Committee (3rd Day)
Relevant document: 4th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee.
Schedule 4: Effect of extension of marriage: further provision
45: Schedule 4, page 35, line 13, leave out sub-paragraphs (2) and (3) and insert—
“( ) Omit sub-paragraph (1).”
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alli, is being very courteous in hesitating a while. If I intervene for long enough, that may have the effect of clearing the Chamber almost altogether, and then we will have a little peace and quiet for him to present his amendment.
My Lords, this amendment is about addressing an inequality in pensions in relation to survivor benefits that will affect a small number of people in a very unfair way.
Let me try to explain. The Equality Act allows occupational pension providers to ignore the service and contributions of gay employees prior to 2005 when it comes to paying out survivor benefits to civil partners. This stemmed from an original exemption in the Civil Partnership Act that I argued against at that time. This Bill would see the same thing happen to same-sex spouses.
I will say from the outset that the majority of occupational pension schemes have ignored this provision and pay out fully to survivors. They do this because they believe it to be fair and I recognise that and thank them for it. However, there are those that do not. Their reason is mostly cost. This is odd, as the Office for National Statistics calculates that it would cost only £18 million to the private sector.
In a past career, I was the publisher of a magazine with the snappy title of Pensions. In case your Lordships are interested, I also published Planned Savings, Insurance Age, The Savings Market and a statistical compendium called Rateguide. So I am pretty confident that no pension provider can accurately predict how many individuals within a pension scheme will be gay, how many will marry under this Bill when it becomes law or become civil partners and how many will outlive their partners, husbands or wives by a significant period. I am also pretty confident that for the one-third of schemes that do not pay out, the actuaries who run the numbers probably have already built in the additional costs associated with this amendment. Pensions actuaries—and I have met many of them—deal constantly in uncertainties around the length of life, the possibility of illness, the number of scheme members who are likely to marry and many more issues. Given that two-thirds of schemes already do, I do not understand why we cannot insist that the rest treat same-sex couples who marry in exactly the same way as heterosexual couples who marry. They have all paid in the same pension contributions.
I know from the other place that the Government think that this is a matter for the schemes themselves. However, in debating amendment after amendment we have discussed the rights of those who disagree with same-sex marriages to be able to do so, and we have resisted giving public servants the right to pick and choose what services they will give to whom based upon their deeply held beliefs. That is effectively what we would be doing here with employers and pension scheme trustees—we would be allowing pension fund trustees who genuinely believe same-sex marriage to be wrong to have the right to create two classes of spouses in their schemes. This legislation would permit it.
If we were not dealing with pensions, which are boring and complicated, but some other form of service, we would not allow this to happen. The cost to the Government is nothing. These changes were made for the public sector in 2004. I ask the Minister not to let the subject matter perpetuate an injustice into this Bill that is completely unnecessary. It is not a huge issue—£18 million does not set the world alight, but it is a kindness that we can give to a few people at the most difficult time in their life. I cannot demand that the noble Baroness do something about it; I can only ask, with the sincerity of those who have asked me to take up this issue, to take it away and see if we can do something about it. We should have solved this issue in 2004. The party opposite probably should have done so in 2010. People have waited far too long for the compassion that they deserve. I hope that we might find that in this Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, I speak with some sympathy for the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alli. For once, these Benches are able to say that we put our money where our mouth is. With civil partnership arrangements, the Church of England pension scheme has done exactly as the noble Lord, Lord Alli, has suggested. I think that that is the right way forward and I hope that the Government might give this amendment consideration.
My Lords, treating a gay employee less favourably than a straight colleague under an occupational pension scheme purely because of the gender of his or her partner, is direct discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. This was the conclusion of the employment tribunal when giving judgment in the case of Walker v Innospec. Rather than heeding these conclusions and reflecting on the inherent injustice that this case addressed, the Government have applied to be joined to John Walker’s case in support of his employer and pension provider. They also seek to legislate in this Bill to extend the discrimination so that it applies not just to civil partners but to same-sex spouses, too.
As we know, this issue is not new. During the parliamentary passage of the Civil Partnership Bill, we considered the position of public service schemes. Initially, the then Labour Government claimed that benefits under such schemes should accrue only in relation to future service, arguing against imposing retrospective burdens. Thankfully, on that occasion the Government had a change of heart and recognised the need to secure equal treatment. The situation was similarly equalised for contracted-out schemes, while the law in relation to the state pension was also changed to allow civil partners to draw on the contribution record of their civil partners. These were welcome concessions but, sadly, the discrimination ultimately banished from other schemes remained in the case of contracted-in occupational pension schemes.
That this inequality remains on the statute book will surprise and sadden many who believed that the Civil Partnership Act gave civil partners all the same legal entitlements as spouses. The reason that the Government have given for extending rather than remedying this discrimination is a reluctance to impose retrospective costs on pension schemes. The fact that this discrimination has already been rectified in relation to public schemes rather undermines the Government’s objection to retrospection. It is far from unprecedented to take such a step but perhaps it is the Government’s position that in relation to public schemes, for which they have more direct responsibility, the basic demands of equality prevail over concerns about retrospection. I would argue, however, that the Government should not only refrain from discrimination but refuse to sanction direct discrimination by the private sector. This is the principle which underlines much of the substance of all our equality legislation.
A society in which the state refrains from discrimination but in which you can be turned away from a restaurant or hotel because you are gay is not a fair society. For decades, the love and commitment shared by gay couples was not afforded any form of recognition by the state. Prior to the Civil Partnership Act gay couples did not have access to the legal benefits available to straight couples in so many areas of life, from property rights to pensions. If this Bill is, as I believe it to be, about correcting these injustices, why are we relying on historic discrimination to justify real, ongoing inequality?
The argument goes like this. Before 2005 we did not formally recognise gay relationships, therefore gay couples cannot expect to receive the benefits they would have received had we awarded their relationships the respect they deserved at an earlier juncture. Discrimination should not beget discrimination in this way. It is surely wrong, and against the whole spirit of the Bill. I warmly support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alli, and very much hope that the Government will do what he proposes.
My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Alli. The best thing I can do is to endorse everything that the right reverend Prelate has said. If this is a Bill about equality, we have to treat people equally. As that is what we are told it is, that is what I expect will happen.
My Lords, a very powerful case has been made. I simply want to draw attention to what the Joint Committee on Human Rights has said on this and to the oral evidence that the Minister gave to the committee, where he talked about wanting to find the fairest place to put same-sex married couples within the pensions framework. What we have heard this afternoon shows that this is not the fairest place. I would be very interested to hear how the Minister can justify this discrimination as being the fairest place.
When he gave evidence to us, the Minister gave some large sums and made it all sound incredibly complicated. He talked about £3 billion to £4 billion. It is not at all clear to me where those sums come from. It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify why such large sums are being bandied around. The committee called for a full review of pension provision in relation to survivor pension benefit entitlements of same-sex married couples and civil partners to ensure that there is no unjustifiable discrimination in pension scheme provisions. What we have heard sounds like unjustifiable discrimination. We call on the Government to provide precise information about the potential costs of equalising pension rights.
My Lords, I rise briefly to support this amendment. When the Civil Partnership Act went through, it was interesting to note that employers were already ahead of the law and that a number of private schemes already recognised partners. When the civil partnership law was enacted, many more then did so. It is fair to say that in this House there are people who may have forgotten more about pensions than I will ever know. However, in the greater scheme of things, this is not very much money in terms of the overall pension contributions, yet it means an immense amount to individuals; those people who are doing all the things that we would encourage others to do, like being judicious in provision for their later life. It seems to me wholly wrong that they are not rewarded in the way that every other person would be if they did the same thing.
My Lords, as my noble friend said, pensions might sound boring but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, said, pensions are extremely important to individuals. They do affect quality of life, so this is a very important amendment.
Liberty, to which I am grateful for its excellent briefing on this issue, is surely right in saying:
“This is an unnecessary and counterproductive anomaly in a Bill which otherwise makes landmark progress in equally respecting the rights of gay people”.
The same has been said from all Benches today.
Naturally, I recognise the anomaly that exists between the treatment of pension rights for married and same-sex civil partners. However, this Bill not only continues that discrimination but it takes forward the same distinction to same-sex married couples: in terms of these pension rights, they would be treated differently from opposite-sex married couples. This uneven treatment would, therefore, be continued. As my noble friend cogently argued, this should be an opportunity to get rid of the current anomaly rather than to extend the discrimination.
I was struck by what I thought was an extraordinary answer from the Secretary of State to the Joint Committee on Human Rights in relation to compatibility with Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights on this issue. She said that the reason for treating same-sex-marriage couples as civil partners is that they could have the option either of getting married or of forming a civil partnership—and that the legislation therefore treats them equally.
This is sort of true but it goes against the whole ethos of this Bill. As my noble friend said, arguments which are made against this on the principle of retrospection are misplaced. It is clear that actuaries base forecasts on a wide range of assumptions which are not necessarily proved to be correct. In its report on the Bill, the JCHR also noted: that,
“Depending on the provisions of the scheme, pension rights of same sex spouses may not be the same as pension rights of opposite sex spouses, which may give rise to an issue as to whether this is compatible with Article 14 of the ECHR in conjunction with Article 1 Protocol 1”.
It has already been noted that the Government are currently fighting an appeal against the decision to uphold this view in the case of John Walker. However, if legislation is not amended to take account of the Walker judgment and the reliance on the European Court findings, it is likely that further action will be taken by same-sex married partners. One cannot blame them. They will seek similar redress in the courts to ensure that they, too, can access pension rights in an equal way. That would be regrettable.
Of course, I recognise that resolving this anomaly is not without cost but the real frustration is that we do not have the requisite information to debate the issue with knowledge of its full consequences. When responding to a similar amendment moved in the other place, the Minister, Helen Grant, said that,
“we do not believe that it would be right to put on schemes the significant additional and retrospective financial burdens that would arise from removing the Equality Act exception”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/5/13; col. 1144.]
However, how significant those burdens are is unclear. The House of Commons Library estimated that the potential additional cost to private contracted-in schemes would be £18 million. That is a significant figure by anyone’s estimates, but when compared with the total value of assets under management in the pensions industry it amounts to just 0.006%—as was pointed out by Mr Mike Freer on Report in the Commons. I accept that for a handful of small employers or charitable schemes this may have a disproportionate impact. However, the Government have accepted that around two-thirds of schemes already treat opposite-sex marriages and civil partnerships equally. I pay tribute to all those organisations, including the Church of England, which do the right thing.
In evidence submitted to the JCHR, the Minister for Sport and Tourism, Hugh Robertson, stated that,
“We estimate that in total the impact on both contracted-in and contracted-out private sector schemes could amount to as much as £90 million. There would be very substantial costs for public service schemes”.
Will the Minister confirm to the House the costs, additional to the £18 million identified and widely accepted, on which £90 million figure is based, and the costs for public service schemes to which the Secretary of State was referring given the 2005 regulations identified by the Commons Library? On these Benches, we believe that the financial impact of the amendment would be relatively insignificant. However, the Secretary of State is quite clear that there would be a cost. Therefore, I echo the calls from around the Chamber and from the JCHR for the Minister to publish the full evidence on which the Government based their assessment as soon as possible so that we might approach Report armed with the fullest possible view of the consequences of this amendment—an amendment which I fully support.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alli, and all others who contributed to this debate. I understand the strength of feeling behind this amendment and the speeches that have been made. Anticipating this debate, I decided to speak directly to the Pensions Ministers today and so was able to come properly armed with full information.
First, and as I have said in other contexts and in our other debates on the Bill, in making it possible for same-sex couples to marry we have sought to build on existing legislation and not amend the structure of marriage law. The point is that we focused on allowing same-sex couples to marry. In the context of pensions, we are following what already exists for civil partnerships, as has been referred to by several noble Lords in the debate. The introduction of civil partnerships was, as we have acknowledged several times over the last few weeks, a fundamental change in our society. It was a huge step forward. The Act was complex and covered a wide range of different issues. The Labour Government at the time decided to provide this exception for defined benefit pension schemes which are not contracted-out of the state second pension. They clearly did so for a principled reason: Governments do not generally make changes to pension schemes retrospectively. That is the general approach that is taken. That decision was made in 2005 during the passage of that Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Alli, referred to the Equality Act 2010 and suggested that it had then been open to this Government to remove the exception. It is worth reminding the noble Lord and the House that the Equality Act was passed under the previous Government. It was not a Bill that we were still debating and deciding after the election—it predated this Government.
Let me get to the specifics of the point in hand. I would like to remind noble Lords listening to this debate who may not have been following it in detail that we are discussing defined benefit schemes and survivor benefits—quite a specific aspect of pensions. As has been acknowledged, defined benefit schemes are struggling to survive. They are decreasing in numbers in terms of how many are still open to new members. The current economic climate has put companies sponsoring such schemes under great financial pressure. Clearly, we have to be mindful of that when we consider adding anything extra to their costs. As regards survivor benefits and this particular point, it is worth saying that while the impact of the change that the noble Lord, Lord Alli, is putting forward might be small for some large pension funds, it could be quite significant on a small pension fund. We would need to be very clear about who is being affected by such change.
As the noble Lord, Lord Alli, and the right reverend Prelate have acknowledged, some of the defined benefit schemes in existence are very generous and go beyond the statutory minimum in terms of what they provide for survivor benefits. That is a matter for those individual schemes, and the benefits provided by pension schemes are very much decided by the schemes themselves. Some schemes do not provide survivor benefits for any members—they are not always offered to opposite-sex couples. The noble Lord, Lord Alli, said that trustees may be able to decide which rules to apply to survivors based on their own personal belief. It is important to say that the decision about which rules to apply to survivors is based on various financial assumptions and not on their beliefs.
It is difficult to make a detailed estimate of the cost to pension schemes if this change in different treatment were made, because we do not have all the relevant data and information. However, using the 2009 ONS survey and other information, we have estimated that removing this exception could increase scheme liabilities by around £18 million in present-day values. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, referred to remarks that were made by the Pensions Minister when he was giving evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the additional costs that may be effected by changes to pension schemes. The point he was making was that while there is a specific cost associated with the amendment that we are discussing today, a range of different measures fall under the heading of equalisation that could potentially extend the right to civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. That is how you could eventually get to an estimated cost of £4 billion; it happens as you move from one thing to the next.
The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, asked about contracted-out schemes and the estimated cost of making changes to them. The statutory survivor requirements do not apply to all the benefits provided by the scheme. Therefore, our conservative estimate is that the direct costs for those schemes would be in the order of £70 million. If you add what we estimate for the contracted-in schemes, you get to £90 million.
It has been suggested that the Government should undertake a survey to obtain more exact information on the potential costs. Although we might be able to reconfirm which schemes go back before 2005 in terms of their accruals, obtaining the detailed data for those that do not to enable us to calculate the costs of removing the exception would be complex. Although I referred to the 2009 ONS survey, the kind of survey necessary to be able to identify the different schemes that might be affected in different ways has not previously been carried out. A survey has not been done that could be repeated; it would have to be done from scratch.
To be fair, however, regardless of the scale of the cost, the Government believe that we should not impose the additional unforeseen obligations on schemes on the principle that we are not introducing retrospective changes. As we have said, these private schemes are funded by businesses, and we do not believe that it is for the Government to say what discretionary benefits they should offer.
The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, talked about public sector schemes that provide surviving civil partners with the same survivor benefits as those given to widowers. As she knows, the public sector schemes are funded by the Government, and it was the previous Government’s decision, as funder of the public sector schemes, to take that decision with the financial consequences. It was not for the Government to impose that on other schemes for employers. When all of this was considered in great detail some years ago, the Government accepted the costs and liabilities for the public sector schemes but did not feel that it was right to impose that same level of financial burden on the private sector.
As we all know, the pensions system as a whole is full of differences in treatment as a result of changes in society and social attitudes. The principle of the exception is to introduce those changes going forward, not retrospectively, as in this case. As time goes on, that difference in treatment will be diminished.
Of course, I realise that I am not providing the kind of response that noble Lords had hoped for. However, I hope that I have at least provided an explanation as to why the Government have taken this decision. It may also be helpful for me to inform the House that the exception, as in this difference of treatment, will be considered by the Employment Appeal Tribunal in the case of Walker—somebody who sought to appeal against their own pension scheme provider—and the Government have been added as an interested party in that appeal. We need to wait and see the outcome of that case. However, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Alli, feels able to withdraw his amendment at this time.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who spoke in support of this amendment, in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, who I know stayed late the other night in the hope that this amendment would come up. I also thank the Minister, in particular for taking the time to speak to the Pensions Minister and for taking a personal interest in this.
To lose your husband, wife or long-term partner is by any account a terrible experience. It is a time when you are least prepared to be able to deal with the complexities of pension scheme trustees. You just want to be left alone with your grief. Putting people through the court system to try to equalise this does not feel particularly humane. We all want our loved ones to be provided for once we go. To rely on the good will of the two-thirds of occupational pension schemes that are doing the right thing, or, if one is unlucky enough to be in the third, having to fight a battle to receive the benefit paid for by their partner, again seems wrong.
