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My Lords, follow that. I am acutely aware that I am speaking at number 32 in what has been a very long day in a warm Chamber. I have no chance of holding your Lordships’ interest unless I am brief, and brief I shall attempt to be. There are three points in the Queen’s Speech that I will allude to very quickly, but with all sincerity.
First, there is the subject of police reform which, as some Members of this House will know, is very close to my heart and something which I support vigorously. I shall watch with some interest its progress in subsequent legislation, particularly as to whether it involves legislation or comment upon the subject of leadership in the police—something which needs to be resolved and enhanced against the hitherto remorseless trend towards management rather than leadership. That will embrace things such as direct entry and accelerated promotion to middle rank.
The question of persistent anti-social behaviour has blighted societies for a long time. I would certainly support any reasonable measures that will do something to enhance any thrust to reduce anti-social behaviour. In terms of the rehabilitation of offenders, what can I say? I am frequently asked how one can improve the police service. My answer to that is, “Do something about the probation service and something to stop the remorselesschurn of offenders going through the system”. It is sometimes called the revolving door; recidivism is another term that is often used. They mean the same thing. Anything we can do to rehabilitate offenders and prevent them reoffending, and going into that constant cycle we know so well, is to be applauded. I shall throw my weight right behind that.
I turn in all seriousness to a zoological phenomenon that has been mentioned already. I say zoological because there is a popular expression these days of “the elephant in the room”, which describes an issue of considerable significance or a significant problem, or something that is known to all and sundry but never mentioned, never referred to or simply ignored. Today, as your Lordships have concluded, we have an elephant of significant proportions in this Chamber, as the Government appear unable to speak its name. It is, of course, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which is now in its last stages in the House of Commons and which, we must conclude, will pass to your Lordships’ House in the next few weeks.
I pose the question: why are the Government so secretive about it? What is the problem? Why was it not included in Her Majesty’s Speech yesterday? Carryover Bills have been included in the Queen’s Speech before. One obvious example, going back a few years, is the Equality Bill that was carried over from the 2008-09 Session with no fewer than four lines of reference in the Queen’s Speech. Moving up to the present week, the Energy Bill—another carryover measure—was included in the Queen’s Speech yesterday, so why was the marriage Bill not mentioned? Is it that the Government are losing heart or do they not intend to do other than smuggle it in through the back door?
This is a Bill in which all the usual procedures have either been evaded or ignored. It seeks to effect change to a principal institution in society: the institution of marriage, which has existed for at least 2,000 years in civilised society. Some people would say that it has been going for double that length of time. It will affect every single member of society, one way or another. Yet it has not so much been introduced by the back door; rather, it has slipped in through a crack under the back door. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey of Clifton, has already gone into some detail on that. Given the time, I will not repeat what he said, which I support.
Personally, I believe that the way in which the Bill’s introduction has been handled is shameful. There has been no royal commission; no committee of inquiry; no mention in any party’s manifesto prior to the last general election. Indeed, the possibility of its introduction was flatly denied by the leader of the Conservative Party in an interview on national television only three days before his successful election. There has been no proper public consultation, no matter how much the Government try to massage the results of what was, it has to be said, their limited consultation process. They were more concerned with the process of the matter than with content. If one goes into that procedure, the figures indicate that only one member of the public in every 10 supports the Bill. Nine out of 10 against is a substantial majority.
The Bill is vigorously opposed by all the leading religions. After the catastrophic losses in the local elections last week—your Lordships will not need reminding that around 450 seats were lost by the coalition parties—all the analysis shows that opposition to the Bill was a significant factor in the swing of voters away from the main parties.
The ComRes poll, published this week, provides overwhelming evidence of the depth of feeling in the general population against the Bill. Underlying much of that opposition is a fear of the damage that will be caused to the dynamics of the traditional family and to the welfare of children, to say nothing of the difficulties that will be experienced in education and in employment law. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter spoke eloquently when he highlighted the error of not listening to public opinion.
One thing that has not been touched on—I will allude to it only in headline form now, but it is worth going into at another time—is the evidence of what has happened in other countries where similar change has been attempted. That evidence is discouraging, to say the very least.
I will not prolong this catalogue of criticism; there will be time later to mount a more detailed and focused attack if the Bill comes before your Lordships’ House. At this stage, I simply emphasise that there has not been any proper consultation, any proper research, any proper mature reflection and any account of public opinion.
My opposition to the Bill is most definitely not anti-gay. I dedicated much of my life in the public service to the protection and enhancement of minority rights and securing equality under the law, including the protection of homosexual rights and equalities. But I sincerely believe that the passage of this Bill into law will, in turn, create such opposition to homosexuals in general that the climate of tolerance and acceptance in this country that we have all championed and supported and seen flourish over recent years could well be set back by decades. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, who is not in his place, spoke eloquently and, indeed, spread his wings on the subject of what is going on in Uganda. None of us would want to see anything like that in this country; the last time that sort of behaviour occurred was several centuries ago. I ask the noble Lord and others to reflect on the fact that this Bill is not so much about equality as sameness. I leave those two words with your Lordships.
My opposition to the Bill is quite unambiguously pro-marriage, supporting an institution that has been a fundamental part of society and families for centuries. In the hands of a mature Government, a Government who listen to the electorate, any change to that established order should properly take place only after the most profound thought and consideration. It should not, as has happened this year, be introduced as, some would say, a mere search for cheap political gain.
The Bill as it stands in the Commons is, I believe, ill conceived, ill considered, badly presented and heedless of consequences—the immediately obvious consequences and the laws of unintended consequences. I shall stoutly resist it should the opportunity present itself.