My Lords, social change is often contentious and, indeed, even controversial. Looking back over the past century, I have been struck by how frequently matters that aroused heated passions when debated faded into consensus once those matters were approved, as I hope this measure will be. In other words, society was ready for the change. Perhaps I may give the House a few examples.
The death penalty was abolished in 1969. In the 1970s, it was a question that lingered on in the Conservative Party—indeed, Conservative Party selection committees generally asked a question about it. One of my former colleagues in another place even offered his services as hangman. The Sexual Offences Act 1967 caused enormous controversy at the time. Even as recently as the Equality Act, some church leaders argued for exemptions that would have allowed homosexuals to be turned away from soup kitchens and hospices.
The 1928 equal franchise Act gave women equal voting rights with men. At this distance it is a little odd to look back at some of the arguments advanced at the time, in all seriousness, against that measure. I give the House but two examples:
“women have a vast indirect influence through their menfolk”; and:
“Woman Suffrage tends to establish competitive relations which will destroy chivalrous considerations”.
I trust that many noble Baronesses still experience chivalrous consideration from your Lordships but would venture to suggest that this can hardly be put forward as an argument for repeal of the equal franchise Act. Indeed, I know of no serious organisation today which advocates withdrawing the vote from women, making sexual relationships between people of the same sex a criminal offence or, indeed, restoring the death penalty.
I accept, of course, the sincerity with which some Christian organisations oppose this measure. It is right that the Bill should not oblige any church to carry out same-sex marriages. However, as we have just heard from the noble Baroness, there is not complete agreement on this matter among religious groups. Quakers, liberal Jews and Unitarians support the measure, and my noble friend Lord Deben, in a characteristically thoughtful article in the Tablet, reminded his fellow Roman Catholics that for over a century it has been accepted that the state has had a role in marriage and that it could and would make its own secular rules for its citizens.
The Bill has been a useful vehicle for opening a discussion on humanist marriage. An amendment on the matter was introduced in another place but was withdrawn as the Attorney-General advised that, as drafted, it was incompatible with the Human Rights Act. I understand that subsequent discussions have ensued with the British Humanist Association, and other issues relating, for example, to the definition of premises need to be resolved. I suspect that it would probably add to the challenges before us on this Bill to attempt to address those issues now. However, I hope that the Minister will assure the House that the dialogue with the British humanists will continue in the hope that this too may be addressed at some point in the future.
Finally, some quarters have criticised the Prime Minister for his personal support of this measure. They say that it is being raised at a time when the country faces huge challenges. Frankly, I find it rather refreshing that a Prime Minister beset, as Prime Ministers are wont to be, by the great political issues of the day is willing to stand up personally and be counted on a moral issue in which he believes and where there is no obvious political payoff.
I rejoice in the fact that this measure enjoys the support of all three party leaders. I confidently expect that, if it is approved, today’s controversy will rapidly become tomorrow’s consensus.