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Civil Partnership

Volume 667: debated on Thursday 31 October 2019

Before I invite the Minister to move the motion to approve these regulations, I should inform the House that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments considered them at its meeting yesterday and agreed to draw them to the attention of the House. The relevant extract of the Committee’s report is available in the Vote Office.

I beg to move,

That the draft Civil Partnership (Opposite-sex Couples) Regulations 2019, which were laid before this House on 21 October, be approved.

In what has been an emotionally charged and very moving day in the Chamber, this statutory instrument is, I hope, a cause for celebration, as it allows opposite-sex couples in England and Wales to form civil partnerships. This Government want to see more people formalise their relationships in the way they want with the person they love. We know that there are over 3 million opposite-sex couples who cohabit but choose not to marry. Those couples support 1 million children, but do not have the security or legal protection that married couples or civil partners enjoy.

That is why we announced last year that we would extend civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples and why we supported the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019, which was taken so ably through Parliament by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). The regulations are before the House. In short, section 2 of the Act enables the Secretary of State by regulation to amend the eligibility criteria for civil partnerships to make other appropriate and consequential provision. The Act requires the regulations extending eligibility to come into force no later than 31 December 2019.

These regulations, as Madam Deputy Speaker said, have been expedited in their consideration by both Houses. I am extremely grateful to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which considered them yesterday. In particular, the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) was helpful in understanding the urgency of this statutory instrument.

I will outline briefly the concerns of the Committee and the response of the Government to those concerns. Our approach on conversion—that is, conversion from marriage to civil partnership and vice versa—maintains a difference between opposite-sex and same-sex couples in their ability to convert their civil partnerships into marriages. Importantly, those two groups are not in a directly comparable position. The right to convert a civil partnership to marriage was introduced to enable same-sex couples to marry without having to dissolve their civil partnership as marriage had historically been denied to them. That same consideration does not apply to opposite-sex civil partners, who will always have been able to marry.

Even if same-sex and opposite-sex couples can be compared, the Government consider that maintaining the status quo in the short term is justified. Extending conversion rights to allow opposite-sex couples to convert their civil partnership to marriage now, while we are considering responses to the consultation, would risk creating uncertainty and confusion about future rights. We do not wish to introduce a new, potentially short-term conversion right that might subsequently be withdrawn in 2020.

Once we have made civil partnerships available to opposite-sex couples, our priority will be to resolve our longer-term position on conversion rights for all civil partners and to bring forward further regulations as soon as possible next year. I hope this reassures hon. Members that we have considered these issues carefully and we consider the regulations to be compliant with the Human Rights Act 1998.

Let me again pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, and also to Baroness Hodgson of Abinger, for their skill and tenacity in driving the Act through Parliament. I know that my hon. Friend has been invited to a civil partnership ceremony which the happy couple hope will take place on 31 December. We intend to implement the regulations on 2 December, which would enable the first opposite-sex civil partnership ceremonies to take place on 31 December, given the usual 28-day notice period. I very much hope that my hon. Friend will be able to make those celebrations.

I know how long some opposite-sex couples have waited for the opportunity to formalise their relationships, and to enjoy the stability, rights and entitlements that other couples enjoy. This is the final legislative step in the process, and I look forward to the first opposite-sex civil partnerships being formed by the end of the year.

I hope, Mr Speaker, that you will allow me a moment away from the important issue of civil partnerships, so that I can play my part in the tributes to you on your last day in that very special seat in the House. It is indeed an honour to be at the Dispatch Box today, and, of course, to hear the wonderful tributes to your chaplain, Rose. May I thank you personally for your service as Speaker of the House over the last 10 years?

As I was preparing for this debate, I sat in our wonderful House of Commons Library. Around the ceiling of one of the rooms are 30 wooden panels containing the names of every single Speaker, dating from 1377 to 2009, when you were sworn in. Your impact on this place will be present not just on those wooden panels in the Library, but in the day-to-day business and interactions of the House. Having sat here in the Chamber hearing some of the tributes to you—which have ranged from the very personal and very serious to some more light-hearted and fond recollections—I will, if I may, add one of my own. I consider it to be one of the achievements of my parliamentary career; it may, in fact, be the only achievement of my parliamentary career. By describing the name of my cat, I caused you to stand up and say:

“I am as near to speechless as I have ever been.”—[Official Report, 20 December 2018; Vol. 651, c. 984.]

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for everything that you have done for the House, but also for me, at the Dispatch Box and also as a Back Bencher. I wish you, and your loved ones, the very best for your future.

Does the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) wish to speak in the debate?

Just before I put the Question, I want to say, by way of response to the Minister, a big thank you. That was a very generous and gracious tribute from her. If I may return the compliment—and I think it is relevant to the whole question of the language of discourse—let me say that the hon. Lady has perfected the art of disagreeing agreeably. She is a brilliant advocate of her case, and a very highly respected and rising member of the Government. It is obvious that, in conducting debates in the Chamber, she relishes the political argument, the analysis of policy, the competing claims and so on, but in my experience—and I have heard her speak many times at that Dispatch Box—when engaging in debate, she always plays the ball rather than the man or the woman, and that is to her enduring credit. I reciprocate her very warm wishes: I wish her all the best.

