The level of interest in this subject, and the respect that has been shown by Members on both sides of the debate, are strong arguments for more free votes to take place in the House. I am delighted to see the manner in which the debate is being conducted today.
We have heard that this matter is not the highest priority facing the country at the moment, and I agree with that. We have also heard that the Government have no mandate for the legislation in their manifesto; that is also true. Although it is clear from many opinion polls that public opinion seems to support the measure, there is no settled public view on the matter. This is a new debate; it has not been conducted for long, either in the House or outside it. I believe that more time is needed for people to consider the ramifications of the proposal.
Too often, the argument on this issue outside the House has been polarised. Those in favour of same-sex marriage have sought to suggest that all those who oppose it are dinosaurs, while those who oppose it have said that its supporters would bring about the end of civilisation. Like my hon. Friend Tim Loughton, I do not think that either of those propositions is true. There has been a great deal of common ground in the contributions from both sides of the debate today, but the core question with which most Members are tussling is the balance between the rights of those who wish to enter a same-sex marriage and the threat to religious freedoms for others.
In June 1998, I voted in the House in favour of an equal age of consent. Only 13 other Conservative Members did so at the time. In 2003, I supported the introduction of civil partnerships, although I wanted the proposals to be wider and to include other cohabiting couples. Both those changes righted an injustice. This measure does not. It will not save anyone from prosecution for being what they are, and it will not prevent any unfair inheritance taxes from being applied.
I will vote against the measure tonight, not because I think that the world will end if it is passed but because I have serious misgivings about it. In spite of the Minister’s commendable efforts—which, as has been mentioned, have been recognised by the Church of England—it will be impossible to guarantee that religious freedom will not be compromised. Many Members have already raised instances in which people’s employment or their right of free expression could be compromised if the European Court were to rule in a certain way, or indeed if our own domestic laws were to be employed against them.
At the beginning of the debate, the question that was put to my right hon. Friend the Minister by Sir Gerald Kaufman was met by no guarantee. She could not give him a guarantee that people’s religious freedom would be protected, because it is impossible to guarantee that. The matter could be taken to the European Court. Indeed, if we pass this measure, it will be taken to the Court.