I want to make a few brief remarks about clause 2, on the reform of civil partnerships, but I begin by adding my congratulations to Tim Loughton. It is a shame that he has had to wait 20 years for a Bill, but he is certainly making up for it now. It is always a pleasure to work with him, because he does so a spirit of just getting things done. We were together on the tasting panel to choose the new House of Commons gin—and that went very well indeed. I should add that it is a very fine west London gin. Despite his positivity, I am sure he shares my disappointment that the Bill does not go further, and I hope that it will do so in Committee and on Report.
I am slightly alarmed that the Bill, albeit in what is perhaps a holding clause, raises the prospect of losing civil partnerships altogether, because I think that would be a backward step. The Government are clearly serious about looking at that as an alternative, but I urge them to think again. I think that the consensus across the House—hon. Members have been very supportive of the Bill generally—is very much to support civil partnerships as an institution, and one that adds something to the institution of marriage. Yes, it is good—this is a step forward—that the Government recognise that there has to be equality, that there is unfinished business and that this a “how the law will change” clause rather than, like some others, a “whether the law will change” clause. Such a lack of equity is very important because we should not treat different couples differently, as my hon. Friend Sandy Martin said, so even though such a change would extend rights for opposite-sex couples, it would not be good for same-sex couples. The point that was made about suddenly creating a historical and fossilised group of people if we now remove civil partnerships from same-sex couples just seems perverse.
A stronger reason, which I thought would appeal to the Government, is that the provision extends choice. That is the primary motivation of my constituents Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld, who I am pleased to say are here for the debates. They have been absolutely stakhanovite in pursuing this matter through the High Court for judicial review, through the Appeal Court and now on to the Supreme Court on 15 and
Charles and Rebecca now have two young children—they did not have them at the start of the process—and it will be good if the Government can move speedily. They are being prompted not only by Members of Parliament but by the Supreme Court and the Appeal Court to get on with it. The issue of choice in itself is sufficient, but I would mention one other point, which was raised by my hon. Friend Dr Drew in relation to cohabitation. There are now 3.3 million cohabiting opposite-sex couples. That figure has more than doubled in the past 20 years. Surveys have shown that two thirds of those couples are unaware that there is no special institution called “common law marriage”. They have extraordinarily few rights. A couple separating after perhaps 20 years or on the death of one partner can find that they have very few rights and many liabilities that they would not otherwise have had.
Lady Hale, the President of the Supreme Court, has called for
“a remedy for unmarried couples in English law, along the same basis as in Scotland”,
where there is some protection. I do not say that the extension of civil partnerships will be some magic bullet for dealing with the real problems with cohabitation law or lack of it, but it is nevertheless a step forward. The very fact that we are all talking about it and that there is a lot of publicity about the Bill and the issue will make more people aware of their lack of rights. I think that a substantial number of people will take advantage of the change in the law; people who do not want to go through even a civil, let alone a religious, marriage ceremony will see a civil partnership differently and will get that protection under the law.
The Bill provides an opportunity for the Government to look more generally at the gaps in the system. The Bill deals with one of those gaps. We will return no doubt at some stage to humanist marriage, but the Government also have a duty to look at cohabitation. Perhaps not by coincidence, the case of Siobhan McLaughlin is also going to the Supreme Court in April. She was cohabiting for 20 years, and her partner sadly died. She had four teenage children. She found out that she was not entitled to bereavement payments or to a widowed parent allowance of perhaps more than £100 a week. The Supreme Court will no doubt do its usual excellent job on this, but I am not sure that these are matters that should be left entirely to the courts. They are for us and for the Government.
I hope that in amending and supporting the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, the Government will support the extension of civil partnerships. I hope that they will also look more generally at defects in the rules for both cohabiting couples and couples who wish to enter the security of those arrangements.