‘(1) The Secretary of State must make regulations to change the law relating to civil partnership to bring about equality between same-sex couples and other couples in terms of their future ability or otherwise to form civil partnerships.
(2) Regulations under this section must give effect to such equality within 6 months of this Act being passed.
(3) For the purposes of this section, “other couples” means couples who but for the provisions of section 3(1)(a) of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 would be eligible to register as civil partners of each other.’—(Tim Loughton.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
May I pay tribute to the Minister who has just spoken, the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Mrs Wheeler? Her speech was a masterpiece of clarity, conciseness and succinctness on a Friday morning on which there is important business to proceed with.
We had a very thorough and constructive Committee stage. I thank all the Members who took part in it, as well as the Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Victoria Atkins. She is not in the Chamber today, but she has been part of the Bill process. I welcome the Minister for Immigration, my right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes, who I hope will deftly manage the Bill without incident on its passage through these important stages. I am sure she will want to carry on the continuity of support that the Government have given, because there is very widespread support from both sides of the House for all four major parts of this Bill. Virtually all of them are now Government policy, so there is therefore no reason why they should not want it to proceed. I anticipate that today should be a breeze, and that we can get on to the Third Reading of my Bill and swiftly go on to the Organ Donation (Deemed Consent) Bill, which so many of us support. We offer our good wishes to the Bill’s sponsor, Mr Robinson, who cannot be in the Chamber today.
Since the Committee sitting on
The change was of course spurred on by the ruling of the Supreme Court on
May I offer the hon. Gentleman my congratulations on achieving this step forward? As he will remember, I intervened on him on Second Reading about the necessity of treating everyone equally according to the law. Obviously, everyone could be treated equally badly; I am glad that everyone is now going to be treated equally well.
The hon. Gentleman quite rightly spoke very eloquently and with his own personal experience in support of this part of the Bill on Second Reading, for which I was very grateful, and that was very effective.
As I say, I was not warned about this advance in Government policy by the Prime Minister, and I have not really been briefed since about exactly what it amounts to. At the moment, I have no idea whether the Government will now accept this new clause, will vote against it, or will allow debate to go on—perhaps beyond 2.30 pm today. Frankly, if there are objections from the Government, I hope they will be based on fact, not conjecture or some of the scare stories about what my new clause might actually achieve. However, I have been involved in some very helpful discussions with the lead officials in the Government Equalities Office on civil partnerships legislation, and of course the continued support of the excellent lead official from the Home Office on this Bill, Linda Edwards.
The problem the new clause addresses is that at no point have the Government indicated a timeline or a method for bringing the extension of civil partnerships into effect. Delay and obfuscation was a major criticism in the ruling by the Supreme Court earlier in the year. More than three months after the Supreme Court ruling, the Government have simply indicated that they will address the inequality by extending civil partnerships, rather than abolishing them. Abolishing them was never a practical option, but that confirmation is very welcome.
Four months on, the Government have not indicated a timeline, despite the urgency factor pressed by the judges. If we read the Supreme Court ruling, we can see that it absolutely highlights the fact that the Government could have acted before now. On several occasions, it refers to this private Member’s Bill and my previous one as a way of rectifying this matter. It actually criticises my private Member’s Bill for not being tougher in proceeding with a change in the law on a timeline, rather than just agreeing to have a report, which I had to do to get the Bill through Second Reading and into Committee.
My Bill, with the addition of this new clause, is actually very helpful to the Government on a number of fronts. It confirms in law that civil partnerships will be equalised, and that the breach with the convention will be rectified. It gives a clear cut-off date for the Government to get on and do it, and it would be effective before the end of next year. If this change goes through, a couple who have been looking to have a civil partnership rather than a marriage—for all the reasons we have debated at length—could make plans from the end of next year to make that a reality. Many people have waited years, and the Government have been on notice about this for years. This is now the time to end the delay.
Crucially, the new clause makes no prescription about the method, wording and reach of the legislative change that is required; that is entirely up to the Government. I know there are some technical matters still to be settled, and I do not want to dictate to them how we achieve that. That is why this is a very flexible amendment to what is a very flexible Bill.
“There is a sense of urgency—very much so.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 635, c. 1122.]
Yet, since that time the Government have not been able to report on the progress of the review work that was announced then, and they did not do so in Committee in July either. Indeed, I gather that the Government Equalities Office was given the go-ahead to undertake much of the review work only in the past few weeks.
I remind the House that that is on the back of two full-blown reviews in the past few years of the whole subject of extending civil partnerships. This must be the most over-reviewed piece of legislation that this House has seen for some time. Why has it all moved so slowly, not least since the Supreme Court ruling that made it inevitable that the law would have to change—and change quickly? I pay tribute to the Equal Civil Partnerships campaign, and to the now well over 130,000 people who have signed its petition for a change in the law. They are understandably growing impatient, and despite the Government’s announcement, they are sceptical in thinking that the legislative changes will be kicked into the long grass.
