Equal marriage: the speeches of Stephen Gilbert, Stephen Williams and Simon Hughes

Last night saw the House of Commons approve the second reading of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. Three Lib Dem MPs spoke, and here are their contributions to that historic debate…

steve gilbertStephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD):

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins), who has articulated what many people of faith across our country have struggled with before coming to the conclusion that love should be for one and all and that marriage should not be an exclusive institution.

I declare an interest: I am a gay man who grew up in a rural part of our country in Cornwall and am from a working-class background. I grew up 20-odd years ago in an environment that made it hugely difficult for me to be open, honest and up-front with my family, friends and workmates about the choices I wanted to take in life and the people I wanted to see. That was unacceptable 20-odd years ago and it is unacceptable today, but it remains the case for many hundreds of thousands of people across our country.

I welcome this historic Bill, which I think will end a form of discrimination and, perhaps more crucially, send a signal that this House values everybody equally across our country. That signal will deeply affect people like me in the same way as I was affected 20 years ago, when I saw this House vote to equalise the age of consent. That was the first time I saw other gay people on a TV screen and it was the first time that I realised that I was not alone. It changed my life.

As we all take this historic step, we should remember that 70 years ago thousands of gay men and lesbian women were put to death in the concentration camps, 40 years ago thousands more were criminalised and had their lives ruined, and 30 years ago people were still being subjected to scientific torment in search of a cure. We have come a long way in a short time, but it is absolutely right that this House takes the next step and delivers full legal equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people in our country.

I say to those hon. Members who will say, “Well, of course he would say that, because he’s a gay man,” my view is born of a hatred of discrimination and prejudice of all types, whether it be about gender, skin colour or religion. As a community, we should value diversity and treat everybody equally. Those values are enshrined in Cornwall’s motto, “One and All”. That is the community I grew up in and it is a community I am proud to represent—one that values community. The motto is not, “One and All, apart from if you’re black, Catholic or gay.” It is a community that distrusts the abuse of power. That is exactly why my right hon. Friend the Minister is right to have ensured that this House will not compel people or religious organisations to do anything that they choose not to do. We have struck the right balance between ensuring that there is equality and preserving religious freedom.

As a House, we must question those who wish to hoard privilege for themselves. We know that marriage is an important institution that delivers many benefits, including stability, health and happiness. If we recognise those benefits, why would we keep them from some of our neighbours who seek to enjoy them and whose faith allows them to do so? We would not tolerate that level of discrimination in any other sphere of life and we should end it tonight in this one.

Equal marriage will not be the end of the struggle for gay equality, in the same way that delivering the franchise to women and ending apartheid were not the end of those battles. However, it will allow us to start asking the right questions and to answer the other problems, and it will send a clear signal that we value everybody equally.

Stephen Williams MPStephen Williams (Bristol West) (LD):

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.

Simon HughesSimon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD):

I am grateful for the tone of the debate so far, including from the Minister for Women and Equalities and the shadow Home Secretary, for the passion from people such as my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) and for the call for tolerance from friends such as the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). I share with someone whom I hope I may call my friend, the hon. Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed), whom I welcome here, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) the scars of past battles fighting against section 28, for example. It was not easy in the face of huge prejudice.

I come to this debate as the person I am, with the complexities I have as an evangelical Protestant by faith and a Liberal since my teens. So these are not easy issues for me, and they are not easy for many people here. I hope that we all understand the difficulty that colleagues and our constituents have in understanding the other side of the argument. Two of the strongest arguments made against the Bill are that none of us made an election manifesto promise to legislate for this and that this is a redefinition of marriage, the last being the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).

On the first point, it is true that it was not an election commitment, so I ask the Minister, the Government and Parliament to proceed slowly and carefully and to seek maximum consensus. Heavy programming and tight timetables will be the enemy of good legislation, and I hope that the Government will be sensitive to that.

Mr Chope:
Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore be voting against the timetable and carry-over motions this evening?

Simon Hughes:
I will be voting against the timetable motion for just that reason, but I shall support the Bill. Edmund in “King Lear” said, “Stand up for bastards”. We need to stand up for gay people and their civil rights, but we also need to seek maximum consensus. A restrictive programme motion, therefore, would not be the right way forward.

Dr Offord:
I am pleased to hear about the right hon. Gentleman’s conversion. Will he take this opportunity to apologise to Peter Tatchell for the by-election in which he first entered the House?

Simon Hughes:
I have apologised to him both publicly and privately. I was on a platform with him the other day, and he was very generous to me and supported me. We have worked together on many occasions. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that.

Other countries do these things much more easily than we do. In other countries, couples have a civil ceremony and then a faith ceremony. It would have been much better to start in that way, but it is too late to do that now, not least given the position of the established Church. I hope, therefore, that we will give the Bill a Second Reading today, but then work on the areas that, in my view, are not yet in a fit state to be enacted.

The Bill ought to be amended to make it clear that the principal purpose is to provide for equal civil marriage for gay and straight couples and for others to opt in if the Churches and other denominations so wish, but that is not how the Bill is drafted. The Bill ought to make it clearer that we are not seeking to redefine traditional marriage as previously understood in custom and law. That would be helpful to Church communities and others. I have talked to many in churches and elsewhere and I believe that there is a constructive will to improve the Bill, even among people who might not in the end support it. I imagine that a majority will vote to give the Bill a Second Reading, but we must disabuse people of the notion that it will place a prohibition on how people may speak and preach about these things and on what happens in schools. I am sure, however, that the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member, will address that issue intensely and will be able to give guarantees to people who fear that the Bill will affect their rights to freedom of speech and freedom of belief.

I hope that we will address two other things. I supported civil partnerships. I think the Church was wrong to oppose them at the time, and I hope that it and other faith groups now understand that they would do themselves a service if they allowed services of blessing for people in civil partnerships. It would not be good, however, to provide for an easy transfer from civil partnership to civil marriage, which is what the Bill proposes. If we are to have civil marriage, there ought to be an obligation on everybody to have the ceremony of civil marriage, so that the full import is understood. I also do not understood why the Government are not making civil partnerships available for conventional male-female relationships as well as for gay people.

I hope that there will be changes. In an intervention, I asked the Minister to consider positively, both in Committee and before Report, constructive suggestions for change. Given the complexity of the Bill, we need tolerance and respect. On Saturday night, I watched the new film, “Lincoln”. Of course, as the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) said, there are no exact parallels between the battle over slavery and this, but there is a lesson: people then took different sides of an intense argument, even though they came from the same faith or other backgrounds, but things move on and we have to learn that understanding each other’s positions and seeking the maximum consensus is the best way to proceed. I hope that is how we will continue.

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4 Comments

  • Other than the name, is there any difference between a marriage and a civil partnership? Perhaps I’m missing something.

  • That speech really is the very essence of Simon Hughes.

  • Even as someone who has concerns over this bill, I have to say how moving and powerful Stephen Gilbert’s speech was in particular. One of the most compelling inside or outside the Commons in this whole debate – I hope we see more of him speaking for the party in the future.

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