‘(1) The Secretary of State must arrange—
(a) for the operation and future of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 in England and Wales to be reviewed, and
(b) for a report on the outcome of the review to be produced and published.
(2) Subsection (1) does not prevent the review from also dealing with other matters relating to civil partnership.
(3) The arrangements made by the Secretary of State must provide for the review to begin as soon as practicable after the end of the five year post-commencement period.
(4) The Secretary of State is not required by this section to arrange a review if, within the five year post-commencement period, the Secretary of State has already arranged a review which, in the Secretary of State’s view, deals with the same matters as the review required by this section.
(5) Arrangements under this section may provide for the Secretary of State or one or more other persons to undertake the review, produce the report, or publish the report.
(6) In this section “five year post-commencement period” means the period of five years beginning with the day on which this Act is passed.’.—(Maria Miller.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
‘and include a full public consultation.’
‘(1) Part 1 of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 1, subsection (1), leave out “of the same sex”.’.
New clause 11—Part 2 of the Civil Partnership Act 2004—
‘(1) Part 2 of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 3, subsection (1), after “if—”, leave out—
“(a) they are not of the same sex”.’.
New clause 13—Repeal of Civil Partnership Act 2004—
‘(1) The Civil Partnership Act 2004 is repealed.
(2) Secondary legislation made under that Act shall continue in force unless it is subsequently amended or repealed, and any such amendments or repeals may be made by statutory instrument subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.
(3) This section shall have effect from the date that the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act comes into force.’.
Amendment 10, in schedule 4, page 26, line 12, leave out paragraphs 3 and 4 and insert—
(2) Leave out subsection (2)(a).
Annulment of marriage
4 (1) Section 12 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 (grounds on which marriage is voidable) is amended as follows.
(2) Leave out paragraphs (a) and (b).’.
Government amendments 53, 51, 52 and 54.
The Bill has a single important and straightforward purpose: to extend marriage to same-sex couples. I am delighted that the major political parties’ Front Benchers are unanimous in the view that that is an essential objective, and I am grateful for their unwavering support. It has been reassuring to see the other parties sharing my determination to ensure that nothing derails or delays this important measure.
Marriage is the bedrock of our society, providing a stable foundation for families and communities. We want to ensure that people are not prevented from marrying, simply because they love someone of the same sex. But as a result of the Government’s determination to tackle this unfairness, other arguments have been put forward, including the idea of an extension of civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. I have listened carefully to the different views of hon. Members on that issue, and I respect the strength of feeling of some Members. However, our principal objective here today is to open up marriage to a group of people who have never had that opportunity before, and I do not want anything to delay, deflect or distract from achieving that objective. New clause 10, which would shoehorn in an extension of civil partnerships, would run the risk of doing precisely that.
Will the Minister explain why she thinks that the proposal would cause such a delay? Many of the consequential amendments about including civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples were considered when civil partnerships were first introduced, so why are we suddenly being told that this would create a huge delay?
The hon. Lady is getting to the core of the issue in her own style. If she will bear with me, I will come to those matters later in my speech.
Hon. Members will be aware that a large number of questions emerged when we looked in more depth at the issue of extending civil partnerships. After all, the Civil Partnerships Act 2004 contained more than 250 sections and 30 schedules and took more than two years to pass into law. It is an enormously complex area and the legislation cannot simply be transposed to opposite-sex couples.
The hon. Lady asked for particular examples of the proposal causing delay. I can say to her directly that the Civil Partnership Act was designed specifically for same-sex couples, and a number of policy areas would have different applications to opposite-sex couples, especially areas such as adultery and consummation. If opposite-sex civil partnerships were to emerge, it is not clear whether pension rights would be in line with same-sex civil partnerships or with opposite-sex marriages. So if we were to go down this path now, a lot of fundamental policy questions would need to be answered. There would be questions of policy, of implementation and of financial implication.
I am listening carefully to the Minister, as always. She says that it is not clear what the implication of such an extension would be for pension rights, so please will she explain where the figure of £4 billion has come from? We all understand that these are times of great austerity, and we do not want to vote for something that would cost the taxpayer £4 billion that we do not have.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend Steve Webb, attended the Joint Committee on Human Rights with me last week, and he has gone into a great deal of detail on this matter. He and his Department have estimated that the potential liability could be some £4 billion. It might be less, but at the moment we simply do not know. The cost of the equalisation of survivor rights in contracted-in and contracted-out schemes could account for about £90 million. We would also need to look at the equalisation of the rights of widowers with the rights of widows, at which point the bill would start to rack up. It would not be right for Parliament to legislate when so many issues are outstanding.
Of course, it would also not be right to be putting out spurious figures. The figure of £4 billion is not the result of an official cost impact assessment by the Department for Work and Pensions. It is an entirely hypothetical figure based on every cohabiting opposite-sex couple choosing to convert to a new civil partnership, with maximum pension liabilities. Is not that actually where the figure has come from?
I really do thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, because he has made my point for me. At this point in time, there is of course no independent impact assessment because the issues have not been looked at in the kind of detail that hon. Members would expect before legislation is enacted. I hope that I will be able to change my hon. Friend’s mind about pressing his new clause to a vote. I hope that he will see that we need to get more evidence on this issue.
My right hon. Friend is arguing that there is a cost to the state whenever people get married or enter into a civil partnership. Is this part of a new austerity drive in which she will try to persuade people not to get married or have a civil partnership so that we can save on the pensions bill? That does not seem to be a very sensible approach.
My hon. Friend seems to be driving at the same issue—namely, that we do not have the necessary information to hand. I think that hon. Members expect us to legislate based on fact, not on supposition or hypothesis. Much of what has been said on this matter has not really been based on facts. He is right to suggest that we want to encourage people to get married, but at the moment we do not know the exact implications of the proposal to extend civil partnerships. I think we would need to amend other legislation, including the Civil Partnership Act and the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which show that it is not just in the area of pensions where we would need to look at making significant progress in our understanding of the impact, as it would apply across a number of different pieces of legislation. It would be wrong for us to take decisions today without first having done that work.
May I clarify that one issue preventing us from rushing into immediate implementation and explaining why there has to be a review is that of civil partner pension rights? In a heterosexual marriage, people accrue survivor spouse pensions from the date the pension scheme was joined, not from the date of the marriage. For a surviving civil partner, however, the partner might have been in the scheme since it was joined but the pension rights accrue only from the date the civil partnership became law. That is one of the basic problems that we need to review.
My hon. Friend is right that there is an anomaly here, and these decisions were taken at the time of the Equality Act 2004. My point is a much broader one. Inasmuch as many assertions are being made that extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples could impact on many different areas of policy, my simple point is that we do not have the evidence base at the moment, and a great deal of work needs to be done.
Do not all these exchanges simply highlight the fact that extending civil partnerships to heterosexual couples was never consulted on and was never part of this Bill when it first came to the House? There has never been a proper opportunity for consulting on the matter. Let me make it clear that the test must surely be whether this is going to enhance the institution of marriage, and it is difficult to see how extending or setting up a rival competition to marriage will enhance the concept of marriage. Let me make it clear to my right hon. Friend, too, that the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church of England strongly oppose extending civil partnership to heterosexual couples simply because it will further undermine marriage.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend has taken the opportunity to put that on the record so that my hon. Friends know the position of important organisations such as the Church of England on this matter. I think my hon. Friend is right that the detail of the potential impact of these measures has not been looked at in the way I think Members would expect. An enormous amount of work would need to be done on the legal status of opposite-sex civil partners when they travel abroad or even respecting their legal status in the constituent parts of the UK. At the moment, we have not done that work. Chris Bryant, who is in his place on the Opposition Front Bench, will know that it is important to have alignment both with Scotland and Northern Ireland on how to move forward; at the moment those issues have not been discussed. On each of those issues and more besides, it will take time to work out the detail and to get it right.
When the civil partnership issue came up on Second Reading and in previous stages, the Government’s argument was that it was not germane and that there was no real demand for it. The argument the Secretary of State is making now, however, implies that there could be too much demand for civil partnerships, with all sorts of costs and consequences. Which is it: either it is an issue or it is not; is there a demand or is there not a demand?
That shows why we need a detailed look at the issue: we simply do not have the answer to the question about the potential liabilities around pensions. We may be able to say that there is a potentially significant liability, but we do not know whether this extension of civil partnerships would meet the needs of an important constituent group of heterosexual couples. We do not have that evidence base either. That is my answer to the question put by Mark Durkan.
We greatly appreciate how the Minister is allowing the debate to evolve. One consideration that would need to be taken into account in respect of civil partnerships—whether it be in five years’ time or straight away—is some of the tax implications. We should think of the elderly orphan who gives up their own home and work to care for an elderly parent, lives in the parent’s home and then suffers capital gains tax when the parent dies. Alternatively, what of elderly siblings who have cared for each for 50 years and do not know how to save capital gains tax so that the one who survives can go on living in the home they have shared? Those are the issues where the potential unfairness needs attention, but I do not believe that we can solve such issues tonight.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue, but it is not really the right place to discuss it in the context of this Bill. My message is that if we really want to make sure that we make progress on this Bill, in this place and in the other place, we need to focus on what it is trying to deliver, which is to make marriage available to people who have not had that opportunity before. The issues surrounding the extension of civil partnerships and the issue just raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West have a great deal of importance and legitimacy, but now is not the time or here the place to discuss them.
Will my hon. Friend allow me an opportunity to make a tiny bit more progress?
As I said, now is not the time to legislate to extend civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples and, as the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my hon. Friend Sir Tony Baldry has said, this position is clearly supported by the Church of England and, indeed, by Stonewall. That is why I propose to undertake an immediate review of this area. I have moved new clause 16 to allow such a review to take place so that we can answer the many questions that my hon. Friends have raised this evening. The review will provide the answers on legal policy and implementation that are currently unanswered. Without those answers and without that evidence, it is not responsible for the House to legislate at this point.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. I believe in principle that civil partnerships should be available to heterosexual couples. However, I think that the nature of the debate over these short 20 minutes demonstrates that considerably more thought needs to be given to the proposal that the Minister outlines. May I ask her why this needs to take five years? Would she consider at least a slightly shorter time frame within which to consider these matters, which I readily accept require consideration outside this Bill?
