Last night's public meeting on equal civil marriage
"The first thing I wanted to say was to thank everyone for coming to the public meeting. I think that people have spoken their minds, said how they feel about things and have tried to be respectful of people that are in the room that take the opposite view so I’m very grateful for that.
"I would characterise the first argument raised as "Is this the thin end of the wedge?" The view that the Government says that this is just about civil and not religious marriage but that this will spread naturally. Now the one thing that I can’t do is to guarantee what Governments in the future will do. No Parliament can bind successive Parliaments. So I think what’s important here is whether or not the law that is being proposed is actually legally watertight. The concern was raised whether or not the European Convention of Human Rights could be invoked against this new law. The legal advice that the Government has had is that it can’t. Certainly the point was made that divorced people have been able to get remarried in civil services but nobody has successfully challenged the Catholic Church or large parts of the Church of England and forced them in religious marriage to remarry divourced people contrary to their teachings. I can’t give you a guarantee, though I can say as your local constituency MP that I think that we should get out of the ECHR anyway. Personally I think that our Parliament and our Courts should make these decisions – but that isn’t the position at the moment, I must acknowledge.
"The second point was that marriage is an institution for procreation, for having children. I think that it isn’t always actually. Now we allow people to marry who are incapable of having children and also same sex couples are allowed to foster and adopt. Someone made the point that the primary reason why society backs marriage is because it is the best environment to raise children. I agree with the latter part of that. But I actually think that’s only half the picture. From the Government’s point of view, stable relationships between adults are actually extremely important. In terms of mutuality of support, in terms of people’s dependence on the state evidence suggests that if they have someone else that they can depend upon then they are much less likely to rely on the Government. There is a case in that sense for allowing same-sex couples to benefit from the institution.
"Several people raised the question of why do we need to allow same-sex couples to get married as they already have civil partnerships and that their legal rights are equivalent. I think there are four answers to that. The first is one of principle. To some same-sex people it feels like civil partnerships are second-class in status to marriage. But there are actually some legal differences. In relation to pension rights there are some differences of eligibility between civil partnership and marriage. There’s quite a serious issue that if a public authority or an employer asks you to fill in a form with your marital status, it is illegal to right ‘married’ if you are in a ‘civil partnership’. Therefore sometimes when you have to fill in a form you are being required effectively to declare your sexuality in a way that you might not wish to do to that organisation. Also although it’s a very small issue in terms of the number of people that it affects, people who legally change their gender and who as a result of doing that are required to break up their marriages even if that’s not what the two people want to do in that very difficult situation. It is a small number of people, but I can tell you as a constituency MP having dealt with three or four of these cases that they are often very heart-wrenching cases in terms of the effect it has on the individuals involved.
"One of the strongest arguments that I heard, to which I don’t have any proper answer, is that the Government is changing the meaning of a long established word that’s been with us for thousands of years and that Government shouldn’t do that. As someone who is a Conservative I have a sympathy with that argument. The only response that I can give to it is that we have changed the meaning of the word in the past, for example divorce wasn’t allowed and so the definition of marriage was ‘a union for life’. Clearly when we passed the Divorce Act we changed the meaning of marriage in quite a substantial way. But I’ll admit that argument has some force to it.
"There was quite a lot of talk about the decline of the institution of marriage and what is behind it. Having looked at all of the polls, the one that I found that wasn’t sponsored by anybody that had an interest either way in this argument showed 51% in favour and 34% against. But it showed a very marked difference between people that were 18-24 as opposed to people that were older. In other words amongst very young people there was almost complete acceptance of this proposition and as people got older they became more skeptical and hostile to it. So I think that what we have seen is a zeitgeist where people’s attitude to this has changed. One of the things that I have done in Parliament is to sit on the Science and Technology Select Committee and we looked into the case of Alan Turing who is one of this country’s greatest war heroes who was chemically castrated because homosexuality was illegal at the time and committed suicide. Somebody who we should be feting as a national hero, who was responsible for Bletchley Park and the computers that allowed us to crack the Enigma code, was treated in a way that everyone today would say was barbaric. Attitudes have changed since then. One of the difficult things when attitudes change over a period of time is striking the right balance in law between younger generations who see no problem and reflecting the views of older people who feel that the pace of change is too quick and that we risk losing something. That’s a difficult balance to strike. But I also think that there are real issues as a Conservative that I am passionate about, about our welfare system and the decline of faith in our society that have led to the decline in the institution of marriage. Actually, often now our welfare system pays people more to be apart than it does to be together. That can’t be right or sensible in terms of public policy.