I am only asking the Government to show a bit of compassion for what is a tiny amount of money. They have already conceded the principle in the public sector. I ask the Minister to reflect carefully on what all noble Lords have said in this debate and to see whether it might be the Government’s position to resolve the anomaly in this Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 45 withdrawn.
Schedule 4, as amended, agreed.
Amendment 46 not moved.
Clause 12 agreed.
Schedule 5 : Change of gender of married persons or civil partners
46ZA: Schedule 5, page 40, line 6, after “full” insert “or interim”
My Lords, in moving Amendment 46ZA I will also speak to the other amendments that are grouped with it. These are a bunch of somewhat technical amendments that deal with a very difficult situation. Until now, if a person was to change their gender, there was no way in which they could remain in the marriage in which they had lived until that point. For some people in that situation, that was extremely difficult because they continued to love the person to whom they had been married. Some couples, in particular those to whom their faith was very important, found that the inevitable move to divorce was wrong. There is a widespread welcoming of the fact that in this legislation it is now possible for two people in that situation to remain in a marriage, albeit one that is now same-sex.
However, in the process of doing that the Government have, in this Bill, set up another problem. Previously, under the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and the Civil Partnership Act 2004, when a person was going through the process of changing their gender, they could apply for what was known as an interim gender recognition certificate. A panel would recognise that they were going through the process of transition, and as I understand it it was almost like the equivalent of a heterosexual couple receiving something like a decree nisi because it was one step towards what would inevitably be a divorce. If a spouse indicated that they were in agreement with that, the matter could simply go ahead.
The problem arises when a non-co-operative spouse wishes to put a block on that process. For understandable reasons, spouses may be deeply unhappy with the situation in which they find themselves, and they can in effect block the process. I should say that I am deeply indebted to the people who have explained this to me at considerable length, and I apologise to them if I am not putting their case as well as I might.
An important piece of information for me was that a spouse cannot prevent a person from having gender reassignment surgery. They can only stop or hold up the process of recognition of somebody in their new gender, but they cannot prevent them from having the surgery. Therefore, sometimes when spouses are upset and angry they block the process of gender recognition. A common way to do that is by initiating divorce proceedings and then taking no further action so that the whole process is stopped. That can lead to a lot of difficulty, not least with the legal recognition of a person in transition, their ability to work and some aspects of their finances, although not child maintenance payments.
These amendments would allow a spouse to maintain a veto—they do not seek to get rid of the veto—but limit the amount of time over which it could have effect to approximately six months. This would mean that a spouse could stop the process going ahead but not indefinitely. If a person is going through gender reassignment, they can apply for a gender recognition certificate. If they get an interim certificate, their spouse is notified and that in effect starts a clock ticking for six months. If at the end of the six months there has been no action, the person going through the transition can apply for an annulment.
The amendments would do two things. First, they would give a spouse the right to be notified. I understand that at the moment the first time a spouse may receive any notification that a partner is going through gender reassignment is when court papers are delivered seeking an annulment. These amendments would provide that the person going through the transition is obliged to notify their spouse of that. Secondly, after six months both parties would have an equal right to initiate divorce proceedings.
What does all this mean in non-technical language, and why should we do it? It would mean that a very difficult and painful situation could be brought to an earlier conclusion after six months, although in practice I think it would take about two and a half years, rather than be left to get worse indefinitely or for a very long period. This measure is the equivalent of what the Government have tried to do for heterosexual people in encouraging them to seek mediation and reach agreement between themselves as far as possible rather than their having to rely on the law and prolonging a situation that is wholly unwanted in many cases. I beg to move.
My Lords, I put my name to these amendments, having initiated this debate at Second Reading, because I believe that the Bill is morally wrong. I appreciate that these are complex issues—the issue that we are discussing is particularly complex, as the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, illustrated—which are difficult to resolve, but the difference they can make to a transperson’s life cannot be underestimated. I illustrate this by referring to an e-mail I received after my speech at Second Reading. It was from a transperson who said that she cried tears of joy. I am sure that she was not crying tears of joy at my speech but at the fact that somebody had addressed an issue about which she felt so strongly and which was affecting her life. That is terribly important.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, also said, the Bill identifies two anomalies which govern transpeople’s lives. The legislation provides for the removal of the requirement for married transpeople who wish to apply for gender recognition to be single at the point of gender recognition. Further, a concession has been made as regards spouses’ survivor pensions, which removes a further major concern for many transpeople.
The passing of this amendment would get rid of a third anomaly for transpeople in existing marriages. As it stands, the Bill removes the obligation on a transperson being in an existing marriage, although it does require a civil partnership to be converted to a marriage before application, as otherwise an opposite-sex civil partnership would be created. However, the Bill has now introduced the concept that the non-transitioning spouse must give formal consent. It adds the requirement that spouses now have to consent to the change of their partner. No other area in law—this is a change to the structure of law—requires spousal consent to any change within a marriage. There is no need for spousal consent to end a marriage, move abroad, financially destabilise the family, apply for distant jobs, or for medical treatment. Formal spousal consent that can veto a partner’s gender recognition is a new concept in law.
The assumption in marriage law is that spousal consent is assumed. If the spouse does not consent to the partner’s actions, the spouse has the opportunity to initiate divorce proceedings. What we have now certainly goes against the view of most spouses. It may have been objected to by some but until 2003-04 it was routine for gender identity clinics to require spousal consent for the treatment of married transpeople, until it was pointed out that this was potentially a breach of the transperson’s human rights. We have the same problem again here.
The amendment has been carefully crafted. Its value is that the determination of someone’s gender will be a matter for the individual concerned and the state. No other individual is involved. A spouse may choose to expedite the applicant’s full gender recognition by including a statutory declaration of consent. However, a spouse cannot prevent an applicant’s full gender recognition by more than a year by withholding that consent. That is important. They still have rights but they are limited. In respect of interim gender recognition certificates, the Gender Recognition Act currently allows the gender recognition panel to issue interim gender recognition certificates to those transpeople who were married or in civil partnerships at the point of application.
The amendment allows an applicant in an existing marriage or civil partnership to apply for an interim gender recognition certificate, which would allow annulment or divorce proceedings to commence if required. Further, it would allow an individual who has been granted an interim gender recognition certificate to change their gender under the Act, after a predetermined period has elapsed. The Bill makes no distinction between marriages where both spouses wish it to continue and marriages where divorce proceedings have commenced. Therefore, we seem to have created the ludicrous situation that in the absence of a decree absolute, the divorcing spouse will still be required to give consent to the transperson’s gender recognition, no matter how long it has taken to get to that point in the divorce. Marriages can break down when a transperson reveals themselves to be trans. There are many points at which either spouse may decide that the marriage can no longer continue, such as the point of revelation, when treatment commences, when the transperson goes public, the point of name change or when transformation surgery occurs. All these can result in acrimonious proceedings that can drift on for many years. Known cases have gone from 17 months to six years. The amendment would avoid that situation.
The requirement for spousal consent creates one further flashpoint for couples in what is already a difficult situation. The amendment overcomes that problem as spouses can no longer obstruct but only delay by a known timescale someone’s gender recognition. That is the crux of the amendment. All the objections raised in the Commons seem to have been satisfied. It is fair to both partners and does not disadvantage the spouse. Again, it is utterly wrong in principle to hand someone’s right of identity to someone else who may be hostile to that person. It is irrelevant whether it is a widespread problem or not. That argument should not be used when talking about justice and fairness for any individual. I trust that it will not be used as an explanation for opposing the amendment. I approached this amendment with some hope, and I have enormous respect for the way in which the Minister has responded to opposition to the Bill. She has listened and responded to many of the points raised. But, on this occasion, I feel that that listening has stopped. Many people, not only transpeople, will feel betrayed and discriminated against, and there will certainly be no tears of joy if this amendment is not accepted. It is discrimination in a Bill that is designed to do just the reverse.
When the Gender Recognition Act was passed in 2004, there was no mention of spousal consent. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell the House why this has suddenly emerged. Can she give evidence of spouses having requested a veto? I understand that some spouses have said that they want to be informed, but being informed is substantially different from consent. It would also be helpful to know the view of the gender recognition panel, because now there will be additional documentation for the panel to process, and that will certainly have financial implications.
The transperson potentially gains significantly by gender recognition and therefore may lose significantly by not being able to achieve it. The spouse loses nothing by their partner gaining gender recognition and gains nothing by withholding consent. Does the Minister not see that this is really to do with equity of rights? Leaving the Bill as it stands and without this amendment will mean that the Government are saying to the trans community, “Somehow or other, you seem to be second-class citizens”. It will establish a precedent which may be used elsewhere. I appeal to the Minister to rethink her opposition to this amendment because I am sure that the issue will not go away. It is a matter of principle, and if her opposition has anything to do with the wording of the amendment, we would be very happy to bring it back on Report with new wording.
I, too, support these amendments. When I was a family judge, I tried a number of what for me were the saddest of all cases: where one spouse had entered into a transgender situation, particularly before the Gender Recognition Act brought justice to those people. However, that left the other spouse confused and distressed. I remember a particular case in which the wife sat at the back of the court in floods of tears when what was being discussed was how the father could become an auntie because he was in the process of changing his gender.
These are incredibly sad cases for both parties, but particularly for those who are left behind under the Gender Recognition Act. I agree totally with the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, that those who change their gender require fairness, proper human rights and recognition, but this House also needs to remember those who are left behind. However, in doing that, there is no point in retaining a marriage that cannot exist unless it exists in a new dimension.
The two points made to me by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, shortly before the House sat today are extremely important. The first is that there should be a notification of the fact that the gender recognition spouse is making this application. I understand that the spouse who is left behind does not necessarily know that the application is being made. That is an injustice to that person, and it is one of the important elements in this group of amendments. The second point is this: if people cannot bring themselves to be married as a same-sex couple, as they will be able to in the future when this Bill becomes law, because the left-behind spouse cannot tolerate that, they really should not allow the marriage to continue indefinitely. It does not help either party that it should run on. The suggestion in this group of amendments—that there should be a cut-off point at six months, as there is in every other part of this—seems only just. People can then get on with bringing the marriage, which would by definition have failed, to an end. For these reasons, again, I support these amendments.
My Lords, I congratulate the Government on meeting two out of the three issues that the Bill has raised for transgender people, and doing so in a sensible and calm fashion. The only outstanding issue left is the proposal being tested here—that same-sex marriage legislation gives spouses the power of veto over whether a transgender partner can have legal recognition of a change of gender. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, my noble friend Lady Gould and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, have explained the issues perfectly well. I do not think they are complex; they are very straightforward. This is an unfairness and injustice that needs to be balanced out and dealt with in the Bill.
It is an irony and a great shame that, when enacted, the Bill will affect the human rights of transgender people and take them backwards in the UK. I do not think that is the Government’s intention, and I am sure that it is not the intention of the Minister. From these Benches, we think it is important to resolve this issue, which affects a minority of people but, as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, said, can have a very painful and lifelong effect. The Government need to address it. I hope that between now and Report, we will be able to resolve the issue.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Barker for introducing this group of amendments and also to all who have spoken in the debate today. It is an incredibly sensitive issue, and I am mindful of that in responding. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, made a powerful speech and I want her to know that I was listening carefully to her arguments. The Gender Recognition Panel has been consulted throughout as we have been drafting the Bill and it has not raised any concerns or matter that we have not been able to address.
Before I get to the detail of the amendments, let me be clear from the start—in a way it is a response to a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton—that our concern in the Bill has been to ensure that as many couples as possible are able to stay married if they wish to do so following one or both spouses obtaining gender recognition. We are proud to make that possible in the Bill and it is something that we very much support.
The provisions in the Bill allow the spouse of a transperson to agree and consent to their marriage continuing as a same-sex marriage after gender recognition. It is not a block or a veto; they cannot prevent their spouse obtaining gender recognition. It is important that I make that point. I will explain in a little bit more detail, but nobody is able to stop anybody getting their gender recognition certificate—of that I can be very clear.
The Bill seeks to strike a fair balance between the Article 8 rights to respect for the private and family life of both spouses. The trans spouse has a right to be granted their gender recognition without unnecessary delay, but the non-trans spouse also has a right to have a say in the future of their marriage following their spouse gaining gender recognition. We have, during the passage of the Bill, listened carefully to interested stakeholders from the trans community. I have been glad to meet some representatives with my honourable friend Helen Grant, the Minister from another place. I am grateful to those who have been involved in the preparation of these amendments, and for the time and effort that have gone into them because I know that has been considerable.
I will turn specifically to what the amendments seek to do. The first aspect is the limit of six months in proposed new subsection (3A), relating to both spouses’ power to initiate annulment proceedings following the issue of an interim gender recognition certificate. The point is that there should be a limit of six months for annulment proceedings to start. In response to a point made by my noble friend Lady Barker and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, I want to make it clear that if a spouse refused to commence annulment proceedings, the trans spouse would be able to do so. In the Bill as it stands, either spouse in the marriage is able to start annulment proceedings. It is not just in the hands of one spouse.
In terms of the second time limit of 12 months in proposed new subsection (3A), once annulment proceedings have been commenced, it is for the court to bring the marriage to an end and, upon that occurring, to issue a full gender recognition certificate to the applicant. To require the Gender Recognition Panel to issue a gender recognition certificate while court proceedings are ongoing would be to require the panel to usurp the functions of a superior court. Where one spouse is deliberately delaying the annulment process, the courts already have the power to deal with this. I will be absolutely clear: either spouse is able to bring forward annulment proceedings and once they start, they are in the hands of the court. Most annulment proceedings take three months—or, from the very outset, six months I think—but it is the court that will ensure that they continue in line with the proper process.
There is another element to the amendments, which I am not sure my noble friend covered in her introductory remarks, but to which I will respond. Proposed new subsection (3B) relates to civil partnerships. The Government do not believe that removing the right of spouses to have a say in the future of their marriage following conversion and gender recognition strikes the proper balance between the rights of both spouses. The agreement of a non-trans civil partner to the conversion of their civil partnership to a same-sex marriage is one thing—it is not the same as their agreement to the resulting marriage continuing as an opposite-sex marriage following their spouse’s gender recognition.
That covers the situation where a couple are already in a civil partnership and one of them has gender reassignment. If the non-trans spouse agrees to transfer the civil partnership to a marriage, to allow their certificate to continue, that is not the same as the non-trans spouse agreeing at the same time that they want to continue to be married to somebody who would then be of the opposite sex but who was of the same sex when they first entered into a civil partnership.
The Government and I are always prepared to listen and to take great care in responding to points raised in debate. It is probably worth mentioning that we have already made an amendment to the Bill to protect the pension rights of transpeople who receive a gender recognition certificate and are then in a same-sex marriage, so that they retain the same rights as if they were married to somebody of the opposite sex. Following the debate in the other place on the fast-track procedure, we have been considering this carefully, and I hope very much to bring forward something positive in that area on Report.
The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and other noble Lords asked whether a spouse is currently notified at the point of application. Under current rules, a spouse is not notified of her trans partner’s gender recognition application. This is because the marriage must be annulled before a full gender recognition certificate can be issued. The process, as it stands, requires somebody to have annulled their marriage before it is possible to get a full gender recognition certificate. However, I have only just been made aware of that issue and would like to follow up with a letter to the noble and learned Baroness, to my noble friend and to other noble Lords to explain the point in more detail.
I regret that I am not able to accept the amendment, but I hope I was able to give noble Lords the assurance they quite rightly seek. This is not about anybody having more control than the other person over the future of their marriage; it is about ensuring that there is an equal share and balance of rights between the two parties, and that it certainly is not just one spouse who has the right to annul the marriage.
I do not think the noble Baroness has actually addressed the issue of one spouse having the right of veto. I think that is very important. Spousal vetoes are spousal consents, which we got rid of in this country many years ago. A husband actually had to consent to his wife divorcing him, for example. I ask the noble Baroness to look at this most carefully. At the moment the Bill is in danger of reintroducing into British law a new matter—the right of one spouse to veto the actions of another—which we got rid of many years ago.
I hoped that I had responded to that, because we are clear that one spouse is not vetoing somebody else’s rights. If the transperson in the marriage wants to go for full gender recognition and receive the certificate, they are absolutely entitled to do that. However, if the person to whom they are married does not want to remain married to them, then they have to make a decision about the future of their marriage. We argue that for the non-transperson, whether they wish to remain married to somebody who has gone through gender reassignment is quite a fundamental thing to have to consider. This is not saying that somebody who wants to reassign their gender is not able to do so. The issue is whether they are able to remain in the same marriage. The person to whom they are married also has some right to decide whether they want to remain married to somebody after that person has changed their gender.
