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Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): It is a great privilege to participate in the debate, which has been one of the most dignified and enlightening that I can remember. I am pleased to give my full support and backing to the Bill for the reasons that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) summed up in his final sentence. He almost could have given up the first 23 minutes of his speech and just used that sentence in an extremely powerful and effective way.
The Bill is about fairness and justice. That is why it is so important. When I got married, like everyone else who has got married, I became eligible for certain rights and entitlements and, to go with that, certain responsibilities as well. So when one of us dies, the surviving spouse is entitled to inherent the family home and the family assets without being subject to inheritance tax. We can benefit from the other one's pension contributions, particularly in the circumstances of death. For those people who live in social housing, the tenancy would transfer automatically from one to the other without any question of whether that was right.
Marriage also brings with it certain entitlements that are so self-evident that it is not possible to conceive of the position being otherwise. For example, in the event of one spouse being injured in an accident, the other is entitled to give their opinion on what should happen and what is the appropriate medical treatment; they are entitled to visit their spouse in hospital without anyone being able to say, "You shouldn't be hereyou're not entitled." A spouse can act as an active next of kin: my wife and I have to fill in a form for our children at school saying who should be called in the event of an accident, and we name each other as next of kin. That, to me, is so self-evidently right that it is inconceivable that it could be done in any other way.
Mr. Pike: Civil partnerships do not yet exist legally. If a partner in a relationship that will be eligible for a civil partnership were to die in a traffic accident today, his or her partner would have no right to make decisions in respect of organ donation. A person who has clearly indicated their wishes might have those wishes totally disregarded, even though their partner wants to adhere to those wishes.
I agree entirely. That sort of anomaly is not just unfair but absolutely barbaric. People who
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have committed themselves to one another over many years in an established loving relationship should not be denied the opportunity to be involved in such fundamental decisions. I simply cannot understand why those rights that I as a married man take entirely for granted, as does every married person, should not be extended to same-sex couples who have demonstrated the same degree of commitment and endorsed it by entering into a legally binding arrangement.
To correct that position is not, as some have suggested, to give extra rights to same-sex couples; it is simply to give them the same rights as heterosexual married couples who have made the same legally binding commitments to one another. Particularly powerful to me is one of the phrases that has been uttered by the Minister today, which was also used by Lord Alli in the House of Lords debate:
"Same-sex couples . . . are . . . invisible in the eyes of the law". [Official Report, House of Lords, 12 May 2004; Vol. 661, c. GC121.]
The whole House is concerned that many people have become disengaged from politics and from Parliament. One of the reasons that has happened to such an extent is that people see Parliament as too remotethey see it as a place that does not understand and is not interested in how they live their lives, and is too often involved in legislation that harms their interests as individual citizens.
Mr. Bercow: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's observations on the disconnect between Parliament and public. Does he not think that an eloquent and worrying illustration of that trend was expressed in the recent Populace survey published in The Times, which showed, in contrast to some of the antediluvian attitudes that still prevail in this Chamber, that 75 per cent. of respondents aged between 18 and 30 said yes, of course gay couples should have exactly the same rights as heterosexual couples?
Charles Hendry: My hon. Friend makes an entirely appropriate comment and one that I was about to make when he intervened. Our hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) said that there was a generational dimension to the debate. Young people in their 20s, 30s and 40s want this House to look like the society in which they live. They want it to be a place where racism, sexism and issues of sexuality have no part to playa place where we simply get on and discuss the issues as grown-up individuals, rather than as people who are stuck in the past. An entire generation cannot understand a Parliament or parties that do not think in that way. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) said that in years to come people will read this debate and say, "I wish I'd been there." I disagree: I think that they will read it and say, "What was all that about?" They will not understand why on earth we had to have this debate. The world in which they live is understanding and accepting. To them, debates about whether such things are right or wrong belong to an era to which they do not relate.
I echo the hon. Lady's praise for Stonewall. The dignified way in which its members have conducted the debate, using quiet persuasion and showing great
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understanding, is one of the reasons it has moved forward as it has. We all owe Stonewall a great debt of gratitude.
Mr. Gerald Howarth: Is my hon. Friend aware that Stonewall brought enormous pressure to bear on British Airways to disown our noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain, who is a director of BA? She may be forced out because of the views that she honourably and honestly expressed in another place. Does my hon. Friend think that that was a good thing for Stonewall to have done?
Charles Hendry: Shareholders will decide whether our noble Friend is the right person to hold a position on that board. My hon. Friend says that she may be forced out. It is entirely legitimate in a democracy to make people aware of the views and the comments that others have expressed.
I shall take head-on the suggestion that is made, especially in the media, that the Bill confers unfair advantages on same-sex couples or that it panders to the gay agenda. In my role as shadow Minister with responsibility for young people, I have met different youth groups throughout the country. Sometimes they have been working in inner cities, sometimes they have been involved in colleges and schools and sometimes they have been working with young gays and lesbians. The most shocking things that I have heard have been about the abuse that young people face.
I heard a young lad in Brighton describe how he was beaten up in the streets simply because he was out with his partner. He was not doing anything that anyone in the heterosexual community would find it difficult to do. He was beaten up merely because he was out with his partner. I heard from a young kid in Leeds who had suffered constant homophobic bullying in school. When he, as an individual, finally fought back he was the one who was excluded. That was abominable. He was the victim. Bullied children are always the victims and they need Members of this place to stand up for them.
As people grow up they might find that they face difficulties and discrimination merely because of their sexualitysomething with which they are not able to deal. There are those who have to go through the trauma of telling their families and friends that they are gay or lesbian, as a result of which they are often thrown out of their homes.
In my old role as chairman of the all-party group on homelessness I heard of 16-year-olds who had been kicked out of their homes because their parents were not prepared to accept their sexuality. I cannot understand people facing abuse throughout their daily lives because of their sexuality. We are right to address these issues, and we must put a stop to them.
People who happen to be gay or lesbian and play a role in public life end up finding that they can be gratuitously insulted because of their sexuality. Brian Paddick is the Assistant Metropolitan Police Commissioner. He is a fine and outstanding police officer. I often feel that the media think that they can give him a kicking and criticise him because he is an openly gay policeman. Such attitudes belong to a bygone era, and the Bill is part of kicking them into history.
We need to clarify what we are talking about. Some people listening to us might think, "What are a few insults? Everyone receives a few insults. If you are a bit fat, you get a few insults. If you are losing your hair, you get a few insults. Perhaps people should get a bit tougher about these things."
Will the hon. Gentleman join me in congratulating the organisers of the MOBO awards, who said this year that records that incite murder and violence against gay people are completely unacceptable? We have been congratulating Stonewalland deservedly so. I never thought that I would say this publicly, but I think that we should congratulate Peter Tatchell on what he has done in exposing the reggae artists who peddle this violence and hate and on forcing MOBO to have a belated but welcome change of heart.
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