Steering a safe passage

Glenys ThorntonGlenys Thornton on the importance for Labour Peers of ensuring the Same Sex Marriage Bill becomes law

Last month, the House of Commons supported the ‘Marriage (Same Sex Couples)’ Bill (as it’s formally known) by an overwhelming majority – 366 to 161 – at its Third Reading. Yes, there were some regretful comments bordering on the homophobic. But there were also some moving and dignified speeches made by MPs of all persuasions. Yvette Cooper, speaking on behalf of Labour’s frontbench got it right when she said that we’re on the right side of history: “Let us be loud and proud. Let us start the singing. Let us celebrate, not discriminate. Let us pass this Bill. Let us put aside the anger, and let us hear it for the joy”.

Between 1997 and 2010, the last government brought forward 13 important steps towards full legal equality for Britain’s 3.7 million lesbian, gay and bisexual people. This bill, bringing marriage equality, is the final, perhaps, modest step that will complete the legislative jigsaw. It is in many ways a very personal piece of legislation, which prompts strong emotional views. Rarely as parliamentarians do we have the opportunity to reaffirm the equal respect we have for our fellow citizens regardless of their sexuality, and for their long term and loving relationships.

Next week the bill starts properly in the Lords, with a Second Reading that now has 90 Peers wishing to participate in the debate. Opponents of the bill have taken the rare step of tabling a motion to kill it off before the proposals can progress any further and so it is with some relief that the government has finally agreed to carry the debate into the following day rather than face an uncertain vote in the early hours. 

There will be strong objections, but I am sure Peers will show respect for each other’s views. Some are concerned about the impact of the bill on their faith. It is important to respect freedom of religion, and the bill does exactly that. No religious organisation or priest should be legally bound to conduct same-sex marriages and there are multiple locks in the bill to prevent that from happening. The Church of England has acknowledged these protections. 

The bill however, allows people of faith who want to conduct same sex marriage ceremonies – the Quakers, Unitarians and Reform Judaism – to be able to do so. It is important that they should not have to deal with inappropriate intervention or obstruction from others, and many gay and lesbian people of these faiths wish to engage in such ceremonies. 

Some people of course believe same sex marriage undermines heterosexual marriage. I am deeply puzzled by this view and can’t understand how this bill undermines my marriage, any marriage or the institution of marriage between a man and woman. Surely if we value and cherish marriage we would want all who wish to be married to be able to do so?

These are the debates we are about to have in the Lords during June and July. Labour’s frontbench will be supporting the Minister, Baroness Tina Stowell in her job to steer the bill forward. We will be working with peers from all parties and none who wish to see it on to the statute book. While we will respect the views of those who oppose the bill, we hope also to persuade some to change their minds. And given the problems David Cameron has had with some of his MPs and Peers, it will be important for Labour Lords to work hard to ensure the bill gets a safe passage into law.

Baroness Glenys Thornton is Labour’s Shadow Equalities Minister in the Lords

Published 1st June 2013

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