Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:03 pm on 5th February 2013.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Deputy Leader, Liberal Democrats 3:03 pm, 5th February 2013

I have apologised to him both publicly and privately. I was on a platform with him the other day, and he was very generous to me and supported me. We have worked together on many occasions. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that.

Other countries do these things much more easily than we do. In other countries, couples have a civil ceremony and then a faith ceremony. It would have been much better to start in that way, but it is too late to do that now, not least given the position of the established Church. I hope, therefore, that we will give the Bill a Second Reading today, but then work on the areas that, in my view, are not yet in a fit state to be enacted.

The Bill ought to be amended to make it clear that the principal purpose is to provide for equal civil marriage for gay and straight couples and for others to opt in if the Churches and other denominations so wish, but that is not how the Bill is drafted. The Bill ought to make it clearer that we are not seeking to redefine traditional marriage as previously understood in custom and law. That would be helpful to Church communities and others. I have talked to many in churches and elsewhere and I believe that there is a constructive will to improve the Bill, even among people who might not in the end support it. I imagine that a majority will vote to give the Bill a Second Reading, but we must disabuse people of the notion that it will place a prohibition on how people may speak and preach about these things and on what happens in schools. I am sure, however, that the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member, will address that issue intensely and will be able to give guarantees to people who fear that the Bill will affect their rights to freedom of speech and freedom of belief.

I hope that we will address two other things. I supported civil partnerships. I think the Church was wrong to oppose them at the time, and I hope that it and other faith groups now understand that they would do themselves a service if they allowed services of blessing for people in civil partnerships. It would not be good, however, to provide for an easy transfer from civil partnership to civil marriage, which is what the Bill proposes. If we are to have civil marriage, there ought to be an obligation on everybody to have the ceremony of civil marriage, so that the full import is understood. I also do not understood why the Government are not making civil partnerships available for conventional male-female relationships as well as for gay people.

I hope that there will be changes. In an intervention, I asked the Minister to consider positively, both in Committee and before Report, constructive suggestions for change. Given the complexity of the Bill, we need tolerance and respect. On Saturday night, I watched the new film, “Lincoln”. Of course, as Stephen Doughty said, there are no exact parallels between the battle over slavery and this, but there is a lesson: people then took different sides of an intense argument, even though they came from the same faith or other backgrounds, but things move on and we have to learn that understanding each other’s positions and seeking the maximum consensus is the best way to proceed. I hope that is how we will continue.