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Charles Hendry: Does my right hon. Friend accept that those people are looking for recognition of their relationships? At the moment, they do not feel that they are recognised—they feel invisible under the law—and only by such a Bill do they feel that they can have that recognition.

Miss Widdecombe: The recognition that is being offered has been uniquely reserved for marriage because there is no distinction in the Bill between the rights and responsibilities contracted by a civil marriage and those contracted by a civil partnership. My fundamental objection to the Bill is that that is homosexual marriage by another name.

Mr. Hayes: Is not the real point that some of the people referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) are seeking equivalence with a married relationship? Indeed, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) was honest about that and described it as gay marriage, and we have heard talk of wedding lists and all sorts of other things.

Miss Widdecombe: That is indeed the point. We do not oppose the Bill to prevent people from operating their own free choice. As I said on Second Reading, God gives free will and there is no reason why we should seek to put obstacles in the way of people exercising their own free choices, but the Bill goes beyond that: it would give the uniqueness of marriage to civil partnerships.

Mr. Borrow: The right hon. Lady accepts that there are injustices in the system, so I should be grateful to her if she would say which parts of the Bill, which we are likely to vote in favour of tonight, she thinks inappropriate and should be removed to produce a Bill that would be acceptable to her?

Miss Widdecombe: The basic premise of the Bill is that people sign a register and undertake a divorce process in all but name on the basis of irretrievable breakdown. In other words, there is nothing to distinguish civil marriage from civil partnerships. That is the basis of my opposition. The injustices, such as those in respect of
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inheritance tax, next of kin and all the rest, can be put right for homosexuals and others using different legislation.

I shall finish now because I know that other hon. Members are waiting to speak, but I stress that, although the hon. Member for Rhondda suggested that the basic opposition to the Bill arose because we are making moral judgments about homosexuality, my opposition to the Bill is based on keeping marriage unique and addressing any injustices that may exist through other means.

6.53 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack: It is a great privilege to follow two of my hon. Friends, and as I listened to them both, I could not help but think, "Would that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) were as sound on hunting as my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key)." That, in a sense, illustrates how moral issues and issues of conscience divide hon. Members on both sides of the House. Those of us who are clearly in a minority must not be churlish, but that does not mean that we abandon what we believe to be right.

I received this morning a petition from many hundreds of constituents who are deeply troubled about the Bill. They are not nasty, homophobic people; they hold to traditional views and values—[Interruption.] That comment does a great disservice to many of the constituents of the hon. Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Watts) because many people in his constituency, as in mine, are decent honourable people who hold to traditional values. Yes, we may be wrong—of course, we all have to concede that we may be wrong—but the fact is that people hold to those views for good reasons.

I do not impugn the integrity of those who advocate the Bill. I do not impugn for a moment the integrity of those who advocate gay marriage, as they call it. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) was being honest when he said that that was in effect what the Bill was moving towards.

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is mistaken if he believes that I think that the Bill will create gay marriage. Many people will use "gay marriage" as shorthand for the Bill's provisions, but I believe that marriage should be only between a man and a woman.

Sir Patrick Cormack: If the hon. Gentleman consults Hansard, he will find that he said that he would not mind at all if people regarded this as gay marriage.

I do not want to get bogged down in semantic arguments with the hon. Gentleman or anyone else. I only want to say in the brief time that remains that the House will tonight pass a Bill—we know that it will be given its Third Reading with an enormous majority—that marks a real change in our society. In making that change, the House must realise that a society that changes without recognising whence it comes is rather intolerant. It is important to realise the background of many of our constituents who will be troubled by the Bill. I wish those who will benefit from it nothing but personal happiness—I hope that that will be their lot—but many people in my constituency and elsewhere are troubled because they can equate the partnerships
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granted by the Bill with marriage, and because of the fact that it is only from the union of a man and woman, whether they are married or not, that a future generation can come.

Such matters trouble ordinary people throughout the land, so I was glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) recognised that in his thoughtful and dignified speech. I ask those who will cheer when the result of the Division is announced to have some regard for those who need to be convinced that they are wrong and that the majority in the House is worthy of a majority in the country. I remain profoundly disturbed about the consequences of what we are about to enact.

6.57 pm

Mr. Donaldson: As I said in Committee on 26 October, I was surprised when the Minister asserted that the Government's consultation on the proposals had received

That was not the case in Northern Ireland, where 86 per cent. of respondents opposed the Government's proposals. However, the Government will impose the Bill on the people of Northern Ireland despite the opposition of the overwhelming majority of those people and their political representatives. We in Northern Ireland do not accept that. I hope that the Northern Ireland Assembly will have the opportunity to revisit the legislation because we will try to amend it to reflect the wishes of the majority of people in Northern Ireland who oppose the Government's actions.

Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the people of Northern Ireland would do well to be more tolerant in the future?

Mr. Donaldson: The people of Northern Ireland are very tolerant. This is nothing to do with tolerance, but with what people want, how they want to order their lives and the kind of society in which they wish to live. The House should be more tolerant of the people of Northern Ireland and their views on these issues.

The Government are ignoring the views of the people of Northern Ireland. They could have accepted the amendment that I moved in Committee and thus left the matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly to decide, but unfortunately they rejected the amendment, and thus the views of the majority of people in Northern Ireland.

If the Bill is passed, it will not change my view, that of my hon. Friends or that of the majority of people in Northern Ireland. The Bill is still wrong. I agree with the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) that civil partnerships can be equated with marriages, which will be to the detriment of our society.

Mr. Bercow: This is a first-class Bill and I am delighted to support it. It has got better as it has gone along. I have been absolutely inspired by the leadership on the matter of my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan). I respect the
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dissenting opinion of some of my hon. Friends, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) would like to express that in the 10 seconds that remain.

6.59 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth: The last word falls to me. I profoundly oppose the Bill. It will have serious consequences for our country which are as yet unfathomed. It will damage the moral fabric of our society—

It being Seven o'clock, Madam Deputy Speaker, put the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [12 October].

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