47A: After Clause 148, insert the following new Clause—
“Review of public sector equality duty in relation to age for children
(1) The Secretary of State shall undertake a review of the extent to which public authorities have discharged the duty imposed by section 148 for the protected characteristic of age for persons who have not attained the age of 18, no later than 12 months after its commencement.
(2) Such a review will examine the extent to which public authorities have reduced prejudice and improved behaviour towards persons who have not attained the age of 18.
(3) In discharging subsection (1), the Secretary of State must have due regard to the views of children and of parents, and to organisations representing the views and interests of children and parents.”
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her assurance in Committee that the Equality and Human Rights Commission statutory and non-statutory guidance on the public sector equality duty will give practical assistance to public service providers on how they can implement the age provision for children. That is very welcome, but I am conscious that one element of that duty on age will not apply to under-18s because of their exclusion from the ban on age discrimination in services and public functions. I am keen to ensure that the public sector duty has the greatest possible impact on children and young people and that it addresses the unfair treatment that so many of them experience because of their age.
This amendment would introduce a review of how public authorities have carried out the public sector equality duty in relation to age for children,
“no later than 12 months after its commencement”.
The review is set to examine how,
“public authorities have reduced prejudice and improved behaviour towards”,
“must have due regard to the views of children and of parents”,
as well as of the organisations representing them. This review will provide an opportunity to assess just how effective the equality duty has been in addressing inequality on the basis of age and will highlight whether further action is required.
Members of the Young Equals group have sent me a great deal of evidence of the unfair treatment experienced by children and young people because of their age in all settings and evidence of the negative impact that this treatment has on family life, particularly on mothers with young children. I have heard, for example, of several instances of buses driving past parents with pushchairs. A local paper recently reported that two young mothers had been unable to get on a local bus at least eight times since having their babies, including during the awful rain and snow that we have been experiencing. On one occasion, this treatment meant that a baby missed his first immunisation injections with the doctor. That is exactly the kind of treatment that one would want to see an end to.
I have heard of cases where emergency services have refused to attend to children. I have also seen evidence of unfair treatment in child protection services, public transport and health services. One mother contrasted the high quality of adult oncology services with children’s services, which were accommodated in cramped wards that were not initially intended for children. There was also a lack of privacy, long walks to access treatment and so on. She said, “It’s so hard to see your child endure painful treatments and distressing tests. But to know that they are getting a service that is inferior to that received by adults is like having salt rubbed into the wound”. Surely this is the sort of treatment that we do not want to continue.
No doubt the Minister has seen the results of a poll published this weekend by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England. Almost half of the 1,000 children questioned had been treated unfairly because of their age. Just under a quarter of seven to 17 year-olds and half of 16 and 17 year-olds had been treated unfairly because of their age when using public transport. More than one in five young people aged seven to 17 and a quarter of those aged seven to nine reported being treated unfairly because of their age when using local sports, leisure or play facilities.
It has been said in this House that children are not adults. I completely agree with that. There are also many times when it will not be appropriate to treat children of different ages in the same way. The Government have already ensured that different treatments, where appropriate, will be permitted, with any necessary additional exceptions spelt out in secondary legislation. This would ensure that children could not buy, for example, alcohol or weapons—I should jolly well hope not—and would still benefit from age-appropriate healthcare screening, child protection and safeguarding services.
I understand, too, that the Government have concerns that legal protection for children from unfair treatment on the basis of their age might lead to a chilling effect whereby age-specific services would be withdrawn. Frankly, I do not believe that. There has been an Age Discrimination Act in Australia since 2004 and there is no evidence to suggest that age-specific services have been affected. Perhaps the Government would commit to reviewing the Australian age discrimination legislation to see how it has worked in practice.
Will the Government also consider the inconsistencies in their approach to children and young adults in relation to the ban on age discrimination? The Children Act 1989 and the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 both make provision for services and assistance to young people to the age of 21. Such service provision for over-18s will not be jeopardised by the introduction of age discrimination protection, so why is this the case for under-18s? I of course listened carefully to the Minister’s arguments in earlier debates for why children are to be excluded from the age discrimination provisions in the Bill. Frankly, I remain unconvinced that protecting one-fifth of the population is not workable.
Ministers in both Houses have indicated that the public sector equality duty provisions on age will benefit children. If the Government are unwilling—however much I wish they were not—to remove the exclusion of children from the age discrimination ban in services and public functions, perhaps they should commit to reviewing how the public sector equality duty has addressed the negative treatment of children and young people that I have highlighted. This amendment would introduce an extra safeguard that is a necessary counterbalance to the exclusion for children of one whole limb of the duty concerning the elimination of discrimination in relation to age. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support this amendment. I failed to do so at an earlier stage—or one similar to it. The Children’s Commissioners for the United Kingdom are united in their view that the UK is not good in its approach to children. The Government and the public treat under-18s not as people but as children. Children are treated less favourably in many ways, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, said. It is quite wrong. We must get into a culture of recognising that, although we must deal with them at different ages in different ways, every child, however young, is entitled to be treated as a person with rights. One interesting aspect of the European Convention on Human Rights was that, although it did not refer to children, fairly early on the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg recognised that, particularly under Article 8, children had exactly the same rights as adults. That has not permeated into the culture of this country. I strongly support the amendment.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of UNICEF UK. We appreciate the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, is making because we tabled amendments in Committee that helped to explore the reasons why the provisions for services and public functions do not apply to people under 18. We therefore have sympathy with the intention of the noble Baroness’s amendments.
We accepted that the Government’s explanation of the reason behind the exclusion of children from these clauses was reasonable and proportionate. Of course, we hope that the Minister will take on board the concerns raised here and the fact that it would be helpful to keep under assessment the effect of the public sector equality duty in this area and whether it continues to be appropriate for the services and public functions clauses not to apply to under-18s. We must ensure that protection is extended to all for whom it is necessary and it is vital that children too are protected from discrimination.
However, this review may not be the ideal way of exploring the issue. The review would take place no later than 12 months after commencement of the Act. Will that allow enough time fully to assess the implications and effects of the provisions? It appears to be a very tight timeframe and perhaps too tight to produce useful results.
My Lords, Amendment 47A, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, would add a new duty on a Secretary of State to undertake a review of the extent to which public bodies have discharged the equality duty imposed by Clause 148 in relation to the protected characteristic of age for persons under the age of 18. The review should be conducted no later than 12 months after the commencement of the equality duty. The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, made a reasonable point that that is almost certainly too soon, even if it were something that we would wish to happen.
The amendment revisits the issue of the treatment of children—an issue that we have discussed at some length at each stage of the Bill. Let me first clarify and assure noble Lords that children will be extensively protected under the Bill. Just like adults, they are protected against discrimination because of race, disability, sex, religion or belief, sexual orientation and gender reassignment in both employment and the provision of services and the exercise of public functions. The new equality duty will require public bodies to consider the need to eliminate discrimination and advance equality of opportunity for people of all ages, including those under the age of 18.
