits, lies at the very heart of that debate. Is the change that it offers a threat to the traditional decencies of our way of life, and something that puts the moral fabric of our society at risk? Or is it an overdue recognition of how any society, as it inevitably changes, needs to embrace adjusted patterns of life and behaviour to suit the wishes of people whose qualities and conduct are no less and no more decent than those who readily fit into established mores? At the very least, the entire House, male and—if my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe will take it the right way—even female behind me, would agree that we have moved on from the view of the Emperor Justinian, who thought that homosexuality was a cause of earthquakes.
This debate, to which David Winnick alluded earlier, was raging 40 years ago in the House. "Law, Liberty and Morality", by H. L. A. Hart, was a seminal lecture given in the early 1960s. It influenced my views on the subject that we are debating today. It provoked a blistering riposte from a Law Lord, Paddy Devlin, entitled "The Enforcement of Morals", which, in turn, in an attempt to mediate through a more churchly eye, led to Basil Mitchell's "Law, Morality and Religion in a Secular Society".
I therefore promise not to trespass on my hon. Friend's time twice. He is talking about the state enforcing morality. Nothing will change if the Bill is not passed, inasmuch as two people of the same sex will still be free to enter into a relationship, to set up a household and all the rest of it. Nothing will alter that. The only alteration will be that what is now unique—marriage and the rights and responsibilities that the law accords to marriage—will for the first time be given to one specific group in our community other than the married. That is the essence of this Bill, not anything to do with whether people should be free to practise homosexuality.
But the fundamental premise of my right hon. Friend's comments is that there is a moral distinction to be made, which means that there should not be recognition of same-sex partnerships. If I may, let me trace my argument through, as I am trying to dignify her views with what I hope is seen as a thoughtful response; at the very least, I am making an effort to do so.
H. L. A. Hart, taking a more liberal stand, put the question of whether the state should adopt what he termed "physical paternalism", and asked
"is the fact that certain conduct"— perhaps this answers the question of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald—
"is by common standards immoral sufficient to justify making that conduct punishable by law?"
Or, in this case, is it sufficient simply to make it not permitted or recognised? Indeed, he asked,
"is it morally permissible to enforce morality as such?"
Patrick Devlin, on the other hand, believed that one could justify the use of the criminal law—in this case, any law—to punish deviations from a society's shared morality.
Recognition of homosexual relationships in the 40 years since that classic exchange has become part of this and many other countries' shared morality. Indeed, John Stuart Mill had already set the calculus for our judgments. He said that society could use its powers to protect morality, but by that he meant stopping people doing harm to others. There is no greater harm than the brutal killing, to which the Minister referred, of David Morley, in a homophobic attack, just two weeks ago, a few hundred yards from the House.
This Bill does not do anybody harm. Those who believe in God, and yet believe too in opposing the Bill, risk being seen by others as people who are using the name of God to promote their own earthly dislikes. Faith in God, and one's ensuing conduct, are undeniably matters of personal choice and individual conviction. Being forced to do something does not make one moral. It might make one conform to certain moral norms, but only a decision that is taken entirely freely can be totally moral. Conversely, being gay is not a matter of choice. A natural disposition, which does no harm to others, cannot be immoral, however much it might be intensely despised by some.
In "Law, Morality and Religion", Basil Mitchell observed:
"The new liberalism"— which perhaps many here do not like—
"is based on a fundamental distinction between a social morality which is thought of as a necessary condition of any viable society, and a morality of personal ideals which are for individuals to choose."
The Bill allows the latter.
In the same exchange, Devlin said
"If Christianity is true, it should illuminate precisely those human needs which men are found in experience to have, and this is not by accident but because the God of revelation is also the God of nature."
Condemnation of gay relationships therefore risks being thoroughly unchristian, and barely hidden disdain combined with professed indifference is the most contemptible attitude of all. The role of the state is to intervene when two people are doing harm to each other, not when they just happen to love each other.
In my view, the Bill is a landmark in the clash between those who want to enforce their own moral code and choose to judge their fellow man and those who say that a couple's mutual love should be permitted and celebrated without the intrusion and interference of the state. We are supposed to be here to build a happier country. If we are to build a monument to decency, fairness, love, equality and all the rich happiness that two people can provide for each other, the Bill should be passed as a cornerstone of the very monument that we want to build.
