Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
New Clause 1
Reform of civil partnership
‘(1) The Secretary of State must make regulations to change the law relating to civil partnership to bring about equality between same-sex couples and other couples in terms of their future ability or otherwise to form civil partnerships.
(2) Regulations under this section must give effect to such equality within 6 months of this Act being passed.
(3) For the purposes of this section, “other couples” means couples who but for the provisions of section 3(1)(a) of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 would be eligible to register as civil partners of each other.’—(Tim Loughton.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
May I pay tribute to the Minister who has just spoken, the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler)? Her speech was a masterpiece of clarity, conciseness and succinctness on a Friday morning on which there is important business to proceed with.
We had a very thorough and constructive Committee stage. I thank all the Members who took part in it, as well as the Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins). She is not in the Chamber today, but she has been part of the Bill process. I welcome the Minister for Immigration, my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who I hope will deftly manage the Bill without incident on its passage through these important stages. I am sure she will want to carry on the continuity of support that the Government have given, because there is very widespread support from both sides of the House for all four major parts of this Bill. Virtually all of them are now Government policy, so there is no reason why they should not want it to proceed. I anticipate that today should be a breeze, and that we can get on to the Third Reading of my Bill and swiftly go on to the Organ Donation (Deemed Consent) Bill, which so many of us support. We offer our good wishes to the Bill’s promoter, the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson), who cannot be in the Chamber today.
Since the Committee sitting on 18 July, there has been a crucial change regarding the extension of civil partnerships, which is why the new clause and the amendment are necessary. That change is of course the announcement by the Prime Minister through the medium of the media—namely, the Evening Standard, on 2 October —when the Government confirmed that, for the first time ever, gay and straight people will have the same choices in life, which will be achieved by new laws to extend civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. There are now some 3.3 million such couples cohabiting in the United Kingdom. That was welcome news, and I was expecting a call beforehand from the Government to discuss how we could collaborate on my Bill to bring about that Government policy in the speediest and most effective way.
The change was of course spurred on by the ruling of the Supreme Court on 27 June, in the case of Steinfeld and Keidan, which revealed that the Government were in breach of the European convention on human rights. That followed a nearly four-year battle by Rebecca and Charles, which was almost as long as my own campaign in Parliament on this subject. I have proposed amendments going back as far as the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, I had a subsequent private Member’s Bill and of course there is the ballot Bill that we are debating today.
May I offer the hon. Gentleman my congratulations on achieving this step forward? As he will remember, I intervened on him on Second Reading about the necessity of treating everyone equally according to the law. Obviously, everyone could be treated equally badly; I am glad that everyone is now going to be treated equally well.
The hon. Gentleman quite rightly spoke very eloquently and with his own personal experience in support of this part of the Bill on Second Reading, for which I was very grateful, and that was very effective.
As I say, I was not warned about this advance in Government policy by the Prime Minister, and I have not really been briefed since about exactly what it amounts to. At the moment, I have no idea whether the Government will now accept this new clause, will vote against it, or will allow debate to go on—perhaps beyond 2.30 pm today. Frankly, if there are objections from the Government, I hope they will be based on fact, not conjecture or some of the scare stories about what my new clause might actually achieve. However, I have been involved in some very helpful discussions with the lead officials in the Government Equalities Office on civil partnerships legislation, and of course the continued support of the excellent lead official from the Home Office on this Bill, Linda Edwards.
The problem the new clause addresses is that at no point have the Government indicated a timeline or a method for bringing the extension of civil partnerships into effect. Delay and obfuscation was a major criticism in the ruling by the Supreme Court earlier in the year. More than three months after the Supreme Court ruling, the Government have simply indicated that they will address the inequality by extending civil partnerships, rather than abolishing them. Abolishing them was never a practical option, but that confirmation is very welcome.
Four months on, the Government have not indicated a timeline, despite the urgency factor pressed by the judges. If we read the Supreme Court ruling, we can see that it absolutely highlights the fact that the Government could have acted before now. On several occasions, it refers to this private Member’s Bill and my previous one as a way of rectifying this matter. It actually criticises my private Member’s Bill for not being tougher in proceeding with a change in the law on a timeline, rather than just agreeing to have a report, which I had to do to get the Bill through Second Reading and into Committee.
My Bill, with the addition of this new clause, is actually very helpful to the Government on a number of fronts. It confirms in law that civil partnerships will be equalised and that the breach with the convention will be rectified. It gives a clear cut-off date for the Government to get on and do it, and it would be effective before the end of next year. If this change goes through, a couple who have been looking to have a civil partnership rather than a marriage—for all the reasons we have debated at length—could make plans from the end of next year to make that a reality. Many people have waited years, and the Government have been on notice about this for years. This is now the time to end the delay.
Crucially, the new clause makes no prescription about the method, wording and reach of the legislative change that is required; that is entirely up to the Government. I know there are some technical matters still to be settled, and I do not want to dictate to them how we achieve that. That is why this is a very flexible amendment to what is a very flexible Bill.
I am afraid that the Government have had plenty of time. Back in the Second Reading debate on 2 February, the then Minister stated at the Dispatch Box about this Bill:
“There is a sense of urgency—very much so.”—[Official Report, 2 February 2018; Vol. 635, c. 1122.]
Yet, since that time, the Government have not been able to report on the progress of the review work that was announced then, and they did not do so in Committee in July either. Indeed, I gather that the Government Equalities Office was given the go-ahead to undertake much of the review work only in the past few weeks.
I remind the House that that is on the back of two full-blown reviews in the past few years of the whole subject of extending civil partnerships. This must be the most over-reviewed piece of legislation that this House has seen for some time. Why has it all moved so slowly, not least since the Supreme Court ruling that made it inevitable that the law would have to change—and change quickly? I pay tribute to the Equal Civil Partnerships campaign and to the now well over 130,000 people who have signed its petition for a change in the law. They are understandably growing impatient, and despite the Government’s announcement, they are sceptical in thinking that the legislative changes will be kicked into the long grass.
I gather that the Government plan to bring forward primary legislation in the next Session. That has been indicated in a written ministerial statement released only this morning—at the last moment. I am always rather sceptical of ministerial statements from the Dispatch Box or in written form at the eleventh hour. However, even if there is primary legislation in the next Session, it might be 2021 before a couple could actually take advantage of a civil partnership, and that is only if it is in the Queen’s Speech and survives the vagaries of the parliamentary timetable, which is likely to be under huge pressure during the next Session from potential emergency Brexit-related legislation.
I am afraid, however, that is just not good enough for me, for campaign supporters—including those with life-limiting conditions who are desperate to formulate a relationship while they can—or indeed for the Supreme Court. My Bill is the cleanest and quickest way to change the law, to satisfy the Supreme Court and, most importantly, to address a significant pent-up demand from couples who have waited for this change and the chance of equality for a long time. I cannot understand why the Government have not more proactively used my Bill as a vehicle for achieving that right from the start.
Ministers have put it around that the new clause is flawed and unworkable, but neither is true. I have discussed its wording and terms at length with Clerks of the House and lead officials from the Government Equalities Office, and because of flexibility in the wording of the Bill and new clause, the timetable can be achieved by using a truncated six-week review process. Indeed, the Scottish Parliament is currently undertaking its own review into the extension of civil partnerships, and I am sure that it would not mind if we just nicked that. A ready-made “one we made earlier” is on the table, and with a little tweaking it could go into the consultation process in a matter of weeks. A statutory instrument could then be designed in the new year, to be drafted by parliamentary counsel and put before Parliament ahead of the summer recess. I know that will be tight and demand a lot from officials—frankly, those officials would be better placed if they had been allowed to get on with the work when the writing was on the wall some time ago. However, it can be achieved in a way that enables the law to allow opposite-sex couples to enter a civil partnership before the end of 2019. That is what the new clause would do. The statutory instrument route gives greater flexibility on a subject which, frankly, we have debated almost to death. It is less vulnerable to the vagaries of the parliamentary timetable than primary legislation.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point that has been raised several times. Indeed, an amendment to the Civil Partnership Act 2004 has been tabled in the other place to that effect. I have some sympathy with those changes, but for me they are largely a matter of taxation and an issue for the Treasury, because they mainly concern inheritance tax and other tax matters. My Bill is a social family Bill, and one reason for it is an attempt to cement family units and create greater stability for children—recognising a partnership in law, with all the protections that goes with that, is a good fillip for family stability. The point raised by my hon. Friend is a separate and largely financial issue, and I would be sympathetic to separate legislation that will not mess up my Bill but will address that point elsewhere.
