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House of Lords

Wednesday, 11th February 2004.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Worcester.

Gender Recognition

Lord Tebbit asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they regard the marriage of two persons each possessing the chromosomes and sexual organs of the same sex as being a same-sex marriage.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Lord Filkin): My Lords, the Government believe that marriage should be possible only between people of opposite gender in law. The Gender Recognition Bill will enable transsexual people who have gained legal recognition in their acquired gender to marry someone of the opposite legal gender. Marriages contracted by transsexual people, once their change of gender has been legally recognised, will be valid marriages between a male and a female, not same-sex marriages.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, the noble Lord did not quite answer the Question on the Order Paper. Is he aware that he was a little more frank in his Written Answer yesterday to the question of whether the Government would regard the marriage of two persons, each of whom is capable of giving birth to children, as being a same-sex relationship? His answer to that was "No". Is it not the case that, to be consistent, his Answer to this Question must also be "No"?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, as I awoke this morning I had a slight sense of what it must be like to be Tantalus—to realise that one awakes each morning to answer Questions by the eminent noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, about sex and gender. We have addressed the issues many times before through the 21 hours that we have given to the Bill. It has been a privilege to be part of that process, in which the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, has been as redoubtable as any.

However, at heart, the Government's position is that it is right and proper for the state, after a proper process of testing, to give legal recognition to people who meet the tests as set out in the Bill. Unfortunately, those tests about which the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, argues do not hinge on issues of chromosomes or genitalia. The reason that they should not was made eminently clear by the noble Lords, Lord Winston and Lord Turnberg, at the Report stage. I could bore the House on that, but I shall not; however, I recommend that noble Lords read the report of proceedings. It sets out explicitly why the medical science on the issues is incredibly more complicated than the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, would have us believe.

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The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, does the Minister not agree that one of the main cruxes of the issue is the difference between what marriage is and what views individuals or collective legislatures may or may not have about same-sex relationships?

Lord Filkin: I do, my Lords. It has been one of the toughest issues of the Bill as regards policy and humanity. We have taken the position, which has not been universally popular on all Benches, that marriage must be a union recognised by the state between people of opposite gender. That is why, as part of the Bill's process, we have said that anyone currently married who wishes to get legal recognition as being of the opposite gender must get divorced. That has been a tough element, but our position has been utterly consistent throughout the passage of the Bill.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, my noble friend referred to the length of time that the House had spent on the Bill. Will he comment on the attempt made last night to defeat the Bill in its entirety—not to amend details, which is surely the function of this Chamber, but to reject it entirely—in circumstances in which the House of Commons could not have used the Parliament Act to bring it back? Will my noble friend comment on the principle at stake in that event?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I was very surprised, as I think the House was, because we know that this is a revising Chamber, not a vetoing one. Had such a Motion been carried, the House of Commons would not have been able to consider the Bill. Therefore, this House would effectively have vetoed the Bill and denied the democratically elected Chamber the opportunity to consider it.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Bill will make life easier for a small group of people who suffer severe distress and discrimination at present, and will cause no harm to anyone else?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, puts his finger on the essential issue. Throughout the important and detailed scrutiny of the Bill, noble Lords in many parts of the House have probably recognised that at heart it is proper that the state give legal recognition to the very small number of people who suffer seriously because of the condition that they have experienced. To the extent that there have been significant differences, the arguments have been about peripheral rather than fundamental issues. As attested by the five Divisions that took place, most noble Lords have affirmed exactly the position that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, sets out.

Lord Renton: My Lords, is not the expression "same-sex marriage" a contradiction in terms, in accordance with the traditions of our language? If two people of the same sex live together, should they not be described as being in cohabitation?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. The concept of same-sex marriage is a

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contradiction in terms, which is why our position is utterly clear: we are against it, and do not intend to promote it or allow it to take place.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, will the Minister own up to the fact that his definition of sex is the legal sex of a person, as opposed to what most people would think is the definition; that is the sex of the body that they inhabit?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I seek to be full and straightforward with the House, and not to give simplistic answers. The Bill essentially focuses on by what process the state should give legal recognition to a very small number of people. Because our debates strayed into medical science and the question of whether it was simple and clear to define gender around gonads and chromosomes, we had the benefit of perhaps the most expert advice that this Parliament could have had—from my noble friend Lord Winston. I commend the House to read what he said. I quote:


    "Genetics is rapidly changing our understanding of where sex is determined. But to define it simply as genital, hormonal, or as the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, seeks to do, as gonadal, is a travesty of what really happens".—[Official Report, 3/2/04; col. 620.]

Vocational Courses

2.43 p.m.

Baroness Perry of Southwark asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they will take to reverse the decline in the proportion of 16 and 17 year-olds choosing vocational courses.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, official participation statistics for 16 to 17 year-olds show a rise of 1.1 percentage points in the proportion studying vocational courses in 2002–03 to 27.9 per cent. Our 14-to-19 strategy will give young people more freedom to follow programmes that meet their individual needs. Key to this will be the impartial advice and information offered. To widen choice, we are strengthening vocational and work-related opportunities, including new GCSE and A-Level subjects, together with improved modern apprenticeships.

Baroness Perry of Southwark: My Lords, although I welcome the very small increase in this past year that the Minister has just named, that nevertheless is a drop from 42 per cent following the vocational route before the introduction of Curriculum 2000. Do the Government realise that they cannot get this wrong? They simply cannot go on playing around with the curriculum when we are suffering from what the British Chambers of Commerce describes as a,


    "crippling UK skills shortage, which places a brick wall in front of a business wanting to raise productivity and expand."

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We simply cannot afford to allow this to continue. I hope that the Minister will consider telling us today that the Government are considering abandoning the failing vocational A-level, the advanced vocational certificate, which lacks properly qualified teachers to teach it, and which is proving unattractive to students. Can we not restore the GNVQ, which was popular? Is there not also a lesson to be learned from the continuing proportion taking well established qualifications such as the BTEC, and the City and Guilds, which both students and employers understand and respect?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I take issue with the noble Baroness on what she considers to be the failing A-level courses. We have, as the noble Baroness will acknowledge, a 14-to-19 strategy. It is, as the noble Baroness would say, based on a recognition that we must do as much as we possibly can to ensure that we have the correct and appropriate skills to support our industry and our economy and that as many of our young people who would benefit from staying on at school have the opportunity to do so, whether that involves pursuing an academic or vocational route, or a mixture of the two. The work that Mike Tomlinson is doing will support that, and I hope that the noble Baroness will also do so.


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