Consideration of Lords amendments
After Clause 1
Extension of Civil Partnership
I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.
Said with alacrity and buoyancy. With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments 2 to 6.
First, I echo the comments made by you, Mr Speaker, and all other Members on the senseless and brutal murder in New Zealand. New Zealand might be one of the furthest countries from the United Kingdom, but at times like this we stand shoulder to shoulder with our close cousins in all communities in New Zealand and express our sincere condolences and sympathy after this terrible tragedy.
Said with alacrity indeed, Mr Speaker, because today is quite an exciting day. In fact, it is so exciting that I got halfway to my office in the Commons this morning before I realised that I had non-matching jacket and trousers on and had to return. I have quite a nice tie on, and I am taking it personally that I was not singled out for such an accolade too.
It is an admirable tie.
Thank you so much, Mr Speaker. Having made the journey back home, I eventually got to my office to realise that I had left my mobile phone in my jacket that I had taken off, so things can only get better today.
We have before us technical amendments. The Bill has had a long journey. It had its First Reading on 19 July 2017—those heady days when we had a relatively stable Government and could get legislation through the House. Today is a culmination of that, with ping-pong, which I hope will be solely ping and leave no pong.
Members will remember that when my Bill left the Commons last year, it contained my last-minute amendment obliging the Government to bring in the legislation on civil partnerships within six months of the Bill achieving Royal Assent. Curiously, although the Government at that time were not supportive of it, when it came to the possibility of a vote, a rather curious new parliamentary term was coined by the Immigration Minister, who said that the Government were not “actively” opposing my amendment. Hopefully that has now transmogrified into the Government supporting it.
While the wording of clause 2 has changed since the Bill left this House, I want to assure Members that the intention of the clause—to create equality between same and opposite-sex couples in their ability to form a civil relationship—remains. I amended my Bill on Report, before it left this House, to give the Government the ability to extend civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples, rather than just review the possibility of an extension. The Government, albeit slightly belatedly, came to support the principle of opposite-sex civil partnerships, perhaps spurred on by the Supreme Court judgment in a case last June. I accept that there were technical deficiencies in the drafting of my original amendment.
Since then, I have worked with the Government and the noble Baroness Hodgson of Abinger, to whom I pay great tribute. She guided the Bill through the Lords as a private Member’s Bill virgin, as she described herself, but did so skilfully and with great deftness, steering it on an even course so that it is back here with us today. Baroness Hodgson was able to correct those deficiencies and improve the drafting of the Bill. She then tabled and successfully moved the revised clause 2 and related changes in Committee in the other place, despite some rather indulgent attempts by certain peers in the other place to add their own agendas to the Bill, which were, alas, defective and would have had the result of scuppering the whole Bill. I pay tribute to the way that Baroness Hodgson steered those through potentially choppy waters to avoid the Bill being holed below the water line.
Lords amendments 1 and 2 replace my earlier version of clause 2. The new clause now requires the Secretary of State to amend by regulations the eligibility criteria of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 so that two people who are not of the same sex may form a civil partnership. The Bill requires that these changes be made so as to come in no later than 31 December. That will mean, as we have agreed with Ministers in the other place, that the legislation needs to be in place by December 2, because notification of a clear 28 days is required before a ceremony can actually take place. There was an undertaking that civil partnerships would be available before the end of 2019, and I look forward to a series of invitations to civil partnership ceremonies on new year’s eve.
Many congratulations to my hon. Friend on steering this Bill through so successfully, and on getting his timing absolutely right so that it could incorporate the decision of the Supreme Court. May I ask him whether he is concerned about the fact that subsection (1) of the new clause says:
“The Secretary of State may, by regulations”
thereby indicating a certain discretion, but subsection (2) says that if he exercises that discretion under subsection (1) then he “must” do so before 31 December? Is my hon. Friend suspicious that the contrast between “may” and “must” in subsections (1) and (2) could be used by the Government to undermine what he has just asserted?
I know my hon. Friend is always vigilant, rather than suspicious. Having sat through many Committees over many years in this House arguing the toss over whether the word “may” should be replaced by the word “must”, I have to say that I am not concerned about the wording of the Bill. I have had many conversations with the Ministers responsible, and the Government are absolutely committed to delivering on the undertakings in this Bill. It had to be put together in such a way to give some leeway to Ministers to be able to produce the right legislation at the right time. That involved a degree of discretion, which I know my hon. Friend and others in both Houses were concerned about. A number of undertakings were therefore added to the Bill and were given orally, not least a sunset clause, so that this clause, which I know my hon. Friend has had concerns about in the past, could not be used for other purposes as something of a Trojan horse. I entirely appreciate his observation, but I do not share his concern that this will not actually be produced. I think it will be produced in a fairly short space of time. Goodness knows, we tried for long enough to get mothers’ names on marriage certificates.
Fairly shortly after being elected, I was approached by several opposite-sex couples who are determined to have a civil partnerships, and tens of thousands of people around the country would like to have such a civil partnership. Does the hon. Gentleman share my confidence that, were the Government to try to renege on it at this very late stage, such demand would be enough of an incentive to make sure the Secretary of State actually followed through on this?
As I will come on to say shortly, there have been some ups and downs with getting this Bill through. Back in October, on the civil partnerships clauses, the Prime Minister herself, in an article in the London Evening Standard, made it clear that Government policy was now firmly in favour of extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. That was a clear undertaking, which was almost unanimously supported by Members of this House and very largely supported by Members of the other House. We have factored in the legislation in such a way that it can be brought in this year, which is really important and means it will also comply with the Supreme Court judgment. If there are people who have not entered into a civil partnership—presuming there are those who want it, and I know there are—before the end of this year, I shall be more than a little peeved, but I shall also be greatly surprised. That is not a problem I anticipate.
I think this is an excellent Bill in principle, but I want to clarify one specific point. Subsection (2) of the new clause says:
“The Secretary of State must exercise that power so that such regulations are in force no later than 31 December 2019.”
Presumably, that does not stop them coming in earlier. Has my hon. Friend any expectation that they will do so?
That is a very good point. I appreciate my hon. Friend’s support in saying that the Bill is very good in principle, but I also think it is very good in practice. If he remembers, the amendment that I added on Report said that the Government needed to implement this legislation within six months of Royal Assent. That was actually quite a tall order and, for all sorts of reasons, the Government were not as prepared as they might have been for this change in the law, which the Prime Minister finally gave her complete assent to in October. I was therefore content to let the six months slip, but the principle that it needs to happen by the end of the year is very important. As I will mention in a minute, a number of consultation exercises still need to take place to make sure that we get this absolutely right. Let us remember that this legislation does not give rise to the specific changes in the law; it enables the Secretary of State to bring in the changes that will enable opposite-sex couples to enter into a civil partnership. An awful lot of detail still needs to go with that, although I am glad to say that a lot of work has now been done by civil servants.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Everybody wants to chip in, and of course I will give way to my right hon. Friend.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has the second best tie in the House, for giving way to the person wearing the best tie. Subsection (6) of the new clause imposes a duty to consult. Who does he expect to be consulted, and is he in any way concerned that this consultation process may lead to a further delay?
I am going to come on to the consultation, but, absolutely, that cannot lead to further delay because we now have a timeline in the Bill. There is some detail still to agree—I absolutely appreciate that—but that should not prevent this new legislation from coming in before the end of this year. Again, my right hon. Friend is right to be slightly suspicious, and I am very grateful to him for taking the time to be here today. I am not sure how much longer he is staying, but I hope he does not get a ticket on his car—if he is parked on a line or somewhere on private property.
Subsection (3) of the new clause enables the Secretary of State to make other provisions by regulations if this is appropriate in view of the extension of eligibility. The current civil partnership regime is bespoke to same-sex couples, and this subsection enables the Secretary of State to ensure that a coherent scheme can be introduced for opposite-sex couples. Subsection (4) sets out some of the areas in which regulations will be needed, including matters such as parenthood and parental responsibility, the financial consequences of civil partnership and the recognition of equivalent opposite-sex civil partnerships entered into overseas.