I know my hon. Friend will have studied the new clause in some detail, so she will see that there is an opportunity for us to conduct a review after five years. Equally, there are provisions within it for us to ensure that the review is immediate. That is what I would like to say today—that in bringing forward new clause 16, we would plan for an immediate review to take place. I was delighted to see the Labour party deciding to commit its support for this approach this afternoon, and the Government’s original amendment, which allows for an immediate review, could stand altered, but I am more than happy to accept the Opposition amendment to clarify the point if that will provide them with further comfort. I am very happy to do that.
Given that the issue of extending civil partnership was raised in Committee and an amendment was tabled and voted on some months ago, why did the Government not provide any assessment of the impact of its going through Committee? In the time between then and now, what assessment has there been to ensure that the Government are fully informed of the costs so that they can decide how much is too much when it comes to a price for equality?
My hon. Friend is right that we have, of course, done some preliminary work on this issue. The Committee concluded at the end of February, and he will know that through March and April we looked in detail at many of the issues raised. The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend Hugh Robertson showed evidence of that in the proposals he made in the earlier debate this evening. The evidence on pensions is another matter I would draw to my hon. Friend’s attention. Now is not the time, however, for full discussion with officials and other groups that have a clear interest in how this might move forward. I encourage the hon. Members concerned to withdraw new clauses 10 and 11.
I would like to make a bit of progress before my hon. Friend intervenes. If new clause 10 is not withdrawn, I urge Members to vote against it.
I was pleased to learn that the Opposition would not support new clause 10. It would be a very odd state of affairs if the House supported an immediate review, and in the next breath prejudged the position and announced that it would vote in favour of an extension of civil partnerships. I am sure that that is not lost on the House, and that all Members want to proceed in a sensible fashion that has been thought through properly.
New clause 13 takes a very different tack: it seeks to abolish the Civil Partnership Act. We believe that that would disadvantage those who are already in civil partnerships, not only in England in Wales but in other areas of the United Kingdom where this is a devolved matter. On that basis alone, I urge Members not to press the new clause to a vote.
Amendment 10 seeks to make a substantive change to the way in which adultery and non-consummation are treated. The Bill does not need to make such changes for the purpose of opposite-sex marriages, and I think that we ought to look carefully at the implications of their removal as key concepts in marriage law. I therefore urge Members not to press the amendment.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that many of us—even on this side of the House—are firmly in favour of same-sex marriage, and voted and will vote for it on Second and Third Reading, but are none the less very concerned about the lack of equality that applies to civil partnerships? We want the Government to act on that with some urgency. However, we also want to make clear that those of us who would otherwise have supported some of the Government’s amendments are trying not to wreck the Bill but trying to make it better, and to ensure that the concept of equality applies to civil partnership as well as marriage.
I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s intentions. I assure him that we intend to proceed swiftly with the review of civil partnerships, although we naturally want to take full account of discussions of the Bill in the other place. We would not want to pre-empt those discussions by embarking on a review before their conclusion, but we will certainly consider how we can proceed with a consultation speedily, given the strength of feeling.
I do not for a moment doubt the Minister’s commitment to marriage between same-sex partners, but let me point out that her Department conducted, for the Government, a massive consultation exercise, and at the end of last year found that a majority of the public supported the extension of civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. The Government, however, were not convinced. What will be different about this review? Will it be genuinely open, so that if a majority is again found to be in favour, the Government will introduce legislation to extend civil partnerships to everyone?
I can certainly reassure the right hon. Gentleman that the review would be genuine and open. I would not undertake a review on any other terms. I think that this review will provide the sort of policy detail that was not provided by the earlier consultation. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not want to be party to legislation that had not been subject to that degree of thought and detail. I can give him a strong undertaking that we will look carefully at the detail of policy implementation, and at how it would affect the various issues that we have already discussed. However, we simply cannot legislate on something for which we have no evidence base. It is important for us to understand what the demand is among individuals who might wish to embark on such an arrangement.
As one who supported civil partnership and voted for it, I want to be certain that the Minister understands that there are currently differences in law between civil partnership and marriage. It would be helpful if we could confirm that she and the Government understand that.
I also want to make it clear that there is a strong wish for the two issues to be dealt with at the same time, not just among people who do not necessarily support same-sex marriage but among members of the gay lobby, such as Peter Tatchell, who think that equality in respect of marriage requires equality in respect of civil partnership as well. Will the Minister explain why those issues are not being dealt with at the same time?
I agree with my right hon. Friend that there are differences between the concept of marriage and the concept of civil partnerships—by definition, given that they are set out in different pieces of legislation. However, I must take issue with what he says about equality. We are trying to create ways in which individuals who have never had access to marriage can have that access, at a time when those who are in heterosexual relationships already have it. There is no inequity, as such, in what we are trying to do. We are trying to right the inequity that prevents same-sex couples from having access to something which we know that society values very strongly.
I support the Bill because I believe in equality, but a direct consequence of that equality is a new inequality for heterosexual couples. That is why I think that we need to think about whether the issues can be considered at the same time.
Let me gently point out to my hon. Friend that what we are trying to do is provide access to marriage for a group of people who have not had that access to date. It is clear that there is an inequality affecting individuals who are in same-sex relationships and who have not had access to marriage.
We are not trying to create two tiers of marriage; we are trying to right a wrong of the past. It does not strike me as entirely logical to want to delay the Bill and give rise to more debate in the other place and more issues involving policy development in order to provide for something that straight couples would not necessarily want anyway. We do not have the evidence base that that would require, and the research that has been carried out so far suggests that we do not have a clear line of sight in terms of the end result.
My right hon. Friend is being very gracious in giving way. Does she not accept that there is an inequality in the fact that same-sex couples will have a choice between a civil partnership and a gay marriage, whereas heterosexual couples will not have that choice? Are not the Government creating that inequality?
There is currently a glaring inequality, in that same-sex couples have no access to the civil marriage that those of us who are in heterosexual relationships take granted. That is the issue with which the Bill is designed to deal. What the review will do is examine the issue of civil partnerships in more detail to ensure that if there is a requirement for them, we can deal with it in a measured manner.
I hope that my hon. Friend will bear with me. We have only a short time for this debate, and I want to end my speech so that others have a chance to contribute to it fully.
Same-sex couples have waited for a very long time for the right to marry, and I think that they have waited long enough. Using the Bill as a vehicle for the extension—
Only because I want other Members to have an opportunity to speak, Mr. Speaker.
I think that using the Bill as a vehicle for the extension of civil partnerships risks its progress, and that supporting the review proposed in new clause 16 will give us an opportunity to find an informed way forward—something that those on all sides of the argument can support.
Let me start by repeating what my hon. Friend Chris Bryant made very clear in Committee: the Labour equalities team supports the principle of extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. We recognise that it would provide equality before the law. It would also recognise the choice some opposite-sex couples want to make not to marry but none the less to formalise their relationship. As civil partnerships will rightly continue for gay and lesbian people under this legislation, it would ensure, too, that they are not perceived simply as some sort of residual arrangement pending everyone moving to same-sex marriage. We can expect that many existing civil partners will want their civil partnerships to continue; they will not want to regard the history of the past nine years as a history of second best.
Does the hon. Lady also agree that some people will still prefer to have a civil partnership now, even if marriage is available? This is not just about the history; there will be people who will still want a civil partnership in the future.
I entirely agree. There are many reasons why some couples may feel that the historical or religious connotations of marriage are not for them, but who none the less wish to make the public commitment to each other that gay and lesbian people already do through civil partnerships.
Sadly, Ministers have until now been reluctant to recognise that the position they have been taking—in effect, privileging marriage—has led to the situation we are in now. There are a number of concerns about moving forward to regularise opposite-sex civil partnerships, but there is a complete absence of analysis of, and evidence for, the concerns Ministers have raised. Yet we have been raising the issue of the genuine concerns about opposite-sex civil partnerships ever since the introduction of this Bill.
On the face of it, the anxieties highlighted by the Secretary of State today are not insignificant. On
The predicted costs involve some big and untested assumptions, however. We do not know how many opposite-sex civil partnerships will be formed. There is uncertainty about the number of public sector pension schemes that do not already allow a cohabiting partner to be a named recipient for survivor benefits. There is also uncertainty about the assertion that extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples will reopen the whole question of widowers’ pension entitlements. Following the Cockburn case, we might feel somewhat sceptical about that.
Given the hon. Lady’s principled support for the extension of civil partnerships to heterosexual couples, does she not have concerns that the proposal is a promise of jam tomorrow through a review, rather than a guarantee of the inclusion of heterosexual couples, which is what Chris Bryant said he wanted?
The hon. Lady is right about our concerns about unwarranted delay. That is why I tabled the manuscript amendment this morning. It enables us to move forward and reach a proper conclusion much more swiftly.
While we support the principle of opposite-sex civil partnerships, we agree with the Government that the issues should be properly reviewed before Parliament reaches a decision. Indeed, we say they should have been reviewed already.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Does she agree that there is a large, and potentially massively increasing, constituency of people who may be interested in this, in particular couples with children, who have not chosen to make the jump into marriage but who might welcome a civil partnership? If we are to go along this path, we need to get things costed and get the detail right so that it fits their particular needs. We should therefore carry out the review and not delay equal-sex marriage.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important that we adhere to the principle and that we get the detail right so that we achieve the outcome we want, which is to offer the protections of civil partnership appropriately to opposite-sex couples and their families. That is why we have tabled manuscript amendment (a) to new clause 16. We believe the Government proposal for a review that would not even start until five years after the legislation had been implemented introduces an unnecessary delay, and we are very pleased that it appears there is now agreement to move to a swifter review.
We also propose that the review must include full public consultation. There has been a degree of that in relation to the Bill. Although it was rather cursory, it did show support for the principle, but we want the public to have a full opportunity to express their views.
There is, indeed, strong support for the principle. I welcome the review to the extent that it speeds up the process, but it should only be about the details; it should not be about the principle. The principle is about equality, and that is what should be enshrined in the Bill tonight.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way; she is, typically, demonstrating courtesy. Does she agree that the review should be carried out in time to enable any consequent amendments to be brought forward in the other place? Is she not amazed that the Government think this needs to take an enormous amount of time to achieve, when in France there is equal access both to civil partnerships and now to marriage?
