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Marriage of Same Sex Couples (Conversion of Civil Partnership) Regulations 2014

Volume 757: debated on Tuesday 18 November 2014

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the draft regulations laid before the House on 15 October be approved.

Relevant documents: 10th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and 11th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee.

My Lords, both this House and the other place overwhelmingly supported the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, a change which has brought joy to a great many people who now feel that they are truly recognised as equal under the law of this land. That is a major development for this country, and one very much to be celebrated.

I am pleased to be able to bring these statutory instruments before the House, allowing conversion of civil partnerships into marriages and allowing couples who wish to do so to remain married if one or both of them change their legal gender. Subject to the passage of the necessary instruments through this House and the other place, we intend those provisions to come into force on 10 December this year.

There has been a lot of discussion about these proposals since we first laid instruments in July. People felt that these were too restrictive and did not allow sufficient flexibility for the celebration of their marriage for couples who had chosen to enter civil partnerships at a time when marriage was not available. As a result, we agreed to see what we could do to provide greater choice for couples. We have done that, and these instruments offer more flexibility, allowing conversions to be completed in the same range of venues where same-sex couples can currently marry.

I will briefly explain each of the three affirmative instruments in turn. The Marriage of Same Sex Couples (Conversion of Civil Partnership) Regulations 2014 set out the procedure for couples who wish to convert their civil partnership into a marriage in England and Wales, and overseas in British consulates and Armed Forces bases. The simplest conversion procedure can be completed in one visit to the superintendent registrar. The couple will provide evidence of their identity and sign a declaration to confirm that they are in a civil partnership with each other and wish to convert that into marriage. The superintendent registrar will also sign and that completes the procedure.

Alternatively, they can opt to go to the superintendent registrar with the required evidence and then complete the conversion into marriage by signing the declaration in approved premises, such as a hotel, where a ceremony is then to be held. If the couple want a religious ceremony, the registrar can complete the declaration on religious premises where the religious consents required under the Act have been obtained and where a ceremony under Section 46 of the Marriage Act 1949 is then to be held. Section 46 provides for religious marriage ceremonies to be held following the registration of a marriage by a civil registrar, and the 2013 Act amended it to include ceremonies following the conversion of a civil partnership into a marriage, ensuring that the religious protections, which we all worked hard on during the passage of the Act, applied to such ceremonies. Where one of the couple is housebound, detained or seriously ill and not expected to recover, the superintendent registrar will go to the couple where they are, and after the declaration is signed they may have a ceremony, including a religious ceremony, if they wish. These regulations will also allow the conversion of a civil partnership into marriage at consulates and Armed Forces bases overseas where the authorities in the host country have consented to this.

I turn to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 (Consequential and Contrary Provisions and Scotland) and Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014 (Consequential Provisions) Order 2014. First, the order makes necessary consequential amendments to primary legislation to allow conversions of civil partnerships into marriage to take place. Most significantly, the order clarifies the way Section 46 of the Marriage Act 1949 works, making clear that a ceremony can be held following a housebound, detained or deathbed conversion, or Armed Forces conversions which take place overseas. It also names the appropriate Jewish and Quaker governing authorities and makes it clear that ceremonies of other religions are covered, thus ensuring the protections apply appropriately in these cases.

Secondly, the order makes amendments to support the provisions of the Act, enabling couples who wish to do so to stay married where one or both of them changes legal gender. Notably, it ensures that where a person changes gender their spouse will not lose any pension expectations they would otherwise have had. Thirdly, the order also includes specific provision in relation to particular pension schemes—for example, to ensure gender-specific treatment in relation to a specific Armed Forces pension scheme.

Finally, the order revokes Article 5 of the earlier Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 (Consequential and Contrary Provisions and Scotland) Order, under which marriages of same-sex couples solemnised in England and Wales are treated as civil partnerships in Scotland. This is simply to ensure that, from 16 December, when marriage of same-sex couples will become possible in Scotland, they can be recognised as marriages under Scottish law. This order also makes associated transitional and saving arrangements and further amendments in consequence of the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014.

I turn finally to the Consular Marriages and Marriages under Foreign Law (No. 2) Order. This revokes and re-enacts, with some additions, an earlier order. It provides for: consular marriages; the issuing of certificates of no impediment by consular officers; the Registrar-General for England and Wales to pass on to the Registrar-General for Scotland relevant consular marriage certificates; the registrars general to provide certified copies of certificates; and for superintendent registrars to issue certificates of no impediment.

Although technical in nature, these instruments allow us to give effect to the provisions of the 2013 Act to allow couples in civil partnerships to convert their relationship into marriage and to enable couples where one or both change legal gender to remain married, which is of very great significance to couples affected and an occasion of joy for many. I hope that the House will support them.

