Adam Duce reports on the House of Commons Same Sex Couples Bill, and the justifications of the Conservative MPs who voted against marriage equality.
On Tuesday 5th February at 7pm, MPs voted in the House of Commons with their free vote on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill which would allow same sex couples to marry, as opposed to the current system whereby their relationship can only be formalised through a civil partnership.
The results were conclusive with 400 MPs voting in favour of the bill and 175 MPs voting against; a majority of 225. But what are the effects of the passing of the bill at the second reading stage? Why is it that if we do indeed live in a ‘free and equal’ society that there are 175 MPs who don’t believe same sex couples have the right to marry?
The results were not as gloomy as predicted in regards to the Tory vote with 136 Conservative MPs voting against the bill, when an estimated 150-180 MPs were expected to do so. However, these MPs continue to voice their concerns which Yvette Cooper, Shadow Women and Equalities Minister, grouped into four main arguments and dismissed in turn.
These four arguments that led the majority of Tory MPs to vote against the bill included the fear that churches would be forced to conduct same sex marriages against their will. Women and Equalities Minister Maria Miller explained that this would not be the case, and that safeguards would be in place to protect religious freedoms, “equal marriage should not come at the cost of freedom of faith – nor freedom of faith come at the cost of equal marriage”.
The second argument against the passing of the bill which Yvette Cooper highlighted was the convention of marriage being purely between a man and a woman. Arguments were raised in the House concerning how marriage has changed over recent decades. Women are no longer the ‘property’ of men; rape in marriage was finally recognised as a criminal offence in the 1990s and civil marriage has existed now for over 175 years.
Yvette Cooper admitted it was quite a ‘radical step’, but the institution of marriage has not been a purely religious one for quite some time now, therefore this bill poses much less of a threat.
Disgust in the House ensued when Sir Roger Gale, Thanet North Conservative MP, equated the idea of same sex marriage with incest: “If the Government is serious about this, abolish civil partnership, abolish marriage and bring in a new Bill bringing partnerships across society. If this was done, then marriage between everyone in society should be equal – even between brother and sister, or brother and brother”.
Yvette Cooper countered the third argument against the passing of the bill which was in regard to marriage being about procreation by explaining to the House that some heterosexual couples were not able to procreate. Should we therefore deny them marriage as well? She also highlighted the problems that certain married couples face in terms of disability, ill-health and old-age which have prevented them from having children and indeed those married couples who simply do not wish to have children. Her conclusion was that putting forward the argument that marriage is for procreation alienates a lot of couples who are already married, and isn’t an issue which is focussed entirely on same-sex relationships.
The final argument raised against the bill was that by allowing same-sex marriage to take place this would weaken and undermine the concept of heterosexual marriage, and also society as a whole. In terms of same-sex marriage undermining the concept of heterosexual marriage, one Labour MP highlighted his concerns explaining that countries in which same sex marriage had been introduced have seen a drop in the number of heterosexual marriages that take place.
Yvette Cooper dismissed this saying that international figures generally have seen a slight reduction in marriages in recent years and that there was no correlation between the two.
Conservative MP, Brian Binley, expressed his concerns over the bill in relation to the undermining of society saying, “[gay marriage] poses the greatest risk to the stability of society since the social tsunami of the 1960s”. Again, Yvette Cooper explained that countries which have passed the bill have not fallen apart, including Roman Catholic Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Canada and certain states of the USA. She concluded her speech by saying that “gay and lesbian couples have been locked out of too much for too long”.
Indeed throughout the debate, there was much homage paid towards gay people in society who had been stigmatised and had either died through fighting for their beliefs or could no longer face the persistent disgust that they met on a daily basis feeling unwelcome in their own country. Certain MPs highlighted what they saw as pitfalls in the bill such as Labour MP, Jim Dobbin, who believed that religious freedoms, adoption issues and adultery cases were not fully recognised in the bill, and far from being homophobic, were concerned about the legislation in place to protect these concerns.
The results of the bill have deeply divided the Conservative party with 136 MPs voting against, 127 in favour, 35 not voting and 5 registering an abstention. In the House of Commons debate there was, according to one female Labour MP, a clear generational divide and the majority of people under the age of 50 were in full support of the bill, but it was with those over the age of 50 where support was far more questionable. This does indeed relate to the Conservative Party with the majority over the age of 50 voting against.
Conservative MP David Burrowes, who voted against the bill, predicted that the legislation would receive substantial opposition from the House of Lords, with the bill now needing to go through committee stage, report stage, final reading and then subject to any amendments before being passed. However, David Cameron said Tuesday’s vote had been “an important step forward” and Labour Leader, Ed Milliband, called it “a proud day”.