It gives me great pleasure to follow Mr. Duncan, and to compliment him on his quick philosophical round-up of important social and political issues. I agree with his interpretation of the effects of the Bill.
I welcome this sensible piece of social reform. It recognises that we have moved on socially, and if it is passed it will grant an acknowledgement of the dignity and respect that should be conferred on same-sex couples as well as legal recognition of their relationships should they choose to enter into civil partnerships. It means that the United Kingdom is moving into the mainstream of social reform across the world, as many of us pointed out on Second Reading.
I was privileged to serve on the Standing Committee, along with Members on both sides of the House. I believe that scrutiny and consideration hugely improved the Bill, which was a mess when it arrived from the House of Lords. The removal of the Lords' wrecking amendments, which effectively would have allowed grandmothers to have a relationship akin to marriage with their grandsons or granddaughters, was essential to prevent this House from becoming a laughing stock.
A significant advance made in Committee, albeit one less commented on than others, was the Government's decision to grant full pension equality to same-sex couples and allow them to benefit from the contributions that many had made on the same basis as that applying to widows and widowers in the case of both state and private occupational pension schemes.
I asked my hon. Friend the Minister about that on Second Reading, and Mr. Carmichael said rather cynically that she was just trying to get through the debate. He did not know about some of the meetings that had been taking place behind the scenes to deal with what my hon. Friend Chris Bryant and I considered a very just cause. I for one was extremely pleased when, at the end of Second Reading, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland was able to grant the first part of our wish—full pension equality in state occupational schemes—thus, I hope, banishing the cynicism of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland for ever. In Committee, we were able finally to iron out this issue by eliminating an existing anomaly in private sector pension schemes as well. So the Bill is now ready for the statute book, and I hope that when it returns to the other place shortly, the Lords will respect the large majorities by which it has proceeded through the various Commons stages.
The other very interesting and enjoyable aspect of the process was the spectacle of the Conservatives dealing with the Bill in Committee on a free vote. That prompted some extremely good speeches and passionate argument, but it also demonstrated the Janus face of the Conservative party, which I mentioned on Second Reading. Little did I realise quite how many facets that face has. The four Conservative Members in Committee proceeded in very different ways; in fact, they were all over the place, which is perhaps what free votes do.
After decades of reinforcing every prejudice, playing on every fear and creating legislation such as the odious section 28, there are welcome signs of movement among the Conservatives. Thankfully, a much more enlightened and humane element is emerging, and their support for the Bill is welcome. Particular mention should be made of Mr. Key, who made an extremely good speech. The hon. Members for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and for Wealden (Charles Hendry) made superb speeches on Second Reading, demonstrating this strand of conservatism and, hopefully, its emerging strength.
But for each enlightened, tolerant and respectful speech, the narrow-minded right-wing element of the Conservative party voiced its backward view of the world. In Committee, we had a quite extraordinary spectacle. In general, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton supported the Bill with a great deal of erudition and passion. However, he refused to vote to include its first 80 clauses in Committee—
I should it put on the record that I did not vote for some 80 clauses in Committee because they were being forced through on the guillotine with no debate. I thought it better to abstain, in order to make it quite clear that I do not approve of such timetable motions.
The hon. Gentleman can of course do what he likes with his vote, especially when his party has a free vote. But he knows that the practical effect of that vote in Committee could have been to destroy the Bill, and I hope and pray that that was not his intention. The Whip in Committee, Andrew Selous, mostly abstained but sometimes voted against the Bill. The altogether more predictable hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) ploughed his lonely furrow of total opposition, never losing a chance to belittle, denigrate and trivialise same-sex partners and civil partnerships. When he was not attempting to change the Bill to require same-sex couples to register—
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thought that it was part of the nature of debates on Third Reading that we look back on our proceedings. I am merely pointing out that the four Conservative Members serving on the Bill in Committee all did different things.
Of those four, I move on to the best, the hon. Member for Buckingham. Unlike some of his colleagues, he was steadfast, brave and principled throughout the Committee stage; he argued constantly and passionately in favour of the Bill from start to finish. I congratulate him on his open-minded humanity, but he faces a long and uphill battle with his crusade to make the Conservative party begin to remake itself as compassionate and humane. I wish him and his other colleagues in the fight all the best for the future.
