My Lords, to be given one of the dog watch slots—number 57—in a debate in this House is usually some form of Whip’s punishment. However, tonight it has been a privilege and a pleasure to listen to superb speeches from all sides of the House and on both sides of the debate, and to arguments that cross parties, religion, and sometimes confound pre-held expectations of allegiance. I suspect the reason for that unpredictability is that every one of us in this House has formed a very personal view of both marriage and homosexuality, forged sometimes by religious beliefs or by upbringing, but certainly by our own personal experiences.
We have lived through some quite extraordinary times. The way our society treats homosexual people has changed dramatically in the course of one generation, from being a crime to be punished with hard labour in prison; through discrimination, social ostracism, victimisation and, most recently, ridicule; to a point today where—I think the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, put his finger on it—to the next generation homosexuals are not branded as “queers” but are seen as people who simply have one natural variant of the human condition. It is not surprising that many of those who have lived through such rapid change are a little “off the pace”, as they say in horse racing. Bringing up the rear at present, I am sorry to say, is the Church of England.
Attitudes to marriage, too, have changed rapidly, and not always with consequences for the worst. Like it or not, today many people choose to live together and have children without it. Yet when did we last hear a child described as “illegitimate”, as always used to be the case in my mother’s generation? That must be a good thing. Like other noble Lords, I have had many e-mails urging me not to support this Bill, as it will change or even destroy marriage as we know it. However, it has changed and is changing, even in the Church of England. Indeed, it has to change to meet the needs of a changing society or it will simply become an irrelevance to more and more people.
Surely what is important is that our society is strengthened by more stable and loving relationships and the children brought up in them, who have the best start in life. Almost every relationship, unless you are incredibly fortunate, will hit choppy water or even the odd rock at some point. Marriage provides the strongest glue there is to hold two people together when that happens. Surely those couples who care enough to want to marry should be allowed to do so whatever their sex. Why should they not be permitted to use the strongest glue there is—the superglue—rather than being told to make do with the paste and water of a civil partnership? As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, said, marriage is in effect regarded as the gold standard and at the moment we deny it to a section of our people.
To those who say that it was not properly scrutinised in the other place, my answer is: so what is new? If we rejected every Bill in that category almost no legislation would pass through this House. It will get proper scrutiny here. If there are concerns, for example, about people who may lose their jobs, they will be explored and, I hope, corrected if that worry is correct. Some of the letters I have had say that it is not fair on the children. I seem to remember the same argument was once applied to mixed-race marriages and to Catholics marrying Protestants and Jews marrying outside their faith—but no longer. The next generation has adapted to change and to variations on the traditional two married parents of opposite sex model.
I have had people say in letters, e-mails and, indeed, in this House that homosexuals cannot consummate a marriage; marriage is meant for the creation of children; homosexuals cannot commit adultery. Those are the strains of objections voiced by a number of your Lordships, including the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit. We do not stop women over childbearing age or some disabled people from marrying, or those who cannot have or do not want children—of course not. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester conceded, such people are no less married—so why not homosexuals?
It is said that there is no demand for the Bill. It is true that its provisions will affect a relatively small number of our total population, but it corrects an unfairness for those people and rights a wrong that has gone on for too long. Frankly, whether it is two or 2 million who are involved, it matters not if it is the right thing to do. I believe that this Bill reflects a change in social attitudes whose time has come. I pay tribute to our much criticised Prime Minister, who has stuck to his guns on the Bill when it must have been very politically difficult for him. I am particularly sorry to have to oppose the noble Lord, Lord Dear, who has led us to some famous victories in the House. I regret that on this one, I believe that he is wrong.
Nobody is going to be forced by the Bill to contract, conduct or argue the case for a same-sex marriage. If an invitation should come through the door, any of your Lordships is free to reply, “Thank you but no thank you”. It is time to give homosexuals the same choices as heterosexuals and the same benefits in relation to civil marriage. It is time for us to stop putting them in a separate category and tolerating them. They deserve equality because they are equal. In five years’ time, I believe we will look back on this debate with incredulity at the objections that were raised and regard the time when homosexuals were not permitted to marry in the same way as today we view that long-gone time when—no doubt well meaning—teachers used a ruler to slap the left wrist of the left-handed child learning to write.