Children, parents and children’s organisations can contribute to the effectiveness of the duties. The general duty will be underpinned by a number of specific duties in secondary legislation, to assist better performance of the equality duty. These specific duties will require public bodies, including government departments such as the Department for Children, Schools and Families, to consult and involve relevant people in setting equality objectives, including young people and their parents in certain circumstances—for example, when maintained schools exercise some of their functions—and to report annually on their progress. They will be required to review these objectives every three years.
Consultation and involvement are key to our proposals for the specific duties. We believe that involving people from different age groups, including children and their parents, is crucial to understanding problems and tackling them effectively. We want public bodies to be transparent and accountable and move away from processes to focus on achieving and monitoring equality outcomes. Our proposals for specific duties provide the reporting and reviewing mechanisms that will help citizens track progress and compare public bodies. We aim to consult on the draft regulations for the specific duties in the summer.
There are mechanisms in place to review public bodies’ compliance with equality duties. The general duty can be enforced through judicial review by individuals, third sector organisations and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The commission will enforce the specific duties. If it thinks that a public authority has not complied with the equality duty, it will have the power to serve a compliance notice. Failure to comply with a compliance notice can result in the commission applying to the court for an order requiring compliance. Inspection bodies such as Ofsted can carry out thematic reviews to assess the extent to which young people are protected and will take into account equality considerations in carrying out those inspections. For example, school inspectors will assess the extent to which pupils feel safe from different forms of harassment and bullying.
The EHRC is under an obligation to review progress towards equality and to produce a state of the nation report every three years. The commission is also required to keep under review the effectiveness of equality legislation. If children’s organisations are concerned that the protection of children has been insufficient, it is entirely right and proper that they should raise their views with the commission.
The noble Baroness mentioned a survey indicating that young people feel that they have suffered discrimination. The children’s rights report says that 45 per cent of young people surveyed felt that they had been unfairly treated because of their age. This is a high figure and reflects young people’s strong sense that they are entitled to dignity and respect, a view with which I have great sympathy and which echoes the remarks made by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. However, we have to recognise that poor treatment cannot necessarily be defined as unlawful age discrimination and dealt with by age discrimination law. Many of those reported grievances, for example, amount to a sense that older people do not treat them with enough respect in some circumstances, such as in formal relationships, and these do not fall within the law at all.
The means to review and assess compliance with the duties, and to take account of the views of children and parents, already exist and will continue to exist when the new equality duty is enforced. I therefore ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her response. I cannot say that I am very happy. For example, I mentioned Australia, and I wonder whether an assessment has been made of why treating children to the same extent as adults seems to have worked so well in Australia. I am very grateful for the support of my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss and for the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, even though she was not exactly 100 per cent on the side of having a review within 12 months.
I should like to consider what has been said and I am rather sad that there does not seem to have been any intention of having an overview of how the policies are working. Looking at particular complaints and issues is not the same thing as giving an overview of how it is working for all children. In the circumstances I have no alternative but to withdraw the amendment. However, I hope that the Minister will give more thought as to how the Government might please more than their answer has done those who have put forward the amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 47A withdrawn.
Schedule 18: Public sector equality duty: exceptions
Amendment 48 not moved.
Clause 158 : Positive action: recruitment and promotion
49: Clause 158, page 101, line 42, leave out “as qualified as” and insert “equally qualified to”
My Lords, this is an area in which we have strong views. As noble Lords are aware, we are very much in favour of the clauses on the use of positive action by employers so long as it remains just that and does not descend into positive discrimination. We have therefore tabled an amendment that would change “as qualified as” into “equally qualified to”. We are concerned that the Government’s intention might have changed in this regard and that the clause’s language allows flexibility that looks more like positive discrimination. We cannot support this.
In Committee, the Minister attempted to reassure us by saying:
“It simply allows an employer, when faced with two candidates who are as qualified as each other to carry out a specific job, to use the desirability of widening the diversity of the workforce as the criterion for choosing between them”.—[Official Report, 9/2/10; col. 658.]
We have heard different arguments from the Government as the Bill has passed through its stages in both Houses. It would be useful, therefore, if the Minister could tell us whether she sees the clause being used for such tie-breaker situations between two people.
The Minister tried to reassure us further by saying that you cannot set the bar very low simply to pick someone who is less qualified but who has the relevant protected characteristic. She referred to people being 95 per cent qualified or 51 per cent qualified, for example, and we are grateful for this reassurance, especially as this is the situation that we wish to avoid. However, does she concede that it might be difficult to define precisely how qualified people are? This is why the clause remains open to abuse. The bar would not have to be set extraordinarily low before positive discrimination could be used to pick from a pool of candidates, all of whom were fairly equally qualified—something which the Minister stated she did not want to happen.
We want to ensure that the clause is used only as a tie-breaker. Even if this seems to be the Government’s intention, we argue that the language does not tie down the clause specifically enough. The Minister expressed concern that to make it very specific might discourage employers from using it. We argue the opposite; surely a more specific clause and more precise guidance are the way to encourage employers to use them, as there will be no doubt about what exactly they are allowed to do. The CBI has made it very clear that one of its major concerns is the vagueness of the clause and that it is unsure how it will work in practice. The British Chambers of Commerce has also expressed the concern that the language is “too confusing”. Thus, we argue that the vague nature, rather than the too precise nature, of the clause will be to blame for employers being unwilling to use it. I look forward to the response of the Leader of the House. I beg to move.
My Lords, the amendment would change the current wording of the provisions in Clause 158(4)(a) from “as qualified as” to “equally qualified to”. The amendment was discussed in Committee and in the other place, and, as previously pointed out, while the suggested change in the wording seems very similar to the current wording in the clause, we consider that amending the wording from “as qualified as” to “equally qualified to” may have unintended consequences.
If the requirement was for job candidates to be “equally qualified to” be recruited or promoted, the employer might interpret this as requiring the candidates to have equal academic qualifications or other formal qualifications of a similar nature. However, when we refer to a candidate being qualified for a job, this is not a direct reference to any form of formal qualifications: rather, it is about ensuring that candidates must demonstrate that they meet the employer’s particular requirements for the specific post in question. They are qualified to do the job according to whatever criteria the employer has identified as being appropriate for that job.
Any assessment of candidates’ suitability will depend on a number of factors relevant to the job in question, such as experience, aptitude, physical ability and performance during an interview or assessment. Formal qualifications are only one way in which a candidate’s overall suitability may be assessed and there may be many jobs where there is no need for any sort of formal qualification whatever. How an employer assesses whether an applicant is qualified to undertake a specific job would be up to the individual employer to determine. We are not attempting to interfere with how employers establish who is the most suitable person to work for them.
Any amendment that may make employers focus solely on academic or formal qualifications would be misleading and could cause employers to be reluctant to use those provisions unless they have a situation in which candidates have identical qualifications. The proposed amendment could therefore limit the scope for delivering real equality outcomes for women, people from ethnic minority communities and disabled people, for example, who still experience disadvantage and under-representation in the labour market.
