Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling MP, writes about why he will be voting in favour of equal marriage in tomorrow's vote, exclusively for Attitude.
Tomorrow, MPs vote on an issue that’s sparked much debate: whether to extend marriage to same-sex couples. It is an issue I know many of you have written to your MP about, those letters are important and help shape how Parliament approaches this issue.
Change is sometimes uncomfortable for people. Often they have to be led gently through it. The gay marriage issue is one such example.
There's no doubt that it will be a difficult and, for some, a controversial step to take. For many people it is an issue of religion and conscience. I respect their views but the proposals that Equalities Minister Maria Miller has put forward are sensible, just and I am sure will become law within the lifetime of this Parliament.
At the heart of the argument is to me a simple proposition. It is not right for the State to judge between different relationships based on a lasting commitment.
The job of the State and of the law is to be neutral, and indeed actively supportive of people who do form lifetime bonds. There is not nearly enough stability in our society. The propensity of relationships to fragment quickly and easily is one of the key reasons for what I believe to be an instability at the heart of our society. The State should actively support those who want to stay together.
But it also has to accept that people have strongly held feelings and consciences, and that it is wrong to force people to act against their will. That’s why it is so important that the reform is focused on the way the State treats couples and why it does not seek to force change upon religious institutions that do not want to embrace that change. Attitudes change continuously as generations pass, and rightly so – but we have to protect the freedom of religious conscience when delivering a change like this.
The state can educate, but it cannot instruct people what they believe. It must, though, take a neutral and dispassionate view in its own actions and in the way it treats individuals.
Changing a law has never automatically changed someone’s opinion or belief, but a change in law can result in a more supportive and protective environment.
What the State cannot and must not ever tolerate is deliberate discrimination. It is only as an adult that I have grown to understand how miserable it must have been to grow up in a society that actively discriminates against you.
The experience of growing up as a young Asian in Britain in the 1970s, or as a young Briton trying to come to terms with your own sexuality and feeling the need to keep it concealed from friends and family alike must have been deeply depressing and difficult.
Thankfully, we live in a country which has done much to stop the blatant discrimination against gay people. The gay community, on the whole, is able to be open and no longer live in fear that their sexuality will count against them. This country has changed massively in a generation, I welcome that and I think it makes us stronger as a nation, but there is more to do.
A new attitude towards gay and lesbian people is to be found in most workplaces, for example. In today's world most employers are just happy to have found the right person for the job and anyone who has gone through a recruitment process knows how difficult it can be to find the person who will make the difference you need. But unfortunately discrimination can still be found in some places of work - around the issue of women and childbirth for example and it takes changes of attitude not just laws to fix it. One of the things that shocked me the most on becoming an MP was how often I came across examples of bullying in the workplace. Sometimes it's clear that it results from poor management combined with a breakdown of relations between a supervisor and an employee. But homophobic bullying has not disappeared from the workplace. I don't think it’s as blatantly visible as in the past. Most employers understand the limitations set in place by anti-discrimination laws. But it is still there, in a way that is outdated and wholly unacceptable. That's why our tribunals should always act clearly and decisively when it is clear that an employee has been victimised for reasons of sexuality.
Britain has changed massively in the past two or three generations. Some of those changes, like the decline of our manufacturing base, have in my view been very unwelcome. But the evolution of social attitudes has, by contract, been a real step forward.
The Government’s proposals on the recognition of gay marriage are a sensible next step in that evolution. They make it clear that the attitudes of today’s generations are very different to those of the past. Of course we need to protect the right of the individual to have a conscience and of religious institutions to follow their own path. But that does not mean that the State has to do the same.
Its job is to recognise the commitment between a couple to spend the rest of their lives together, and not to judge who that couple are.