"Questions have been raised about where this has come from. Assertions that it wasn’t in the manifesto, questions about how the consultation has been managed and what will happen after. It was in the manifesto but as a sub-document but I agree it would have been better to put it in the main manifesto. David Cameron actually raised this personally in his first speech as Party Leader and received quite a lot of coverage at that time. The consultation document I think is very poorly worded. I think that Government should have asked much more clearly the question of principle. It never gives a good impression when politicians say we are consulting you but we have already made our minds up and this is about how we do it. It would have been much better for the Government to say this is what we think, this is what we are proposing we do, what do people think about it? That would leave a much better taste in people’s mouths if it had been done in that way.
"The point was raised about the titles that we refer to and whether we become ‘Partner A’ or ‘Partner B’ rather than ‘Husband’ or ‘Wife’. This is one of the trends in modern society that I’m most against – the political correctness about how we should address one another. When I was on the Council there was always this row about whether the person at the front was the Chair or Chairman or Chairwoman. I always had a very simple principle that I used to determine what I should call people: you should always address people by the title that they wished to be addressed by. That’s the respectful way to behave. To my mind if people wished to be called ‘Husband’ and ‘Wife’ then that’s what they should be called and if people prefer to use some neutral term that doesn’t signify that then I respect their wish and I use that title. I wish society were a bit more commonsense about those sorts of issues.
"The eighth point that was raised was that this isn’t a pressing issue. I completely agree. If you went out and polled 1,000 people and asked them to name their top five issues, I would guess that hardly anyone would put this in their top five, even those here tonight arguing in favour. On the other hand Parliament in the space of a year addresses about 25 things. It’s not like we can only do one thing at a time, we look at a whole range of different issues. So the test should be is this something that there is a case for doing or not?
"The point was made about the reasons why someone comes to this country, and the values of the country. This I think in many ways is the fundamental point. I think that people that do come here and choose to make this country their home come because of our underlying values. It seems to me on this issue that what we need to do to get this right is to strike the right balance between the rights of people of the same sex and also the rights of people of faith in this country. Whilst on this issue I veer towards the former, many of the points made about the way in which people of faith feel under attack and feel that they are not allowed to say what they think or believe, I have a lot of sympathy with that. We all have every right to have a faith, we have a right to believe it and say it publicly without fearing retribution for doing so. I don’t think anyone would take a different viewpoint on that.
"Lastly is the argument that I’m not a proper Conservative. I’ll quote something that David Cameron said in his conference speech: 'I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative, I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative'. There are two things that are fundamental to what I believe politically which make me veer towards supporting this. The first is that I am an absolutely passionate advocate and believer in the institution of marriage. I think it is a cornerstone of our society, both because it is the best environment to bring children up in but also because it builds strong relationships between adults who love each other. If you believe in those benefits and you see the manifest good that they do for couples of different sexes then why not allow couples of the same sex to have the same benefits? I’m also a Conservative because I believe in equality. I don’t believe it in the sense of quotas or political correctness that it’s come to be associated with. I believe in the fundamental sense that whereas a church has the right to set out its views and beliefs as set out in its articles of faith, which underpins who can get married in your church, the law of the country must treat every citizen of the country equally. It must not discriminate on any basis. That is why I, as a Conservative, lean towards supporting this with one important caveat. Something needs to be put into the law to address the concerns of people of faith. That it isn’t a slippery slope that will lead to a preacher being prosecuted for setting out what they believe.
"The message that I take home is that there are genuine, reasonable concerns that people have expressed and that the law needs to strike the right balance between recognising people that clearly want to have access to marriage whilst addressing some of the concerns that have been expressed.
"I’ll end by saying that it’s in the nature of my job that you can’t please everybody and ultimately people will disagree and you have to come down one way or another but I hope that at least after the meeting that participants feel that they’ve had the opportunity to be listened to and have their views treated with respect". Comment on this blog