Forgive me, but I think I am. I am saying that if someone wants to go ahead with gender reassignment and their spouse does not agree to remain married to them, then it is open to them to start annulment proceedings, as indeed it is to the spouse who no longer wishes to remain married to them. Both of them have the right to start an annulment proceeding, and the person who wishes to change their gender and receive a full certificate can do that. It is not about them being unable to change their gender. They have the right to do that, and nobody is stopping them doing that. However, if the person to whom they are married does not wish to remain married, sadly they have to make a choice. They have to decide, and it must be their choice. It is not a choice that the state can make for them.
This is an incredibly difficult situation, as has been made clear in the course of this debate. Fundamentally, it concerns the decision of two people about their future. Each person has equal rights in the future of their marriage, but they must decide for themselves. These amendments seek to institute a time limit after which the state decides for them. It is not for the state to decide who people should be married to.
I would like to ask the Minister about notification. Clearly, nothing can happen until the interim certificate is provided. I understand that at the moment it is possible for the spouse not to know anything about the gender reassignment application. The sooner the other spouse knows about it the better, because mediation may be required. One does not want the parties to be in dispute, if possible. The shock to the person who finds that, for instance, her husband is no longer going to be her husband is enormous. The quicker she knows about it the better, in order to help finish the marriage decently and quietly. I understood the Minister to say that this could not be done because other proceedings had to come first. I am asking only for notification at the earliest possible stage that an application is being made. There can be nothing wrong with that, because it will do nothing other than make it certain that both spouses know what is going on.
We are talking here about a balance of rights. I think that I would like guidance, which I would be happy to take in writing or in a meeting. The objections of either spouse might be based on religious conviction, for example, although other objections are possible, too. Equalities cases such as those of Ladele have shown that Article 9 rights need to be balanced with other rights. In this scenario, are the Government explicitly placing someone’s Article 9 rights above their partner’s Article 8 rights? I am not asking the Minister to respond to that question now, but I would like that to be part of this discussion.
I certainly accept the noble Baroness’s invitation to respond to her on that point either in a meeting or in writing. However, I can say quite clearly that the rights at issue here are only Article 8 rights; that is, each party’s right to a private family life. I shall of course respond in detail to that.
On the point raised by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, under current rules a spouse is not notified of her trans spouse’s gender recognition application because the marriage must be annulled before a full gender recognition certificate can be issued. In order for somebody to obtain the certificate, they would already have had to deal with the issue of their own marriage, because it is not possible in current law for two people of the same sex to be married.
I take the point that the noble and learned Baroness made about there being a need for spouses to be notified of changes sooner rather than later. Clearly, if the relationship still exists, there will in most cases be a physical awareness of the change. However, since the noble and learned Baroness has raised a serious point, as has my noble friend, I should like to consult my colleagues on it and follow it up in writing.
My Lords, I thank everybody who has taken part in what has appeared at times to be a very technical debate. There are veterans in this Chamber of the Gender Recognition Act and they will understand that, although this is a technical subject, it is also a very human one. I thank the Minister for the way in which she answered the questions which were put to her, for she deserves enormous credit.
I did not take part in debates on the Gender Recognition Act, but I know that the rights of the person making the transition were very much to the fore at the time. Therefore, matters such as notification of their spouse were perhaps not as problematic as they seem now. I absolutely take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, that this not about preventing anybody making a transition but about trying to add to the tools that a couple has at its disposal to sort out their relationship. It is about enabling people to address issues at an earlier stage than they have done in the past. It is also about not allowing proceedings to drag on.
We are now several years on from the passage of the Gender Recognition Act, so we are now beginning to see people coming to us with experience of it, including some who have found themselves in this position. At the end of the day, these are families, quite often with children involved, and it is important that when there is a bitter and difficult situation it can be addressed as swiftly as possible. Perhaps these are situations in which it is never possible for everybody to be happy, but enabling matters to be resolved more quickly is beneficial for all in the end. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 46ZA withdrawn.
Amendments 46ZB to 46ZG not moved.
Schedule 5 agreed.
Clause 13 agreed.
Schedule 6 agreed.
Clause 14 : Review of civil partnership
46A: Clause 14, page 12, line 6, at end insert—
“(1A) The review under subsection (1) must deal with the case for amending the criteria in the Civil Partnership Act 2004 which define the eligibility of people to register as civil partners.
(1B) The review must in particular consider the case for extending such eligibility to—
(a) unpaid carers and those they care for, and(b) family members who share a house, who have cohabited for 5 years or more and are over the age of eighteen.”
My Lords, the co-signatory to this amendment, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, has asked me to give her apologies. She is chairing the House’s EU Sub-Committee B at this moment. However, she asked me to make clear her total support for this amendment. It is nine years to the very day since the House agreed to her amendment extending civil partnerships to family members, especially in view of the financial disadvantage they suffer under, for example, inheritance tax. At that time, the Government acknowledged the importance of this issue, yet the amendment was overturned in the other place and still nothing has been done. Because there is to be an urgent and wholesale review of civil partnerships, we firmly believe that family members and carers should be first in the queue to benefit.
I have tried to persuade the House more than once to take heed of the unfair way in which carers and siblings are treated in our law, compared with those in a sexual relationship. Clause 14 provides for a review of civil partnerships and a chance at last for fairness. When the Civil Partnership Bill was passing through Parliament, an amendment to it was adopted in this House by 148 votes to 130, which would have had the effect of extending the availability of civil partnership and the associated inheritance tax concession to family members within the so-called “prohibited degrees of relationship”. The amendment was reversed when the Bill returned to the other place.
During the course of the debate in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Alli, said:
“I have great sympathy with the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, when she talks about siblings who share a home or a carer who looks after a disabled relative. Indeed, she will readily acknowledge that I have put the case several times—at Second Reading and in Grand Committee—and I have pushed the Government very hard to look at this issue. There is an injustice here and it needs to be dealt with, but this is not the Bill in which to do it. This Bill is about same-sex couples whose relationships are completely different from those of siblings”.—[Official Report, 24/6/04; col. 1369.]
In the same debate, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said:
“There is a strongly arguable case for some kind of relief from inheritance tax for family members who have been carers to enable them to continue living in the house where they have carried out their caring duties. But that is a different argument and this is not the place or the time for that argument. This Bill is inappropriate for dealing with that issue”.—[Official Report, 24/6/04; col. 1374.]
During the course of the debate in the Standing Committee of the House of Commons, Jacqui Smith, the then Deputy Minister for Women and Equality, said:
“We heard a widespread agreement from Members across almost all parties that the Civil Partnership Bill is not the place to deal with the concerns of relatives”—
although she agreed with them—
“not because those concerns are not important, but because the Bill is not the appropriate legislative base on which to deal with them”.—[Official Report, Commons, Standing Committee D, 19/10/04; col. 8.]
There is no dissent from the desirability of extending a legally recognised partnership of some sort to related and carer couples. However, we are repeatedly told—whatever Bill is before Parliament—that it is not the right one in which to address the issue. That is not a good argument when their human rights are concerned. The situation is now even more pertinent and pressing, because the unfairness has increased. Civil partners and married couples, gay or straight, will be treated in law far better than, for example, two elderly sisters who share a house or an elderly father and the daughter who cares for him.
I first became interested in this topic because two of my most brilliant former students at Oxford were counsel for two sisters in a case that I am about to describe. One of those students now sits on the Cross-Benches, my noble friend Lord Pannick. The case to which I refer and which is the best known in this field, is that of Miss Joyce and Miss Sybil Burden, sisters, one of whom is now well over 90 and the other approaching 90. They are still alive, to the best of my knowledge, and have lived together for about 85 years. They remain single. They cared for their parents and two aunts to the end and did not allow them to go into a home.
On the death of the first sister, inheritance tax was estimated in 2008 to be about £120,000 and may be more now if the value of their house has risen. The sisters lost their case of discrimination before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights. The court held that marriage was different. With respect, the judgment was unsatisfactory not only because of the narrow defeat in court but for the lack of logic. The Government took down the barriers between marriage and other forms of association by enacting advantages for same-sex couples entering a civil partnership and now, shortly, gay marriage.
The European Court of Human Rights held that there was discriminatory treatment of the sisters, but that the UK had a wide margin of appreciation afforded to it and could treat benefits differently according to status in pursuit of the aim of promoting stable relationships by providing the survivor with, inter alia, financial security on the death of a spouse or partner. The lines drawn by the court in that case will no longer exist. All will be redrawn by the passage of the Bill. The unions or marriages that the Government seek to bolster will no longer have to be heterosexual, will not have to involve sex or procreation, but need only to be stable, loving and committed. Those are to be the only criteria in future.
Many siblings are connected perhaps coolly and only by common parentage, but where there are two, such as the Burden sisters, who have lived together for decades in a loving, committed and stable relationship and sharing a home to the exclusion of all other partners, they are indistinguishable in terms of deserving recognition and support from gay marriages or civil partnerships. Any two family members or carers who stay together for decades as an act of self-determination and personal development are a recognisable and welcome unit. Treating them like married people will in fact save the state costs that might otherwise be involved in taking care of them and giving them benefits because, on the death of one of the two elderly sisters whom I mentioned, the survivor will end up paying a large amount of inheritance tax which will mean selling the home, possibly pushing the survivor into state care.
Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights forbids discrimination in rights that are granted on the grounds, inter alia, of birth or other status. There is a clear case here which must urgently be addressed in the review of civil partnerships, ideally by an amendment to the Bill. Why should consanguinity be any less important than the relationship between married and civil partners? The state should not prefer sexual relationships, which may be short-lived and serial, over blood relationships that have proved to have endured decades. The Government should show—they cannot logically—that it is reasonable or necessary to exclude carers and related couples from the new marriage. I cannot resist quoting from Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”—some of your Lordships may remember it:
“Sisters, sisters. There were never such devoted sisters”.
How true in many cases.
Marriage has lost its special status and equality has been established by this Bill. If it is right to promote stable, long-term family partnerships, one cannot object to the proposal that I am putting forward—that is, to investigate giving formality to a bond which might in some respects be deeper and longer lasting than a marriage and which has co-dependence and supportiveness. The Government should right a wrong for a small number of people and give them the joy and benefits of a union as described by the supporters of this Bill. Perhaps I may quote the Burden sisters, who write to me quite a lot. They say:
“We have spent our lives looking after people and never once done anything wrong. And now we are punished for doing the right thing. This government is always going out of its way to give rights to people who have done nothing to deserve them. If we were lesbians we would have all the rights in the world. But we are sisters and it seems we have no rights at all”.
Once marital rights, such as pension rights and rights to take key medical decisions and so on, are extended beyond marriage, there is no good reason not to extend them still further to others in long-term caring and stable relationships who happen to be related by blood. If my suggestion is not adopted, I and possibly many noble Lords will be very puzzled. We will wonder if it is necessary to have a royal commission on the financial recognition that should be given to a whole variety of relationships that exist today and will exist in the future. To quote again from Irving Berlin: “Lord help the” Minister,
“who comes between me and my sister”.
I can see no case for giving generous treatment to civil partners and married people when it is not available to those who have not the choice or the freedom to enter a formal relationship, whose contracts may not be recognised by the courts and who, as the sisters say, have tried every way to avoid the burden of the inheritance tax that is likely to fall on one of them with such devastating consequences. That inheritance tax is a small matter. It is paid by fewer than 3% of the population and raises less than £3 billion per annum for the Government.
The genie is out of the bottle. Currently, all the varieties of unions that support us in life are inconsistently treated. There are those who would force marriage law on to cohabitants who would like to avoid it. I am not talking about that. However, we must give succour and benefits to those who want a legally recognised status but are denied it. I beg to move.
In the absence of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, I will speak very briefly in support of this humane amendment.
I imagine that we all can think of couples who fall into one or other of these two paragraphs. As regards family members, I remember a much loved bishop, a Bishop of Lewes. It was many years ago. I believed him to be a happily married man. It was only after he died that I discovered that the woman who I had believed to be his wife was his sister. I can conceive of no reason, as the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, has said, why those two should not have enjoyed the benefits of a civil partnership. The same applies to the unpaid carer. In our village there is a man who suffered a severe riding accident many years ago, as a result of which he is paralysed. He has been looked after with the utmost loyalty by the young man who previously looked after his horse. Once again, I can think of no reason why those two should not enjoy the benefits of being parties to a civil partnership.
It is clear to me that the amendment passed by this House nine years ago should have been accepted by the Government and by the Commons. We cannot do much about it in this Bill but we can at least open the door. I hope that we shall.
My Lords, perhaps I may make two extremely short points. First, as the previous two speakers have said, the door is now open. It is very interesting that on previous Bills the suggestion was made that this was not the right place. However, of all places, a review of civil partnership actually opens the door for what this House very properly voted in favour of before I joined it. Secondly, the effect on the Government of the day—I appreciate that there have been two Governments of opposite views, who have gone the same way on this—would be to defer the inheritance tax and not necessarily to lose it. It would not necessarily cost the Government very much money in the end. I hope that this will be looked at with more sympathy than it has been in the past.
My Lords, I strongly support the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech. Indeed, it was the rejection of the sisters amendment that led me to vote against the Third Reading of the Civil Partnership Bill in another place. I thought it was discriminating and unfair to concentrate entirely on sexual relationships and not to recognise the sort of close relationship and affinity to which the noble Baroness has referred.
Nine years ago, we were told that it was inappropriate to put it in that Bill—and somebody interjects, sotto voce, that it was. Well, nine years have gone by and the commonly recognised discrimination, which has been recognised by the noble Lord, Lord Alli, and others, has not been put right. We have an opportunity in this Bill to put it right. Although I hope that we do not come to a Division in Committee on this, if we do not have a satisfactory answer from my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and my noble friend Lady O’Cathain will consider retabling this or a similar amendment on Report—one on which we can vote.
I wonder whether the noble Lord and the noble Baroness would accept this point. I stand by those words in relation to carers. I was deeply passionate about the issue and I offered the noble Baroness any assistance that I could, not only at the time but after the debate. I believe that carers are an undervalued group of people in our society and I have no quarrel with that proposal. However, to prosecute the case for carers by devaluing the nature of a civil partner relationship is where our paths divert. Considering the countless civil partnerships that have gone on, with the types of celebration and the nature of the relationships, does the noble Lord not accept that there is now a significant difference between civil partnership as we understand it and what the noble Baroness and the noble Lord are proposing?
Clearly, that was meant to be an intervention so obviously I will respond to the noble Lord. I said at Second Reading that I accepted that civil partnerships were now a permanent part of our social fabric. Indeed, I went much further. I will not repeat what I said then as the noble Lord was in his place and heard it. I made similar comments during the debates in Committee last week. However, that does not in any way invalidate the basic justice of the case enunciated by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and supported by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick. I support it too and I say to the noble Lord, Lord Alli, that surely he and I are concerned with justice and equity for everybody. Although I have my reservations about the word “marriage” being applied right across the board, I have tried to make it plain in my brief interventions in Committee that I accept that he and those who share his beliefs thoroughly deserve a better recognition than they have had in the past—better even than in civil partnerships. In saying that, however, I can also say, and I do, in supporting the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, that there are others in our society—siblings and carers have been named, but there are others—who deserve, if they have made a life-long commitment to each other, as have those sisters and as has the young man with the gentleman who was so severely injured in a hunting accident, a recognition of the personal sacrifice and commitment that they have made which is at least equal to the recognition that we have given to civil partnerships. I hope very much that my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace will be able to encourage us today when he comes to respond to this debate. I repeat my strong support for the amendment so eloquently moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech.
My Lords, my understanding is that this amendment does not require the House to come to any view whatever on the merits or otherwise of the proposal. What it does is to recognise that there is to be a review of civil partnerships and it proposes that during the course of that review this topic should be included in the matters to be discussed, to be addressed and possibly to be the subject of future legislation.
The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, mentioned the case of Miss Burden and Miss Burden against the United Kingdom in 2008. I regret as much as the noble Baroness that I was unable to persuade the European Court of Human Rights to find that the less favourable treatment of these two ladies—it was severely less favourable treatment—was arbitrary discrimination contrary to the convention. It does seem to me as to many other noble Lords that since there is to be a review this topic should be covered.
My only quarrel with the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, is in her recitation of Irving Berlin’s song as support. She may recall that the lyric ends:
“And Lord help the sister, who comes between me and my man”,
which is perhaps not wholly appropriate in this context.
My Lords, I too want to support the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, on this amendment and to thank her and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, for their persistence in pressing the unfairness of the present law with regard to both carers and also family members.
The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, made the point that the amendment does not require any particular answer to the questions but simply tries to ensure that they will get raised. The point of having a review of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 is that, following the passage of this Bill, the circumstances of civil partnerships will be different. We do not yet know in what way they will be different, but they will be different because many people who would otherwise have entered into civil partnerships will enter into marriages. That seems to me to be an ideal point at which to consider whether civil partnerships should be extended to carers and other family members. If that is not the point at which we ought to do it, perhaps the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, can say what is the point at which we can tackle the unfairness which everyone seems to admit. We have had example after example of the unfairness of the present law. When are we going to be allowed to tackle that?