It is very good to hear the hon. Gentleman holding up the situation in France as an example of the practice to which we should aspire, and I could not agree with him more. We see no reason for this review to be excessively protracted. Indeed, we think it can be conducted very swiftly. It would be welcome if it could be completed well before we have completed the passage of the Bill, so that we can take account of the outcome of the review and we can swiftly—indeed, within the next few months—make both opposite-sex civil partnerships and same-sex marriages available .
This morning there were some who were concerned about the fate of this Bill if new clauses 10 and 11 were agreed to. We are anxious to ensure that same-sex marriages arrive on the statute book as swiftly as possible, and we know the Secretary of State is, too. We would not want anything to put that ambition and the Bill’s progress in jeopardy, but this morning it appeared that the failure of those on the Government Benches to reach a common position might do so. We are pleased that by this evening it had been recognised that the best way to deal with the concerns the Government have—late in the day—raised while also ensuring things are dealt with speedily is to introduce the most rapid review possible.
I therefore hope Members will support new clause 16 as amended by manuscript amendment (a). I hope that they will also recognise that new clauses 10 and 11 are, if not wrecking amendments, at best premature and should not be supported, and that they will follow the Secretary of State in relation to the other new clauses and amendments.
An awful lot of rubbish has been spoken and reported in the media over the last few days. Not all of it has been attributed to me. There have been claims of wrecking amendments, of leadership bids, of Front-Bench mischief and of U-turns. Members will be forgiven for being in a state of some confusion as to where we have arrived at tonight, therefore.
Let me explain what I can make out from the late amendments put before us. We appear to have a last-minute amendment from the Government to kick the whole issue into the long grass. The Government have now put the frighteners on the Opposition, who have tabled a last-minute manuscript amendment to a last-minute new clause on the basis of spurious figures and non-existent delay, aimed at kicking the new clauses into the slightly less long grass. We have now just heard from Kate Green that the Opposition would like the review to be done and dusted and to have reported before the Bill is passed, so that such a provision can be added through amendments to it. I do not think that that is the grubby deal that those on the Front Bench have negotiated and there is a degree of misunderstanding that must be clarified.
Today we have also heard the Deputy Prime Minister urging hon. Friends in his party to vote against a measure that is party policy for the Liberal Democrats— but we have been there before. We have also had the extraordinary scene of certain hon. Members, who have signed up to new clauses 10 and 11 and have spoken in favour of them in other places, to opinion pollsters and in Committee, now being apparently prepared to do a complete volte-face by voting this evening against something with which they apparently agree in principle. I am very confused.
I hope that I will not add to my hon. Friend’s confusion, but does he not accept that the amendment proposed by the Opposition—even though it is late in the day—at least means that there will be some urgency about the issue of equality in civil partnerships, which is close not just to his heart but to mine? With that, we can at least begin to make some progress.
I hope that we have achieved something, in that a provision that the Government thought was not necessary only days and weeks ago has become a matter that merits review, albeit at least five years away and with no guarantee that it will take place. Now it has apparently become a bit more urgent. We seem to be moving in the right direction, but the extraordinary thing is that everyone seems to agree that the change is right in principle. If it is right in principle, it should be right in practice and this is the Bill through which it can be achieved.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that tonight we will vote to enshrine an inequality in law with the hope that a review will redress it? Rather than voting for what people think is right in principle, we would be waiting for a review to see whether it is cost-effective.
My hon. Friend is right. The trouble is that, given that there has been such fast movement in various peoples’ positions, goodness knows what the position will be after the vote has taken place.
I want to support new clauses 10 and 11, tabled in my name and those of other hon. Members on both sides of the House and on all sides of the argument, and in doing so I must oppose the last-minute Government new clause and the manuscript amendment from the Labour party. This is a Back-Bench debate—let us have a Back-Bench debate without Whips and party politics trying to put pressure on hon. Members to change their votes, which should be based on their free will.
Let me be clear once and for all that the new clauses are not wrecking amendments. They are supported by passionate supporters of the whole Bill. If the new clauses are passed, they will remove some of the anomalies and flaws in the Bill and make it more palatable. If that is wrecking, I am not doing a very good job of it.
Does the hon. Gentleman understand why there are those who are briefing the media and accusing him of tabling wrecking amendments, given his full-throated opposition to the principle of the Bill in the first place? It is hard to believe that his motivation is anything other than to stop the progress of the Bill when it gets to the other place. If that is not the case, he has been ill-used and ill-spoken of, but does he at least understand why people are reading that into his motivation?
I can understand why people are trying to cause mischief on that basis. I approach the new clauses in the expectation that the Bill will probably become law, whether I and other hon. Members like it or not. We must therefore plan on that basis. I think it could become better law if it provided for equality in civil partnerships which we could give to opposite-sex couples, and I now want to explain why.
The idea was proposed in Committee three months ago by Stephen Williams and supported by Chris Bryant. Bizarrely, neither of them voted for it. In our witness sessions, it was strongly supported by experts such as Lord Pannick and Baroness Kennedy, who clearly said that they thought that the addition of the extension of civil partnerships would greatly improve the Bill. Supporters of the proposals have included those in favour of the Bill, those against it and those who have abstained. They have not just come out of nowhere. Several hon. Members have mentioned the Government’s consultation on the original Bill. Many people responded and 61% said that they were in favour of extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. This is not an idea that we have cooked up at the last minute to wreck the Bill; the Government’s research shows that the public—our constituents, our voters—are in favour of it. However, the Government went into the subsequent production of the Bill completely and utterly ignoring the clear wish of the people as shown by their own consultation.
There are two rationales, as far as I am concerned, for supporting the amendments. First, they will correct what is, I am sure, an unintended but glaring inequality that would result from the Bill in its current form. If the Bill goes through, as I expect, same-sex couples will be entitled to continue in a civil partnership, to take up a civil partnership or to take up the new form of marriage. Opposite-sex couples will have only the option of traditional marriage, albeit by a larger range of religious institutions. That is not fair. It gives rise to an inequality in what is intended to be a Bill about equalities. Secondly, a very positive reason for pushing forward with the amendments is family stability, and I will come to that in a minute. Highly divisive as the Bill has been, particularly on the Government Benches, surely that is one issue on which we can all agree and rally round.
I acknowledge that the quadruple lock that the Government have put in the Bill largely does the job that they intend it to do. That is why many of the Church institutions have been reassured by the safeguards that they have been given. Earlier, we also heard about amendments that tried to give safeguards to people in public service who might fall foul of the legislation.
Let me return to why people seem to be in rather a difficult position. ComRes carried out an opinion poll among 159 Members of this House—quite a large sample—and some 2,012 members of the public. Interestingly, that recent opinion poll found that 73% of hon. Members in this House support the amendments. Among Conservative Members, there was 72% support; among Labour Members, 76%; and among Liberal Democrats, 67%. If the amendments do not get the full backing of 73% of hon. Members tonight, what has changed in the space of just a few days, since that opinion poll was carried out in private?
In 2010, an Office for National Statistics report said that there were almost 3 million—2,893,000, to be precise—cohabiting opposite-sex couples in this country. That is almost double the figure reported some 15 years earlier. Some 53% of all birth registrations are to married parents, but 31% are to unmarried parents who are living together, and 40% of unmarried couples living together choose to have children. Indeed, cohabitation is the fastest-growing form of family in this country, and we need to recognise that our society is changing, whether or not we approve.
People choose not to get involved in the whole paraphernalia of formal marriage for a variety of reasons: it is too much of an establishment thing to do; it is too much of a religious institution for some, and even if done in a register office, it has religious connotations; there is a patriarchal side to it; it is a form of social control—there are a whole load of complex motives as to why many of our constituents do not go down the formal marriage route. They are mostly still in committed, loving relationships, but they have no way of demonstrating that in the eyes of the public and the law, if they do not want to go down the traditional marriage route.
In Committee, my hon. Friend Stephen Williams made a very good point about the common misconception that there is such a thing as a common-law wife or husband, as a woman typically finds out abruptly on the death of a partner, when there is a tax bill on the estate, and potentially on the family home. Even a couple engaged to be married have more rights than a cohabiting couple. I have received many e-mails and letters in support of this proposal, and one summed up the position:
“I am 60 yrs and have been with my partner for over 20 years. We have two boys ages 16 and 18 yrs. Neither of us wish to get married but we would like to have the same rights as a married couple. We see the civil partnership as discriminatory towards us as a couple, especially as we have children. A great number of friends and acquaintances are in a similar position to ourselves and do not wish to be married although we are all in a lifelong family commitment. My other issue with this is that, as I am much older than my partner, I will probably die before her and she would not receive the same tax benefits as a married woman or those in a civil partnership, which in turn would be discriminatory towards our children.”
Why should those who have chosen not to go for a traditional marriage not have the opportunity to have the same rights, responsibilities and protections in the eyes of the law that we rightly, and not before time, extended to same-sex couples back in 2004?
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West referred to equalising same-sex and opposite-sex civil partnerships as achieving “parity of esteem”. I agree. I do not regard my conventional marriage of 20 and a half years’ standing to my wife as any more valid than a civil partnership, be it gay or, potentially, heterosexual; it is just different. However, there is a major plus to achieving equality of civil partnerships, and opening them up to opposite-sex couples: family stability, which the Government seem to have ignored completely, although it is something that we Conservative Members strongly support.
The Prime Minister and supporters of the Bill say that they are huge fans of marriage, partly because it helps to create sustainable families and, particularly, stability for the children brought up in them. I agree, so should we not do more to achieve that stability for families who choose not to get married, but who might cement their relationship through the civil partnership route, giving them public recognition and, importantly, rights and responsibilities under the law?
In 2012, the Relationships Foundation calculated the cost to this country of family breakdown at £44 billion—some £1,470 per year to every taxpayer, or 1.8% of gross domestic product. That is a big problem—a growing problem that is costly, financially and socially, in our society. Fewer than one in 10 married parents have split by the time a child reaches the age of five, compared with more than one in three of those who are cohabiting but not married, and 75% of family breakdowns involving children under five result from the separation of unmarried parents. The Centre for Social Justice has produced a raft of statistics showing that a child who is not in a two-parent family is 75% more likely to fall out of school and 70% more likely to be addicted to drugs, and is more likely to get in trouble with the law, be homeless, and not be in employment, education or training. We know that marriage works, but we also know that civil partnerships are beginning to show empirical evidence of greater stability for same-sex couples, including those who have children, be it through adoption, surrogacy or whatever. There is a strong case for believing that extending civil partnerships would improve that stability for many more families in different forms.
My hon. Friend is making a compelling case for extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. In fact, I have not detected any resistance to the idea in any part of the House, so there seems to be agreement that it would be beneficial. The point of argument is when it can be achieved, for the many reasons that he touched on. Benefits, pensions, inheritance and tax are very complex; it will take time to cost the proposal properly, rather than introducing it before we know exactly its implications.
I hear the point that my hon. Friend makes and it has been made before. I will come on to say that all that work was done in 2004. I am trying purely to mirror the sort of arrangements that were made back in 2004 when civil partnerships were introduced.
If just one in 10 cohabiting opposite-sex couples were to enter a civil partnership, that would be some 300,000 or so couples and their children, giving them greater security, greater stability, less likelihood of family breakdown, better social outcome and better financial outcome. That surely is progress.
She is very much in favour of the Bill. I entirely respect where she is coming from. One thing she said was that when she is asked, “Are you married?” she has to say, “No, but—” because she is in a civil partnership, not what she regards as a marriage. There is currently a problem with civil partnerships. If someone fills in a form, goes for an interview or responds to a question and says that they are in a civil partnership, they are automatically admitting their sexuality which, for some people, is uncomfortable. If civil partnerships were extended to everybody, people could be in a civil partnership and their sexuality would not be questioned or questionable.
There is a further application. Many people who have strong religious beliefs, particularly if they are Catholics, and have ended up getting divorced, which is in conflict with certain religious teachings, may not be inclined to get married again if they meet a new partner, because supposedly their Church believes they should be married for life. They would, however, in many cases be able to square that position by entering into a new formal commitment through an opposite-sex civil partnership. So there are a number of practical applications where civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples will achieve something very positive—not wrecking, but achieving something for which people have a requirement.
Opposite-sex civil partnerships are not something cooked up in this country. Let us look at various overseas experiences. In South Africa the Civil Union Act 2006 gave the option for some same-sex and opposite-sex couples to register a civil union by way of a marriage or a civil partnership on the same basis. In France, as has been mentioned, the pacte civil de solidarité, or PACS, as it is known, was introduced in 1999 as a form of civil union between two adults of the same sex or the opposite sex, and now gay marriage has been added to that. Interestingly, 94% of PACS that took place in 2012 were between opposite-sex couples. Even more interestingly, in France one in 10 PACS has been dissolved, against one in three marriages ending in divorce. There is evidence to show that some of these civil partnerships have created greater stability, whether those are opposite-sex or same-sex partnerships.
Many people would not want to do such a trade-off for religious reasons. We need to recognise that society is changing. What does not change is the desire to create as much stability as possible for couples and children in those families. In the Netherlands in 1998 registered partnerships were created for same-sex and opposite-sex partners which provide the same rights and responsibilities as married partners, except in relation to children, to do with overseas adoptions and so on. This is not rocket science—it already happens.
I contend that a great deal of work was done at the time of the Civil Partnership Act 2004—complicated work, as the Secretary of State said, which took a while to bring into operation, but that work has been done. I want identical terms to apply, as applied back in 2004. The Government also say that the proposal would require big changes to lots of other legislation. Introducing same-sex marriage will require big changes to lots of other legislation; why cannot the two types of change be made in parallel?
Last year, as we said, the Government consulted on the whole issue, as Mr Woodward reminded us, and a clear majority said that they were in favour of it. Surely the Government, as a contingency at least, have done some preparatory work on what would be involved if there was a call to change the law, as all the opinion polls show and as I am now calling for.
It was reported in a newspaper this morning that one of the Ministers involved, in objecting to my amendment, had
“said such a radical change must not be introduced in a ‘rush’. She added that civil partnerships should be reviewed once gay marriages had been operating for five years.”
If we take it to 2019, civil partnerships will have been operating for almost 15 years, which seems more than enough time to gauge whether they are working and should be extended. I must say that there has been some pretty scurrilous and disingenuous last-minute scaremongering by certain parties on the Front Bench.
I accept in good faith the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. He has obviously thought about the matter in some detail, so what is the maximum time frame in which he would instruct civil servants to conduct and complete such a review, and what process would he recommend by which the Government could bring forward the proposals to ensure that same-sex couples are not obliged to wait an undue period of time for the Bill to proceed?
There is a trade-off, because if the Bill goes through in its current form an inequality will be created and there will be a delay—we do not know for how long—for opposite-sex couples, who are unable to access civil partnerships, with no commitment that it will be addressed, while same-sex partners will be able to access marriages in fairly short order.
I have a few more remarks to make on how quickly I think that can happen. I think that the whole argument about delay is a complete red herring. The cost of £4 billion is completely and utterly spurious. I asked for a Library note on the cost impact assessments done at the time of the Civil Partnership Act 2004. Part of it says that the cost to the Government was divided between total one-off fixed costs of £19.8 million for changes in administration and rising annual costs each year in both low and high take-up scenarios. The annual cost to the Government in 2010 was estimated at £1.5 million for the low take-up scenario and £3 million for the high-take up scenario, and that that would rise to £11.6 million and £22.2 million a year in each scenario by 2050. The components of the annual costs were state pensions for spouses and bereavement benefits for surviving civil partners, and public funding for civil partnership dissolutions. The note refers throughout to tens of millions of pounds, but nowhere near the figure in the billions that has been plucked out of the air with absolutely no empirical evidence and which was never intended as an official impact assessment from the DWP when the Pensions Minister made his statement to the Joint Committee on Human Rights last week.
Does my hon. Friend not see that the amendments proposed tonight, particularly from those on the Opposition Front Bench, would go a considerable way towards what he is trying to achieve? I share some of his concerns about the spurious figures in the billions that we all heard quoted on the radio this morning, which seem to have been plucked from the sky, and about the talk of a massive delay, but does he not realise that the urgency with which we are now looking at this, because of amendment (a), means that in the House of Lords there will be a rapid sense of trying to move ahead in the time frame he has in mind? I regret, as he probably does, that these things often happen in the other place, rather than here in the House of Commons, but does he not recognise that he has won most of the battle? Instead of making the strong case he is making, with which I think many of us agree, why does he not recognise that he has won much of the battle and can happily withdraw his new clause?
If what my hon. Friend has just said were true, I would be delighted, but I think that what the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston said might have raised a few eyebrows on the Government Front Bench. If she is saying that part of the deal is that the review, which would be an added consultation on the back of the one we had before the Bill was introduced, will take place and result in concrete proposals coming forward that can be added to the Bill before it completes its passage through both Houses, I would be perfectly happy, but I do not think that will happen. I do not see how it can happen given the complexities that the Secretary of State has claimed still need to be addressed as regards all the legislative changes, costs, and so on.
Perhaps Mr Woodward would like to repeat his question to the Minister in the wind-ups. If he gets the answer, “Yes, we think this can be done during the progress of this Bill”, I will be delighted to withdraw my amendment, because that is what I am trying to achieve. I do not care whether it happens tonight in this House or in a few months’ time in another place or when the Bill comes back here; I just want it to happen, because we all seem to agree that it should and that it is right and fair in principle.
When we raised this subject with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State in Committee, he gave five reasons explaining why, supposedly, it was not necessary to act and that we were talking about an irrelevance. His first reason was that the aim of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 was not to provide an alternative to marriage but to give same-sex couples broadly equivalent rights. Yet now opposite-sex couples will be denied those broadly equivalent rights if they are not inclined to marry and are unable to get such civil partnerships. His second reason was that to get the legal rights, responsibilities and protections that marriage brings, people should just marry. The Secretary of State Marriage has described marriage as the gold standard, but the Government are choosing to limit people’s choices.
The third contention by the Minister, whom I like greatly, was that the Government were not convinced that there is a group of people campaigning for opposite-sex civil partnerships. Well, I have quoted the opinion poll. The Government cannot have it both ways. They are scaremongering about the excessive cost of this measure and, at the same time, saying that there is no real demand for it, in which case it would not cost anything. They cannot have their cake and eat it.
The fourth reason that the Minister came up with was that in the Government’s consultation 61% of those who answered an online response form said that opposite-sex couples should be able to register a civil partnership. I like and respect my right hon. Friend, who is not in his place at the moment, and I recognise that he has been dealt a pretty bum hand in having to steer this Bill through the House. However, I think he will regret adding the rider that more than half the people who answered the question identified themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual. So there we have it: in a skewed voting system that would put Eurovision to shame, the vote of someone who is gay sometimes does not count as much if the Government say so. This needs investigating.
Another example of inconsistency that came out in Committee concerned the hierarchy of people who should be given exemptions if, on an issue of conscience, they cannot carry out various public functions. However, I do not wish to digress and will move swiftly on to the Minister’s fifth reason: that we would need a raft of changes to other legislative provisions that would involve other parts of the United Kingdom. However, this is already being addressed in the Bill and those provisions could be addressed in parallel. I am afraid that this sort of mess and confusion is what happens when we rush through a Bill with far-reaching consequences that have not been properly thought through.
There is no excuse not to do this now, or very urgently. The Government were warned by 61% of people in the consultation but rushed ahead. They should have looked at the wider issues. They could have said that they wanted to abolish civil partnerships and just have marriage, but then what would happen to the people in an existing civil partnership—would they just be sidelined and wither away? It would not be fair on them. That has not been thought through. Where are the impact assessments and cost calculations on the numbers who are supposedly going to convert from a civil partnership to a same-sex marriage? In fact, the number of opposite-sex couples taking up a new civil partnership could produce a saving if less money were spent on family breakdown. We have no details about how the figures have been worked out, about a start date when civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples might be introduced, or about what level of retrospective financial entitlements they may qualify for.
