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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:01 pm on 3rd June 2013.

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Photo of Viscount Astor Viscount Astor Conservative 6:01 pm, 3rd June 2013

My Lords, we come back to the Bill. This is a Bill that divides friends, families, political parties, different faiths and, indeed, the Church of England. The problem seems to be that there are different views on what the word marriage means and what it stands for. To many it is an adjective that describes an event—not necessarily a religious event—that takes place in a registry office, on a lawn, on a beach, in a hotel or, I am told, even in a swimming pool. Sometimes it is a religious event in a church. Sometimes it is the only occasion on which the couple actually go to church. Sometimes the couple already have children or have been married before or are of different religious faiths. Thus the word marriage is used by many different people to describe many different types of event.

There are also those who believe that marriage is a sacred religious ceremony and that marriage must be between a man and a woman for the procreation of children. Therefore, we have different groups of people using the same word in different contexts. That is the fundamental issue that divides us and causes us concern today.

It is a difficult issue. Was there a huge clamour for the Bill? No, it came only from a few. Most affected seemed happy with civil partnerships. Was it sensible to introduce it as a government Bill? That will be debated, I suspect, for many months. However, we have a Bill that has gone through another place and arrived in this House, and we have to deal with it.

I understand those who have strong feelings against the Bill, but I will make one important point. I understand and sympathise with those who want to get married but feel excluded by their church. It happened to me. Some 37 years ago I went to see our local vicar to arrange my marriage. I told him that my future wife was a Roman Catholic. He said that that did not matter and that we could go ahead. Then I then told him that she had been married before and had two small children. He immediately withdrew his offer of marriage and rather reluctantly offered a service of blessing. I felt upset and excluded. The Roman Catholic Church offered my wife an annulment, and said that it would then be happy to conduct the marriage. It seemed odd to have an annulment when one already had two children. Luckily, the Church of Scotland came to our rescue and we were duly married. Now the Church of England has changed its rules so that divorcees can marry. The church has evolved. It has changed its view on this and on many other issues. We now have women priests, and perhaps one day we will have women bishops.

Where do I stand in this debate? To many the Bill is welcome. We must not forget that there are a substantial number of children living with same-sex couples who want their parents to have the full recognition of marriage and the protection that that gives the family. Then we have the contrary view. To many, this Bill is divisive and unnecessary. As a Conservative, I believe in freedom and tolerance—two aspects not always very relevant in many marriages. “Compromise” might be the term most popular in my marriage, as I always seem to be the one who is compromising.

The churches and other faiths should be able to decide whether or not they want to have same-sex marriage ceremonies in their church. It should be up to them. It should not be imposed by the state. If they do not wish to conduct the ceremony, they should not be forced to. The strong and clear clauses in the Bill provide for that protection. I have listened to those who claim that the European Court of Human Rights might overrule British law. If it does, I would be delighted, as then we could all agree to leave this outdated and flawed institution that has allowed so many dangerous terrorists to remain in this country.

Therefore, I support the Second Reading of the Bill. More importantly, it would be quite wrong and highly damaging to the reputation of the House not to allow the Bill to proceed to Committee, where all the arguments for and against can be fully debated. We are a revising Chamber. We have an absolute right to send an amended Bill back to another place—but after debate, Report and Third Reading. The noble Lord, Lord Dear, said the Bill would, “take up valuable time”. I say to the noble Lord that we have the time, and I am sorry that he has not got the time to deal with the many complex clauses and issues in the Bill.

To reject a Bill on Second Reading that has been passed by another place—however strong the opinions—would have a grave knock-on effect on the relationship between the two Houses. Rejection at Second Reading has occurred occasionally, but it is against the traditions of the House and has happened very rarely. We must give the Bill a Second Reading. If we do not, we would be seen as undemocratic and not as the guardian of democracy, which is how we are now often seen. If we did not accept the Bill, we would hasten the threatened changes to the nature and composition of the House, against which so many of us have fought for so long.