Lord (Norman) Fowler, the former Conservative Health Secretary has told fellow peers that they should support equal marriage because: “Parliament should value people equally in the law, and that enabling same-sex couples to marry removes the current inequity.”

Baron Fowler, of Sutton Coldfield, as Health Secretary, was responsible for alerting then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to the dangers of HIV and AIDS and implemented the first Government campaigns to fight the transmission of HIV.

Speaking yesterday, Lord Fowler reflected on his experiences at visiting HIV and AIDS programmes in the Ukraine and Russia and his shock at the “widespread intolerance and prejudice towards gay and lesbian people.”

Lord Fowler also argued that as the democratically elected House of Commons has already voted in favour the bill in a free vote, the unelected House of Lords should not prevent the bill from being passed into law.

In his speech, Lord Fowlwer said:-

“There have been calls that it [Marriage (same sex couples) Bill] should be put off or withdrawn. Frankly, some of the coverage is a misreading of what has taken place, because in truth the decision to carry it over to this Session was taken in February in the Commons with a majority of 464 votes to 38. That, I imagine, is exactly what the Government intend to do.

“Let me suggest in principle why it would be quite wrong for this Bill to be put off or withdrawn. I entirely respect the deeply held religious views of those who are opposed. I underline that. I do not want to set out cases as if this is a Second Reading debate. That is to come. Suffice it to say at this stage that my personal view is that Parliament should value people equally in the law, and that enabling same-sex couples to marry removes the current inequity. A legal partnership is not seen in the same way and does not have the same promises of responsibility and commitment as marriage. There are many same-sex couples, including those working in the churches, who view marriage as fundamentally important and want to enter into that life-long commitment. It is therefore Parliament’s duty to enable that to happen, and in so doing strengthen the society in which we live today.

“However, the fundamental point that I want to make is not that. I want to see this country setting an example of equality of treatment in a world where discrimination, prejudice and stigma are rife and are quite probably increasing. Let me explain in a few words why I feel strongly about this. Over the past months I have visited a range of cities and countries around the world looking at the HIV/AIDS position.

“Whether I have been in Ukraine or Uganda, what has shocked me most—perhaps even more than the deaths, which at least I was expecting—has been the widespread intolerance and prejudice towards gay and lesbian people.
An opinion poll in this country suggested that many Christians in Britain believed that they were a persecuted minority. I can only say that if anyone wants to see a persecuted minority they should look at the plight of gay, lesbian and transgender people around the world. As you travel you go to countries where homosexuality is a criminal offence and where people who are suspected of being homosexual are persecuted and even forced to leave their family homes. In one country a newspaper was dedicated to exposing homosexuals—to identifying them, photographing them and publishing their addresses—so that the local population could take action against them. In one case, this led to a murder.

“You can go to countries where the most popular political cause is to toughen up the laws against homosexuality rather than to modify them. Action of that kind has been taken in Russia, while in Kampala a Private Member’s Bill promised capital punishment—now generously reduced to long imprisonment—for aggravated homosexuality and a penalty of imprisonment for those who suspected that someone was homosexual but failed to report it. You may feel that that kind of Bill would be thrown out. Not at all; the common view is that it will be passed.

“I do not think that one Act passed by this Parliament or one action will suddenly bring the walls of discrimination crashing down. There are certainly actions that will help—not least, if I may say so to the Bishops’ Bench, ensuring that the churches in sub-Saharan Africa, including the Anglican Church, take a stand against what is happening there.

“In some parts of the world what Parliament does may have some persuasive influence—probably not in Russia and Ukraine but quite possibly in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. It can have influence for this reason: the criminal laws against homosexuality were introduced into those African countries by British Governments in the days of the Empire. We were the authors; we set out what the standards should be. It remains the case that 42 out of 54 Commonwealth countries criminalise same-sex relations. We should remember that it was as late as 1967 when the law here was changed. Until then people could be imprisoned.

“Even here, not all the antipathy to gays has been removed—not by a long chalk—but unquestionably the law has played its part in improving the position. The Bill, which will be debated later, is not only right but could have an important persuasive effect both in this country and abroad, and will set out our belief in equal and fair treatment.

“As for the later debate, we should also remember, just as we remembered on the position of the press, that the Bill for equal marriage was passed overwhelmingly in the other place on a free vote, by 400 votes to 175: a majority of over two to one.”

Fellow Conservative Lord Cormack interrupted Lord Fowler and asked:”Should we not also remember that it featured in no manifesto?”

Lord Fowler continued:-

“If my noble friend does not mind my saying so, I think that is a trivial argument. We all know—and he knows, because he has been in Parliament for exactly the same length of time as I have—that a whole range of things have been produced and passed that were not in party manifestos. I abolished the dock labour scheme, which I imagine my noble friend enthusiastically voted for and which was not in the party manifesto, and I can think of a whole of range of other things. That argument does not stand up. Let us debate on the issue, not on side points.

“Of course, this House and my noble friend are entitled to suggest and propose amendments, but perhaps I may also suggest that that is going to the limit of our power. We are not entitled to defeat the will of the Commons on an issue of this kind: one that was decided, I repeat, on a free vote. It may be an unfashionable thing to say today, but the most important people in this country are not the bankers, self-interested columnists or special advisers who now appear to haunt the whole of Whitehall; they are the Members of Parliament. They are the only ones elected to Westminster. They take their authority from their elected position and they lose it when they leave. They have been elected by the people and they are answerable to the people. In my view, on both these issues—the protection of the public from a press abusing its power and the introduction of equal marriage—Members of Parliament have got it absolutely right.”