I want to be helpful to the Government because I recognise that this has become a bit of a pickle. As I said, I will be perfectly happy if the Bill continues its progress on the timetable that the Government have set. If the Government agree to my proposed new clause in principle, they will have time, during the later stages of the Bill, to announce specific details about the start date, the commencement of entitlements and so on. I for one would be perfectly favourable to delaying the implementation date of opposite-sex civil partnerships if the Government agree to the principle. If they needed two, three or four years to sort out the detail before the measure would be able to commence, I would be happy with that if the Bill addressed this inequality and we recognised that opposite-sex civil partners have a place— I think it is a growing place—in our society.
The Government would have to acknowledge that, in the meantime, they were creating an inequality, albeit a temporary one. They certainly cannot delay this until 2019. A reviewing amendment represents the worst of all worlds if the issue is kicked into such long grass. Have the Government learned nothing from recent experiences with Europe about promising votes in the next Parliament? Apparently it is acceptable to defer a decision on an equality issue for at least six years unless it was not promised in a manifesto and has all of a sudden become urgent.
There are no complications involved in my proposal. I want opposite-sex civil partnerships to be offered on exactly the same basis as same-sex civil partnerships. It would not be possible for someone to become a civil partner with a close family member or if they are already in a union, and the partnership needs to be subject to the same termination criteria. It is simple. Surely the case is overwhelming.
I do not do wrecking. I have never voted against my party or my Government in my 16 years in this House, and I do not want to start now. I have been entirely open, transparent and consistent in my opposition to the Bill. I am happy for it to progress on the Government’s time scale, if that is the will of the House. However, the House must respect the right of all Members to act according to their conscience, and my objections to the Bill have not been on primarily religious grounds. I have spent most of my time, like other Back Benchers, scrutinising the Bill’s safeguards on the likely basis that it will become law. The job of Back Benchers is to scrutinise legislation, hold the Executive to account and draw attention to anomalies, inconsistencies, injustices or, as in this case, inequalities, and urge practical action, which is what new clauses 10 and 11 do. A clear inequality is being created and I am sure that all fair-minded Members will want to address it as a matter of urgency. My new clauses would clearly achieve that.
We are in danger of being party to a last-minute stitch-up between those on the Front Benches, but this is a free vote, not on a conscience issue, but on a simple matter of equality that Members can support—indeed, from what has been said so far, many Members do support it—whether they are whipped to support the Bill or whether they defy the Whip to oppose it, and it has the added bonus of improving family stability. The only chance to bring that about is through these new clauses. A delay until 2019 or similar will not hold water. A review without detail and the potential dragging on of headlines until the election certainly will not do Government Members any favours.
If hon. Members believe that this principle is right, now is the time to vote for it. Let us vote on principle. Let us not vote for fudge. Surely we can all earn respect from our constituents for voting for what we believe in and for what we have told pollsters in private that we believe in. We should not be pressured by Whips or by parties. Let’s just do it.
The amendments deal with some extremely important principles, such as equality, but we are also dealing with the absolutely essential need to correct a gross injustice that has lived for far too long and prevented gay men and women from enjoying the same rights as everybody else. Tim Loughton spoke extremely eloquently and this House would be wise to take him at his word when he says that his proposed new clause 10 is in no way a wrecking amendment. At the same time, we must understand that many people out there have waited far too long to enjoy a principle that many hon. Members take for granted. I therefore hope that tonight, he will join us in voting for the manuscript amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Kate Green.
The hon. Gentleman must understand that fear continues to play an important part in this country. Although I take at face value everything that he has said, he will know that, for some, this is an opportunity for a wrecking amendment. He will know that some people paid close attention to the Government’s consultation last year, which found that a majority of people were in favour of extending the principle of civil partnerships to everyone in this country. He will know that the Government’s response was to say simply, “We are not convinced.” For some, there is a genuine worry that the Government will launch into another review, take months if not years to conduct it and, even if they find that the cost is not that great, conclude that civil partnerships cannot be extended to everyone in this country. Alternatively, they might give the old excuse that there is no time in the legislative timetable.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful speech. Has he not presented a greater argument to vote for new clauses 10 and 11, because otherwise he will be voting for a review that he has said he has no confidence in? Tonight is the time to say that if there is to be equality, there must be equality for heterosexual couples as well.
The Secretary of State made it clear that the new review will be very different from the last review, which reached conclusions that were dismissed by the Government. I can only take at face value what the Secretary of State has said. I believe that the compromise that has been found by my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston is the best way forward.
Is the right hon. Gentleman really telling the House that to rectify what he calls one blatant unfairness, he will create another obvious unfairness?
I understand the spirit behind the hon. Gentleman’s question. I understand that some will see the delay to the extension of civil partnerships as unfair. However, let me be very clear that same-sex couples have no justice at all. It is not about fairness; there is no justice, because they cannot be married. It would be grossly unfair to perpetuate that injustice, especially if the spirit of the proposal put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston were accepted tonight.
I fear that some—I say again that I do not believe that this is the sentiment of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham—want to use the principle of extending civil partnerships to delay indefinitely or wreck this House’s enactment of same-sex marriages.
I hear what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. No doubt there are some Machiavellian Members of the House who have such motives. He knows, because of the clear votes that we have had on Second Reading and this evening, that there is every likelihood that the Bill will pass through this House and the other. I will undertake to do everything in my power to stick to the Government’s timetable if my proposal is part of it. That is not wrecking the Bill.
Again, I accept the hon. Gentleman’s word. I simply ask the Secretary of State to hear what her colleagues are saying about the spirit and speed with which they wish the review to be conducted. She is far more qualified than I am to give the hon. Gentleman and the House comfort by saying how quickly it would be possible to conduct such a review and when the Government would intend to implement it. She could give an assurance that if a majority were again found to be in favour of the proposal, instead of remaining unconvinced of its need, she would introduce it.
None the less, in passing this Bill it is important that the Government find time to introduce legislation for civil partnerships for everyone. It is also important to look in the review at a glaring injustice of the Civil Partnership Act 2004—the second-class pension provision for same-sex men and women. That is clearly iniquitous and should be addressed, and I hope that those on the Opposition Front Bench will make an undertaking that, should this Government not do it, a future Labour Government will seek to put right that injustice.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham concluded his remarks by talking about a stitch-up. I say simply that if this review is used to cause undue and untimely delay to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, that would be the stitch-up. The moment has finally come for those who have waited far too long for this moment of fairness and equality to arise, and I hope that honourable colleagues will support the amendment tabled by the Opposition.
This is the first time I have had the opportunity to speak on this subject, but I have been working with others to deal with some of the obvious flaws in this albeit well-intentioned Bill. I thank the Secretary of State and her ministerial colleagues for the way in which they have engaged and listened without question. As a result of that, however, I find it disappointing that they have failed to make some of the obvious—and in my opinion necessary—amendments to deal with the Bill’s flaws.
I have been called anti-gay rights and anti-Christian; I have been called homophobic and at the same time accused of not being a proper Catholic. I have been accused of being worryingly conservative, yet at the same time dangerously libertarian. I am none of those things. What I am, very proudly, is a liberal, and I want to support a sensible, liberal way of dealing with the inequities that we undoubtedly have in our current system with regard to the recognition of adult couples in a relationship. We have not gone about this Bill the right way, and many of its flaws are because it has been pursued from a very conservative perspective, rather than a radical liberal one.
For the avoidance of doubt, the role of the state, very simply, is to decide how to recognise relationships between adult couples, and which adult couple relationships to recognise in that way. That should be entirely separate from any consideration of how religions and belief-based organisations recognise relationships in accordance with their own beliefs. Instead of dealing with that point, however, the Bill has sought to build on the confusion and conflate the two issues even further. The result, I am afraid, is something of a mess.
I want to vote on, and will always support, the state giving equal right to equal recognition of adult relationships, which then conveys equal rights as a result of that equal legal recognition. However, not only does the Bill not do that, it makes a complicated and unequal situation worse. Let me be clear about what the Bill will produce if it is passed, as it inevitably will be tomorrow. There will be two different definitions of civil marriage for same-sex couples, and another definition for opposite-sex couples. There will not be an equal definition. The Bill will allow two different legal recognitions of a relationship for some couples but not for others. It will fail to equalise pension rights for some couples, which is one reason we are having this debate and why legislation is needed. The Bill will continue to allow ministers of some faiths to conduct a marriage in the eyes of the law, and yet people of other religions and faith-based systems will not be allowed to do so. The Bill is unequal on four counts. As I have made clear, there is a better way. Any liberal would suggest finally properly separating the civil and the religious rather than building on what we have. I will speak about that more when we debate another group of amendments.
My new clause 13 must be seen in the context of the amendment I have tabled for debate tomorrow—both are part of dealing with the situation properly. The measures are radical. They would repeal—this might not make me popular with anyone—the Marriage Act 1994 and the Civil Partnerships Act 2004 so that we end up with a single definition for all couples. We are not at that point, which I accept, but we cannot institutionalise a new inequality during the passage of a Bill that is supposed to be about equalising marriage. Hon. Members should remember that civil partnerships were introduced to give same-sex couples another form of relationship. In many people’s eyes, it is a lesser form of relationship. We must not institutionalise that. If civil partnerships are worth having, we must allow them to be a different form of legal recognition for all, or do what I suggest in new clause 13 and abolish them altogether. Either way, we would end up with proper equality.
Ministers and shadow Ministers and others have suggested that the Bill is not the measure with which to deal with that inequality. I am afraid that that argument is simply absurd. Some say that we should not introduce that equality because of the cost—the figure of £4 billion has been mentioned. That is entirely to fall into the trap of those who oppose any change to traditional civil marriage. They argue that we should not introduce any measure because of the cost. As a liberal, let me be clear that we change civil rights and introduce genuine equal legal recognition because it is the right thing to do, not because it costs the state money. The argument that we should not do something because it costs the state money is a slippery slope. I should tell the Minister that whoever introduced that argument to the debate made a huge mistake.