My Lords, it is surely not difficult to construe the meaning of Clause 14. As the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said, we know that the Secretary of State has agreed to arrange for the “operation and future” of the Act to be reviewed and for a report following that review to be produced. We know also, in subsection (2), that such a review is not prevented from dealing with other matters. What is absolutely clear from the debate thus far is that everyone who has spoken—those in another place, too—recognises that there is a particular injustice and anomaly in the case of siblings and carers. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, on raising this question yet again. She has been a consistent campaigner in this regard. She spoke eloquently and elegantly, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said.
I would find it anomalous if the Government were to say that they cannot take this further because of the European Court of Human Rights judgment. That would be a little puzzling because obviously they have not adhered slavishly to the judgments of the European Court in respect of prisoners’ rights, for example. They have shown that they can be quite selective about that. Perhaps the Minister will, as in the past, draw on the manual available to all Ministers. I am sure there must be a little book of various forms of objection. One of them is: “This is not the appropriate vehicle”. That may well be relied upon in this case. It may not be appropriate but at least the review can include matters that Members of this noble House deem important because we feel that sense of injustice.
The genesis of the review provision is of interest. Perhaps in their desperation to get the Bill through speedily and strike a deal with the dissidents, the Government came up with the idea of accelerating the review. Historians will no doubt find of interest the bargaining that lay behind those deals. Clearly, there was an initial contradiction in the Government’s position. They placed everything on the altar of equality. Equality was worshipped and all other considerations were pushed aside. It is hardly equal if homosexual couples have the choice of either a civil partnership or marriage whereas heterosexual couples do not have that choice and must be content with traditional marriage. There is a basic contradiction there.
To end, my own judgment is as follows: one thing I have learnt over very many years is that the British people have a fundamental sense of justice. Of all those who have spoken, I commend particularly the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick. He gave some telling examples from his village and his own experience. His questions need an answer and should be addressed at some stage by this House and Parliament generally. It is surely anomalous that, following the passage of this Bill, homosexual couples with perhaps a deathbed marriage will be in a far more advantageous and favourable position relating to inheritance tax provisions and tenancy than people who have looked after sisters or brothers or cared for others, as the Burden case has shown. People who have perhaps been together for decades will continue to be disadvantaged. It may well be that nothing substantial will emerge from the review but I commend and congratulate the noble Baroness on raising this question and relying, again, on that sense of fairness in the House.
At the heart of this debate is the basic premise that, given that gay marriage will occur, we should open up civil partnerships to a range of other people. We will see that in a number of amendments as we proceed through Committee. My problem with that is that I do not believe that gay marriage is being opened up as part of this Bill. This Bill creates civil same-sex marriage but it does not create equal marriage in the case of religious organisations. It is an enabling Bill and removes the prohibition for same-sex marriages in England and Wales, with the notable exception of the Church of England, which retains so many locks. The Bill preserves an inequality in religious marriages for the very good reasons we have debated throughout Committee. This is an important point in why I think civil partnerships have a very important role to play going forward.
I have listened very carefully to almost every word of the debate and I detect a real mood on the Benches Spiritual and in other religious organisations to recognise, respect and show good will to same-sex couples. When listening to the debates, there is no doubt that that movement is happening. I pay special tribute to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for the way in which he has sought to shine a new light on these relationships. I believe that before we see same-sex marriage in our churches, temples and mosques, we will see civil partnerships celebrated. We will see liturgies and special services created to bless gay couples without the churches having to change their views that marriage is between a man and a woman.
That movement forward in some religious organisations can happen only if civil partnerships stay in place for a little while longer and do not apply to these other categories of people. For example, while I support those who want civil partnerships to be extended to opposite-sex couples, civil partnerships for same-sex couples will have a unique role to play that justifies their position in a way that is not the same for opposite-sex couples. For me, that is a fundamental part of why I want to resist the extension of civil partnerships in this Bill. Religious organisations have made it clear that very soon a number of them will want to bless civil partnerships, and these amendments would remove the ability for them to do so.
In direct relation to Amendment 46A, there has been a huge amount of discussion about the fairness of these relationships but I cannot imagine that many carers or family members who share a house would wish their relationship to be solemnised before God and in the presence of their friends and family. That, for me, is the fundamental difference. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, was quite right to quote me, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, will recall that we had significant and detailed discussions of this issue during the passage of the Civil Partnership Act 2004. The other place was not sympathetic to what was being proposed because of the different aspects for same-sex couples. I really applaud the work of the noble Baroness and that of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, in trying to advance the plight of carers but I implore your Lordships to look at the role that civil partnerships will have in the context of religious organisations and allow them the ability to bless these stunning relationships in a way they see fit. It is the other side of the coin to not having gay marriage in religious organisations.
I, too, strongly support what the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, has said, and I supported the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, in her earlier efforts. It is extremely disappointing to be told, “Not now, another time” or, “Not tomorrow” or, “In a little while”. How do we know that it is going to be a little while? We have no idea. Reviews do not normally take a little while and even then they may not be successful.
I do not doubt the sincerity of the noble Lord, Lord Alli, and his genuine support for the idea behind this, but we are told every time, “Yes, we agree with what you say but this is not the vehicle in which to do it”. What we need to be told is, if this is not, what is? We need some idea of that because the injustices mount as the years go by. Many people, who would have been helped if the original amendment had gone through, are now gone. They are dead, finished; they faced burdens which they need not have faced. I, for one, am not prepared to sit here year after year and hear, “Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow”. Tomorrow never comes.
My Lords, nine years ago I took part in this debate, as did many others in your Lordships’ House. I was deeply moved then, as was the noble Lord, Lord Alli, by the cases and arguments put by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, which were repeated so eloquently today by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech.
I agreed absolutely that we need to address the problem of inheritance for people—they may be sisters or may not even be blood relatives—who none the less share a home for a long time and then face the problem of an inheritance tax which could push them into the shadows of residential care. I absolutely accept that that must be addressed. I hoped at the time we argued this, and still hope, that this should be addressed by the Treasury agreeing, very simply—it does not need legislation—that you can roll up inheritance tax on the first death to the death of the second person. As I understand it, that is all one needs to do. The state is not denied any money, but the sibling or carer who is left does not have the threat of losing their home held over them. That is the way to go. When it comes to extending or even considering this as part of an extension of civil partnerships, I obviously have no problem with this being part of a review, but I had two fundamental objections nine years ago and they remain for me today to consider this as possibly an extension of the civil partnership.
First, a civil partnership has a legal entry and a legal exit, which is equivalent to divorce. Take, for example, a mother and daughter who enter into a civil partnership, in good faith, partly to protect the home. The daughter may be in her forties or fifties; her mother dies, she inherits and is protected. If she is in a civil partnership and five years down the line meets a man whom she chooses to marry, she has to divorce her mother—her civil partner—to enter into a new marriage with a man. She may alternatively decide that when her mother has died and that civil partnership has ended she will form another civil partnership with her own grown-up son. Therefore the property cascades down the generations without ever touching the Treasury at any point.
This can be done through a revision of inheritance tax. It cannot in my view be done through a civil partnership which has to be divorced before you can enter another one or, indeed, before you enter a marriage. The notion that a daughter can divorce a mother in order to marry somebody else, or that a sister and brother can divorce each other because they each wish to marry someone else brings the notion of civil partnership, its ceremonies of entering and its divorce, into disrepute.
The second problem, which is why I was engaged fairly heavily the last time round, is that you cannot separate inheritance advantages from social security liability. If two people, whether they are a carer and the person cared for, a mother and a daughter, or a brother and a sister, enter a civil partnership in the hope of avoiding or postponing inheritance tax, they take on mutual responsibility for each other in social security. That means, for example, that if a frail elderly mother and a son enter a civil partnership to spare the son a big inheritance tax bill, he becomes wholly financially responsible for his mother, if he can afford it. For the first time ever, he will be means-tested for his mother’s support; his mother will have no independent rights to social security benefits because she will be his dependant. If he can afford to pay for her, the state does not need to. She loses her independence of social security income because the son, by virtue of the civil partnership, has taken on that responsibility.
I could enlarge on that, but noble Lords can see the consequences. If a sister and a brother enter into a civil partnership, then they become mutually financially responsible for each other in social security terms, including children and the like. The problem is that one cannot separate out the upside, in terms of inheritance law, for carers, or for a mother and a daughter or for sisters, without taking on, in all fairness, the downside of responsibility for social security.
I suggest to your Lordships that for every couple who gain through inheritance, there will be three or five poorer people, with no wealth to enjoy at inheritance and who have fairly modest incomes now, who will be losers. I do not think your Lordships would want that to happen. All I suggest is that noble Lords review and press to review the situation of inheritance tax and the ability to roll it up. In that way I think that we address the problem.
My Lords, if there is to be a relationship recognised as an extension of the concept of civil partnerships for inheritance tax, it also produces a responsibility for mutual financial support called social security. The one goes with the other. The way around it is something that I think my Government should have explored, and that I hope the current coalition Government will explore; the noble Baroness, Lady Knight of Collingtree, was absolutely right about this. We should see a way of avoiding a survivor, particularly in the case of the two elderly sisters who went to the courts, having the inheritance abated on the first person and being rolled over to the second death. That seems to me to protect the position of the two sisters, which I think we were all deeply moved by, but would avoid the long-term problem of social security which would otherwise follow.
I think that the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, have misunderstood my point. Of course there would be no question of making anybody enter any sort of contract of union. I am sure they would sit down and work out whether it was worth doing because of inheritance tax, and then of course they would—and should—happily take on the duty of supporting each other. However, if they do not want to, and they want their benefits, then that is it; there is no question of dropping this on them without their consent. There would have to be some sort of formality.
On that issue, the situation is surely this: there is no compulsion, and if any couple, be they carers or siblings, were minded to consider that new relationship, they would surely sit down and work out what could be a major downside. They would no doubt take professional advice to see what the advantages and the disadvantages were, and if the disadvantages of that relationship far outweighed the advantages, they would not proceed. It is as simple as that: there is no compulsion.
My Lords, around the Committee there is clear recognition of an injustice in inheritance tax terms to carers and siblings. However, while I do so with diffidence, I will to try to answer the question posed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd. He effectively asked what the difference was between siblings living together and couples presently in civil partnerships living together. The answer, I suggest, is that the noble Baroness’s amendment threatens to undermine the whole notion of civil partnerships, which are about loving relationships between people living together as couples—and yes, in a sexual relationship—rather than about carers or adult brothers and sisters.
The questions are not questions about inheritance tax. I suggest that the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alli, that people may wish to continue in civil partnerships even after this Bill goes through and even where they are same-sex couples is completely valid. To broaden the notion of civil partnerships, as this amendment suggests, undermines that possibility. Even in the words of the amendment which calls only for a review, as emolliently pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, the suggestion has that tendency to undermine what civil partnerships are. It is for that reason that nine years ago noble Lords called the notion embodied in this amendment inappropriate and why, although it was passed here, it was rejected by the other place. I suggest that the amendment should be rejected today for the same reason and that Parliament needs to find a way, whether as described by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, in her erudite explanation of the technical difficulties, or some other way, to solve the quite separate injustice to carers and siblings without interfering with or undermining the notion of civil partnerships.
My Lords, I have always felt discomfort if not, indeed, some element of contempt for what is called the vehicular defence. Too often, it has been said in a case where there is every merit in a proposed amendment, “Ah, yes, but that is not the correct vehicle to use at this stage”. More often than not, in the years that I have spent in this House and in another place, I have felt that it was a path of craven retreat used by many Governments in many situations but in a wholly unworthy cause. Indeed, that is my reaction in the first instance when it is pleaded that this measure may not be the proper vehicle. However, I suggest that for once that argument may well be true—not only that it is not the appropriate vehicle but that it may not be the lawful vehicle.
I have total respect and regard for all the arguments that have been advanced in favour of changing the law in this area. The arguments advanced are noble, honourable and just and there is no way, it seems to me, that they can properly be countered. However, if one looks at the preamble to the Bill, it seems to me that there may be some dubiety. I put it no higher than that, certainly not in the presence of persons far better able than me to judge this matter. It could be argued that this issue does not fall within the Bill’s Long Title, which refers to,
“the review of civil partnership, and for connected purposes”.
It may well be argued that civil partnership deals with a sexual relationship. If that is so, the relationships that we have been talking about this afternoon go beyond that. They elongate civil partnership but are not of the essence of civil partnership.
Indeed, even if I am wrong, we should remember that what is asked for is inclusion in a review. There will be immense discretion as to what the conclusion should ultimately be. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this debate may be, and they are all one way, in my respectful submission one dilutes the possibilities by including the issue in a review where there may be dubiety as to whether that is the correct vehicle. Therefore, in the circumstances, I respectfully suggest that the amendment is aimed at the wrong Act. It is not the 2004 Act that causes injustice in this regard, but the 19th century Partnership Act, as amended. In other words, if the relationships that one speaks about could by statute be deemed to be a certain type of partnership with a certain type of fiscal consequence leading therefrom that would be just, equitable and proper, then the proposal would be aimed at a correct target. If that could be done quickly not by way of review but by direct legislation, I would, indeed, consider that we had done something very worth while in a very simple, understandable way without cluttering up the argument with all manner of other considerations that may be less than relevant in the two circumstances of the case.
My Lords, I shall not detain the Committee by repeating what I said nine years ago when we debated this issue, and the controversy between those who focused on sexual relations and those who focused on tax and inheritance tax.
I have two points to make. Clause 14 seems to me not to require any amendment because it states:
“The Secretary of State must arrange … for the operation and future of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 in England and Wales to be reviewed, and … for a report on the outcome of the review to be produced and published”.
The clause goes on to say that that,
“does not prevent the review from also dealing with other matters relating to civil partnership”.
One of the other matters relating to civil partnership that has been mentioned by my noble friend Lord Marks, in particular, was referred to by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in paragraph 95 of our report. We said:
“We are not convinced by the Government’s reasons not to extend civil partnerships to opposite sex couples, and we welcome the Government’s announcement that it will review this matter. In doing so, the Government should take into account the potential discrimination that may arise between cohabiting opposite sex couples and civil partners”.
I very much welcome the fact that the Government have made it clear that there will be a review of the operation of the Civil Partnership Act to look at that aspect of the existing discrimination. That point has already been made by several noble Lords and it is important to deal with it. I have always disagreed with the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, as she knows, because I am strongly in favour of cohabitation rights for unmarried opposite-sex couples, and she is firmly opposed to that. That will clearly be a matter that the review will need to take into account to see whether the Government decide to give some protection to so-called common law marriages or not.
I continue to believe in that, as I did nine years ago. I am delighted by the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, because she has taught me aspects of social security and welfare that I was not aware of. For all the reasons given, I do not think that one should now fetter Clause 14 by requiring that the review should deal with matters that are truly beyond the scope of the Bill and ought not to be part of the review.
My Lords, I think that I should indicate that some aspects of this discussion will arise under my Amendment 55. It is important to remember that this Bill is not about gay marriage but same-sex marriage. As I pointed out, and I invited correction—so far I have not been corrected—it includes platonic relations between people of the same sex. Therefore, the idea that sexual relationships are fundamental to it is a mistake. That may or may not matter to this issue, but it matters considerably to the issue that I shall raise under Amendment 55.
My Lords, I, too, support the amendment. I found the introduction given by the noble Baroness so powerful that I hope—depending on whether the Minister can answer three questions that I want to ask—that I will not have to move my Amendment 46D, which will save the Committee quite a lot of time. It has the same essential aim as the amendment moved by the noble Baroness.
I would have been handicapped in moving my amendment in any case, because I do not have Answers to three Written Questions, which I tabled on 5 June and which should have been answered by last Wednesday, 19 June, at the latest. I hope that the Minister can answer them now. Those Written Questions seek to update the information on the scale and cost of the injustice being done to blood-relative, sibling or family partnerships, sometimes known as “the sisters”. I think that, after this debate, we all know who we are talking about.
The first question is: how many civil partnerships have so far been registered and what is the Government’s estimate of their impact on tax revenue? I have in mind inheritance tax and some elements of private pension arrangements which other noble Lords have mentioned. The second question is: what estimates have the Government made of any additional effect of same-sex marriages in these areas; that is, tax, income and so on? I would think that it is rather little. But the third question is the really important one: how many blood-relative, sibling or family partnerships exist? How much do the Government estimate those partnerships save the taxpayer in care costs, and how much would it cost to give them the same advantages that are currently enjoyed by civil partnerships and soon will be by same-sex marriages? It is important that we have the answers to those questions so that we can understand the scale of what we are dealing with. I have heard it estimated that blood-relative partnerships save the taxpayer some £3.4 billion per annum in care costs. Can the noble and learned Lord confirm what the latest figure is and can he also now answer my other Written Questions?
