The House of Lords has backed the further passage of the equal marriage bill – meaning it has now passed a crucial hurdle.
The upper chamber of the British parliament spent two days debating the government’s Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which has already been passed by the elected House of Commons.
Despite a fierce debate the peers rejected an amendment by Lord Geoffrey Dear which would have stopped the bill in its tracks.
In the last few minutes (4 June), a massive 390 voted to allow the bill to progress with only 148 trying to stop it – a majority of 242.
Two principles seem to have been behind the vote: Some backed the bill because they support lesbian and gay marriage, others because they see the House of Lords as an unelected chamber of revision and believe they should do a full job of scrutinizing the bill.
This will now happen with the whole house involved in analyzing the details of the law over two days later this month.
Ahead of the vote, and calling for the House of Lords to reject the bill at this stage, Dear asked: ‘Are you sure the process has been properly handled? Are you sure that all the likely consequences have been thought through? Are you sure there will be no later attempts to marriage the definition of marriage further?
‘The issue is too important for all sections of society – gay or straight – to be introduced on a whim. How can we allow it to proceed?’
Baroness Tina Stowell of Beeston, the government’s Women and Equalities Spokesperson in the House of Lords, had already tried to allay the fears Dear raised.
She said the bill was the result of a commitment to review gay marriage and the country’s largest ever public consultation.
And she argued: ‘Gay couples want to marry and many straight couples want them to be able to.’
In other developments she also responded to anti-gay Lord Norman Tebbit’s suggestion that a future lesbian queen could have an heir by artificial insemination who could one day rule.
Stowell responded: ‘The bill does not change anything in the law of succession, only the natural-born child of a husband and wife is able to accede to the throne.’
When Tebbit rose to ask if this was discriminatory, she responded: ‘Then it is discriminatory now and we are not changing it.’
Tebbit had also suggested the bill would lead to polygamy one day being allowed, something also raised earlier today by Labour Lord Daniel Brennan.
Brennan told Lords: ‘There is the “what next?” factor. It is a simple argument to propose that here is a law that says that two people of the same sex can marry because of discrimination. Why cannot a third person demand the same right and want to join that union of two to make it a union of three?
‘That is eminently simple to argue; it is based on discrimination; and I invite any subsequent speakers to explain, logically and rationally, why numerical limits overcome profound principles of discrimination, if that is what we are dealing with.
‘Polygamy is not just on the same-sex side, it can be on the heterosexual side.’
Others speaking in the debate today included Conservative party Baroness Sheila Noakes, who argued for gay and lesbian marriage from the straight standpoint.
She said: ‘As a happily married woman I will gladly extend marriage to committed couples who wish to marry someone of the same sex. I certainly reject the suggestion made yesterday that same-sex couples should invent their own name in place of marriage.
‘The clear evidence from the various polls that have asked straight-forward questions about same-sex marriage is there is a majority and an increasing one in favor.’
And she said the bill was particularly supported by young people who she said would feel the biggest impact from it.
She added: ‘If we embrace the freedom to marry in this bill it will surely bring happiness to a minority but I have heard nothing in the debate so far that points to clear or specific harm to others.’
Similar support came from Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas, who is also an elected politician in the National Assembly for Wales, and warned the unelected lords of ignoring the will as evidenced by the polls in favor of gay marriage.
He said: ‘It does seem to me this house is in great danger of ignoring at its peril the realities of political and social change outside this house.’
He said he hoped his son and son-in-law would soon enjoy full equality they deserve.
And openly gay Lord Ray Collins of Highbury, criticized the homophobia by senior public figures in the lead up to the debate, including the likening of gay marriage to slavery and child abuse.
He said this could ‘cause damage to the self-esteem not only of me but young [LGBT] people in particular’.
And he highlighted the bill’s personal importance.
Collins told the Lords: ‘My husband, and I can think of no better term for him, and I have taken every opportunity to celebrate our 16 year relationship on an equal footing.
‘For me and Raphael it is for our relationship to be equal in the eyes of the law. The changes we have seen so far have helped to shape more progressive attitude and in my view, far form inciting intolerance, this measure will go a long way to challenge it.’
While Baroness Glenys Thornton, Labour, Shadow Equalities Minister winding up for the opposition ended with a plea to lords opposing the bill or unsure.
She said: ‘Some who profess to believe in equal rights for everyone find it difficult to fully escape those prejudices ingrained over many years.
‘To these noble lords, I will make a plea, it is to listen to your heart and to indulge the generosity of your spirit. It would be very hard-hearted indeed not to support same-sex marriage.’
The vote today (4 June) does not mean the end of the debate. The bill still has to be scrutinized by lords in the report stage where attempts may be made to wreck it and will have to pass third reading in the house. But the majority for the bill was much greater than most expected, giving some confidence the measure can pass with sufficient work and lobbying.
Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall, Britain's leading gay lobby group, said afterwards: ‘We’re absolutely delighted. We always expected a tough challenge in the House of Lords, and Lord Dear’s “fatal motion” – very rarely used - demonstrates the lengths to which a minority of peers are, sadly, still prepared to go to deny full equality to lesbian, gay and bisexual people.’
While Peter Tatchell, a veteran gay activist who has spearheaded the Equal Love campaign, said: 'This is a victory for love, marriage and equality. We are another step closer to our goal of equal marriage. It signals that the House of Lords accepts the principle that we should all be equal before the law.'
UPDATE: The news of the vote was greeted with cheers, blowing whistles and even the start of a conga-line dance by pro-gay marriage campaigners outside the House of the Lords, reports GSN's reporter on the scene, Rakshita Patel, who sent us this photo.
She reports anti-gay marriage protesters also present appeared very disheartened by the result.