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Mr. Bercow: The argument that my hon. Friend advances can certainly be considered, but, if I may say so, his customary generosity gets the better of him. The reality is that most of us have studied the debates on the Bill, and my noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain set out her stall at an early stage, on Second Reading. I am willing to acknowledge that there will be people who voted for that amendment in good faith, who believe that it can be of benefit and who are not motivated by any desire to undermine the Bill. The trouble is that that argument does not work for my noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain, any more than it works in favour of my noble Friend Lord Tebbit. Both those individuals made it clear beyond doubt that they passionately opposed the Bill and wished that it had never been brought before the House in the first place. Indeed, Baroness O'Cathain explained eloquently and at some length that she would far prefer an inheritance tax abolition Bill and that she thought this a bad Bill that should not have been introduced, so I do not accept that argument.
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I reiterate what seems an important constitutional point. It was grossly irresponsible of Baroness O'Cathain to press the amendment—successfully, as it transpired—without undertaking the elementary duty of consulting the organisations whose client groups would be affected. Equally, it was grossly irresponsible of the other place to allow the amendment to pass, in the full knowledge that Baroness O'Cathain had failed so to consult.

There is a fourth and final argument that I want to make against the amendment, which is that there would be a very substantial cost. The argument has been made by others, but let it be underlined. To suggest an additional £2.25 billion-worth of expenditure, which is what the extension to close family relatives of civil partnership arrangements would require, seems an extraordinarily profligate way in which to behave. I am bound to say to my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin)—the distinguished shadow Chancellor—that if my party is to pursue a policy of fiscal restraint, it seems a rather curious state of affairs to allow the party in the other place to go ahead with a proposal of this kind.

Ultimately, the O'Cathain amendment is but a smokescreen. It is a smokescreen erected by its proposers in a determined but ultimately doomed attempt to conceal their deep-seated hostility to the very principle of gay equality. For in fact, of course, they simply cannot abide it. They despise it. They are frightened by it. The policy of the Bill's most vociferous opponents is driven not by considerations of reason, logic or fairness, but by considerations of paranoia and prejudice. Such an approach should be thoroughly denounced and rejected.

The Tory party cannot just sit on the fence. We have to take a stance; we cannot be on both sides. It is no use simply saying, "Oh yes, we recognise the disadvantages and discriminations suffered by gay individuals and couples, and we think that something should be done, so perhaps there is something to be said for supporting the Bill," only then to be happy to participate in a cynical cabal with Members of another place, effectively to undermine the Bill and probably to destroy it. It is wrong in itself to behave in that way. It feeds the very cynicism about the political process that damages each and every one of us in this Chamber and beyond, and ultimately, such behaviour gets found out. It is a profound insult to the electorate's intelligence to think that we can behave in that way without their latching on to it. People are not stupid—they will see when someone is speaking with forked tongue.

My personal view is that it is not good enough for my own party, of which I have been and remain a proud member—indeed, I have been a member of it for 25 years—to argue that we can retreat underneath the comfort blanket of a free vote. No, I am afraid that that will not do. We on the Conservative Benches still have a great deal to prove. No member of the current shadow Cabinet voted on 10 February 2000 for equalisation of the age of consent. Only one member of the current shadow Cabinet—my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo)—voted in March last year for the repeal of section 28. This is the third big policy challenge in the field of gay equality and we must not duck it. We must meet it, rise to it and do the decent thing, which happens also in the end to be the politically
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advantageous thing. We must support the Bill in its pure form. We must support it today, in Committee, on Report and when it becomes law, because of the benefits that will flow from it.

I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition, who said in his speech at the Saatchi Gallery at the end of October last year that he wanted the Conservative party to be a party capable of representing all Britain and all Britons. He is right. We could start on the road to achieving that objective by voting with enthusiasm and en masse for this Bill in this House.

We have to decide whether we are to be a 21st century party. Of course that involves removing discrimination, but it involves more than that. It involves Conservatives ceasing to pat themselves on the back by saying, "Isn't it good that we preach and practise tolerance?". In the end, the debate is not about tolerance, but about respect—respect for the unique dignity of every individual, respect for all our fellow human beings, respect for the principle of equality before the law and respect for the call for parity of esteem.

To those who say, "You have changed your tune", I say, "Yes, I have changed my tune", like my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), and I make no apology for it. The person who never changes his or her mind is the person who never learns anything. I am perfectly prepared to recognise the error of some of my past ways, but I passionately believe in the cause of human equality and social justice. There could be no better signal for the Conservative party to send than the fact that it has changed for the better and changed for good by adopting support for civil partnership as its official policy and giving the Bill, in its original and unadulterated form, the unequivocal blessing that it certainly deserves.

5.1 pm

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab): This has been a very heartening afternoon, and it is particularly heartening to follow the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who eloquently articulated the reasons why the amendments passed in the other place have to be removed. I had thought myself perhaps a little cynical about the motives of those who tabled those amendments, but the hon. Member for Buckingham has made me realise that I am absolutely justified in my cynicism about them.

It is heartening to achieve a piece of social reform, which I am confident that we are going to do. It is a fine Bill. I quote Stonewall, who called it a "thorough and far-reaching" Bill. It is not often that organisations that we work with outside the House say such things. It is a ringing endorsement and something to be treasured.

With a few exceptions—perhaps the medieval wing of the Conservative party—everyone in the House is united on the need to finish addressing the outstanding inequalities and discriminations that our society has been carrying for far too long. The Bill not only brings us up to parity with all the civilised countries of Europe
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and the rest of the world, but almost completes an ambitious agenda for change on inequalities that the Government—and Stonewall—set out when we came to office in 1997. We abolished section 28 and so on and so forth—and now this Bill. All I can think that we will be left with when the Bill completes its passage is addressing discrimination in goods and services. If we do that, we will all have to think very hard to find anything else necessary to complete the package. When that happens, it will reflect extremely well on Parliament.

It is heartening that the Government have introduced this measure and it is heartening to hear the thoughtful and considered contributions of Conservative Front Benchers and other Conservative Members.

It is evident that a sea change is under way on the Opposition Benches. Over the past few years, this Government have set about reforming the homophobic elements in our law, some of which were put in place by hon. Members who are members of the current Opposition. Indeed, I seem to remember that it was the current Leader of the Opposition who introduced section 28, but I suppose that he has reformed now so perhaps we should gloss over that for the moment.

Angela Eagle: The right hon. and learned Gentleman did not want to abolish it.

Dr. Turner: No, that is right.

I shall not speak for long as the debate has been very comprehensive, and has covered all the technicalities very well. Various hon. Members have referred to the important matter of pensions, and it would be a great pity if the Bill were to be undermined by the fact that it contained a serious flaw in respect of inequality of treatment for survivors of those in public sector occupational pension schemes.

I and other hon. Members have drawn up amendments to deal with that problem. There is no need to set out the arguments involved, as that has already been done. In her opening remarks, my right hon. Friend the Minister indicated that the Government were considering correcting that defect. I hope that when she winds up the debate she will say that the anomaly will be corrected and that the amendments that we have prepared will therefore be rendered superfluous. We should be only too happy not to have to table those amendments and to give the Bill's Second Reading a ringing endorsement in the Division later this evening. The Bill is capable of improvement in various ways, but the important thing is that it will offer people equal treatment. That is its entire purpose.

I am pleased to have been able to say a few words on this very pleasant afternoon. I am glad to see that the Conservative party is changing and that its rational wing is starting to win over the medieval wing.

5.7 pm

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