Meanwhile, we have a Bill that is as near perfect as possible, following its Committee and Report stage. I welcome the huge endorsement that the Bill gained on Second Reading, when it was passed by 423 votes to 49 and I caution the other place against further interference in the Bill. I look forward to its commencement next year. Many people are already planning what I know will be joyous celebrations of their civil partnerships in due course when the Bill comes into force and civil partnerships become a reality for same-sex couples who have longed for many years to have that opportunity.
First, I associate myself with the expressions of gratitude made earlier by the Minister and Mr. Duncan in respect of House and Committee officials who have assisted the Bill's passage to its current stage. The Minister said that the process has been constructive, and I would certainly want to use the same word. I pay tribute to the Minister, particularly for the manner in which she has handled changes to the pension provisions. As a Liberal Democrat, I am delighted to welcome them.
I am pleased that my cynicism, or perhaps my scepticism, has made such an impression on Angela Eagle. She asked whether it has been banished for ever, which sounds like the sort of optimism usually expressed by Liberal Democrats, but let us say that it is banished for tonight.
Miss Widdecombe said in an earlier intervention that if we do not pass the Bill, nothing will change. From my perspective, I have to say that that is exactly why we should pass the Bill, because if we do not pass it, nothing will change. Mixed-sex couples will still, to borrow the Minister's phrase, remain "largely invisible" within the eyes of the law and people will continue to suffer discrimination and disadvantage simply because of their sexual orientation. To my mind, that is simply wrong.
The hon. Member for Wallasey spoke about the House leading the world and being at the forefront of these issues, but I believe that we are engaged in a catching-up process. It is all about recognition of our society, as currently constituted and as it has been for some time.
Several hon. Members have urged us to admit that we are talking about gay marriage, but I cannot admit that because, as I explained earlier, marriage is something uniquely given to mixed-sex couples. What flows from that is recognition of the marriage relationship, which, in turn, brings certain financial and property rights. Having said that same-sex couples cannot be party to a marriage, I believe that they are obviously entitled to the same recognition and the same rights of property as married people are granted.
I often wonder why some Conservative Back Benchers are so obsessed with the use of the "M" word, if I may put it that way. The only conclusion that I can draw is that they argue that way deliberately, knowing that the issue becomes emotive and that, by talking that way, they stand a better chance of stirring up opposition and antipathy towards the giving of these basic rights to certain groups of people. I therefore believe that the Government are correct to refer to "civil partnerships" and to leave it at that.
I also have to say that this morning's intervention by the Christian Institute was profoundly regrettable. I shall choose my words with care, but I have been a Christian since I was 14. Christianity has been a formative influence for me and has changed my life, but there are few less edifying spectacles than politicians who preach, so I shall keep this simple.
To my mind, the fundamental factor in Christianity is love. The tremendous thing about Christian love is that it knows no discrimination. That is why, when Jesus told us in the New Testament to love our neighbour, he did not qualify that by saying that we need not love those of our neighbours who are black, gay, fat, thin, tall or short. There are no equivocations about the love that Jesus offers us. That is why I feel passionately that it would be wrong for us to prolong, in the name of Christianity, the discrimination and disadvantage that some people suffer.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but it can be an act of love to point out when someone is going wrong. With all due respect, I point out to him that there is discrimination against siblings in this country. In my opinion, the Christian Institute was right to make that clear. I regret that the hon. Gentleman considers that the brothers and sisters who live together and who suffer disadvantage in the way that was described in the previous debate need not benefit from this legislation in the way that homosexual couples—uniquely—will.
The hon. Gentleman began his intervention on a false premise by saying that it was an act of love to point out to people when they were "going wrong". That suggests that a person's sexual orientation is a matter of choice. It is not: it is something with which one is born. Homosexuals, lesbians and bisexuals are no more "going wrong" than any other people who choose to follow their particular sexual orientation.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about my position in respect of siblings. We have rehearsed those arguments at considerable length today. If he was in the Chamber to hear my earlier remarks, he will have heard my opinions already; if he was not here at that time, he can read them tomorrow morning in Hansard.
It is rare to be able to say at the end of a Third Reading debate that the legislation will leave us in a better condition than when it arrived in this House, but that is very much the case today. I hope that our noble Friends in the other place will realise that the Bill enjoys the overwhelming support of this House. Although some minor tinkering may remain to be done—and we will always be open to that—we do not expect to see any significant amendment.
