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Greg Mulholland

I have emailed all constituents who have contacted me about the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill and the vote on the second reading to explain. I have reflected on this issue and listened to the many constituents who have contacted me about it, on both sides of the debate and am happy to explain my position.

I think it is important to be clear on what MPs were voting for on Tuesday. The vote was on the second reading of the Bill as currently drafted, which literally means that should the Bill be given a second reading it will then pass on to further stages, including MPs seeking to amend and improve it, before we have a final vote at third reading and the Bill then passes to the House of Lords.

In terms of my own position, I do agree unequivocally that all adults must be treated equally in terms of legal recognition of their relationship and the rights that they convey; the question is how best to deliver that at the same time as protecting freedom of conscience. These are two important rights and must both be delivered simultaneously. The problem is that as currently drafted, the Marriage Bill delivers neither of these. It is a confused and flawed piece of legislation that does not actually deliver equality as it proposes different definitions of marriage for heterosexual and same sex couples; nor does it sufficiently protect freedom of conscience for people with religious and other differing views of marriage. This is why I was unable to support the Bill at second reading, however nor did I want to vote against it or what would be misinterpreted as my being anti equal legal rights, which I am very clearly not.

I also want to make it clear that, as a liberal, I do also believe that it should be up to each faith and belief based organisation to decide for themselves what they believe marriage to mean and who it should be open to. I also do believe that the current situation, where same sex couples in civil partnerships lack some of the rights of civil married opposite sex couples (notably on partner's pension rights) is not equal or fair and must be addressed.

So the question that the Government should have asked, is how do we address this - and deliver equal legal recognition and accompanying rights for all couples who choose to have their relationship legally recognised. It did not ask that and indeed has excluded looking at civil partnerships, which neither makes sense nor allows it to deliver equality. So for these reasons, the consultation carried out was deeply unsatisfactory. It simply, basically asked "how should we redefine marriage so that is applies to same sex as well as heterosexual couples". The real question that the consultation should have asked is how we fairly and sensibly change the law so that all couples have the same legal recognition of their relationship. There is more than one way to do this, at the same time as protecting freedom of conscience and we have not had a proper debate about that which I think is regrettable.

So what we are voting on is not whether we should provide those equal rights and equal status, it is on the particular Bill before the house, to redefine marriage in a certain specific and confused way.

The Bill, which is supposed to make marriage 'equal' does not actually do that. The Bill does not propose one equal definition of marriage in law, but instead proposes two different definitions of marriage, one that will apply to opposite sex couples and one that will apply to same sex who choose to marry. That simply is not acceptable. The Bill as currently drafted will lead to a legal reality where a heterosexual marriage has to be "consummated", in other words that for it to be a binding legal contract, the couple have to have sex (at least once) and that if it can be proved that they have not done so, one party can have the contract declared void (annulled). Yet this will not be the case for same sex couples. Secondly, the Bill as currently drafted also specifies that adultery shall remain a reason for legal dissolution of the marriage for opposite sex couples, but not for same sex couples. So the reality is that this Bill as drafted does not even deliver what the Government is seeking to achieve, which is an equal form of marriage for same sex and heterosexual couples. The other area in which the Bill fails to deliver equal rights is that it fails to simultaneously deal with civil partnerships which will lead to an unequal and unfair system that gives the option to same sex but not opposite sex couples. I also believe this is a significant flaw it the Bill and the logic behind it.

I also believe that, as currently drafted, there remain concerns about protecting freedom of conscience, allowing people to express different views of what marriage means and also what they believe is right and wrong in this regard. This is of concern to me as a liberal who beliefs in freedom of speech and freedom of conscience, two founding principles of the liberal political movement. To be clear, the issue of concern is not, as has been suggested in many emails, about whether churches could be forced to conduct same sex marriage ceremonies, it is about whether those who believe in a religious form of marriage will any longer be able to say so in positions in (particularly) public sector organisations where doing so may be deemed to breach equality policies which therefore could be a valid reason for disciplinary action and dismissal. I appreciate that Ministers and civil servants have worked hard to try to deal with the freedom of conscience issue, but this remains an area of concern as expressed by lawyers expert in the field - and we need to realise that if lawyers have different interpretations of the implications of the proposed law, they are not cut and dried. So I am seeking reassurances on this and will support any sensible amendments that will protect people's freedom of speech and freedom of conscience, which I am sure you will agree is vital (and I would hope would be the case for people on both sides of the debate).

So having studied the Bill and reflected on how it seeks to address the need (that I support) to give equal legal rights and status to all couples, I supported the programme motion to determine the time that the Bill has to be debated in the House of Commons, as I do not want to obstruct the passage of the Bill and to ensure it is scrutinised and hopefully improved. However, I decided to abstain on the second reading due to the serious flaws in the Bill as currently drafted and instead will seek to amend and improve it - so that it does deliver equality (which it currently does not) and that it does allow for genuine freedom of conscience. I abstained because as drafted I can't support the Bill, but nor would I want to oppose it as I as that could certainly lead to people misunderstanding and misrepresenting my position and seeking to portray me as illiberal and intolerant and anti equal rights, all of which I am not. People can disagree with my conclusion but I hope can respect my arguments as laid out here and I hope that people will not seek to misrepresent them or my position on this, even though some have already chosen to do so.

This is an issue of very strongly held views, I have many emails and letters from both sides of this debate and I have been reflecting and listening to all reasonable and fair ones (it is regrettable that there have been some on both sides which have not been either), but in the end I must make my own decision as all MPs must according to what they believe to be the right thing to do.

It is important for everyone in this debate to realise and accept, that however strong and passionately held their views, that this is a complex area of law and notwithstanding passionately held views, it is crucial for all MPs, whatever their viewpoint, to properly analyse and scrutinise the draft legislation to ensure it delivers its objective without negative unintended consequences. It is the duty of MPs to do this, regardless of their view on the final vote. I will be contributing to that process as the Bill goes through the various parliamentary stages over the next few weeks.