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First person: Nicola Blackwood to engage with 'divisive' Equality Bill
1:53pm Thursday 14th February 2013 in News
I cannot remember a piece of legislation that has split opinion in the constituency and the country more than the Equal Marriage Bill, not just for its content but for whether government should be legislating religious marriage at all and whether, at a time of economic struggle for many, it should be a priority. I have received well over 1,000 letters and emails on the subject (more than on any other since I was elected) and I have done my best to absorb and respond to the often diametrically opposed opinions they express. I can say too that I have spent many hours in deep thought over the implications of the legislation.
After reading the detail of the Bill (which was only published on January 25) and meeting with local church leaders, constituents of all opinions, the Secretary of State for Women & Equalities and one of the civil servants who drafted the Bill, I took a clear decision that I had to abstain at last week’s second reading.
I am not opposing equal civil marriage, however, I will not support legislation that threatens to limit freedom of religion and it is for that reason that I firmly believe that more work is needed to address some of the potentially significant legal problems the recent debate around the Bill has thrown up I know that my decision has attracted some criticism in the local press, but I have received many messages of support too, and given the controversial nature of the Bill, I suspect a vote in any direction would have met with disapprobation from some quarter or other.
It is worth noting that on the day seventy-five MPs from all parties abstained, including the Attorney General who was responsible for providing the legal advice for the Bill in the first place, and that if abstention was not a valid democratic option in certain circumstances it would not be one of the choices available to MPs when we face how to respond to legislation proposed by Government.
But let me explain why I felt, having attended the debate, abstention was the only choice that I could make on this occasion.
Firstly, I believe it is right to take a cautious approach to legislation that affects marriage and I have no intention to use any such legislation simply to make political points. The principles of long-term commitment and responsibility that underpin marriage bind society together and any new legislation must demonstrably support and strengthen that.
As a strong supporter of civil partnerships and opponent of discrimination in all its forms, I do believe that equal civil marriage can do that which is why I decided it was not right to walk through the ‘no’ lobby and reject the Bill outright before it has the chance to be amended in its passage through the House, during which perhaps my quite significant reservations about the brief and flawed consultation and legal implications of the bill may be addressed.
But from the moment the Government published its initial proposals for consultation in March 2012, I have been unambiguous that I could not support legislation that did not ensure that the existing right of religious institutions to choose who they marry without fear of litigation would be protected.
At present, having read entirely contradictory legal opinions from even the most pre-eminent human rights barristers in this country about the strength of the protections provided to religious institutions in the Bill, I still have significant doubts that the so-called ‘quadruple lock’ intended to protect those religious institutions will actually work. From the beginning, ensuring that in extending the human rights of some (their equality in marriage) we are not also restricting unacceptably the human rights of others (their religious freedom) was, and remains, my overriding concern but I also think that it is important that this legislation does not have consequences that are actually unequal.
For example, the criteria for divorce will be different between heterosexual and homosexual couples, there is no definition of infidelity for same-sex marriage, which I think most homosexual couples would vigorously contest.
Furthermore, civil partnership will not be extended to heterosexual couples.
I think if we want to introduce a Bill like this on the grounds of equality, then it needs to be truly equal for all concerned.
I recognise that many of my constituents care deeply about this issue and approach it from many different perspectives and it is precisely because I can see both sides of the argument that I found coming to a final decision on how to vote last week deeply challenging from a personal, as well as professional, perspective and why I felt abstention was the only way I could reflect my support for parts of the Bill but my unresolved concerns about other parts.
I can assure constituents, no matter what their view and no matter what the final outcome of the Bill, I will continue to engage fully with the Bill as the debate continues.