My hon. Friend knows that I support him in his endeavours. Given his response to our hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup), perhaps the Government should indicate that they will consider taxation relationships between people who have a relationship but not a partnership. That may involve siblings, or someone who has stayed at home to look after an elderly parent, but the current taxation arrangements are desperately unfair. However, my hon. Friend is right to say that that issue should not necessarily complicate the Bill.
My hon. Friend is right. This Bill is about civil partnerships, which are a different sort of relationship. I know the issue is fraught with all sorts of nuances, but my original point stands.
Just this week, the Government announced that primary legislation could be introduced to prescribe food labelling in the light of the recent death of a customer of Pret a Manger and that those measures could be in place by next summer. No Supreme Court ruling hangs over that problem with the law, so why cannot we achieve today the change under discussion with the new clause to my Bill? If the Government allowed the amended Bill to proceed, they would send a strong and reassuring message about their real intent and put their money where their mouth is.
Like my hon. Friend, I am keen for the provisions in the Bill to be introduced. Will he outline briefly why his new clause only covers provisions on civil partnerships when, for example, we have been waiting to get mothers’ names on marriage certificates for many years?
My hon. Friend pre-empts my closing remarks. If there is a problem getting this Bill through the House, it must be one of the most complicated private Member’s Bills there has ever been, which is my fault. It so happens, however, that all four tenets of the Bill are now Government policy, so there should not be a problem. We still have some way to go before, hopefully, the Bill passes to another place and becomes subject to the vagaries there. If we do not get there, there is the important issue of adding mothers’ names to wedding certificates—that has been an anomaly since the reign of Queen Victoria and should have been addressed ages ago. Now at last we can do it.
The Bill contains important provisions on allowing coroners to look into certain stillbirths, and again, huge cross-party support for that has been aired on many occasions. There are also other important matters regarding how we view stillbirths before the 24-week gestation period. This Bill is not just about civil partnerships; it is about a whole load of other things for which there is widespread support. I hope that the Government will see that the new clause is well intended and will hold the feet of officials to the fire as they work long hours to get this legislation through. It is achievable. I have tabled new clause 1 in the spirit of being helpful to the Government in achieving equality. Consequential amendment 1 has now become redundant, because it is now Government policy to allow civil partnerships, and the new clause will ensure that we get on with it.
When warned that I might be speaking early, Madam Deputy Speaker, I had not expected it to be this early.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has raised important points, and I am grateful to him for having promoted this Bill in its entirety and for his enormous and, as he pointed out, long-standing campaigning work in support of civil partnerships.
As most hon. Members will know, when the Bill was first introduced back in February, the Government had not yet taken a final decision on the future of civil partnerships. We were clear that the current situation, in which same-sex couples can marry or enter a civil partnership but opposite-sex couples can only marry, needed to be addressed. Indeed, earlier this year, we published a Command Paper that set out how we would proceed with our deliberations to ensure that we chose the right course of action. Events over the past few months have moved on substantially, not least thanks to the efforts of my hon. Friend in promoting this Bill, and I am pleased that the Prime Minister recently announced our intention to make civil partnerships available to both opposite-sex and same-sex couples. We intend to introduce specific legislation to do just that, and I know that in conversation with my hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities made those intentions clear.
I shall undertake to play nicely with the entire House today, because there are some really important components to the Bill and I feel hugely passionate about the inclusion of mothers’ names on marriage certificates—I do not, however, hope that my young daughter will be in a position to demand my name on her marriage certificate any time soon, but you never know, she is 20. [Interruption.] I doubt she would find a partner in that manner of haste.
I am very conscious that my hon. Friend’s amendment has the support of a large number of right hon. and hon. Members from across the House. We support the common objective of an early move to enable opposite-sex couples to form civil partnerships. We made clear our position and the reasons for our concerns about the amendment in a written statement laid this morning by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities.
My hon. Friend made a point about the written statement being somewhat at the eleventh hour. I am going to play nicely, but I would gently chide him back by saying that his amendment was also somewhat at the eleventh hour, particularly as the Bill went through an intense Committee stage in which right hon. and hon. Members had the opportunity to debate it very fully. Of course, we would not want to be in a position where we do not have an opportunity to debate the amendment and consider the issue properly. None of us wants to still be debating the Bill at 2 o’clock this afternoon and not have the opportunity to make the progress that we want to make on other Bills further down the Order Paper.
I do not want to delay the Bill; I want us to get through the business with all speed. It was for that reason that I read the written statement very carefully. It discloses nothing to me that should mean the Government cannot support the Bill promoter’s new clause 1. Will the Minister just indicate whether she will support the new clause, so that we can get on and get the Bill through?
There are a number of important points I would like to make with particular reference to the amendment and some of the challenges we think it poses. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be patient and allow me to get to them.
There are a number of reasons why we are concerned about my hon. Friend’s amendment and a number of reasons why the Bill may not be the most appropriate legislative vehicle in which to equalise access to civil partnerships between same-sex and opposite-sex couples. As I have said, the Bill contains a number of important measures that we certainly do not wish to jeopardise by allowing the substantive amendment on civil partnerships at this late stage in the Bill’s progress through Parliament. I think that these substantive changes deserve to have been debated more thoroughly at earlier stages of the Bill’s progress, rather than just in the limited time available to us today.
I also need to make the point that, while we are happy to have announced our intention to extend civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples, there are still quite a number of significant issues that need to be resolved before we can move on to implement opposite-sex civil partnerships. Some of these are entirely practical. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) from a sedentary position is yelling, “Such as”. If he will give me a chance, I will get to them. For instance, we need to check all the existing legislative provisions that cross-refer to the civil partnership regime to make sure that they still work as intended for opposite-sex couples as well as same-sex couples. These existing provisions are spread across a wide range of current legislation, from arrangements for adoption through to pension entitlements, so this is not an insignificant body of work. Any existing provisions that are not appropriate to extended civil partnerships will need to be changed. There are also a number of sensitive policy issues that will need to be resolved, such as whether convergence from a marriage to a civil partnership should be allowed and whether the terms for the dissolution of an opposite-sex civil partnership should mirror those for same-sex couples or be the same as for opposite-sex marriages.
We also need to resolve a number of cross-border and devolution issues, such as how we should provide for recognition of similar relationships entered into in other countries and how our own relationships should be treated in other parts of the United Kingdom, which have their own legislation on civil partnerships.
I am disappointed that the amendment tabled today seeks to replace the provisions in clause 2, particularly the requirement for Government to consult and report to Parliament on the way in which they intend to equalise civil partnerships between same-sex and other couples. We particularly supported this original requirement, as we see consultation prior to the implementation of the extension of civil partnerships as key in both helping us to set out the Government’s views on the issues I have just mentioned, as well as getting a broader view of the implications of the various options.
My hon. Friend will acknowledge, of course, that the requirement for review and consultation is not a statutory requirement. It did not need to be in the Bill, but it was the only way of getting it through. And of course the Government, by their own admission, have started that review and consultation, albeit at a late stage. Taking the clause out of the Bill does not mean that it stops it, so it is actually not required.
This is a subject on which we conduct long conversations, reviews and consultation across the Government, and the fact that the review has started does not mean that it should stop, but we do want to conclude it. It is important to us to have those views.
The Government are keen to progress the review and to do so as quickly as possible. The planned consultation is not some sort of prevarication; it is a necessary step to help us to ensure that when we introduce legislation it is fit for purpose and does not slow down its parliamentary passage. Officials are already starting to identify all the matters on which we want to consult. I hope that we will soon be in a position to say more about our proposed timing for that consultation, but we wish to conduct it as soon as possible. I stress that the consultation will be about how we make the provisions to ensure that civil partnerships work as intended for opposite-sex couples, not about whether we intend to extend them in that way.
It is about how and we are proceeding. We are determined to do it. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the court judgment. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda says we are doing nothing. In fact, the reality is very much that we are seeking to move forward on this as quickly as we can, but we do think that consultation is important.
However other people may view civil partnerships, our intention is clear. They are intended to have at least one thing in common with marriage: to be a formal bond between couples in a loving relationship. I do not wish to digress too much, but a couple of hon. Members raised this point. I am aware, however, that there are those in this place and the other place who wish to see civil partnerships extended to sibling couples. We do not consider that to be a suitable amendment to either my hon. Friend’s Bill or to a future Government Bill to extend civil partnerships. In the context of today’s debate, I merely note that the addition of substantive amendments on civil partnerships to my hon. Friend’s Bill would make it an easier target for amendments on siblings that would then wreck the Bill, and all its valuable provisions on marriage registration and pregnancy loss would be jeopardised. I note that there is already a Bill in the other place that proposes the extension of civil partnerships to sibling couples. We consider that that Bill, rather than this one, offers an appropriate opportunity to debate the merits of how cohabiting sibling couples should be protected in older age.
The amendment put forward today introduces a wide-ranging delegated power. This causes us concern for several reasons, as I mentioned earlier. We are not yet in a position to know precisely what will be required legislatively, which is why it would be too risky to take a power to change the law by secondary legislation when we are not yet able to explain how we intend to use that power.
When does the Minister think the Government will be in a position to understand the scope of legislative changes that are needed? Does she plan to publish a further written statement setting out to the House that information once she has it?
I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities is best placed to make written statements on this matter rather than me, but we will provide as much detail to the House as we possibly can. Hopefully, that will be provided as soon as possible.
The Bill, as introduced, contained provisions for such a power to be included, but those provisions were removed in Committee as we did not wish to provoke parliamentary opposition in either place that could prevent the Bill as a whole from proceeding. Those are the reasons why our preference would be to introduce our own Bill in the next session to extend civil partnership as soon as a suitable legislative opportunity is available, which is what my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities has indicated in her written statement. However, I do not want anyone to think that the Government are merely paying lip-service to the need to press on with resolving this matter.
Government research that was originally due to conclude next autumn has already been brought forward by a year. It has been wound up and officials are now using its findings to help with the impact assessment for the new civil partnerships. The Government Equalities Office has also been in contact with Departments across Whitehall to begin discussions on how to undertake the necessary legislative sweep and with its counterparts in the devolved Administrations to identify UK cross-border issues that will need to be considered.
I am very conscious of the keen interest that Members of both Houses take in extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples and of the private Member’s Bill brought forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) and her continued support for our introducing measures through that Bill. In addition, as I have said, a Bill has also been introduced in the Lords on this matter.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has pursued this matter with passion and enthusiasm, and these are legislative proposals that will get on to the statute book, but we are keen to do so in the right way. I hope that this reassures the House that the Government are working hard to extend civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples, as well as same-sex couples, despite not being able to actively support his new clause for the reasons I have outlined.
I take it from that that, because of the forces lined up against the Government, they are throwing in the towel, which is good and encouraging news. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the progress he has made.
I despair at the way the Government have been dragging their feet over this issue for so long. It was on 21 May 2013—more than five years ago—on the Third Reading of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 that I intervened on the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and Minister for Women and Equalities asserting that I believed that doing what the Government were doing in that Bill would be in breach of human rights law. The answer from the Minister, obviously on the advice of Government lawyers, was that the provisions of the European convention on human rights would not be compromised by the fact that the legislation made unequal provision for civil partnerships.
How wrong were the Government and the Minister! For five years people have been in limbo, while the Government have connived over legislation that is at odds with human rights requirements under the European convention. Surely there must be a greater sense of urgency from the Government than was demonstrated in my right hon. Friend’s response to the new clause. I also find it extraordinary that today’s written statement makes no mention of the Supreme Court ruling.
I hope that when the new clause and amendment are put to the vote, they will go through without a Division, but if there is a Division, I will be interested to see whether the Government try to argue against what the Prime Minister has already assured us of—namely, that the Government are on the side of the proposal in the new clause.
I will be very brief. I just want to explain to the Minister why I feel very impatient—she looked grumpy with me for complaining that she was taking a long time. She used words such as “soon”, “as soon as possible” and “quickly”, and while Ministers often use those words, they mean absolutely nothing in parliamentary language.
On the Minister’s timetable, we might get a Bill in the next Session, but I would not be surprised if the next Session was a two-year Session, like this one, which might mean us waiting another two and a half years. Every year, I have straight people coming to my surgeries who had lived with a partner of the opposite gender for years and years in a relationship that had felt in every respect like a marriage, but who never wanted to enter into a marriage and consequently suffered when their partner died due to a lack of a legal arrangement because civil partnerships were not available to them. They suffer exactly the same distress as gay couples did until civil partnerships were brought into law.
We must reflect on the misery and anguish that such people feel when lawyers then say, “Well, you could have got married but chose not to. Obviously your partner did not intend you to succeed to the tenancy”—or get the house, or whatever it is. Everybody should be treated equally under law and we should all be impatient about that. The right hon. Lady is a wonderful Minister, however, and I am sure she will rush away from the House today determined to make sure that her timetable is beaten, and that we have all this sorted out in months, not years.
Question put and agreed to.
New clause 1 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
Report on civil partnership
Amendment made: 1, page 3, line 12, leave out Clause 2 —(Tim Loughton.)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time. I said at the beginning of my previous remarks that this morning would be a breeze. There have been a few headwinds, but so far, so good. I hope we can continue in that spirit of agreement and consensus across the House regarding all four measures in the Bill, which are much needed and much supported. My Bill has been referred to as the hatch, match and dispatch Bill because it covers so many junctures in people’s lives. I like to view it rather more as a Bill to address anomalies and iniquities in the law that, in many cases, should have been dealt with a long time ago.
I want to apologise in advance to officials, because if the Bill now goes through as amended, as I hope will be the case, they will have a lot of work to do in a relatively short space of time, but we now have a timeline, and that work should be a welcome distraction for them from Brexit, so there are upsides as well as downsides.
There are four aspects of the Bill, as I have mentioned. Clause 1, which is about marriage registration, seems to have excited the most vociferous support this morning. I am sure that the Minister will actively support it, rather than not actively support it—she appeared to say earlier that she did not like new clause 1 but would not actively oppose it, although passively she would have done. But we have moved on to Third Reading now—we are on the final bend.
I pay tribute to the Bishop of St Albans for the Bill that he has steered through the Lords, ably supported by my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), whose name is attached to it on today’s Order Paper, albeit somewhat later on. She has been a champion for this issue over many years, as have other Members who have attached their names to various private Members’ Bills to try to address this anomaly. It is absurd that mothers have been able to put their signatures on marriage certificates in Scotland since 1855—and indeed in Northern Ireland—and in respect of civil partnerships in England and Wales since 2004, but that not since Victorian times has a mother’s name been recognised on a marriage certificate.
On Second Reading, I produced my own marriage certificate. My dear late mother’s name is absent from it, and to add insult to injury, my father’s name is on it twice, because he signed not only as witness but as the vicar who married us, adding double insult to injury. There are countless cases of people saying, “I never knew my father because he assaulted my mother and did a runner on us before I ever knew him, yet his name has to go on my marriage certificate, and the name of my mother, who has done all the heavy lifting, suffered all the abuse, and brought up, nurtured and loved me as a daughter, does not appear.” That is not right. I hope that the Bill will at last address that anomaly and that mothers can then proudly put their names on the marriage register in the new electronic form, which will bring it up to date for the future.
I am not going to go into the second aspect of the Bill, which is civil partnerships, at length again. We have been debating the matter since the 2013 same-sex marriage Bill. If my amendment had been agreed at that time, we would not still be having this discussion now. There have been many opportunities to address this unintended inequality.
I am in a generous frame of mind this morning, and rather than their saying sorry, we should be saying hurrah that we are now doing something about it—[Hon. Members: “Hurrah!”] I do not know how Hansard will treat that.
The third aspect of the Bill relates to the production of a report on the registration of pregnancy loss. Again, clause 3 has already achieved its objective, partly in the light of our Second Reading debate, which we had back on 2 February, when we were all moved by the extraordinarily touching personal testimony of the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) about her own experiences—I wonder whether she will draw her attention away from her mobile phone, because I know she would like to listen to this tribute and not be distracted. As a result of the strength of feeling in the speeches and the subsequent response from our constituents, the then Health Secretary—he is now Foreign Secretary—said, “Well, actually I think we just need to get on with changing the law.” A group was set up with a mandate to see how we could change the law to acknowledge in some way those births that are stillborn but happen, by whatever quirk, to fall below the 24-week gestation line and are therefore not recognised in the eyes of the state. The situation has brought huge distress to parents who are already in distress at the trauma of losing a child. The fact that they happened to lose that child at 23 weeks and six days means that, in the eyes of the state, that child never existed and is classed as any other baby loss. In saying that, I in no way diminish the trauma of all baby loss, but there are so many examples of this.
My constituent Hayley Petts first brought this matter to me, and she served on the working group with the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West. The group has been discussing many aspects of how the law can be changed and has also thrown up a lot of problems about how we go about changing the law. Should we have a universal certificate for all baby loss, for example? Should the scheme be voluntary or mandatory? Should it be subject to medical verification, as is the case under the Australian scheme, and should it be retrospective? There is then the whole thorny issue of how we avoid getting into the minefield that is abortion and other forms of termination. The Bill has done its job before it has become an Act because such work is going on under the aegis of the Department of Health and Social Care, and I hope we will have some results in due course.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing his Bill to Third Reading. On clause 4, does he agree that when parents lose a child—a healthy full-term baby—as my constituents Jack and Sarah Hawkins did, they should not have to fight to get answers? A coronial inquest might provide them with independent, public, open and honest answers so that they can concentrate on grieving, rather than having to fight to get to the truth of what happened.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady because she pre-empts my clause 4 moment. The fourth, and very important, component of this Bill, which is addressed in clause 4, is coroners’ investigations. She participated in earlier debates and worked very helpfully with me and others to move this important issue up the agenda. I am grateful for her contribution.
Clause 4 will allow part 1 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 to be amended. That is not easy, and the matter is slightly complicated by the fact that it falls under the jurisdiction of both the Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for coroners, and the Department of Health and Social Care, which is responsible for healthcare in relation to baby loss. I must pay tribute to some very helpful and proactive support for this measure by MOJ officials. I had a very helpful meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), who I am glad to see is present on the Front Bench. He was a great champion of many of the Bill’s provisions when he was just a commoner on the Back Benches and added his name to many of the measures I have been trying to get through today.
The Minister has confirmed that an immense amount of work has gone on at the Ministry of Justice. There are issues still to be resolved, such as whether coroners should have the power to investigate all stillbirth loss or should concentrate, which I think is practically the better approach, on full-term baby loss, when there are the fewest excuses or reasons for stillbirths to happen. Also, should this be mandatory or effectively subject to parental veto? There are serious problems with that, as there are some cases in which a stillbirth may have been connected to domestic violence and some sort of cover-up may be wanted, so I think we are coming to the view that the scheme should be mandatory. Should there be specialist coroners or should all coroners have the ability to investigate? Of course, there are also capacity constraints. The fact that a lot of work has been going on in the Department in the last few months shows that this can be done.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this important Bill, which is, in effect, enabling legislation in this regard. It is worth reiterating something he has already mentioned, so will he join me in thanking the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar)? It is one thing to have enabling legislation, but given the complex nature of what my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) is trying to introduce, a Minister who is so supportive is worth their weight in gold?
Give my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) a job—I am sure that will happen shortly. We should be paying tribute to him, too, because although many other Members have been part of this crusade, including my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), who is sitting next to him, he has probably done more than anyone to put stillbirth absolutely on the parliamentary and national radar.
It is because of the Minister’s empathy, understanding and preparedness to work with parliamentarians that we are in a position in which, if this enabling legislation is enacted, we can have practical measures in fairly short order, perhaps even ahead of the first civil partnership for opposite-sex couples happening in this country before the end of 2019. This enabling clause gives a good deal of discretion to the Minister, and there is no other Minister I have greater faith in to make sure that something actually happens. Now that we have praised him to the rafters, we will expect a very early announcement on when the change will happen.
This is a complicated Bill, as I have said, and that is my own fault, but it contains four really important measures that have widespread support across the whole House and across the country.
I apologise to my hon. Friend and thank him for giving way. I am in full support of the Bill, but I have one technical question that I hope he will be able to answer. Clause 6 clarifies that clause 5 applies to Scotland, England and other parts of the United Kingdom. Clause 5(1)(a) states that
“the Marriage of British Subjects (Facilities) Acts 1915 and 1916…no longer apply in England and Wales”.
Under clause 6, that will also apply to Scotland. As I am sure the House will know, those Acts make reference to the recognition of marriage certificates in the United Kingdom and those of British dominions, basically giving British citizens getting married in the dominions and those getting married here in the United Kingdom almost equal recognition. I am all for increasing rights, but I just want to make sure that that provision will not reduce any of our constituents’ rights in their future marriage choices.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that very pithy intervention. He makes some good points, and no doubt some other smartarse in the House of Lords will want to bring them up as well. With the greatest respect, I am sure that he can speak further to those points on Third Reading—as long as he does not go on for too long. To coin a phrase from Front Benchers, I would be happy to write to him and give him more details. I shall now somehow try to return to my peroration.
As I was saying before I was so helpfully interrupted, the Bill is long overdue. It sets out a practical route and a timeline—certainly in the case of civil partnerships—for these iniquities and inequalities to be resolved. I know that it has widespread support in this House, and I am grateful to all those who have made it possible to get this far. I will be particularly grateful to the Immigration Minister if she ensures that the Bill gets through its Third Reading so that we can have further discussions in the other place. I very much hope that it will be granted its Third Reading without a vote today.
I would like to start by thanking the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for introducing the Bill and for his excellent campaigning and commitment on all aspects of the Bill. It has been a genuine pleasure to work with him, particularly on the registration of very early stillborn babies, and I thank him for his earlier kind words. Following my speech on Second Reading in February, I was overwhelmed with messages of love and kindness from people up and down the country, and even from as far away as the Netherlands and Italy. I also received messages from families who, like me, had experienced the heartbreak of losing a baby pre-24 weeks and who had been distressed to find that they were unable to register their birth and death because the baby had been born a few days, or perhaps a week or so, before the 24-week gestation threshold. Their messages have inspired me to continue the campaign to change this, and I am pleased to be working on the Department of Health and Social Care’s advisory panel for the pregnancy loss review, which will make recommendations to the Secretary of State.
I also support the clause to give coroners the power to investigate the deaths of full-term stillborn babies. Along with the much-improved additional support that now exists due to the very successful national bereavement care pathways—for which the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss successfully lobbied—it will give solace to parents, at the most devastating time in their lives, to know the cause and circumstances that led to the death of their much-anticipated baby.
Moving on to the other elements in this Bill, I believe that it is way beyond time for a mother’s details to be included in marriage registration. We have an outdated system that prioritises fathers over mothers, and it must be brought into the 21st century. The mother’s details can be found on marriage certificates in Northern Ireland and Scotland, and in civil partnership certification. Believe it or not, I was married 28 years ago—[Hon. Members: “No!”] I know; it is unbelievable. The sad thing is that, after being brought up single-handedly by my mother after my father abandoned me and my brothers when we were little, it is my father’s name on my marriage certificate, not my mother’s. It is even more sad that, at the time, I did not even think to question that, so endemic was the patriarchy of officialdom to me as a young woman in 1990.
The fact that, almost three decades later, this antiquated patriarchal anomaly is at last to end shows how far we have come, and that women are not, and never were, chattels to be handed over from father to husband. This change will turn the marriage certificate into what it should be: a legal document, not a transfer certificate. It also never occurred to me that the ceremony may also be a little bit outdated. As my father was not present to “give me away”, I asked my uncle to step in—again believing that this had to be done by a man. I would now insist that it had to be done by my mam—I hope she is watching this; I can tell the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that that is who I was texting earlier, but he is not listening—if indeed I felt I needed to be given away by anyone. However, I am happily married, so that is bit of a moot point. I say that in case my husband is listening, so that he will know that I am not planning on doing it again.
That brings me to my final point on the clause to allow opposite-sex couples to enter a civil partnership. I was pleased when the Government announced earlier this month that they intended to do this, and I am pleased that the amendment calling on the Government to do it within the next six months has been added to the Bill. The clauses in the Bill will help to ensure more equality and fairness in all four of the very different areas that we are discussing. As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, it is a unique Bill, and I am proud to have worked with and supported him in securing its passage through the House. I wish him and the Bill well and look forward to the day it receives Royal Assent.
I intend to speak very briefly—no cheers, please! This is a great Bill, and it is great that the Government are taking it seriously. I want it to get on as quickly as possible, but I must first convey my thanks to my dear friend the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who has spoken so passionately on these subjects. We have had tears and laughter, which is as it should be. If we cannot talk with passion and enthusiasm about birth, marriage and death, what on earth are we here for? Speaking as a serious Government lawyer specialising in inquests and as a bereaved parent, I think it is great that both those skill sets and life experiences have been brought together to enable me to play my small part in forming a law on this subject.