Subsection (5) enables the Secretary of State to make regulations relating to the conversion of a marriage into a civil partnership and vice versa. At present, same-sex couples are able to convert a civil partnership into a marriage, and in implementing an opposite-sex civil partnership regime, the Government will need to consider what conversion rights should be given to opposite-sex couples. That is actually an important point about the practicalities of how this will be brought in. If hon. Members remember, the original Civil Partnership Act came in back in 2004-05 and then there was the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, but there was a delay between same-sex marriage becoming available and conversions from same-sex civil partnerships becoming available. Interestingly, however, according to the last figure I saw, only about 15% of same-sex civil partnerships chose to convert into a same-sex marriage after that became available.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing forward this very important Bill, which I fully support. I am very impressed by his prescience in introducing this Bill a year before the Supreme Court decided that this was a very good idea. He mentioned the power in subsection (3) of the new clause to make “any other provision”. Will he detail what kind of provision that might be in that particular part of the clause?
Is my hon. Friend talking about civil partnerships?
As I have mentioned, how one converts is one of them. My hon. Friend may be aware that the Scottish Parliament has been slightly ahead of us in that it has been making preparations to bring in opposite-sex civil partnerships, and it has launched a consultation. That is one reason why I have said that the Government here could actually get on with this rather more speedily, because they could take what Scotland has already done. However, there were some gaps in the Scottish consultation, including the whole thorny subject of conversions. That is why we need to make sure that we cover all those areas. As I know, because they have contacted me, a small number of people, who got married because that was all that was available, would be more comfortable with a civil partnership. On such details, it is perfectly reasonable to get some form of consensus. By and large, the principles in the Bill seek to emulate and reflect the Civil Partnership Act 2004 for same-sex couples.
We are trying to achieve complete equality for all couples in a marriage or a civil partnership, and it is right that those equivalent rights—albeit slightly differently interpreted—are available to those who wish to form whatever sort of partnership. Such rights could include replacing the existing right to convert a civil partnership into a marriage, or the creation of a new right to convert a marriage into a civil partnership. Regulations may also provide for the existing right to conversion, or any new rights, to be restricted or brought to an end in the future.
One suggestion is that the opportunity to convert a same-sex civil partnership into a same-sex marriage should be ended after a while because the full range of options is now available, and there should also be a window of opportunity for conversions the other way. We would then move on to a completely level playing field in which anyone can have a same-sex or opposite-sex civil partnership or marriage. The question of conversion will no doubt be of particular interest to many, and subsection (6) of the new clause requires the Secretary of State to consult before making any regulations on conversion. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) said, it is important that everybody engages with this issue to ensure that we get it right, and I think this Bill will go through before such measures are finalised in Scotland.
My hon. Friend is generous in giving way. Subsection (4)(c) of the new clause refers to the financial consequences of a civil partnership. Has he received any assurance from the Government that such an arrangement will have no adverse financial consequences?
There are some financial consequences—mostly about private pensions—just as there were when civil partnerships were introduced for same-sex couples. That was accounted for in the Government’s previous consultations—my right hon. Friend may remember that there was a consultation on extending civil partnerships before the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, and again afterwards as a result of an amendment I tabled. The Government are aware of the financial consequences, which are not huge and are relatively insignificant, and they have consulted on them. He need not worry that this Bill will be costly—indeed, I assure him that parts of it will save money.
Subsection (7) allows the Secretary of State to make regulations that protect the ability to act in accordance with religious belief. That could include, for example, ensuring that religious organisations are able to decide whether to host opposite-sex civil partnerships on religious premises, which should remain a decision for an individual religious organisation—I am not proposing any changes there. Subsection (8) enables the regulations made under the new clause to amend, repeal or revoke primary legislation, and amendments to clause 5 will ensure that those regulations are subject to the affirmative resolution procedure—I know that right hon. and hon. Members will be concerned about that. That will ensure that the regulations receive proper parliamentary scrutiny and are debated in this House and the other place.
Amendments 3, 4 and 5 make the necessary changes to the supplementary provisions for making regulations in clause 5, and amendment 6 changes the long title of the Bill to reflect the fact that clause 2 no longer relates to the publication of a report on civil partnerships, and instead relates to the extension of civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples—that is how it was when the Bill first started out, before the Government wanted me to change it. We are back where we were originally, but there has been a lot of good fun in the process.
Other clauses in the Bill that attracted widespread support across the House and beyond are completely intact, helped by various assurances given in the Lords by Baroness Hodgson and Baroness Williams, particularly about the consultation on moves to extend the power of coroners to investigate stillbirths. Other parts of the Bill add mothers’ names to marriage certificates—that has not been available in England since 1834—enable coroners to investigate stillbirths where appropriate, and oblige the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to review how we might register stillbirths before 24 weeks, which are technically referred to as late-term miscarriages. A working party has already started work on that. It has slightly ground to a halt since last autumn, but it will be obliged to report under provisions in the Bill. A lot of work still needs to be done on that difficult subject, about which hon. Members heard many emotional testimonies during the passage of the Bill.
Perhaps I may crave the House’s indulgence before I conclude my remarks, because this will hopefully be the final hurdle for a Bill that started in this House on 19 July 2017, but had its genesis in amendments that I proposed to the Marriage (Same Sex Couple) Bill in 2013. This Bill has kept me awake for much of the past 20 months or so, and I wish to say some thankyous.
Even if I say so myself, this Bill is quite a remarkable achievement—[Interruption.] I am going to say so myself, and I really don’t care: it is a remarkable achievement, and will be law in a few weeks’ time. As I said at the outset of my remarks, this is the most greedy and ambitious private Member’s Bill that I have seen in my 22 years in this House. It proposes not one but no fewer than four main changes to the law. It involves legislation involving not just one Department but four, and the engagement of not one but four Secretaries of State, three of whom unhelpfully got reshuffled when the Bill was approaching Second Reading, which meant that I had to start my difficult negotiations all over again in January 2018.
This is not a handout Bill, and it would not be happening had not various people supported putting all these clauses together. As I said, I made it so complicated because in my 22 years in this House of applying for the private Member’s ballot each year—other than when I was a Minister—and failing to be picked, this was the first time my name came up, and no doubt it will be the last. I went for broke, and I think we have come up trumps.
We started in the Commons on 2 February 2018, not knowing whether the Bill would receive its Second Reading, and we had to make a number of last-minute compromises. We had a lot of help from Baroness Hodgson and Baroness Williams, and other organisations that have fought tirelessly for this Bill, such as the Equal Civil Partnerships campaign—its members are looking down from the Gallery very sedately and excitedly, ahead of the celebration that we will have later on—as well as other organisations, such as the Campaign for Safer Births, and I particularly pay tribute to Nicky Lyon, Michelle Hemmington and Georgie Vestey. A few other institutions were not quite as supportive, but we got the Bill through anyway and I will not name them.
I was pleased to speak on Second Reading, but I think one question was not covered—forgive me if it was. It will be interesting to see what happens to civil partnerships before we break up the fundamental partnership that we are currently debating, but what is the impact on nationality rights for those in civil partnerships compared with those in a traditional marriage? Is it the same, because that issue will be important in the coming months for those in a civil partnership with an EU citizen?
As I think I said rather unfairly to one of our colleagues who made a not-dissimilar slightly technical point on Report, nobody likes a smart-arse. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend and I are very good friends, Mr Speaker, and I am grateful to him because he raises a good point. I have had a number of emails from people who live abroad or who have had ceremonies in other jurisdictions, and part of the consultation and final details that need to be added to the Bill are on such matters. The principle is to replicate absolutely the rights and opportunities that are available for same-sex couples. If the Bill does not try to achieve complete equality, or as close to it as is physically possible, it will not have achieved what it tries to achieve. This is all about equalities and equal opportunities.
