Yvette Cooper has just made the following speech in the House today on the Equal Marriage Bill:
Parliament has the chance today to support loving couples who want to get married.
The chance to make some of the same sex couples I’ve spoken to in the last few weeks very happy – it means they can finally set the date.
I hope we will support this Bill today
Give those couples the chance to be wed, to be married and to have their relationship celebrated and valued by the state in the same way as everyone else.
Of course people have strong views on marriage.
On their own marriage and on other peoples.
I understand some in this House are strongly opposed to this bill and I respect their views although I disagree with them.
And I hope that is the spirit in which this debate will take place today.
I believe the case for equal marriage is a very powerful one.
We all love a good wedding. We pause as we walk past a church or registry office to smile at complete strangers coming down the steps in a cloud of confetti because we think it’s lovely they’ve just got married.
We love the idea of a golden or diamond wedding anniversary. The elderly couple who’ve stuck together through thick or thin, still bickering over the biscuits.
And we clearly all like a good party.
I see the impact assessment from the Department even reckons that passing this legislation could lead to £14m extra spent on celebrations.
Which is a lot of confetti and rubber chicken.
Think it won’t quite be enough to boost the economy and deliver plan B, but I guess the Chancellor needs all the help he can get.
Call us hopeless romantics.
Call it the triumph of hope over experience.
But most of us think it is wonderful when people love each other and want to make that long term commitment.
So why would we want to stop a loving couple getting married just because they are gay?
And its worth hearing why people want to:
Here’s what one gay man told me:
“My parents have a really strong marriage – I’ve always seen how meaningful and important it is. We want the same thing – it’s hard to explain but its about the value of our relationship. I want my nieces and nephews to feel that Uncle Adam and Uncle James are getting married, just like their Mum and Dad.”
Another said, “we want to have the same celebration and status as our parents and grandparents – it’s about being normal. I want to have children. But I believe children are brought up better in a married relationship.”
Someone else said, “I asked the question, “Simon will you marry me” he said yes. I said “Marry me”, not “would you like a civil partnership.”
Civil partnerships have been a fantastic step forward – providing proper legal recognition for same sex relationships for the first time. They continue to be a great source of joy and of security. And it was right for Labour to introduce them in the face of deep controversy at the time. Now they are widely accepted. Attitudes have changed.
So it is time to take the next step for equality and allow gay and lesbian couples the chance to marry if they choose to.
One person reminded me of the practical differences: when you are in a civil partnership you have to declare your sexuality every time you fill in a form where you fill in a different box if you are in a civil partnerships rather than married. Why should you have to?
Another said “Language does matter. Marriage is universally understood as a meaningful commitment. People might say that in time civil partnerships will mean exactly the same. We say: “why wait?”
And why should they wait for their relationship that they want to celebrate now, when they could get married.
Parliament shouldn’t stop people getting married just because they have fallen in love with someone of the same sex.
Parliament shouldn’t say that same sex relationships are intrinsically worth less.
But I know many in this House have raised objections:
- Fear that their church or faith will be forced to hold same sex marriages when they don’t believe in it
- The belief that marriage by definition through the centuries is between a man and a woman
- The belief that at the heart of marriage is the biological procreation of children
- And the fear that by widening marriage it will undermine other relationships, stability and society
I disagree with each of these points, but I know they are held strongly by people whose views I very much respect so I want to address each of these in turn.
First the fear that churches will be expected to support same sex marriage.
They won’t have to.
We have a long tradition in Britain of respecting religious freedom – it is built into our law and traditions.
The number of clauses in this Bill which deal directly with religion is reflected in the decision of all parties to hold free votes on this Bill.
And freedom of religion is rightly protected on the face of this Bill as the Secretary of State has set out.
So no church or religious organisation can be required to conduct same sex marriages.
No individual minister can be required to conduct same sex marriages
If a religious organisation or an individual minister refuses to hold same sex marriages that won’t count as discrimination under the equality act
The Secretary of State has set out in some detail her double, triple, quadruple and quintuple locks.
She has padlock, Yale lock, bolt, chain and burglar alarm
She will agree too that the Churches should be able to change their minds in future, to support same sex marriage in future if they want to, without unnecessary hurdles and barriers.
The Church of England and the Church in Wales have additional hurdles built into this bill which we will need to scrutinise in committee.
For example, should the Church in Wales decide to support gay marriage in future, it would still be subject to a potential veto by the Lord Chancellor, and would still require a separate vote in both Houses of Parliament. I hope committee stage will discuss how far those additional locks are really needed.
There are further safeguards in Article 9 of the European Convention which protects freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
And the European Court has deliberately set a wide margin of appreciation, allowing states to decide for themselves on same sex marriage;
It says “as matters stand, the questions whether or not to allow same-sex marriage is left to regulation by the national law of the contracting state.”
So freedom of religion rightly has strong protection in this bill
But religious freedom goes both ways.
Churches that object should not be required to sign up to same sex marriage.
But nor should they be able to block everyone else from doing so.
Because other people do want to.
Polling for Stonewall found the majority of people supported same sex marriage, and over 80% of under 50s – those most likely to get married – supporting same sex marriage.
Polls by YouGov and others have put support at between 50% and 70%
The Quakers, the Unitarians, the Reform Jews all want to be able to celebrate same sex marriages.
