It is good to welcome you back to the Chair, Mr Hood. I think I was approaching a peroration—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]—but my perorations are not necessarily short, as hon. Members will know. However, let us see if we can take up the batting from where we left off before lunch.
It has been said repeatedly that marriage has been redefined many times before, with the current proposed changes just another instance of that. There have been changes in formalities and changes, as it were, at the other end of marriage—when a couple get divorced—but the fundamental essence of marriage as the union of one man and one woman has never been tampered with until now. Other changes did not go to the essence of what marriage is, but the Bill, and clause 3, does.
It has also been said repeatedly that introducing same-sex marriage will strengthen the institution of marriage. Those of us on the opposite side argue that redefining marriage in this way will have the opposite effect. The Orthodox Churches, from which we have not yet heard, put it this way in their submission in response to the Government consultation:
“The proposed change is not, as is claimed, an extension of the high status and responsibilities of marriage to homosexual couples. Rather, it gives legal recognition to a radical change in the understanding of marriage itself that affects all married couples and hence society as a whole.”
Clause 3 is supposed to cater for such religious bodies, but they do not sound terribly enamoured of the Government’s proposals, because the Catholic Bishops’ Conference’s response to the consultation also warned:
“If implemented, the government’s proposed legislative changes to the meaning of marriage will permanently diminish the significance of marriage for the whole of society. It will do so by abandoning the innately understood biological and sexual complementarity of the relationship between a man and a woman, and the children their union gives rise to, on which a strong and well-adjusted society is best built.”
The Minister of State has already said that marriage means effectively what people want it to mean, but that approach will destroy any common understanding of marriage. At the moment the law is clear; as a result, there is a common understanding of what marriage means in society—the union of one man and one woman. The Catholic bishops say:
“If the institution of marriage is significantly diminished, so will the well-being of children, the family and …society.”
The Bill is all over the place. Our consideration of clause 3, alongside clauses 4 and 5, confronts us with the stark reality of what the Bill will do to the institution of marriage. It will take an institution that provides a unifying function and that is clearly understood by all, and clearly understood in institutions and in law, and splinter it into different and relative forms. Far from drawing our society together, it threatens to drive us apart into different communities with different understandings of marriage, which is a recipe for civic and legal dissonance.
The Bill will, for the first time, incorporate confusion into law that would undermine the institution of marriage and drive a wedge between the communities that subscribe to the different supposed understandings. The ensuing confusion serves no one. The suggestion that there are two understandings of marriage—religious and civil—is a false one. Introducing that false distinction in statute will promote ambiguity that is divisive, dishonest and ultimately destructive. Furthermore, we fear it will lend itself to vast amounts of litigation.
Once such a legislative change is made, it will not be reversible, and the Government will not be able to control or predict the consequences of that change. Not a lot of people are happy. Stalwart proponents of same-sex marriage believe that the Bill does not go far enough, while advocates of traditional marriage have deep concerns about the impact of its passing. Many people have warned that the change has not adequately been thought through. The Government were advised to leave marriage alone. This mess is the reason why, which is why it is essential to get far more clarity in the Bill if it is ever to stand up to scrutiny, if it becomes law.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood, and it is certainly very nice to be able to stand up at last and make a contribution in Committee. I have waited quite a while for this moment.
Clause 3 amends the Marriage Act 1949 to extend the provisions of civil ceremonies to same-sex couples. Section 26 of the 1949 Act, as amended by clause 3, will set out marriages that do not require an opt-in. That includes all opposite-sex marriages and marriages of same-sex couples through civil ceremonies in a register office, on approved premises, such as hotels or stately homes, or in certain circumstances, such as in the residence of a detained or housebound person.
The requirements for marriage by civil ceremony will be the same for everyone. The ceremony will be conducted under the authority of two superintendent registrar certificates, which are issued when the registrar is satisfied that the couple are legally able to marry. The clause provides key changes to make same-sex civil marriage a reality by opening up marriage by civil ceremony to same-sex couples on the same footing as opposite-sex couples.
Civil marriages account for some 68% of all marriages, so enabling same-sex couples to marry through a civil ceremony is key to delivering the Government’s commitment to extend marriage to same-sex couples. That is fundamental to delivering equal marriage, and same-sex couples will be given the same opportunity to enter into civil marriage as opposite-sex couples.
Hon. Members have raised a number of points over the course of the debate, so I want to pick up on some of them. We have already extensively debated the redefinition of marriage during our consideration of clauses 1 and 2. Indeed, the debate on just that matter lasted five sittings—it will be six if we count this one—so it will not be helpful to the Committee if I take us down that path again. The Bill simply opens up marriage to a group of people who were previously excluded from it. There has never been one definition of marriage; it is an institution with a long history of change.
My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate talked about civil unions, but there is no status of civil union in England and Wales; there is only one state of marriage. We want to extend marriage to same-sex couples, which is clear in clause 1, and we do not want to create a new concept of marriage. There is a danger that if my hon. Friend’s proposals were taken through, they could undermine and weaken the institution of marriage, which would be the last thing that he would want.
The rights and responsibilities that go with marriage will remain vital to that relationship and will, of course, be extended to same-sex couples. The hon. Member for Rhondda made an inquiry about the use of St Mary Undercroft in the Palace of Westminster. I am informed that it is a royal peculiar and, as such, it is subject not to the bishop but to the Queen. As she is Head of the Church of England, it would be unlawful for same-sex marriage to take place here, unless the Church of England changes its canons and puts forward an amending Measure.
Her Majesty could decide to allow it to be used as a space for multi-faith purposes. I gather that the House of Lords is about to have a multi-faith space, so I do not understand why the House of Commons cannot have one as well. Perhaps the Minister would like to write to the Queen to ask her whether she would allow that to happen.
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting issue, and I am certainly happy to look into his proposal and consider what action we can take that might assist.
I know that some religious organisations, along with many others, have concerns about the clause. The clause is about civil marriage, and 68% of people who get married in this country have a civil ceremony. If the Bill is enacted, a very high proportion of same-sex couples who marry will do so by way of civil ceremony under the clause, so it is fundamental to the Bill.
During our evidence sessions, the point was raised by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, and endorsed by Alice Arnold, that perhaps too much weight had been put on the religious argument. Alice Arnold said:
“Everything seems to centre on the religious objection, but two thirds of people don’t get married in a church—two thirds. Yet all the debate seems to centre around religious objection. Loads of us do not have a religion. It is not important to us; what is important to us is the law”.––[Official Report, Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Public Bill Committee, 14 February 2013; c. 159, Q412.]
Our witnesses included Brendan O'Neill, who is, as I said last week, a self-confessed atheist with no religious views. However, he was clear in his views on the importance of marriage. Will the hon. Lady take those viewpoints on board as well when giving her synopsis of ideas on this matter? Is Brendan O'Neill’s opinion equally important?
All views are important on such an emotive issue, which is why the Government have listened and consulted throughout. We will go on listening, talking and trying to make sure that we not only provide the protections that are needed to give reassurance, but open up this vital and essential institution to a significant group of people who have been excluded from it up until now.