Noble Lords who oppose this amendment seem to think that the problem can be solved only by the extension of civil partnership rights. Surely this injustice is so great that, if necessary, another form of legislation can be dreamt up as a result of the review—the amendment asks only for a review—which would put right something that has gone on in the wrong way for far too long. I am really saying that there does not have to be sex in it, does there? Why cannot these really good people in these really long relationships be recognised? I would remind noble Lords that sex is not all that reliable.
My Lords, I had not intended to speak and I am still absorbing the last comment of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch. Like all those who have spoken, I believe that, through the taxation system and regulations on caring, we discriminate against people who devote their lives to caring for others. Personally, I would not want to wait for a review of this nature, unrelated as I see it to be to the issue. We have much to do about reviewing the needs of people who are carers. Legislation is desperately needed; the Government assure us that they are looking at the issue, and to me that is the vehicle.
I cannot see how, in a same-sex marriage Bill or in a civil partnership as it stands now, something that the churches have opposed since time immemorial—incest—can be validated. As noble Lords have said, this issue concerns many relationships that would be ruled out of marriage by law, let alone by the churches, because they would be deemed too close and thus to be incestuous. In saying that, I do not in any way disparage the importance of the issue that needs to be raised. Like other people in this Chamber, I have relied in my lifetime on other siblings helping me to care for elderly parents, and I think that the time is right to deal with the issue.
Saving the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, we are talking about chalk and cheese in relation to the relationships that would have been supported in the case of the debate that I remember so well having been present for, and what we are doing in this Bill. I ask those who care so strongly about this issue to ensure that it is dealt with expeditiously as part of a review of the circumstances of carers. I hope that when it comes to Report, people will take that very seriously on board because I know carers who cannot wait any longer because their own future is uncertain. As has been said, some changes could be brought in without any loss of benefit to the Treasury; it is merely a question of delay.
My Lords, we have had a very interesting and passionate debate about extending civil partnerships to unpaid carers and family members who share a house. I, too, was present at the debate we had during the passage of the Civil Partnership Bill. I said then that I thought my noble friend Lord Alli was right; that was not the Bill. He is right now that this is not the Bill. That is not to say that this is not an important issue. Of course it is a most important issue.
I just wonder why—or maybe I have missed this and a noble Lord can tell me—this issue has not been raised in the passage of the many Bills that we have had before us in which it could have been raised in the intervening period. We have had Bills about carers. I put down an unsuccessful Bill about free support for people at home. There have been many times when this House could have taken on board these issues and made its views clear in appropriate Bills to do with income support and carers. Yet, again we find ourselves discussing this important issue during the passage of a Bill to do with, in this case, equal marriage. That does not do service to both the importance of the issue of carers and the fate of people who care for their relatives, or the issue before us, which is the same-sex marriage Bill. That is a shame.
On these Benches we do not think this is the right Bill. We think this a good issue and an important issue but we suggest that this is not an appropriate amendment. Will the Minister clarify the Government’s review of civil partnerships—which we understand because we helped the Government to put forward the amendment from these Benches in the other place? How far does he believe that review will go and where will it end up? Our understanding is that it is a review looking at whether one would have opposite-sex civil partnerships and, if so, how that would work.
My Lords, this has been a very good debate and the issues have been thoroughly explored. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, on introducing it in the way that she did. I do not think any of your Lordships who have spoken in the debate in any way question the validity—or the value, rather—of the relationships that exist between siblings or other family members where they have mutual duties or care obligations. Indeed, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, mentioned a particular case of a young man who helped someone who was injured in a riding accident. Certainly, our society, country and communities benefit enormously from the caring relationships that exist the length and breadth of the country. I imagine that many noble Lords can think within their own families of relationships of mutual support between a brother and sister, between sisters or brothers, or intergenerational support.
The amendment moved by the noble Baroness would amend the duty in Clause 14 requiring the Secretary of State to arrange for the review of the operation and future of the Civil Partnership Act so that the scope of the matters to be reviewed includes consideration of the possibility of extending civil partnerships to,
“carers and those they care for”,
“family members … who have cohabited for 5 years or more and are over the age of eighteen”.
The terms of reference for the review of civil partnerships required by Clause 14 were published on 13 June and a copy has been placed in the House Library. The review will look at the operation and future of civil partnerships in England and Wales. It may help your Lordships if I note what the scope is, according to the published terms of reference. They say that the review,
“will cover England and Wales and will … Examine evidence about how well the current arrangements for civil partnerships are working, drawing on views from the public and organisations with an interest and international comparisons … Assess the need and demand for civil partnerships when marriage is available to all, and whether any changes to civil partnership arrangements are necessary … Identify all the implications of and issues raised by the identified options (including risks and devolution issues) … Assess the costs and benefits of the options … Make recommendations for any changes to the operation and future of the CPA”.
In response to my noble friend Lord Lester, it is not the Government’s understanding that that would extend to issues of cohabitation. In a Written Ministerial Statement on 6 September 2011, the Government said:
“The findings of the research into the Scottish legislation do not provide us with a sufficient basis for a change in the law. Furthermore, the family justice system is in a transitional period, with major reforms already on the horizon. We do not therefore intend to take forward the Law Commission’s recommendations for reform of cohabitation law in this parliamentary term”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/11; col. 16WS.]
I think that my noble and learned friend may have misunderstood me. I quite realise that the Government have set their face against doing for England and Wales what has happened in Scotland. However, I was asking whether the Government are rejecting the recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which welcomed the idea of consultation to take account of the potential discrimination that may arise between cohabiting opposite-sex couples and civil partners. I thought that was the forceful point that really led to the public consultation.
I apologise if I misunderstood the point being made by my noble friend. As I indicated last week, clearly we are giving consideration to all the recommendations of that report. No one has told me anything to the contrary since then and I think it is still our ambition to have that report available for your Lordships before consideration of this Bill on Report. The matter will obviously be dealt with there.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: Given how specific the question is, I hope that there will be an answer for my noble friend before I sit down. I am sure those listening will have understood how specific the question is.
The point that I was going on to make is that the amendment simply appears to extend the review. However, our concern is that the extension proposed would undermine a core principle of civil partnerships. As the noble Lord, Lord Alli, said, this is about civil partnerships as they are currently understood, have developed and have been used in the years since they were established. It is important that we are talking about the nature and relationship of civil partnerships as understood, because this is a very different type of relationship.
The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, were quite candid. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, quite properly said there would be no compulsion. Of course there would be no compulsion. She went on to say that couples would sit down and work it out. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said that they would take professional advice on whether the tax or social security arrangements were in their interests. We are talking about marriages which, in a religious context, would involve the engagement of a priest. I now hear that people wanting to take them on would probably have to engage the services of an accountant. These are very materially different kinds of arrangements. One is meant to be an expression of commitment and a desire to live together to the exclusion of others for life, and one is really tantamount to a tax arrangement. I do not think I am doing an injustice to the way it was actually phrased. That in no way diminishes the quality of care that exists. That was indeed the basis of the argument. My noble friend Lord Marks said that it could very well undermine the current civil partnerships as understood.
The noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, inquired about the questions he submitted. I apologise if he has not had responses. The most recent information available from the Office for National Statistics gives the total number of civil partnerships formed in the United Kingdom to be 53,417. These partnerships were formed between the Civil Partnership Act 2004 coming into force in December 2005 and the end of 2011. It is not possible to estimate the impact of civil partnerships on tax revenues, as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs does not require individuals to distinguish whether they are married or in a civil partnership.
I suspect that might answer the second question, which concerned the difference between same-sex marriage and civil partnerships. The noble Lord’s third question concerned how many blood relative, sibling or family partnerships exist, and what the cost would be. I think that is probably an impossible question to answer, not least because that knowledge is not collected by any government department in that way. It is also because, for reasons which have been well rehearsed during this debate, where these kinds of relationships exist one does not know in how many cases the couple concerned would want to make the relationship into a civil partnership. I understand why the noble Lord asked the question, but I think it is almost impossible to answer in any meaningful way. I am happy to give way.
My Lords, that was not quite the question. The question was how much these family partnerships save the taxpayer in care costs and how much it would cost to give them the same advantages as civil partnerships, not necessarily using the same legal framework. I suggest that if the Government do not want to face this, it is purely because there are too many of these partnerships. There are very many more: a multiple of 53,000. That is why the Government will not face up to this duty, which has been owing to these people for a very long time.
My Lords, I apologise if I misunderstood the question asked by the noble Lord. If information assessing the benefit to the state is available, that question may be capable of an answer. I will certainly ensure that that information is made available. I imagine there will be plenty of opportunities to discuss these kinds of issues when the Care Bill, which is already before your Lordships’ House, is debated at greater length. I will certainly ensure that the noble Lord gets the estimates that have been made, and I apologise if I misunderstood his question.
The review will look at whether civil partnerships are still needed, or whether there is a case for extending them to opposite-sex couples. Much of this debate proceeded on the basis that they would continue, whereas in fact that is only one of the options. I note the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Alli, about how he saw civil partnerships perhaps developing, and how there might be a liturgy associated with them in times to come. No doubt that is a point he and others will make to the body conducting the review. Questions do arise from the change to marriage law which we are making in this Bill. It will result in the apparent anomaly of same-sex couples having the choice between marriage and civil partnership, while opposite-sex couples will only be able to marry. It was for that reason that we sought this review.
Regarding parents, children and siblings, as the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said, the positions of siblings are indistinguishable. However, it is the case that parents, children and siblings already have a legally recognised relationship, one to the other. These relationships already afford certain rights. For example, children and siblings are recognised in intestacy rules. The extent of those rights is clearly a separate issue from the question of future civil partnerships. That is why we believe that it would be inappropriate for them to be considered as part of this review. It could lead to legitimating relationships within the prohibited degrees of relationship.
We will come later to the amendment of my noble and learned friend, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. However, even if the reasons for the prohibited degrees of affinity perhaps stem back to what one might call a biological concern, there are still issues of power relationships within very close families. These may not necessarily be obvious, but there is also protection there against any undue pressure. As was also said in one of the contributions, what if life circumstances change? Suppose that two sisters enter into a civil partnership, and one later wants to marry someone else or to enter into a civil partnership with someone else.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, made the point that there is a legal entry but there is also a legal exit. In these circumstances, the idea of a judicially determined divorce—let us not beat about the bush, it would be a divorce—could very well be much more damaging to a previously existing relationship than would otherwise be the case. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, who reminded us of Irving Berlin—yes, there was a reason why I hesitated over his name—and his theory of “Lord help the sister who comes between me and my man”. That is probably a very pertinent point. I know the point, but the reason I hesitated was because I was told that the late Isaiah Berlin once sat next to a very prominent politician who could not understand the question about “White Christmas”, so I wanted to make sure that I had actually got the name right.
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord has just amused your Lordships about Irving Berlin, but what he said shortly before that is not right either, is it? One cannot generalise too widely on these things, but surely the bitterness that comes with the breakdown of a sexual relationship is likely to be greater than a breakdown in a sibling or family relationship.
My Lords, I should perhaps just leave this on the reply of the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington. Turning to the rights and responsibilities of carers, of course they play an invaluable role in our society, caring for people. No one disputes that. The Government strongly value the role and commitment of carers. Indeed, we set out our priorities in November 2010 in a cross-government strategy: Recognised, valued and supported: next steps for the Carers Strategy. The mandate to the NHS Commissioning Board also contains a clear objective on enhancing the quality of life of people with long-term conditions and their carers. Achieving this objective will mean that by 2015, the 5 million carers looking after friends and family members will routinely have access to information and advice about the available support. When it comes to financial support for carers, the Government have announced that carer’s allowance will continue to exist as a separate benefit outside of universal credit, so that carers will continue to enjoy the support of a dedicated benefit.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. I was very intrigued by what he said about the Care Bill, which is now before the House in Committee. I appreciate my noble friend Lady Knight’s comment about how we get really fed up when we are told that it is not the appropriate Bill to propose a certain amendment. My noble and learned friend the Minister has said that the Government really appreciate the work of carers and we are grateful for it. However, if the Government are so committed to the work of carers, would it not be possible for the Government to bring forward their own amendment to the Care Bill?
That is the responsibility of a different department. I would be very brave to make that kind of commitment here without consulting, but I am sure that my noble friend’s words will be noted. The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, made the point that he never liked the arguments about vehicles. I am not really trying to make that argument, because I have argued that there are in fact some very serious differences. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, also made the point that the issues being raised are really not appropriate for this Bill. They are relevant perhaps to a finance Bill rather than a partnership Bill, as they relate to the rules of inheritance tax or the terms of benefits.
As the noble Baroness knows, those arguments have been well rehearsed. I was not in your Lordships’ House nine years ago, but my noble friend Lady Northover has said in response to one or two of the comments that have been made, “Oh, I remember that point being made then”. The Government then sought to oppose proposals of this kind, and this Government share the view that civil partnership, as it then was and as it has evolved and developed over time, is not the appropriate place to open up these new, significant policy questions. The review is about civil partnerships. It would be inappropriate to open it up to look at unrelated issues of carers and family law, and particularly the question of tax and benefits. We have also indicated that we do not wish to delay or add to the cost and complexity of a review which the Government have committed to undertake as soon as possible in response to calls that were made in the other place. The other issues that are opened up are vast, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, made clear. I therefore ask the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, before I forget, perhaps I may correct the Minister on the following point: it was Irving Berlin who was invited to the White House to discuss politics and the conduct of a war. It was only much later that it was discovered that the President had called for Isaiah Berlin.
I am grateful to all those who have spoken. Our discussion has caused me to focus on three themes. The first is obvious: there is no time to waste. There are lots of old folk who need help. Every time I have inquired at the Whips’ Office or the clerks’ office when Bills have come forward, I have been told, “Oh, it’s not relevant. This won’t do for siblings”. It is not that the issue has been forgotten, as some have said.
I am focusing also on freedom of choice. Once this Bill has passed, everybody in the country who is over 16 will be able to choose to enter a legal bond with somebody else, except those who are related. That is why I do not support the noble Lord, Lord Lester—as he knows—in relation to cohabitants. They can choose; they could get married. Maybe in future they could have a civil partnership and make a contract if they have not done so; I would not dump our very unsatisfactory matrimonial law on them without their choice. However, siblings have no choice at all. They are faintly recognised as relatives in some other laws, but there is really very little help for adult siblings.
There has been some talk of my amendment somehow devaluing equal marriage. I say to those who have made that point that this Bill is about equality. Those who are gaining equality should not rest on their laurels. On the contrary, having reached their target, they should hold out their hand to others to give them the same help, despite perhaps the same objections, as is being given in this Bill for same-sex marriages. It is not a religious question. I cannot imagine for a minute that any review would ever expect any religious authority to bless the union of related people. Religion has nothing to do with it—so I did not quite follow the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Alli. What I am thinking of is some union—it need not necessarily be a civil partnership—some formal contract or some recognition that could be extended to siblings, and, believe me, there has been no opportunity to do this in any of the Bills that I have followed during the past few years.
I support the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, in saying that this need not cost anything in relation to inheritance tax. It could be rolled over; it could be deferred at nil cost to the Government.
I do not agree with those who say that civil partnerships are different. Sex has got nothing to do with it—some chaps here may not agree with that—now that we have changed the definition of marriage. Even at the moment, if two people get married, no one inquires as to whether it is a sexual relationship. As we all know, neither adultery nor consummation will play any part in remedies or definition of marriage in the future. This really has nothing to do with sex. We are not talking about sisters committing incest—that is a crime anyway. We all realise that that is beyond the bounds of possibility; it is nothing to do with that. It is to do with the fact that the whole definition of marriage has changed. My bet is that a new case before the European Court would probably succeed because the law of Europe prohibits discrimination on the grounds of birth, status and sex inter alia. I cannot see a ground for not extending some advantages, as appropriate, to those who are related and therefore unable to take advantage of all the variety of unions that are open to others.
A strong plank of the new law is equality. We have to cling to that: it is about equality. I do not agree, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, realised, with any notion of forcing people into something like this. Nor am I suggesting that it is all about tax advantage—or maybe it is, because, after all, people of both sexes now get married or can enter a civil partnership in order to gain tax advantage; I vaguely remember, decades ago, that there was a particular date in April that was much favoured for getting married because one got tax relief for the whole of the previous year as a married couple. For all we know, people are entering into marriages or civil partnerships for all sorts of financial reasons. It is not for us to inquire. People make their decision based on the range before them; sisters have no range in front of them. If it were to mean that people who entered some new sort of union had to support each other, that is all well and good—that would be altogether excellent. Too often, one reads about people who are abandoned, die on their own or are in hospital on their own and, much later, relatives come out of the woodwork to ask why no one was taking care of them. One thinks, “Well, where were you then?”. Anything that were to reinforce family solidarity seems to me to be a good thing.
It would not have to be a civil partnership. I am worried that the terms of reference, as were cited by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, will be too narrow.
