Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 20th November 2013.

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Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I am pleased to participate in this stage 1 debate on the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill. At the outset, I commend the Scottish Government unreservedly—not something that I do terribly often—for its work on the bill. I also commend the members and clerks of the Equal Opportunities Committee for their diligence in scrutinising the bill at stage 1. I associate myself with the cabinet secretary’s remarks about Mary Fee, the former convener of the committee, and Margaret McCulloch, the current convener.

Undoubtedly, there has been a volume of evidence in favour of and against the bill, and the committee’s stage 1 report is a comprehensive record of that evidence and the process of the committee’s consideration. The report notes that the majority of the committee supports the general principles of the bill, but the convener was right to remind us that the decision will be a matter for individual members, as I believe that all parties have agreed that there will be a free vote. Ultimately, it is a matter for each of us in the Parliament.

I therefore recommend that all members read the stage 1 report. I know that it is long, but it helpfully sets out the arguments and, where there are concerns, the scope for amendments. I will come on to consider some of those concerns. For me, though, the bill is about equality, fairness, social justice and the values that were instilled in me by my parents, my community and society. For many of us, the bill is also about how we see ourselves as a nation and how others see us. It is about the values that we hold and whether Scotland is indeed a confident progressive nation where equality is truly valued.

Most members will have received a considerable volume of correspondence on equal marriage, both for and against. Many of the arguments are detailed and the views are passionately held. Some members even received emails as we were walking into the chamber, never mind late last night. I thank people for giving their time and energy to inform the debate.

It is true that attitudes in Scotland are changing. The Scottish social attitudes survey in 2002 showed that 41 per cent of people were in favour of same-sex marriage and 19 per cent were against. In the same social attitudes survey, but this time in 2010, the proportion of people who were in favour of same-sex marriage had risen to 61 per cent. A shift of 20 per cent in opinion on any issue in such a short space of time is, frankly, astonishing. If we begin to unpack the detail, we find that support for equal marriage can be found in those who are religious, in people from across all income groups and all geographic areas of Scotland. The support cuts right across our country and right across our society.

In the survey, 55 per cent of those who identified themselves as Catholic supported same-sex marriage and 21 per cent were opposed. Among Scottish Presbyterians, 50 per cent supported same-sex marriage and 25 per cent were against. Of those living in the most deprived areas, 67 per cent support same-sex marriage, while the figure for those who live in the most affluent areas is 63 per cent. Frankly, it makes no difference whether someone lives in urban or rural Scotland, because support for same-sex marriage is roughly the same and consistently above 60 per cent. There is no doubt about current public attitudes.

I read with much interest the evidence to the committee from Professor John Curtice, whom many members will know better for inhabiting television studios in the wee small hours of the morning, sharing his wisdom on elections and voting behaviour. He described to the committee a cultural shift in Britain over the past 30 years. According to Professor Curtice, in 1983, 62 per cent of the population believed that same-sex relationships were mostly or always wrong. That figure has dropped to 28 per cent, which is quite extraordinary. His explanation for that shift is that it is young people who increasingly support same-sex marriage. The Equality Network backs that up and tells us that support for same-sex marriage is highest among those who are under 55. I, like many in this chamber, take it as a compliment that being under 55 is still considered to be young. Joking apart, there is robust and credible evidence of changing views in our society and support for equal marriage.

It is also useful to consider what has happened in other countries that have legislated for same-sex marriage. In Europe, since 2001, we have seen the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, France, and, most recently, England and Wales, provide equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. In Canada, South Africa, Argentina, New Zealand, Uruguay, Brazil and 17 states in America, equal marriage is the norm.

I know Portugal quite well. Like Christian Allard, one of my parents was Portuguese. Eighty one per cent of Portugal’s population describe themselves as Catholics, which is a huge proportion of any country and is, without doubt, a significant number. In 2009, Portugal passed its law to allow same-sex marriage. There is no doubt that that was hotly contested, and it was passed to the constitutional courts for review. In 2010, those same courts said that the law was perfectly legal and the then president, Cavaco Silva, signed it off and there have been same-sex marriages ever since.

Interestingly, when I asked one Portuguese friend, who is quite religious, about the legislation he said, “It is about love. There should be no difference whether it is a man or a woman or they are the same sex; it is whether they love each other that really matters.”

When the Parliament passed a law on civil partnerships, we took a huge step forward. Same-sex couples had the legal rights associated with marriage. However, I recognise that that, for some, falls far short of marriage in which their love and commitment is fully recognised. The Equality Network talks about a gold standard; for me, it is a matter of equality and fairness.

For a host of reasons, I believe that equal marriage is an idea whose time has come and I will support the general principles of the bill. That said, very few in this chamber are deaf to the concerns that have been raised. The principal area of concern appears to relate to the protections put in place by the Scottish Government. It is the case that no religious or belief body can be forced to perform a same-sex marriage. It is also the case that celebrants will not be forced to perform a same-sex marriage if it is against their beliefs. I agree. Those are matters of doctrine and belief that are properly for the church and not the state.