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My Lords, I wish to make a few remarks on some of the constitutional reform issues, with which I have mostly been associated in this House over the past 14 years, that I would like to have seen in the gracious Speech. I will then discuss the issue of fairness, which was a central theme in the gracious Speech, in particular in relation to the equality issues with which I have also been strongly associated in this House. I believe that my Liberal principles are linked in these issues, because my passion for democracy is about giving everyone a fair and equal opportunity to have a say in the democratic process—my passion for equality issues is also a lifelong commitment to opposing unfair discrimination in all its forms.
In the debate on the gracious Speech a year ago, I welcomed changes to the Government’s original plans for registering voters. I had a very major hand in bringing about fundamental changes to the draft legislation. I noted earlier the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, and I hope that she will pay some attention to the detail of those changes, because they reduced considerably the risk that individual voter registration would mean that many millions of voters were to be effectively deprived of their chance to vote. I am pleased that I helped to achieve them.
I also spoke on that occasion of the need to have a proper debate about on which days elections should be held. In my view, the UK discriminates against people in employment by holding elections on a working day. I regret, therefore, that there was no indication in the gracious Speech that the Government either recognise the problem or will seek to address it. In the aftermath of the most recent elections, to which my noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury referred a few moments ago, it is time to consider this issue of when elections should be held. Holding elections on a Thursday, it seems to me, makes elections much easier for the retired and the unemployed than it does for people in employment. People who are in work find it very much harder to vote, especially if they have school-age children. I believe that we should have had a measure announced to hold next year’s European elections over a weekend, with the counts to be conducted on a Sunday evening. However, as an alternative, I suggest that, as in many other countries, polling day should be declared a bank holiday. That would give everyone a more equal chance to vote.
I also think that a measure should have been announced to change the closed-list system for the European elections next year. This system, introduced by a very controlling Labour Government, was very strongly criticised by both Liberal Democrats and Conservatives when it was introduced. It should now be changed to allow voters rather than parties to rank the order of the candidates who are elected. Such a change would, for example, make it easier for voters wanting to support a woman candidate to do so, even if the party machine put forward only men at the top of its list.
I am proud of the way in which I helped my party to achieve gender balance when we began electing our MEPs by proportional representation. When I oversaw my party’s European election campaign in 1999, I had to rank all the constituencies in order of winnability to ensure that half of our top candidates were women. We elected 12 MEPs in those elections, six women and six men, but this relied on the party using a system known as “zipping”. Open lists would allow voters themselves to prevent parties from failing to ensure fair representation of women and men. This has been shown to work in other countries, such as Finland.
On the general issue of equality, I consider that the principle of fairness referred to in the gracious Speech requires support for the same-sex marriage Bill. Eleven years ago, I was pleased to speak very strongly in support of the original Civil Partnerships Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill. I explained then that as a Liberal Democrat I saw the principle of equality as a simple one and I quoted my party constitution, which says that we see ourselves as upholders of the,
“values of individual and social justice”,
“we reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon race, colour, religion, age, disability, sex or sexual orientation”.
I also explained then that you do not need to be a Liberal Democrat to believe in equal treatment for people of different sexual orientation; you just need to subscribe to the principles of human rights and equality before the law.
Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.
When we consider some of the terrible events of the 20th century, we see why we need human rights legislation. In the 21st century, I hope that we will uphold the principles of that legislation in the face of some prejudice against it. I believe that the principle of human rights includes the right of same-sex couples to marry. It is a matter of equality before the law. The right to marry is in Article 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is in Article 9. The prohibition of discrimination is in Article 14.
There was a long struggle in this country for religious freedom, but those who benefit from this freedom should not now deny it to others. In January, I had a letter published in the Daily Telegraph stating:
“Every religion must be able to decide for itself on issues such as forms of worship and who they can marry, subject to laws that protect minors etc. It cannot be right for one denomination or religion to prevent other faiths, such as the Quakers and the Liberal and Reformed Jews, from choosing to marry people of the same sex”.
In other countries where gay marriage has been introduced, society—I believe it exists—has not collapsed, despite some people’s fears. The terrible position at the moment in which transsexual people cannot change their legal gender without also having to end their existing marriage will be ended with this Bill.
The issue of the future of this House is settled for a couple of years at least, in spite of my hopes for reform. I hope that in the debates on the same-sex marriage Bill we will uphold the principles of fairness referred to in the gracious Speech and, by supporting the principle of equal marriage, show that we in this place can be a force for good, for progress and for a tolerant society based on mutual respect. I look forward to continuing the debate on issues of democracy and equality over the next year.