MPs completed the report stage and third reading of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill in the at 7:00pm on Tuesday 21 May 2013, voting 366 to 161 in favour, and it now moves to the House of Lords. Despite its lengthy consideration by the Public Bill Committee, no changes were made to the Bill as introduced and the during the report stage a number of amendments that had been put forward subsequently were debated.
In contrast to a former Prime Minister of whom it was said that “he does not do God”, this blog “does not do politics” (or at least tries not to), but in this case the parliamentary debate must be set against the background of the impact of: UKIP successes in the local elections; issues raised by the hastily-produced draft European Union (Referendum) Bill and James Wharton’s Private Member’s Bill; and what insults may, or may not, have been levelled at the Conservative Party faithful.
The events over the two days of debate prove a fortiori the extent to which the outcome of a parliamentary debate on issues such as this may be influenced by circumstances external to the underlying religious and legal agreements, such as the political and financial consequences of some of the proposed amendments.
Commons debate, 21st May
The Hansard report of the debate on each day is to be found here and here, and whilst in terms of the further progress of the Bill it is not necessary to explore beyond the substantial majority that was achieved, it is useful to identify some of the more important changes that were (and were not) made, and why:
- New Clause 1 (Education Act 1996), which would have provided that schools should not have to teach marriage in a way “contrary to the designated religious character of the school”, was withdrawn since the government indicated that it will reconsider its guidance on this.
- New Clause 3 (Conscientious objection), providing registrars with the option of refusing to conduct a same-sex marriage on the grounds of “conscientious objection”, was put to the vote and lost by 150 votes to 340.
- New Clause 6 (Beliefs about marriage), that marriage is between a man and a woman should be a “protected characteristic of religion” under the Equality Act 2010, was defeated by 339 votes to 148 votes.
- New Clause 8 (Domestic protection for persons), aimed at strengthening the section in the Bill saying that people cannot be penalised for not conducting a gay marriage, was lost by 321 votes to 163 votes.
- New Clause 10 (Part 1 of the Civil Partnership Act 2004), which would have extended civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. This amendment by Tim Loughton was regarded by some as a “wrecking amendment”, for while many supported such a change in principle, MPs from all parties warned that it could delay the introduction of equal marriage.
This amendment in New Clause 10 was critical as it could have derailed the Bill, and given this possibility, Labour changed the advice to its MPs (technically it was a free vote) from abstaining, to voting against. As a quid pro quo, the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller said that the review that she promised into civil partnerships would start immediately.
The Miller amendment, New Clause 16, was passed by 391 to 57, and the Labour amendment passed by without division. The House then voted on New Clause 10, which was defeated by 375 votes to 70.
Commons Debate, 22nd May
- New Clause 15 (Marriages according to usages of approved organisations), which was direct at the inclusion of humanists as an “approved organisation”. The Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve, advised that
“[he had] absolutely no doubt that the new clause, if passed, would render the Bill incompatible with the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights, because it identifies a group that is not a religious group and gives it a special status. The first thing that would happen is that all sorts of other secular groups would claim non-discrimination rights under article 14. I[He realized] that that may be capable of being cured, but I can only say to the hon. Lady that the new clause would make it impossible for the Minister to sign a certificate under section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998, enabling the Bill to proceed to the other place”, [Emphasis added].
Several members of the House were not persuaded by this argument, to which Sir Tony Baldry helpfully added:
“In Scotland, there is celebrant-based marriage, whereas the protections in marriage in England are based on buildings. If new clause 15 is passed, it will in effect unpick all the protections in the Bill that relate to the locks and to the protections for other faith groups.
The Speaker acknowledged earlier that he was an anorak. There are degrees of anorakism in the House, and I too am a bit of an anorak, in the sense that I believe that if public Bills that will make substantial changes to public law are to be introduced, there should be proper consultation. As the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) honestly and properly acknowledged, there has been no consultation with faith groups on the proposed provisions, which would completely unpick the protections in the Bill that Parliament has sought to give to faith groups.”
After further lengthy debate, the Clause was, by leave, withdrawn.
Andrew Sparrow of The Guardian notes
“The next big threat will be in the Lords, where many peers are opposed to the legislation. But the Commons passed the bill at second reading with a majority of 225 and … Loughton’s amendment was defeated by a majority of 305. The size of these majorities makes it hard to see how the Lords can block the bill.”
It has also been reported that
“Peers said there appeared to be a comfortable majority in the Lords for the Bill, but opponents made clear that they would try to mount a protracted effort to derail it. Opposition will be led by Lord Dear, a crossbencher and former chief constable of West Midlands Police, who may break with Lords convention by urging peers to oppose the Bill’s second reading despite overwhelming support for it in the Commons.
He said that he might table a “fatal motion” that would seek to kill off the Bill amid “considerable concern” among peers. Some were uneasy about the hasty way it was ushered through the Commons, he said, while others objected to the concept of gay marriage altogether. “I’ve seen enough of this Government launching ideas and then doing U-turns because they haven’t been thought through,” he said. “This is probably the prime example. There’s an argument to say: call it off now, send it back and do it properly.”
Clearly a case of “watch this space” after their Lordships return from the Whitsun recess on 3rd June.