Baroness Royall: I urge my noble friends to support equal marriage

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Labour’s Leader in the House of Lords, Baroness Royall, says she hopes the Upper House “will be convinced” to vote in favour of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples Bill) as part of its second reading.

A final vote by peers is expected at 6pm tomorrow, and a rally by supporters of the measure has been taking place outside Parliament.

Writing for, Baroness Thornton, Labour’s Shadow Equalities Minister in the Lords says she expects the bill will survive attempts to defeat it by opponents in the Upper House.

Here is the Shadow Leader in the House of Lords, Baroness Royall’s opening speech from Monday’s second reading debate.

My Lords, I am proud to open this second reading debate on behalf of the opposition benches. I know that a small minority of my noble friends are against the bill on same- sex marriages, and naturally I respect their views, but the majority on my benches – like the shadow cabinet, Labour’s National Policy Forum and the Labour Party Conference – warmly support both the bill and the debate which enables us to recognise and affirm the loving, lasting commitment of couples who love each other. Couples – who must include the Noble Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood – who with his wife is today celebrating their golden wedding, I am sure the whole House will join me in sending them our heartiest congratulations.

I pay tribute to my Rt Hon and Hon Friends and those of all parties in the other place who enabled the bill’s safe passage – many of whom showed considerable political courage. This is, I believe, a hugely important milestone in terms of equality, respect and dignity in our society which rightly values stable relationships within the framework of marriage.

I must also thank the Noble Baroness, Baroness Stowell of Beeston, for the excellent introduction to the bill but also for making herself available at all times to discuss concerns and answer questions. From experience I know that it is particularly challenging for a whip to take responsibility for a controversial piece of legislation, but she will do a terrific job.

In an ever changing world where turmoil and instability are too often the norm it is a cause for celebration when two people of either the same-sex of the opposite sex wish to commit their lives to each other through marriage. I am the product of a happy marriage and I had the good fortune to enjoy nearly 30 years of marriage. Our aim, like so many other couples, was to grow old together, to support each other in sickness and in health. We had our ups and downs but the fact that we were married increased our resolve to make our relationship work, and it was the framework within which we wanted to raise our children. Of course I have friends who are single who are great parents and friends who have lived together for many years who are wonderful parents – like my Noble Friend the Chief Whip although I am delighted to say that on Saturday he and his partner Jill are going to be married. I celebrate that and I would like to be able to celebrate the marriage of gay friends, with or without children.

Last week I thought a lot about marriage, not just about this bill, but because I was choosing a wedding dress with my daughter, Charlie, and we talked a lot about marriage which she described as an important ritual that would enable her to make a commitment to the man she loves in front of family, friends and our community. If Charlie wanted to marry Katherine instead of Kane would I feel any different? No I would not. And I want other parents to have the same joy as me in celebrating the marriage of their children whether they love people of the same-sex or the opposite sex.

Some people ask why this bill is necessary when we already have civil partnerships – often I have to say the same people who opposed partnerships when we introduced them in 2004. Civil partnerships were a fantastic step forward and continue to be a great source of joy and security. But some people wish to choose marriage. It has a special status in our society, historically and symbolically and represents a very particular value that the state has placed on the relationship.

I well understand that this bill has caused anguish for some people of faith who have concerns either because of the impact of the bill on their faith or on the grounds of faith. I respect all genuine concerns – although clearly not those which are rooted in homophobia – and I am sure that our consideration of this bill will be conducted with our usual tolerance, respecting our differences. I have to say, however, that I simply do not understand those who say that equal marriage can harm or undermine marriage between a man and a woman. Surely if we value and cherish marriage we would want all those who wish to be married to be able to do so, and we would welcome the fact that marriage would be strengthened by opening it up to more couples? Surely we should be encouraging our young people who see the love and strength their parents draw from their marriage to aspire to that same commitment, regardless of whether it is with another man or another woman?

There has been much discussion about whether or not there are sufficient protections for religious organisations. Just like equality, freedom or religion is central to a human rights based society which is why it is vital that the bill doesn’t impose an obligation on any faith group to conduct same-sex marriages. The Noble Baroness the Minister has spoken in detail about the quadruple lock and we are satisfied that the protections the government has put in place in this bill are sufficient to ensure that no faith group will be at risk of a human rights challenge for refusing to solemnise same-sex marriage.

This House will naturally carefully scrutinise the protections contained within the bill for religious freedom. I welcome that and I look forward to the contributions of the Noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and my Noble Friend, Baroness Kennedy who were crystal clear in their evidence to the Public Bill Committee.