During debates here and in the other place, there were some concerns that employers might set artificially low thresholds for determining suitability for a job in order to be able to claim that a candidate was qualified to do the job although better candidates were identified. We do not consider that these provisions could be misused in that way. Most criteria that an employer uses to establish the best candidate for a particular role within the organisation will establish whether one candidate is better qualified in terms of their ability, competence or experience. We have always been very clear on this matter: where there is a superior candidate then he or she should be offered the job. For example, where the assessment process, in whatever form it takes, evaluates one candidate as having scored, say, 95 per cent and another, say, 61 per cent, those candidates cannot be considered as being as qualified as each other to undertake the job. It is immaterial whether the pass mark was set at 60 per cent, 50 per cent or 40 per cent; the clearly superior candidate must always be offered the job. We are confident that the clause as currently drafted achieves that effect. It is for those reasons that I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for her very clear explanation. We have probably argued this one out in both Houses and, given the hour and the fact that we still have a number of groups of amendments to debate, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 49 withdrawn.
Clause 196 : Age
50: Clause 196, page 122, line 21, at end insert—
“( ) It is not a contravention of this Act for—
(a) a person or organisation which provides tourism or holiday services to place age limits on group holidays or holidays catering for people of particular ages;(b) a person or organisation to design and provide financial products for specific market segments qualified by age or age groups;(c) a person or organisation to provide insurance programmes where the calculations of the premiums for such programmes are based on reasonable evidence of the underlying differences in risk based on the purchaser’s age or age group.”
My Lords, I realise that at this late hour there is little appetite for delving back into a debate which we have already fully explored. Therefore, I shall keep my comments almost prohibitively short.
The intention of these amendments is just to gain absolute and certain clarity from the Government regarding their intentions in this area. In Committee, the Government provided helpful reassurances. I should like to pray on the patience of the Leader of the House once more to confirm that the exceptions will be made in regulations, that those regulations will come into force on the day when the age discrimination legislation comes into force and that they will be in one statutory instrument.
These amendments have been retabled because the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, stated in Committee that the Government were “strongly minded”—that is like a definite maybe—to proceed on the results of their consultation. These results showed that age was considered a legitimate factor to be used by those providing financial services. Can the Minister inform the House whether the Government have any more definite reassurance than “strongly minded”? I beg to move.
My Lords, Amendment 50 inserts exceptions for age-based holidays, financial services products for particular age groups and insurance based on evidence of risk.
We entirely appreciate how keen noble Lords and businesses are to have certainty about what the ban on age discrimination in services will mean for them and we are equally keen to reassure them about our policy and approach on these matters. Exceptions to the ban on age discrimination will be in secondary legislation, in some cases supported by statutory guidance. The exceptions will come into effect on the same day as the ban itself.
The policy statement we issued on 27 January reiterates that the future of age-related group holidays offered by Saga and other holiday providers will be secure when the ban comes into force. It makes clear that the financial services exception will allow firms to specialise in particular segments of the market by age. It clarifies that it will be possible to use age in financial services where it is relevant to risks or costs provided this is based on evidence.
The policy statement also makes clear that firms will be required to help consumers find a quote for motor and travel insurance through signposting or referring them to another provider, and that there will be publication of some data about how age is used in some products in a form that the non-expert can understand, as is already undertaken for gender.
I understand why there is an appetite for these kinds of exception to be written into the Bill now rather than later, but it is important that we get them right. We do not want any unintended consequences for valuable services or inadvertently to allow unjustified discrimination to carry on. That is why we will consult again in the autumn on a draft order containing exceptions, along with draft Treasury guidance on signposting, referral and transparency. Companies such as Saga and those in the financial services sector will have the opportunity to be involved in what the final legislation looks like, well before it is implemented in 2012.
Amendment 51 closely resembles a new clause that we debated in Committee. It is worth stressing that age used properly is a valid criterion for pricing risk. Outlawing the use of age as a risk factor could actually mean higher prices or lower quality products for everyone. The research undertaken by Oxera showed that in general prices are fairly based on risk and higher prices are a result of genuinely greater costs. Restricting the extent to which the financial services industry can base prices on risks and costs would distort the market.
The financial services exception to be set out in a draft order will allow financial services providers to treat people of different ages differently, but only where this is proportionate to risks and costs. This amendment focuses only on insurance and aspires to a particular outcome—that no one should lose out—but it does not help deliver it. It would be difficult for an insurer to demonstrate that there is no detrimental effect due to age, when there are so many different factors involved in pricing insurance. Where a complaint is made, it will be for the insurer to demonstrate that the provision does not create significant detriment by reference to age and leaves unanswered what would or would not constitute significant detriment in this area, thereby creating significant uncertainty. This shows how framing an exception is challenging, and why further discussion with stakeholders is required to develop an appropriate exception, and which, in particular, keeps uncertainty to the minimum.
On the basis of these explanations and the reassurance that I have given, I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
Amendment 50 withdrawn.
50A: Clause 196, page 123, line 15, at end insert—
“( ) For the avoidance of doubt, section 39(1) shall not apply to discrimination against persons with the protected characteristic of age if they are, or look as if they are, between 18 and 25 years old and the reason for the discrimination is to comply with voluntary or statutory codes of practice which require that people used in marketing communications for alcoholic drinks should be and appear to be over 25 years old.”
My Lords, this amendment would add a new subsection to Clause 196, which deals with the general exceptions in the Bill in relation to age. The purpose of the amendment is to try to ensure that we avoid the unintended consequence of undermining one of the ways in which the drinks industry and the Government try to minimise the appeal of alcohol to children.
Several codes of practice, both self-regulatory and statutory, cover alcohol advertising in broadcast and non-broadcast media and the wider marketing and promotion of alcoholic drinks brands. One rule in common to all these codes is that the people used in filming or photography, for example, must be and must look over 25. Even though the legal purchase age for alcohol is 18, there is a general and long-standing agreement that a buffer zone is desirable to prevent undue appeal to under-18s, which is why the rule about using actors who are over 25, and look over 25, was agreed. When casting for the production of TV or cinema ads for alcohol takes place, this is a very important consideration. In the past, there have been complaints to the relevant regulatory bodies that this rule has been breached and those complaints have been upheld.
I do not want to see the age discrimination provisions of the Bill inadvertently open a loophole that would provide actors who are, or look, under 25 with a legitimate cause for complaint if they were denied work to promote alcohol brands. Neither do I want to see a loophole that would allow unscrupulous brand owners to use images of young people in their advertising and feel that they had the protection of this law rather than the restraint of the codes of practice.
It may be that the amendment does not go far enough—it refers only to Clause 39(1) and the need to make sure that that subsection does not apply in these circumstances. Alternatively, it may be the opposite—this amendment could be unnecessary if, and only if, the Minister can give the House an assurance that regulations will clarify that these circumstances are an example of exactly what is intended by Clause 13(2), which allows discrimination if it is proportionate to achieve a legitimate aim. I hope that the Minister can give the House an assurance that it would be safe to rely on Clause 13(2), supported by regulations. If not, I hope that the Minister will accept this amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, this amendment would provide a specific exemption from age discrimination claims so that those involved in alcohol marketing can use only those people who are, and appear to be, over the age of 25, in compliance with relevant codes of practice. Clause 13(2) makes it clear that, in the case of age, A does not discriminate against B if A can show that A’s treatment of B is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. I hope that noble Lords understood that this late at night.
Further, the Bill does not change the law with regard to age discrimination in employment. In particular, Part 1 of Schedule 9 replicates the existing law. We are not aware of any claims brought by young people who feel that they have been refused work because they do not appear to be over 25, although I realise that the aim of the amendment is the protection of young people. The Government have sought to achieve a legislative balance by setting out a limited number of general exemptions to unlawful age discrimination in employment, such as in relation to the national minimum wage, benefits based on length of service and enhanced redundancy payments. However, to avoid weakening the legislation, these are deliberately limited to broad-based employment practices of particular significance to the economy and the labour market.
When we were developing the age regulations—there will be regulations to address these issues—it became apparent that it was not possible to specify in detail every instance where age discrimination by an employer might be objectively justifiable in pursuit of a legitimate aim. I think that that is the A and B bit to which I referred. Indeed, to attempt to do so might be counterproductive, as it could inadvertently exclude practices that could be beneficial. We therefore have Clause 13(2), which was referred to, for situations falling outside the general exceptions in relation to age and employment. Although such justification must be on a case-by-case basis, in the circumstances set out by the noble Baroness the employer is highly likely to be acting within the law, as there is a clear public interest justification in play. Indeed, the employment provisions apply to those making advertisements now and they have the protection that I have just outlined.
Current advertising regulations also contain rules that no one who is, or who appears to be, under the age of 25 may appear in an alcohol advertisement, apart from in adverts showing families socialising responsibly. Therefore, there is already an appropriate regime to ensure that suitable protections are in place to cover the involvement of younger people. I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment. I should add that, when I referred to regulations, I meant existing age regulations, the effect of which is replicated and repeated in the Bill.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. I am not sure that it is entirely clear that we will not finish up with a confusion between the current codes and this legislation. At this late hour, I am certainly not going to pursue the matter further, but I ask the Minister to take away the point that it is important for regulations to make absolutely clear the points that I made earlier.
Amendment 50A withdrawn.
Amendment 51 not moved.
Amendment 52 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.
53: Before Clause 201, insert the following new Clause—
“Civil partnershipsCivil partnerships on religious premises
(1) The Civil Partnership Act 2004 is amended as follows.
(2) Omit section 6(1)(b) and (2).
(3) In section 6A, after subsection (2), insert—
“( ) Regulations under this section may provide that premises approved for the registration of civil partnerships may differ from those premises approved for the registration of civil marriages.”
(4) In section 6A, after subsection (3), insert—
“( ) For the avoidance of doubt, nothing in this Act places an obligation on religious organisations to host civil partnerships if they do not wish to do so.””
My Lords, I shall make my contribution short as it is late and I know that others may wish to speak.
The intention behind this proposed new clause is to remove the prohibition on civil partnerships taking place in religious buildings and to put in the necessary regulations to allow religious buildings to be used to host civil partnerships.
From the outset, I want to make one thing very clear. The amendment does not—I repeat, does not—place an obligation on any religious organisations to host civil partnerships in their buildings. We have made that clear by including in the amendment the words:
“For the avoidance of doubt, nothing in this Act places an obligation on religious organisations to host civil partnerships if they do not wish to do so”.
Let me take a moment to explain why I am moving this amendment. Many gay and lesbian couples want to share their civil partnerships with the congregations with whom they worship, and a number of religious organisations want to allow gay and lesbian couples to do exactly that. What stands between them is the prohibition contained in the Civil Partnership Act.
If no religious organisations had asked for this or wanted this, there would be no issue before us this evening. In the end, it comes down to religious freedom—not the technical proficiencies of my amendment, which I believe is proficient; not an attack on the Catholic Church or the Church of England, which it certainly is not; and not a timetabling issue regarding the Bill, which it clearly is not. In the end, it is all about religious freedom.
We talk a lot about religious freedom, particularly in this place, and it is a much respected principle. I know that it is deeply held; it is a conviction that I hold, too. When balanced against other freedoms, it is an extraordinarily powerful and compelling principle, for we should all respect each other’s beliefs. However, religious freedom requires us to do more: it requires us to let others do things that we ourselves would not do; it requires us to allow others to worship in ways that we do not; and it requires us to respect the right to host ceremonies that we would not. Religious freedom means letting the Quakers, the liberal Jews and others host civil partnerships. It means accepting that the Church of England and the Catholic Church should not host civil partnerships if they do not wish to do so. I know that many in the Church of England and the Catholic Church could do without this issue and I am really sorry to bring it to their door. However, religious freedom cannot begin and end with what one religion wants; it has to be applied equally to the Quakers and to the Church of England, to the liberal Jews as well as to the Catholic Church.
I believe that people want religion in their lives and many gay and lesbian couples are no different. They want their civil partnership to be held in a place where they can celebrate it with the people with whom they worship. It is a simple act of religious freedom to allow the Quakers, the liberal Jews, the Unitarian Church and others to practise their religion in a way that meets their religious needs. I hope that, in that spirit of religious freedom, we can see our way tonight to allow them to do so. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have put my name to this amendment. I hope very much that I am able to demonstrate my liberal views that may not have been so evident earlier this evening.
I strongly support marriage and have enjoyed 51 years of it. However, I do not see this amendment as a threat to marriage. I listened with some concern to my good friend, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, on the “Sunday” programme last Sunday, defending his opposition to this clause, and found him to be less effective than he usually is. I genuinely do not see this amendment as a threat to marriage. It is, as the noble Lord, Lord Alli, has said, genuinely permissive.
I am concerned that the chief executive of Stonewall has suggested that it might become mandatory in due course. However, it becomes mandatory only if this House allows it to be. I hope that this House will not do that because I entirely respect the wish of the church to which I belong, and indeed of the Catholic Church, not to allow it within church premises. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Alli, has said, there are those from other religions, such as the liberal Jews and the Quakers, who would like to do it.
Same-sex couples can have strong and devoted relationships equal to, but different from, marriage and they may wish to have those relationships sanctified by a religious ceremony. If there are churches and synagogues prepared to do that, why should we stand in their way? They have rights to be loved and rights to have their ceremonies recognised in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Alli, has asked. It is for those reasons that I support this amendment.
My Lords, I remain strongly supportive of this change in the law. Believe me, I would not be here at 10 o’clock at night if I did not feel very supportive. I have broken a bad curfew. I view this as a matter of compelling religious freedom and am very happy to add my name to this amendment yet again. In light of views expressed by the Government in Committee, when there was widespread support from all sides, the amendment has been carefully revised and I believe it is much better for it.
Many of your Lordships will have received supportive briefing from a range of bodies, including religious organisations, which are growing in number and feel that they should be able to follow the wishes of all their members in celebrating lifelong committed relationships irrespective of whether they are same-sex unions. Indeed, in a letter to the Times last month, a considerable number of Church of England clerics said clearly that religious denominations should be allowed to register civil partnerships on their premises if they wish.
I believe that we should respond to these representations positively. I ask noble Lords to join me in supporting Amendment 53 and, should there be a vote on the new clause tonight, I urge them not to vote against a key equality measure that would benefit many men and women in this country.
My Lords, I have added my name to this amendment. I shall be brief but I do want to speak this evening as I was unable to speak in Committee because of my other responsibilities in your Lordships’ House. As a Back-Bencher for the purpose of this amendment, I hope that it will find favour with my Front Bench and that it will confirm that we have a free vote on this, otherwise clearly I shall be in a bit of trouble tomorrow.
I was proud to have joined my Benches and other parts of the House when the amendment to secure religious freedom was successfully pressed to a vote last month by my noble friend Lady O’Cathain. Amendment 53, as other noble Lords have said, is about religious freedom—the freedom of religious organisations to allow civil partnerships to take place on their premises and thereby be linked to some form of faith-based commitment. Most importantly, the amendment, in the revised form tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Alli, makes it clear that it preserves the freedom of religious organisations not to allow civil partnerships on their premises. No new rights and no new duties are created by it.
I know that some noble Lords accepted the provisions of the Civil Partnership Act only on the basis that civil partnership was a way of conferring a range of civil rights on same-sex partners. But the truth is that civil partnerships are about relationships and commitment. In turn, as my right honourable friend David Cameron said at our conference last autumn, these things are the bedrock of our society. For some, that commitment is enhanced and deepened by an element of religious ceremony.
I believe that if at all possible when making law we should also make people happy. The ability of churches to host civil partnership registration and a service of celebration in some religious form side by side could undoubtedly make some people very happy. I hope that the House will support the noble Lord’s amendment.
I fully support the amendment, first and most importantly because, as the noble Lord, Lord Alli, said, religious freedom is indivisible. If the Church of England claims it for itself, it ought to allow it for others. Some people have suggested that it undermines marriage, but on the contrary, it strengthens marriage. The real enemy in our society is promiscuity not permanent, stable, faithful relationships. These strengthen marriage.
Some people might say that it is possible for people to register their civil partnership legally and then move on to other premises for a religious ceremony. But for people entering into civil partnership, as for those entering into marriage, the business of making the commitment and vows that bring about the marriage or civil partnership is the significant act. Those who are religious would like the act that they see as religiously solemn performed in a religious context using religious words. I believe that this strengthens marriage rather than undermines it. I hope that your Lordships will support it.
My Lords, one of the difficulties in the Church of England, other churches and other faiths is that we are in a society that is preoccupied by rights and choices and that anything we tend to say will appear ungenerous. This is particularly so in the context of the especially generous remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Alli, who kindly smiled in our direction during most of his speech.
While I agree with almost everything and wanted to say “Amen” and even “Hallelujah” occasionally to what has been said before, nevertheless the House is a legislating Chamber. When considering changes to the law we need to be clear what they are meant to achieve and what in practice they will achieve. A phrase that has occurred during this debate this afternoon and evening has been, “unintended consequences”. That is all the more important when dealing with legislation such as the Civil Partnership Act, which has been operating for just over four years. As far as I know there have been no practical difficulties so far.
As we have heard, some religious groups wish to provide a religious context for same-sex couples seeking to register a civil partnership. As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, said, they can already do so by way of making provisions for a service in a meeting room, synagogue or chapel before or after the civil partnership has been registered elsewhere. They cannot have a one-stop shop that provides for marriage ceremonies or civil partnership ceremonies within a religious context.
If they want to, runs the argument, why should the law prevent them? The fundamental difficulty that many churches and faiths will have with this argument is that we, like the Government and the courts, have been quite clear ever since civil partnerships were introduced that they are not the same as marriages. It is true that they confer nearly all the same legal rights. However, it was because civil partnerships remedied long-standing injustices for gay and lesbian people, who had for far too long been the victims of discrimination and prejudice, that many people in the Church of England were able to welcome their introduction as worth while—a worthwhile addition to the civil law, even though, as is common knowledge, we continue to have very lively debates on issues of human sexuality.
At the moment, however, civil partnerships are not in substance or in form same-sex marriages. There are some countries that have already introduced the possibility of marriage between people of the same sex, and no doubt some of those sympathetic to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alli, favour that direction of travel. I do not, nor does the majority of churches and faiths in this country. But if people want to argue for that, they are entitled to do so, and it is a debate that we can have. That debate ought to take place in the synods, the convocations, the councils and so on, and the churches as well. The point is simply that we should not muddle up a debate about civil partnerships with a debate on same-sex marriage.
What is proposed here means that it would still be unlawful for a religious service to take place while a civil partnership registrar was officiating at the signing of a civil partnership document. Yet the signing of the document could occur in a place of worship if that place of worship had successfully applied for approval. That seems rather odd. Does it mean that the civil partnership registrar would have to turn up at the place of worship, conduct the legal part of the business, and then withdraw so that the religious ceremony could take place? Or does it mean that the local minister of religion would be appointed as a civil registrar and would be allowed to preside at the civil partnership formalities so long as he or she did not lapse into any “amens” or anything religious in their own place of worship until that part of the event was over?
Secondly, I want to refer to what a previous speaker said about Stonewall. The suggestion is that this would simply be an available option open to those religious groups that had chosen to avail themselves of it. While I am confident that that is the intention of those who introduced this amendment, I am not so confident about the intentions of others. Let us assume, with the noble Lord, Lord Alli, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, that this is the spirit in which we go forward. Who, then, would have to apply for the place of worship to be approved for the conduct of civil partnerships? The amendment talks of there being no obligation on “religious organisations”. But I am left unclear what “religious organisations” means in this context. In the case of an independent chapel, a synagogue or a church in the Congregationalist tradition, it would presumably be for that local church to apply. But in the case of the Church of England or the Methodist Church, or one of the other larger churches, would the legislation enable the denomination as a whole to decide whether to accept or decline the option, or perhaps to allow local variation? It is not clear from the legislation as drafted how that would work. Certainly, there has been no discussion with the main denominations about this. So there must at least be a question mark over whether the necessary framework could be put into place by regulations when the enabling legislation itself has been drafted at such speed and with no opportunity for discussion and reflection.
I am conscious that for those who see this as a simple matter of choice, rights and religious liberty, what I have said may have sounded too cautious and tentative. However, when Parliament introduced civil partnerships just a few years ago, it drew a clear distinction between the new legal status and marriage. One of the ways it underlined it was by ensuring that registrations could not take place on religious premises or include a religious ceremony. Religious groups that wish to offer blessings and ceremonies on the day of the civil partnership are already able to do so.
My concern is that the amendment would create a muddle in an area that, because it touches on civil rights and religious freedoms, needs complete clarity in the interests of all concerned. I hope that the noble Lord will be willing to withdraw the amendment for a fuller discussion to take place on this matter.
Before the right reverend Prelate sits down, I am puzzled by his reference to discussions in the synods and congregations of the churches. That seems a good idea, but how can it have any meaning unless the amendment has been passed and the debate is about something that could happen?
I fear that once the decision has been made, it has already happened. If noble Lords wish to get the church or other churches to move with the legislation, I hope they will realise that it would help to engage them in discussion in the process of reaching a decision.
My Lords, I hardly need say that I fully respect the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Alli, and all those who have supported him. For my part, I cannot support an amendment that blurs the distinction between civil partnership and marriage, particularly when we were all assured when the Civil Partnership Act was going through Parliament that the distinction was crucial and would be maintained, not least by keeping civil partnerships within the secular field. In saying that, I am paraphrasing the remarks made by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, on 12 May 2004 at col. GC140.
I am not at all impressed by the argument that all we are talking about is allowing bodies to conduct civil partnerships within their religious premises, with the new clause making plain that no obligation is placed on religious organisations to register civil partnerships. If this amendment were carried, it would only be a matter of time before it was argued that it was discriminatory for a church incumbent to refuse to allow a civil partnership ceremony to take place when the law allowed it.
I hardly need say that subsection (4) of the new clause could not possibly bar a remedy under the Human Rights Act. The Human Rights Act and Clauses 19 and 29 of the Bill would be invoked and the incumbent prepared to register marriages but not to register civil partnerships would be accused of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of services and pressure would be brought to bear on him to pocket his principles and do what he believed to be wrong. I do not call that religious freedom. Without doubt there would be the risk of costly litigation, and even if an action based on the Human Rights Act and the sections of the Equality Act banning indirect discrimination did not succeed, it would not be long before Stonewall was back, demanding repeal of this permissive provision and for a clear duty to be placed on churches to register civil partnerships. Is that not the way Stonewall has always worked? And was not Mr Ben Summerskill of Stonewall hinting just that when recently he said that right now faiths should not be forced to hold civil partnerships although in 10 or 20 years’ time things may change?
Finally, it is no light matter to suggest that because a Christian church is used for the solemnisation of marriage, it is perfectly proper to use it for an entirely different purpose. In spite of the support it has received from some clergymen, many Christians in this country would be deeply unhappy if this proposed new clause were to be carried into law.
My Lords, I rise to support the amendment and I speak as president of Liberal Judaism, one of the three faith groupings which have been cited as supporters of it. First, very briefly because we are late, I want to say something to some of the people who have spoken this evening. There is an old joke that says, “Two Jews, three opinions”. Tonight we are hearing, “Two Christians, three opinions”. We have to recognise that within each of our religious groupings there is difference of opinion about whether or not this is proper. That is why it is important to stress that this is a permissive amendment. Nobody is saying that those who do not want to do this on their religious premises should be forced to do so. I am probably the only person in this Chamber tonight who has officiated at blessings after a civil partnership but it seems to me that the important point here is that those who wish to do this should be allowed to do so, should the particular religious authorities agree to allow it.
This is not only about religious freedom but about the personal happiness of a lot of people. I wholly agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. This is about what we in this Chamber can do to ensure the happiness not only of the couples involved but also, as I said in Committee and I speak as a Jewish mother, of the parents involved. It will make a lot of difference to them. We should not underestimate this. This does not weaken marriage. It is not about marriage. It is about civil partnership between people who are religiously faithful and wish to recognise that religious faith after a civil partnership. In my view, we would be morally wrong to block this permissive amendment and I very much hope that everyone around this House will support it.
My Lords, in Committee I congratulated the noble Lord, Lord Alli, on the sensitive way in which he introduced his amendment and I do so again tonight. I acknowledge the trouble that he and those who support him have taken to make sure that it says:
“Nothing in this Act places an obligation on religious organisations to host civil partnerships if they do not wish to do so”.
I also understand only too well the desire for someone of faith to have that faith at the centre of a ceremony when they make a commitment to someone they love.
However, this is a complex issue, even though its permissive nature seems to make it simple, and it requires much careful thought and consideration. I wonder whether it is appropriate to address it so late in the passage of this Bill and so late in the evening, although I know that the noble Lord had no say in the timing of this coming up tonight.
In legal terms, civil partnerships are equivalent to civil marriages: neither ceremony can take place on religious premises or involve religion in the service. The corollary of this corresponding status is that if any changes were to be made to the civil partnership ceremony, it would automatically lead to increased pressure to change the civil marriage ceremony. The scope of the amendment, therefore, is even wider than is apparent at first glance. Its effect would be to start unpicking the settlement reached between civil partnerships and civil marriages when the former were introduced. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford said, if the law remains as it is, there is still no prohibition on a gay person of faith having a civil partnership ceremony and, either beforehand or afterwards, going to religious premises to have whatever religious service or blessing they would wish in accordance with their faith. The nub of the issue is that they cannot mix the two together, as is the case with civil marriages. I wonder, therefore, whether there is not a case for some research into the extent of demand for the removal of the prohibition altogether, but we cannot go into that tonight.
Neither of these factors means that the issue is not worth looking at. We are very much in support of civil partnerships and so have some sympathy with the intentions behind the amendment. Nevertheless, we do not think it auspicious to usher in such a change as the midnight oil is burning and at the tail-end of a very long and complex Bill which we all hope to see on the statute book.
Amendment 53 raises some very complicated questions that merit proper attention and sufficient scrutiny to ensure that, if any changes are to be made, they are made well. One issue, for example, is that there can still be no religious content within the civil partnership document as it is being signed, which raises the important questions referred to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford regarding the registrar and registration.
Although we would not rule out changes in the future, we do not think that this is the appropriate time to delve into the myriad complexities that this issue would throw up and that deserve to be addressed. However, I can assure my noble friend Lady Noakes that, should the noble Lord, Lord Alli, press the amendment to a vote, we on these Benches will have a free vote.
I do not know whether this is a Front Bench situation, but I have been waiting to make my contribution. I have one simple point to make, which has been made in one respect by the right reverend Prelate—namely that we are a legislative Chamber and we have to make decisions according to the words on the paper. I am a member of the Church of England and want to be absolutely clear that the Church of England is still in charge of its own liturgy. The Synod has been supported as a democratic organisation in some sense or other. The noble Lord, Lord Alli, has made that clear, so I have no problem with the amendment—although it should be on the record that there is something of an unholy alliance among the people moving it.
Some people think that the amendment somehow puts pressure on mosques and Hindu temples et cetera to do something that they would not otherwise want to do. I think that the amendment will go through this evening precisely because it has a very clear negation provision in subsection (4) stating that there is no obligation on religious organisations to host civil partnerships.
On that basis, as the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, said, the amendment is not what some people think it is. It is permissive to religious organisations. We have spoken nearly all the time about Christianity. However, I can well imagine that if a mosque got into difficulty with legislation because it was in any way compulsory, the balloon would go up and it would be very difficult to prosecute. The same would go for a Hindu temple—we are talking not just about Christianity.
I am happy with the amendment. I take in good faith the words on the paper, which is what the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, with whom I very rarely agree, told us to do. We should therefore be clear about what we are voting for if the amendment goes to a vote.
My Lords, I wish to make a brief contribution. I have not spoken on this Bill before but I listened to the debate when the amendment was discussed in Committee. It sparked my interest, and I wish to explain to your Lordships why. Some 34 years ago, when I approached my local vicar about getting married, he was very sympathetic, but he turned me down. It was not, surprisingly, because my fiancée was a Roman Catholic, but because she was a divorcee.