I welcome the regulations, and I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on his campaign. I too called for the law to be changed, so I am delighted that the Government are finally introducing legislation that will put everyone on an equal footing.

Last year, I pointed out:

“The Government should have already legislated to ensure all couples have equality of choice.”

At the time, I called on the Government to

“take action and change the law to ensure all people have access to civil partnerships”.

I have no idea why it took so long. I have no idea why the Lib Dems and the Conservatives did not want this to happen a lot sooner. It was over a year ago— 16 months, in fact—that the Supreme Court ruled that restricting civil partnerships to same-sex couples was discriminatory. The judges ruled that current UK laws were incompatible with human rights laws on discrimination and the right to a private and family life, so there was no reason for the delay. As the Minister said, there are 3.2 million cohabiting opposite-sex couples, and this is unfortunately another example of the Government dragging their feet on equality. Maybe it is a result of all the changes in Ministers and all the upheaval, but this foot-dragging on equality is unnecessary and quite costly. The Government seem to be letting a lot of people down when it comes to equality.

This change only came about because of the brave steps taken by Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan. In October 2014, the London couple tried to form a civil partnership at their local registry office in Chelsea Town Hall, but they were told that they could not do so because they were not a same-sex couple. They bravely took their case all the way to the Supreme Court, but they should not have had to do that. I would like to remind the House what Ms Steinfeld said outside the court. She said:

“We are feeling elated…But at the same time we are feeling frustrated the government has wasted taxpayers’ money in fighting what the judges have called a blatant inequality.”

When the Minister gets to her feet, perhaps she could explain to the House how much it cost the taxpayer to take this to court. It was the Lib Dem-Tory Government who decided not to do anything at a time when they could have just changed the law; if they had done so, we would not have had to go through all this.

As I have said, I am pleased with this decision, as it will give cohabiting opposite-sex couples the recognition that they deserve. It will provide stability and security, and ultimately allow couples to decide what is right for them in their relationship. It will give stability to families and children. I am looking forward to the election, because I hope that we will then be able to form a Government with a stand-alone Department for Women and Equalities and be able to push equality issues a lot faster than we have seen over the past 10 years.

I have a bit of a sense of déjà vu all over again on this Bill. It has been a long journey getting here, but this is a happy day that will lead to very many happy days for happy couples, starting on 31 December. I will be going out to buy a new hat in anticipation of those events shortly. Before I make my brief comments and put some specific questions to the Minister, however, I just want to take issue with the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler). It is a shame that the Opposition Front Bench has taken a slightly churlish attitude in this debate. There is a simple response to her question as to why this has taken so long. Very simply, it is because, having promised me that they would vote for it, Labour Members voted against the amendment to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 that would have achieved this several years ago. So she might like to look to her own side before she tries to cast aspersions on what has been a magnificent effort by the Government to get here today.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend. I have been campaigning on this for many years. I was approached by two sisters at the time of the passing of the original Civil Partnership Act 2004 by Tony Blair. The sisters had lived together for many years and faced being evicted and losing their home because they could not have a civil partnership. Will my hon. Friend say a bit more about that particular case?

That would probably be stretching out of order, but I appreciate that my hon. Friend took up the issue before I did. It is a cause with which I have some sympathy, and there have been measures in the other place for a Bill on that topic. This legislation is about couples and relationships and recognition and protections that are not available. The matters to which he refers, which relate particularly to siblings who are living together and are entirely dependent on each other, are largely financial ones, and that should be addressed in financial legislation. I would absolutely support him if that were to happen in the future.

I just want to pay some tributes, because this might not have happened today. If this debate had not happened before the end of this Parliament, the necessary regulations that form part of the 2019 Act, which received Royal Assent back on 26 March, would not have been completed in time for the first civil partnerships between opposite-sex couples to take place, as promised, before the end of this year. I am therefore grateful to the Chief Whip, the usual channels, the Minister, the Statutory Instruments Committee, which met hurriedly yesterday, and the officials, who worked tirelessly in order to get us to where we are today. Otherwise, the promises that we made to the people who were looking forward to having their happy day on 31 December might not have been kept.

I have constantly stated that many register offices around the country have been taking provisional bookings for civil partnerships, including on the very last day of this year. A lot is hingeing on this, and many people will be watching these proceedings and the news that comes out. The issue was that, in order for civil partnerships to take place by the end of this year, the regulations had to be laid and then there is a minimum of 28 days—it is not really a cooling-off period—between a couple registering their interest in a civil partnership before it is able to be conducted. That meant that if the regulations had not been approved before 2 December, that process could not have been gone through. I am therefore grateful to the Government, because it was always a big thing for me that this should happen this year, rather than there be yet further delay. The Minister, true to her word, was able to persuade the powers that be to agree to that. I am grateful to all the officials and Ministers who have made this possible.

