MP speaks in Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill debate
5th February 2013
David Burrowes speaks against the redefinition of marriage and outlines his commitment to the historical value of marriage as a distinctive institution for a man and a woman.
Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I will be generous and give the Government credit for the title of the Bill. It is about marriage and not about homosexuality. I have great respect for my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), but I am concerned that this Bill has advocates—indeed, I have heard them in the House today—who of all people are liberal Conservatives who want to use it as a vehicle to redefine people’s views of homosexuality, rather than to redefine marriage, which is what this Bill is about.
I have stood alongside my right hon. Friend in support of specific legislation to tackle homophobic hatred. Indeed, I have been alongside the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) in my school, speaking out against homophobic bullying. This time, however, I will be in a different Lobby from them as I will be seeking to defend the social institution of marriage. We should not conflate two things. An underlying message coming across from some hon. Members, in eloquent terms, is that if someone is against this Bill, they are acceding to bigotry and homophobia. That is unacceptable. We stand positively for the institution of marriage—let no one mistake that.
Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for the sincere way in which he is putting, and has put, his arguments. Does he share my view that the reason the Government have had to put quadruple locks into the Bill to make sure that no Church will be forced into performing single-sex marriages is because they are worried that the locks will be broken, that cases will be taken to the Strasbourg Court and that Churches will then be forced to perform single-sex marriages against their will?
Mr Burrowes: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Let us be clear about this, because different things have been said about the Church of England’s response to this Second Reading. It has said that
“we doubt the ability of the government to make legislation watertight against challenge in the European courts or against a ‘chilling’ effect in public discourse”—
I shall come to that shortly.
“We retain serious doubts about whether the proffered legal protection for churches and faiths from discrimination claims would prove durable. Too much emphasis, we believe, is being placed on the personal assurances of Ministers.”
When we face serious issues concerning the protection of Churches, can we rely on and take risks regarding the worthy and well-intentioned assurance of Ministers tonight? I believe not.
Chris Bryant: Will the hon. Gentleman give way.
Mr Burrowes: I will not.
The position was well summed up by Ben Summerskill, the chief executive of Stonewall. Soon after the lastelection, he told me that the proposal for same-sex marriage would “not advance gay rights” but would rather
“put us in our trenches”.
Sadly, that has been the case.
Tonight’s vote is on a position of principle. It is not a practical measure about gaining equal access to marriage ceremonies. The vote is about the principle of redefining the purpose and meaning of marriage. The common law, as has been said, has always defined marriage as the voluntary union of one man and woman to the exclusion of all others.
The state has become involved in refining aspects of marriage, but the essential definition of marriage, and therefore its meaning and purpose—its very foundation—have remained unchanged until now. As has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) and others, this is indeed an historic change. The big hole in the Bill, however, is the absence of any clause clarifying that what the Government now want us to accept is the new meaning of marriage.
The defining characteristic of marriage is exclusivity, a commitment to sexual fidelity, but the Government have taken sexual fidelity out of the definition of marriage by not applying the definition of adultery to same-sex couples. We have also heard little about the issues of children and parenthood. The Bill implies that the state now applies another meaning to marriage, which primarily involves the rights and values of adulthood rather than the rights and values of parenthood. The Minister is singing a new tune, a one-sided single: “All you need is love”.
The Government must now spell out what this means for the institution of marriage. The redefinition downgrades marriage to a personal relationship, not bound by an obligation to society, community and family that has stood the test of time and is an increasingly popular institution.
It has been said by Members on both sides of the House that this issue is about our views on bigotry and attacking discrimination against homosexuals. I do not have any truck with bigotry, but comments that have been made in the House today emphasise my concern about the freedom that is threatened by the Bill. I myself have been subject to abuse and even death threats because of my position on the redefinition of marriage.
Mr Charles Walker: I am on a different side of the argument from my hon. Friend, but I have known him for many years as a friend and a political colleague, and I am outraged by the threats that he has received. The people who are responsible for those threats should hang their heads in shame.
Mr Burrowes: I do not have a monopoly on victimhood. The homosexual community has been subject to abuse which, sadly, has characterised debates about sexuality. It is intolerable, however, that as soon as Members of Parliament put their heads above the parapet and speak to the media, they are called “a homophobe”, “a Nazi”—I have been called that—“a bigot”, and many other expletives that I would not dare to read out. I have been told to be ashamed of myself, and to die: I have received specific death threats relating to my travel plans. I have been told that I am a disgrace, and that I have no right to express my opinion on this subject. My children have been told that their dad is a bigot and a homophobe.
That is only the tip of the iceberg of rude and offensive comments that many Members have received via Twitter. I have broad shoulders, and I can continue to stand up and support marriage in Parliament. Today’s debate has not been characterised by hatred and vitriol—we have shown ourselves in a good light—but I fear for the liberty of the conscience of my constituents who may not have such broad shoulders: public sector workers, teachers and others in the workplace who see no protection in the Bill.
I am not angry, but I am very sad that my Government have so hastily introduced legislation to redefine marriage. I am resolved to join other Members in proudly standing up for marriage—standing up for the equal value of people, whatever their sexuality, but also standing up for a commitment to the value of marriage as a distinctive institution for a man and a woman.
Earlier interventions in the same debate
Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): My right hon. Friend has made it clear that she would not introduce a Bill to this House if it in any way impinged on the religious freedom of Churches or ministers. If, during the passage of this Bill, attempts are made by Members—from all parts of this House, given that we have a free vote—to unpick those locks or find other ways to introduce same-sex marriage into the Churches, will she then withdraw her support for the Bill?
Maria Miller: The Church of England itself has made clear the importance of keeping the protections that we have in place as they are, and I join my hon. Friend in saying that any manoeuvres such as he describes would be counter-productive.
Mr Burrowes: I should like to draw out the central issue, which is the understanding of marriage. The right hon. Lady will accept that the institution of marriage is not simply beholden to and owned by a particular view, whether it is the Church or secular, or whether people are gay, married, and so on. It is a social institution valued by all. Does she agree, for example, with the gay writer and blogger, Richard Waghorn, who says:
“The understanding of marriage as an institution that exists and is supported for the sake of strong families”
changes under the Bill
“to an understanding of marriage as merely the end-point of romance”?
Yvette Cooper: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. I will deal specifically with whether extending marriage in this way will have an impact on wider family life and the stability of society—it is a point with which I disagree—but I pay tribute to the important work that he has done to tackle homophobic bullying.