I cannot speak highly enough of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who, with his own unique mix of sarcasm and charm, has managed to persuade the Government to feel competitive about getting the different elements of the Bill into law. He has given us a challenge, and this is now a race. We have to work out whether we can marry or give birth first and then, if the birth goes wrong, whether we can register it. It is right that we take this seriously, because these are desperately serious issues, particularly the registration of stillbirths and when and how we as a society should consider these matters.
I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on his success in getting the Bill through the House. I will focus on the registration of stillbirths because parents and coroners have asked me to support that aspect of the legislation. As the law stands, coroners have no jurisdiction to investigate stillbirths that occur after 36 weeks, which is generally regarded as full term. Coroners can hold an inquest in cases where it is appropriate, particularly when either the family or medical staff are critical of the level of care, but all deaths after 36 weeks should be examined.
As it stands, the system for reporting and investigating deaths is inconsistent, and that matters because the UK has one of the worst stillbirth rates in the developed world, with one stillbirth in every 200 babies born. The grief and sorrow that the parents go through at the loss of the child is unimaginable, and we all recognise that a bereaved parent may not feel that they can face the extra intrusion of a coroner’s inquest. That may not be appropriate and, of course, the decision must still be one for the parents, but an investigation is the only way to understand the circumstances of prenatal deaths so that recommendations can be made to improve future outcomes.
I rise briefly to add my support to this Bill. It is a fantastic piece of legislation in all respects, and I want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who has been tenacious in his pursuit of this change for a long time. Like all pieces of really good legislation, the question always is, “Why hasn’t this happened before?” It seems so obvious in many respects. The Bill seeks to let opposite-sex couples enter into civil partnerships, permits the registration of the name the mother on a marriage certificate, allows the registration of stillborn deaths before the 24th week of pregnancy and gives coroners the power to investigate stillborn deaths.
As for the first part, allowing opposite-sex couples to enter into a civil partnership, it is often said, “Why don’t they just get married?” Well, I am a person of faith, and I must say that it can sometimes be quite fragile—it can be difficult to retain that faith in the modern world—but part of being a person of faith is also about recognising and respecting no faith. Many people feel that marriage perhaps has religious connotations that they do not wish to enter into. Marriage is also expensive. It can be a huge undertaking at a time of student debts and other financial difficulties for young people embarking on life together, or for people of any age, to take on what can often be a crippling expense. People may also have different experiences of marriage. They may have seen their parents married or perhaps been married themselves, and they may have seen that marriage did not work for their parents or for themselves. We need to respect that and to understand that the days in which people just jumped into a marriage or in which marriage was the natural progression are now gone for many in our society.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) made a powerful point about rights on Report that resonated with me given an event in my own life. His point was about the rights of people who are in a long-term relationship and experience a catastrophe in their lives and then discover, frankly, that their word does not count for what it should. In 1999, my partner at the time was involved in a car accident. She was hit on 9 July, suffering catastrophic head injuries, and she died on 13 July in Whitechapel hospital. This is no indication about the family, who were absolutely fantastic throughout, but she was estranged from her family and we did not actually see each other—our relationship was outside that family framework.
Now, I was not even given any medical updates at first, and it took me a day to get in to see her. Although our relationship may not have been at the stage at which we would have considered a civil partnership if we had had that option, our relationship was legitimate and deserved recognition. I remember that moment when I went to see her, a day after she had been hit, and I was warned that she would have tubes going into her body and all the paraphernalia that comes with a serious head trauma. I was warned that she would look very strange and that I was not to be shocked. Well, as far as I was concerned, she looked as beautiful as ever. I was touched by what the hon. Gentleman said, and it was that that made me rise in support of this Bill more than probably anything else.
The Bill’s second key aim is to review the registration of marriages. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) has pursued the matter relentlessly in her role as Second Church Estates Commissioner, and it is a great privilege to sponsor and support her Registration of Marriage (No. 2) Bill. There are roughly 2 million single parents in the UK, around 90% of whom are women, so it is curious that, as the law stands, should their children go on to get married they would be permitted to put the details only of the father into the marriage register. My mother brought me up from the age of 10 after my father left home. I still have good relations with him, but she brought me up, working two jobs and all the hours that God sends, yet when I got married in 2014 my mother’s name did not appear on the marriage certificate. That is just ridiculous on every level, and I hope that the Government brings forward secondary legislation to end that anomaly.
I want to reiterate a point made by Baroness Williams on Second Reading in the Lords, when she highlighted how the proposed changes would also enable all marriage entries to be held within a single electronic registry, negating the need for multiple bound marriage registers. That seems like a sensible change, but it is obviously not the sole reason to do it.
The third part of the Bill seeks to assist people who experience a stillbirth after 24 weeks’ gestation. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Colchester (Will Quince) and for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) and the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on their work in raising baby loss awareness.
This legislation is well overdue. It is finely drafted, and it covers off so many things—so many wrongs in our society—that we as parliamentarians need to address. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham and urge everyone to support it.
I rise briefly to support the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and to commend all those who have ensured that the Bill has reached this point. On civil partnerships, I want to mention just briefly my constituents Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld, who fought a four-year battle through the courts, ending with a magnificent victory in the Supreme Court this summer that was absolutely clear, unequivocal and unanimous in telling the Government to get on with making this change.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has pursued these matters to a head, as he always does, without fear or favour, including with his Front-Bench colleagues. I also mention everybody at the Equal Civil Partnerships campaign and all those thousands of couples who are waiting, with bated breath, to be able to cement their relationships. The measure also has the potential to affect millions of couples who do not have rights in this country but often think that they do. I also thank those who have over many years supported same-sex civil partnerships and marriage, including Peter Tatchell and Stonewall, for continuing to support equality.
I hope that the Minister will take back to the Government the message sent by all those voices, and by those on both sides of the Chamber, that we really have waited long enough. Given that the Government did not oppose new clause 1, I hope they will develop a sense of urgency. They have been urged to act by the highest court in the land and by many people. This significant change in public policy will allow millions of co-habiting couples across the country to secure the rights that, as I have said, many of them believe they already have but then often find, to their financial and other costs, that they do not. I say to the Minister: please, get on with it.
There are many extremely good things in this Bill, the first being the righting of the wrong, which has been in existence since the Victorian era, of not being able to include mothers’ names on marriage certificates. When I got married in 2012 and was told I could not include my mother’s name, I thought that there had been a mistake and that they were using an old book. I had not realised that the law could still be so ridiculously out of date in the modern era. Members such as the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) have reminded us that that is a really important change for some people.
Likewise, the opportunity for parents who have lost a baby before 24 weeks to register the life of their child is hugely important, as are the new powers for coroners. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Colchester (Will Quince) and for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) on all the work they have done on that hugely important subject.
I rise today, however, with more mixed emotions than ever before about any proposed legislation, because I do not agree with the extension of civil partnerships to heterosexual couples. To be clear, I support—and supported—equal marriage for gay people. I ran the think-tank Policy Exchange at the time—I was not in this House—and published a paper arguing in favour of it. I thought, and still think, that it was really important for everybody to be treated the same and for everybody to be able to get married, as a further step towards reducing prejudice against gay people in this country.
It is very easy for heterosexual people not to notice the high levels of prejudice that continue to exist in this country, even in this modern era, and not to see that suicide rates for gay people are still higher. I went to school in the 1990s, which was not that long ago, and remember a lad walking up four flights of stairs with kids all around him chanting, “Gay. Gay. Gay.” at him. I do not even know if he was gay, but I am sure he remembers that and will do so for the rest of his life. It is a reminder that prejudice is still out there and still very strong. So, for me, equal marriage was a really important and brilliant reform.
Civil partnerships, however, were, for me, only ever a stepping stone towards creating equal marriage. I thought that, rather than creating two types of marriage, we should have got rid of civil partnerships at the point when marriage was opened up to same-sex couples.
I respect and understand why other Members do not agree with that, and we have heard some of those arguments today. However, I do not accept in particular the argument that we should legislate in this House today because there has been a court case. I think that it is profoundly the business of elected politicians in this House to make such decisions, not unelected judges across the road.
My hon. Friend is making a case as to why civil partnerships should not be equally available; indeed, he is suggesting that civil partnerships should not be available to anyone. However, does not the term “marriage” carry very long-established religious connotations? Some people may not want to sign up to that. Should not the individual have the liberty to make that choice themselves, rather than be prevented by this House from doing so?