Having heard my hon. Friend’s observations on my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), I am loth to ask a question, but I wonder if he will reflect on the Lords debate on civil partnerships between siblings, and say how he feels about that.
My hon. Friend, who attended previous debates as assiduously as my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), raises a good point. I think it is the noble Lord Lexden who has a private Member’s Bill in the Lords, and, in the past, other Members in this House have tried to change legislation so that a formal civil partnership would be available to sibling couples, typically two sisters who have lived together in a jointly owned property over many, many years. When one dies, the other is faced with a large inheritance tax Bill and all sorts of other things that are clearly disadvantageous. I have a great deal of sympathy with that, but my response—Baroness Hodgson spoke to Lord Lexden and others about this—is, first, that the Bill is not the place to address that situation, because it is essentially a financial matter.
The Bill is about families and partnerships; that situation is about fair financial treatment between blood relatives who are committed to each other. If it were to be addressed in a finance Bill or a similar measure, I would have some sympathy for it. I think it should be judged on that basis. I am talking about couples who come together and may have children. I know there are some special circumstances, for example where a couple of sisters may be looking after a niece or nephew of a deceased sibling. It is complicated, but essentially it is a matter of financial unfairness and I would like to see it dealt with in financial legislation.
On that specific point about financial matters, does my hon. Friend therefore think that that should also apply to pensions and the passing on of pension rights?
Again, that is a good point. As the law is framed at the moment, they would not qualify. There may be some generous schemes which would recognise that there was a dependent relationship, but those issues need to be looked at in greater detail, with the wisdom and scrutiny of officials and Ministers from the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions. I would certainly suggest that the Government, or any other Member whose name comes up in the private Member’s Bill ballot, look at the issue separately. Private Members’ Bills cannot be used for financial matters, so there might be a problem there, and that is why this Bill would not be the most appropriate vehicle to deal with it.
Hundreds and hundreds of mothers and fathers of potential civil partners have written to me and other hon. Members in support of the Bill on its long journey. There have been some heart-rending accounts, particularly from those who have suffered the trauma of stillbirth. I have to say that at times the progress of the Bill has been in spite of the Government, rather than with their support, although I think they have come to realise that the Bill always was the best and the speediest vehicle to deliver civil partnerships and marriage certification with mothers included, especially after many abortive attempts.
If I could just single out one Minister it would be the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar). He wanted to be here today. He has a lot of skin in the game with many of the issues in the Bill that he has championed in this House. He has gone above and beyond. He stepped in to bash heads together in Departments to find a way through and he has done a lot of work within his own Department on preparing for the power to go to coroners to investigate stillbirths. When the Bill becomes law, I think there will be a short space of time before it is put into effect. I pay particular tribute to him and give him my thanks for all the help he has given in some uncertain waters that we have charted on the Bill’s journey.
Lastly, I would like to thank the officials. A number of officials have also suffered sleepless nights. They have pulled their hair out and sent me emails at some very antisocial hours as they battled to ensure we got this through the Lords in particular. It is invidious to single them out, but if I could just mention Ben Burgess in the House of Lords, whose quiet but skilful diplomacy in convincing certain Members of their lordships’ House that less is more kept the Bill on an even keel. I would also like to mention the redoubtable Linda Edwards from the Home Office, whose combination of energy, cajoling, diplomacy and forthrightness has been the absolute making of the Bill. I am convinced that without her guiding it through as the lead official in her role in the Home Office, we would not be where we are today. I pay tribute to them.
It has been a long journey. I first raised this issue in 2013 via an amendment on civil partnerships during the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. It would have prevented an awful lot of angst if at that stage the Government had agreed to full equality by agreeing to amendments, which were supported by many Members on both sides of the House, to bring about equal civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples. The genesis of the Bill is even longer than Brexit, but unlike with Brexit today we will have closure and a reason to celebrate.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman—in fact, now probably right hon. Gentleman.
I very much doubt it.
Well if he isn’t, he jolly well ought to be. I feel sure that it is only a matter of time.
It is a great pleasure to stand up as an anointed smartarse and talk on this important subject.
Before I do so, I want to echo all the words that have been spoken today about what has happened in New Zealand. It is a terrible, terrible tragedy. If I may say, Mr Speaker, as the Foreign Secretary’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, it is possible—I hope this is not the case and I have no information—that, given the links between our two countries, family members will be worried about loved ones who may be abroad. As always, the consular service is there and available. I am sure all colleagues know that there is a private number they can use if constituents who are concerned about family members in New Zealand contact us. Let us hope that that is not the case.
It is a great pleasure to speak in support of the Bill and I very much agree with the principle behind it. When I spoke on Second Reading, I said that if there was one question that it raised in principle—this goes to the core of the amendment we are discussing—it was whether, in effect, this was a commitment-light choice; we were saying to people that they could have a civil partnership if they did not want to make the full commitment of, shall we say, a conventional marriage. I reflected on that and came to the conclusion that, on the contrary, civil partnerships were a way for people who, for many reasons, would not have wanted to go down the traditional route, to show commitment to a far greater degree.
One very real case reinforces that and underlines the point of the Bill, which I think will have huge use and ramifications for our society. It is the case of a councillor in Babergh District Council in my constituency. It is her personal testimony and it just so happens that she is also my parliamentary researcher. She is Councillor Harriet Steer and she has given me this testimony to share with my hon. Friend. She will be getting married in May. She says:
“We would have chosen a civil partnership if the option was available to us. The main reason being that traditional marriage carries a lot of archaic rhetoric that does not sit comfortably with us as a couple, or with me as a woman and Gustaf as a Swedish man brought up to believe fully in equality. This in no way diminishes our desire to commit ourselves to the relationship and each other.”
This is key. She goes on to say:
“We want to cement our commitment for a number of reasons, including that if we were to have children, they would be part of a committed family structure. I have grown up with the security of knowing that my parents are committed to one another and our family, and that provides a level of security that I would wish to afford to our children in the future. It is also a celebration of the fact that we have spent nearly a decade with each other, and provides legal benefits to the relationship. For example, if I were in an accident I would want Gustaf to decide what happens rather than my parents, as he will have a much clearer idea of my wishes.”
“A civil partnership would provide us with the elements of a traditional marriage that we are seeking without the heavily sexist sentiments and history. It would not diminish our commitment to the institution that we are joining but result in a better fit.”
Does my hon. Friend agree with his researcher that marriage has sexist connotations?
I am reading out her personal and passionately held views. I certainly would not make any judgment on them. The interesting thing is that when my researcher passed me this note, she said that she was discussing the Bill last night with friends. She is in her mid-20s. They all said that they would prefer this route than marriage. I think that that is profoundly interesting.
I have heard equally powerful testimonies from those who are the product of broken marriages and who come to the idea of marriage with a lot of baggage. Is that something my hon. Friend recognises?
That is an excellent point. Frankly, whatever form the legal joining takes, we cannot legislate for humanity’s various ways of working positively and negatively and interacting with one another. There will be breakdowns in civil partnerships just as in traditional marriages. I hope that having this structure means that more people bring more stability for their children and to their lives in a way that they find amenable. I think that this is a historic moment and that this option will become very common. I do not know what assessment or predictions have been made of the likely take-up—who can possibly say?—but I think that this change will have a very significant impact.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech and it is really interesting to hear the thoughts of his parliamentary assistant, who feels similar to me. Does he agree that people of faith—I am a person of faith—also have to have strength in their faith to understand others who do not have that faith and in order perhaps to allow them complete equality under the law?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. In reading this real-life testimony and talking about the potential impact of the new structure, I can imagine that there would be those who say, “Well, hold on a minute. What about religious marriage? What about commitments through historical, established ways?”, but the point is that the Bill is no threat. It just provides a different way for people who do not have those views. As my hon. Friend rightly says, a part of faith—particularly of the Christian faith and, I imagine, all other faiths—is that we tolerate people who take a different view. Indeed, the vile act overnight goes against all religions, precisely because it goes against the principle of religious tolerance.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend that all true followers of a faith would absolutely abhor what happened last night. No religion calls for blood, slaughter and murder in that way.