My amendment 10 would be the genuine, liberal way of dealing with the situation—properly redefining how the state recognises adult relationships. The amendment would get rid of clearly Christian concepts that come directly from Church of England canon law and are shared by certain other Christian faiths. It would mean that we would not count on the statute book adult couples’ sexual practices with each other. Currently, adultery is a reason to allow some couples but not others to dissolve their civil marriage. Most absurdly of all, lawyers dictate that certain couples and not others must consummate their marriage in a certain way.
It is embarrassing and ludicrous, when we are rightly dealing with the inequities of the current civil partnership regime that does not bestow the same rights, status or recognition on same-sex couples, that the Bill will continue to enshrine ancient Christian concepts in the statute book and apply them to some couples only. If there had been more listening and more acting on that listening, new clause 10, which has been discussed at some length, would not be necessary. It should not be necessary. A clear part of any redefinition of how the state defines and recognises adult relationships should have always been either to keep civil partnerships and make them open to all adult citizens, or wipe them away and have a single, equal definition for all.
For all the sophistry and arguments from those on the Front Benches, in their heart of hearts they know this to be true. That is why I urge everyone in this House who regards themselves in any way as a liberal and who wants to see equal rights and recognition to vote for new clause 10. That is the only way people can have confidence that the real motivation—I believe it is the real motivation, even though it has been expressed badly—is to deal with the inequities currently in the Bill. Even at this late stage, I urge the Secretary of State to listen, disregard the cost of human rights and, either through changing marriage or changing civil partnerships, ensure that all adults can have their relationships recognised in one equal or two equal ways.
Order. Several colleagues are seeking to catch my eye. I am keen to accommodate them. The House will appreciate that it is only right that the Minister should have a reasonable opportunity to wind up on her own lead new clause in the group, at approximately 9.50 pm. I appeal to colleagues to help me to help them to help each other.
I will be brief.
I put my name to new clauses 10 and 11 in good faith. Opening civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples is something that I have campaigned on for years, so I am hugely disappointed to see such political games being played.
I put my signature to those new clauses because I want to promote equality. It is important to allow everyone—same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples—to enjoy a civil partnership or marriage as they choose. This is a question of equal love. It is not about asking for special treatment for gay couples or straight couples; it is about everyone enjoying the same rights regardless of their sexuality. It is worth noting that equal rights are already enjoyed in countries such as France, where many heterosexuals want and can get the legal security of a civil union if they do not want to get married. I do not understand why straight couples in Britain should not have that right, too. That is why, for several years,
I have been writing to the Government—for example, back in May 2011—and calling on them to support civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples. I have done so on a number of occasions, so this is not a new idea or one that has only just now come on to the agenda.
The Government have had time to consider the cost implications and should not now be using their failure to do so as an excuse for denying people equality, especially when the projections on the pension costs are so speculative—in the space of five days they have gone up from £3 billion to £4 billion. One gets the sense that they are being done on the back of a cigarette packet. If civil partnerships for mixed-sex couples really would generate £4 billion of cost liabilities and cause more than two years’ delay, let us see the evidence, but so far there has been none.
Colleagues will be aware that there has been heavy briefing claiming that to support the new clauses would be tantamount to enabling the Bill to be scuppered by whomever. I do not know who is trying to scupper the Bill, but I do know that there has been heavy briefing to the effect that the Government would be happy for the new clauses to go ahead and therefore for the Bill to have less chance, perhaps, in the other place. My bottom line is that I do not want the chance presented by the Bill being scuppered. I do not want it delayed—I want it given a swift and safe passage—and if that means that I need to abstain on the new clauses, I will, but what an indictment it is of the political processes of this place, particularly of the Government, who are playing political games with an issue that matters hugely to my constituents and to many others up and down the country.
Surely, if the Government were really committed to equal marriage, they would not be implying that their support for the Bill was conditional. Ministers need to explain exactly why opening up civil partnerships would delay the implementation of gay marriage and why, for example, it is not possible to work on the basis set out in 2004, when some of the essential consequentials were put in place for civil partnerships. Of course, the issues for same-sex couples are different from those for opposite-sex couples, but I struggle to see how it could take two years or more, if the political will was there to sort it out.
Furthermore, the Bill does not allow employers and pension providers to award gay spouses and civil partners the equivalent survivor benefits payable to a partner in a mixed-sex marriage, hence my amendment on pensions and gay marriage couples, which we will be discussing tomorrow. That substantive inequality remains in the Bill, but could be considered at the same time as civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples.
There is no procedural reason why the new clauses on civil partnerships need wreck the chances of introducing legal same-sex marriage. As I say, I believe that the proposals are being used to play political games, but I do not think that my constituents want me to play such games; they want equality fair and square and they expect a Government who have stated their support for equal marriage to stay the course and to do so without creating new inequalities and in a way that provides for equal marriage and partnerships for everyone. This is about equality. Are we really saying that people are equal only if it does not cost us too much and if it is not too complicated? We need to meet those cost arguments and other objections head on, rather than allowing them to undermine the basic rights to full equality for every couple.
In summary, we need to guarantee comprehensive equality for opposite sex and same-sex couples; to open up marriage and civil partnerships to all; to use the Bill to deliver the same pension arrangements for couples regardless of their sexuality or whether they are in a marriage or civil partnership; and to do all that without playing games with the lives of people up and down this country who care deeply about what is happening in the House and who are watching us tonight and cannot believe the kinds of games that it would appear are being played.
I could begin my remarks by saying, “I don’t want to say, ‘I told you so’”, but that would not actually be true. I said on Second Reading that if we did not deal then with the equality issue, elaborated very well by my hon. Friend Greg Mulholland and Caroline Lucas, we would have to do it all over again at a later date. Regrettably, that is the position in which we seem now to find ourselves.
Personally, I entirely endorse what my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds North West and for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie)—the latter also signed the new clauses—said about the intention of the new clauses. If we want to do the job properly, we need to differentiate religious and civil marriage. My hon. Friend Tim Loughton asked whether the word “marriage” and its associations might prevent people from taking up a civil commitment of legal union. Without dancing on the head of a pin, however, over the different legal obligations of a union between two people of whatever sex, it should not be beyond the wit of the House or the Government to introduce measures to achieve the equality objective in a way entirely congruent with the position put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West. However, I have to tell him that my judgment is that where we have got to on this—the work done in Committee and, frankly, the failure to take the opportunity to address the issue properly—means that it will not get done. I am influenced to a degree by the position taken by Stonewall and my right hon. Friend Nick Herbert, who, along with others, is extremely anxious to get this Bill on the statute book.
In the end, the conclusive position is that of Opposition Front Benchers. It is their decision that will dictate what actually happens. I would have come to a conclusion that agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West: that if we cannot do it properly, which is how he wanted to do it, then doing it in a second-best fashion and having two levels of union or marriage—civil partnerships or civil marriage, with religious marriage associated with it—would at least deliver equality. Understandably, the Opposition have—in my view properly and responsibly—made a judgment about whether the route offered by new clause 10 might threaten the timely passage of the Bill and thereby delay matters for those who are anxious to get on and take advantage of the opportunity to enter a same-sex marriage.
It is a messy compromise, but I will support the Opposition’s amendment, to ensure that we get on with the review in as timely a fashion as possible and drop this five-year business from the Bill. I have to say to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench that the way in which we have managed this whole process has not reflected very well on any of us. Frankly, it does not reflect terribly well on Opposition Front Benchers that they have undertaken this manoeuvre right at the last moment. All this was predictable and was predicted, not least by me. The conclusion is that we will have the opportunity to have all this entertainment all over again at some future date, when we finally address the issue of equality and put a measure that promotes complete equality on the statute book. I regret that that is where the corpus of opinion appears to be now. If we could rescue things and introduce a proper measure of equality—which is what the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol North West and for Leeds North West would do—that is what I would wish for. I regret that we are in this position, but I am going to bow to the inevitable, accept second best and look forward to the opportunity to do this all over again at some future date.
I have a great deal of time for Tim Loughton—who may or may not have been about to leave the Chamber as I stood up. I would have been proud if the work he did as children’s Minister, particularly on adoption, had been done in the name of a Labour Government. I was disappointed to see him leave the Front Bench—although presumably not as disappointed as he was. He has started, in an excellent speech, to open my mind on this issue with his arguments—I am not yet convinced, but I am happy to support new clause 16 as amended.
When we legislated in this House 10 years ago, we stopped short of legalising same-sex marriage for the simple reason that it was considered a step too far. We did not legislate for civil partnerships because we had arrived at a perfect alternative institution to marriage. We stopped at that point. We deliberately and intentionally created something that was not as good as marriage, because politically we did not feel we could get it at that time. We did so for the best reasons possible and it was a huge step forward, not just for gay couples but for the whole nation. I am extremely proud to have voted for that legislation, but let us be honest about what civil partnerships were. They fell short of marriage—they were second best—because we could not get as far as marriage. That is why, a decade later, we are debating this reform. In a perfect world, it would have been delivered long before now. The case for allowing same-sex couples to marry is not that they have been denied it so far; it is that marriage is better than a civil partnership.
I do not think that many of the people who have entered into successful and happy civil partnerships would agree that those partnerships were in some way second best. In 2004, we might not have known where this journey would lead us, but nine years on we can see that the civil partnership legislation has been extremely successful in its own right. It ought to be celebrated.
I accept what my hon. Friend says, but let me ask her a question. Had we been able to legislate to allow same-sex marriage 10 years ago and had such a law been put on the statute book, would we be having this debate today? Would we be spending more than a few seconds debating whether to introduce civil partnerships for straight and gay couples? Of course the answer is no.
Like every other Member, I have received letters and e-mails warning me that legislating for same-sex marriage will, in some undefined way, undermine the institution of marriage. I take a very different view. I believe that the real threat to marriage will come from the continuation of civil partnerships and their extension to heterosexual couples. As things stand today, the legal security and recognition offered by marriage can be enjoyed only by straight couples. The legal security and recognition offered by civil partnerships can be enjoyed only by same-sex couples, although I hope that that is about to change. Needlessly telling all couples that they can now opt for a second-best arrangement that nevertheless offers all the same legal privileges and protections as marriage would surely undermine marriage far more than extending the qualification for marriage to same-sex couples. From the day the Bill becomes law, the choice offered to all couples will be the same as the choice that has up to now been offered to all straight couples: either get married or don’t—it is your choice.
