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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:13 pm on 3rd June 2013.

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Photo of Lord Browne of Belmont Lord Browne of Belmont DUP 6:13 pm, 3rd June 2013

My Lords, as I have studied the development of this Bill thus far, I have been profoundly alarmed by the violations of constitutional due process that seem to have accompanied it at every turn. I firmly believe, given the four recent precedents for this House rejecting a Bill approved in another place on a free vote—the two war crimes Bills, the sexual offence Bill and Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) (No. 2) Bill)—which were backed by the 2006 Joint Committee on Conventions report, that it is both consistent with our role as a revising Chamber, and indeed an established expression of it, for us to support the Motion proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Dear, today.

In my brief contribution, I would like to focus on three particular points. First, I would like to highlight how no Member of the other place has an electoral mandate to redefine marriage. Secondly, I will consider the shameful consultation which the Government conducted on this issue. Thirdly, I will look at how the Bill so far has not received effective scrutiny.

No Member of the other place has an electoral mandate to redefine marriage. I do not doubt the sincerity of the Prime Minister and of many Members of the other place in supporting the redefinition of marriage, but the fact is that no member of the Conservative Party, Liberal Democrats or Labour Party has any mandate to introduce this change. There was no Green Paper; there was no White Paper. It was not in the Queen’s Speech; it was not in any party’s manifesto. In certain cases, if the change is minor, uncontroversial, or in response to an unanticipated security crisis, it may possibly be appropriate to bring forward a legislative change without a mandate. That, patently, is not the case with the Bill before us today, which proposes changing a key social definition at the heart of our society that has been defined one way for millennia. It is quite extraordinary to me that any Government should ever dream of making such a change without a manifesto mandate, the denial of which demonstrates no regard for the electorate.

Regardless of our views on same-sex marriage, I think that we would all agree that the consultation on the introduction of same-sex marriage has been seriously deficient. Initially, the Government said that the consultation was about how to redefine marriage rather than whether or not it was actually a good idea to do so. However, the consultation did eventually include a “whether” question after an outcry from opponents of the proposals. When the Government agreed to include the whether question, the Coalition for Marriage asked whether petition signatories could be counted as submissions to the consultation, as endorsement of the petition had the effect of answering question 1 of the consultation. It was told yes, and on this basis opponents of redefinition were not advised that they needed to make a separate submission to the consultation, and on this basis many thousands did not do so.

When the Government published their response to the consultation, they said that, while of course they would have regard for the petition, they would not count it as part of the consultation, enabling them to claim a narrow majority in favour of redefining marriage. The fact that the Government thereby excluded the views of half a million people despite the assurance that had been given has been a cause of real fury, completely alienating many people from the political process. I find it remarkable that the Government thought that it was acceptable to exclude those people from the consultation, which would have found that more than 80% of submissions were opposed to the plan, if they had been included.

It is also important to highlight the fact that the Government were absolutely firm in the consultation document that same-sex weddings would not be allowed on religious premises. Those who actually managed to get a response registered to the consultation, relying in good faith on the Government’s assurances about religious premises, found that the Government’s final proposals were radically different to those on which they had consulted. Shortly before Christmas, the Government announced a major policy U-turn: same-sex ceremonies will after all be introduced in churches as well as in civil settings.

Next, we must have regard for what happened in the other place. The Government ensured that the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill was committed to a

Public Bill Committee, even though the serious and contentious issues involved in this Bill warranted a Committee on the Floor of the House. The Public Bill Committee was made up of 15 MPs who had voted for the legislation at Second Reading and only four who had voted against. After about 10 hours of evidence sessions, MPs went on to consider the details of the Bill for just less than 20 hours. In contrast, the Hunting Bill was considered for more than 80 hours in the Public Bill Committee. This included recommittal to a Standing Committee after one day of Report. One could go on and on about the time given to debate. At the conclusion of its Commons stages, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill had received approximately 49 hours of consideration. By contrast, the 2002-03 hunting legislation received twice as much scrutiny, being debated for 97 hours altogether. It seems clear to me that the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill simply has not received the level of scrutiny in the House of Commons that is appropriate for such contentious legislation.

Finally, much more could be said about the lack of respect for constitutional due process that has accompanied this Bill on its journey so far. However, now that the Bill has reached your Lordships’ House—a Chamber that, happily, the Executive do not control to quite the same extent—there is an opportunity for things to take a different course. I firmly believe that the only failing to date was the failing to have a manifesto mandate, and it is our responsibility as a revising Chamber, in line with recent precedent and the Joint Committee on Conventions ruling, to vote no today and ask the Government to think again. Those parties committed to redefining marriage can place this commitment in their 2015 manifestos and proceed in the usual manner, if they receive the appropriate mandate.

I encourage all Members of this House to support the noble Lord, Lord Dear, not in the interest of being for or against a particular definition of marriage but in the interest of upholding and protecting constitutional due process.