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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:01 pm on 3rd June 2013.

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Photo of Lord Browne of Madingley Lord Browne of Madingley Crossbench 9:01 pm, 3rd June 2013

My Lords, to my mind, the evidence is quite clear. Marriage is a human construct and the romantic idea of marriage as a beacon of stability does not stand up to scrutiny. Rather, as views about what is socially acceptable have changed, so have the boundaries and parameters of marriage.

The freedom to marry in the United Kingdom used to be confined to Anglicans. Over the centuries, it has been extended to Catholics, Jews and Quakers, to all other religions, and to those of no religion at all. Divorce no longer requires an Act of Parliament and women now have equal status in a marriage.

More than 80% of people in Britain now agree that homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society. What should be, and always has been, the yardstick when it comes to marriage is what is socially desirable; we should then decide what the function of marriage should be—not the other way round. That is one of the many reasons why I support this Bill. I want to offer two more.

The first is a practical argument, based on my long time in business. In 2007, I resigned as CEO of BP because of the lengths I went to in order to hide my sexuality. I thought that coming out might threaten the company’s commercial relationships and my career. I will never know if those fears were justified, but they are no way to do business. People are happier, more productive and make more money for their company when they feel included and they can be themselves. As a business leader, I want people to focus all their energies on their job, not on hiding part of who they are. Inclusiveness makes good business sense and giving gay couples the freedom to marry will eliminate one more barrier to inclusion. If it helps them to be themselves in the workplace, it will represent another step towards the meritocracy to which we all aspire. Gay marriage is a matter of strategic importance for British business.

The second reason comes from my personal experience. I grew up in a climate of fear, where homosexuality was illegal. My mother was an Auschwitz survivor and advised me never to trust anyone with my secrets. I avoided discrimination by simply keeping quiet. Young gay people today live in a different, more tolerant world but they still worry about discrimination, marginalisation and how their families and friends will react. One of the most effective ways to dispel this stigma is through the provision of role models. If I had seen gay men in legally recognised public relationships of the sort my parents were in, I would have found it easier to come out and I would have been a much happier person.

We must not lose the plot. The Bill enables same-sex couples to be married by civil and—only if they provide their consent—religious authorities. At critical points in history, this House has recognised the need to adapt to changes in society. That is the source of its strength and the reason for its longevity. I intend to vote against the noble Lord’s amendment.