Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:25 pm on 5th February 2013.

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Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury) 4:25 pm, 5th February 2013

I agree with Mr Chope on the principle of equality for civil partnerships. It would be remiss of us and a dereliction of this Parliament not, in the context of the Bill, to afford equality on civil partnerships. I regret the terms in which the Minister talked down civil partnerships in her opening speech, just as the Prime Minister has done.

Many gay people will, for their own reasons, continue to opt for civil partnerships rather than civil marriage. They will opt for civil partnerships to maintain their relationship with their faith, and perhaps their relationship with a partner to whom they were previously married. If civil partnerships are to remain a valid and respected choice for gay people according to their lights and consciences, they should equally be available as an option for mixed-sex couples. They, too, might want to maintain a relationship with their church, their family or a partner from a previous marriage. All equality should be equal—that is why I will support the Second Reading of this Bill—but that should stand for civil partnerships as well as for civil marriage.

The Bill was first trailed as a civil marriage equality Bill, on which basis I committed to supporting it. I will support the Bill on Second Reading on that basis, although its terms have widened, which has added to many people’s misgivings and to the sense that it is the thin end of the wedge, a slippery slope and so on. I understand, share and sympathise with some of those misgivings, but I will reflect that by opposing the programme motion. If hon. Members who have spoken in favour of the Bill on Second Reading but who have also said there are issues they would like to be addressed in Committee want to be honest and honourable, they should not in good conscience accept the Whip to vote for the programme motion; they should vote against it.

I support the Bill on Second Reading because I care for the legislative principle. However, as a legislator, I must also observe the principle of legislative care. The time we have been given to discuss the Bill on Second Reading means we have to soundbite our way through the debate—we have four minutes each to speak, which is ridiculous. I do not know how we can discharge our responsibility to legislative care in that way.

Many hon. Members have said that the restrictions on the right to marriage have changed. People should emphasise that. They should say not that marriage has changed and therefore we should keep changing it, but that the restrictions on the right to marriage have changed. Importantly, restrictions on rights within marriage have also changed. Legislatures led the way on that when Churches were somewhat fearful of doing so.

I am a person of faith. I am proud of my marriage and that it was ritually founded, but I do not believe that that is the only form of marriage to which people should be entitled. My sense of the strength of my marriage and its qualities will not be diminished if marriage is available to anybody else, whether they have a civil or Church marriage. We can look forward to achieving equality and legislating for it with the Bill, but we need to address serious issues. Churches appear to be treated differently. Some Churches can be named in the Bill, but others are told, “You have to be content with reading the implications and relying on interpretations of the Bill.” That is not good enough.

I will vote for equality tonight. I was one of only 38 hon. Members who voted for equality last week in relation to an amendment to the Succession to the Crown Bill. I will be joined by hon. Members in voting for equality tonight, but where were they last week when they voted to retain discrimination at the heart of the constitution?