It is something of an honour that this will be the last piece of debatable business in this Parliament and the last debatable business that you will oversee, Mr Speaker. You have been a big supporter of this change, although you would never admit it and show any degree of partiality, but I know, unofficially, that you have got behind this change, which has been of great help and comfort to people outside this House who see this as an obvious equality measure that should have happened some time ago.

The process has been expedited, but I just have a few brief questions for the Minister. First, will she confirm—I think she already has—that the fact that we are debating this well before 2 December does not mean that the 28 days start from today? If so, we may need to expedite the purchase of hats before the end of November, rather than the end of December, but I think she has confirmed that the earliest that the first civil partnership ceremony can take place will be 31 December 2019 for those who have registered their interest by 2 December. Emergency civil partnerships are an exception and, as happened with civil partnerships between same-sex couples back in 2014, could be approved in a matter of hours or days after 2 December. Some people who have been part of the equal-partner civil partnerships campaign and who have terminal illnesses are very much looking for the change to happen as soon as possible. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that for the benefit of those for whom the date is particularly crucial. Could the Minister also confirm the status of opposite-sex civil partnerships registered outside England and Wales, for example, on the Isle of Man, which was the first part of the British Isles to approve opposite-sex civil partnerships and where key people involved in the campaign have undergone a civil partnership? Will their civil partnership be recognised in our law from 2 December or 31 December, or will this still be contingent on further work on regulations that needs to take place?

I fully appreciate that this measure is not the end of the story; this enables new opposite-sex couples to engage in a new civil partnership and there is much work still to be done on the conversion for those who are already married, just as there was a conversion the other way round in respect of civil partnerships for same-sex couples. Looking through the regulations, which are detailed and technical, I appreciate the work that has gone into everything from gender recognition to the status of children, the warm home discount and digital switchover. All that legislation, extraordinarily, has to be considered in these regulations in order to get this right. Will the Minister therefore clarify the status of existing overseas or ex-England opposite-sex civil partnerships?

Will the Minister also issue guidance as soon as possible to registrars around the country that they should be open for business from 2 December? There has been confusion as to whether this would happen and some registrars, the more far-sighted ones, have been taking provisional waiting lists as from 31 December, whereas others have said, “It’s not happening, so don’t call us, we’ll call you after 31 December.” It is important that clear instructions are now issued. If she could signal from the Dispatch Box as well, that would be helpful, because people need to prepare. People who have been waiting years and years for this day to happen want to be able to get on with it, and we need to ensure that registrars know what they are doing in order to facilitate their request.

Finally, let me say that this is just but one part of my Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019. There are three other parts to it. I raised the issue of mothers’ names on marriage certificates with the Second Church Estates Commissioner, which has yet to be resolved by formal regulations. The second issue is about the Secretary of State giving the go-ahead for coroners to have the power to investigate stillbirths. The last issue is the review of sub-24-week stillbirths. They are all important parts of my multifaceted Act that still require further regulations. I appreciate that today we are dealing purely with the civil partnerships part of it, but it would be helpful if the Minister gave some indication that work is ongoing on those other important parts of this Act.

Once again, may I thank the Minister in particular for expediting these measures today, just in the nick of time? For many hundreds of couples up and down the country waiting on this, it is a really important and happy development.

As always, my hon. Friend asks me many questions. I sometimes think he is doing it in the hope of catching me out, so I am going to do my best to prove him wrong. The date on which the regulations come into force is set out in regulation 1(2) and they will be very much in force on 2 December, so that the 28 days’ notice can be in force for civil partnerships on 31 December, with the exception, as he rightly points out, in respect of emergency applications.

On overseas civil partnerships, overseas relationships can be recognised as civil partnerships in England and Wales if they meet the conditions set out in the Act. Opposite-sex couples who formed a civil partnership on the Isle of Man will be recognised as civil partners in England and Wales on the day these regulations come into force—in other words, from 2 December. I should say that the regulations include a list of specified overseas relationships that will be treated as civil partnerships here, but other overseas relationships can also be recognised as civil partnerships if they meet general conditions.

Yes, the General Register Office will issue clear guidance to local registration services about the commencement of the new scheme. I do not have a date to hand, but when I discover one, I will write to my hon. Friend.

On the other matters in the Bill, I am delighted to confirm that the General Register Office is currently working on the secondary legislation, IT systems and administrative processes required to implement the marriage schedule system. Officials are working with the Church of England and the Church in Wales on the details of the proposals, and a timescale will be announced in due course. I am keen that we help to get mums’ names on to marriage certificates as soon as possible.

I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me in respect of the other matters he raised. We have concentrated on civil partnerships, so I will have to write to him on the other two matters—he caught me out on those two.

Question put and agreed to.

Royal Assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Early Parliamentary General Election Act 2019

Northern Ireland Budget Act 2019.