Turning to the Bill, a comment was just made about the idea of marriage versus civil partnership, but many people who have a religious faith have a very different view of marriage from those who do not have faith and get married. It is not just the idea that people in a marriage have one set of views compared with those in civil partnerships. Those entering into marriage will have varied views. I view it as an act of union before God, whereas those getting married at a local register office may take a very different view. It is about what it means to the couple and the individuals concerned.
That needs no further comment—it was brilliantly put, as always, by my hon. Friend. I look forward to hearing from him today, as we so often do on private Members’ Bills.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) referred to the principles that lie at the heart of the Bill and this particular part of it in terms of equality, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), but there is something else as well. My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) read out the note from his constituent—I think he said she was a councillor—and she used the words, “We would have chosen”. Is not the principle choice and freedom? Today more than ever we should absolutely make sure that we reinforce that principle at the heart of the Bill.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent contribution and he is absolutely right. It is interesting that the Bill brings not only choice, but responsibility. We are not talking about some sort of libertarian agenda. The Bill provides a chance to have a choice and also to bring greater stability to people’s lives and for the children that they may have, so that is a very good point.
I want to make one more point about my researcher, Councillor Steer, whose testimony on this important matter I read out. It is fair to say that she is not a Brexiteer and that she sees certain advantages in marrying a Swede—although, of course, that is not the reason. I raised that point in intervening on my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, the promoter of this very good Bill, because it is important and will bring focus in future to what happens on someone’s nationality if they have a civil partnership as opposed to a marriage, and so on. However, there are finer legal minds in the Chamber today to comment on these matters, and I will leave that to them.
On timing, it is interesting that my researcher would have chosen the option under the Bill. The sooner that it can be available, the better, because there really are people on whose lives the Bill would impact and who would choose to go down this route. It is satisfying to know that the very latest that the provisions may be used is new year’s eve. I imagine that if that is when there is the first civil partnership under the Bill, there will be quite a party.
Finally, I note that amendment 1 refers to the “financial consequences” of civil partnership. In my experience, there is a lot of complexity around inheritance tax regulations, pensions and so on, and I hope that others may be able to clarify the implications of some of those points. I am very happy to support the Bill. Not only is it a very good Bill in the areas that it covers, such as marriage certificates and others, but I think it will be historic and in future standard practice by which people cement commitment and show their love for each other in a way that is no more or less worthy than any other.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), who spoke very passionately. I echo what he said at the beginning of his speech: it is relevant, when, on Fridays, we consider important, life-changing events, that we think about people around the world recovering in the aftermath of a horrific attack in New Zealand. I think today about my constituents going to Friday prayers at our two mosques in Banbury. That will be a difficult and worrying experience for people all around the world and it is right that we should think of them.
This is the third time that I have risen to support the Bill. We could view it as hatched and matched, and now is the time to dispatch it to the wider world. I am very glad to see that the Lords considered it in such detail and to be here today for its return to the Commons. I appreciate the Bill’s far-reaching scope, but it has come a long way since it was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton)—my good friend. It is customary on Fridays for us all, at this point in the dispatching process, to praise to the skies the hon. Member who has brought the Bill to its dispatching moment, but as he did that so well himself, I do not know that I need to add much, apart from to congratulate him on ultimately getting dressed this morning and to thank him for the persistence and good humour with which he has involved very many people in both Houses in the production of the Bill.
Looking around the Chamber, I see my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), who I remember had a very emotional debate in Westminster Hall when we first arrived in this place about mothers’ names on marriage certificates. I think that he, like me, would like to pay tribute to our other right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), who has worked particularly hard on that issue, which really is irritatingly long overdue.
In all seriousness, I pay great tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, who has worked hard, even if he knows it himself. I wish all parts of the Bill well. It has had cross-party support and I hope that we can come to an agreement today so that it can get through its remaining stages and receive Royal Assent before the end of the parliamentary Session. I also hope that Members in the Chamber continue to push. We may have achieved consultations and we may have got the Government to agree to look at things, but we want to deliver on all the Bill’s promises, so that dispatching means fruition rather than the sadder meanings of the word.
The focus of amendments from the Lords centre around extending civil partnerships to same-sex couples. We have moved from a position where the Government were going to undertake unspecified work on how that could be done to putting an obligation on the Minister for Women and Equalities to prepare a report on the subject. We find ourselves today with a real commitment to bring in the necessary regulations before the end of the year. This is a great example of how Back-Bench MPs can work with Government to bring about change, and it is possibly also an example of why we think that a deal is better than no deal.
I also welcome the reassurance in subsection 7 that the decision to host an opposite-sex civil partnership on religious premises will remain a decision for individual religious organisations. I know that the Bishop of Oxford made an extremely thoughtful contribution when the matter was discussed in the other place last week.
As I have said previously, other measures on the registration of stillbirth and mothers’ names on marriage certificates are long overdue. Members will know that I represent the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss, which I am glad to say is also very well represented in the House of Lords by a number of grandfathers, who have spoken to me passionately about how they too have suffered when a baby has died. Members of both Houses feel very passionate about this, and fully understand why these changes were needed, but also needed to be consulted on and dealt with extremely sensitively. When the law comes up against personal feelings, particularly death, it is important for us to go slowly and consult slowly, but to achieve progress in the end.
I had the great privilege to take a couple of private Members’ Bills through the House myself, one of which my hon. Friend strongly supported. When I explained those two Bills to the public, their reaction was “Why do those provisions not already exist?” Surely the same applies to this Bill: all three of its provisions should have been introduced long ago.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I am forever indebted to him for his sterling work on parental bereavement leave. That is, of course, something else that we should have thought about earlier, but the fact is that we used not to talk about baby loss, or indeed death, in the way that we are now beginning to be able to. I think that the conversation about death is one that we need to have in a grown-up way.
I am proud to support my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham again today. He has done sterling work, and we should all support him.
Thank you for calling me so early in the debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. Let me add my comments to those of other Members about the tragedy—the abomination—that has been unfolding in New Zealand overnight. As one who represents a very diverse community in Solihull, I have seen at first hand just how disgusting religious intolerance is: not so long ago, a pig’s head was left at a mosque. I shall be writing to and communicating directly with leaders of the Muslim community in Solihull. We really must stamp out this religious intolerance.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who has been very modest during the debate. He is noted for that. [Laughter.] I pay tribute to him for the way in which he has persevered relentlessly with the Bill, in the face of some opposition at times, for the way in which he has worked across parties, and for the way in which he has put his case. All that has been an example of true, fine parliamentary activity.
I am sure that I speak for the great majority of Members when I say how pleased I am to see this important Bill making such fine progress. As my hon. Friend said, it is an ambitious Bill. It tackles several social wrongs at once, and does so with great precision and attention to detail. Many of its provisions, especially those updating the law on marriage, are long overdue, and will do much to bring that ancient institution into line with the evolving values and mores of British society today.
The absence of mothers from marriage certificates is an absurd anachronism which, my hon. Friend tells me, has persisted for 182 years; I had thought it was 150. That is utterly ridiculous. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) in paying tribute to my good friend, my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), who is another fine parliamentarian and a superb neighbour, for the work that she has done.
As I have mentioned before, I have personal experience in this regard. The stark reality is that 90% of single parents are women, and I myself was raised by my mother from the age of 10. She worked two jobs and raised me single-handedly, which probably equates to a third job. She worked herself to a standstill, and between the ages of 14 and 18 I had to become a young carer because of all that hard work. She had worked for British Telecom, and in a bar at night; she would start at 8 am and finish at 11 pm. I was lucky enough to keep a good relationship with my father over the years, but my mother raised me, and I was appalled to find, when I got married in 2014, that as far as the official documents were concerned, she might as well not have existed. But she mattered, of course, and that was entirely unjust. I am delighted and relieved that this glaring oversight will be corrected in the very near future.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful and personal point, and we all admire him for his bravery in doing so. Does he not agree that one of the great powers and privileges we have in Parliament is the ability to correct historic injustices that we have experienced directly, so that others may not suffer the same fate?