I have been reflecting on what the noble Baroness has said about not understanding the civil partnership aspect in terms of religious organisations. We passed a provision in this House allowing civil partnerships to happen in religious buildings. One reason for our doing so was the need for same-sex couples to be able to have their unions blessed with the congregations with whom they had prayed. We saw this as being progress towards marriage being celebrated in churches. It was recognised that there would be two speeds, where we would see religious organisations wanting to bless civil partnerships in their churches and some already doing so. Does the noble Baroness accept that if her plan went through as envisaged, it would drive a coach and horses through the church’s ability to bless civil partnerships, because the nature of those relationships will have been changed from the wish of two people to have a solemn union to a set of arrangements that fall outside that?
I am sorry, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Alli, but I really do not get it, because what I envisage is that the review would come up with some sort of partnership, union or contract suitable for siblings. I cannot imagine for a moment that they would want to celebrate that in a church—although anyone, I suppose, can go and get a blessing. The proposal does not impinge in any way on the aims of the noble Lord, Lord Alli.
I am concerned that the terms of reference cited by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, are too narrow. I would like him to remember that everybody in the country will have a choice, except siblings. They will be the only people who will not have available to them a civil partnership or a marriage of some sort. They will be unable to take advantage of this legislation because there will be no vehicle for them. Men and women can get married; two people of the same sex can get married; there may still be civil partnerships; there may even be civil partnerships for heterosexual couples. The excluded category is those who are related. There is probably little point in keeping the prohibited degrees any longer, save for the point about abuse within the family—but, sadly, we know that abuse within the family goes on anyway, regardless of what the arrangements relating to bonding may be.
My Lords, I regret intervening again, but I have seen cases in my life as a domestic abuse counsellor. The noble Baroness talks about two sisters. What about a father and daughter? That has not been raised. There can be abuse within family relationships involving coercion and violence. I am not arguing against what the noble Baroness wants to do in terms of the rights of people who have given up their lives to care, but bonding can bring a whole set of different problems. It could be a brother and sister or a father and daughter, and this worries me.
My suggestion was, of course, a free choice and under the definition I have given, they would have been living together for several years anyway. I should remind the noble Baroness and the Committee that our law already provides for contracts to be vitiated if there is duress. Our law already provides that if someone is dragged to the altar in some fashion, that marriage is not valid. It may be hard to enforce and I wish there was more of it, but we already have those provisions.
Because these people are getting old, I therefore ask the Government most urgently to please bring forward their own amendment, or somehow ensure that the terms of reference in reviewing civil partnership are wide enough to look at bonds—or whatever name you wish to give them—of other people who may wish to enter such a bond but are unable to do so at the moment. That way they may enjoy the fiscal and maybe emotional benefits that result from it. Otherwise I will bring forward this issue again on Report. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 46A withdrawn.
Clause 14 agreed .
46B: After Clause 14, insert the following new Clause—
“Amendment of Education Act 1996
(1) Section 403 of the Education Act 1996 is amended as follows.
(2) After subsection (1C) insert—
“(1CA) Guidance under subsection (1A) must provide for education about the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and the bringing up of children to be given to registered pupils at schools which have a religious character in accordance with the tenets of the relevant religion or religious denomination.”
(3) After subsection (2) insert—
“(3) For the purposes of subsection (1CA)—
(a) a school has a religious character if it is designated as a school having such a character by an order made by the Secretary of State under section 69(3) of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 (“the 1998 Act”); and(b) “the relevant religion or religious denomination” means the religion or denomination specified in relation to the school under section 69(4) of the 1998 Act.(4) Subsection (5) applies where—
(a) Academy arrangements have been entered into between the Secretary of State and another person;(b) the terms of the Academy arrangements have the effect of requiring that other person to have regard to guidance issued under subsection (1A) above; and (c) the Academy is designated as having a religious character by an order made by the Secretary of State under section 69, as applied by section 124B, of the 1998 Act or is treated as having been so designated by virtue of section 6(8) of the Academies Act 2010.(5) Where this subsection applies, subsection (1CA), and guidance issued under subsection (1A), are to be construed as if references to schools which have a religious character were references to the Academy.””
My Lords, this amendment is about education in church schools, mostly owned by the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church, but also by some other denominations and in schools of faiths other than Christian. Before I describe what the amendment is intended to achieve, I need to explain why it is needed.
Clause 11(2) of this Bill makes wide-ranging changes to the law of England and Wales and its effect is explained in paragraph 55 of the Explanatory Notes. It states that Clause 11(2),
“ensures that the law of England and Wales, including all existing and new England and Wales legislation, is to be interpreted as applying, where marriage is concerned, equally to same sex and opposite sex couples”.
Together with Schedule 3, this sets out the equivalence of all marriages in law. That seems perfectly clear. For legal purposes, the meaning of marriage is changed, so that where an Act of Parliament refers to marriage, it will mean marriage of same-sex couples and of opposite-sex couples.
Section 403 of the Education Act 1996 places a duty on the Secretary of State to issue guidance designed to secure that when sex education is given, pupils,
“learn the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and the bringing up of children”.
Governing bodies and head teachers of maintained schools, including all church schools and academies, are required to have regard to the guidance when formulating their policies for sex education. After the Bill passes, that reference to marriage in Section 403 will, rightly, be read as a reference to marriage as redefined by the Bill. In other words, the nature of marriage to which Section 403 refers will mean the union of any two persons regardless of gender.
This Bill also recognises—indeed declares—in Clause 1(3) that the doctrine of the Church of England remains that marriage is,
“the union of one man with one woman”.
That is also the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, most other churches and most other major religions in this country. The trusts of Church of England schools require education to be given in accordance with the tenets of the Church of England. Schools that belong to other denominations are in an equivalent position. As a result of this, church schools are recognised for their distinctive Christian ethos and the impact this has on standards and all-round education.
So far as teaching about the legal nature of marriage is concerned, there is no problem. Church schools, like any other schools, can and must teach their pupils that Parliament has legislated so that, as Clause 1(1) of the Bill states:
“Marriage of same sex couples is lawful”.
As at present, homophobic bullying must have no place in church or any other schools. Discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation is usually expressly forbidden within a school’s code of conduct and that must remain the case. The Church of England’s established policy is that pupils should have the opportunity to examine the full range of views on same-sex relationships—including different Christian views—and develop their own considered position. Within that atmosphere of open discussion, church schools must nevertheless be in a position to teach the nature of marriage in a way that is in accordance with the tenets of the Church of England.
The distinctive Christian ethos of church schools will be undermined unless that position is accommodated. Exactly the same goes for schools that belong to other religious traditions. The purpose of this amendment is simply to achieve that accommodation. It does not seek an exemption. No one is asking for a provision that would enable schools to operate outside the framework that the Secretary of State’s guidance provides. What I seek is a provision which ensures that the guidance itself expressly recognises the need for schools that have a religious character to teach the nature of marriage in a way that is in accordance with that character.
The meat of the amendment is the new subsection (1CA). The meaning of the provision is quite straightforward. It would require the guidance itself to address this particular issue. It would require it to do so by accommodating the need for schools that have a religious character to teach in a way that is consistent with their religious ethos, while continuing to operate within the statutory framework. Unfortunately the amendment needs to be quite a bit longer than that, to provide definitions that link it to other existing statutory provisions. It also needs to deal with the position of academies in a slightly different way, because of the legal basis on which they are established. In substance, it would put academies that have a religious character in the same position in this regard as other church schools.
When introducing the Bill, the Minister said that she wished to make clear from the outset that this Bill was,
“not just about allowing same-sex couples to marry; it is also about protecting and promoting religious freedom”.—[Official Report, 3/6/13; col. 938.]
The Government have very largely delivered on this commitment. Teaching about marriage in schools that have a religious character is one of the few issues of that nature that remain outstanding. I therefore hope that the noble Baroness will respond positively to this amendment, which is concerned with the same principles of religious freedom that she outlined at Second Reading.
My Lords, I have also put my name to this amendment. My interests are in the Lords’ register. I am also the chairman of trustees of Chailey Heritage Foundation and a governor of Lancing College, though both are non-maintained schools. I start by thanking the right reverend Prelate for his clear introduction. Noble Lords who are now well-versed in this Bill will know that the House has already debated concerns about its possible effects on teachers. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dear, and my noble friends Lord Eden of Winton, Lord Elton and Lord Waddington, and others, for addressing those concerns, which are well argued and strongly felt.
Our amendment is equally strongly felt, but it is much narrower in its remit. It is more specific and relates to Section 403 of the Education Act 1996. We hope that, because of the narrowness of its focus, it will be acceptable to the Government. I can assure them that they have nothing to lose by accepting it. On the contrary, it strengthens the position of the Secretary of State for Education. Our amendment is intended to provide protection for schools and academies with a designated religious character. The protection is needed because the Bill causes two potential problems for designated schools: first in relation to guidance about marriage that has already been issued; and, secondly, in relation to future guidance yet to be seen.
The Bill presents those problems because Clause 11(1) and (2) change the definition of marriage. Clause 11(1) provides:
“In the law of England and Wales, marriage has the same effect in relation to same sex couples as it has in relation to opposite sex couples”.
Clause 11(2) provides:
“The law of England and Wales (including all England and Wales legislation whenever passed or made) has effect in accordance with subsection (1)”.
In all circumstances, therefore, marriage will mean both same-sex and opposite-sex marriage.
As the noble Lord, Lord Dear, rightly pointed out during Committee last Wednesday,
“Section 403 of the Education Act 1996 requires … teaching pupils about the importance of marriage in family life”.—[Official Report, 19/06/2013; col. 335.]
It also places a statutory obligation on the Secretary of State to issue guidance that ensures that children learn,
“its importance for family life and the bringing up of children”.
As the right reverend Prelate said, there is no doubt that the meaning of marriage will be altered by virtue of Clause 11. It will mean that children will have to be taught about the nature of opposite-sex and same-sex marriage and its importance for family life and the bringing up of children. In summing up our debate last Wednesday, my noble friend stated:
“My noble friend Lady Barker asked me a direct question about whether the Bill changes anything in respect of the guidance that currently exists for teachers on how to teach sensitive issues under the heading of ‘sex and relationship education’. No, it does not”.—[Official Report, 19/6/13; col. 350.]
I hate to differ with my noble friend, especially as I want her to accept our modest amendment, but our view is that Clause 11 will change the meaning of marriage. Therefore, Section 403 will also change.
The Explanatory Notes published with the Bill made that abundantly clear. They state that, except where contrary provision is made, a reference to a married couple will include a reference to a same-sex married couple. The reason that that change to the definition of marriage will cause problems for some schools is that Section 403(1A)(a) is divided into two parts. The first states that pupils will,
“learn the nature of marriage”,
and the second is that they learn,
“its importance for family life and the bringing up of children”.
It is the second part of Section 403(1A) that means that our amendment to the Education Act needs to be made. The phrase requiring children to learn,
“its importance for family life and the bringing up of children”,
puts an obligation on schools to teach children more than the fact that the institution of marriage exists; it requires schools to teach that marriage has a value and is beneficial for family life in the bringing up of children. Teaching about the value and benefit of marriage necessarily entails advocating and commending it. That is, the current guidance is altered by Clause 11.
That will be a problem for schools with a designated religious character if promoting or endorsing same-sex marriage runs contrary to the religious belief of that school. That is no small matter; it is not a minority sport. There are more than 7,000 Catholic and Anglican schools in England and Wales, and that number does not account for other faith schools. Those religious schools constitute approximately 30% of all schools in England and Wales and more than 1.8 million pupils attend them. Those schools are very popular. Christian parents and, indeed, parents of other faiths and none, go to great lengths to get their children into those schools. If the Bill is not amended, huge numbers of schools and pupils will be affected. The Government need to be aware of that, because it is not a small or, as I said, unimportant issue.
Ministers have repeatedly stated that the Government do not intend religious schools to be forced to promote or endorse same-sex marriage. During the Second Reading debate in the Commons, the Secretary of State said,
“no teacher will be required to promote or endorse views that go against their beliefs”,
and that the Government,
“never would expect a teacher to … promote something that ran contrary to their beliefs or their religious beliefs”.—[Official Report, Commons, 5/2/13; col. 132-33.]
During Committee in the other place, the Minister stated that,
“no teacher is under any duty to promote or endorse a particular view of marriage, and neither would they be as a result of any revised guidance in future”.—[Official Report, Commons, Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, 28/2/13; col. 311.]
This point was reiterated by my noble friend during Lords Committee last Wednesday.
Although the intention and assurances are very welcome, they are insufficient for three reasons. The first is that ministerial statements are vulnerable to challenge. It is perfectly possible that Section 403 and the Secretary of State’s guidance might be interpreted in a way which obliges schools to promote and endorse same-sex marriage.
The second reason takes us back to the second potential problem that I highlighted earlier. Nothing in the Bill prevents a future Secretary of State from explicitly requiring schools in guidance to commend and advocate same-sex marriage. A future interpretation of Section 403 may require schools to advocate and commend
Thirdly, Ministers have frequently relied on the submission of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, to the Commons Committee. However, the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, did not address that point about schools. He addressed the concern about teachers debated during Committee last Wednesday, not the discrete point about guidance issued under Section 403. His assurances should not have been referred to in response to the amendment to Section 403 put to the Committee.
Of course my noble friend and the Government may be confident that the current Secretary of State will not issue guidance requiring schools to promote same-sex marriage, but they cannot be certain that the next Secretary of State or a Secretary of State in a few years’ time will not do so. A future Secretary of State will not be bound by the Minister’s comments during Committee on the Floor of either House. Our modest amendment, on the other hand, would make it very difficult for a future Secretary of State to flout the Government’s intentions, because he or she would have to amend the legislation before issuing guidance forcing religious schools to promote or endorse same-sex marriage.
Our amendment is clear. It is needed to ensure that schools with a designated religious character are not compelled to commend or advocate an understanding of marriage that runs contrary to their religious ethos under either current or future guidance. Our amendment does so by placing an obligation on the Secretary of State to issue guidance that specifically provides for education about the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and the bringing up children. Pupils will be aware that that is in accordance with the tenets of the religion of the school. It ensures that schools will be able to do that because of, not despite, the guidance. Any guidance requiring religious schools to advocate or commend same-sex marriage would therefore be in conflict with a positive obligation that our amendment would put on the Secretary of State.
I reassure noble Lords that our amendment will not affect any guidance that requires schools to teach children about the legal status of marriage—that it is legally open to both opposite and same-sex couples. All schools, religious or otherwise, will remain under an obligation accurately to teach the law of the land. Put another way, if the Secretary of State issues guidance that requires all schools to teach students that marriage has been extended to same-sex couples and requires the schools to advocate and commend the new meaning of marriage, all schools will be under a duty to teach pupils that marriage has been extended to same-sex couples. They will not, however, be under a duty to commend or advocate same-sex marriage if it is contrary to the designated religious character of the school. This tackles the concern expressed by the Minister at the Public Bill Committee when he asked the honourable Member for East Worthing and Shoreham:
“Does he think that it is reasonable to allow a teacher not to teach something that is the law of the land, if indeed this becomes the law of the land?”.—[Official Report, Commons, Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill Committee, 28/2/13; col. 302.]
The answer is no. It is not reasonable to require a teacher not to teach something that is the law of the land. Our amendment ensures that no teacher will be prevented from doing so.
To conclude, our amendment merely puts the Government’s assurances in the Bill. It will protect schools with a designated religious character. It will provide explicitly for teaching in accordance with the tenets of the relevant religion in the guidance. It will protect schools from any compulsion, through either current or future guidance, to commend or advocate same-sex marriage.
Can I ask the noble Baroness why she is not sufficiently reassured by the fact that the Education Act, like all other past and future legislation, must be read and given effect in accordance with freedom of religion and freedom of speech, as guaranteed by Articles 9 and 10 of the human rights convention? Reading those, and the case law on them, it seems to me quite clear that the schools and their teachers will be completely protected.
My Lords, the reason is that without this amendment, the Bill changes those particular elements in those Acts. That is the advice that I have been given. I am very anxious that we ensure that these schools that have a religious designation are protected. I am not convinced that that is the case in the Bill as it stands, for the reasons that I have put before your Lordships.
I do not think that a Minister’s words in the House, however well meaning, stand the good test. They evaporate. We know that they are open to challenge, whereas amendments carried in the Bill, when it becomes an Act, are much less open to challenge. I urge my noble friend to have the welcomed assurances that she has given incorporated into the Bill.
My Lords, I support this amendment, to which I have put my name.
It has already been said that the purpose of this clause is very simple and narrow: to amend Section 403 of the Education Act in order to provide statutory protection for schools of religious character by creating an obligation that any guidance issued under the Act must provide for such schools to deliver education about marriage, its importance for family life and the bringing up of children, in accordance with the tenets of the relevant religion or religious denomination. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, asked why we could not just read the legislation in the context of the existing jurisprudence of the European court and be satisfied that everything was protected. The reality is that the jurisprudence of the European court in this context is quite complicated and there are a number of senior QCs who have provided advice to various organisations in connection with this legislation who do not share in totality the noble Lord’s views.
The reason that this amendment is necessary is that Section 403 imposes on schools a twofold duty. Pupils must,
“learn the nature of marriage”
and they must learn,
“its importance for family life and the bringing up of children”.
That is the law as it stands at the present time. Teachers in all schools must do what the law says. They must ensure that the children for whom they are responsible learn about the nature of marriage. That includes both the legal and the relational definition of marriage; that it is the union of one man and one woman for life to the exclusion of all others. In this situation, teachers will be teaching classes composed of children who, by virtue of circumstances, will sometimes have no experience of marriage or not of marriage in its traditional sense, but of other stable relationships or sometimes of relationships that are totally unstable. All those children must be sensitively provided for.
I endorse the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, in relation to the impact that the Bill will have. Unless change is made, it will ultimately require schools positively to advocate and commend same-sex marriage. The reason is very simple and has been articulated both by the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness. The current guidance is altered by Clause 11 as Clause 11 changes the definition of marriage and hence the content of what must be taught. It is the case, of course, that schools must still teach about the nature of marriage, but that nature has become something different, which is not consistent with the beliefs of a number of Christian denominations and other faiths and some people of no faith.
This amendment could provide the necessary structure within which to protect the right of freedom of religion, thought and conscience and to give effect to the rights of those parents who send their children to faith schools because they believe that their faith will provide their children with a set of values that may inform their lives and, more importantly, because in a faith school they grow up in a context of faith and belief.
This amendment will allow faith schools to teach the newly defined legal nature of marriage. That will of course be proper and in accordance with the school’s obligation to prepare children for life, as required by any future guidance issued by the Secretary of State. However, it will protect schools from having to promote the importance of the newly defined marriage, where the definition is not consistent with the beliefs of the school.
In order to put the matter beyond discussion and to place its repeatedly stated intention on a statutory basis, not just by means of future guidance which can be changed at the discretion of any Minister, it is surely desirable to place this important protection for religious freedom in the legislation. It will not detract from the legal position that marriage will be able in future, if this Bill is passed, to be celebrated by man and woman, man and man or woman and woman. However, it will give some protection against legal uncertainty to those whose belief is that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, and who provide education through a relevant faith school, against any obligation to recommend or advocate same-sex marriage at any stage. It will not enable homophobia. Any such activity is wrong. Instead, it will simply remove any doubt about the ability of schools to teach, and in so doing to promote, a traditional understanding of marriage.
This is a proportionate and necessary amendment to the Bill.
I was anxious that the noble Baroness should not get to the end before I could ask this question. I am sorry if it is a bit technical, but it seems to be relevant. The wording of the amendment, with which I have sympathy, is that the guidance must be,
“in accordance with the tenets of the relevant religion or religious denomination”.
It not abundantly clear to me how one would determine what the tenets of a religion are. If the relevant religion were Christianity, different denominations of Christianity take a different view on these matters. Does the amendment in fact cover all the circumstances that the noble Baroness and her co-movers are concerned about? To make it clear, one can imagine some debate over quite what the tenets of Christianity are as time progresses. An extreme Christian sect might take a very untypical view. A Quaker school, for example, might be well ahead of the Christian pack. Does the noble Baroness think that the amendment covers that potential tension?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for the question. Having read the previous guidance, most recently this morning, I would not anticipate that the guidance would actually specify the tenets of the individual religion. What I would anticipate is that it would have the provision that education must be provided in accordance with the tenets and that there would be, as the right reverend Prelate has provided, a structure of registration and designation of schools, so that there would be a quality assurance process underlying it. If the amendment is not sufficiently concise, I am sure that it will be possible—unless it is pressed to a Division at this stage—to encourage the Minister to respond with a government amendment, which would provide precisely for what is required.
I am so sorry, but I want to ask the noble Baroness a question relevant to the one she had been asked, because it does not seem to me that there is a problem. My noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury asked what happens if different denominations have different views but the amendment requires it to be,
“in accordance with the tenets of the relevant religion or religious denomination”,
so it is merely relevant to the school in question.
My Lords, this amendment sounds eminently reasonable until you try to imagine yourself a child within a classroom in a school of a religious foundation. If you are talking about marriage and you know that your parents, who are legally married to each other, are both of the same sex, how would it make you feel if you were told that their union is legal but not moral and not in accordance with Christian teaching? Perhaps I might ask the right reverend Prelate whether there is to be any guidance on the criteria issued for entrance into a school of religious foundation to alert parents of same-sex unions and their children that this may be the case. I am trying to see how it will work out and what it will mean to them if they are told that their parents are legally married but that this is not within the Christian religion, and whether the criteria for selection might need to be changed—or at least for parents to be alerted.
I was just trying to be polite; I know that the noble Baroness likes that. If I recall correctly, it was the Conservative Government in 1996 who wrote the specific conditions into the Act. I suspect that the broader supporters of this amendment would have been the very people who wanted that provision written into the Act in the first place. If I recall the nature of the debate at the time, it was about family life and family values. The term was supposed to refer exclusively to heterosexuals, and the reason for it being in the Act was to allow those who did not approve of alternative family structures to be placated. We are now giving access to civil marriage to those who have been denied it. We therefore need to look at these provisions again in that light.
When I think about the majority of the contributions that we have listened to here in Committee and in the other place, there is general consensus that marriage has an important and very special place to play in family life, and in the bringing up of children. I think that we are all agreed on that. While I have heard no one in this place say that one-parent families or divorced, separated or same-sex parenting are somehow inadequate, we have all recognised that marriage can have a unique and special role to play in bringing up children.
The requirements of the guidance will be the same after this Bill is enacted as they were before. My problem with the amendment is not with what it seeks to do, because it is right and proper that faith schools should be allowed to teach the importance of marriage as they see it in relation to family life. That is the case now, as I am sure that the Minister will say. My opposition is to continually writing into the Bill something that is not necessary and should be a matter for the guidance, not the Bill. It would be equally unnecessary for me to amend the amendment, although the right reverend Prelate might allow me to do so, to add the words, “and in doing so, must pay due regard and respect to other forms of relationship, including but not limited to same-sex marriages”. We could keep adding language to the Bill until we are all happy with a whole range of words.
I plead with the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness not to reduce this clause to a series of well-meaning words that will not help teachers or children, but may make us all feel a little better that we managed to negotiate it into the Bill. I hope that the right reverend Prelate will reflect on adding any more to the Bill and will withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I want to put another point to the Committee, particularly following what the noble Lord has just said. This Hansard of ours is a record for ever of what is said and considered during the course of Bills passed in both Houses. It is very important indeed to make sure that all the necessary points are brought up. The noble Lord, Lord Alli, mentioned teachers. I am quite sure that I am not alone in the volume of letters that I have received about this Bill. In fact, I can say that never before on any Bill while I have been in either House have Members ever received as many letters as we have. Quite a number have come from teachers who are very worried on this point. It ought to be brought out in the debate that teachers themselves, who know perfectly well what their duties are in accordance with the Bills passed in Parliament, have written to express their deep concern that they are going to be forced to teach something to which they have a basic and very important objection.
In an earlier debate on this Bill, I mentioned how concerned I am that the right of a person’s conscience is being eroded, day after day and Bill by Bill. We have now had some 50 years of promises, made by different Governments at different times, stating very clearly that we all have a right to a conscience and to live by that conscience. That is why so many letters have come to us all, I am sure, from teachers on this very point. It is not a question of adding a few words to make people happy. It is about giving people the right to continue to live by the conscience which is in their heart and soul.
My Lords, as I said before, the Human Rights Act 1998 expressly incorporates into our legal system freedom of conscience, religion and belief, and expression. It requires all legislation—old, new and future—to be read and given effect in accordance with those fundamental rights. When the Joint Committee on Human Rights, on which I serve, was presented with an opinion by Mr Aidan O’Neill QC, one of the scenarios that he suggested might occur in legislation of this kind involved teachers. He speculated that a primary schoolteacher is told to teach using a book about a prince who marries a man, and is asked to help the children to perform the story as a play; she says that it goes against her religious beliefs and disciplinary proceedings are taken against her. He said that this is an example of a problem.
The department in charge of the Bill gave an extremely helpful answer to that kind of speculative scenario. As the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, rightly said, our proceedings may be read in future so I will briefly explain what the department said, which in my view completely complies with the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights. This is what the department told the committee:
“Teachers will continue to have the clear right to express their own beliefs, or that of their faith—such as that marriage should be between a man and a woman—as long as it is done in an appropriate way and a suitable context. No teacher will be required to promote or endorse views which go against their beliefs. Teachers will of course be expected to explain the world as it is, in a way which is appropriate to the age, stage and level of understanding of their pupils and within the context of the school’s curriculum, policies and ethos. This may include the factual position that under the law marriage can be between opposite sex couples and same sex couples. There are many areas within teaching, particularly within faith schools, where teachers and schools already deal with areas relating to religious conscience, such as homosexuality and divorce, with professionalism and sensitivity. The guidance governing these issues is the same guidance that will govern how same sex marriage in the classroom will be approached. No teacher can be compelled to promote or endorse views which go against their conscience. We expect heads, governors and teachers will come to sensible arrangements about any teaching that includes discussion of same sex marriage as they currently do in all other areas of the curriculum”.
To this I say, “Amen”.
My Lords, I wish to address a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lester. In the debate in the House of Commons on 20 May, the Government committed to consider this issue further in the Lords. As a consequence of that, and of all the evidence that was received, the Joint Committee stated:
“In particular, we encourage the Government to consider whether specific protections are required for faith schools and for individual teachers who hold a religious belief about same sex marriage”.
I do not think the situation is quite as clear as might have been suggested.
My Lords, I, too, think that this amendment is unnecessary and inappropriate. The amendment is concerned with the guidance under Section 403 of the Education Act. That guidance is concerned solely with sex education. There are three consequences of this.
First, the reference to marriage and family life in Section 403, which has excited the concern in this amendment, is designed simply to ensure that when pupils learn about sexual relationships, they should learn about sex in the context of marriage, families and commitment; in other words, they should not learn about sex as a mere physical act. In my view, it would be most unfortunate that if and when pupils learn in sex education classes—as they do—about gay sex, such discussion is not also in the context of relationships, commitment and the developments that this Bill will introduce. That is the first point.
The second point is that Section 403, which deals with guidance, already states that when sex education is provided, children must be,
“protected from teaching and materials which are inappropriate having regard to the age and the religious and cultural background of the pupils concerned”—
and rightly so. So there is already considerable protection.
The third point is the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, with which I entirely agree. It is a point that we have returned to over and again in the debates in Committee, but it is nevertheless true: there is nothing in this Bill that allows—far less requires—a teacher to promote same-sex marriage, and even less so in the context that we are now discussing, Section 403 of the Education Act, which is concerned only with sex education.
My Lords, I want to follow up what the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has just said and to add just one point, using the amendment so very ably moved and promoted by those who have their names to it as an opportunity to do so. I will be very brief.
The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, is obviously correct in what he says about the context in which the guidance would be given to the class; that is, health education in one form or another. Great emphasis has been given throughout our debates to the need to protect teachers. I accept that. That is correct and right for those teachers who feel strongly on these issues or have particular points of view which they find make it difficult for them to participate in a wider discussion or wider introduction of this subject.
My concern is not so much with teachers as with parents. So many parents—I am sure that the noble Baroness and others will have experienced this—are offended that sex education is taught to their children. I recognise that this has to happen, unfortunately. There was a time when this was left entirely to the parents, but that is no longer the case because so many parents do not in fact teach these matters to their children and do not bring up their children to understand the rights and wrongs on issues of this kind. So it has gone into the classroom and teachers are now required to teach this subject as part of the curriculum.
As I understand it, the position of parents is defended in this legislation in that if a parent is likely to be offended by anything of this kind being taught in a classroom, the parent can exercise the right to withdraw a child. I find that very difficult to accept. I acknowledge that it is done with the best of intentions, but I do not think it is very helpful to the child. Very often a child who is singled out from the rest of her peers in the classroom is made to feel different in some way or another. This is not very helpful to that child in the relationship with the rest of the children in the class. I hope, therefore, that when my noble friend comes to reply to this debate she will be able to take into account not just the position of teachers and those whose views will have been protected as a result of the amendments that are being proposed but the position of parents who might equally be offended by these matters.
The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, covered the fact that no one in your Lordships’ Chamber would want sex education to be taught other than in the context of relationships, responsibility, caring and consideration for others. That alone makes this particular group of amendments collectively flawed.
I think that the noble Lord, Lord Eden, may have grown up in a different background to mine. On the sex education that parents rely on schools to provide, on occasion it was ever thus, particularly in a girls’ school. We got a picture of two rabbits upside-down with no explanation as to what it meant. That was sex education in a girls’ grammar school, together with, “You may, in writing, put in questions and the doctor will answer those that she has time for”. We were told that we might wash our hair while menstruating but nothing about sex and childbirth. This is not new.
Of course, the guidance—I see the noble Lord, Lord Baker, in his place—already refers to responsiveness to religious, cultural and age backgrounds. We have to remember that the Bill deals with nursery, infant, primary and secondary pupils up to the age when those pupils can be married. It would be foolish for us to try to draft, in what would be deemed a large Committee, wording suitable for all those pupils. I hope we will not do that because the law of unintended consequences works very well when committees draft things.
On the previous day of Committee on this Bill I referred to the fact that my experience comes from being a parent and grandmother, and from chairing the education committees of county councils in England and Wales, and, more importantly, in the county of Lancashire for 10 years. In a county such as Lancashire, with a large number of church schools, not all children who go to church schools do so by choice but because of location. Not all parents who want church schools get them in the particular denomination that they want—again, not through choice but because of location. I am not in any way critical of the education given to children in church schools. I remind noble Lords that we are talking about church and religious schools in this amendment. We should not try to draft how those teachers respond in terms of both sex education and the importance of family life. I plead that people allow teachers to respond to the pupils in their classes and to their circumstances.
Same-sex marriage is not the only issue where religious beliefs affect the views and attitudes of parents of children in the class. Think about the schools in Lancashire, some of them church schools, where the majority of children are Muslim. Think about the fact that many churches—not all of them—have a view that divorce is wrong. You cannot avoid the fact that there will be children in the class who live with divorced parents. Think about the issues there are with abortion. Teachers have had to learn to live with their consciences and the guidance from the Department for Education.
I worry when the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, refers to the fact that future Secretaries of State might do this or that. It is no good framing legislation on the basis of who might do something in future. We have seen lots of Secretaries of State. Some have done some things, some have done others. To start trying to draft legislation against a particular view that might come up from a future, as yet unknown Secretary of State is foolish.
I am sorry but I have no recollection of mentioning any Secretary of State whatever. All I am anxious about is that people who have a conscience—I might not agree with their opinions at all—have a right to believe what they believe and to live by it. That is all I said. I have also said that history shows us, time and again, that promises made have to be underlined very carefully and carried out faithfully. So far, they have not been. I cited a number of examples of that but I did not mention any future Secretary of State at all.
I apologise if I gave that impression. I cannot think of any specific, written, recorded examples of the kind that the noble Baroness referred to but I do not doubt that she has them. There is a danger that some teachers in some schools are being frightened by talk of coercion, compulsion and the Government making people do things—I see no evidence of that in this legislation. If one creates fear by things one says, there is always a danger that the people most likely to be frightened will write to the person who expressed that fear.
I accept that, but it is on the back of a general reference to teachers being afraid of coercion. The noble Baroness, Lady Knight, referred to teachers writing to her because they are afraid. I do not accuse the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, but I think I can rest my case on that.
Looking round, I see a whole lot of people who have gone through education systems of different sorts. I have no evidence and I cannot recall any evidence of anyone seeking to subvert the views of teachers. In my experience, the teaching profession will be professional in its interpretation of this. There may be the odd rumpus somewhere but, as the noble Lord, Lord Baker, knows, you occasionally get an odd situation, whether it is in the police service or whatever service. I believe the legislation is sound and will protect teachers. We should allow teachers to be professional.
My Lords, to take the point that the noble Baroness just raised, I do not know whether she suggested that Members of this House are causing fear and consternation but I very much hope not. The reality is that the correspondence that came into the House did so long before there was any debate on this, and certainly long before I made any comment in public about it. It is profoundly important that we understand that there is a body of people out there, spread right across the country, who write to Members of the House of Lords in letters that are not template letters. These people have sat down and thought this through. They are teachers, chaplains and all sorts of people, and they are afraid. They have had previous experience of how life has changed for them, and possibly they have had to come to terms with teaching abortion—which they may believe to be truly wrong—but they must do these things. I do not think that is a reason to suggest that Members of the House are causing fear and consternation.
Can I raise a point which I think is relevant to my noble friend’s reply and also to what the noble Lord, Lord Lester, in particular, and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, have said? They find themselves—too often, perhaps, in their view—called upon to remind your Lordships that some ill from which we are trying to protect people is already covered by European law. Too often in our experience, that protection is available only when a case has gone before the European Court. In the mean time there have been many, many people who have not been able to go to the European Court, and they have not been protected.
