Are the Coalition for Marriage using straight statistics?

25 January 2013

Coalition for Marriage leafletThe Government has today published draft legislation to legalise same-sex marriage. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, led by the defining line "Marriage of same sex couples is lawful", comes after over a year of, at times, intense debate on the subject.

The Coalition for Marriage has probably been the most visible opponent to the proposal, and in the last week has sent out a leaflet to, it claims, three million households.

This is a large potential readership and, from looking inside the pamphlet, it's a hotbed of familiar claims we've seen repeated over the past year. Let's take a look through them.

"It will undermine marriage ... Evidence shows that redefining marriage actually undermines support for marriage in wider society."

Does it? The campaign cites Spain, where marriage rates across the whole population "plummeted" after same-sex marriage was legalised, and the Netherlands which has also seen a "significant" fall.

Full Fact investigated this claim back in December. Courtesy of Eurostat, we're able to track marriage rates in most European countries which have introduced similar legislation:

Spain indeed has seen a steep decline in marriage rates since the introduction of gay marriage - but it's also important to observe that marriage rates were declining even before the legislation was passed. The case of the Netherlands is much the same. Belgium bucks the trend completely, showing declines in marriage in the five years before the legislation and a slow rise in the years after.

It's interesting data, but it doesn't show any consistent correlation between same-sex marriage and plummeting marriage rates, let alone any causal link. This claim is quite some evidence away from being accurate.

"Equality already exists ... All the legal rights of marriage are already available to same-sex couples through civil partnerships."

This is mostly true. The Civil Partnership Act 2004 brought same-sex couples' legal rights into statute, and it confers similar rights to marriage. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport stated as recently as November last year that:

"Civil partnerships gave same-sex couples the equivalent rights, responsibilities and freedoms to those afforded to couples in a marriage. However, there remains some differences between civil partnerships and marriage, for example how they are formed, reasons for which they can be ended, and pension rights."

In addition, civil partnerships can't be religious procedures, and they can't be dissolved on the grounds of adultery, unlike in the case for divorce.

'Civil partnership' and 'marriage' are distinct legal terms which can't be interchanged. The Government has pointed out in its consultation that this means when a person has to declare their marital status to (for instance) a public authority, they effectively have to declare their sexual orientation at the same time.

"Many gay people don't want it ... polling shows that only a minority of gay people (39 per cent) believe gay marriage is a priority"

This is from an online poll of gay, bisexual and lesbian people conducted by ComRes in April and May last year. As Full Fact has also investigated, however, this is an unfair representation of the poll's findings. The poll did indeed find that:

But it also asked respondents about how important the issue is to them personally:

The same poll also found a strong majority who rejected the notion that marriage as an institution they supported should only be for opposite-sex couples. 

There's certainly some data here to suggest that a significant minority of gay, bisexual and lesbian people don't consider the issue an important one, but it's misleading to frame the poll's findings in the way it was presented to readers.

"The public don't want it ... Seven in ten people want to keep marriage as it is."

This is also from a ComRes poll from last year. It asked respondents: "Do you agree or disagree with ... Marriage should continue to be defined as a life-long exclusive commitment between a man and a woman"?. 70% agreed, and 22% disagreed. 

Of course, this was only one poll. Several other polls from around the same time found that more people supported than opposed the same-sex marriage proposals, and others since have corroborated these findings.

As ever, the wording of the questions altered the results. The Coalition for Marriage claim that when people are told that equal rights are "already available through civil partnerships", most people want to keep marriage as it is. Indeed, yet another ComRes poll from January last year found 51% agreement (and 34% opposition) with the statement:

"Since gay and lesbian couples already have the same rights as married couples available to them under civil partnership, they should not be allowed to redefine marriage for everyone else"

A YouGov poll later in the year also informed respondents about civil partnerships, and given the option to support these but oppose full-blown same-sex marriage, more people opposed same-sex marriage (46%) than supported it (44%). Then again, an ICM poll at the same time also gave information about civil partnerships, but still found 45% in support versus 36% against.

The significant variance between different surveys' findings suggests we should treat any polling on the subject with caution, but it's misrepresentative to state that the public don't want the change based on a 70% support statistic that is a clear outlier among the variety of polls carried out last year.

"A huge change to society ... The Government has already admitted that official documents will need to be rewritten to remove words like 'husband' and 'wife'."

This is true. The Home Office Impact Assessment last year made clear that, in certain cases, application forms and IT systems would have to change in order to accommodate any new laws:

"Allowing same-sex couples to get married will require some tax, National Insurance Contributions and tax credit legislation to be changed where there is specific reference to a "husband" and "wife".

"This occurs in one of two ways: free standing references to "husband" and "wife", or where a couple is defined (for instance in tax credits legislation) as meaning either a husband and wife or a man and a woman living together as husband and wife; or same-sex couples in a civil partnership or living together as civil partners."


There are more claims than we can check in the same-sex marriage debate, not least in this leaflet from the Coalition for Marriage, but from what we can see not every assertion is as solid as it first seems.

The overriding message is that polls need to be understood as a collection rather than in isolation. It's unfair to cite outliers that best support one side of the argument, and misleading to selectively report some questions from polls but not other questions which are also relevant to the readers' understanding of the issue. The leaflet scores badly on both fronts, and we're left with a partial understanding of the facts as a result.

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