I thank my hon. Friend. He is a very compassionate and good friend of mine, and he is absolutely correct. I just wish we could have done this sooner, but we are here now, getting it done, and that is thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham.
I am pleased that the Government are taking the opportunity provided by the Bill to review the way in which we record marriages in this country. The fact that the alternative means of achieving some of these important reforms via secondary legislation, which would involve reissuing tens of thousands of paper records, was found to be so extraordinarily inefficient, time-consuming and expensive has shone a spotlight on how analogue the marriage registration system still is. I know that some of this officialdom has become part and parcel of the wedding ritual, and I hope that the process of signing the register and receiving a certificate can remain for those who want it, but there is no doubt that moving towards a secure, streamlined and centrally accessible marriage register is a logical step forward.
The second important change ushered in by the Bill is the opening of civil partnerships to heterosexual couples. As I said earlier, I am married and I am pro-marriage. It is an ancient and precious institution, which offers happiness and security to millions of people in this country. As a Conservative, however, I recognise that institutions only survive to become ancient and precious if they are able to adapt to social change. As I also said earlier, people of faith must have strength in that faith, and must understand and adapt. There is no doubt that public attitudes towards marriage, in both its legal and its religious dimensions, have evolved since the law was last updated.
I am a person of faith, although sometimes it is quite a fragile faith, but an increasing number of my fellow citizens are not, and I quite understand why many of them would be uncomfortable at the prospect of marriage. Even a civil ceremony carries the weight of a long and deeply religious history. I recognise, too, that after decades of rising divorce rates, there are doubtless many people who have experienced marriage, either personally or close at hand, and decided that it is not for them. The fact that I myself did not marry until I was nearly 40 may be an indication of the long-term effect that a marriage breakdown can have. None of that should for one moment be taken to imply that those people’s love for, and commitment to, their partners is any less than the love and commitment felt by those who do decide to get married, but the law as it stands assigns an inferior legal status to their relationships.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) mentioned financial implications. It is important to align inheritance tax and pension rights so that heterosexual civil partners have the same rights as those of the same sex. That should not be left to the discretion of trustees in private pension schemes. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham raised the question of whether pensions could be passed to siblings. It would be a matter for the trustees, but I know of very few who do that at present.
I had hoped for a change in the way in which heterosexual couples in civil partnerships are treated in more sensitive circumstances, such as those involving hospitals. On Second Reading I spoke of my personal experience when I lost my partner in a road traffic accident in 1999. I will not go over that particular story again, but I will say that I had to almost beg my way into a ward where the woman I loved was dying. That was not right, and I really hope that no one else will have a similar experience.
As for the law governing stillbirths, I am glad that the Bill deals so sensitively with what must be an unimaginably painful topic for so many. It is never right when arbitrary officialdom intrudes to compound the grief of a bereaved family, let alone when it stands in the way of a proper investigation of a child’s death. It is quite right that the law will be changed so that coroners are able to investigate stillbirths; that is an important extension to unborn children and their parents of rights due to every living person.
Some time ago, when I was taking the Bill I referred to earlier through the House, one of my constituents contacted me to say that their son was born after 23 weeks and six days and sadly passed away two days later, but had that not happened they would never have been able to register the baby. What a massive difference between those two positions. It cannot be right that this will not have been possible until the Bill has been brought into effect.
I could not have put it any better myself; that is absolutely the right approach and the right thing to say, and we are correcting that wrong in this place today.
As well as allowing for official investigation, the Bill opens the door to providing official recognition to babies who are born dead before the current deadline, allowing their parents to name them and have their birth officially recognised. That is a very positive step forward to say the least, and I deeply hope it will provide some comfort to those poor parents of stillborn children. Of course there may be some for whom such matters are the very last thing they want, and I hope and trust that their rights and feelings will be properly accounted for in the implementation of any new system, and that it is done in the most sensitive way possible.
This is an exemplary Bill: rather than trying to deliver big changes through broad wording and aspirational intentions, it bundles together a number of detailed, well considered changes that will deliver real, tangible change in several important areas. It will bolster marriage and the alternatives to marriage, and afford long overdue recognition to bot =h mothers and unborn children. I hope the entire House will join me in supporting its swift progress on to the statue book.
It is always a pleasure to be called to speak by you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to see you in the Chair. This is a welcome chance to say something about this Lords amendment, but first I wish to join other Members in reflecting on the events in New Zealand yesterday. Having visited New Zealand and its Parliament last year, I saw how often throughout history our two nations have stood together. It is worth remembering that at the moment when this nation faced its greatest peril in 1940 there were Kiwis who travelled thousands of miles to come here and defend our democracy; they literally stood on the shores of Britain ready to meet a Nazi invader had they ever managed to cross the channel. So we stand in solidarity with them in facing the fascists today in the way that we defeated the fascists of the past.
This Bill is very welcome, and particularly the new clause being inserted into it. People should have a choice about what type of relationship and legal partnership is right for them. As I alluded to in an earlier intervention, when I got married in June 2017 it was a religious sacrament; that was part of being united together. It was a very special experience—we had the mass straight afterwards, as that was the first thing we wanted to do as a married couple. But that is not everyone’s choice, and it is not everyone’s view on marriage.
There are different religious faiths and different religious communities, including in the Christian faith. There are very different views across the spectrum of Christian opinion, for example on divorce and remarriage. There are those who have annulment as the only option and those who recognise civil divorce in a religious context.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is good that the Bill imposes on the Minister the duty to consult, and that people should be consulted before we change the law? Does he also think this Bill will have any impact on landlord and tenant relationships and the rights of a civil partner?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention; I was a great fan of his private Member’s Bill, which I am delighted to hear now has Royal Assent.
On the impact this Bill might have on the rights of landlords, we should be clear that we are not creating a new legal concept here: civil partnerships have now existed for some time and courts are familiar with dealing with them, so I would expect any rights accruing under tenancies through being a civil partner in a same-sex situation to transfer in exactly the same way to a civil partnership between persons of a different sex—a mixed-sex couple. I do not see why it would extend, or for that matter contract, the rights that have already been created effectively under law by allowing civil partnerships between same-sex couples. I would expect the courts to view them as exactly the same—I think that is the thrust of the Bill—in the same way as civil partnerships, when they were created, had much of the legal history of civil marriage attached to them. That was a large part of the argument used at that time, when it was felt that it was the right step for Parliament to legislate for civil partnerships.
At that time, of course, there was not the option of a legal union for a same-sex couple, hence why civil partnerships were created. The intention was to provide much of the legal status of marriage without actually having a civil marriage. Of course, the law has moved on and we now have same-sex marriage, allowing the option of civil partnerships for mixed couples. But I would not necessarily see anything that a landlord should fear from the Bill, other than the same things they would be used to dealing with for a same-sex couple who have entered into a civil partnership.
My hon. Friend will be aware from his legal background that marriage or civil partnership affords both members of a couple additional rights to a position where they are just cohabiting. It may well be the case that some people are more comfortable in a civil partnership, and through the Bill they can effectively grant each other greater rights in case there is ever the need for them due to any unforeseen circumstance.
I agree, and as always my hon. Friend brings his expertise in that industry to the Chamber. Yes, this does create tenancy rights, and again I do not see any reason why extending this to mixed-sex civil partnerships would have any different impact on the landlord-tenant relationship from that which same-sex couples and civil partnerships have had.