The Government originally ruled this out. We argued that religious marriages should be included if organisations want to and I welcome the Government’s change of heart.
Because let’s be clear:
No one group, organisation or faith owns marriage.
Religious organisations should not be required to hold same sex marriage
But nor – in the spirit of freedom of religion – should they prevent other religious organisations or the state from doing so.
Second some have argued that marriage by definition has always been between a man and a woman, it has been so for thousands of years and therefore should remain so now.
But it’s hardly surprising that for thousands of years same sex couples weren’t allowed to marry, when they weren’t even allowed to exist.
Same sex was illegal never mind same sex marriage.
Legal sex by definition had to be between a man and a woman – also for thousands of years, but no one says we should turn that clock back.
We should not hide discrimination by calling it definition instead
Marriage has changed many times over the centuries – and thank goodness.
For hundreds of years women were treated as men’s property in marriage – handed from their father to their husband, and denied rights of their own.
Until the 1990s women’s bodies were effectively treated as their husband’s property – if a husband raped his wife it wasn’t even a crime.
Civil marriage was introduced over 170 years ago – that was pretty radical at the time
Now 160,000 of us get married in a civil ceremony every year
Marriage has changed before and it should change again.
Third, some have said they oppose same sex marriage because they believe marriage is by definition about the procreation of children.
Not in civil marriage it isn’t – and it hasn’t been for over a century.
Many marriages are childless
We don’t stop people who are too old or to sick to have children from getting married
We don’t do fertility tests.
Yes in vast numbers of families, marriage is an important starting point for a loving family bringing up children.
But gay couples bring up children too.
And as people live longer, the family commitments involved in marriage are much wider than bringing up children.
Most MPs will know the sadness but also the inspriration they have drawn from visiting a married couple where for example the wife is now struggling to cope, struggling to remember the world around her and struggling to recognise even the husband she has shared decades of her life with. Yet he carries on. Cooking for her, washing her, getting her up, putting her to bed, talking to her even as she becomes a stranger in front of him.
That is marriage.
But I also visited a gay man who died some years ago, after a long illness in which he was cared for every day – at home, in hospital and eventually in a hospice – by his long term gay partner.
I don’t see why that can’t be marriage too
The idea that the biology of procreation should deny same sex couples the respect that comes with marriage, is to ignore the full richness, the happiness but also the tragedies of modern family life
For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health
That is marriage.
So finally for those who argue that extending marriage to include same sex couples will somehow weaken or undermine marriage and stability for everyone else – I profoundly disagree.
Marriage has changed many times before and society hasn’t collapsed.
Other countries are doing it. Their churches and their societies haven’t fallen apart.
Spain – Catholic Spain – has had same sex marriage since 2004.
Denmark, Belgium, Canada and Norway, Portugal, Argentina and South Africa all celebrate same sex marriage.
France, just last week, passed the first vote on the way to same sex marriage.
And the President of the United States of America in favour of gay marriage too.
If the same sex couples who’ve told me of their love for each other are able to get married, that won’t weaken marriage it will strengthen it.
It certainly won’t make it less likely that the heterosexual couple with kids who live next door to them will stay together.
If marriage is to stay relevant, to stay important and to remain a crucial part of our family and social relationships, then it also has to remain in tune with the values of every generation
And that means it should keep up with rightly changing attitudes towards homosexuality too.
Because the truth is that gay and lesbian couples have been locked out of too much for too long.
People locked up, or punished for loving someone of the same sex until the 1960s.
Gay men told by the Home Secretary in the fifties they were a “plague” on this country
Lesbian women forced to hide their relationships
Teenagers bullied at school with no protection
Teachers until the early nineties unable to tell the child of a same sex couple that their family was OK for fear it would break Section 28
So much has changed – and in a short time too.
Labour in government
- equalised the age of consent
- ended the ban on LGBT people serving in our armed forces
- made homophobia a hate crime
- outlawed discrimination in the workplace
- step by step
Things that were controversial at the time. Yet now they have widespread support.
That is why I am pleased that the vast majority of Labour MPs have said they will support this Bill today.
When civil partnerships were introduced, most of the Bishops in the Lords voted against.
Yet now Anglicans from such widely different traditions as the former Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries and the evangelical preacher Steve Chalke support blessings for same sex partnerships.
Soldiers and sailors now wear their uniforms in Gay Pride parades
We’ve come a long way.
And with each step forward the sky hasn’t fallen in, family life hasn’t fallen apart, the predictions passionate opponents made at the time simply haven’t come true.
And those opponents in the most part, have changed their minds and moved on.
I hope the same will be true again.
I hope the opponents today will look back in ten years and won’t be able to remember what the fuss was about.
Just as they did with civil partnerships.
So today, Let’s vote for people to be able to marry
For the sake of those couples who really want to wed
For the sake of the Quakers, the Unitarians and other religious organisations who want to celebrate same sex marriage as part of our respect for freedom of faith
For the sake of equality, removing unfair discrimination and challenging prejudice
And for the sake of marriage – to keep it inclusive and in touch for the next generation
In marriage lets celebrate not discriminate
Let’s be on the right side of history.
Let’s vote for this Bill today.