I completely agree, and I will say something about that in a minute. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support for the couple whom I mentioned, and his support for the overall campaign.
The issue arose when Charles and Rebecca approached their local register office to register their opposite-sex partnership. As they put it,
“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 2 babies now we want the protections offered by formalising marriage.”
The couple have campaigned tirelessly through the courts. Interestingly, at the Appeal Court last year a split decision ruled against them, but—as was mentioned by Andy Slaughter —the court put the Government on notice that the current situation was unsustainable, and referred specifically to my private Member’s Bill as a vehicle for remedying it. I do not want to prejudge the Supreme Court’s findings—the case has not yet been put before it—but it is hard to see how the Government will not be criticised for not taking heed of the need for action when the golden opportunity afford by my private Member’s Bill has dropped into their lap.
I appreciate that—as the hon. Member for Hammersmith also mentioned—the Government are also reserving the option of achieving equality by scrapping civil partnerships altogether and sticking with same-sex and opposite-sex marriage. I think that that would be a mistake. It is no surprise that there has been a big reduction in the number of civil partnerships since the option of full same-sex marriage was introduced in 2014. In 2016 there were 890 civil partnerships, whereas the average was about 6,000 in previous years, before marriage was an option. That figure was, in fact, an increase on the number in 2015, but, more tellingly, although the full figures have yet to be published, the number of civil partnerships that were converted to full marriage is still in the teens. Indeed, in 2014, when the option first became available, only 4% of existing same-sex civil partnerships were converted to marriage, which suggests that civil partnerships have a specific and different role. That applies as much to same sex-couples as it no doubt would to opposite-sex couples who have been denied the opportunity to gauge the demand so far. Abolishing civil partnerships altogether would deprive not just opposite-sex couples but same sex-couples of choice, and would leave tens of thousands of civil partners in limbo, forced either to become an abolished species or to convert to the full marriage that they had thus far resisted.
In the last consultation on extending civil partnerships, the Church of England was strongly in favour of retaining them. William Fittall, the secretary general of the Archbishops’ Council and the House of Bishops, said:
“Our arguments for the retention of civil partnerships are based on the need to maintain an option for those same-sex couples who wish for proper recognition of their relationship but do not believe that their relationship is identical to ‘marriage’.”
I hope that, by the same token, the Church of England will soon come round to the idea of giving formal church blessings to civil partners.
I also hope that the Government will quickly move from a further consultation phase to an implementation phase, and nothing in the Bill would curtail the speed at which they could do so. There is no statutory requirement to put a consultation in legislation. I hope that the further review that I think the Minister wants to offer can start immediately and in parallel with the Bill’s passage, so that if the Government determined what we already know, they could enable thousands of potential civil partners to tie the knot with the same urgency with which the previous Government approached the Bill that became the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013.
Many Members believe that the time has come to back equal civil partnerships, to the potential benefit of many cohabiting couples and their children and the stability of our society as a whole. This part of my Bill has widespread cross-party support both inside and outside the House. It is a concise and simple but important measure, which could bring about equality for those who choose civil partnership, and I urge the House to support it.