Greg Mulholland, Liberal Democrat MP for Leeds North West, has put a lengthy statement on his website explaining why he abstained during last night’s vote on the Marriage (Same sex couples) Bill. He did not want to vote against as he supports equality, but he does not feel that the Bill, as currently drafted, delivers that.
I do agree unequivocally that all adults must be treated equally in terms of legal recognition of their relationship and the rights that they convey; the question is how best to deliver that at the same time as protecting freedom of conscience. These are two important rights and must both be delivered simultaneously. The problem is that as currently drafted, the Marriage Bill delivers neither of these. It is a confused and flawed piece of legislation that does not actually deliver equality as it proposes different definitions of marriage for heterosexual and same sex couples; nor does it sufficiently protect freedom of conscience for people with religious and other differing views of marriage. This is why I was unable to support the Bill at second reading, however nor did I want to vote against it or what would be misinterpreted as my being anti equal legal rights, which I am very clearly not.
I also want to make it clear that, as a liberal, I do also believe that it should be up to each faith and belief based organisation to decide for themselves what they believe marriage to mean and who it should be open to. I also do believe that the current situation, where same sex couples in civil partnerships lack some of the rights of civil married opposite sex couples (notably on partner’s pension rights) is not equal or fair and must be addressed.
The two key problems Greg sees are to do with the definition of marriage and preserving freedom of conscience.
The Bill as currently drafted will lead to a legal reality where a heterosexual marriage has to be “consummated”, in other words that for it to be a binding legal contract, the couple have to have sex (at least once) and that if it can be proved that they have not done so, one party can have the contract declared void (annulled). Yet this will not be the case for same sex couples. Secondly, the Bill as currently drafted also specifies that adultery shall remain a reason for legal dissolution of the marriage for opposite sex couples, but not for same sex couples. So the reality is that this Bill as drafted does not even deliver what the Government is seeking to achieve, which is an equal form of marriage for same sex and heterosexual couples. The other area in which the Bill fails to deliver equal rights is that it fails to simultaneously deal with civil partnerships which will lead to an unequal and unfair system that gives the option to same sex but not opposite sex couples. I also believe this is a significant flaw it the Bill and the logic behind it.
I also believe that, as currently drafted, there remain concerns about protecting freedom of conscience, allowing people to express different views of what marriage means and also what they believe is right and wrong in this regard. This is of concern to me as a liberal who beliefs in freedom of speech and freedom of conscience, two founding principles of the liberal political movement. To be clear, the issue of concern is not, as has been suggested in many emails, about whether churches could be forced to conduct same sex marriage ceremonies, it is about whether those who believe in a religious form of marriage will any longer be able to say so in positions in (particularly) public sector organisations where doing so may be deemed to breach equality policies which therefore could be a valid reason for disciplinary action and dismissal.
You can read his whole statement here.
* Caron Lindsay is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings