Clause 3 - Formation of civil partnership by registration
Civil Partnership Bill [Lords]
10:45 am

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Mr Alan Duncan (Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, International Affairs; Rutland and Melton, Conservative)

I beg to move amendment No. 14, in

clause 3, page 2, line 19, at end insert

'and has made a spoken declaration of commitment as may be prescribed by order'.

Photo of Mr Roger Gale

Mr Roger Gale (North Thanet, Conservative)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 17, in

clause 3, page 2, line 20, leave out 'and (4)' and insert 'to (4A)'.

No. 16, in

clause 3, page 2, line 32, leave out subsection (5) and insert—

'(4A) Each of the civil partners shall, either before or after signing the civil partnership document under subsection (1) and in the presence of the witnesses and the civil partnership registrar—

(a) make one of the following declarations: either ''I do solemnly declare that I know not of any lawful impediment why I, AB, may not be joined in civil partnership to CD'' or ''I declare that I know of no legal reason why I (name) may not be joined in civil partnership to (name)''; and

(b) say to the other civil partner either ''I call upon these persons here present to witness that I, AB, do take thee, CD, to be my civil partner'', or ''I (name) take you (or thee) (name) to be my civil partner''.

(4B) Subject to this section, the registration of a civil partnership may be accompanied by such form and ceremony as the civil partners may see fit to adopt.'.

No. 184, in

clause 3, page 2, line 32, leave out from 'used' to end of line 33 and insert

'for or in connection with the formation of a civil partnership by registration'.

11:00 am
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Mr Alan Duncan (Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, International Affairs; Rutland and Melton, Conservative)

Essentially, this is a continuation of the previous debate. The amendment that I tabled with my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry is an attempt to include provision for a spoken declaration. We are saying not that that is compulsory and that we will determine the declaration now, but that there should be provision for some turn of phrase such as ''as may be'' determined by order. The key word is ''may''. We are not saying as must be, or as will be. There remains much discretion as to the exact form of words—we will be able to debate that on another occasion—but the amendment specifically includes in the Bill provision for a verbal statement when two people commit to each other.

One of the key points is that in any contract of this sort uniformity is of value, because through that uniformity the nature of the contract receives widespread and universal recognition. If the decision is left to the arbitrary discretion of the registrar or the local authority, we will end up with a variety of different forms of ceremony. There is profound value in giving shape to the nature of the ceremony that will record the commitment that we are allowing for in the Bill.

We all know—the hon. Member for Rhondda more than most, because he has married many couples—the turns of phrase, whatever form of the prayer book they be from, that govern a marriage ceremony. Indeed, those words are the contract. In this case, the signatures rather than the words are the contract, but none the less it is part of an important, emotional day that there is a memorable moment. Spoken words are a far more memorable way of recording a commitment, a ceremony and a change in the phase and stage of two people's life, than a simple signature on a piece of paper.

If some shape and uniformity can be introduced into the manner in which the clear commitment that we are providing for is recorded, so much the better. If we include a verbal statement—picking it may require much thought about the language, the poetry and the memorable nature of its turn of phrase—we will be adding to the removal of discrimination, and the provision that the Bill makes, something that will remain in the minds of the two partners for ever and a day.

The debate has been shifted down the line from amendment No. 13 to amendment No. 14, and now to amendments Nos. 14 and 25. The Minister would appear to prefer to see this provision as an option in some form of licence. At the moment, I do not sense that that would suffice. However, I shall move on to the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Rhondda, which are in this group. There is the question of whether there should be any religious content. We have all been at pains to say that the Church should be allowed to determine what the Church wants to do and that we will not impose on it anything that might fetter its decision. It has enough problems as it is trying to come to terms with this difficult issue.

At this stage, however, there remains in most of our minds the attempt to try to segregate the secular from the religious so that this is exclusively a secular arrangement. I think that I can see what the hon. Gentleman is trying to do. He is saying that if someone in their heart feels that they have a religious belief that goes hand in hand—[Interruption.] He is shaking head, but that is my understanding of his amendment. He will speak to it later. If someone feels that they have a religious belief that goes hand in hand with their commitment, that should not be forbidden, because that would involve us telling them what their religious parameters should be. It is one thing to allow an individual to say, ''I think I am doing the right thing in the eyes of God'', but quite another to say that the Church should be instructed on how to behave or what to believe.

