Tory Baroness Stowell opens equal marriage debate with a joke about her love of George Clooney

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Baroness Stowell of Beeston, the Conservative peer with responsibility to take the same-sex marriage bill through the House of Lords opened the debate on equality with a passionate speech that included a joke about wanting George Clooney to propose to her.

My Lords, it is a huge privilege to be leading on this important Bill, which will make marriage of same-sex couples lawful in England and Wales. I will go into detail shortly, but I want to be clear from the outset that this Bill is not just about allowing same-sex couples to marry; it is also about protecting and promoting religious freedom. It is not often that we get to debate and decide legislation that affects people’s lives so directly. This Bill addresses things that matter to all of us: our personal freedoms, our faith in what we believe, and the acceptance of who we are and who we love. Perhaps I should declare from the outset that I am not married, and as long as George Clooney is still available I am prepared to wait. But even though I am single—and I of all people understand that not everyone wants to get married—I believe in the institution of marriage.

Like many other people, whether married or not, I believe marriage to be one of the fundamental building blocks of a strong society because of the stability, continuity and security that it promotes. I admire couples who make the big decision to marry. Marriage remains, as it has for centuries, the way in which most people choose to declare their commitment publicly and permanently to the person they love. When we hear two people exchange their marriage vows, whether in a place of worship or at a registry office, we know that we are witnessing a couple commit to the kind of values that we associate with the special enterprise of shared endeavour—loyalty, trust, honesty and forgiveness. We know that through marriage existing families are extended, as is their commitment and support to new family members. We think that is a good thing, and any of us can choose to do this—unless, of course, we happen to love someone of the same sex. This Government think that is wrong, and we want to put it right. So much do we believe in marriage and its importance to our society, we want all couples, whether gay or straight, who are prepared to affirm publicly their commitment to each other and all the responsibility and joy that comes with it, to be free to marry.

Some people argue that civil partnerships have provided same-sex couples with equality already, and allowing them to marry is not needed. They are right that civil partnerships provided equivalent legal rights. Indeed, the progress made by the last Labour Government in advancing gay rights was massive, and I salute them for all that they achieved. I am grateful to the Labour Front Bench for supporting this Bill. But in 2004, Parliament did not provide same-sex couples with the equal opportunity to marriage itself; back then, we could not conceive that society would allow it. So instead a separate legal regime was established just for same sex-couples. Marriage, the exchange of vows, and all that that means, remained available only to men and women prepared to make that commitment to each other. Less than 10 years on, independent polling, all of which is included in the House of Commons Library research paper on the Bill, shows that the majority of people in this country are now ready to open up marriage to everyone. Indeed, support is growing all the time, and we are not alone; change is happening around the world.

As to my own party’s position, in 2006, at the first Conservative Party conference after he became leader, David Cameron voiced his support for marriage and equated the commitment of same-sex couples with that of opposite-sex couples. In 2010, the Conservative Party made it clear that it would consider the case for equal marriage in its document A Contract for Equalities, which was published alongside the election manifesto. In 2011, David Cameron said, to wide applause at the Conservative Party conference, that he supported same-sex marriage because he is a Conservative. This coalition Government think that now is the right time to make this change.

The Government have decided to take this step to allow same-sex couples to marry because we believe that doing so really matters. Gay and lesbian couples being allowed to marry—to join the institution that they, too, recognise as important—matters because it marks the final acceptance of who they are. Allowing same-sex couples to marry and not separating them out from the rest of society matters to families. For parents especially, it means peace of mind. A gay son or daughter will be able to aspire to the same things as their straight brother or sister and be recognised and respected equally.

Allowing same-sex couples to marry also matters to all of us who believe in the institution of marriage. Marriage, this vital element of our social fabric, stands a much safer chance of remaining important to future generations if we make sure that it reflects modern society. We believe that marriage will become nothing but stronger if we open the doors to couples who are currently excluded only because they happen to love someone of the same sex.

The Bill provides a new freedom for same-sex couples to marry, but theirs is not the only freedom that concerns us. The Bill also protects and promotes religious freedom. That is why, as well as allowing same-sex couples to marry in civil ceremonies—in register offices and approved premises such as hotels—the Bill takes an entirely permissive approach to religious marriage ceremonies. It will be for religious organisations to decide for themselves whether they wish to marry same-sex couples according to their rites. Some have already said that they will; these include the liberal Jews, the Quakers and the Unitarians. In this way, the religious freedom of these organisations and perhaps others in the future is promoted by this Bill. Equally, no religious organisation or individual can be forced to conduct or participate in a religious marriage ceremony of a same-sex couple. The religious freedom of those organisations and individuals is protected. The Government’s public consultation in 2012, which prompted nearly 230,000 responses and became the largest of its kind ever, was important in informing our approach. Since we published our proposals in December last year, we have discussed this permissive approach with a wide range of religious organisations, and I am pleased to report that they are generally content with the protection provided in the Bill.

The Bill has been carefully crafted to contain each element of the quadruple lock which the Government committed to last December and which I outlined to this House when I repeated the Statement by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State at the time. Because it is so important, I will explain the quadruple lock again. First, it ensures that the Bill states explicitly that no religious organisation or individual minister can be compelled to marry same-sex couples or to permit such a marriage to take place on their premises; it provides an opt-in system for religious organisations which wish to conduct marriages for same-sex couples; it amends the Equality Act 2010 so that it is not unlawful discrimination for a religious organisation or individual minister to refuse to marry a same-sex couple; it ensures that the duty on the clergy of the Church of England and the Church in Wales to marry parishioners will not extend to same-sex couples, and that Anglican canon law, which says that marriage is a union for life of one man with one woman, is unaffected.

I turn now to other rights that we all have and will continue to have because they are not affected by the Bill, most specifically the right to freedom of expression. Some people are concerned that the Bill will impact on freedom of speech, that people such as teachers—or, indeed, anyone while at work—will not be able to criticise same-sex marriage. I can reassure the House that this Bill does not in any way affect the perfectly legitimate expression of the perfectly legitimate belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. Teachers will be expected to teach the factual and legal position when teaching about marriage, as with any area of the curriculum, but they will not be expected to promote or endorse views that go against their own beliefs. It will be unlawful to dismiss a teacher purely for doing so.

That said, and as noble Lords would expect, the expression of personal beliefs should be done in a professional way and not in a way that would be inappropriate or insensitive to pupils, some of whom may be gay, transgender or the children of a same-sex couple. We are clear that the existing protections for teachers are sound. However, we are, of course, aware that these concerns exist. As the Minister for Sport and Tourism explained in the other place, we are continuing to discuss those concerns further with religious groups to ensure that we have done all we can to put the position beyond doubt. The same is true for employees generally and what they say about same-sex marriage, whether at work or not.

Freedom to express beliefs about marriage is not affected by this Bill. Discriminating against someone because they believe, or express the view, that marriage should be between a man and a woman only is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights also guarantees the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. At the same time, I must make it equally clear that it is not acceptable for an employee to act in an offensive or discriminatory way because of someone’s sexual orientation. It is wholly wrong to persecute someone for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. It is not wrong for someone to say that they do not believe in same-sex marriage. Some people have also expressed concerns that the religious protections in the Bill could be successfully challenged, whether before domestic courts or the European Court of Human Rights. We are confident that the protections are robust and effective, but rather than my talking about this in detail now, other noble Lords far more expert than I in these legal matters will no doubt wish to offer their views during the debate.

I turn to other aspects of the Bill and to some of the changes already made during its passage in response to our engagement with religious organisations and others. Part 1 allows same-sex couples to marry and provides the religious freedoms and protections I have already mentioned. Part 2 enables an individual to change their legal gender without having to end their marriage. Part 2 also contains an important new clause—Clause 14—added during Commons Report stage by a government amendment. This requires the Secretary of State to arrange for a review of the options and future of civil partnerships in England and Wales. With the Government’s agreement, this clause was amended to require that the review will begin as soon as practicable and will include a full public consultation. I am pleased to tell the House that the Government are already preparing for this review and will publish its terms of reference before Committee.

Other changes made by the Government in response to issues raised include fine-tuning the religious protections in specific areas, such as to protect the position of chaplains employed by secular organisations and the Church of England’s ecclesiastical law. We have clarified the arrangements concerning Scotland and Northern Ireland and made changes to improve fairness—for example, in relation to pension rights where a married partner has changed legal gender. Even though the Government have already made changes to the Bill, we continue to listen to concerns and are, of course, willing to consider further changes if necessary to make the protections clearer. Indeed, I should say that I, along with my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness, my noble friend Lady Northover and the Bill team officials, with all of whom I have the pleasure of working, will be glad to listen to the concerns of Peers and others with an interest in the Bill.

I speak in support of same-sex couples who want the opportunity to marry because, very simply, this Government consider their love and commitment to be no different from that of opposite-sex couples. We believe that same-sex couples should be able to marry if they want to, and that extending that choice is the right thing to do for them and for the future of marriage. If we want future generations to support marriage, we need the institution to reflect our modern inclusive society. I know that many noble Lords will also speak in support of the Bill today and I am grateful to them, but I also respect those who disagree with me. I understand that many who do not support same-sex marriage do so on the grounds of religious principle. To them, I would point to the religious freedoms which the Bill protects and promotes and say this: no religion or faith will be required to change its doctrines or practices because of the Bill if it chooses not to.

I also understand that some noble Lords are unsure whether to support this measure for a range of reasons personal to them. We all have the right to move at different paces when faced with change, but to those who feel unsure let me say this: same-sex marriage is new and different from what we have known up to now and I am not trying to say it is not. However, this change—allowing same-sex couples to marry—will not affect the nature or quality of existing marriages or new marriages between men and women. The Bill simply extends the opportunity for that same quality to be shared by all couples who honour the institution and desire it for themselves.

The Bill is a force for good and I commend it to the House. I beg to move.