My Lords, I declare an interest, having married a Norwegian man in 2009 in Norway. My marriage is now recognised as a marriage in the UK, whereas previously it was recognised only as a civil partnership.

Today we are nearing the end of the legislative road as far as equality for same-sex couples in the UK is concerned. There have been some ironies along the way. The late Lady Thatcher—considered by many to have been a conviction politician—and the Conservative Government that she led, introduced Section 28 into the Local Government Act 1988, provoking the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, and others to form the pressure group Stonewall to fight for equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. When the Labour Party came to power, it repealed Section 28, although it had to invoke the Parliament Act to overcome opposition in this House. How times have changed.

Under a Labour Government, civil partnerships were introduced in 2004. That was progress but still not equality. It was left to this coalition Government—a Conservative-led coalition Government—to achieve equality for same-sex couples. It was the Liberal Democrat MP, the right honourable Lynne Featherstone—the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Equalities—who proposed that the Government introduce legislation to allow equal marriage. To his credit, the Prime Minister agreed despite opposition from many in his own party. In contrast to its implacable opposition to the repeal of Section 28, this House agreed to equal marriage without a Division at Third Reading.

I place on record my thanks to Nick Boles MP and to my noble friend Lady Northover for achieving the changes to these regulations to allow those wishing to celebrate the conversion of their civil partnership to an equal marriage to do so in places and in ways that those same-sex couples not previously in a civil partnership are allowed to do.

I say that we are nearing the end of the legislative road as far as equal marriage is concerned but it is to be regretted that equal marriage is still not possible in Northern Ireland. The Liberal Democrats not only support the approval of these regulations but we are also very proud to have played such a prominent role in achieving equal marriage in England, Wales and Scotland.

My Lords, I, too, acknowledge the journey we have travelled. It has been a long and sometimes very difficult one but nothing gives me greater pleasure than to acknowledge that we have a cross-party consensus on equality under the law. That is something that we can be proud of in this country and is not something to be ashamed of.

I, too, thank the Minister, Nick Boles, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, for listening to all those people in civil partnerships who, like me, want to take this final step of equality under the law by marrying in front of our friends and family. I was really pleased that the original drafts were taken back, and that we are still now able, with the help of the department, to stick to the original timetable. It is a great achievement and I am pleased that the Minister was able to do that. It is not easy, sometimes, for Ministers to take something back and work on it, but they did a great job and I am thankful to them.

However, I make a couple of points. I made the point, originally to the Minister—during the original passage of the Bill—that a lot of misinformation would go out. Certainly, a lot of people I knew who wanted to get married on the “day of equal marriage” suddenly found out that they could not, because they were in a civil partnership. We have even heard of consulates saying that you have to dissolve your civil partnership in order to get married. What we need, as quickly as possible, is for information to go out—very clear guidance that registrars are able to offer this stage 2 of a proper ceremony and to work with people to ensure that the guidance is properly reflected. I am sure that will happen, but I want to make the point.

I am lucky enough to live in the London Borough of Islington, which has a very high proportion of lesbian and gay people, and I was able to go in, as soon as I was aware of these regulations, and say: “Well, hang on a minute—you’ve been told one thing but it is going to change. But I need to book”. I discovered that the day I wanted for our wedding was practically fully booked and I got the last slot. So there we go. I managed to ask my partner on Radio 5 Live if he would marry me when the regulations came out. I now have a date—20 December—and I am really pleased that all my friends and family will be there to see it. So thank you.

My Lords, I too support these regulations. Perhaps I might just respond to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, by reminding him that there was only one party that actually included same-sex marriage in its manifesto. That was the Conservative Party. The Conservative Party was the only one to promise the original Act in its manifesto. Having said that, I too rejoice that this now has complete cross-party approval.

One of the issues that needs to be remembered is that in contrast to what happened in the other place, those in favour of the Bill as it then was—what is now the 2013 Act—always were a majority on the Conservative side in this House. For that we can take some credit, considering—as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said—the history of Clause 28, which happily has now been confined completely to history. This House has distinguished itself very much in this whole area.

I also make the point that the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee looked at this question and asked itself why the original orders were withdrawn and new orders had to be introduced. The noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, has kept me well informed on this—not that I have a direct personal interest: noble Lords may remember that at Second Reading I declared to the House that my wife and I had celebrated our diamond wedding anniversary the year before the Bill was introduced. Nevertheless, I then spoke very much in favour of the Bill and was delighted when, in the end, it became law. However, the scrutiny committee asked itself why this had happened. The short answer was that the Government had not consulted properly on the draft orders. Paragraph 17 of its report said:

“While we note that there was extensive consultation in relation to the Act and general principles, it would appear that even a brief consultation on the proposed detail of these Regulations might have avoided the need to withdraw and re-lay these instruments and the uncertainty that will have caused those making arrangements for conversions soon after the planned 10 December implementation date”.

