Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Earl Russell: My Lords, I think that my noble friend should congratulate himself on his versatility.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I shall come to that a little later. I take head-on the argument that has come up again and again and came up in the Christian Institute briefing. Your Lordships have already dealt with it so I do not need to say much. I refer to the argument that the measure will somehow undermine the institution of marriage. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, to whom I owe a great deal in my career, as he knows, as it was he who sponsored me many years ago to become a Queen's Counsel on the basis of one appearance before him as I recall, accused me of being naive in thinking that my Bill would not undermine marriage. I hope that he will not mind my saying that the naivety is on his part. If he really thinks that the problems involving the lack of proper respect for and use of marriage would be exacerbated by my Bill, I say, with great respect, that he is not in touch with the reasons why the institution of marriage has not been as successful as people such as myself—I have been very happy in my marriage for more than 30 years—would have hoped. The Bill is not designed to undermine marriage—everyone agrees with that—and I do not believe that it would have that effect. I have tried to explain that, on the contrary, if we encourage stable heterosexual relationships that are protected by law, we protect not only the partners but their children, in the hope, which I share—I speak as one who prefers marriage to any other civil partnership—that people will move to marriage.

I do not understand the argument that suggests that one needs to bribe people or persecute them in order to maintain the institution of marriage. That has not been said explicitly but in a way it is the implication of some of the arguments. I do not believe that the arguments that led Lord Hardwicke in 1753—250 years ago, in the age of George II—to forbid or deny protection to common law marriage represent the official policy of the Conservative Party or of the Church of England.

While I am on the subject of the Conservative Party, I have to say that I have too much respect for the intelligence and values of the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, and of the shadow Home Secretary, Mr Oliver Letwin MP, to believe that they can be comfortable with the new-fangled policy that their party has just adopted in light of my Bill. When I worked at the Home Office with my old boss, my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, he once gave me a piece of advice that I should like to pass on. He said, "When you are thinking about issues of policy, the worst thing you can do is to dig a trench and then be flushed out of it and have to dig another trench. Before long you are on the run and you have had it. My advice to you is, 'Always dig a trench that is defensible and then fight and hold that position'". I simply do not think that it is defensible for the Conservative Party to say, "We are changing our position about gay

25 Jan 2002 : Column 1745

relationships but we will not apply the same protection to heterosexual unmarried couples because we need to prop up the institution of marriage, which we respect so much". It may be logically possible to defend that position but the public will find it impossible in practice to understand why heterosexual couples should be treated less favourably in terms of some of the basic protections. I very much hope that the Conservative Party will continue to develop its policy in the way that I am sure most people hope it will.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester asked me three questions in particular. The first question was about pensions and, in my cowardly way, I asked my noble friend Lord Goodhart to answer it. I hope that the right reverend Prelate is satisfied with that.

The second question was about whether the Bill would severely disadvantage family relationships not in sexual partnerships. My Bill in no way depends on there being a sexual relationship for the civil partnership to be able to operate. I hope that that is clear. It is true that we have been cautious in excluding close members of the family from the civil partnership; several noble Lords criticised that or questioned whether it should really be so. We did it partly because we were concerned that people might think that we were promoting, for example, incestuous relationships and partly because of the problem of multiple partners—if there are many brothers and sisters, how does one pick out who will be the civil partner? How will one stop them from squabbling with one another and how will one stop abuse? Those matters deserve further thought. I am entirely open minded about the way in which one would tackle them; maybe the Bill needs to go further.

The other question I was asked was whether we were giving too much delegated power to Ministers under Clause 30. The answer was given by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in its report published today. It said that it had no problems which it wished to draw to the attention of the House.

As I listened to the advocacy of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, and of the Leader of the House, I was reminded that, when I was a boy, my father said, "Never become a barrister. You would be hopeless because you will be impossible in front of juries". My father was absolutely right. As I listened to the noble Baroness, who, although she is much younger than I am, is my role model in so many things, I realised that I cannot improve on her advocacy. Without offending the rest of the House, her speech will remain in my mind as the most eloquent explanation of the values underlying the Bill.

We seek to avoid unnecessary bureaucratic intrusion into relationships. We do not want relationships to have to be looked into by the state. We seek to promote personal choice, freedom of association and equality of treatment. But we also seek to promote stable, enduring and loving relationships in which there are duties as well as responsibilities. We leave aside altogether the question of children, not because it is not vital but

25 Jan 2002 : Column 1746

because it has to be tackled in the context of children's legislation. There must be a dove-tailing between that legislation and this Bill.

Then, the question is: where do we go from here, other than to lunch? I believe that the answer must be to take further evidence, to reflect further and to look at experience overseas as well. We have looked at the French experience and, indeed, that of all the other European countries to which the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, referred; and it would be relatively easy to marshal evidence upon it. One of the most interesting pieces of evidence is that of the Dutch. In the Netherlands, so far from the civil partnership scheme undermining marriage, if one looks at the website of the Dutch Government, one finds that, in spite of the existence of civil partnerships, people are opting enthusiastically for marriage. I would not promote the Bill if I considered it to be the enemy rather than the good friend of the institution of marriage.

Therefore, I suggest to your Lordships that, as several noble Lords have indicated, one sensible way forward might be to call upon the resources of this House. If your Lordships give the Bill a Second Reading, as I hope they will, the gathering of evidence would then take place under the authority of this House. That could go side by side with the work done by the Government so that the Government could be assisted in partnership with ourselves in gathering evidence and devising what is sensible.

The Telegraph described me today as "moralistic". That is not a word that I would use for myself. I believe that I am a pragmatist by instinct. But I am sufficiently pragmatic to understand that the Bill will not be a catalyst for change without the active support of the Government, following the grain of public opinion.

Lastly, as my noble friend Lord Goodhart referred to Philip Larkin, I want to mention another poet. At the end of the curious document, Counterfeit Marriage, produced by the Christian Institute, are the words:

    "It is difficult to think how Shakespeare would write a sonnet about a civil partnership".

I always thought to the contrary, that in the age of Queen Elizabeth I the Bard was writing his beautiful sonnets about civil partnerships, both homosexual and heterosexual civil partnerships. I shall probably get it wrong, but there is a sonnet that begins with the following lines,

    "Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment. Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds or bends with the remover to remove. Oh no it is an ever-fixed mark",

and so on. I am reasonably confident, although I am no scholar, that that sonnet could have been as well expressed of homosexual lovers or heterosexual lovers, married or unmarried, and at a time when I doubt that marriage was the institution that it is today.

I have spoken for longer than I intended, and I am grateful to your Lordships for your patience. I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

        House adjourned at fifteen minutes before three o'clock.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page