With regard to amendment No. 14, the fundamental point is that if we are to ascribe to the moment a civil partnership is entered into the value that most of us in Committee feel attaches to the arrangement that is being made, the absence of a recognised and understood verbal commitment, in a form which in itself becomes increasingly recognised and valued, is a weakness and an omission in the Bill. If we can find by agreement some route to establishing such a recognised verbal commitment, we will have added to the Bill something that it is implicitly thirsting to contain, but somehow does not. I hope that we can find a way of doing that in either amendment No. 14 or amendment No. 25. At present, amendment No. 14 is a better and more positive, assertive vehicle for doing so. Amendment No. 25 appears to contain an arbitrary and permissive element that could allow for all sorts of variants where uniformity would be of great value.

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Mr Chris Bryant (Rhondda, Labour)

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Gale.

While I wholeheartedly agree with the direction in which the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton is moving, and while I was intrigued to hear what the Minister said about Government amendment No. 25, some specific issues still need to be addressed.

Clause 3(5) is more or less, though not directly, lifted from section 45(2) of the Marriage Act 1949, which specifies that no religious service can be used at all when a civil marriage is being officiated. That was introduced for a specific reason; people wanted to differentiate between holy matrimony, which was consecrated in a church, and civil marriage. The difficulty is that many registrars throughout the country now interpret that as meaning that there cannot even be a reading from the Bible or the Torah, or from someone such as Kahlil Gibran, at a civil registration of a marriage—an outdated and bizarre prohibition. I am sure that many of us would not want the law to state that churches should register ''holy matrimony'' in civil registration of a marriage, but to proscribe someone from having any form of religious words being used at all in a civil marriage, such as the use of the word ''God'' or a reference to Jesus.

Similarly, although the Government have carefully worded their subsection to say that no

''religious service is to be used while the civil partnership registrar is officiating at the signing of a civil partnership document'',

I still think that it is bizarre solely to proscribe the use of religious forms of any sort. I presume that the Minister will say that while the registration is happening there should be nothing of that sort, but the moment the registrar has gone, people can do whatever they want. If that involves bringing in a clergyman, that is entirely up to the clergyman. If people want to have readings or make vows, that is entirely up to them.

The phrase that we should be taking from the Marriage Act 1949 is the permissive one, which says explicitly that the form and ceremony that people choose to use at a civil marriage is entirely up to those who take part, apart from a couple of elements that have to be present in the civil marriage. The first of those is the declaration that there is no lawful

impediment why those two people may not marry, and the second is the declaration of consent. The 1949 Act has those in more or less prayer book English, along with more modern versions that were added in the 1970s. They are the two elements that I seek to insert into the ceremony. It is not providing a lengthy ceremony; it is simply ensuring that the declaration that there is no lawful impediment to these two people being joined together in a civil partnership, and that they do actually consent, is made in a spoken declaration.

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Mr Alan Duncan (Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, International Affairs; Rutland and Melton, Conservative)

Is there not a problem of read-across here? In retaining the distinction between marriage and civil partnership—if that is what we are doing—and recognising that in a civil partnership the contract is the signature rather than the spoken word, the hon. Gentleman is taking the contract from a marriage ceremony and asking for it to be said in a civil ceremony. The point is that asking about just impediment is in the written contract rather than the spoken word in the civil partnership, and he is mixing the two in an increasingly awkward way.

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Mr Chris Bryant (Rhondda, Labour)

I rather disagree, and I think that the hon. Gentleman has become a bit obsessed about the issue of the contract. In a ceremony of holy matrimony—a marriage contracted in a church with a clergyman or clergywoman—the contract is the signing of the register; it is not the ceremony itself. The hon. Gentleman is looking querulous, but I think that I am right about that.

More importantly, these two declarations will be made in a civil partnership, but they will be made in advance because that is the only basis upon which the partners are then able to sign the document on the day. All I am saying is that I believe that the process of them saying those things out loud and in front of witnesses is a significant part of the process of them making a declaration about their relationship and commitment. It would be more appropriate if witnesses were to hear people saying those two things rather than merely assenting to them, especially as the two partners will have had to have written that they are doing those two things beforehand rather than on the day, and all they then do on the day is sign.

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Mr Alan Duncan (Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, International Affairs; Rutland and Melton, Conservative)

Could not then the hon. Gentleman just withdraw his amendment and support mine, because mine allows for both the provision of what he wants and a debate on finding the best form for doing that?

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Mr Chris Bryant (Rhondda, Labour)

Or, alternatively, the hon. Gentleman could withdraw his amendment and support mine; I do not want to be competitive about this, obviously. Many Committee members and—I hope—the Government are trying to arrive at a situation where there is an acceptance that there will be some form of ceremony and that people will have some degree of flexibility.

I do not want the law to specify what vows people should make to each other, if they want to make vows—some people might not want to make vows at

all. I suspect that if we were to go down the route of the hon. Gentleman's spoken declaration of commitment, we would end up with a more comprehensive document than I would like. I would like there to be something that is very limited and that only refers to those two specific things that have to be done in law, so that everything else is then entirely up to the two civil partners, obviously in negotiation with the civil partnership registrar.

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Mr Christopher Chope (Shadow Minister, Environment and Transport; Christchurch, Conservative)

In order to understand the hon. Gentleman's motivation, will he say whether, in principle, he supports the idea of homosexual marriage, because it appears that his amendment is designed to get as close to that as possible?

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Mr Chris Bryant (Rhondda, Labour)

I was waiting for that; I have here a piece of paper that states, ''Christopher Chope will now say'', and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his predictability.

My answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is that I do not support that; I believe that marriage is an institution that is ordained of God and should be celebrated between a man and a woman. However, I also believe that two men or two women can have a relationship that in many ways mirrors that between a man and a woman but is not identical. Therefore, I believe that we should have in law separate institutions that reflect that reality. The truth is that just because two elements of the ceremonies may be similar, that does not necessarily mean that they are identical, nor that we believe that they should be. I do not think that one is more valuable than the other—they are simply different. Nevertheless, certain elements are needed, notably the declaration of assent and the declaration that people are not barred, by virtue of some legal impediment, from entering into the civil partnership.

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Mr Jeffrey M Donaldson (Lagan Valley, DUP)

The hon. Gentleman seeks to bring in a religious dimension, or for people to have the opportunity to bring such a dimension to a civil partnership. He has indicated that he does not support the concept of gay marriages, but I am confused. Where does it say in the Bible that there is provision for civil partnerships?

11:15 am
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Mr Chris Bryant (Rhondda, Labour)

Where does it say in the Bible that there should be provision for civil marriage? Where does it say that marriage shall be formed in a particular manner? The Bible says many things. I would be more than happy to debate the moral and ethical rights and wrongs of homosexuality and the interpretation of different passages of the Bible, but now is not the right time to do so.

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Mr Roger Gale (North Thanet, Conservative)

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would find it in order.

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Mr Chris Bryant (Rhondda, Labour)

I am grateful, Mr. Gale.

It seems bizarre for anybody to argue that people should be proscribed from using any religious words or ceremony. The hon. Member for Lagan Valley may not want to accept the fact, but there are homosexual clergy and bishops, and many homosexual Christians

in this land would dearly love their parish priest or minister of religion to join them and say some words and officiate at some form of ceremony. It is, therefore, curious from a libertarian and a Christian perspective that the law should proscribe that.

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Mr Christopher Chope (Shadow Minister, Environment and Transport; Christchurch, Conservative)

I should like to speak briefly to my amendment No. 184, because, in a sense, the hon. Gentleman has let the cat out of the bag. He referred to the difference between the wording in the Bill and that of the Marriage Act 1949. My amendment would insert the words

''for or in connection with the formation of a civil partnership by registration.''