I look forward to the contributions of the Rt Revd Prelates to this debate but I know that the Church of England has rightly been working closely with the government and I am pleased that there is agreement that the safeguarding of the position of canon law has been achieved and that the locks offer the necessary protection. I know that the bishops now warmly support civil partnerships and I have read of the Bishop of Salisbury’s endorsement of same-sex marriage; both matters to be celebrated. I have also had excellent discussions with some Rt Revd Prelates in which we agreed that whilst from their perspective the result of this bill would not lead to the sky falling in or family life falling apart, and from my perspective it would not be a panacea for relationships be they gay or straight.

Naturally I am glad that the government has listened to concerns of the Church of Wales which were raised by my colleagues in another place and which resulted in an amendment to ensure that the Lord Chancellor would have no power of veto of the Church’s decision, should they in future wish to provide for same-sex marriages.

The position of the Quakers, Unitarians and Reform Judaism is absolutely clear and I delighted that this bill will enable them to ‘opt-in’ to performing same-sex marriage according to their religious rites.

Last week, whilst thinking about this second reading, I happened to watch “The Times of Harvey Milk”. I wept at what one might call a chilling reminder of the pain and suffering that gays and lesbian endured a few short years ago, their lives blighted by society’s attitude towards their sexuality. That was 1970s America but in this country people were locked up or punished for loving someone of the same-sex in the 1960s. Mrs Thatcher’s government introduced Section 28 in 1988 and it was not repealed until the Labour government came to power which had a proud record in making progress against discrimination and in favour of equality. As well as civil partnerships we 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 work place and in goods and services; and so much more, most controversial at the time but which now have widespread support.

We’ve come a long way, but there still needs to be some cultural shift. This bill is not only hugely important for same-sex couples who wish to marry and for transgender people who are in a marriage, it can play a critical role in driving attitudinal change. As Noble Lords will be aware, 20,000 homophobic crimes are still committed in this country every year and many children suffer homophobic bullying – not just children who may be growing up to be gay but also those with lesbian or gay parents. Ninety five percent of secondary school teachers have reported hearing anti-gay language in their school. The same-sex marriage bill will be a key tool in tackling these attitudes – not just ensuring legal equality in the eyes of the state but encouraging society to celebrate the identity, the relationships, the commitment and the love that lesbian and gay people share.

There are some outstanding issues in relation to issues raised in the other place and not yet resolved within the bill.

Firstly pension rights, which are the subject of considerable debate. Currently the bill provides for less generous pension rights for same-sex married couples than those of opposite sexes, in respect of survivor benefits. In the Commons we called on the government to come forward with an immediate review into the implications of equalising pension rights and will be urging the government to do this during the course of the bill.

Secondly, humanist marriages. Our frontbench supported amendments to allow couples to have humanist marriages in England and Wales, as almost 3000 choose to already do in Scotland. At report stage in the other place the Attorney General raised new concerns about the amendments compatibility with the Human Rights Act, however we hope to try and resolve these issues at Committee stage in this House.

Thirdly, transgender issues. The bill will enable individuals to change their legal gender without having to end their marriage – righting a big injustice in our society. We welcome the amendments brought forward by the government at report stage in another place to protect pension rights for spouses who change their legal gender as a result of this bill, as a result of issues raised by my colleagues and others during Public Bill Committee. However we will be looking carefully at further amendments that may be brought forward in relation to transgender marital issues.

With regard to heterosexual civil partnerships, a matter of much debate in the Commons, we are pleased that the government has now committed to an immediate review into the introduction of heterosexual civil partnerships.

There were long debates on the issues of teachers and registrars. Our views on this are clear but it is, of course, right that these issues of great importance should be debated fully in your Lordships House.

I am grateful to the government for giving extra time for this second reading debate and for ensuring that the vote will take place at a proper time. I know that there will be some in this House who vote in favour of the amendment tabled by the Noble Lord, Lord Dear, and against the bill. I would respectfully say to the Noble Lord that proposals to fragment our National Health Service did not appear in any party manifestos nor in the Coalition Agreement.

However, I trust that following the detailed and careful scrutiny that this House will give, Noble Lords will be convinced both by the safeguards in terms of religious faith and by the arguments in terms of removing discrimination and extending the dignity and joy of marriage to same-sex couples. I firmly believe that our society will be strengthened when more couples are able to choose to make a life time commitment to each other and when all members of our communities are able to celebrate their identity and relationships within the institution of marriage.