This Lords amendment is very welcome, and I want to reflect briefly on one of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton): that this does not force a religious organisation to offer civil partnerships. If a Church decides it wishes only to offer marriage in a sacramental sense, it still has that choice. This is not about taking away anyone’s right or ability or forcing someone to offer something they do not wish to offer; it is about extending choice to those who currently do not have it.
I appreciate that not everyone wants to get married in church; that is not the right option for everyone—although for me it was. Not everyone necessarily wants to have the institution of marriage, given what some people foresee as its historical position. I personally profoundly disagree; I believe it is about a unique partnership that puts two people together for life, and that is very special.
My mother passed away in 2014, but my father would still see himself as married to my mother today, five years after her death. My grandparents were together for 57 years prior to my grandmother’s death. For them it was something that was unique and very special, and it signified what they meant to each other. I accept that for my family that was achieved through religious marriage in church, whereas for others it would be through the choice of a civil partnership which they feel better reflects their lifestyle or the choices they wish to make. I do not see why now in the 21st century the law should not allow them that opportunity. No one is not going to be able to get married because this has passed; it just gives people a choice.
We are used to this tradition of Friday speeches. The whole point is that we are giving a new right, not taking any away from people.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I could not have put it better myself. This is about new rights, new choices and new abilities for people, to reflect the different lifestyles and relationships of today.
The Bill will also help to deal with the idea of the common law spouse. Too many people think that they have some sort of status as a common law husband or wife, right up until the point when tragic circumstances occur and they suddenly discover that they have virtually no status at all. In fact, they have the same status as a mate they know down the pub. That is when things start to go wrong, but the Bill should help to reduce the number of such occurrences.
I cannot emphasise enough how critical it is that we get the message out that there is no such thing as a common law spouse and that it confers no rights at all. What more does my hon. Friend think we can do to get that message across? This is what I was referring to, slightly facetiously, when I said that deals are better than no deals.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we need to get the message out there. Ironically, people think that it is somehow easier to be a common law wife or husband, when it is actually easier to be viewed as married in a religious sense than it is in the legal sense.
There is a story that I will not go into in too much because it involves the last week of my mother’s life, and there are difficult memories, but I will mention it briefly. My mum was in a hospice, and a little blessing service was held, at which Hazel and I were present. It was referred to in some of the coverage that our engagement ring was my mother’s ring, which she gave to Hazel that day. Had the priest run through the vows there that day, Hazel and I would have been a married couple in the Christian religious sense. Under the law, the marriage would not had any legal status because we would not have complied with the terms of the Marriage Act 1949; we would not have posted banns, given notice or obtained a special licence. However, in a Christian sense, we would have been a married couple, had she run through the vows that day. People forget that it is easier to be viewed as married in a religious sense than it is in a legal sense. And, as my hon. Friend says, there is no such thing as a common law wife or husband in the legal sense.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will in just a moment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) asks how we can get this message out there. We are doing it through debates such as these, but we are also creating an option for people who want to have a legal relationship but not necessarily a religious one. Agreeing with the Lords amendments today is certainly a good way of doing that, and we must ensure that, as the legislation is brought in, the Government conduct a clear information campaign to make people aware that this will be a partnership with legal status, rather than just living together and hoping that that will count.
The hon. Gentleman has just answered the question I was going to ask. However, does he agree that getting the message through to all the people who believe they have a common law marriage that they need to do something about it is possibly one of the most effective parts of what we are doing here today?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome intervention. I hope that that is indeed the case.
Some of this grows out of the time when it was very difficult to get divorced. It was expensive, and the legal system reflected a different era. This is about simplifying the options. It is also about same-sex couples. Sadly, for too many years they were denied the opportunity to have their relationships—often close, loving relationships that had lasted for many decades—recognised under the law, whereas an opposite-sex couple could quite easily get married purely for convenience or to avoid certain tax liabilities. We have rightly moved the law forward in that regard to give people options and opportunities. People now have a choice if they do not necessarily want to see themselves as married but want a form of legal recognition for their relationship.
Sadly, there have been too many cases over the past 30 or 40 years involving same-sex couples who have had a close and loving relationship, and when one of them passes away, the relatives have suddenly developed rather Victorian attitudes to such relationships when they realise that there might be a few quid in it for them. Those relatives often launch legal actions that the deceased partner would certainly not have wanted to see, because they would have wanted their property dealt with in a very different way. We must get the message across that there is something about being married or being in a civil partnership that gives people legal recognition and puts their status and wishes beyond doubt.
My hon. Friend is making a number of powerful points. Does he agree that there is a case for the Government pursuing a publicity campaign in the wake of this Bill on the issues that he is talking about?
Yes, absolutely. There may well be a case for having a publicity campaign to advise people of the details of the legislation and to ensure that they are aware of the option it gives them to become a statute law partner rather than a common law partner. This would apply to people who are in a long-term relationship, and who have perhaps bought a property together, but who do not want to get married. As the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) said, relatives are often very supportive of such relationships until they discover an old legal case that might give them the chance to get some money after one of the partners has died. I hope that the Government will look at what information can be made available. This could also apply to venues that have in the past advised that they could accommodate only civil marriages. Perhaps they could now also offer civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples looking to be joined together. I hope that the Government will look at how these matters could sensibly be promoted.
The Lords amendment is welcome, particularly because it gives the opportunity to convert a civil partnership into a marriage. I do not think that that will be an issue for the Bill. I am also pleased that the Lords resisted the temptation to table amendments relating to the role of the clergy. As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, it would have taken the Bill in an unwelcome direction and perhaps endangered its passage through this House if we had had to send it back to the Lords just to deal with such an amendment. It is unlikely that such an amendment would have received the support of a majority of Members in this House. We made it clear when the provisions relating to same-sex marriage came in that there would be a protection there. I sometimes debate whether there really needs to be a complete ban on one particular religious group, in relation to same-sex marriages on Church of England premises. Perhaps in future years we might look at providing a choice, but I accept that this was about giving reassurance and a firm commitment on choices relating to religious rights and opportunities.
I shall bring my remarks to a close in time for the minute’s silence that we will all wish to participate in. I noted the point about siblings with a close relationship who live together, but I do not think that this is the time to legislate for that. That relates more to financial matters than to loving relationships, and it might be confusing to legislate for it here. We have made it very clear that civil partnership is similar to marriage in its legal effect. For good reason, we also have criminal offences—for example, relating to people being married to two people at the same time. Again, extending the law into this area would create confusion and we might have to ask whether we should exempt that. I understand the points that have been made on these matters, but as I said to the hon. Member for Ipswich, I think we need to consider how we would deal with them via the tax system.
The Bill is long overdue, and very welcome. I was genuinely saddened that I could not put my mother’s name on my marriage certificate, but this legislation will allow me to do that. I urge the House to concur with the Lords in their amendment.
Order. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman. As I announced earlier, and it was supported by colleagues across the House, I propose that we hold a minute’s silence at 11 am. That silence will be held in respectful memory of the 49 people who perished in the terrorist outrage in Christchurch, New Zealand, in respectful memory of those who were injured as a result of those atrocious acts, and in solidarity with Muslims in New Zealand and throughout the world. This barbarity, this evil, this depravity will not prevail. We will stand up to it, and it will be defeated.
The House observed a minute’s silence.
I thank colleagues and everybody attending our proceedings today for that demonstration of support and solidarity. As I indicated earlier, I will write to my opposite number in New Zealand conveying the sympathies and the sense of outrage felt in this House. Nothing will bring back those who have perished; I hope simply that what we have said and done today will offer some modest succour to those who are having to live with the daily reminder of the evil that has been perpetrated. Wherever we are and whatever our ethnicity or faith, by virtue simply of our common humanity we resolve, because we can do no other, that this sort of behaviour will not be tolerated or go unpunished. It will never prevail for it is, in simple terms, fascist conduct. Wherever they are in the world, people who think that “might is right”—that if you are bestial enough, you will get your own way—will have to be disabused of that notion. It will not happen.