My Lords it is not a question of European law but of UK law. The Human Rights Act requires our judges to read and give effect to all legislation, old and new, so that it is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights that it embodies. So although one can ultimately go to the European Court, the prime responsibility is on Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and English courts.
My Lords, in that case they still have to go to the Supreme Court. They have to go to the top of the Matterhorn instead of the top of Everest. In the mean time, while they are on the way up there, others suffer. I hope my noble friend will realise that what the right reverend Prelate and allies are seeking here is to introduce a security of protection at a lower level. If it is in the guidance that the Secretary of State under statute has to give, then it is available at county council level and not up at the top.
My Lords, the purpose of the Committee stage, as I understand it, is to scrutinise draft Bills, to propose amendments and to seek, where possible, the concurrence of the Government with those amendments. It is sad that throughout this Bill the Government have taken the view that they were right from the start and that any amendments which have been proposed are either otiose, excessive or outwith the purpose of the Bill. Here is an occasion where the Government can perhaps show a little magnanimity and say that there is serious concern, as a number of noble colleagues have said. Although one might have some confidence in the guidance issued by the department, it is only guidance. It does not need wild speculation about what future Secretaries of State may or may not do. The wording in the Bill gives some assurance which I believe is proper.
Some of us in this House still consider ourselves to be politicians, even if lapsed ones. Surely one factor we should recognise from the start is that there is a clamour in this country to send children to religious and church schools. It is certainly my experience. Why is this so? The view of the great populace is to favour the discipline and ethos of those church schools for their children. I was interested a few years ago to have a friend who was a headmistress of a Church of England school in the East End and almost 100% of her pupils were Bangladeshi. Why did they choose the church school? Because that community recognised the value of church schools.
I am not a Roman Catholic—in fact I am a nonconformist—but I know from my experience as a constituency Member the quality of the Roman Catholic tradition. Perhaps I might say in passing to the right reverend Prelate, I endorsed all that he said. He spoke well, not only on behalf of the Church of England, but also on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church. I was musing to myself as he spoke; would it not be good, from the point of view of the quality of legislation in this House, if we had some senior members of the Roman Catholic faith who could put their own views forward directly and not rely on the good will of someone who is part of a separated brethren?
Be that as it may, we are where we are and have to accept that a vast number of people want to send their children to those schools. They approve of the ethos of those schools. The Government purport throughout that they have provided adequate protections—the quadruple lock in relation to the Church of England and the protections in respect of teachers and parents. If they are so keen to provide those protections, let it be absolutely clear that here on the face of the Bill is the opportunity to do just that. In my judgment it is not otiose. It will have widespread acceptance from those who really value the ethos and values of our church schools. It is a test of how serious the Government are when they talk so much not only about the core principles of this Bill but the counterpart—a readiness to provide adequate protection for those who wish to continue in their own ethos, who accept the new legal basis but wish to continue to put forward the traditional views of marriage.
My Lords, I did not intend to speak in this debate but I have been referred to a few times, due only to the fact that I think I am the only living person in the Chamber who has been Secretary of State for Education.
I feel that this amendment is unnecessary for a variety of reasons. I speak as an Anglican and was rather surprised that my church had taken the view that it has on same-sex marriage. The law of the land will be changed on same-sex marriage, and for the established church to say in effect that it is contracting out of it and not to allow its churches to be used for it is not, I would have thought, in the tradition of Anglicanism—not the Anglicanism that I favour. The history of the Church of England from 1533 onwards shows that it is not so much a question of the tenets or the 39 articles but of what happened with individual vicars in their parish churches. If you look at how English vicars interpreted Anglicanism in the 17th and 18th centuries, there is an infinite variety of activity. I should have thought the Anglican church would have done much better to have followed that practice than the one that it has followed.
That aside, on this particular matter, the position is in fact exceedingly clear. Where the state has provided birth control and various government agencies promote it, teachers in the Catholic Church will make it very clear that this is something which they object to and they think is fundamentally wrong. It is not a tenet of their faith but a practice, and the same is true of divorce. A great deal of discretion is already happening every day in our schools. I think it would happen in this case with the Anglican Church regarding sex education. I went to a primary church school in Lancashire and we did not have any sex education at all. I suppose that sex had not been discovered so much in those days. I even went to a secondary grammar school in Lancashire for two years and we did not have any sex education there either. I know we were very repressed sort of people—limited and all that—but it was alien to us.
Today it is clear that when sex education is taught in schools—I promoted it when I was Secretary of State—it is very much in the context of a loving relationship. It was the point that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, made. It was not just the act of physical gratification—immediate and then finished with. It was to establish a loving relationship and that was a very essential part of all sex education. So when the matter of marriage comes up, it would be quite possible for any teacher, even a clergyman teacher at a Church of England school, to say they believed very strongly that marriage should be between a man and a wife and the purpose is to create a family. Even when he is talking to 12 and 13 year-olds, they will know a lot about other people who do not live like that. It has all changed today. It will not be a matter of teaching but of discussion—that is what it will be more like in actual practice. The teacher will be able to say, without fear of persecution and quite clearly, “This is the view that we believe in the Anglican Church at the moment, and we think that is the position”. So I believe that this amendment is not necessary.
My Lords, a number of noble Lords have said that this amendment is not necessary. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, very helpfully mentioned Section 403 of the Education Act 1996, which refers to sex education, and laid out for us subsection (1A)(a) and (b). He did not go on to subsection (1B), which says:
“In discharging their functions under subsection (1) governing bodies and head teachers must have regard to the Secretary of State’s guidance”.
Therefore we already have Secretary of State’s guidance in that Act.
The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, said that she did not want us to go into great detail in this. However, if she refers again to proposed new subsection (2) in my Amendment 46B, she will see that it sets out very clearly what that guidance will be. That is very necessary. Of course, sex education has very much changed a lot of teaching in schools. However, we are talking about something that is now so fundamental: the nature of marriage and how it is such a foundation for society. If it is important to have the Secretary of State’s guidance for sex education, it is much more important to have it for marriage.
My Lords, I am here as somebody who celebrates marriage and values the ethos of church schools, but I am also a very strong supporter of same-sex marriage. I have listened carefully to noble Lords’ concerns but I am not persuaded of the need for this amendment. Like the Secretary of State, I would not support a Bill that encroached on religious freedom or on freedom of speech, but this Bill does not do that.
I apologise for not having been here last Wednesday evening. However, of course I read Hansard, and many points similar to those made in the debate last week were made today about teachers. As was said on Wednesday it is clear that teachers will be under a legal duty to teach the fact of the law of the land—that yes, gay couples will be able to get married. However, those selfsame teachers in faith schools will also be able to express their personal views or those of their faith about marriage. Noble Lords have cited the present guidance, which is extremely well balanced.
I was very struck by a speech given by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich in the Public Bill Committee on 12 February. I will quote a section of what he said:
“Our own view is that the promotion of marriage is part of sex and relationship education. What Church of England schools are good at doing, because the vast majority of them are community schools, is integrating the convictions of the Church of England with a recognition that the Christian opinions held in that school are not totally recognised within the whole of wider society … There is a balance to be struck, and I think that the Secretary of State for Education was right to say that in teaching there will need to be a recognition that we have a society in which same-sex marriages—assuming the Bill goes through—are possible, and of course the teacher would also indicate why it is that within the majority of Christian traditions such marriages are not celebrated”.—[Official Report, Commons, Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill Committee, 12/2/13; col. 26.]
That right reverend Prelate had it about right.
I noted, as did the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, that in the other place the Minister, Mr Hugh Robertson, undertook to take this issue away and discuss it further with religious groups. I very much look forward to hearing what he will have to say.
My Lords, this has been a wide-ranging debate. I am very grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, for his introduction of his amendment and for quoting what I said on Second Reading about this Bill being as much about promoting religious freedom as it is about allowing same-sex couples to marry. He was absolutely right about that. I am pleased that he was clear that his amendment is about religious freedom of faith schools. He sought to explain that this particular issue is quite different from the earlier education matters we discussed last week, which focused on the general freedom of any teacher to express a personal view rather than on the teaching of sex and relationship education in religious schools specifically. In responding to this debate, I will repeat several points that I made last week, not least because as the debate has unfolded it has become clear that the way in which the House considers this issue is very much to do with education in a wider context than just about the very narrow issue of religious freedom.
Noble Lords and others have expressed a concern that schools’ freedom to teach their beliefs about marriage according to their religious tenets will be threatened by the effect that Clause 11 will have on the meaning of “marriage” in Section 403 of the Education Act 1996 and guidance made under it by the Secretary of State, to which schools must have regard. As has already been noted, the Government have received representations from religious groups, in particular the Church of England and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, expressing concern that Clause 11 might affect the ability of faith schools to continue to teach about the importance of marriage for family life and the bringing up of children in line with their religious tenets. This concern was echoed by Muslim leaders in their public letter of 18 May.
The noble Lord, Lord Alli, was the first to raise a point about the origination of Section 403. It is worth saying that it was not in a piece of legislation originally in the 1996 Act. Section 403(1A) was inserted by the Learning and Skills Act 2000. I will begin by explaining that schools with a religious character provide an excellent education for their pupils while reflecting their beliefs across the curriculum, including in sex and relationship education. There is absolutely nothing in this legislation that affects schools’ ability to continue to do this in future.
In schools of a religious character, teachers already deal admirably with teaching about marriages which may not be recognised as such according to the tenets of the relevant faith—for example, marriages of divorcees, or mixed-faith marriages. Last week the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, gave us a great example of how teachers deal with sensitive matters. The noble Baroness, Lady Richardson of Calow, reminded us that it is important that teachers must be conscious of pupils whose parents are of the same sex and married when teaching about marriage in the context of sex and relationship education. My noble friend Lord Baker also made a similar point. However, my noble friend Lord Eden reminded us of the rights of parents who are concerned about sex education and its content. I responded to his concern last week in the debate about the policies that are in place to ensure that schools properly consult parents on the content of sex and relationship education.
Last week I forgot to make a point, which is worth making in the context of this debate, that sex and relationship education is compulsory in maintained secondary schools. Primary schools are not required to teach sex and relationship education, further than anything specific in the curriculum for science. It is important that I make that point, because it is sometimes forgotten.
In order for teachers to handle the very sensitive situations in which they often find themselves, they already interpret the Secretary of State’s guidance according to their religious tenets. This will be no different when marriage is extended to same-sex couples by this Bill. If the tenets of a particular religion do not recognise same-sex marriage, they will be able to approach teaching about marriage in exactly the same professional way that they do now. Although teaching will of course need to cover the factual position that marriage under the law of England and Wales can be between both opposite-sex and same-sex couples, faith schools will also be able to explain the relevant tenets of their religion on this matter.
I think it was the exchange between the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, and my noble friends Lord Phillips of Sudbury and Lord Elton, about the Secretary of State ensuring that teaching about marriage is given in accordance with religious tenets. It is important for me to make the point that I fully understand the intentions of the right reverend Prelate in the amendment that he has put forward, but I am sure that he and other noble Lords will agree that it is not appropriate for the Secretary of State to issue guidance to secure adherence to religious doctrine in teaching. This would amount to inappropriate interference by the state in matters properly for the relevant religious denomination. How faith schools approach such teaching is quite rightly a matter for the schools and faiths themselves.
While I think it is broadly acknowledged that the Secretary of State’s current guidance does not impinge on faith schools’ ability to teach in line with their doctrines, concern has also been expressed that the duty on the Secretary of State might allow future versions of the guidance to preclude religious schools from teaching in accordance with their beliefs. This was a point that my noble friend Lady Cumberlege raised—when the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, referred to my noble friend Lady Knight, my noble friend Lady Cumberlege expressed this point. However, the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, made my response for me by saying that it is clearly not the intention behind this legislation to envisage circumstances in which any Secretary of State might seek to interfere with matters of religious doctrine in the future. We are framing this legislation as things stand at the moment, and there is no way in which we are suggesting that a future Secretary of State might do anything different, but nor can I say from this Dispatch Box that things may not change in the future.
The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, noted that the second part of the duty in question, which is Section 403 (1A)(b), specifies that the Secretary of State’s guidance must ensure that pupils are,
“protected from teaching and materials which are inappropriate having regard to the age and the religious and cultural background of the pupils concerned”.
Therefore, the existing legislation already makes clear that it is absolutely inappropriate for material to be used that would not have regard for religious faiths. For the Secretary of State to issue guidance specifying that a particular version of marriage be endorsed counter to a school’s ethos, and by extension the religious background of many of its pupils, would not meet this criterion that already exists in legislation. I emphasise that point in response to my noble friend Lady Cumberlege, who expressed concern that the new legislation would somehow remove some protection from schools that are against promoting same-sex couples being able to marry. I want to emphasise that that is absolutely not the case.
This country has a strong tradition of schools with a religious character; they are a valued part of our education system. It would be pointless to maintain a system of designation if such schools were unable to teach in accordance with the tenets of their religion. For this designation to have significance, the school has to deliver what it was set up for. The inherent right of schools to deliver their curriculum and to interpret guidance according to their ethos is evident in their existence as such schools. As I have described previously, such schools do already teach about topics that may be considered sensitive, such as divorce, and they do so without issue.
While the Government are clear that this Bill will not impinge on faith schools’ ability to continue to teach about marriage in line with their religious tenets, I do of course understand that the effect of Clause 11 on Section 403 of the Education Act has led to some concern about this. While we are not convinced that there is a need to change the legislation to clarify the position, we are continuing to discuss this with the churches. As the noble Baronesses, Lady O’Loan and Lady Royall, said, the Government undertook to consider this issue in another place. I can assure noble Lords that I and my colleagues are continuing to examine it in detail.
I think that I have been clear in my response. I have just said that we are not convinced of a need to change the legislation to clarify the position because we believe that the protections exist. However, as I have just said, we committed to consider this further. We are discussing it with the churches, and we will honour that commitment to continue to consider it and to discuss it further. However, I was about to say that clearly, in the course of doing that, one of the things that we will want to do is to take account of all the contributions that have been made to today’s debate. The process of scrutiny of legislation suggests that it is proper for us to make sure that we take account of debates in this House, and indeed in the other place, in framing legislation.
That leads me on nicely to conclude by addressing the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, as he suggested that the Government have not been minded to listen to debate through the passage of this Bill and make amendments. To give him some comfort and to remind the House that that is not the case, I will point out that in the Bill so far the Government have agreed to an amendment which includes a review of civil partnership. We have included an amendment to the Public Order Act and we have some amendments which clarify things around ecclesiastical law which has been requested by the churches. We have made an amendment to protect the spouses of transpeople so that if they continue in those marriages they retain the pension rights from the terms when they were originally married. We have further protected employed chaplains, we have made some changes for the Church in Wales, and we have dealt with void marriages. We are listening to the debates that are taking place in your Lordships’ House, as we did in the other House through the passage of this Bill. If we think that it is necessary to clarify the legislation in order to ensure the proper outcomes that we are seeking, which is to allow same-sex couples to marry and for religious freedoms to be protected, that is what we will do.
That is the commitment that the Secretary of State has made and I am happy to repeat it from the Dispatch Box. However, it is important that we do so only where it is necessary and only where it clarifies and helps us in the passage of the Bill, and provides the outcomes that we are all seeking to achieve. I hope that the right reverend Prelate is able to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to all the noble Lords who have contributed to this debate, which was much wider ranging than I expected it to be, and particularly to the Minister for her careful response to the issues that were being raised. I am also fascinated to see how many of us were brought up in Lancashire and received our sex education, or lack of it, there. I suppose my school was technically in the county borough of Bolton, but it was more or less Lancashire.
This amendment is about the institutional religious character of schools. It is about ensuring that the statutory framework addresses and accommodates the school’s need to provide teaching that is in accordance with its religious tenets when it formulates its policy on teaching about sex and relationships. There is, rightly, guidance from the Secretary of State about that policy, and the school needs to take account of it. It should not have to rely on the Human Rights Act, but should actually have it built into the guidance. Since we have guidance, it ought to address this particular issue, rather than the church schools being left in a position of having to act in a way that is not clear within the guidance. I would hope that that does something to respond to the direct question which I was asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Richardson. I believe that there needs to be guidance to avoid criticism of the family relationships to which she referred. As the Minister said, the current requirement for guidance was inserted in the 1996 Act in 2000. My belief remains that there needs to be guidance on this matter to take note of the changes brought about by the Bill. We need to acknowledge that those are real changes; otherwise, there would be no point having the Bill. We need to respond to the particular needs of schools of a religious character, not least in terms of the tenets of their trust deeds. It is not for the Secretary of State to say what those tenets are; they are declared by the relevant church and school in the trust deeds.
We may need to come back to this matter at a later stage. I still need to be convinced that there is no incompatibility between the Bill and the requirements of the 1996 Act. However, for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 46B withdrawn.
House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 8.36 pm.