Its purpose is to prevent a religious service being conducted before or after the civil partnership registrar has officiated. Without the amendment the way would be open for a religious service to be held in defiance of the Government's avowed intent. The current lacuna in clause 3 should be filled by my amendment, because I do not think that I am unduly cynical in believing that the Government have chosen loose and imprecise wording to facilitate the loophole that amendment No. 16 advances.

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Mr Malcolm Bruce (Shadow Secretary of State for Trade & Industry, Trade & Industry; Gordon, Liberal Democrat)

I rise briefly to support amendment No. 14. I do not intend to get into the debate on the religious dimension, because there are two separate issues, as I think the hon. Member for Rhondda would freely admit. However, as things stand, the Bill appears to suggest that two people turn up at an appropriate place and sign a piece of paper, after which they go away formally contracted to be civil partners. If a civil marriage were conducted in that way, many people would feel slightly cheated and the essence or purpose of signing the paper would not have been declared.

Let us consider a separate situation. Many of us believe that we become Members of Parliament when the returning officer declares that we have enough votes to be the Member returned, but in reality we know that that is not true. We only become MPs when we take the oath or affirmation and sign the book. There are four elected Members of the House who are not MPs because they have not gone through that process. I will not enter that debate, either, because it would be completely out of order.

The point is that we recognise, in a number of contexts, that people do not merely sign a contract, but make a verbal declaration about the purpose of the contract and the undertakings in it. That gives the act of signing greater solemnity and underpins the relationship into which they are entering.

My point is not only that the amendment, or a Government amendment that we are persuaded will have the same effect, is desirable, but that a civil partnership contracted without any verbal undertakings whatever will not achieve what the Government want, which is—and I have no problem with this—to find a contract that is not the same as, but gives the same benefits, rights and responsibilities as, marriage. Something similar is highly desirable for the declaration.

I can tell the Committee—it is no secret—that I have been married twice, the first time in a religious

ceremony and the second in a civil ceremony. I was pleasantly surprised that there was a remarkable similarity between the two ceremonies and the undertakings associated; I thought that that was right and proper. If I understand the aspirations of many same-sex couples who want to avail themselves of the benefits of the Bill, many of them feel that there should be a common way, not a prescribed and strictly controlled way, of entering into the contract and the undertaking that would give it the seriousness that we want. I agree with the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton on that. Amendment No. 14 meets the objective that his earlier amendment did not. That is why I would be happy to support it.

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

We observed a brief and good-natured competition between my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton and the hon. Member for Rhondda, each praying in aid his amendment. On this occasion, I am in the peculiar position of arguing the case for a third way. I strongly support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend, but I also strongly support that of the hon. Gentleman. Whether legally it is possible to go for both—and I think that it is, as they relate to different parts of the clause—I do not know; I very much hope that it is. Doubtless we shall be advised on that when we press for a Division. However, the essential difference between the amendments and the amendment that we debated earlier is that those in this grouping do not erect a hurdle; rather, they provide an opportunity.

A solemn declaration of commitment, and some sort of prescription as to the form of it, is desirable. I shall probably cause the least surprise of anyone who has spoken this morning when I say that I am not able to give my support to the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, precisely because it is centrally an obstacle. It is, in my terms, repressive and, if I may say so, deeply centralising.

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Mr Alistair Carmichael (Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland), Northern Ireland Affairs; Orkney and Shetland, Liberal Democrat)

I shall not detain the Committee. I have said on a number of occasions, both in Committee and on Second Reading, that, on my analysis, the Government have sought to reproduce, in civil partnerships, provisions relating to civil marriage, warts and all. If that was the approach, it is curious that there is no verbal declaration to be made at the time of entering into civil partnership. For that reason, I have no difficulty in supporting amendment No. 14, tabled by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton.

Although I do not have any great difficulty with the manner in which the hon. Member for Rhondda sought to place in the Bill the prescribed form of words, which, as he says, is lifted from the Marriage Act 1949 mutatis mutandis, I have some difficulty with proposed subsection (4B) in amendment No. 16, which makes it clear that the form of ceremony is to be read subject to the whole section, which would of course include subsection (5). I can see how the two of them can just about live together, but—

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.