My Lords, I come to this debate with a traditional, basic approach that marriage is between a man and a woman. I am also informed by my life experience of having witnessed over the years the treatment of homosexual people in society, with adult men in jail, persecution, and all sorts of real bigotry—not just verbal bigotry and hurtful language—against such people. This really was persecution. Recently, I met a young gay Catholic man who was in turmoil about his sexuality, but he still opposed what is wrongly called “equal marriage”; it is same-sex marriage. Hurtful language is a two-way street. To be called a homophobic bigot because you take a traditional point of view is also wrong.
When I was in an elected House and despite not having the luxury of being in an unelected one, I voted for an equal age of consent for young men of 16; and I voted for civil partnerships, again on a free vote. It was my decision and my point of view. This was in the elected House. Perhaps it is not free and easy now, but there has been a big change in society and I welcome that change. I have always supported initiatives to make sure that all people get equality under the law. I maintain strongly that my record of voting for that while I was in the other House indicates that I do not have to defend myself too much.
The Government are responsible for rushing this Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, mentioned, it is not on the back of a great a wave of support for changing the agreed definition of marriage. Surely, cultural and social change in this country comes about when the mass of the public takes the point of view that it is time for change. Over a number of years the public has shown that it is time for a change in the way in which society regards homosexual people. They have been treated disgracefully for centuries and it is time that it stopped.
A number of people—more than I would have thought—have said to me that they support the principle of same-sex marriage. I also accept that there is an element of generation in this as well. It seems that younger people are the more open they are to same-sex marriage. I like to think that the moves taken by the Labour Government, supported by many Conservatives, changed society so that it is now acceptable. Peter Tatchell has been mentioned. We are a long way from the Bermondsey by-election, but I will not take lectures from small-l liberals or even large-L Liberals, even if I have a traditional point of view. I also took part in the pressure to get rid of Section 28.
These moves reflect a society that was ready for change, wanted it and had tacit support for it. Frankly, I do not broadly find that tacit support in the society that I mix in. That is where the Government bear a responsibility. They have created divisions. They have exacerbated the feelings of those who feel that this has been forced on them as a way of exorcising Section 28 from Conservative Party history. The comments and pledges made by the Prime Minister have been mentioned. My main support for society is still there.
I will not vote for the Second Reading of the Bill. I will not vote for the amendment either, because that challenges the revising nature of the House of Lords and will put at risk the future basis for us, as a House, to intervene in, revise and improve legislation. I do not believe that the protections promised to the religious organisations are valid, because I see words like “inconceivable” and “almost impossible”. No one from the Government will give the absolute guarantee that the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, will not be prosecuted—that someone will not take a case to the European Court and win it. Where is the guarantee? During the passage of this Bill, if it gets approved and goes into Committee, we will look for amendments—not wishy-washy words, but a definite guarantee that churches will not be forced to take part in this and will not be subject to prosecution.