My Lords, like many of your Lordships, I am thoroughly unhappy with this Bill. Bearing in mind the large number of speakers on this matter, I shall be brief. In my 32 years in your Lordships’ House—I am sure I do not look that old—I have never experienced such a large mailbag as I have had on this Bill, not even for the Hunting Bill. I have had only nine letters in favour of this Bill but those letters were written with sincerity—I have no doubt in believing that. Each one was completely different and had a balanced and lucid argument. The letters against the Bill were nearly all virtually identical.
I really have struggled with this issue. At first I would have followed the noble Lord, Lord Dear, into the Lobby, should he press his amendment to a vote, but two further matters occurred to me. First, your Lordships sit here in this highly privileged position to hold the Government to account, to look at legislation and to improve it where necessary, bearing in mind always that the convention is that the elected House—the other place—should prevail over the unelected Chamber. This is a matter of considerable constitutional importance. It is the way in which we make democratic decisions. I have personal experience of wrecking two Bills at Second Reading—it was enormous fun—the Boxing Bill and the late Lord Diamond’s Peerage Bill, but they were both Private Members’ Bills and they were fair game. This is a major government Bill. We should at least give it a Second Reading. If we do not, we will deserve to be targeted by the critics and opponents of our very existence and that of this House. Our task is to improve this Bill, no matter how imperfect and unsatisfactory we believe it to be, by amendment and balanced argument on its passage through this House.
Secondly, I have listened to the views of many young people, the majority of whom I believe do not consider this Bill to be an issue. On the television programme “Question Time” recently, support for this Bill by young people was clearly demonstrated. Those young people are the next generation. We should listen to them and take their views into account. They have a completely different view of homosexuality and a high degree of toleration for what to many of my age is the elephant in the room. I can quite understand homosexuality as a fact of everyday life, but I find it extremely difficult to accept it as the norm. That is the way that I think—that is me. However, an awful lot of water has flowed under the bridge in the many years that I have been privileged to spend in your Lordships’ House, and things in society have changed vastly over that time. All these matters will continue to change. That is life—that is the way that things go on.
In opposing this Bill, I believe that I should be legislating for the lives of those of a younger generation who will have to live with the consequences of my actions, and I do not feel comfortable with that. However, when the Prime Minister and Mr Clegg refer to this Bill as being a move to create equality, I really object. Heterosexual couples who choose not to be married to one another for their own reasons should be able to join in a civil partnership, should they so wish, and as civil partners they should be able to enjoy all the same financial and legal benefits as those in same-sex civil partnerships or, should this Bill become law, same-sex marriages. That would be equality.
Finally, I have the utmost respect for the noble Lord, Lord Dear, and I congratulate him on his tenacity. However, I can neither support nor oppose him, and I shall abstain on his amendment.