I start by agreeing with your extremely wise words on the evil that was done in New Zealand, Mr Speaker. I also send my thoughts to my constituents at Oadby mosque as they gather for their Friday prayers. I want them to know that they should not be afraid and that we will always protect them. The evil done in New Zealand will not be allowed to happen here, and the ideas that it represents will not prevail in this country. I was recently at Oadby mosque for Visit My Mosque Day, learning things such as how my name is written in Arabic. It was wonderful to see everyone, and the thought that someone on the other side of the world could inflict an act of such wickedness on people just like them going about their daily basis is abhorrent.
I rise to speak with some trepidation, because this Bill does two wonderful things—some of the best things that we will do in this Session—but it also does one thing that I do not agree with. I will say why I do not agree with it, but I am somewhat cautious because I am surrounded in this place by good friends and great fountains of wisdom who take a different view.
First, starting with the things that I do agree with, the inclusion of mothers’ names on marriage certificates is a wonderful improvement. When I got married up in Northumberland in the wilds of College Valley, I was amazed that we were unable to put my mother’s name on the certificate. It seemed implausible that that should still be the case, and the unbelievably powerful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) underlined why that reform is so important.
Secondly, the opportunity to commemorate the life of unborn children is another hugely important reform that will offer some closure to a large number of people. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) and for Colchester (Will Quince) on their work raising the issue of baby loss in this House. They have been tireless champions, and this Bill from my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) is another step towards achieving an important objective. Someone may not realise how often this happens until it happens to them; they then find out that other people have had similar experiences.
It is important while discussing this issue that we pay tribute to the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who has spoken passionately about her experiences.
My hon. Friend is right to add that.
As I said, this Bill does two wonderful things with which I completely agree, but I will now talk about my dog in the manger. There is no point in having a Parliament if we cannot have disagreements in it, and this is the whole point of the exercise. I start my remarks on this by putting on the record my support for equal marriage for gay people. I always have done, including when that hugely important reform was made. Despite the fact that this country has made a huge amount of progress, there is still a large amount of discrimination against gay people, and it is easy not to notice it if one is heterosexual. For example, I read not that long ago about a man who was kicked to death by a gang of wicked people in Trafalgar Square—the centre of our capital city—just for being gay.
I was a strong supporter of equal marriage for gay people because it marked another step towards just treating gay people like everybody else. I support the goal of equivalence for heterosexual and homosexual couples, but I would rather achieve it in a different way. I thought that civil partnerships were a useful stepping stone towards equal marriage for gay people but, now we have got there, I would prefer simply to have equal marriage for heterosexual and homosexual couples.
When this Bill was previously debated in Parliament, two different arguments were made for having two different types of marriage, and I use “different types” advisedly. The first argument was that a lesser type of marriage was being created—a sort of try-before-you-buy—but that argument was strongly objected to by other supporters of the Bill, including the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who said that the two types of marriage were equal. There was no consensus on that argument, and it has not been one of the main arguments made today.
The second argument is that marriage is in some way a religious, paternalistic or sexist institution. Some Members have alluded to that with references to people getting in touch with them to say that that is how they feel about marriage, which is why they would like a civil partnership instead. It is important to note that the Lords made a clear, adamantine distinction between religious and civil marriage and that this House cannot regulate religious marriage. As my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) pointed out, the two are completely different. We cannot put a window into men’s souls, and it was important during the passage of the legislation for equal marriage that we made the huge distinction between civil and religious marriage, which continues in this Bill. There is no question of religious ministers being forced to do anything, but they are welcome to choose to do so if they want. That is the right balance.
Several Members have described how people have suggested to them that marriage is a religious or sexist institution, but if there is anything sexist about it, we should change that and ensure that it is not. It would surprise my wife if I told her that she had agreed to take part in a patriarchal or religious institution. We are both atheists, and we were not allowed Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” as a wedding song because it is religious, so we missed out on that opportunity because of the important distinction. One of the reasons why I do not agree with this measure is that I do not want to endorse that argument. If people feel like that, they are wrong. We must do everything we need to do, because they are wrong. Let us change it if there is a problem, but the onus is on those who want the change to make the case for it.
I believe that a single institution would be better for equality. It would be a simpler story. Gay people can get married and straight people can get married. We can all get married—simple. There will not be different types of things for different types of people. I am nervous, as the House can tell, about some of the arguments made for extending civil partnerships, not least this “try before you buy” argument about it being a softer thing. I find that particularly concerning.
I have put my concerns about this measure on the record, and my eloquent hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) is right that this will be a popular measure and that a lot of people will take it up. I think it will be widely used, and he is right about that, but I am concerned.
Forgive me if I am wrong, and I imagine that it would be hard to measure, but many of the people who go down this route would not have got married. This is an additional choice, rather than something that removes a choice. We should open our eyes to the fact that people see this is as something different that suits them, and we should embrace it as a positive new development.
That is probably the strongest argument for it, but my hon. Friend has already said that his constituent was going to get married in the absence of this measure. I am nervous about the argument, “I would prefer something else because I feel that marriage is sexist.”
I completely respect my hon. Friend’s view, but the reality is that there are 3.2 million opposite-sex cohabiting couples who have no protections within the law, and half of them have children. One of my local registrars is running a waiting list for people waiting for this legislation. There is a lot of demand for it, and it can only bring about greater family stability, greater commitment and greater benefits in safe, healthy, loving upbringings for those children. That is why this is really important.
We will find out in due course when we pass this Bill whether that is the case. My fear is that the dissolution rate may be higher if people believe that civil partnerships are a softer institution.
I assure my hon. Friend that where there are different options—in France for example—the divorce rate among those who are conventionally married is rather greater than it is for those who have entered an opposite-sex civil partnership, so the data does not support that assertion.
At the moment, the dissolution rate for civil partnerships in the UK is higher than for marriages. Of course my hon. Friend is correct that it is not a good example, because there are a lot of other pressures on gay people. We will not know, in the unique circumstances of the UK, who is right until we do it, and I hope he is right.
I have said my bit on this subject, and today we will be passing some measures that I hugely welcome, that put right some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull and that give comfort to grieving families, who are much larger in number than is often realised in this country.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) again on introducing this important Bill. He said that this was about complete equality, and the Bill is about some basic principles, including equality, fairness, choice and freedom, which I believe in very much. The UK has a proud record in all those areas, and there are many examples of equality that we have championed, whether it be disability, equal pay, same-sex marriage—I was not in this place when the House voted for same-sex marriage, but I certainly would have supported it—race and, most importantly today, religion.
All our thoughts today are with the loved ones of those connected with these horrendous crimes in New Zealand. Everyone who believes in peace and peaceful co-existence just does not understand what could possibly drive someone to perpetrate these terrible, terrible acts.
I support all the provisions in this Bill, whether it be extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples, including mothers’ names on marriage certificates or registering stillbirths. As I said earlier, when we try to explain what we are doing to the public, their natural reaction is to ask why we have not done it already and why it is not already on the statute book.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s prescience. He said that he initially introduced a Bill in 2013, and it was not until five years later that the Supreme Court said that the prohibition of opposite-sex civil partnerships was discriminatory. I congratulate him again on bringing this forward.
One question I have for my hon. Friend or the Minister is about whether the timescale is realistic. There seems to be an awful lot to do between now and 31 December 2019, when the regulations have to be brought into force. I have introduced a couple of private Members’ Bills myself, and it seems to take years to bring such things into full effect. There is a lot of work to do, but I am sure that my hon. Friend has worked through them with officials and Ministers to make sure that this Bill can be implemented.
I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s prescience in identifying my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) as a smartarse—he is an extremely clever man, and his thoughts on this stuff are always right on the money. On registering mothers’ names on the marriage certificate, 90% of single parents are women and it seems unthinkable that their name cannot be on a marriage certificate. This therefore has all sorts of implications for marriage certificates.
