My Lords, I am pathetically open-minded about many aspects of this Bill. I have studied with great care the arguments put forward on both sides of the debate, although you cannot really talk in terms of a single debate with such a complex measure. I have been immensely impressed, as I am sure we all have, by the quality of today’s debate, and the sincerity of the contributions made by all who have spoken. I have been particularly touched and moved, intellectually and emotionally, by the personal testimonies of my noble friend Lady Barker and the noble Lords, Lord Smith of Finsbury, Lord Browne of Madingley and Lord Black of Brentwood. I confess that my contribution tonight is not going to be sharp-edged and decisive, although I do have one proposal to make. I am going to speak very much in the hope that there may be reactions from your Lordships to it.
First, however, I have to join others in saying that although the Prime Minister has shown real courage in bringing forward this Bill, the way in which it has been brought forward and the conduct so far have been woefully inadequate. If there was ever a measure in which the general public should have felt part of our debates and our deliberations, this is it. This is not our issue. This is pre-eminently an issue for all the people of this country, whatever their views, whatever their background, wherever they live, whatever they do. There has been a lamentable failure to engage them. As the noble Lord, Lord Dear, said in his opening speech, the way in which responses have been measured, with petitions, however large—he mentioned one of half a million signatories—being treated as a single contribution really beggars belief, and one wonders why it was done.
In the same way, the gauging of public opinion by opinion polls is not sufficient. We have not had a deliberative document, a Green Paper—call it what you will—that can be distributed far and wide in order to elicit the mature views of our fellow citizens. I am a little suspicious of the figures that have emerged through the opinion polls, although I accept—and indeed it is my point—that most young people tend to think that this is a no-brainer, that of course those of the same sex should be able to marry; but it is possible to say that young people are not so much tolerant as indifferent to some of these issues. The sexual mores of our very young adults and late teenagers are staggeringly different from those which prevailed when most of us were their age. I suspect that many of those young people would say off the top of their heads, “Of course, marriage for everybody”. When they actually become married themselves they will mature into a different mindset, but that is by the bye.
I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Dear, that I cannot accept his proposal, particularly in terms of the constitutional arrangements with the other place. I do not think it would be right for us to seek to jettison this Bill at this stage. However, if we proceed as we are presently doing, there is the risk of a backlash. My noble friend Lord Alderdice has referred to this. There is a real risk that of the very many—I would say millions—of our fellow citizens who feel strongly about this measure, most of them feel strongly against the change. One cannot judge this by one’s own mailbag, but from the comments made in the debate, it seems that most noble Lords have received a disproportionately large number of letters and e-mails from those who are very concerned about what we are up to.
I do not want that. I would rather we emerge at the end of this process with an Act of Parliament that has general consent and does not risk a backlash in the manner seen in France or anywhere else. It should heal and reconcile the differences of opinion and, in particular, the extremes of opinion. There is some homophobia in our society, although thank goodness it is vastly less than we experienced in our youth. At the other end there is, I fear, a sort of phobia against those who do not take a totally liberal view of the homosexual position.
I put forward my proposal tentatively and in a genuine spirit of reconciliation. We should think of using a different word or title for a homosexual union from that of a heterosexual union; in effect, not to call the union of a same-sex couple a marriage but, I suggest—it is only a suggestion—an espousal. The noun that derives from that word is spouse, which is gender-neutral. I think that it would lance a boil in the public mind as to what we are seeking to do, bearing in mind that everything else in the Bill will remain unchanged. All the rights will be the same.
I am tempted to say that those who talk about equality of esteem, as I do—my goodness, if there is one thing that I live by in my politics, it is the equal worth of every human being and the equal esteem in which they have the right to be held—that to some extent it is a misnomer to talk about a same-sex union in exactly the same way as that of a different-sex union. That is because of two fundamental, factual, inescapable and ineluctable differences which have been referred to by other noble Lords. The first is the nature of the union and the second is the procreative potential. It is no good saying that lots of people who get married are too old to have children, do not want children or whatever. The fact of the matter is that most people who marry seek to have children and do so. Same-sex couples in their civil marriages cannot have children except, of course, through adoption, surrogacy or whatever. That is fundamentally different. It is not better or worse but it is fundamentally different. I do not see why we should not face that. It is a form of honesty that would inure to the benefit of same-sex couples in the long run.
That is my late-night thought. I hope that noble Lords will give me some of theirs before Committee so that I can decide whether or not to table an amendment.