Gay marriage Bill clears UK Parliament
A new law to legalise gay marriage cleared Parliament tonight after MPs agreed to amendments made in the House of Lords.
MPs decided not oppose a number of minor changes to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill.
The Bill is now expected to receive Royal Assent later this week. It will then become law in time for the first gay marriages to take place by next summer.
Among the changes agreed by peers were protections for transgender couples which will allow people to change sex and remain married.
There will also be a review of whether belief organisations such as the Humanists will be allowed to carry out marriages, while ministers said they were prepared to look at eliminating any difference in the treatment of gay couples when it came to pension schemes.
During the two hour debate in the Commons tonight, Tory former defence minister Sir Gerald Howarth accused the Government of bulldozing the "wretched" legislation through Parliament despite it offending large swathes of the Conservative Party.
Sir Gerald, who previously said the "aggressive homosexual community who see this as but a stepping stone to something even further", warned people who do not agree with gay weddings could feel inhibited from expressing their true views on marriage.
The Tory added pamphlets which questioned same-sex marriage had been seized by parliamentary authorities ahead of a meeting he had organised - further heightening his fears of how people against the Bill will be treated.
He said: "I have to say that it is astonishing that a Bill for which there is absolutely no mandate, against which a majority of Conservatives voted against, has been bulldozed through both Houses and just two hours of debate tonight is an absolute parliamentary disgrace.
"I think the Government should think very carefully in future if they want the support of these benches, offending large swathes of the Conservative Party is not a good way of going about it."
Sir Gerald added: "I do advise the House to be very careful. There are lots of people out there now who despite all that's been said here will feel unable or inhibited from expressing their true opinions that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.
"Because we live in a politically correct society and it's going to be very interesting to see what happens to teachers. How many teachers will feel able to express their views even in denominational schools for fear of upsetting their political masters and might lose their jobs?
"I hope the Government is serious about moving swiftly to prevent that from happening and the Opposition will also support the Government should it decide to do that."
Openly gay Tory former crime minister Nick Herbert said Sir Gerald's use of the phrase "aggressive homosexuals" took freedom of expression "to an unreasonable extent".
Mr Herbert said it would be intolerable to talk of "aggressive blacks" or "aggressive Jews".
He said the Bill had not been "bulldozed through" the House but was voted through by considerable majorities in the Lords and the Commons and reflected a fundamental change in attitudes for the better.
In an impassioned speech, Mr Herbert said: "I must say to Sir Gerald that it also behoves those who call for freedom of speech to ensure that words they choose are temperate and reasonable.
"And although words may not and should not become a matter for the criminal law, when phrases are used such as 'aggressive homosexuals', which is the phrase Sir Gerald used in an earlier part of this debate, that took freedom of expression to an unreasonable extent which did cause offence.
"If Sir Gerald and others are calling for freedom of expression and not to be prosecuted, as they should not for merely criticising activity or conduct, they have a responsibility to use words carefully that does not cause grave offence to a considerable section of the community.
"It would be considered to be intolerable to talk of aggressive blacks, or of aggressive Jews, perhaps even Sir Gerald would not consider it acceptable to do that but he did consider it acceptable to use the phrase 'aggressive homosexuals', I regret that and that is why I find it so difficult to accept what he says about the importance of the chilling factor."
He went on: "It (denying same-sex couples equality) is no longer considered acceptable by a majority of the public, by a majority of this House of Commons and by a majority in the Lords, this legislation was not bulldozed through, it was voted through by considerable majorities in both Houses.
"It reflects a fundamental change in attitudes for the better in our society, this legislation will do no harm at all to those who are not affected by it, it protects those who do not wish to join in it, but it will do a very great deal of good in allowing people who love each other to express a permanent commitment to each other in recognising the place of gay people in our society today and for that reason I am proud to have been a member of this House of Commons that has passed this legislation and will be proud to see it, I hope, reach Royal Assent within a matter of days."
All of the Lords amendments were passed without a vote after Sir Gerald and other Tory MPs did not attempt to amend the Bill at the latest stage possible.
However, there had been numerous attempts to derail the legislation as it made its way through Parliament, with traditionalists arguing that it would undermine the sanctity of marriage and free speech.
The Government had introduced a number of changes at an early stage to protect the Church of England and other religious groups from being forced to carry out gay weddings under equality legislation.
Opponents also expressed fears that freedom of speech for teachers who did not want to teach children about same-sex relationships could be affected by the new law.
In the Commons tonight, Culture Secretary Maria Miller said this was not true.
She said: "The title of this Bill might be marriage but its fabric is about freedom and respect.
"Freedom to marry regardless of sexuality or gender but also freedom to believe marriage should be of one man with one woman and not be marginalised - clear affirmation that as a nation respect for each and every person is paramount regardless of age, religion, gender, ethnicity or sexuality."
She added: "Extending marriage to same-sex couples changes nothing in respect of freedom of speech.
"That is why in relation to other questions around the operation of the Equality Act 2010, and in particular the position of employees and teachers, we are clear that further changes to the law are not necessary and could indeed be harmful by casting doubt where none currently exists."
Several Labour MPs wore pink carnations during tonight's debate, including shadow women and equalities minister Yvette Cooper.
She said: "The truth is while we have debated in this House, we have been lobbied, but we have also been serenaded and most fabulously by the London Gay Men's Chorus who sang rousing versions of Get Me To The Church On Time which we all joined in as the Bill passed its second reading in the House of Lords.
"I think that was a loud and proud joyous celebration of love and laughter, of love and marriage.
"And that is the spirit in which we should see this Bill through its final stages this evening because as a result of these votes same-sex couples will have now the same recognition and respect from the state towards their relationships as everyone else, the same recognition under the law for their relationship and their love.
"And because marriage is about the ups and downs, the long-term commitment through thick and thin, so this is also about the right to grow old and grumpy together under the banner of marriage too.
"This is indeed time to celebrate and not discriminate."