There are other Bills to consider today, so I will briefly discuss the registration of stillbirths, which was addressed at length in my private Member’s Bill on parental bereavement. I have a number of constituents, including the one I mentioned earlier, who had a baby at 23 weeks and six days. If those babies had not survived for two days, the parents would never have been able to register the birth. It is right that the law is changed.
My hon. Friend is not correct. If a child is born before 24 weeks with signs of life, the birth will be registered. If a child is born before 24 weeks with no signs of life—what we would define as a stillbirth—the birth will not be registered. That is the actual position.
My hon. Friend has cleared up that point. Nevertheless, this is an important part of the Bill.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak in this debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friend yet again on introducing this Bill, which I fully support.
I associate myself and my hon. Friends with the comments about the terrible events in New Zealand. I am sure everyone’s prayers and thoughts are with them.
I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) again on introducing this important Bill, and I am grateful for the great work of our colleagues in the other place to improve it further. The Opposition are pleased to see that the duty to investigate deaths in certain circumstances will be extended to the death of newborns of any age, including those who die immediately after birth.
My sister had a baby who was stillborn, and I know at first hand just how traumatic it is. I know the huge sense of grief, loss and emptiness. People think that, because a parent did not know the baby, it is somehow different, but it is not—it is really not.
As I have previously indicated in the Chamber, the UK has a woefully high number of stillbirths for a western country. I have worked in reproductive services in the NHS, and I have seen at first hand how traumatic stillbirths can be for mothers. We need to do more to support mothers and to prevent stillbirths. We agree that stillbirths that occur before 24 weeks should be formally acknowledged and registered, but I reiterate that by no means would we want to see such a measure used to undermine abortion rights and a woman’s right to choose.
I spoke in an earlier stage of the Bill in this House, and I remain proud that civil partnerships were a landmark policy introduced by Labour. My party has fought for the equal rights of LGBTQ+ people, and it was our Civil Partnership Act 2004 that paved the way for same-sex marriage. This Bill should be the final step in creating equality in the formal recognition of relationships, but while I am pleased that we are nearly there, it is obvious that we have not quite arrived.
Times have changed since the days when Labour Members cautiously did not push to further extend civil partnerships during the passage of the 2004 Act for fear of losing it altogether. I remember we were met with much hostility, but we were on a mission to ensure some level of equality as quickly as possible, and we achieved just that. With changing times, however, must come a change in how we approach matters of equality.
We welcome the Government’s willingness on suitable amendments to draw up appropriate regulations for equal civil partnerships by the end of 2019, but I must share the concern of my colleagues in the other place that they may be using consultations to drag their feet. We cannot wait any longer. I agree on the importance of gathering information, but it should not be used as a delaying tactic. The measures in the Bill are long overdue, and we will do a disservice to all those we are meant to represent if we do not get on with the job of ensuring equality.
On the issues of marriage more generally, I echo the concern of Members in the other place about the failure to deliver equal marriage for all citizens in the UK—namely, in Northern Ireland. I also reiterate the concerns about humanist marriages. The Government held a consultation in which more than 90% of respondents were in favour of legally recognised humanist marriages. Surely there is nothing inconclusive about such a response. Further, in 2015, the Law Commission reported that failing to grant humanists the same rights as religious people in marriage was fundamentally unfair. With the Northern Irish Court of Appeal ruling in June 2018 that there is a human right to a humanist marriage, I hope that Ministers will get on with the job of ensuring that humanist marriages are also recognised in England and Wales.
It is disappointing that the Government, having joined us in passing same-sex marriages, have previously made excuses for not expanding civil partnerships to all couples. One of these was inconclusive consultations. This is precisely why we accept them hesitantly. Some voices still suggest that we abolish civil partnerships altogether. This would definitely be a step backwards. It is our job as lawmakers to give further protections to our constituents, not to claw them back. The institution of marriage is not for everyone, and it is wrong to prevent those who want their relationship recognised in the eyes of society and the law from having it so recognised. It can put them and their families in legally challenging situations.
In conclusion, we in the Opposition support the Bill, as we have done throughout its passage. We ask only that the Government act to expedite these measures, which clearly have the support of the British public.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for his thorough explanation of clause 2 as it now stands in the Bill. I also pay tribute to him and his co-promoter, Baroness Hodgson, who guided the Bill so expertly through the other place, for their commitment to the vital issues that the Bill seeks to address, including the extension of civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples.
The Government are very supportive of clause 2 and the policy intentions behind it. I would like to answer the concern voiced earlier about the difference between “may” and “must”. Clause 1 confers a power to make regulation, but clause 2(2) imposes an obligation to exercise that power by 31 December 2019. I hope that sets at rest those concerns arising from this long and often held debate about “may” and “must”.
I thank my hon. Friend and Baroness Hodgson for the open and receptive way in which they have worked with the Government, officials and others to improve the drafting of the clause. As my hon. Friend outlined, clause 2 now requires the Secretary of State to make regulations to extend civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples by no later than 31 December 2019 and empowers the Secretary of State to make other provisions in view of the extension of eligibility.
There remains much work for the Government to do before then. There are some complex implementation issues that will need to be considered in the coming months, including: the formation, dissolution and voiding of civil partnerships; considering what religious protections should be put in place; the implications for private sector, state and public sector pensions; other financial entitlements, including tax credits, capital gains tax and housing benefit; international recognition of relationships formed here and abroad; the consequences for a civil partnership of one partner seeking a gender recognition certificate; a series of devolution issues; conversion rights between civil partnerships and marriages and vice versa; checking the many thousands of existing references to civil partnerships across the statute book; and drafting the necessary amendments, scrutinising and laying the regulations, and scheduling time for debates in Parliament. This is because the Civil Partnership Act 2004 is bespoke to same-sex couples and simply amending that legislation will not give opposite-sex couples the necessary rights, protections and entitlements.
It is also important that we take the views of the public and stakeholders on many of these issues to ensure that we exercise the regulation-making powers to create a new civil partnership regime that works for opposite-sex couples, that is fair and that is human rights compliant. Previous experience suggests that we are likely to receive thousands of responses to the consultation, and we will need to allow time to consider these and for the Government to respond.
That said, the Government are committed to changing the eligibility requirements for civil partnerships by the end of the year. This is very much an end date, rather than a target, and we are working to implement the new regime at the earliest opportunity. Our aim is that by the end of this year opposite-sex couples will be able to register and form civil partnerships. I hope that hon. Members will support my hon. Friend’s amendments, which will enable the Government to make the necessary changes so that opposite-sex couples will finally be able to express their commitment to each other in the way that best suits them.
Throughout this debate, many colleagues across the House have contributed and paid tribute to my hon. Friend and the good work that the Bill is trying to do. I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and for Harborough (Neil O'Brien) and especially to my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), who gave a moving account of his mother and the desire to see her name on his marriage certificate. I am also grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) and for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) and to the Opposition Front-Bench team.
The Government have no intention of dragging their feet. It will come as no surprise to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that this is not a normal part of my portfolio as Security Minister, but I asked in preparation for this debate what exactly would take time to implement.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this measure will bring security to a great many people?
I think we all need stability these days, and this will definitely add to that. Stability in our relationships is incredibly important. We all aspire to that as a good basis for our society. Strong personal relationships will lead to a strong society, and I fully endorse the aims of the Bill.
I rarely attend private Members’ days, but it is nice at this time—with the awful goings-on in Christchurch and the goings-on outside in this divided country—to see a succession of Bills, especially this one, that are about doing some good in people’s lives, which is what everyone across the House wants to do. I am incredibly pleased to have been a part of that in these few short hours. It is easy to forget that Members of Parliament, who are denigrated and now targeted and ridiculed at both ends of the political spectrum, more often than not do good things together to make people’s lives better, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend who has steered through both Houses a Bill that will make a difference for the good to many people’s lives.
Lords amendment 1 agreed to.
Lords amendments 2 to 6 agreed to.