Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): The Bill is about justice. The subject of civil partnerships is a heady mixture of sex, prejudice and religion, and the Bill is a serious attempt to address the injustices facing same-sex couples in the context of changing social attitudes and evolving religious interpretation of the scriptures.

It is a great strength of the Bill that it offers a secular solution to the way in which same-sex couples are treated, but there is also an important religious dimension. The Church of England, rightly, is the established Church of our country and Christian values are intertwined throughout our constitution.

I was a signatory to a cross-party letter urging support for the measure, sent to all Members of the House in September. We think that the Bill will remedy many of the injustices faced by stable same-sex couples. We also believe that it should be passed in its original form, without the amendment passed by the House of Lords on Report, which extended the scope of the Bill to family members and carers. I have great sympathy for siblings and others in mutually supportive relationships—we all know many such people in our constituencies—but I am convinced that the provision is wrong. That view is shared widely by Carers UK, the Law Society and others, so I very much hope that the House will remove the amendment. I am delighted that that position has the support of the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition.

It is easy for any Government to misjudge the speed of social change, and it is also easy for the House to do so; both must proceed with caution. Similarly, Christian interpretation of scripture moves on and practice in the Church evolves. It does so in a way that some find too fast, while others find it too slow. I believe that now is the right time for both Parliament and the Church to take a lead, which I am sure will be acceptable to the majority of our citizens, including Christian congregations.

It is good that the Bill proposes justice for gay and lesbian people. Is it not interesting, Madam Deputy Speaker, that 10 or 15 years ago those words would not have passed my lips? If we are honest, it is a measure of our own prejudice that I would not have spoken the words "gay" or "lesbian" then—certainly not in public.

The Bill would remove some of the almost mediaeval prejudices against gay and lesbian people. If they enter a civil partnership, the Bill would ensure similar legal recognition and similar consequences for their relationship as those enjoyed by married couples. I am a strong supporter of traditional marriage and I declare my interest. I have enjoyed 36 years of marriage and I look forward to many more. I believe that the term "marriage" and the cultural identity that it implies should be reserved for heterosexual couples and that it should have a religious as well as a secular dimension. I can understand why some committed same-sex couples yearn to call themselves married, but I urge them not to alienate opinion by pressing that wish and to settle instead for civil partnerships.
12 Oct 2004 : Column 207

By giving legal and practical recognition to same-sex relationships, the Bill may help to support them and encourage their stability. Surely it is good to minimise the breakdown of any relationships. I believe that the Bill will enhance the institution of marriage by increasing public approval for stable, committed, loving interdependent relationships in society. I fail to see that acknowledgement of one permanent, faithful, stable relationship can undermine the status of another legally acknowledged, permanent, faithful, stable relationship. How can my marriage be undermined by someone else's civil partnership, or the other way round? Surely the more committed, stable relationships there are, the better. Furthermore, the fact that opposite-sex couples cannot enter into a civil partnership because they have the option of marriage stops civil partnerships being an alternative to marriage. It is marriage or nothing for a straight couple, and civil partnership or nothing for a same-sex couple.

The Bill will reduce prejudice against such relationships and reduce homophobic violence. It will also reduce homophobia because it challenges the view that the social benefits of marriage, which I think are stability, faithfulness, the nurturing of children, mutual support and so on, can apply only to relationships between people of the opposite sex. That is important. I have found it quite a struggle intellectually and emotionally to come to the view, for example, that same-sex couples can become parents. They do not always want to do so, and it is not always appropriate. Opinion remains very divided within the gay community, let alone within the heterosexual community, about the merits or otherwise of in vitro fertilisation or embryo manipulation among lesbian partners, but it takes place. As more lesbian and gay people become parents, there is now a growing body of research from the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and the United States that finds no measurable difference between the children of lesbian mothers in terms of gender identity, social or emotional disturbance, quality of friendships, social acceptance or sexual orientation. Those are the facts. I have faced them and I have talked to some same-sex couples in my constituency. I have concluded that I was as prejudiced about this as most people are, not because I was wicked or perverse or stupid but because that is the received wisdom of the society in which I was born and educated.