Because we have indulged in this debate, we have failed to address anther issue. Many individuals—mostly, but not always, women with dependent children—need to be offered more security when they are living with a partner and perhaps depending on him financially. But if that partner is unwilling to commit to marriage, he will probably be equally reluctant to enter an alternative arrangement that offers the same level of legal and financial responsibilities. What those partners and families need is some kind of passive legal recognition, perhaps similar to what used to be known as common law marriage, a state that used to prevail in Scotland but which, since 2006, no longer does so. Moves to make civil partnerships available to all might, on the face of it, look like a progressive move, but they will do nothing to help those vulnerable women, and their children, who are in relationships with partners who simply refuse to bind themselves with legal red tape.
As for those who have already entered into a civil partnership and who do not wish to enter into the state of marriage as provided by this Bill, I have to say that it should not be beyond the wit of the Government or this House to frame legislation that would recognise each existing civil partnership until it was dissolved either legally or by the death of one partner, while preventing any more civil partnerships from being entered into. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham says that he wants full equality. I concede that making civil partnerships available to straight couples is one way of achieving that. Another way would be to make civil partnerships available to no one.
I want to put on record that I support new clause 10, because the Bill is fundamentally about equality and, to some extent, equality must mean symmetry. If we are going to make the dramatic and historic move to exercise equality across marriage, we must have symmetry. It is extraordinary that, despite the alarms that have been raised and the warnings that have been given about the failure to extend civil partnerships symmetrically to different-sex couples, three amendments have been tabled on this subject only at the eleventh hour. This does not seem to have been thought through before now. That is a disappointing state of affairs for a Bill that so loudly claims to have equality at the centre of everything it does.
If we are to be logically and intellectually consistent, I do not see how we can pass a Bill that extends equality in marriage without extending civil partnerships to different-sex couples. It is not as if such symmetry was a surprise or not much covered in the debate. When would the next opportunity be? We have already seen the amount of controversy created by rearranging marriage, which is so connected with the fundamental roots of our establishment and the relationship between the state and the Church. It is unlikely, I think, that many Governments will rush to introduce such legislation again.
As well as supporting new clause 10, I support the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend Greg Mulholland, as I believe that we have missed a fundamental opportunity genuinely to modernise marriage in the world in which we live. Some may say that that is a very difficult, complex and controversial operation to undertake; I would agree. Some may say that it is not an operation that should be undertaken lightly; I would agree. If we are to undertake it, however, perhaps we should tackle one of the biggest anomalies we face, which is the role of the Church of England in how we see marriage in a multi-faith, often secular world.
What have we learned from this debate that has been so played out in the newspapers over the past months? It is that the concept of marriage is—we should hold our breath—controversial. People believe different things. Some fervently believe—and, they would say, with good reason—that marriage, by description, is a union between a man and a woman. Others with equal fervour—and, they would say, with equal reason—believe that it is a union between two individuals who are committed and love each other very much. As marriage is a social construct, it is difficult to say which one of those should reign supreme. Certainly, since this is in the realm of subjective individual attitudes towards people’s relationship with each other, I as a Conservative do not think that the state should be stepping into it and dictating with such vigour.
I therefore support civil partnerships for same-sex and different-sex couples and, if that does not come about, the removing of civil partnerships for same-sex and different-sex couples for the reason of symmetry. The state should take control of that which belongs to the state—the objective and our tax and legal affairs—and the genuine, subjective view of one person towards another and what their relationship signifies in the eyes of any higher authority that they choose to name should be in the realm of the subjective and the civic arena.
If we had before us a controversial and historic Bill for which we would be remembered, I and many people across the country could support it. Given the duty placed on this House to exert influence and create equality for its citizens, my grave reservation is that we have missed a very big opportunity. We risk putting an equality sticking plaster on a fundamentally anachronistic and rather flawed system. I will see how the House votes on the amendments this evening before deciding how to vote tomorrow, but I regret this great missed opportunity for those who believe in genuine and not just cosmetic equality.
Like Caroline Lucas, I signed new clause 10 in good faith and I stand by it in good faith. As someone who voted for the Bill’s Second Reading and who has defended my position on the Bill since, I am quite clear that if provisions are there to extend equality, then equality is what should be extended and provided for. The fact that some supporters of new clause 10 oppose the Bill will not intimidate me into not supporting it. Equally, the fact that Mr Harris, who will be supporting new clause 16 as amended, wants to emerge from the review potentially the abolition of civil partnerships for anyone will not intimidate me into not supporting the review if it is intended to look at some of the issues that arise.
It is perfectly possible for Members to vote for new clause 16, as amended, and for new clause 10 precisely because, as Tim Loughton made very clear, the two could be reconciled if the Government committed with Opposition support to bringing forward an additional amendment with a qualified commencement date for new clause 10 that relates to the review provided by new clause 16. An entirely false tension has been created between them. Sensible good legislators can support both, and sensible good legislators should demand that both Front-Bench teams get their acts together properly and come out with a competent Bill that not only gives equality now for those who need it, but promises equality in the future for those who are clearly saying, “Why are we being left behind and left in limbo?”
I have no objection in principle to the extension of civil partnerships to heterosexual couples—far from it—but I am concerned about what is proposed by my hon. Friend Tim Loughton, and the effect that it could have.
First, let us look more carefully at the policy intent that lies behind new clause 10. It has been claimed that some 3 million cohabiting couples have not married and that the new clause would give them an incentive to formalise their arrangements, but why do they not wish to formalise their arrangements at the moment? What evidence or assessment should lead us to believe that any proportion of those 3 million people would seek to enter into a commitment that is as exacting as a marriage commitment, with all that it entails?
The fact is that none of us, on either side of the House, can quantify the demand. We are struggling with the figures relating to the potential pension and taxation impact, for instance, because we do not know the extent of that demand. If we are honest about it, we must acknowledge that no group or lobby is telling Members of Parliament that this is what they want. Indeed, very few people are doing so. That stands in stark contrast to those who have been urging for some time—
I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I make some progress.
As it does not appear that there is a constituency that is in favour of the change, we do not know how many people would enter into such a commitment. The findings of a poll that was conducted by YouGov at the weekend suggested that the uptake would be relatively low. Given the number of cohabiting couples, we must start to consider what are the proper policy solutions.
In 2007, the Law Commission produced a set of proposals that would have imposed duties on cohabiting couples when it came to separation and their responsibilities for children. My hon. Friend—who I know has a fine record, having been a Children’s Minister—did not mention that. According to the Law Commission,
“cohabitants have not made the distinctive legal and public commitment that marriage entails.”
The truth is that the arrangement into which they enter is completely different from the arrangement that we would create in respect of civil partnership. I think that more work needs to be done to assess the real level of demand and determine what are the right cohabiting policy solutions.
The second issue that I wish to raise was described by my hon. Friend Charlotte Leslie as the need to ensure symmetry. Let me point out that no symmetry will be created even if the Bill is passed, as I very much hope that it will be. If passed, it will be a huge step forward in allowing marriage for same-sex couples, but no symmetry will be created, because the principal Churches will not allow marriage for same-sex couples. The Church of England will not be allowed to do it, and the Catholic Church will choose not to do it. It is a false argument to suggest that a symmetry will be created, or that the Bill will create an asymmetry that it will be possible to correct by extending civil partnerships to a completely unquantified and unknown group of people.
Is it not the case that in a mad rush to put same-sex marriage on the statute book, the right hon. Gentleman is prepared to ditch and discard everyone else’s rights irrespective of the cost?
I have already said that I have no objection to the principle, but there is no evidence that there is a demand for the measure.
That brings me to the third point that I wish to make. We now have the prospect of achieving an incredibly important step forward for same-sex couples by introducing marriage for them, and I am very anxious about the possibility that that will be put at risk—I do not put it any more strongly than that—if we add to the Bill an uncertain and unquantified element for which there does not appear to be a genuine demand. I believe the other place may then add greater difficulty into the Bill than would otherwise be the case. It will have two issues to deal with, rather than one. I therefore urge all of good faith who support marriage for same-sex couples to be very cautious before supporting the amendment in question. Indeed, I urge them to oppose it, and to do the straightforward thing of agreeing to the review. I support the Opposition amendment to ensure that the review is immediate. Given the complexity of these issues, that is an eminently sensible way forward.
My right hon. Friend clearly said we do not know the cost of the proposals in the amendments. Will he therefore put on record that it was entirely irresponsible and misleading for the Government to brief that the cost could be £3 billion, £4 billion or, as they said today, between £4 billion and £8 billion, and that that may have falsely swayed the argument?
With the greatest respect to my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour—indeed, my constituent —for whom I have a lot of time, he cannot have it both ways. He suggested that the proposal would be a way of dealing with the £44 billion cost of family breakdown. If the impact is small and very few heterosexual people want to take up civil partnerships, it will have little impact on the cost of family breakdown. The answer is that he does not know, the Government do not know and the Opposition do not know, because the work has not been done.
I fully accept that some Members genuinely wish to support the amendment because they believe it would somehow provide an extension of equality, and that they would therefore do so for the best of intentions, but let us be clear: some Members are supporting this amendment for precisely the opposite reason. I do not include my hon. Friend in that. Some Members are breathing the word “equality” for the first time. It sticks in the craw of many of us to be lectured suddenly now about equality by Members who have been opposing this Bill and equality and every single measure that has come forward to promote equality in the first place, including civil partnerships.
Some of the Members who have put their name to this amendment and who intend to vote for it, proclaiming the need to ensure equality and symmetry, voted against the civil partnerships legislation in 2004. One of those Members described that civil partnerships legislation as a buggers’ muddle and thought that was a funny thing to say at the time. Suddenly, within less than a decade, almost no Member of this House will say that they did not support the civil partnerships legislation, and suddenly some of the Members who did not support it stand up now and say, “Oh, it’s terribly important on equality grounds that this category of civil partnerships”—which they did everything they possibly could to oppose—“is extended to heterosexual couples.” It is a faux attachment to equality and it should not be taken at face value.