I hear my hon. Friend’s argument, but I do not agree with him. During the process of arguing the case for equal marriage, one of the important points made was that it did not affect religious institutions. It did not affect religious marriage; it affected civil marriage. In fact, that is all we have the power to do in this House; we do not and should not control people’s religious practice.
I appreciate that my hon. Friend is making what is in many respects an intellectual argument, but this Bill is about matters of emotion and matters of the heart as much as anything else. I have not received a single letter or email from constituents asking for civil partnerships to be scrapped, but I have had emails and letters from constituents asking for them to be extended. If this place is basically about taking people’s priorities and making them ours, why would we argue to do something different?
I recognise absolutely that this an incredibly emotional debate, and I want to tread as carefully as I can for that reason, but perhaps I will come on to some of the reasons—all kinds of reasons—why it is not just an intellectual case I am making, but an important pragmatic one.
I really worry about the attempt to create, in effect, two tiers of marriage. Apart from any of the other lovely things about it, marriage is what social scientists call a “commitment device”: it is a way of binding ourselves in for the future. That is one reason why it is a big public occasion and if a couple get married in the Church of England everyone will be asked to shout, “We will” to support them. I am aware that I am playing into my right hon. Friend’s point about sounding too intellectual when calling it a commitment device, but it is lots of other things, too. Why is such a device needed? It is because life is hard, as is staying together. If people are lucky enough to have children, they find that is incredibly tiring and hard, and they are more likely to split up in the years when the children are small. One big problem, and one of the reasons why relationships often break up—we are not trying to create a perfect happy families world in this House; we have no power to do that—like many of the world’s problems, comes down to men. Men, in particular, have a habit of sliding rather than deciding; they want all the benefits of being in a relationship but they do not want to lose the option to bale out. So there needs to be a moment when they fully commit.
About half the children born today will not be living with both parents by the time they are 15, and it is profoundly sad that they would be more likely to have a smartphone than to grow up with a father living at home. I grew up in a very average household, but I consider myself rich because I was lucky enough to grow up with two parents who got on and got on with us. Not everybody in this House has had that benefit. Parents who are married before they have a child are far more likely to stay together, and nearly all parents—about 93%—who stay together until their children reach 15 are married rather than cohabiting. Cohabiting parents account for about 19% of couples with dependent children but for about half of all families with family breakdown.
It worries me that we would do something that creates a status that is sort of halfway between marriage and cohabitation—a sort of marriage-lite. Some of the reasons given for doing this make me nervous. People say marriage is a patriarchal institution, but it is not; I am not oppressing my wife by being married to her. People say it is a religious institution, and actually there is a profound difference between civil marriage and religious marriage—
Does my hon. Friend’s argument not surely mean that civil partnerships are a step in the right direction, because they allow couples to formalise their cohabitation and make a formal commitment to each other? Does he not agree that we in the Conservative party are champions of individual freedom and we should be providing people with the opportunity to make their choices? This issue is before this House and out for consultation in Scotland. Does he not think this House should lead so that the rest of the UK can follow?
I hear the argument my hon. Friend makes and I say, “Of course”, but the thing I gently point out is that a lot of other Members have made the case for civil partnerships as a final status for people who do not want to get married and said that we should deliberately create a halfway house, not as something that people can be in a for a time but for something that they—
In a way I am sorry to do this, but as someone who is in a civil partnership, I really want to steer the hon. Gentleman away from this idea of civil partnership as being some kind of halfway house or second-rate version of marriage. It is a settled fact now in British society that we will have this form of relationship available for gay couples. The question is simply whether it is going to be available to others. It feels like a fully endowed relationship to me—not second-rate at all.
I am always grateful to take interventions from the hon. Gentleman, who is so thoughtful on all these issues and has worked on them for a long time. I do not mean in any way to suggest that people do not have committed relationships or that they are in some sense second-class because they are in a civil partnership; all I would say is that I am nervous about some of these arguments. If we had a system where everybody—gay people and straight people—can get married, what would be the argument for creating a new tier of marriage? Imagine a world in which we just had these two things. What would the argument be for that? I would be happy to take an intervention from the hon. Gentleman, because I think he has something to say—
One difference between the two is that people do not have to have a big ceremony. We did, though—we had a great old party. The gays have probably added to the wedding industry quite significantly. Many people, especially if they have been in a relationship for a long time, do not want to feel that by suddenly having a big event they are invalidating the previous 30 years for which they have been together. They just want the legal certainty of making that commitment to one another and to have the legal privileges that the state affords them. That is the difference.
I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his thoughtful intervention. It has been brilliant to go to some of the equal marriages that have happened since the change in the law. One learns some wonderful things and hears people’s stories in a way that one would not have done had those marriages not existed. I am glad that they are also powering the marriage industry. I do not, though, buy the argument that people need to spend more to be married than to have a civil partnership. I think that is a canard. I hear the argument about not wanting to feel like what went before is invalidated, but I just do not think that that is true. Getting married does not invalidate the fact that a couple were together happily before it. I hear all these arguments, but ultimately I am not persuaded by them—
A moment ago, my hon. Friend asked why we need to have civil partnerships when marriage exists and people are perfectly at liberty to choose marriage as an option. The answer is this: marriage has existed for thousands of years and has a profoundly religious connotation for most people, as a social practice dating back millennia. Some people, exercising their own choice, are not happy to enter into an institution that has that religious connotation and therefore want an alternative arrangement. That is why we need civil partnerships as an alternative.
I almost always agree with my hon. Friend about almost all things, but on this issue we find ourselves in disagreement. Marriage in this country predates almost any religion that one can name. I am worried by the argument that is being made in the House today that if someone enters into a marriage—I had a civil marriage; I am an atheist—they are in some way being lured into a religious institution. I just do not think that is the case. I did not notice it. In fact, people who have a civil wedding are not even allowed to play something like Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”, because apparently it is a religious thing. There is a clear distinction in my mind between civil marriage and religious marriage.
I feel that I have made my points. I respect Members from all parties who have made arguments to the contrary, but I feel differently.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien), even though we perhaps do not agree on every point. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on bringing this important piece of legislation to the House and getting it to this stage. It will strengthen how individuals and their loved ones are formally recognised in law at every level.
As I said on Second Reading, I see the Bill as very much like a pick and mix, but I do like the “hatch, match and dispatch” description of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. That is a good way to describe the Bill. Its provisions change the way in which marriages and stillbirths are recorded. They are small but important reforms that will make a huge difference to so many. In practical terms, the two events could not be further apart: one is supposed to be the happiest day of a person’s life, yet the other is probably the most tragic day of a person’s life.
I commend those brave colleagues from all parties who have spoken so openly about their own tragic personal experiences of baby loss, in the hope that they can further highlight the issue and give others the courage to do the same. Having talked to people throughout the House and in my constituency during Baby Loss Awareness Week a couple of weeks ago, I know that they have made a huge difference. It has been so powerful. Many colleagues have also spoken in this place about the loss of a loved one at a later stage in life. It is never easy to talk openly about such tragic events. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) shared his personal and very moving story in the Chamber just yesterday.
The two elements of the Bill are linked by the acknowledgment that a life existed, for however long or short that time may have been. Because these delicate pieces of paper, birth and marriage certificates, are often treasured by families for generations, they are part of social history and of our story. They often provide comfort to the bereaved when the person recorded on the certificate is no longer there.
On marriage certificates specifically, it is quite astonishing in the centenary year of the Representation of the People Act that this archaic example of inequality has not yet been righted. It is a matter of equality, as well as of family history and social history. Looking at my own family, my parents were married in 1950. Their marriage certificate states that my father’s father was a millworker, but there is no mention of my grandmother. It states that my mother’s father was a stoker on the railway, but there is no mention of my grandmother’s occupation on that side either. Sadly, I have no way of finding out.
Almost 70 years on, we have not moved on at all. To me, that is quite bizarre, which is why I welcome the measures that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has brought forward today and that other right hon. and hon. Friends, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), have worked on in the past.
I support the Bill because every measure will achieve progressive changes that are well overdue, and changes that we can all be proud of.
I rise to add my warm congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on the tremendous work he has done to compile the Bill and steer it through its various stages.
I am happy to support all the clauses of the Bill, as it has been amended, not least clause 1, under which, as hon. Members have said, mothers will be recorded on the marriage certificate.
