Marriage Same Sex Couples Bill debate
I was delighted by the vote last week to give initial approval to same sex marriage. The Commons gave the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill a Second Reading by a massive majority, of 400 MPs against 175. This means that the Bill now proceeds to its detailed line by line consideration in a Bill Committee. I am a member of the Bill Committee and it starts work tomorrow. I will give updates on what we hear and discuss over the next month, before the Bill returns to the Commons chamber. This week the Committee will sit four times to hear evidence from interested parties, many of them religious bodies. The remaining sessions until mid March will be MPs debating the detail of each clause and schedule.
In the meantime here is the Commons record of my short speech from last Tuesday. We had just 4 minutes each!
Stephen Williams (Lib Dem, Bristol West): Last Saturday I went to the opening of an exhibition at M Shed, a museum in Bristol, entitled OutStories. It tells the stories of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people in Bristol over the last half century, and it begins with the story of Oliver, a 55-year-old partner in a firm of solicitors, who in 1963 was found guilty of gross indecency and sentenced to three months in prison or a fine of £40. It reveals all the trials and tribulations of that half-century, the ups and downs, and the way in which the experiences of gay people in Bristol have changed during that period.
Like all exhibitions, OutStories is not interested only in the abstract; it makes one think about one’s own place in history. For me that was rather easy, because I am mentioned in the exhibition as the first openly gay Member of Parliament to serve my city, and indeed the first on the Liberal Democrat Benches. I was born in 1966, when homosexuality was still without the law and a criminal offence. During my life we have seen much progress, but it has come in fits and starts and has not always been easy. Throughout my teenage years and my years at university, being openly gay was virtually impossible, because occasionally it could be a terrifying identity for an individual to have. I am thinking of the abuse that I received myself, and the far worse that I saw meted out to other people at school and university. What I say to colleagues on both sides of the House who oppose what we are trying to achieve today is please have some empathy with what your fellow citizens have been through. Equality is not something that can be delivered partially—equality is absolute.
Since 1994, when the age of consent was lowered to 18, we have had rapid change, and equal marriage is the last remaining significant building block in order for us to have genuine parity of esteem between same-sex couples and opposite-sex relationships.
Dame Angela Watkinson: does my hon. Friend agree with the gay people who have approached me, who feel that the vows of commitment they are allowed to exchange in the civil partnership ceremony are not regarded with the same value as those in a marriage, and that is why they want this?
Stephen Williams: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. The introduction of civil partnerships was an important step and I would like them to be retained. I have plenty of opposite-sex friends who are not in a full marriage and would welcome civil partnerships being extended to opposite-sex couples. I hope that an amendment will be introduced in Committee or on Report to bring that about.
Today, we are legislating to allow same-sex couples to show their love and commitment before their friends and family, and to have it recognised by the state as a marriage and, possibly, celebrated within their religious faith. This Bill is permissive: it allows faiths to opt in to having same-sex weddings. I welcome the fact that the three Quaker meeting houses in my constituency, the Bristol progressive liberal synagogue in my constituency and our Unitarian chapel may be among the first in the country to take advantage of this change, and I hope they will be joined by others.
I wish that this debate was mainly about civil rights, but of course it has been characterised by discussion of the differences between religion and the state. Marriage is not the sole property of any faith or denomination; it has always been regulated by civic society, whether during the Reformation, with the various Acts of Uniformity concerning the liturgy and the Book of Common Prayer, or in respect of the rights of women in the 19th century. Indeed, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, which allowed women to divorce their husbands, was rather more radical at the time it was debated than what we are contemplating today. It was opposed by Gladstone, which shows that the wrestling with consciences that some leading figures in my party are doing today is nothing new.
Finally, I wish to touch on the politics of what we are doing. I wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), whose position as a Home Office Minister did so much to bring this legislation to light. I also wish to thank hon. Members from all parties who are doing their bit today to do the right thing. Much of what we do in this Chamber ends up being the ephemera of history, but what we are doing today will be much more profound and will be remembered for a long time. It will bring genuine change in our country. What we do will be looked upon kindly by history.”
You can read the other speeches here: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmhansrd/cm130205/debtext/130205-0001.htm#13020551000002 There are many worth a read!