The final stages of the Same Sex marriage bill in the House of Commons were never going to be easy, but it is still an odd situation when the minister guiding the legislation through Parliament is pleading with the opposition party to reject an amendment which ostensibly makes things a lot fairer.
Maria Miller thinks that an amendment tabled by the most unlikely group of MPs could significantly delay the introduction of gay marriage itself. This proposal, signed by Tim Loughton, Caroline Lucas, Craig Whittaker, Stewart Jackson, Mark Durkan, Greg Mulholland, Charlotte Leslie, Christopher Chope, Steve Baker, John Hemming and Simon Hughes, removes the phrase ‘of the same sex’ from Part 1 of the Civil Partnership Act 2004. This would mean heterosexual couples could also have civil partnerships.
Sounds simple. But ministers fear this could lump the government with another £4bn in pension liabilities. So when Miller appeared on the Today programme this morning, she said:
‘It introduces complexity which would not only, I believe, delay the passage of the bill through Parliament, but it would also put forward a number of quite fundamental policy issues which need considerable thought and consultation, let alone any delays around implementation.
‘Look, I want to be seeing marriages being undertaken under this new bill as early as next summer and to actually put in at this stage such a fundamental change I believe risks that and it risks significant delay and I think those that are supporting it need to be very aware of that.’
Helen Grant also tried to dismiss the amendment by saying ‘we find that there is not strong evidence at all that there is demand for this from heterosexual couples’. Which is interesting, because that’s the same argument used by opponents of same sex marriage.
There appear to be two things going on this morning. The first is that ministers had wanted the first gay weddings to take place before 2015 because of the image boost this would give the government (although perhaps not with socially conservative Tories), and the civil partnerships amendment would delay that. But the second is that Labour MPs are starting to suspect that this public pleading from Miller marks the start of the government preparing to ditch the bill and blame the other parties for supporting a ‘wrecking amendment’.