I bear in mind the fact that Mr. Carmichael has just said that he hated politicians who preach, so I shall be very careful about the words that I choose this evening. However, I know that those hon. Members who are church wardens and Church Commissioners adopt a very different stance to the Bill, and also that there are many other religious hues in this House. I do not believe that there is one Christian, or even one religious position, on this matter. There are many different ways to view this legislation, and we should honour the personal position that each hon. Member adopts.
I welcome the Bill, primarily because it represents another nail in the coffin of prejudice towards homosexual people in this country. This is therefore an important moment. It is more than 100 years since Edward Carpenter, one of the great founders of the Labour party, set up his household with George Merrill. He was reviled at the time for that and had to be very courageous. Some years have passed since my right hon. Friend Mr. Smith was open in this Chamber about his sexuality. Many people would consider that part of the steady progress that has been made towards openness and away from prejudice.
As I said, I welcome this Bill wholeheartedly, and I know that many lesbians and gay men in this country will do the same. For the sake of argument, I am sure that many will call what the Bill offers gay marriage—and I do not care at all. I am happy that the people who will benefit from the Bill will feel that they are able to enjoy the same rights, and bear the same responsibilities, as heterosexual people have been able to enjoy throughout the centuries. I think that they will accept both rights and responsibilities with open arms.
I also welcome the Bill because it is extremely comprehensive. The Minister paid tribute to the people in her office who have made sure that it is in good order. I merely note that we are amending the Explosive Substances Act 1883, the Pharmacy Act 1954, the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963 and, perhaps most significantly, the Slaughterhouses Act 1974. Rights that they never even knew they did not have gay men and lesbians will now be able to enjoy.
That is in part because of the process that we went through in Committee. I wholeheartedly welcome the fact that we have improved the Bill immeasurably. The most important improvements, to my mind, have been those on pension provision, and I pay tribute to the two Ministers and to the Paymaster General, who played an important part in making sure we were able to produce a Bill that is yet more equal and is advancing more equality than was originally intended.
One of the most important and moving speeches made in the whole process was by my hon. Friend Mr. Borrow. Many Members will look forward to going to the celebration of his civil partnership, and we look forward to finding out where the wedding list will be, whether it is at John Lewis or somewhere else.
I also pay tribute to Mr. Chope. I passionately disagree with nearly everything he said in Committee and in the Chamber. He let himself down on a couple of occasions when he used phrases that he may wish he had not used in the light of better judgment. He said at the beginning of the Committee stage that he did not want to become its pariah. I do not know whether he then knew that that is a religious term, a Tamil word that refers to a drummer who is not allowed to take part in a religious procession. The hon. Gentleman banged his drum gracefully, and although he may not progress through the Lobby with us later, he has done a fine thing in standing up for what he believes, even if I just wish he believed in something different.
I pay tribute, too, to Mr. Duncan. He gave us a fine speech today and has given many of them. I was intrigued to hear him give a philosophical tour d'horizon today, not least because I remember much of it appearing in his book "Saturn's Children" a few years ago, which rabidly condemned Christian socialism—and me—at length. It is a delight to see him as consistent as ever.
I only hope that the Lords do not mess the Bill up. They messed it up when they sent it to us, giving us an unworkable Bill. They often proclaim that they are much better at drafting and improving legislation than we are, but this time we have done a far better job than they did.
I will vote against the Bill. It discriminates in favour of one particular type of relationship outside marriage. It creates a type of partnership that is so akin to marriage as to be almost indistinguishable from it. My best efforts, and those of so many others, to try to reduce the worst discriminatory elements of the Bill have failed.
I hope that the other place will insist on extending the legal privileges of the Bill beyond the homosexual community.
I said on Second Reading that the Bill was about justice rather than religion, prejudice or, indeed, sex. Our deliberations in the House and in Committee have proved that, and I am grateful that we have seen the Bill improved in Committee through the pension provisions. That will undoubtedly make a big difference.
It is important, however, to recognise that the House is at its best when it takes an extremely controversial subject that divides the nation, let alone the House itself, and deals with it in a civilised manner, coming to a sensible conclusion. That, I think, is what we have done, and it does us no good at all to start sniping at each other for holding deeply opposed views. That has been as true on my side of the House as on the other, although it is fair to say to all those right hon. and hon. Members who are not present that the voting record will show that most Members on both sides have stayed away throughout proceedings on the Bill, as no doubt will be the case tonight. It is also true that a minority of my colleagues have voted against the Bill. I happen to share the view of the leadership of my party that this is a matter of justice, righting wrongs and removing injustice, and I will therefore support it on Third Reading.
It is important that we do not give the impression that there is a single Christian view on the matter. I happen to support the majority view of the General Synod of the Church of England and the Archbishops Council that this is a matter of righting wrongs. I also believe passionately that the Bill should not be seen as introducing gay marriage. I disagree with Chris Bryant. I said on Second Reading, and I still contend, that marriage is something unique between a man and a woman. I respect same-sex partners and recognise that they need legal recognition. The Bill does not create a group of people and discriminate in their favour. Instead, it removes an injustice because some people have been discriminated against. That is why the High Court said that the Government had to introduce the Bill and it is another good reason to vote for it tonight.
It is important to recognise that some of our constituents will be directly affected by the Bill. There are Conservative voters in my constituency in same-sex partnerships who have helped me through the process, which I have at times found difficult to comprehend, as I said on Second Reading. The House has done a good job on the Bill and I hope that when dawn breaks tomorrow we will have many happy people as a result. I also hope that the differences expressed during the passage of the Bill will be quickly forgotten.
I was disappointed by the Minister's speech. There used to be a tradition, observed until recently, that when free vote issues were discussed and conscientious rather than party political divisions were expressed, tribute was paid to both sides of the argument and courtesies were extended. I am delighted that my hon. Friend Mr. Duncan followed that tradition—
Perhaps I may put on record now— I thought that I had done so in my speech, but I would not like it to appear that I had not—that I recognise the contribution made to the debate throughout the whole process by people with very different views. As I suggested in my speech, that has helped to contribute to a better Bill. I am sorry if Opposition Members feel that I did not pay due attention to their contributions.
I am grateful to the Minister for that statement.
I turn to the merits of the Bill, on which I asked myself the following questions. If the Bill were not to be passed tonight, would it still be the case that two people could choose, of their own free will, to form a homosexual relationship? Of course it would. Would they be able to choose to set up a household and enter into a long-term partnership? They would. However, if the Bill is passed tonight, will marriage still be unique? The answer is no, because the Bill will give rights and privileges that at the moment are unique to marriage and not enjoyed by any other sector of the population to one particular group other than the married. That is what the Bill will do. It will destroy the uniqueness that marriage holds at present.
As I said on Second Reading, I am the first to recognise that the present system results in unkindnesses—never mind injustices—that have adverse impacts on homosexual relationships. However, I also said that that is not unique to homosexual relationships. That was what the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends today sought to address. They sought to point out that some things are wrong, but they are not uniquely wrong for homosexual relationships. I would have preferred for us to address those injustices for all groups affected—or as many as possible—through the necessary and relevant legislation, such as the Finance Bill, rather than set up a situation in which no discernible difference exists between a civil marriage and a civil partnership. It was recognised by both sides of the argument tonight that that is what this Bill will do and that is why it is so wrong.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that those people are looking for recognition of their relationships? At the moment, they do not feel that they are recognised—they feel invisible under the law—and only by such a Bill do they feel that they can have that recognition.
The recognition that is being offered has been uniquely reserved for marriage because there is no distinction in the Bill between the rights and responsibilities contracted by a civil marriage and those contracted by a civil partnership. My fundamental objection to the Bill is that that is homosexual marriage by another name.
That is indeed the point. We do not oppose the Bill to prevent people from operating their own free choice. As I said on Second Reading, God gives free will and there is no reason why we should seek to put obstacles in the way of people exercising their own free choices, but the Bill goes beyond that: it would give the uniqueness of marriage to civil partnerships.
The right hon. Lady accepts that there are injustices in the system, so I should be grateful to her if she would say which parts of the Bill, which we are likely to vote in favour of tonight, she thinks inappropriate and should be removed to produce a Bill that would be acceptable to her?
The basic premise of the Bill is that people sign a register and undertake a divorce process in all but name on the basis of irretrievable breakdown. In other words, there is nothing to distinguish civil marriage from civil partnerships. That is the basis of my opposition. The injustices, such as those in respect of inheritance tax, next of kin and all the rest, can be put right for homosexuals and others using different legislation.
