Former Health Secretary Lord Fowler says it would be “politically suicidal” for the House of Lords to vote against the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill – with the House of Commons voting overwhelmingly in favour of the bill at third reading last month. 

The second reading of the bill in the Lords is currently taking place and a final vote by peers is scheduled for Tuesday evening.

Lord Fowler, Secretary of State for Health in the Thatcher government until 1987, was among three former Tory health secretaries to sign an open letter in support of equal marriage, published today in the Times newspaper.

Speaking in this afternoon’s debate, Lord Fowler criticised crossbench peer Lord Dear for attempting to scupper the bill with his tabled ‘fatal’ amendment.

Here is Lord Fowler’s speech in full:

My Lords, I will be brief. First, I congratulate the most reverend Primate on his speech. It was, as we might have guessed, impressive, well argued and, above all, compassionate. I thank him for that, but fear that I disagree with his conclusion.

Before I get to that, perhaps I could deal first with the amendment of the Noble Lord, Lord Dear. I have a deep respect for this House. I do not share the dismissive and, frankly, offensive views of the Noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, on the Today programme, which was the first interview I heard on flying in from Washington just in time for this debate. I accept and recognise that this is an appointed House, and it is an enormous privilege to be appointed to it. However, with that privilege come limitations on what we can do. Of course we can question legislation and seek to improve it. However, in my view, we cannot defeat at second reading the declared will of the House of Commons when, on a free vote, it has voted by over two to one to pass this legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord Dear, expressed doubts about the voting. I was in the Commons for 31 years and the allegations he repeated sound very much like the consistent complaint made by those who have been defeated in a free vote. No party and no set of whips would respect someone who could be persuaded by pressure to change his view on a free vote. That part of the Noble Lord’s speech is frankly nonsense. I believe MPs have the authority that comes from their election and which they retain as long as they are MPs. Much is said about public opinion, and we have heard it already, but we should recognise that they and they alone are answerable to the public on this issue and not us in this House. We cannot take over that role; that is not our position. I thought that this was exactly the case some of us were putting a few months ago to avoid the prospect of two elected Houses standing side by side.

We would be profoundly wrong, if not politically suicidal, to vote against a second Reading. However, I do not argue the case purely on those grounds – I also strongly believe in the bill itself. Parliament should value people equally in the law and enabling same-sex marriage removes a current inequity. I believe that there are many gay and lesbian couples who want more than civil partnership, although it is something of a wonder to me to see how civil partnerships have suddenly become so popular among those I do not remember supporting them up until now. We should recognise that there are many deeply religious gay and lesbian couples, including people in the church, who want the commitment that marriage offers. This bill, rather than weakening the institution of marriage, strengthens it, and our purpose as a Parliament should be to encourage the stability it can bring.

Just before I left Washington I had a meeting with a senior doctor who happens to be gay. Washington DC already has a law enabling equal marriage, as do other American states and they appear to have managed perfectly well. As it happens, he had not pushed for the change but he said that, quite apart from the rights of the individual, it sent out a much wider message for gays and lesbians that, in his words: “We are like everyone else”. That was the point and the message that was being put out. An obvious fact, you might say, but one that is denied by many countries around the world. It is denied by their governments and their people and sometimes, I regret to say, by their churches. Over the past few months I have travelled to some of those countries and have seen the prejudice. I acknowledge freely the profound impact that that has had on me, which very much affects my attitude this afternoon.

I say to the Noble Lord, Lord Dear, that this is my argument regarding the foreign experience and not the travesty of it which he sought to set out. I have seen equality fiercely denied in eastern Europe; in a country such as Ukraine, which he mentioned, too often politicians show their contempt for gay people and violence against them is the result. I have particularly seen equality denied in countries in sub-Saharan Africa such as Uganda. For several years there was a popular paper there whose sole purpose was to expose gay people, photograph them, give their addresses and invite the violence against them that followed. Homosexuality is a criminal offence there and of course the British first made it one, as we have in other African countries.

I am not optimistic enough to believe that our decision here tomorrow will break down the persecution, hostility and discrimination. However, it will show decisively how this country has changed, and the value we place on gay and lesbian people in our society. I believe that it will show support for the persecuted minorities around the world – and make no mistake, they exist. At home, I believe it will show the gay and lesbian community our belief in equality – I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Dear, was a little complacent about the position on that – and, above all, their right to expect what we all expect; nothing more, but certainly nothing less. For some of us, that is a fundamental moral issue.