Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill debate

Hugh Robertson winds up the debate on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill and addresses concerns of some back bench MPs in relation to issues such as education and faith schools.

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Hugh Robertson: The Government have listened extremely carefully on Second Reading, in Committee and today to the concerns that have been expressed. We will do everything that we can to provide the safeguards that are necessary to meet colleagues’ concerns, where those concerns are justified.

Time is short because I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) wants to speak at the end of the debate, so I will quickly go through a few of the issues that have been raised. I ought to start by speaking to Government amendment 23, which will provide further protection for chaplains, such as hospital and university chaplains, who are employed by secular organisations. We made a commitment in Committee to look at that matter again and we have accepted that something further can be done. If the possibility of a marriage conducted by a chaplain is a benefit to employees offered in the context of that employment, a refusal to conduct such a service by a chaplain for an employee could conceivably fall foul of provisions in part 5 of the Equality Act 2010. We have therefore tabled amendment 23, which I believe puts the issue beyond doubt.

Amendment 24 addresses a point raised by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) about the Church in Wales and places a statutory duty on the Lord Chancellor. Once he or she is satisfied that the governing body of the Church in Wales has resolved that the law should be changed to allow for the marriage of same-sex couples according to its rites, he or she “must” by order make such a provision. That meets a commitment made in Committee and is a simple amendment that gives the Church in Wales the reassurance it sought.

Let me turn to education, faith schools and new clause 1. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate for his speech, and hope to provide him with some reassurance. As he knows from Committee, no school or individual teacher is currently under a duty to promote or endorse a particular understanding of marriage, or would be as a result of the Bill or any revised future guidance. There are two clear reasons for that. First, the guidance is to secure that pupils

“learn the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and the bringing up of children,”

not to secure that teachers promote or endorse any particular view of marriage—in a sense it is the difference between explaining and promoting. Secondly, teaching in this area should always be balanced and sensitive to pupils’ backgrounds, which for many will be reflected in the school’s ethos. Guidance contrary to that ethos would not meet those criteria.

If Members want further reassurance, I draw their attention to Lord Pannick, who I think is universally recognised to be an expert in this area. He said that it is “inconceivable” that a teacher could be lawfully disciplined for explaining to a child of an appropriate age that the law allows for same-sex marriage but that many religions—or indeed the teacher—do not believe in it. Finally, I draw the House’s attention to evidence given to the Committee by the Secretary of State for Education.

However, it is clear from the number of hon. Members who have signed new clause 1 that many remain concerned about the level of protection for teachers. Although I am confident that the existing protections are sound, I am aware of concerns raised by the Church of England and mentioned by many hon. Members. With that in mind, I commit to the House that we will take the issue away and discuss it further with religious groups with whom we have been engaging throughout this process. We have been in close contact with all of them, and will consider all available means—including an amendment if necessary—to put the issue beyond any doubt in the other place.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate for tabling amendment 50, which amends the Public Order Act 1986. We debated it at some length in Committee, and since then we have been thinking further to try and meet the concerns of many colleagues. Regrettably, the wording used in the amendment could—no doubt entirely unintentionally—give the impression that this aspect of criminal law is not to be applied even-handedly, and for that reason I cannot accept it as it stands. The provision is already there, however, and we fully understand the concerns and will work to table an amendment in the other place to try and satisfy them.

Let me turn briefly to marriage registrars, although the news is rather less promising. We debated the issue at length in Committee and I am afraid my views rather hardened as the debate went on. I do not believe it is appropriate or right to allow marriage registrars to opt out of conducting same-sex marriages either permanently or on a transitional basis. Like it or not, they are public servants who should carry out the will of Parliament, and allowing exemptions according to conscience in my view sets a difficult precedent. Furthermore and crucially—this is important—the consultation with the national panel for registrars revealed absolutely no concerns whatsoever about conscience, and it would be unusual for the House to pass a new clause if the national representative body did not ask for such an exemption.

On new clause 4, I know that some Members continue to have concerns that employees and organisations will risk action being taken against them under the Equality Act if they express the view that marriage should be only between a man and a woman. However, discriminating against someone because they hold such a belief, whether for religious or philosophical reasons, is unlawful under that Act, and I am happy to place that on the record.

The case of Adrian Smith has been mentioned by a number of Members. He won his case in the end but his award was so small because he failed to bring the case within the time laid out in the employment tribunal. We looked into the case carefully in Committee, and the judge made it absolutely clear that had Adrian Smith applied in time, there was every reason to suggest that the tribunal would have been able to award him “substantial compensation”. The fact that the case was not brought in time led to that particular result.

Andrew Selous: I believe that Adrian Smith had to find £30,000—or it was found for him. What happens to poor people who suffer that type of discrimination and do not have that money?

Hugh Robertson: That example shows the danger of trying to make law on the basis of one individual case, particularly when—as in that case—the litigant failed to apply and follow the relevant legal processes, making it difficult to take further action on that basis.

On amendment 3 to new clause 5, the important thing about the public sector equality duty is that it is a duty to think, rather than to achieve, a particular outcome. It could not possibly be used to justify an act of discrimination because of a belief by a public authority. New clause 6 seeks to make it explicit that the belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman may be a religious or philosophical belief, and that is indeed protected by the Equality Act 2010. Philosophical beliefs are protected if they are genuinely held, and we are entirely confident that the belief that marriage should be only between a man and a woman meets those criteria 100%.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate would like a few minutes to wind-up the debate, so I will finish where we started. We ran through all these issues in Committee at some length and we will take note of the will of the House tonight and listen to it carefully. Where we find a need to act, we will take action.

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