It requires effort to open one's mind and adjust one's attitude, and it can be a painful process and a journey that, for all sorts of reasons, many people are unwilling to take. In short, we follow the pack or we take a lead, and I hope that the House will take a lead.

During scrutiny of the Bill in Committee, I hope that the Government will think again about the pensions issue. I believe that a wider power than exists in clause 245(1) is needed to allow limited retrospection to 1988, which I think is the appropriate date. Individual pension schemes could then be altered by regulation after Royal Assent. This is an issue of fairness. Yes, there would be a cost. It would amount to about 0.02 per cent. of pensionable payroll, which equates to about £12 million over 15 years. There would also be savings to the Treasury of about £60 million a year on income-related benefits.

To return for a moment to the Christian dimension, I was heartened that both the bishops who spoke on Second Reading in the House of Lords—the Bishops of
12 Oct 2004 : Column 208
Oxford and Peterborough—were broadly in favour of the original Bill. I am a Christian and I am doing my best to live a Christian life, so I pay attention to what the leaders of my Church say. In 2003, the House of Bishops of the Church of England published its guide to the debate, entitled "Some Issues in Human Sexuality". The chairman of the working group that produced it was the Bishop of Oxford. It makes very heavy, but very necessary reading if a non-theologian such as me seeks wisdom in place of prejudice.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: May I repeat the point that I made earlier? Three of the four bishops who took part in the vote supported the amendments proposed by our noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain. My hon. Friend is a little wide of the mark in suggesting that there is a firm view. In fact, three bishops out of four voted for those amendments.

Mr. Key: My hon. Friend is confused about the vote in the other place. I was referring to the debate on Second Reading, in which only the Bishops of Oxford and Peterborough took part, and they were both broadly in favour.

The Bishop of Oxford gave the official view of the Church of England—as it happened, on my birthday earlier this year—during the debate on Second Reading in the Lords. He said that the General Synod had voted to reaffirm the unique place of marriage in the law of this country, but recognised that there are issues of hardship and vulnerability for people whose relationships are not based on marriage that need to be addressed by the creation of new legal rights. That motion was passed by 248 to 27 votes in the General Synod of the Church of England. He also reported that, in its response to the Government's consultation on the Bill, the Archbishop's Council reiterated the central and unique place of marriage and endorsed the need for new legal rights because

I agree.

In coming to my decision to support the Bill, I have been grateful to many organisations and individuals on both sides of the argument for their advice. I am grateful, too, to the quiet and thoughtful gay and lesbian people in my constituency— many of them active Conservative voters—for explaining why the Bill will change their lives for the better. I have received e-mails from as far afield as New Zealand, which has been through such a debate already.

I am particularly grateful to Jacqueline Humphreys—an English barrister specialising in family, matrimonial and ecclesiastical law—for pointing out some of the legal problems that the Church of England may face if the Bill becomes law. The problems range from the consequences of the clergy entering civil partnerships, including the possible conflict with the Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003 and the exclusion of part II of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 in respect of women priests. There could also be new challenges in the occasional offices of baptism, marriage and funerals.

I am also grateful to the people who have put me in touch with a growing number of Christian websites that tackle morality and sexuality issues from all angles. I
12 Oct 2004 : Column 209
started with and moved from there across the spectrum of the debate and around the world. I was particularly struck by the discontent among evangelicals at their traditional line.

In discussing the Bill with people of all ages, it is clear to me that there is indeed a generation divide. First-time voters—indeed, second, third and fourth-time votes—cannot understand how politicians in the House can be so out of touch. They have little or no sympathy for sexual prejudice. We say that we want to listen to young people, but they do not believe us when they hear or read some of the exchanges in the House. It is far harder for people over the age of 40-something to cope with change of all kinds, especially cultural, social and religious change. So, mindful of our heritage and core beliefs, I am convinced that the future is more important than the past, and I hope that Parliament will put the Bill on the statute book as soon as possible.

4.9 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page