I think the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, and his colleagues are much to be congratulated on having spotted the limitations in the original order relating to where these marriages could be celebrated, and persuaded the Minister, Nick Boles, who is listed as the Equalities Minister for same-sex marriages—and I have no doubt my noble friend Lady Northover—to withdraw it. It is a pity that there was no proper consultation beforehand.

However, here we are: it is almost the last chapter of this legislation and I am delighted that it has now been introduced. I hope that the regulations will be approved by both Houses of Parliament so that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, can celebrate his marriage to his partner before Christmas.

My Lords, we all know that it is rare, as parliamentarians, to see through a piece of legislation which has the direct effect of making so many people so happy. We have all seen the joy of the couples who have been married since the Act came into effect in March. While I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, to her place and thank her for explaining the orders so comprehensively, I am sad that the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, is not here to see these orders through, due to her very well deserved promotion. However, I place on record my thanks to her, and to her colleague the Minister, Mr Nick Boles, for the open and accessible way in which they conducted these proceedings. I also thank my noble friend Lord Collins for the eloquent and sometimes forceful way in which he supported the need to withdraw these orders as they were drafted in July, which—along with the threat of mobilisation to defeat the orders, if necessary, by my noble friend Lord Alli—I am convinced swung the decision to withdraw them, much to everyone’s relief.

My view at the time—which I expressed to the civil servants concerned—was that the original draft showed a lack of emotional intelligence about the way to proceed which had not been there during the rest of the passage of this Bill. It could well be that that was through lack of consultation.

We have, in passing these further measures, the privilege of creating more happiness for those who wish to convert from civil partnerships to marriage and, crucially, to celebrate this conversion in the way that they choose. I know of several couples who are waiting for confirmation that these orders have been enacted in time for them to celebrate their marriage conversion—some of them very close at hand.

For example, my friends John Nickson and Simon Rew had their civil partnership on the very first day in Westminster Register Office and will be married on 19 December this year. They have been together since the early 1980s, certainly for more than 30 years. Like many couples they have been anxious to get on with organising this very happy occasion, and we need to apologise to them and others for causing them worry about whether they would be able to proceed on the dates the Government promised at the beginning of the year. We also need to wish John and Simon, and indeed my noble friend Lord Collins and Rafe, a very happy day when they eventually convert.

On these benches we will not be raising issues to delay the passage of the orders before the House today. These new orders allow same-sex marriages to take place in any if the 6,729 premises licensed to conduct civil marriages and civil partnerships, in addition to registry offices.

We are satisfied with the consequential provisions detailed in these regulations and believe that the dual path offered to people—to have a sort of cheap-and-cheerful conversion or a celebration—is exactly the right way to go. We are also pleased that couples will be able to have their civil partnerships converted on religious premises, where those premises have been approved to marry same-sex couples. This is an important issue of religious freedom and one that respects the protections for religious organisations enshrined within the Act. I was also pleased that the marriage certificate will look very similar to the marriage certificate I received 40 years ago. Such things are important.

My noble friend mentioned that the Stonewall brief mentions conversions in British consulates. Will the Minister assure the House that all consulates are properly briefed about how and when to conduct conversions? My second question relates to guidance and training for those whose job it is to administer these conversions, and making sure that the two options of how to convert are properly available.

I know that everyone is referring to these orders as the final chapter in the enactment of the same-sex marriage Act. Indeed, they are the final issue to be resolved for same-sex marriages. However, the Act was also amended in your Lordships’ House to include the new provision for legalising humanist weddings. I take this opportunity to ask the Minister about the progress in that direction. Indeed, the amendments to legalise humanist marriage had majority support in both Houses. The Government’s amendment allowed for a review and consultation on the matter and included order-making powers. The review and consultation are over and there have been more than 1,900 responses. They seem to show that this continues to be an issue with wide public support. Last year the British Humanist Association was assured that this process would be completed well before the end of the year, giving enough time to make orders in good time before the general election. This has not happened. When will the report emerge and when will we see the orders? I am very concerned that we get on with this.

In Scotland, where more than 10% of all marriages are now humanist marriages, the first ever same-sex marriage on 31 December will be a humanist marriage. The experience in Scotland has been nothing but positive. In fact, humanist marriages have accounted for 54% of the overall net increase in marriages. We are pleased to see the Government’s “family test” policy and the criteria by which all policies now have to be assessed; the legalisation of humanist marriage would perfectly fit those criteria and strengthen the institution of marriage—and no doubt lead to an increase in marriage, as it has in Scotland.