Since then, times have changed, and so has the church, and weddings to someone who has been divorced are now allowed. I think that that is a good thing. This amendment resonated with me because of that, because it allows those who want their proceedings to take place in a church, as I did then, to do so if the church agrees. That is the important point: they do not have to be turned down. This amendment is permissive; it is not prescriptive. It does not force, but it allows. It is based on freedom of choice, and the freedom of choice for the church is to decide.
In Committee, the Minister offered a review. I am not sure whether that was sitting on the fence, or kicking the amendment into the long grass. I am afraid that I suspect the latter. If so, we shall probably hear the next line of defence—that the amendment has unknown legal implications. I have to say to the Minister and to your Lordships’ House that we have all heard that before. I have been here too long. I know that parliamentary draftsmen can always redraft a clause for Third Reading without delaying the Bill if it is required.
I am a Conservative. I believe in freedom of choice. It is an important principle that my party supports. Finally, there is nothing in this amendment that can happen unless regulations are then brought back to your Lordships’ House, and Parliament as a whole, in order to enact anything before it can happen. I therefore support the amendment.
My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, has made a very important point. He makes the parallel with the cases of some churches which would marry divorcees in church, and some which would not. The church of which I am a member and an elder, the Church of Scotland, has permitted the marriage of divorcees in church for some considerable time. That is a decision that that church has taken, and which it has been free to take. It is a parallel that is well drawn. The noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, indicated that if this comes to a Division, the Conservative Peers will have a free vote. This will also be the case on these Benches. Therefore, what I state is my personal view, although I know that it is shared by my colleague on the Front Bench dealing with the Bill, the noble Baroness, Lady Northover.
The first point of response to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, is that the House seems remarkably full, however late at night it is. We have made some decisions on this Bill with far fewer people present. It is also wrong to say that this is something that has suddenly been sprung on us. I recall that this issue was raised at Second Reading. In Committee, it was thoroughly addressed. It is not an issue that has suddenly emerged out of the woodwork. It is an issue which has been given some considerable thought.
It is right to emphasise, as the noble Lord, Lord Alli, did when introducing his amendment, and as was echoed by my noble friend Lady Neuberger, that this is permissive. It does not oblige any church that does not want to do it to go down this particular road. Nevertheless, we have heard that there are religious organisations which do wish to have the ability and the legal authority to allow civil partnerships on religious premises. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford indicated that the majority of the larger churches would probably be against it. That is fair enough. If they are against it, then that is a decision that they can take. He indicated that there would be debates in synods and councils. As the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, indicated, there is not much point having the debate unless there is something to debate. That is the appropriate place for these discussions to take place. This Bill allows these discussions to take place.
I conclude by reflecting that I have sat through many of the debates at Second Reading, Committee stage, and indeed this evening, on Report. There has been much discussion about legalities, detriment, proportionality, and reasonableness. Today, with this amendment, as the noble Lord, Lord Alli, indicated in moving the amendment, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, indicated in his contribution, and as my noble friend Lady Neuberger also indicated, we are dealing with people and with relationships. We are talking about people who want to celebrate a lifelong commitment in the company of their friends and their congregation. As my noble friend Lady Neuberger indicated, it is important to parents and family. When we talk about legalities, we should remember that people are important. This is a very people-centred amendment. If the noble Lord chooses to test the opinion of the House, I will support him.
My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alli, on producing this amendment, which is a real achievement, as is the backing that he has got from all sides of the House. As has been said, it is permissive, fair and proportionate in what it is proposing. As the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said, it allows freedom to have a civil partnership in premises which will allow these ceremonies, as well as the freedom not to allow. Above everything else, we should vote on this and I hope that we will, because it needs affirmation.
My Lords, it is necessary that the advocates of the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Alli, should answer the arguments put forward by my noble friend Lord Waddington. They concern the manner in which, before long, if this amendment is accepted, human rights law would begin to be used in order to compel churches which do not wish to allow civil partnerships to be celebrated within them to do so on the basis that if they do not, they will be discriminating against those people in civil partnerships on the grounds of their sexual orientation. I think that that is a powerful argument.
By nature, as a Conservative, of course I believe in personal liberty, but I do not believe in personal licence. This amendment has a purpose, which is to equate civil partnership with marriage. The noble Lord, Lord Alli, shakes his head, but that is what it would do. Those entering into civil marriages would not have the right to force themselves upon churches. I say “force themselves” because it would be forced and enforced as my noble friend Lord Waddington has explained. We should be utterly, completely and absolutely clear that a civil partnership is not a marriage, cannot be a marriage, never will be a marriage and should be treated entirely separately from marriage.
Marriage is celebrated within a church. That is absolutely clear. Other forms of union between two persons are not celebrated within a church and I do not think that they should be. If we make it a permissive option, sooner or later, the legal proceedings will start to enforce it upon churches against the will of many ministers in those churches. I believe that this amendment is therefore fundamentally ill-founded and should be rejected.
It is rather usual with us. I have one or two brief comments.
I cannot see how a civil partnership is a threat to marriage. It respects the strong wishes and feelings of many of our citizens who happen to be gay or lesbian. That seems to be the point. As a policy aim, we should seek in this country to encourage stable relationships as much as we possibly can, for the reasons that have been set out. That surely is the whole aim of what we are and should be about. This is an issue of religious freedom and justice for some very devoted people. We should respect that.
As for this simply being a step to it all becoming mandatory, I have probably listened to Stonewall, when I was doing HIV/AIDS work in the Department of Health and later, more than many Members of this House. Sometimes I agree with Stonewall and sometimes I do not. However, I have never understood the idea that Stonewall has somehow become the arbiter of what this House and the nation are going to do. The decision rests with us. It is absurd to say that, simply because Stonewall says something, tomorrow the whole thing will become mandatory, particularly as the noble Lord, Lord Alli, has put down such a limiting clause, making it absolutely clear for the avoidance of all doubt that nothing in this Bill places an obligation on religious organisations to host civil partnerships if they do not wish to. Nothing could be clearer than that and I believe that the noble Lord’s amendment is worthy of this House’s support.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Alli and the noble Baronesses for bringing the important issues dealt with by Amendment 53 back before this House for further consideration. The intention is to remove the express prohibition on civil partnerships taking place in religious premises. This is an important issue and merits serious and careful consideration.
As many noble Lords have rightly stated, civil partnerships, like civil marriages, are entirely secular. These ceremonies cannot take place in religious premises or contain any religious language. The secular nature of these unions clearly separates them from religious unions. Representatives of three different denominations —Quakers, Unitarians and liberal Jews—have raised with us their wish to carry out civil partnership ceremonies in their meeting houses or places of worship. In Committee, a number of noble Lords put forward strong arguments supporting the faith groups that wish to be allowed to perform these ceremonies. The broad debate in Committee also exposed the wide range of views from across faith groups and others on the issue—not least from the chairman of the Conservative Party. In addition, it illustrated the considerable range of issues that would be caused by changing the way in which civil partnerships are registered.
