My Lords, when the civil partnership legislation came to your Lordships’ House, I spoke strongly in favour of it. If it came again because there was a need for further protections or development of the legislation, I would continue to speak very strongly and passionately for it. However, I am not speaking from the place I normally sit as Convenor because my views about this legislation vary from those of the overwhelming majority of my colleagues on these Benches. It is right to make it clear that I take a different view and that I am not persuaded of the virtues of this piece of legislation.
I am hesitant to speak because many of those who have spoken, and many outside, feel very passionately and sensitively about these things, and I have listened carefully to my noble friend Lady Barker, the noble Lords, Lord Smith of Finsbury and Lord Black of Brentwood, and others who have spoken strongly of their personal experience and their strong feelings and sense of hurt at times. However, others have spoken crisply and I have been sent e-mails by leaders of some campaigns advising me that any opposition to the Bill can be based only on homophobia. That is as unhelpful and unfortunate as extremism on the other side.
It is important for us to consider what is being proposed. No one disputes that it is a major change, and it is for the proponents of change to make their argument persuasively, not the reverse. I am not opposed to change, and the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, pointed out that there have been many changes in the institution of marriage over the years. At other times, she said, polygamy was possible. She could also have said, “and currently in other places”. In our part of the world it is illegal. The age of consent for marriage has not been the same at all times, nor has it always moved in one direction.
The noble Lord, Lord Blair of Boughton, was not correct when he said that the tide of history flows always in one direction—would that it were so. In many parts of the world it is flowing in a very different direction and that is one of the great dangers of which we must be aware when we espouse social change of a major order. My noble friend Lord Lothian made the point—and I share many of his concerns about conflict in various parts of the world—that if one does not take the people with one in a social change, one can actually provoke reaction against it. I give one example: I am a member of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and it is clear that there is a stream against continuing with the ordination of women, which we have had since 1927. It is not at all impossible that it might be reversed; it was reversed some years ago in the Presbyterian Church in Australia. Therefore, the tide of history does not always flow in one direction, and it can be greatly disadvantageous.
The question is: what does the community want? The electorate are often much more fickle, saying one thing now and a very different thing a little while later. Have the Government made the argument? My noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston made a thoughtful speech. I noted that she said, near the end, that quite simply the love and relationship are the same and therefore should be included in marriage. I had not even finished noting it down before she said that of course the relationships were different. Both statements cannot be entirely true. In a way, her jest—sometimes the truth is spoken in jest, and she mentioned George Clooney—said a lot because it pointed out that the thought of marriage is for many people about merely a sense of attraction, the wish to be with a person and the wish for that to be permanent. There was not much sense of looking at the other components of marriage that are also important but are not necessarily a part of civil partnership. The bringing into being of children, nurturing them and bringing them up are not things of little importance.
It is therefore important to persuade, and I am not persuaded that the talk of equality is not being mistaken for sameness in the minds of some people. Yet the truth is that equality is about recognising difference, diversity and treating people fairly, not trying to ensure that everyone fits into the same institution. The Bill will not achieve what it is said to achieve for gay Christians who wish to solemnise their marriage in churches. It will not happen unless what happens is similar to what the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Finsbury, referred to when he talked about those who had spoken in favour of civil partnerships having changed their minds about whether they were going to press for same-sex marriage. Could it be that we find ourselves returning to this issue again in this House in debate and in legislation because, once achieved, there would be unhappiness that all the main churches were still not prepared to accept this matter? Unless one was a Quaker, liberal Jew or Unitarian, it still would not be possible to solemnise a marriage in a church. Would we return to the issue? I fear that we would do so again and again. The arguments must be clear, thoughtful and robust. This is not the only issue of equality whereby the notions of sameness and uniformity seem to have grasped people and they no longer understand equality in any other way.
My time has gone—those who know me well know that I can speak at substantial length on anything I care passionately about. I speak not as one who is unpersuadable, nor as one who stands in the way of change if it is clearly thought through and reflected upon, but as one who genuinely feels that sometimes what appears to be a progressive move can trigger quite the opposite. We must tread carefully, thoughtfully and reflectively to ensure that we make real progress for all concerned and for our society as a whole. A lot has been said about individuals but this is a social institution for society as a whole and it must be thought through in that context.
I shall continue to listen and to think. I suspect that I shall not feel able to support the Bill, but neither shall I feel able to support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dear, because I believe that, the elected House having spoken, it is our job to consider, reflect and debate upon the Bill in public where our society may see it, and in that way contribute to the further discussion of the Bill.