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Human Rights: Same-sex Relationships

Volume 704: debated on Thursday 23 October 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Further to the Answer by Lord Hunt of Kings Heath on 10 July (Official Report, 10/7/08; cols 843-4), whether they have amended or withdrawn their intervention before the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Horst Schalk and Johann Kopf v Austria (Application No 30141/04) to contend that same-sex relationships fall outside the ambit of family life for the purposes of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

My Lords, the Government have not amended or withdrawn the intervention. During the debate on 10 July the noble Lord raised an important technical issue in relation to the approach taken to Article 8. The Government undertook to reflect on that aspect. In accordance with that undertaking, my officials have sought views from other departments and expect to be able to provide the noble Lord with more information by the end of November.

My Lords, I thank the Minister. It is bizarre for the Government, who turned my Civil Partnership Bill into legislation of which they can be justly proud, to intervene in a case against Austria apparently to persuade the Strasbourg court to adopt a narrow interpretation of the Article 8 right to respect for family life for same-sex couples in other European countries. Will the Government urgently reconsider their intervention and note the significance of the leading judgment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham, given yesterday in the case of EM (Lebanon) against the Home Secretary, where he interpreted the fundamental rights in the following terms—

My Lords, perhaps I may be allowed to put the question without barracking.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham, said:

“Families differ widely, in their composition and in the mutual relations which exist between the members … Thus there is no predetermined model of family or family life to which article 8 must be applied”.


Forgive me, my Lords. I was not in the House yesterday when my noble friend Lord Bassam spoke to the House about the need for us to have short questions, but I heard him on “Today in Parliament”. He was absolutely right, and I know that the House is very much behind him. I therefore remind all noble Lords to keep their answers and their questions brief.

My Lords, I stand rebuked. Does the Minister accept that it is very important to protect the rights of British civil partners in same-sex relationships in other parts of Europe, for example in France, so that they enjoy protection?

My Lords, the main purpose of our intervention is to address the argument made by the applicants that the right to marry, which is protected under Article 12, extends to same-sex couples, and I repeat that we are looking with some speed now at the point that the noble Lord made in his Question in July. As far as France is concerned, we have raised our concerns about non-recognition with the French Ministry of Justice. Both that Ministry and the French Finance Ministry have expressed their willingness to work with us to resolve the issue. There are a number of legal obstacles to recognition, but I can tell the House that this subject is on the agenda of meetings to be held between the Justice Secretary and the Europe Minister and their French counterparts in the next few days.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, while Article 8 of the European convention provides mainly for privacy in the home and Article 14 provides for non-discrimination, Article 12 provides for a view of marriage between a man and woman and of family life that is basic to the existence and continuation of any society?

My Lords, Article 12 speaks for itself. Men and women of marriageable age have the right to marry and found a family according to the national laws governing the exercise of that right. When we passed the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, we made a distinction in it and did not call single-sex partnerships marriage. In many important ways, it was very similar, particularly in the many legal rights that it quite rightly gave to single-sex partnerships, but it did not call those partnerships marriage, and that remains the Government’s policy.

My Lords, in the light of the Government’s excellent recent legislation on this matter, which we all support, why do the Government apparently object to the Strasbourg court developing any case law on this matter, which is the normal way in which law can be developed?

My Lords, we do not object to the advancement of case law from the European court. Our main objection—I am sorry if I am repeating myself—is to address the argument, made by the applicants in the case referred to in the Question, that the right to marry, which is protected under Article 12, extends to same-sex couples.

My Lords, would it not be a rather good idea if, regardless of the merits of the legislation enacted in this Parliament, we got back to the idea that it is this Parliament that governs this country and makes the laws that govern the people of this country? It would simplify matters an awful lot, and would save us from a great deal of the verbosity of those who cannot read a brief without actually having it in their hot little hands.