I do not take anything away from those who genuinely think that it would be a sensible status to create. I am with them, but we must not imperil this Bill by allowing others to play their political games. I assure Members on both sides of the House that those in the other place are waiting for the opportunity to declare that this Bill will need more time and they will have to look at it in much greater detail, and then suddenly we will find that it will not be returned to us, or that it will be returned to us in a form we do not like.
I urge those who wish to see a very important and genuine step forward for equality to recognise the sense of the compromise that the Government and the official Opposition have agreed, which is to review this matter immediately in order to assess whether there is a genuine need for such a change. Let us make sure we genuinely take forward this step for equality now, and that we are not seduced by false arguments.
It is a great honour and a privilege—and also a challenge—to follow Nick Herbert, who is very passionate about this issue and who has championed the cause of same-sex marriage with great authority.
People will want to arrange their relationships in a number of different ways. Some will want to have marriages; some will want to have civil partnerships; some will simply want to cohabit. The state should enable all those things to happen. The right hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned the Law Commission report and the Bill proposed in the other place by Lord Lester, and I hope we will see progress on that. I am delighted that my party acknowledges those different options. Three years ago, in a conference motion entitled “Equal Marriage in the United Kingdom”, we said that the Government should:
“Open both marriage and civil partnerships to both same-sex and mixed-sex couples.”
I absolutely stand by that.
We know that there are people who would like to have mixed-sex civil partnerships. We know that there was a consultation, although that was denied earlier, that expressed a clear view. It has been argued that not many people would want such partnerships, but I do not see that as a problem. Equality matters. Even if only a few people are being discriminated against, we should all want to stop any such discrimination.
Arguments have also been made about costs and, as a matter of principle, I do not think that costs should be a bar to equalities legislation. It would, I suspect, be a lot cheaper to deny women the vote or to restrict voting even further to wealthy men above a certain age, but I do not think that anybody in the House would argue that to save money at election time we should reduce the number of people who could vote.
I am also concerned about the idea of cost as a matter of policy, and I tried to raise that issue earlier with the Secretary of State. It would save the country money in pensions if we actively discouraged people from getting married or having relationships, but I do not think that that is the right way to go. If people would like to have those relationships, the fact that they will get some pension rights should not stop us from allowing them.
I believe passionately in equal civil marriage, but I also agree with the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs that we must not give up hope on same-sex marriage to try to get that. That would be the wrong choice. That is why I welcome the review and the fact that it will now be an urgent, prompt review rather than one that sits in the long grass for five years. It is not just a question of when we start it, however, but of when we finish it. That must also be prompt. It is not the starting time that will make a difference to people who want such a provision, but the finishing time.
We also need a commitment to act when the review concludes. I hoped to intervene on the Secretary of State earlier to hear that there would be a commitment to legislation, if such a recommendation is the outcome of the review and consultation. That is what we are all expecting and, whether it happens in this Bill or in a future Bill, we want to see it.
I want to see progress towards equality, equal marriage and equal civil partnerships. We have a decision to make as a House about how best to get there. It is a question of balance and there are those who, for the best of reasons, will want to support new clause 10 so that we can plough ahead. I understand that reasoning and it is a close call, but I think that they are risking a lot. They are risking the failure of the rest of the Bill’s provisions on same-sex marriage and I hope that they will not do that. That might not be the intention of Tim Loughton, but it might be the consequence, and I am alarmed at that prospect and by the decisions that the Prime Minister might face if that happened. There is a tough balance to be struck in how we make the most progress we can on equalities, but I think that we must support the review and not new clause 10.
Clearly, we have had a vigorous debate today. Let me wind up before we move to a vote.
It is clear that adding the whole new concept of the extension of civil partnerships threatens delaying and even potentially derailing the Bill. New clause 16 offers a considered way forward, ensuring that the questions that hon. Members on both sides of the House have rightly asked can be answered. There has been a great deal of talk about fairness, and the fairness that this Bill enables is that same-sex couples can marry for the first time. We should not be trying to rectify other issues before we rectify that.
We must make it clear, as those on both Front Benches have done already, that an immediate review is possible to assess the need for the extension of civil partnerships. I am absolutely happy to accept the manuscript amendment tabled by the Opposition and to make it clear that we will facilitate a speedy review. It is clear from today’s debate, however, that there are policy and cost implications and we should ensure that we know them before we move forward. I will not allow the extension of civil partnerships to heterosexual couples to delay the Bill, and I think that all three main parties agree on that.
Kate Green rightly said, in her considered contribution—I welcomed the tone that she took—that to date there had been “cursory” consultation in this area. I welcome her desire for further elucidation of the issues that we have talked about, and her desire for the Bill’s passage not to be delayed. New clause 16, and amendment (a) to it, will give us a considered way forward. I also welcome the fact that she will not support new clauses 10 and 11, and I hope that those proposing those new clauses will consider not pressing them as a result.
My hon. Friend Tim Loughton gave an interesting and passionate display of argumentation. He will see that there is a clear undertaking around new clause 16, and that a review will take place while the Bill is in the
Lords, which will provide a prompt response, in terms of a consultation; perhaps that will give him the reassurance that he is looking for.
We have a dilemma here, because if my right hon. Friend goes ahead with new clause 16 on the basis that the review could take until 2019, we must vote against it. She has just said that an immediate review is possible. Will she clearly tell Government Members whether she agrees with Kate Green, who has made it clear that she thinks a review can have taken place come Report in the Lords, and that its findings could be added to the Bill before it has gone through both Houses? If that is the case, I would be delighted to support my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and drop my new clauses, but she needs to make it clear whether she thinks that is practically doable.
What I can be absolutely clear about is that I am committed to undertaking an urgent review, and that the review will come through promptly, and in the way that my hon. Friend would expect. The Bill is due in the House of Lords in two weeks. It would not be feasible—no Member of the House would expect it—for me to undertake a proper consultation in that time frame, but I undertake further to discuss the timetable for the review with my hon. Friend, and it will absolutely go forward in a prompt fashion. That is what he would expect us to say.
My right hon. Friend Nick Herbert made an impassioned speech. He properly talked about the importance of getting the right solutions for cohabiting couples, and the extension of civil partnerships may or may not be that right solution. We need to do the right policy work to ensure that we take these decisions for the right reasons, and in the right way.
Mr Woodward put his finger on it when he said that the gross unfairness is the fact that same-sex couples cannot get married. That is what the House needs to focus on today. By voting for new clause 16 and amendment (a) to it, we can get to a position in which we can deal with the issue of extending civil partnerships to heterosexual couples without it getting in the way of making sure that the unfairness that he rightly identifies is dealt with swiftly. He talked eloquently about the inequities in pension provision. If that was a simple issue to rectify, presumably his Government would have addressed the issue back in 2004.
Mr Harris talked about same-sex marriage being a step too far in 2004. I was not a Member of the House at that point, but I understand the sentiment behind his comments. I can say to the House today that this is not a step too far. It is not something that we should shy away from. We have to be clear in our commitment to focusing on extending marriage to same-sex couples, and should not be distracted by trying to incorporate into the Bill, at this point in time, issues that would create further delay and debate in the other place.
Will my right hon. Friend provide the House with her assessment of the fundamental difference between a civil partnership and same-sex marriage, save the marriage bit?
That issue has been raised at every stage of the debate—on Second Reading and in Committee. My hon. Friend will know by now that there are some technical differences in the way that the Bill will work, but the biggest difference of all is that we are for the first time enabling same-sex couples to have access to something that heterosexual couples have taken for granted for many decades and hundreds of years and that society values intrinsically. We have to ask ourselves why we should deny people the ability to take part in something that so many of us know is a rich and important part of our lives.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. These are matters that have been decided in Northern Ireland and I respect entirely the decisions that have been taken. I will continue to work with colleagues in the Northern Ireland Assembly to make sure that the will of that part of the United Kingdom is dealt with in the appropriate way. What he rightly describes is the situation for civil partnerships that take place in other parts of the world already. The Northern Ireland Assembly recognises, as we would expect it to, a civil partnership that took place, for example, in Canada or Spain. We are simply asking for marriages of same-sex couples to be recognised in the way that civil partnerships from other countries are recognised. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree with that.
Perhaps my hon. Friend would forgive me if I draw my remarks to a close, as the House has had a great deal of discussion on the matter today and I am not sure he was available for the earlier discussions on this group of amendments.
I say to colleagues across the House that we must show our commitment to the ability of same-sex couples to be married. We have to show that we are not diverted but that we will make sure that we consider in full the opportunities of extending civil partnerships to heterosexual couples. We can achieve that if colleagues vote through new clause 16, as I said, but we need to make sure that we are prioritising now the need for the choice for same-sex couples to be able to get married, not further choice among heterosexual couples. That is an important measure that the Government can put forward today and it has support from both those on the Labour Front Bench and the Liberal Democrat Front Bench.
Many of the issues that we have discussed today were discussed when the Bill was before the House back in 2004. When the issue of extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples came before the House, the then Minister, Jacqui Smith, ruled it out, saying:
“That is not a matter for the Bill”—[Hansard, 12 October 2004; Vol. 425, c. 179.]
“This Bill does not undermine or weaken the importance of marriage and we do not propose to open civil partnership to opposite-sex couples.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 22 April 2004; Vol. 660, c. 388.]
I think that my hon. Friend has heard me say already that what we are very clear about and focused on is ensuring that the passage of the Bill is not impeded and that we will look carefully and in detail at the way civil partnerships could be taken forward in future but we have to do that in the right way. The House would expect us to come forward with a considered recommendation that has been fully consulted on, and that is what we intend to do.
I think that we have had a full and frank debate, and I thank all Members who have taken the time to contribute. I think that the manner of the debate has been in the best fashion of this House. We have listened to each other and considered the arguments. We will ensure that the Bill, as it goes forward for its second day on Report tomorrow, can be considered in the proper manner.
Debate interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
Question accordingly agreed to.
New clause 16 read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
The Speaker then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (
Amendment made to new clause 16: (a), leave out from ‘practicable’ to end of Clause, and insert
‘and include a full public consultation’.—(Kate Green.)
New clause 16, as amended, added to the Bill.