I gather that the Government plan to bring forward primary legislation in the next Session. That has been indicated in a written ministerial statement released only this morning—at the last moment. I am always rather sceptical of ministerial statements from the Dispatch Box or in written form at the eleventh hour. However, even if there is primary legislation in the next Session, it might be 2021 before a couple could actually take advantage of a civil partnership, and that is only if it is in the Queen’s Speech and survives the vagaries of the parliamentary timetable, which is likely to be under huge pressure during the next Session from potential emergency Brexit-related legislation.
I am afraid, however, that is just not good enough for me, for campaign supporters—including those with life-limiting conditions who are desperate to formulate a relationship while they can—or indeed for the Supreme Court. My Bill is the cleanest and quickest way to change the law, to satisfy the Supreme Court and, most importantly, to address a significant pent-up demand from couples who have waited for this change and the chance of equality for a long time. I cannot understand why the Government have not more proactively used my Bill as a vehicle for achieving that right from the start.
Ministers have put it around that the new clause is flawed and unworkable, but neither is true. I have discussed its wording and terms at length with Clerks of House and lead officials from the Government Equalities Office, and because of flexibility in the wording of the Bill and new clause, the timetable can be achieved by using a truncated six-week review process. Indeed, the Scottish Parliament is currently undertaking its own review into the extension of civil partnerships, and I am sure that it would not mind if we just nicked that. A ready-made “one we made earlier” is on the table, and with a little tweaking it could go into the consultation process in a matter of weeks. A statutory instrument could then be designed in the new year, to be drafted by parliamentary counsel and put before Parliament ahead of the summer recess. I know that will be tight and demand a lot from officials—frankly, those officials would be better placed if they had been allowed to get on with the work when the writing was on the wall some time ago. However, it can be achieved in a way that enables the law to allow opposite-sex couples to enter a civil partnership before the end of 2019. That is what the new clause would do. The statutory instrument route gives greater flexibility on a subject which, frankly, we have debated almost to death. It is less vulnerable to the vagaries of the parliamentary timetable than primary legislation.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point that has been raised several times. Indeed, an amendment to the Civil Partnership Act 2004 has been tabled in the other place to that effect. I have some sympathy with those changes, but for me they are largely a matter of taxation and an issue for the Treasury, because they mainly concern inheritance tax and other tax matters. My Bill is a social family Bill, and one reason for it is an attempt to cement family units and create greater stability for children—recognising a partnership in law, with all the protections that goes with that, is a good fillip for family stability. The point raised by my hon. Friend is a separate and largely financial issue, and I would be sympathetic to separate legislation that will not mess up my Bill but will address that point elsewhere.
My hon. Friend knows that I support him in his endeavours. Given his response to our hon. Friend Maggie Throup, perhaps the Government should indicate that they will consider taxation relationships between people who have a relationship but not a partnership. That may involve siblings, or someone who has stayed at home to look after an elderly parent, but the current taxation arrangements are desperately unfair. However, my hon. Friend is right to say that that issue should not necessarily complicate the Bill.
My hon. Friend is right. This Bill is about civil partnerships, which are a different sort of relationship. I know the issue is fraught with all sorts of nuances, but my original point stands.
Just this week the Government announced that primary legislation could be introduced to prescribe food labelling in light of the recent death of a customer of Pret a Manger, and that those measures could be in place by next summer. No Supreme Court ruling hangs over that problem with the law, so why cannot we achieve today the change under discussion with the new clause to my Bill? If the Government allowed the amended Bill to proceed, they would send a strong and reassuring message about their real intent, and put their money where their mouth is.
Like my hon. Friend, I am keen for the provisions in the Bill to be introduced. Will he outline briefly why his new clause only covers provisions on civil partnerships when, for example, we have been waiting to get mothers’ names on marriage certificates for many years?
My hon. Friend pre-empts my closing remarks. If there is a problem getting this Bill through the House, it must be one of the most complicated private Member’s Bills there has ever been, which is my fault. It so happens, however, that all four tenets of the Bill are now Government policy, so there should not be a problem. We still have some way to go before, hopefully, the Bill passes to another place and becomes subject to the vagaries there. If we do not get there, there is the important issue of adding mothers’ names to wedding certificates—that has been an anomaly since the reign of Queen Victoria and should have been addressed ages ago. Now at last we can do it.
The Bill contains important provisions on allowing coroners to look into certain stillbirths, and again, huge cross-party support for that has been aired on many occasions. There are also other important matters regarding how we view stillbirths before the 24-week gestation period. This Bill is not just about civil partnerships; it is about a whole load of other things for which there is widespread support. I hope that the Government will see that the new clause is well intended and will hold the feet of officials to the fire as they work long hours to get this legislation through. It is achievable. I have tabled new clause 1 in the spirit of being helpful to the Government in achieving equality. Consequential amendment 1 has now become redundant, because it is now Government policy to allow civil partnerships, and the new clause will ensure that we get on with it.