I understand what my noble friend and the noble Baronesses are seeking to achieve. Like many noble Lords, I have great sympathy with their aims and fully recognise that civil partnerships are about commitment and loving relationships. However, while my heart supports the intentions of my noble friend, my head knows that the amendment raises a number of problems. I fear that it would not work in practice. It breaks the important link that we have always maintained between civil partnership and civil marriage. It blurs the line between what is a civil partnership and something that has elements of a religious partnership. It introduces ambiguity into the role of registrars and it is unclear what, if any, religious language would be able to be used during any civil partnership ceremony conducted in religious premises.
There are also significant practical problems with the amendment. For example, it leaves in place Section 2(5) of the Civil Partnership Act, which prohibits the use of any religious service while the civil partnership registrar is officiating at the signing of the civil partnership document. This would mean that, while the amendment might permit civil partnerships to take place in religious premises, those conducting them would not be able to use any type of religious service, which could include religious language, prayers or readings. My noble friend’s amendment would also preclude any changes to the current approved premises regulations for civil partnerships that do not mirror the position for civil marriages in any way, other than to allow for religious venues. That means that the current condition would remain that neither civil partnerships nor civil marriage proceedings can be led by a minister of religion or religious leader.
While I am certain that the religious groups seeking this amendment would wish to celebrate these unions with religious services, that would not be achieved. As there is still a requirement for a registrar to carry out civil partnerships, this amendment could mean that the civil registrar would need to wait outside until all religious aspects of the ceremony were completed, to be brought back in to officiate for the signing of the register, or that the clergy wait outside the church until the civil aspects of the partnership were concluded. That highlights some of the practical issues that we need to deal with.
Further, the amendment would break the carefully established and maintained link between civil partnerships and civil marriages—the foundation of the civil partnership regime. That would lead to the anomalous position where civil partnerships could take place in religious premises but civil marriages could not. This could leave some heterosexual couples feeling at a disadvantage if they wanted their civil union to be held in a church, synagogue or other religious building.
My noble friend made it clear in his introduction that he is intending for this to be a permissive provision. I am also aware that faith organisations would want to be clear from the outset that they could decide whether to allow civil partnership ceremonies on their religious premises or not. However, nothing included in the amended Section 6A would allow the regulations to provide for a denominational opt-in or permit any other way of dealing with differing positions for different religions. It is not clear how we could deal, for example, with a situation where a particular religious organisation does not wish to allow civil partnerships on its premises when their local priest or rabbi, who controls the relevant premises, does.
Finally, we need to consider the position of the civil registrars who would need to conduct these ceremonies. To what extent would or should they be able to opt out of attending at some or all religious premises? While on the face of it my noble friend’s amendment looks sensible and logical, it will not achieve what he is seeking, as I have explained. My noble friend and others may think that the potential problems that I have raised are not insurmountable. They may be right.
I am puzzled by the Leader of the House’s argument that this somehow puts civil marriage at a disadvantage, because surely a heterosexual couple who wish to get married have the free choice of being able to marry in religious premises with a religious ceremony.
I will come back to the noble Lord in writing because my notes say one thing and other noble Lords are saying something else. I will give the clear view of the Government, which is the right and proper thing to do. It may be too late if the amendment is passed, but it is still good for people to have clarification on this issue.
This is a complex issue, which we need to consider carefully if we are to be sure that any changes will achieve what they are designed to do and will be workable in practice. Should my noble friend be successful in making his amendment, there would need to be wide discussion and careful consideration of what further measures would need to be put in place and what further legislation would be needed. That is why the Government believe that the most appropriate way forward is to consider the issue further and to solve these problems before any legislative change is made.
The amendment raises issues of fundamental religious conscience. This is not a question about civil rights for lesbians and gay men. Same-sex couples already have the right to legal recognition of their relationship, with the rights and responsibilities which go along with that, thanks to the groundbreaking Civil Partnership Act, which I am proud to say this Government placed on the statute book in 2004. Our record on rights for LGB people is second to none, but this amendment would give faith organisations the freedom to host civil partnerships on their premises, raising fundamental issues for religious organisations, and it is therefore right that they are considered as matters of individual conscience. As my noble friend clearly stated, this is a matter of religious freedom. That is why we want to have a full and open discussion with all those concerned. We can then consider the issues carefully and arrive at the right way forward for this country, which deals with the wide range of matters which will be affected by the change—
My Lords, it would be unrealistic for me to promise to have a consultation before Third Reading, which we hope will take place in the next few days or weeks. I am therefore thinking in the longer term. We can embark on this consultation quite soon, but clearly it would not conclude until after the election. We want to take the time to listen to the wide spectrum of views, including from the faith communities, LGB representatives, and those who work as registrars. We will consider the whole range of options to gain a clearer understanding of the impact of the issues involved before deciding how to proceed.
On this basis, as noble Lords will know, we have a free vote on this amendment. If it is taken to a vote and the will of the House is to accept it, there will need to be further work to determine the extent of further legislation needed to ensure that it is possible to approve religious premises for civil partnerships. Our preference would be to get this right from the outset.
As we have said before, while we support the intention of my noble friend’s amendments, I have today raised our concerns about how this would work in practice. I have made it clear that we are committed to taking the time to consider any changes carefully, and I therefore urge my noble friend to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, the hour is late so I will restrict my comments. First, let me thank all those who participated in the debate and all those who have given me their support. I single out only one person: the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton. It is well past the time she normally leaves, oxygen is short, and it was incredibly kind and generous of her to support my amendment tonight.
I also thank the Bishops, former Bishops and theologians who wrote to the Times to add their support to the amendment. I am clearly disappointed by the response from the right reverent Prelate the Bishop of Bradford, but I hear his argument. That disappointment is nothing compared with the words which the Leader of the House uttered, but let me say this to those outside and to everyone in this House; the Leader of the House and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, have been supporters of these rights throughout their time in office and on the Back Benches, they have worked incredibly hard to secure us our free vote, and I thank them wholeheartedly for their continued support, whatever small print they were forced to read out. On that basis, I beg to test the opinion of the House.
Clause 201 : Harmonisation
Amendments 54 to 56 not moved.
Schedule 24 : Harmonisation: exceptions
57: Schedule 24, page 224, line 6, at end insert—
“Section (Information about diversity in range of candidates etc.) (election candidates: diversity information)”
Amendment 57 agreed.
Clause 206 : Ministers of the Crown, etc
58: Clause 206, page 128, line 8, at end insert—
“( ) regulations under section (Information about diversity in range of candidates etc.) (election candidates: diversity information);”
Amendment 58 agreed.
Schedule 26 : Amendments
59: Schedule 26, page 230, line 8, at end insert—
“( ) an act which is unlawful because it amounts to a contravention of section (Information about diversity in range of candidates etc.) of that Act (information about diversity in range of candidates etc.),”
Amendment 59 agreed.
Clause 210 : General interpretation
60: Clause 210, page 131, line 4, at end insert—
““substantial” means more than minor or trivial;”
Amendment 60 agreed.
Clause 214 : Commencement
Amendment 61 not moved.
House adjourned at 11.10 pm.