Given that the public consultation has closed and that the responses were, I gather, overwhelmingly favourable, can the Minister explain when the Government are publishing their report, and when the orders will be laid? I am worried because I hear rumours of heels being dragged at No.10 and that there may be some resistance at senior levels in the Church of England, which I hope both institutions will strenuously deny. There is a suggestion that humanist weddings should be limited only to places that are licensed for marriage, which kind of defeats the point of having a humanist wedding in the place of one’s choice. The reason that this is important is the same reason why the timetable for the orders under consideration today is so important to those who wish to convert their civil partnerships. People plan their weddings years in advance and I can inform the House that my sister, who is a humanist celebrant—I probably need to declare her as an interest—is already receiving inquiries about humanist weddings next summer and autumn. She, along with the hundreds of other humanist celebrants, has a dilemma over how to answer those questions. Perhaps the Minister can advise on that.

We welcome these orders and I congratulate the Government on bringing them forward in time for all the happy events to take place before Christmas.

My Lords, I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. They were constructive, considered and supportive. I place on record also my thanks to all those who took the time over the summer to discuss their concerns to help us get these statutory instruments to a better place. I am sure that all noble Lords will agree that it has been worth it.

I turn to some of the points raised. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, referred to consular services. In fact, the website is already providing information about conversions, and will be constantly updated. Detailed guidance is being provided to all consular offices to make sure that they are familiar. This has obviously been quite a steep learning curve for a number of consular offices but there is nothing now to delay it. Consular offices have been provided with full guidance and correct information. We therefore hope that some of the early misconceptions will therefore have been addressed.

My noble friend Lord Jenkin asked why the Government did not consult on the regulations and why we got it so wrong. The original proposals were based on the Government’s response to the public consultation, which set out that conversion would be an administrative process. This recognised that the couple were already in a valid legal relationship and should not be required to have another ceremony, although we have provided flexibility for couples who choose to have a ceremony. However, we listened to what people said about the process set out in the draft regulations and are pleased that we have been able to provide more flexibility and choice in these revised regulations.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked about humanist marriages. The Ministry of Justice issued a consultation document earlier this year. The Government are considering the submissions made in response and intend to issue a report on the outcome of that review by 1 January, as required by the Act. We hope that it is understood that the consultation was held in good faith and that the Government are not willingly dragging their feet over this. We hope that before long there will be clarity on the issue of humanist marriages, too.

In drawing to a close, I celebrate the part this House has played in the passage and implementation of the Act. It has been a momentous step forward for LGB&T equality and one of which we should rightly be proud. As other noble Lords have said, there has been cross-party agreement all around the Chamber on the best way forward. These statutory instruments implement decisions we made during the passage of the Act and are important for those who formed civil partnerships when that was the only means by which they could have their relationship recognised in law, and who would now like to be married. They also support in particular loving couples who will now be able to remain married when one member changes their legal gender.

We have come a very long way since my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill’s far-sighted Private Member’s Bill, which set in train the legislation for civil partnerships. Many people have worked and campaigned for these measures. In your Lordships’ House, the noble Lord, Lord Alli, kept our feet to the fire and rewarded us with pink carnations. From the Cross Benches, the noble Baroness, Lady Rabbi Neuberger, is putting these measures into practice and will be conducting a number of conversion into marriage ceremonies in December, the first of which I understand will be on 10 December—auspiciously 10.12.14. On the Benches opposite, support has come from the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Royall, as well as from the noble Lord, Lord Collins, to whom we offer advance congratulations on his forthcoming conversion into marriage ceremony.

From the Conservative Benches, there were valuable contributions from my noble friends Lady Jenkin and Lady Noakes, as well as from my noble friend Lord Jenkin, to whom we offer congratulations on his long marriage. The Liberal Democrats were led by my noble friend Lady Barker, with able support from my noble friend Lord Paddick. I also pay tribute to the government team who steered the Bill through the House, including my noble friend Lady Stowell, my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness, and my noble friend Lady Northover, who has already been mentioned and much regrets in many ways that her promotion to a ministerial post means that she is abroad on government business; otherwise, wild horses would not have kept her from being here to see this through. However, I have won out by coming in at a late stage to take these measures through. I also thank the officials, who have been tireless in seeking the best outcomes. It is very fitting that my noble friend the Leader of the House has just come in as I was thanking her for her part in the Bill. I apologise for omitting many others who have played a part.

However, as my noble friend Lord Paddick indicated, one parliamentarian’s tenacity ensured the passage of the Bill—my right honourable friend Lynne Featherstone, Stonewall’s Politician of the Year and a true champion of equality. She, I and others here were among many guests who had the great pleasure of attending one of the first same-sex marriages, between Ed Fordham and Russell Eagling. The two had helped lead the serenading across the road as the Bill made its way through your Lordships’ House, and their marriage was a truly joyous occasion.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, said, it is not often that we pass legislation that has such a direct impact on the lives and happiness of our citizens. These instruments will make a significant difference to those people’s lives. I hope that the House will approve them.

Motion agreed.