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Chris Bryant: I bear in mind the fact that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) has just said that he hated politicians who preach, so I shall be very careful about the words that I choose this evening. However, I know that those hon. Members who are church wardens and Church Commissioners adopt a very different stance to the Bill, and also that there are many other religious hues in this House. I do not believe that there is one Christian, or even one religious position, on this matter. There are many different ways to view this legislation, and we should honour the personal position that each hon. Member adopts.

I welcome the Bill, primarily because it represents another nail in the coffin of prejudice towards homosexual people in this country. This is therefore an important moment. It is more than 100 years since Edward Carpenter, one of the great founders of the Labour party, set up his household with George Merrill. He was reviled at the time for that and had to be very courageous. Some years have passed since my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) was open in this Chamber about his sexuality. Many people would consider that part of the steady progress that has been made towards openness and away from prejudice.

As I said, I welcome this Bill wholeheartedly, and I know that many lesbians and gay men in this country will do the same. For the sake of argument, I am sure that many will call what the Bill offers gay marriage—and I do not care at all. I am happy that the people who will benefit from the Bill will feel that they are able to enjoy the same rights, and bear the same responsibilities, as heterosexual people have been able to enjoy throughout the centuries. I think that they will accept both rights and responsibilities with open arms.

I also welcome the Bill because it is extremely comprehensive. The Minister paid tribute to the people in her office who have made sure that it is in good order. I merely note that we are amending the Explosive Substances Act 1883, the Pharmacy Act 1954, the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963 and, perhaps most significantly, the Slaughterhouses Act 1974. Rights that they never even knew they did not have gay men and lesbians will now be able to enjoy.

That is in part because of the process that we went through in Committee. I wholeheartedly welcome the fact that we have improved the Bill immeasurably. The most important improvements, to my mind, have been those on pension provision, and I pay tribute to the two Ministers and to the Paymaster General, who played an important part in making sure we were able to produce a Bill that is yet more equal and is advancing more equality than was originally intended.

One of the most important and moving speeches made in the whole process was by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow). Many Members will look forward to going to the celebration of his civil partnership, and we look forward to finding out where the wedding list will be, whether it is at John Lewis or somewhere else.

I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope). I passionately disagree with nearly everything he said in Committee and in the
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Chamber. He let himself down on a couple of occasions when he used phrases that he may wish he had not used in the light of better judgment. He said at the beginning of the Committee stage that he did not want to become its pariah. I do not know whether he then knew that that is a religious term, a Tamil word that refers to a drummer who is not allowed to take part in a religious procession. The hon. Gentleman banged his drum gracefully, and although he may not progress through the Lobby with us later, he has done a fine thing in standing up for what he believes, even if I just wish he believed in something different.

I pay tribute, too, to the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan). He gave us a fine speech today and has given many of them. I was intrigued to hear him give a philosophical tour d'horizon today, not least because I remember much of it appearing in his book "Saturn's Children" a few years ago, which rabidly condemned Christian socialism—and me—at length. It is a delight to see him as consistent as ever.

I only hope that the Lords do not mess the Bill up. They messed it up when they sent it to us, giving us an unworkable Bill. They often proclaim that they are much better at drafting and improving legislation than we are, but this time we have done a far better job than they did.

6.43 pm

Mr. Chope: It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), and I am grateful for his gracious remarks, which stand in contrast to what I am sorry to record were the ungracious remarks of the Minister.

I will vote against the Bill. It discriminates in favour of one particular type of relationship outside marriage. It creates a type of partnership that is so akin to marriage as to be almost indistinguishable from it. My best efforts, and those of so many others, to try to reduce the worst discriminatory elements of the Bill have failed.

I hope that the other place will insist on extending the legal privileges of the Bill beyond the homosexual community.

6.44 pm

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): I said on Second Reading that the Bill was about justice rather than religion, prejudice or, indeed, sex. Our deliberations in the House and in Committee have proved that, and I am grateful that we have seen the Bill improved in Committee through the pension provisions. That will undoubtedly make a big difference.

It is important, however, to recognise that the House is at its best when it takes an extremely controversial subject that divides the nation, let alone the House itself, and deals with it in a civilised manner, coming to a sensible conclusion. That, I think, is what we have done, and it does us no good at all to start sniping at each other for holding deeply opposed views. That has been as true on my side of the House as on the other, although it is fair to say to all those right hon. and hon. Members who are not present that the voting record will show that most Members on both sides have stayed away throughout proceedings on the Bill, as no doubt will be the case tonight. It is also true that a minority of my colleagues have voted against the Bill. I happen to share
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the view of the leadership of my party that this is a matter of justice, righting wrongs and removing injustice, and I will therefore support it on Third Reading.

It is important that we do not give the impression that there is a single Christian view on the matter. I happen to support the majority view of the General Synod of the Church of England and the Archbishops Council that this is a matter of righting wrongs. I also believe passionately that the Bill should not be seen as introducing gay marriage. I disagree with the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). I said on Second Reading, and I still contend, that marriage is something unique between a man and a woman. I respect same-sex partners and recognise that they need legal recognition. The Bill does not create a group of people and discriminate in their favour. Instead, it removes an injustice because some people have been discriminated against. That is why the High Court said that the Government had to introduce the Bill and it is another good reason to vote for it tonight.

It is important to recognise that some of our constituents will be directly affected by the Bill. There are Conservative voters in my constituency in same-sex partnerships who have helped me through the process, which I have at times found difficult to comprehend, as I said on Second Reading. The House has done a good job on the Bill and I hope that when dawn breaks tomorrow we will have many happy people as a result. I also hope that the differences expressed during the passage of the Bill will be quickly forgotten.

6.46 pm

Miss Widdecombe: I was disappointed by the Minister's speech. There used to be a tradition, observed until recently, that when free vote issues were discussed and conscientious rather than party political divisions were expressed, tribute was paid to both sides of the argument and courtesies were extended. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) followed that tradition—

Jacqui Smith: Perhaps I may put on record now— I thought that I had done so in my speech, but I would not like it to appear that I had not—that I recognise the contribution made to the debate throughout the whole process by people with very different views. As I suggested in my speech, that has helped to contribute to a better Bill. I am sorry if Opposition Members feel that I did not pay due attention to their contributions.

Miss Widdecombe: I am grateful to the Minister for that statement.

I turn to the merits of the Bill, on which I asked myself the following questions. If the Bill were not to be passed tonight, would it still be the case that two people could choose, of their own free will, to form a homosexual relationship? Of course it would. Would they be able to choose to set up a household and enter into a long-term partnership? They would. However, if the Bill is passed tonight, will marriage still be unique? The answer is no, because the Bill will give rights and privileges that at the moment are unique to marriage and not enjoyed by any other sector of the population to one particular group other than the married. That is what the Bill will do. It will destroy the uniqueness that marriage holds at present.
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As I said on Second Reading, I am the first to recognise that the present system results in unkindnesses—never mind injustices—that have adverse impacts on homosexual relationships. However, I also said that that is not unique to homosexual relationships. That was what the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends today sought to address. They sought to point out that some things are wrong, but they are not uniquely wrong for homosexual relationships. I would have preferred for us to address those injustices for all groups affected—or as many as possible—through the necessary and relevant legislation, such as the Finance Bill, rather than set up a situation in which no discernible difference exists between a civil marriage and a civil partnership. It was recognised by both sides of the argument tonight that that is what this Bill will do and that is why it is so wrong.

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