Of course I support the concept of the electronic register that will be set up under the Bill—it is a modern way of recording very important information—but I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed from the Dispatch Box when she sums up the debate that there will still be some form of paper signing in the church or other venue where the marriage takes place. I ask that because my constituent Councillor Tim Pollard has made the good point to me that the traditional ceremony in which the piece of paper is signed is an important part of many people’s experience of marriage. I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed that the signing ceremony will still be part of the process, even if the information is ultimately recorded electronically, rather than in the old bound books.
Clause 2 is about preparing a report on bringing in civil partnerships for people of all orientations. I strongly support that provision. I respectfully disagree with the comments my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) made in his speech a few moments ago. He criticised the proposal on the grounds that it would create a two-tier system of relationship recognition: civil partnerships and marriage. He referred to civil partnerships as a “halfway house”. I do not accept that they are a halfway house at all; in my view, they are entirely equal to the institution of marriage. I associate myself fully with the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). On this issue, I am entirely at one with him—I mean that intellectually, rather than in the biblical sense. I think that people should have the choice. As a Conservative, I believe in personal liberty and personal choice. The individual should be able to choose which of the two institutions they subscribe to.
I do think there is a difference between the two institutions, because marriage carries religious connotations. My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough said that the institution of marriage predates religion, but even in times before Christianity and Judaism, the marriage ceremony always had religious overtones. Some people may decide, for their own reasons, that they do not want to associate with that. Indeed, my hon. Friend said that he had in the past been one of them. I therefore think that the choice should be available. Personal liberty and personal choice must sit at the heart of our philosophy in relation to these matters.
Clauses 3 and 4 introduce welcome measures. The report under clause 3 will look into how we might go about implementing the registration proposals. I suggest that parental choice should be the overriding consideration. Different parents will probably feel differently depending on their personal circumstances, and it should be up to the parent to choose whether the registration takes place. Perhaps that could be my early submission to any consultation that takes places on the matter.
Clause 4 is about investigations. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, I think, raised a concern about providing only for parental choice, as there might be some circumstances where the parent—for reasons of domestic violence, for example—might not exercise their choice when properly they should. I wonder whether another way of handling this would be to say that an investigation should take place if either parent or one of the clinicians involved opted to trigger a coroner’s investigation. That is, if any of the interested parties felt that an investigation was appropriate, one would take place. That might guard against my hon. Friend’s concern, while also allowing an element of parental choice.
As parliamentarians, we should focus on trying to reduce—as far as we can—the awful tragedy of stillbirth and neonatal death. Of course, my hon. Friends the Members for Colchester (Will Quince) and for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) have campaigned tirelessly on the issue. I draw the attention of the House to the work of Tamba—the Twins and Multiple Births Association—which has run a pilot over the last couple of years, encouraging 30 maternity units to fully adopt National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines in relation to multiple births. As a result, stillbirths in those units declined by 50% and neonatal deaths declined by 30%.
Tamba is campaigning to get these guidelines rolled out across all maternity units. I am a father of twins who were born very prematurely, at 25 weeks and one day. They were very fortunate in that they received excellent care from the NHS and survived, but that is not an experience that all parents have when their children are born as prematurely as 25 weeks and one day. I strongly support Tamba’s campaign and ask the Secretary of State for Health to adopt its recommendations and carry them forward.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp). This Bill affects an emotive area of public policy that deserves a great deal of attention. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for bringing it before the House, and of course all those who have worked so hard to bring it to this stage.
The momentous decision taken by the Supreme Court in June this year represents a changing point in how we treat civil partnerships. The review that will be conducted following the passage of this Bill will mean a profound change in how our society treats the concept of marriage and partnership. Following the case, the Government stated that they were considering the Supreme Court decision carefully. The Prime Minister has said that, given the sensitive and personal issues involved in the case, no legislative changes would be taken until the consultation on the future of civil partnerships had been completed. I agree with such an approach as it represents an air of pragmatism with which the Prime Minister has worked throughout this issue.
I fully commend the amendments made in Committee regarding the report on civil partnerships. It is crucial that we ensure that this debate is not lost to the revolving cycle of 24-hour news and social media. Committing the Secretary of State to preparing, consulting and presenting a report on civil partnerships will surely avoid this. We must accept that some people in this country have fundamental disagreements with religion and religious convention. Therefore, some will see a review that supports equal access to civil partnerships as a natural step towards a more secular society. Some go even further and believe that marriage represents a time of patriarchy and a social religious structure that fundamentally discriminates against women. I disagree. Although I fully support the equalisation of civil partnerships, I believe that the concept of marriage should still be cherished. For many families, marriage is the foundation on which the home is built, and we should never lose sight of that. We also should not forget the integral role a two-parent household plays in raising children.
Perhaps I should note that I am slightly biased, as Mr Harrison and I have enjoyed 20 years of wonderful marriage. Indeed, they have been the happiest years of his life—[Laughter.]
And mine. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comment.
In relation to the marriage components of the Bill, I find it outrageous that a mother’s name can still not be included on their children’s marriage certificates. That does represent a time at which patriarchy was widespread and sounds akin to the domestic practices of countries where equality is far from adopted. The current practice in no way resembles the liberal, egalitarian democracy in which we live. If we want to stand by all parents in this nation, we cannot claim to be on the side of single parents when 90% of them are women and, as it stands, if any of their children were to get married they would be able to include only their father’s details in the marriage entry.
I support wholeheartedly the contents of the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), and it also has a personal significance to me as my daughter announced her own engagement just last week and is due to get married next summer. I very much hope that the Bill will be enacted to enable me, her mother, to sign the marriage certificate of my daughter Ruth and her fiancé Aled.
I thank my hon. Friend that intervention, and I am sure that the whole House will join me in congratulating Ruth on her engagement. We look forward to many more mother of the bride conversations in the Members Tea Room.
I thank my constituents Julie Fisher and Howard Johnstone for writing to me about their civil partnership plans after 30 years of being together. It is crucial that this change is made by primary legislation. Although secondary legislation could be used, it would necessitate the replacement of all of the 84,000 marriage register books that are in use and would be costly and ineffective, whereas if we proceed with this Bill, a new unitary digital database could be created for the marriage register, providing not only a safe and secure model but one that is cost-effective and efficient.
I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham for seeking to change the registration procedure for stillbirths. The fact that people go through such a traumatic experience only for the loss of the parents to go unregistered is a long-running travesty. The story of parents such as Sarah Henderson, who lost her daughter at 23 weeks and four days and yet received no certification, exposes the incompatibility of such rigid legislation and such a personal and emotive area. Sarah’s story compelled 370,000 people to sign her petition supporting a change in the law very similar to that being proposed today. That shows the strength of feeling in this country about such a sensitive issue.
Although I commend previous Parliaments for scrutinising this area and making amendments, we must take this step to bring greater humanity to our birth-related legislation. Parliament previously supported a change to the stillbirth definition from “after 28 weeks” to “after 24 weeks” following the then clear consensus from the medical profession about the age in which a foetus should be considered able to survive. The pain and distress that parents might feel when they may not register the birth of a baby born before 24 weeks is unimaginable, but parents might also be distressed at the possibility of having to do so.
This Bill affects three areas of life that are often missed in our intense political climate but have an immeasurable emotional impact on the people of this country. Births, marriages and deaths occur every day, and we must reflect upon and amend legislation affecting them. Finally, I would like to once again commend my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham for his efforts on the Bill and the campaigning he has persisted with on the issues within it.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison).
I thank and pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for bringing forward the Bill. I congratulate him on getting it to this point with Government support, which is significant. I applaud him for the parliamentary dexterity with which he has incorporated into the Bill so many issues that he has seen as wrongs and injustices over his career in Parliament—I am sure it has a long way to go—since 1997. It is certainly a lesson for us all that we can squeeze a huge number of issues into one private Member’s Bill and still get it through Parliament.
It is a great honour to co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss, and it is the parts of the Bill relating to baby loss that I would like to focus on briefly in my contribution. The group exists only really for two purposes: to reduce miscarriage, stillbirth and neonatal death; and to ensure that we have world-class bereavement care and support right across our NHS for those who sadly still go through one of those tragic occurrences. The Bill goes a long way to addressing both those objectives.
First, the element of the Bill on coronial involvement is really quite significant, particularly in relation to stillbirth. We still do not know why around 50% of stillbirths happen, and there is a huge lack of research and evidence. Allowing parents, whether it is voluntary or not—that is still to be decided—and whether it is a late-term stillbirth or slightly earlier, to have coronial involvement is really significant. As part of that evidence-gathering exercise, it is so important that when mistakes are made—the NHS and the medical profession are human businesses, and inevitably mistakes do happen—we learn from every single one. That is why the element on coronial involvement is so significant.
