Civil Partnership Act 2004 (Amendment)

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham 12:40 pm, 21st October 2015

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Civil Partnership Act 2004 to provide that opposite sex couples may enter a civil partnership;
and for connected purposes.

The eagle-eyed among those remaining in the Chamber will have spotted that this Bill has form. It is identical to the Bill I brought before the House last year, and it mirrors the amendment I proposed during the report stage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill in May 2013. My Bill therefore makes its hat-trick appearance today, unencumbered by any other legislation, in the hope that it will be third time lucky and will move into Committee.

Just as the House decided it was time for equal marriage then, it is surely time for equal civil partnerships now, particularly as they remain an unintended inequality created by the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 and they are backed by many supporters of that legislation, as well as by those, like me, who were less enthusiastic about it. Indeed, the Government’s original consultation, before the first Bill, showed 61% of respondents in favour of extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. Alas, for some inexplicable reason, it never made it into the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which would, I think, have made it a better Act. That is why change is still necessary today.

There are two main rationales for supporting the Bill. First, it will correct what I have mentioned as an unintended but glaring inequality resulting from the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act whereby same-sex couples are still entitled to continue in a civil partnership, to take up a civil partnership or to enjoy the recent extension of marriage, while opposite-sex couples have only the option of conventional marriage, albeit by a larger range of religious institutions. That is not fair. It gives rise to an inequality in what was billed as an “Act to promote equalities”.

Secondly, a positive reason for pushing forward with this Bill is family stability. In 2010, an Office for National Statistics report said that there were some 2,893,000 cohabiting opposite-sex couples in this country—almost double the figure reported some 15 years earlier. Some 53% of all birth registrations are to married parents, but around a third are to unmarried parents who are living together. Indeed, cohabitation is the fastest-growing form of family in this country, and we need to recognise that our society is changing.

People choose not to get involved in the paraphernalia of formal marriage for a variety of reasons: it is too much of an establishment thing to do; it is identified as an innately religious institution for many, and even if done in a register office, it has religious connotations; some see it as having a patriarchal side, so it is seen as some form of social control. Those are not my own views, but are certainly the way many see it.

There are a whole lot 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 if they do not want to go for traditional marriage, they have no way of having that recognised in the eyes of the state. Particularly worrying is 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 an inheritance tax bill on the estate, and potentially on the family home. If a woman has a child with her partner and the relationship breaks down, she is not entitled to any form of financial support if they are not married. There is no automatic entitlement to property, even if she had been paying into the mortgage.

Where one partner is much older than the other and there is a reasonable expectation that one will die some years before the other, the long-term survivor would not receive the same tax benefits as a married woman or those in a civil partnership, which would be discriminatory towards the couple’s children. Even a couple engaged to be married have more rights than a cohabiting couple.

The question is, why should not those who have made a conscious choice not to go for a traditional marriage 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?

However, there is a further major practical benefit in achieving equality of civil partnerships and opening them up to opposite-sex couples: family stability. The Centre for Social Justice has calculated that the cost to this country of family breakdown is some £48 billion, or some 2.5% of gross domestic product. That is a big problem, a growing problem, and a costly problem—costly, both financially and socially, to our society.

Fewer than one in 10 married parents have split up 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 much more likely to fall out of school and 70% more likely to be addicted to drugs, and is more likely to get into trouble with the law, to be homeless, and not to be in employment, education or training. That is not to be judgmental about parents who find themselves having to bring up a child alone through no fault of their own, but two partners make for greater stability.

We know that marriage works, but we also know that civil partnerships are beginning to show 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 ways. If just one in 10 cohabiting opposite-sex couples entered into a civil partnership, that would amount to some 300,000 couples and their children. It would offer the prospect of yet greater security, greater stability, less likelihood of family breakdown, better social outcomes and better financial outcomes. That, surely, is progress.

There is a further application. Many people who have strong religious beliefs—particularly Catholics who 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 their Church supposedly believes that they should be married for life. In many cases, however, they would be able to reconcile that position by entering into a new formal commitment through an opposite-sex civil partnership. So there are a number of practical, real-life scenarios in which civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples could achieve something very positive.

Opposite-sex civil partnerships are not something that has been cooked up in this country. In South Africa, the Civil Union Act 2006 gave same-sex and opposite-sex couples the option to register a civil union by way of a marriage or a civil partnership on the same basis. In France, 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, one in 10 PACS has been dissolved in France, while one in three marriages ends in divorce. There is evidence that some of those civil partnerships have created greater stability, whether they are opposite-sex or same-sex partnerships.

No complications are 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 that person was already in a union, and the partnership would need to be subject to the same termination criteria. It is a simple proposal, and surely the case is overwhelming. All that is required is a simple one-line amendment to the Civil Partnership Act 2004. It could all be done and dusted in Committee by teatime.

There is a growing tide of support for this measure, fuelled by a court case that is currently being considered by the High Court, and which I will not go into. Suffice it to say that the outcome of that case could have substantial implications for many other couples who simply want their families to be recognised in the eyes of the state. The issue began when the couple involved approached their local register office to register their opposite-sex partnership. As they put it—and I saw them only this morning—

“We wanted to formalise our relationship and celebrate it with friends and family but we're not able to do it for what seems like no apparent reason. We prefer the idea of a civil partnership because it reflects us as a couple—we want equality through our relationship and with a baby now we want the protections offered by formalising marriage.”

Many Members believe that the time has come to back equal civil partnerships, potentially to the benefit of many cohabiting couples and their children, and of the stability of our society as a whole. My Bill has widespread cross-party support inside and outside the House. This concise and simple but important measure could bring about equality for those who choose civil partnership, and I urge the House to support it.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Tim Loughton, Mr Graham Brady, Andy Slaughter, Caroline Lucas, Greg Mulholland, Mr Geoffrey Robinson, Sir Roger Gale, Stephen Twigg, Mrs Anne Main, Keir Starmer, Pauline Latham and Mark Durkan present the Bill.

Tim Loughton accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 29 January 2016 and to be printed (Bill 83).