Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill — Second Reading (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:46 pm on 3rd June 2013.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Stamford Lord Davies of Stamford Labour 8:46 pm, 3rd June 2013

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, asked some very ingenious and challenging questions, and I know that I am not alone in looking forward very much to the Minister’s response to them.

Irrespective of my views on this subject, to which I will come in a moment, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dear, on taking time and trouble, and displaying considerable courage, in bringing forward the amendment and arguing for it extremely well. By doing so, he has, at the very least, ensured that today’s debate is a great deal more serious and intense than it would have been if the result had been a foregone conclusion.

I may be the first speaker who has deliberately refrained from taking a decision on how I will vote tomorrow until I have heard the debate. Incidentally, I share the view that the Government’s conduct on this Bill has been pretty unedifying. In my view, it should have been brought in as a Private Member’s Bill. It has nothing to do with party politics or the governance of the state and was not mentioned in any manifesto. The consultation exercise was clearly perfunctory, to say the least, and may have been dishonest and falsified if it is true—I pray that it is not—that a petition of half a million people was counted as the expression of one view. That is the sort of legalistic trickery one normally associates with Putin’s Russia, and it would be very deplorable if it has happened here. Nevertheless, these are not the essential points on which we will vote.

I shall certainly vote as I do not believe in abstention. I am minded to vote for the Bill on the basis of two principles by which I always try to be guided. One is the liberty principle, first explicitly formulated by Mill, which was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Dear, in his introductory speech. It states that in a free society the state does not attempt to constrain the liberty of the citizen beyond the minimum point required to defend the liberty of others. Therefore, if you have two potential partners to a marriage or any other ceremony and someone willing to perform the ceremony, be he or she a priest, a minister of religion, a registrar or whoever, what right does the state have to prevent that taking place? That is a very pertinent and relevant consideration.

The other principle that I always try to be guided by is the Pareto principle, which says that in any structure of social relationships, whether or not enshrined in the law, if a change can be made such that even just one person is happier and no one is made less happy, that change should automatically be made. It seems to me that if we enact this Bill, we will make an awful lot of people very happy. Some say that it will make some people unhappy, but I do not accept that that is the equivalent emotion. The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, and some other distinguished noble Lords who have spoken this evening, disapprove of what is going on, but disapproval is not quite the same thing. Their own particular liberties, their own interests and their own utility are not impacted, so I do not think that that is relevant.

I am minded, broadly speaking, to vote for this Bill, but I have two very serious reservations that I will put to the Minister. One of these, thank God, has been raised by many noble Lords this evening, and I will add to the list of those who have emphasised it. The other has not been mentioned at all. The one that has been mentioned is the fate of people who might lose their jobs as a result of this Bill being enacted. We should all be extremely concerned about that. What about registrars, whom no one has mentioned? As I read the Bill, registrars, unlike priests and ministers of religion, will not have the opportunity to opt out. Are they all going to be fired? Are they going to be compensated? Is a decent effort going to be made to find them another decent job? We need to know. We cannot possibly allow this Bill to go on the statute book without having an answer to those questions.

What about teachers? I also read the legal counsel’s opinion to which the noble Lord, Lord Dear, referred, so I need not summarise it. It states, very persuasively, that there is all too great a danger that teachers will lose their jobs if they continue to express the view that the proper concept of marriage is the traditional one, as we understand it. The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, went a long way to meeting me—and, indeed, the House—on this in her remarks from the Front Bench when she said that the Government intended that there should be effective protections and were prepared to strengthen the Bill to make sure that those protections were more effective. The Government were not prepared to accept amendments in the other place, but I took it that there would be a greater degree of flexibility, perhaps as a result of this debate and of the reaction in the country. If that is the case, I welcome it. If the Bill goes forward, I shall certainly refer to the earlier assurance from the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, which will be very relevant to proceedings in Committee and on Report.

The other reservation and concern on which I must be satisfied if I am going to vote against the amendment and for Second Reading relates to the issue of legal blackmail. It is all too possible that, even if the law is totally robust, a teacher or a priest who has tried to opt out, or somebody else who is, or should be, protected under the Bill, may be attacked at law by a possibly aggressive gay rights organisation. The case may go up through the courts to the Supreme Court, even to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where ultimately the protections will prove to be robust and effective. However, how can a poor individual citizen possibly face a movement with millions of pounds to spend on lawyers who would certainly not, in this case, be working on a contingency or conditional fee basis? This thing could go on for years, running up millions of pounds and totally disrupting the life of the plaintiff—or defendant, depending on whether it was a civil or criminal action, though from a practical point of view the result would be very similar. We must be assured that would not happen. Who would pay the legal fees in the case of a priest in the Church of England or another church? Churches’ money should not be spent on defending a person finding himself in that position. Someone earning £15,000 a year cannot be expected to find millions of pounds to pursue his own defence. I would need a robust answer to that question before I would be prepared to support the Bill.