I mentioned this in an intervention, but I would like to pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar). In respect of coronial involvement, the Bill is just a piece of enabling legislation. As soon as a Department accepts that we are going to do something, it can still take months and in some cases years to introduce legislation, but my understanding is that the work that the Minister and his departmental officials have already done means that a measure could come in as soon as within 12 months. That may strike fear into the hearts of officials, but it is quite incredible when we consider the complexity of this issue. Given my point about ensuring that we have the research and evidence base to look at and some understanding of why stillbirths happen, that will enable us to start implementing the measures that we know need to be introduced and start to address it. Working in tandem with the new Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch, which was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), the former Health Secretary, this could have a huge impact, in particular on reducing stillbirth.
The second element, in relation to the registration of pre-24-week baby loss, is part of the bereavement piece and also really significant. I cannot continue my contribution without again paying tribute to the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who has spoken so movingly about her personal experience of this issue—a hugely brave thing to do—and campaigned tirelessly. She has been key in both forming and working with the all-party group, including as part of her work as a shadow Health Minister.
This is really important because it is so difficult for any parent who suffers a miscarriage or a stillbirth, however it is termed, at 23 weeks and a few days or at 22 weeks to go home with no recognition whatsoever. We have an opportunity to give great comfort. Whether it is still classed technically as a miscarriage or a stillbirth, that baby is still born: the mother has given birth and, in many cases, the father is present. Such a recognition, albeit seemingly quite a small element, is important—that life existed; that individual existed. I know that I do not need to make that point to my friend on the other side of the Chamber.
This Bill has probably achieved such an aim, in that the former Secretary of State has set up the pregnancy loss review, which is being spearheaded by Zoe Clark-Coates and Samantha Collinge. This work is already being undertaken, and it is recognised at the highest level of the Department of Health and Social Care. I have no doubt that we are going to find a solution, but again it is very complex. There are lots of different views about exactly how we do it, such as whether it is voluntary and at what point in the pregnancy it applies. I have differing views on that, and I will certainly feed them into the review.
On this very sensitive subject, does my hon. Friend agree that if a baby has to be induced very early due to a foetal abnormality, the parents often experience just as much grief as on the other occasions he mentions, such as natural stillbirth?
Yes is the honest answer, and I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I have now met many bereaved parents as part of this process, and the reality is that everybody grieves in different ways, and the more ways in which we can provide comfort and support to those bereaved parents the better. She raises a very good point about foetal abnormality—whether there has to be induction, this is classed as a medical termination, or whatever terminology is used. In fact, I find some of the terminology used by medical professionals pretty harsh, and I would love to tone down some of it and use very different language. She is absolutely right in her fundamental point. My personal view, for what it is worth, is that regardless of the point in the pregnancy, if it provides comfort for bereaved parents to have a certificate, a piece of paper or a document that shows that the baby existed, I feel very comfortable about ensuring that such a system is brought in.
I conclude by again thanking my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham because his Bill will make a huge difference. I have focused on two of its aspects, but I also wholeheartedly support the other provisions. It is fantastic that we have full cross-party support for the Bill, and indeed Government support. The sooner the measures incorporated in the Bill can be implemented, the better.
As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has described the Bill as one about hatches, matches and dispatches, I feel it is incumbent on me to dispatch it swiftly from the Dispatch Box, so I shall not detain Members for long. My hon. Friend has been described today as tenacious. I certainly know that he is very diligent and committed in relation to these issues, and I thank him for his work to raise the profile of them.
We have heard excellent contributions from Members on both sides of the House, particularly the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). She spoke about the work she has done alongside colleagues, but also alongside the Department of Health and Social Care. Many tributes have been paid to the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), and I delighted to see that the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), is also now in the Chamber. I know that she has worked very closely with Members on these issues, particularly when it comes to baby loss, and I congratulate her on that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) brought a perfect combination of humour and seriousness to what is sometimes a difficult subject for us to talk about, and I congratulate her on that. Many Members raised issues faced by their constituents—the hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) mentioned bereaved parents in his constituency, and the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) spoke about his constituents who were successful at the Supreme Court. My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) made an excellent and thoughtful contribution, speaking about a difficult experience in a moving way. He made an interesting point about the distinction between civil partnerships and marriage, and those who may simply not wish to go through a marriage, but for whom a civil partnership would be the right thing.
We had an interesting discussion across the House with my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien) and I thank him for the points he raised, which clearly provoked strong feelings and interesting conversations. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) wished to know a specific point about marriage certificates and schedules and whether couples who marry in a church would still be able to sign a schedule. I reassure him that they and their witnesses will be able to sign that schedule, which will include all the relevant information such as name, date of birth and occupation, as well as, for the first time, the details of both parents. That is something we all welcome and have wanted to happen for a long time.
I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Erewash (Maggie Throup) and for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince). He has spoken previously in the Chamber about his personal experience and the work he is doing with the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West. He always speaks thoughtfully, and Ministers welcome his serious thoughts on this matter.
As we have heard, the Bill will introduce the first reform of how marriages are registered since 1837. It removes the requirement for paper marriage register books to be held in more than 30,000 religious buildings and register offices, moving to an electronic system of marriage registration. I assure my hon. Friends that the Bill will not prevent couples who want to marry in the Church of England or Church in Wales from marrying following ecclesiastical preliminaries, such as the calling of banns and the issue of a common licence. As I said earlier, instead of a schedule, the clergy will issue a marriage document that will be signed at the ceremony by the couple, and returned to the register office for entry into the register. The Government—I know this will put fear into the heart of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—will aim to implement those reforms as soon as possible, subject to the successful passage of the Bill, and will enable changes to be made to include the names of both parents of the couple.
Clause 3 has progressed with strong support from hon. Friends, all of whom agree that the report is both timely and urgent. Work on that report is already under way, and the Department of Health and Social Care is engaging with many key stakeholders, including health practitioners, registrars, charities and academics. The review team has spoken to parents with lived experience of losing a baby before 24 weeks’ gestation to learn about their experience and how best to ensure that the NHS is able to provide the best possible care and support when such a tragedy takes place. The clause requires the Secretary of State to publish a report. Many hon. Friends have already contributed to the report for which the clause provides, and I encourage Members on both sides of the House to support that extremely important work.
On civil partnerships, the Bill certainly sets the Government a challenge, particularly on timing. As I pointed out, there is a great deal of work to be done, including a substantial legislative trawl to ensure that the existing statute book works for opposite-sex civil partnerships. There are policy decisions to be made, and consultations on issues such as the conversion and dissolution of marriages and civil partnerships, as well as the resolution of cross-border issues. Although the Government are firmly committed to equal civil partnerships, for all those reasons, we must ensure that we proceed carefully and thoroughly, as I am certain we will.
The Government are grateful to all those who have taken time to speak to the matters raised by clause 4, and it is important that a broad and diverse range of views is heard and considered carefully. It is clear that when considering whether to enable coroners to investigate stillbirths, we must engage the wider public so that any proposals are thoroughly explored and understood. We think that the review is the right approach, and the Bill is an important step in that direction.
I once again thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham for bringing forward these important issues, and I congratulate him on his tenacity. I look forward to the future passage of the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. On Wednesday I raised with the Prime Minister the police pension shortfall of £165 million. In my area alone, 400 officers could be lost. The Prime Minister responded:
“She refers to pensions; this issue has been known about for some years.”—[Official Report, 24 October 2018; Vol. 648, c. 276.]
Yesterday, the National Police Chiefs Council and the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners issued a joint statement saying:
“no guidance has been given to what that would mean in terms of costs for employers or a timeline for implementation of those changes.”
It went on to state:
“The first notification that has enabled forces to calculate the impact of pension changes came in September 2018.”
I will write to the Prime Minister demanding an urgent meeting with me, the NPCC and the APCC. Can you advise me, Mr Deputy Speaker, on how the Prime Minister can correct the record?
In fairness, the hon. Lady has corrected the record by what she has just said, so I think that part has been dealt with. On her point about having a meeting, I know that the Prime Minister meets many hon. Members and I am sure Government Whips will pass on the hon. Lady’s request for a meeting.
Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it in order to ask for a Government statement on this matter? According to Chief Constable Dave Thompson:
“It is an extraordinary amount of money policing has been asked to pay with no notice and with no proper consultation. A serious rethink is needed.”