When warned that I might be speaking early, Madam Deputy Speaker, I had not expected it to be this early.
My hon. Friend Tim Loughton has raised important points, and I am grateful to him for having promoted this Bill in its entirety, and for his enormous and, as he pointed out, long-standing campaigning work in support of civil partnerships.
As most hon. Members will know, when the Bill was first introduced back in February, the Government had not yet taken a final decision on the future of civil partnerships. We were clear that the current situation, in which same-sex couples can marry or enter a civil partnership but opposite-sex couples can only marry, needed to be addressed. Indeed, earlier this year we published a Command Paper that set out how we would proceed with our deliberations to ensure that we chose the right course of action. Events over the past few months have moved on substantially, not least thanks to the efforts of my hon. Friend in promoting this Bill, and I am pleased that the Prime Minister recently announced our intention to make civil partnerships available to both opposite-sex and same-sex couples. We intend to introduce specific legislation to do just that, and I know that in conversation with my hon. Friend, the Minister for Women and Equalities made those intentions clear.
I shall undertake to play nicely with the entire House today, because there are some really important components to the Bill and I feel hugely passionate about the inclusion of mothers’ names on marriage certificates—I do not, however, hope that my young daughter will be in a position to demand my name on her marriage certificate any time soon, but you never know, she is 20. [Interruption.] I doubt she would find a partner in that manner of haste.
I am very conscious that my hon. Friend’s amendment has the support of a large number of right hon. and hon. Members from across the House. We support the common objective of an early move to enable opposite-sex couples to form civil partnerships. We made clear our position and the reasons for our concerns about the amendment in a written statement laid this morning by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities.
My hon. Friend made a point about the written statement being somewhat at the eleventh hour. I am going to play nicely, but I would gently chide him back by saying that his amendment was also somewhat at the eleventh hour, particularly as the Bill went through an intense Committee stage in which right hon. and hon. Members had the opportunity to debate it very fully. Of course, we would not want to be in a position where we do not have an opportunity to debate the amendment and consider the issue properly. None of us wants to still be debating the Bill at 2 o’clock this afternoon and not have the opportunity to make the progress that we want to make on other Bills further down the Order Paper.
I do not want to delay the Bill; I want us to get through the business with all speed. It was for that reason that I read the written statement very carefully. It discloses nothing to me that should mean the Government cannot support the Bill promoter’s new clause 1. Will the Minister just indicate whether she will support the new clause, so that we can get on and get the Bill through?
There are a number of important points I would like to make with particular reference to the amendment and some of the challenges we think it poses. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be patient and allow me to get to them.
There are a number of reasons why we are concerned about my hon. Friend’s amendment and a number of reasons why the Bill may not be the most appropriate legislative vehicle in which to equalise access to civil partnerships between same-sex and opposite-sex couples. As I have said, the Bill contains a number of important measures that we certainly do not wish to jeopardise by allowing the substantive amendment on civil partnerships at this late stage in the Bill’s progress through Parliament. I think that these substantive changes deserve to have been debated more thoroughly at earlier stages of the Bill’s progress, rather than just in the limited time available to us today.
I also need to make the point that, while we are happy to have announced our intention to extend civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples, there are still quite a number of significant issues that need to be resolved before we can move on to implement opposite-sex civil partnerships. Some of these are entirely practical. [Interruption.] Chris Bryant from a sedentary position is yelling, “Such as”. If he will give me a chance, I will get to them. For instance, we need to check all the existing legislative provisions that cross-refer to the civil partnership regime to make sure that they still work as intended for opposite-sex couples as well as same-sex couples. These existing provisions are spread across a wide range of current legislation, from arrangements for adoption through to pension entitlements, so this is not an insignificant body of work. Any existing provisions that are not appropriate to extended civil partnerships will need to be changed. There are also a number of sensitive policy issues that will need to be resolved, such as whether convergence from a marriage to a civil partnership should be allowed, and whether the terms for the dissolution of an opposite-sex civil partnership should mirror those for same-sex couples or be the same as for opposite-sex marriages.
We also need to resolve a number of cross-border and devolution issues, such as how we should provide for recognition of similar relationships entered into in other countries, and how our own relationships should be treated in other parts of the United Kingdom which have their own legislation on civil partnerships.
I am disappointed that the amendment tabled today seeks to replace the provisions in clause 2, particularly the requirement for Government to consult and report to Parliament on the way in which they intend to equalise civil partnerships between same-sex and other couples. We particularly supported this original requirement, as we see consultation prior to the implementation of the extension of civil partnerships as key in both helping us to set out the Government’s views on the issues I have just mentioned, as well as getting a broader view of the implications of the various options.
