Rumours reach my ears of a surprise decision at last night’s Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party Meeting. The Same Sex Marriage Bill comes back to the Commons next Monday for two days of debate on a number of amendments.
At Second Reading in February, no votes were whipped. Chief Whip Alistair Carmichael stepped out of the shadows to explain why to Lib Dem Voice readers.
The view of my parliamentary colleagues that came up time and again was that they supported equal marriage and were keen to see it on the statute book. They wanted, in fact, not just to support the bill but to be seen to support it because they do and not because they have been told to. Incidentally no MP who spoke in the discussion last night opposed the idea of equal marriage. That is not to say that a few of my colleagues do not have significant concerns about the proposal as I know that some do. I strongly suspect that any colleague who does harbour doubts would not have these doubts addressed just by the application of an instruction to the vote.
He made it clear that decision only applied to the actual Second Reading vote, not on every single vote on the Bill:
For any other vote to be a free vote there would have to be a genuine element of conscience. Merely being a vote on this bill will not automatically make it a free vote.
My understanding is that it was initially suggested that votes on the Report stage proceed along the same lines. Genuine issues of conscience would be free votes while votes on the more toxic amendments proposed by the more socially conservative elements on the Government benches would be whipped.
A number of MPs opposed this course of action and their wish that all votes should be unwhipped, including those on obviously wrecking amendments, won the day. These are not necessarily the same people as those who opposed it in February. Nor should we assume that wanting a free vote is the same as signalling an intent to for any particular amendments.
The Parliamentary Party was whipped to deliver many aspects of policy which make activists very uncomfortable – secret courts, aspects of welfare reform and tuition fees to name but a few. I expect people will be surprised that free votes have been given on matters which should be easy for Liberal Democrats to reject.
Let’s take a look at some of the amendments which will now be subject to a free vote:
No school shall be under any duty as a result of the guidance issued under subsection 1A to promote or endorse an understanding of the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and the bringing up of children that runs contrary to the designated religious character of that school.
Don’t you think that’s got more than a look of its Daddy about it? Remember the iniquitous Section 28 that we campaigned so long and hard against?
A local authority shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.
Then there’s the amendment which suggests that this measure should be put in a referendum on the same day as the General Election. That’s clearly a wrecking amendment and no Liberal Democrat should expect to be allowed to vote for it.
And to cap it all, there’s an amendment to exempt registrars who object to carrying out same sex marriages from having to do so. If you are going to work as a public servant, you have to serve all of the public with services they are legally entitled to seek. Imagine the entirely justified outcry if someone said they wanted to opt out of conducting inter-racial marriages. This is no different.
You can find all the documents and amendments, including some very helpful ones filed by our MPs, including Julian Huppert, here.
The Bill already has so many protections for religious organisations who don’t want to carry out same sex marriage ceremonies. It’s not just belt and braces. We have superglue, staples and sellotape too. The Scottish Bill is much more liberal with perfectly adequate protections. The end result is the same north and south of the Border. No religious body will be compelled to marry two people of the same gender if they don’t want to.
I know that many party members have been contacting MPs to ask them to support the Bill. They may not be aware that these particular amendments are proving so controversial and may therefore wish to particularly address these issues in their communications.
If this issue is important to you and you want to get in touch with our MPs, Stephen Tall helpfully told us how they voted the last time round so that may help you to prioritise your contacts.
The Bill passed with a 225 vote majority the last time. We can’t be complacent that it will be passed unencumbered by silly amendments, though. As it heads to the Lords, the larger the majority, the greater the momentum it has behind it, the greater the impetus for the Upper House to pass it without inserting its own set of wrecking amendments.
Update: A tweet from Mary Clarkson, a Labour Oxford City Councillor, indicates that Ed Miliband may whip Labour MPs to support the Bill.
Just heard that @ed_miliband may whip MPs to support 3rd Reading of Same Sex Marriage bill tho’ he allowed free vote on 2nd Reading.
— Mary Clarkson (@maryoxford) May 14, 2013
This is backed up by a story in the Guardian from earlier this week.
* Caron Lindsay is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings