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".