My Lords, I feel honoured to have drawn the short straw of being the last speaker this evening, and I thank all noble Lords who are still here for being still here. I did not intend to speak because it seemed that virtually everything there is to be said was being said or was going to be said by someone else. However, I was faced with an enormous volume of letters and e-mails, which I spent a good part of the weekend reading through. I picked up from them some thoughts about the territory which I had not focused on before, and some rather important points were raised.
If there is one single point on which I think this Bill should not proceed, it is that the nation is absolutely divided. I do not know whether it is 70% one way or the other or if it is 50/50, but it is clear that, in the main, the senior part of the country believes in the traditional role of marriage and wishes to keep it, while a lot of younger people think that it is all a load of hooey and ask, basically, why anyone should get married. There is an absolute divide, and in this sort of territory I believe that it is a mistake to push through legislation until there is some form of consensus.
“He shall prick that annual blister,Marriage with deceased wife’s sister”.
I am not suggesting that it should take 50 years, but it has been a sensible British tradition in social matters to legislate and change gradually, and so keep up with public opinion. In 20 years’ time, when many of us are dead and gone, there may be some form of consensus in the majority of the country—or even before then. It is a great mistake to railroad this extremely unsatisfactory legislation through. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter brilliantly pointed out a lot of what is wrong with it. There are other issues that are profoundly wrong and the consultation process was also clearly less than satisfactory.
This is classic territory where it is not unreasonable for the House of Lords to exercise its reserve powers in delaying such legislation. Our job is to scrutinise and occasionally, when necessary, to be the upholder of public opinion. Public opinion is not at all happy with this legislation as it presently stands. Many have made the point that there was no electoral mandate, but it was rather the reverse: the Prime Minister actually stated in a pre-election television interview that he would not be introducing same-sex marriage, and so gave a commitment to the contrary.
As others have pointed out, I regret this issue of a 500,000-name petition being treated as a single vote. It was telling that there was not a single black or Asian representative invited to give evidence to the Commons committee, and their communities are often among the most religious in the country. Many may have noticed over the weekend that all the faiths came together—not just the Anglican church, but the Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist faiths sent a letter with 53 signatures to the Prime Minister urging caution and that he should think again before he pushed through this legislation to rewrite the meaning of marriage. In the world of faith, this is not just an Anglican issue; it is fundamental for all faiths, going back into the mists of history, that whether one likes it or not marriage is essentially about a man and woman getting together to have children and to bring them up as securely as possible. Just redefining, like that, what marriage means will understandably upset a large number of people.
The knock-on effects of the Bill have also not been adequately considered. If the Bill proceeds, the legal status of gay marriage will be different from that of heterosexual marriage, as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter have pointed out. It is also extraordinary that the proposed legislation will not give equality to heterosexual couples wanting a civil partnership, as many others have pointed out.
Today’s debate has made it clear that the Bill needs more robust protection of religious liberty. The Adrian Smith Trafford Housing Trust case was a disgrace, but it illustrated what could happen if the Bill becomes law, particularly for those in the public sector and the area of teaching. John Bowers QC has opined that the Bill, combined with the existing law on sex and relationships and the public sector duty, would create a duty to promote and endorse such a new definition of marriage, and that those who expressed their religious views to the contrary would be put on the wrong side of the law. Moreover, a teacher declining to teach same-sex marriage could be disciplined. This is entirely unsatisfactory and not an adequate protection of religious liberty.
Where has all this come from? The impetus for redefining the meaning of marriage is not largely from the gay community, many of whom are perfectly happy with civil partnership as crafted a few years ago. It does not come from those with great social concerns either. I think it is the political agenda to abolish all legal differences between the sexes. I challenge the desirability of this agenda, as a point of principle.
Many in this House may remember that back in 2004, when civil partnerships were introduced, the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, as spokesman for the Labour Government’s then Department of Constitutional Affairs, summarised that Government’s position. He said that the “concept” of homosexual marriage,
“is a contradiction in terms, which is why our position is utterly clear: we are against it, and do not intend to promote it or allow it to take place”.—[ Official Report , 11/2/04; col. 1094-95.]
I believe that that remains the view of at least half the country and, as I have said, to railroad through the legislation as it stands, with its legal imperfections, would be exceedingly unwise. For that reason, I will be supporting the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Dear.
Debate adjourned until tomorrow.