I shall finish now because I know that other hon. Members are waiting to speak, but I stress that, although the hon. Member for Rhondda suggested that the basic opposition to the Bill arose because we are making moral judgments about homosexuality, my opposition to the Bill is based on keeping marriage unique and addressing any injustices that may exist through other means.
It is a great privilege to follow two of my hon. Friends, and as I listened to them both, I could not help but think, "Would that my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe were as sound on hunting as my hon. Friend Mr. Key." That, in a sense, illustrates how moral issues and issues of conscience divide hon. Members on both sides of the House. Those of us who are clearly in a minority must not be churlish, but that does not mean that we abandon what we believe to be right.
I received this morning a petition from many hundreds of constituents who are deeply troubled about the Bill. They are not nasty, homophobic people; they hold to traditional views and values—[Interruption.] That comment does a great disservice to many of the constituents of Mr. Watts because many people in his constituency, as in mine, are decent honourable people who hold to traditional values. Yes, we may be wrong—of course, we all have to concede that we may be wrong—but the fact is that people hold to those views for good reasons.
I do not impugn the integrity of those who advocate the Bill. I do not impugn for a moment the integrity of those who advocate gay marriage, as they call it. Chris Bryant was being honest when he said that that was in effect what the Bill was moving towards.
The hon. Gentleman is mistaken if he believes that I think that the Bill will create gay marriage. Many people will use "gay marriage" as shorthand for the Bill's provisions, but I believe that marriage should be only between a man and a woman.
If the hon. Gentleman consults Hansard, he will find that he said that he would not mind at all if people regarded this as gay marriage.
I do not want to get bogged down in semantic arguments with the hon. Gentleman or anyone else. I only want to say in the brief time that remains that the House will tonight pass a Bill—we know that it will be given its Third Reading with an enormous majority—that marks a real change in our society. In making that change, the House must realise that a society that changes without recognising whence it comes is rather intolerant. It is important to realise the background of many of our constituents who will be troubled by the Bill. I wish those who will benefit from it nothing but personal happiness—I hope that that will be their lot—but many people in my constituency and elsewhere are troubled because they can equate the partnerships granted by the Bill with marriage, and because of the fact that it is only from the union of a man and woman, whether they are married or not, that a future generation can come.
Such matters trouble ordinary people throughout the land, so I was glad that my hon. Friend Mr. Duncan recognised that in his thoughtful and dignified speech. I ask those who will cheer when the result of the Division is announced to have some regard for those who need to be convinced that they are wrong and that the majority in the House is worthy of a majority in the country. I remain profoundly disturbed about the consequences of what we are about to enact.
As I said in Committee on
That was not the case in Northern Ireland, where 86 per cent. of respondents opposed the Government's proposals. However, the Government will impose the Bill on the people of Northern Ireland despite the opposition of the overwhelming majority of those people and their political representatives. We in Northern Ireland do not accept that. I hope that the Northern Ireland Assembly will have the opportunity to revisit the legislation because we will try to amend it to reflect the wishes of the majority of people in Northern Ireland who oppose the Government's actions.
Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the people of Northern Ireland would do well to be more tolerant in the future?
The people of Northern Ireland are very tolerant. This is nothing to do with tolerance, but with what people want, how they want to order their lives and the kind of society in which they wish to live. The House should be more tolerant of the people of Northern Ireland and their views on these issues.
The Government are ignoring the views of the people of Northern Ireland. They could have accepted the amendment that I moved in Committee and thus left the matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly to decide, but unfortunately they rejected the amendment, and thus the views of the majority of people in Northern Ireland.
If the Bill is passed, it will not change my view, that of my hon. Friends or that of the majority of people in Northern Ireland. The Bill is still wrong. I agree with Miss Widdecombe that civil partnerships can be equated with marriages, which will be to the detriment of our society.
This is a first-class Bill and I am delighted to support it. It has got better as it has gone along. I have been absolutely inspired by the leadership on the matter of my hon. Friend Mr. Duncan. I respect the dissenting opinion of some of my hon. Friends, and I know that my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth would like to express that in the 10 seconds that remain.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In this House tonight, there was a vote, but the voice of the people whom I and the majority of Unionists represent could not be heard because of the way in which the business was ordered. Surely, it is a sad commentary on this House when the voice of one section of this United Kingdom cannot be heard in the debate. I appeal to you to think of the minority from Northern Ireland in this House in future and to see to it that their voices will be heard and that at least one of their amendments will be selected and voted on.