Speaking at the debate around the Marriage (same sex couples) Bill in the House of Commons today, the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Simon Hughes called for the government to “proceed slowly” with the bill to attain the “maximum consensus.”
Mr Hughes expanded on what he said on This Morning, today, that he planned to vote against the timetabling motion for the bill, because he thought the timetable was “rushed”.
He said that he thought that it could be made clearer for those concerned with protecting “traditional marriage”, that religious freedom will remain intact, and said that
“I come to this debate as the person I am, with the complexities I have, as an evangelical Protestant by faith and a liberal since my teens. So these aren’t easy issues for me, and they are not easy for many people here. I hope we are all understanding of the difficulty that colleagues have, and the difficulty that some of our constituents have in understanding the other side of the argument.”
Citing the fact that equal marriage was not on the parties manifestos, he said: “I have asked the secretary of state, and I call again today for the government and Parliament to proceed very slowly and carefully and seek maximum consensus.
“Heavy programming and tight timetables are going to be the enemy of good legislation, and I hope the government will be sensitive to that.”
When asked to clarify whether he would vote for or against the bill, and the timetabling motion for it, he said: “I will be voting against the timetable motion for just that reason. I shall support the bill, because I think it was Edgar in King Lear who said ‘stand up for bastards’. I think we need to stand up for gay people and their civil rights, but I believe that we must seek to get maximum consensus and therefore a program motion that restricts that would not be the right way forward.”
When asked if he would like to apologise to Peter Tatchell for his campaign in the Bermondsey by-election in 1983, a campaign which was branded homophobic, he said he already had “both publicly and privately”.
“Other countries do these things more easily than we do. In other countries you have a civil ceremony and then you have a faith ceremony. It would have been much better that we started in that way, but it is too late to do that now, not least given the position of the established church. So what I hope that we’ll do is give a second reading to the bill today but then work on the areas that in my view, are not yet in a fit state yet to be finalised as legislation.
Criticising the wording of the legislation, he said: “I think the bill ought to be more clear that we are not seeking to redefine the traditional marriage as previously understood in custom and law, and that would be helpful both to the church communities and to others.
“I have spoken to many both in the churches, and elsewhere, and I believe there is a constructive will to try to improve the bill, even from people at the end who might not support it.
“I imagine there will be a majority for second reading tonight, but one of the things we have to do is disabuse people who think there will be a prohibition on the way people can speak about these things, prohibition on the way people can preach about these things, prohibition about what happens in schools.”
He said: “I supported civil partnerships. I think the church was wrong to oppose civil partnership at the time, and I hope the church and other faith groups now understands that actually they’d do themselves a service that if they had a service of blessings for people in civil partnerships.
“I don’t think it would be good just to have an easy transfer from civil partnership to civil marriage which is what the bill proposes. I think that if we are having civil marriage, there ought to be for everyone
“I don’t understand why the government is not taking the opportunity to provide that civil partnerships should be available for conventional male-female relationships as well as for gay people as well.
He said that he had proposed, and that he hoped there would be changes to the bill before report stage.
Concluding, Mr Hughes referred to the film Lincoln, about Abraham Lincoln, and drew comparisons between the abolition of slavery in US, and equal marriage. Admitting that the battle was not the same, he simply said that “things move on”.
“We have to learn that understanding each others position, and seeking the maximum consensus is the best way to proceed,” he said.
Allowing equal marriage was a Liberal Democrat party policy, and in an exclusive interview with PinkNews.co.uk in December, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg signalled that his MPs would be given a conscience vote by saying: “I’m not going to be illiberal in pushing through a liberal measure”.