Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill debate

Hugh Robertson winds up the debate on behalf of the Government.

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The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Hugh Robertson): By our calculations, there have been more than 70 speeches this afternoon. This has been a lively and impassioned debate, and one that has shown this House at its best. It has demonstrated how deeply Members from all parts of the House feel about this issue. I hope that we will continue to respect those differences as the Bill moves on to the Committee and Report stages.

This is a Bill with a straightforward proposition at its heart—whether extending marriage to same-sex couples strengthens marriage and increases equality, or whether it is a threat to religion and society. The Government believe that the former is the case. I believe, as my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) said, that this is a Bill whose time has come.

In the limited time available to me, I will try to deal briefly with the main issues that have been raised. Time for interventions will be limited. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) asked whether the Government would be willing to look again at clause 11(5). We are happy to discuss that provision again with the Church of England. Doubtless it will also be discussed in Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) asked whether we would look at matters with an open mind in Committee and on Report. We will, but any matters that are raised must be within the scope of the Bill.

The right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) asked about the position of the Church of England. In its briefing, the Church of England said that it is essential that the various locks in the Bill are preserved, as drafted. That point was also raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan).

The right hon. Member for Exeter also asked about the position of a clergyman who wishes to marry a same-sex couple in another building. A Church of England clergyman could not marry a same-sex couple according to Church of England rites, because he would need the approval of the governing authority of his church and he and the premises would need to be licensed. It is unlikely that those three criteria would all be fulfilled.

One of the Members from Northern Ireland—I am sorry, I forget which one—asked whether marriage courses run by Churches would be affected by the Bill. The answer is no. There are existing protections in the Equality Act 2010, which ensures that non-commercial religious organisations can restrict their services on the basis of sexual orientation.

A number of Members asked about the legal position in Denmark. It is very simple: when same-sex marriage was introduced in Denmark, the legislation required the established Church to conduct such ceremonies. That is fundamentally different from the position in this country. That is not the approach we are taking with this legislation.

Finally, we were asked about polygamy. The case in Brazil that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) cited involved a legal marriage of three people in a civil union, so it does not apply.

In conclusion, as I said at the beginning, this has been a good and lively debate, during which all sides have had an opportunity to place their arguments on the record. We will continue to examine the Bill in detail in Committee, as the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) said, starting with detailed evidence Sessions next week.

Sir Gerald Howarth: My hon. Friend says that this has been a lively and passionate debate. Would the Government consider taking the Committee stage on the Floor of the House, so that some of those who have not been able to speak today, along with others, can have a chance to question the Minister on the detail of the Bill?

Hugh Robertson: I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s point. There is a procedural issue, which is that many of the Churches and people who wish to give detailed evidence in the evidence sessions have asked us not to do what he suggests. If we took the Committee stage entirely on the Floor of the House, we would have to forgo the opportunity for them to appear before the Committee in detailed evidence sessions. It is precisely to protect the ability of the many religious groups that wish to give evidence in person that we have been unable to do as he suggests.

Mrs Main rose—

Hugh Robertson: No, I am afraid that I will not be able to take any more interventions.

At the heart of this Bill is a straightforward proposition. If a couple love each other, the state should not stop them from getting married unless there is a good reason, and in this day and age being gay is not a good reason, if it ever was. I know that, for some religions and faiths, this goes beyond their beliefs. I respect that entirely; as a result, the Bill specifically protects the rights of those who do not agree and does not compel anyone to do anything. All religious organisations are free to choose whether to opt in or opt out. This Bill simply allows people to get married who are currently excluded from doing so purely because they are of the same sex. It is a clear and simple objective, delivered in a way that promotes and protects religious freedom. In short, I believe this is a sensible and timely step forward. On that basis, I commend the Bill to the House.

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