My hon. Friend will acknowledge, of course, that the requirement for review and consultation is not a statutory requirement. It did not need to be in the Bill, but it was the only way of getting it through. And of course the Government, by their own admission, have started that review and consultation, albeit at a late stage. Taking the clause out of the Bill does not mean that it stops it, so it is actually not required.
This is a subject on which we conduct long conversations, reviews and consultation across Government, and the fact that the review has started does not mean that it should stop, but we do want to conclude it. It is important to us to have those views.
The Government are keen to progress the review and to do so as quickly as possible. The planned consultation is not some sort of prevarication; it is a necessary step to help us to ensure that when we introduce legislation it is fit for purpose and does not slow down its parliamentary passage. Officials are already starting to identify all the matters on which we want to consult. I hope that we will soon be in a position to say more about our proposed timing for that consultation, but we wish to conduct it as soon as possible. I stress that the consultation will be about how we make the provisions to ensure that civil partnerships work as intended for opposite-sex couples, not about whether we intend to extend them in that way.
It is about how and we are proceeding. We are determined to do it. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the court judgment. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda says we are doing nothing. In fact, the reality is very much that we are seeking to move forward on this as quickly as we can, but we do think that consultation is important.
However other people may view civil partnerships, our intention is clear. They are intended to have at least one thing in common with marriage: to be a formal bond between couples in a loving relationship. I do not wish to digress too much, but a couple of hon. Members raised this point. I am aware, however, that there are those in this place and the other place who wish to see civil partnerships extended to sibling couples. We do not consider that to be a suitable amendment to either my hon. Friend’s Bill or to a future Government Bill to extend civil partnerships. In the context of today’s debate, I merely note that the addition of substantive amendments on civil partnerships to my hon. Friend’s Bill would make it an easier target for amendments on siblings that would then wreck the Bill, and all its valuable provisions on marriage registration and pregnancy loss would be jeopardised. I note that there is already a Bill in the other place that proposes the extension of civil partnerships to sibling couples. We consider that that Bill, rather than this one, offers an appropriate opportunity to debate the merits of how cohabiting sibling couples should be protected in older age.
The amendment put forward today introduces a wide-ranging delegated power. This causes us concern for several reasons, as I mentioned earlier. We are not yet in a position to know precisely what will be required legislatively, which is why it would be too risky to take a power to change the law by secondary legislation when we are not yet able to explain how we intend to use that power.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities is best placed to make written statements on this matter rather than me, but we will provide as much detail to the House as we possibly can. Hopefully, that will be provided as soon as possible.
The Bill, as introduced, contained provisions for such a power to be included, but those provisions were removed in Committee as we did not wish to provoke parliamentary opposition in either place that could prevent the Bill as a whole from proceeding. Those are the reasons why our preference would be to introduce our own Bill in the next session to extend civil partnership as soon as a suitable legislative opportunity is available, which is what my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities has indicated in her written statement. However, I do not want anyone to think that the Government are merely paying lip-service to the need to press on with resolving this matter.
Government research that was originally due to conclude next autumn has already been brought forward by a year. It has been wound up and officials are now using its findings to help with the impact assessment for the new civil partnerships. The Government Equalities Office has also been in contact with Departments across Whitehall to begin discussions on how to undertake the necessary legislative sweep, and with its counterparts in the devolved Administrations to identify UK cross-border issues that will need to be considered.
I am very conscious of the keen interest that Members of both Houses take in extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples and of the private Member’s Bill brought forward by my right hon. Friend Dame Caroline Spelman and her continued support for our introducing measures through that Bill. In addition, as I have said, a Bill has also been introduced in the Lords on this matter.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has pursued this matter with passion and enthusiasm, and these are legislative proposals that will get on to the statute book, but we are keen to do so in the right way. I hope that this reassures the House that the Government are working hard to extend civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples, as well as same-sex couples, despite not being able to actively support his new clause for the reasons I have outlined.
I think I made it clear that we are not actively supporting my hon. Friend’s amendments, but he has done an excellent job over the last few days of making sure he has enormous support for his amendments both on paper and in the House today.
I take it from that that, because of the forces lined up against the Government, they are throwing in the towel, which is good and encouraging news. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the progress he has made.
I despair at the way the Government have been dragging their feet over this issue for so long. It was on
How wrong were the Government and the Minister? For five years people have been in limbo while the Government have connived over legislation that is at odds with human rights requirements under the European convention. Surely there must be a greater sense of urgency from the Government than was demonstrated in my right hon. Friend’s response to the new clause. I also find it extraordinary that today’s written statement makes no mention of the Supreme Court ruling.
I hope that when the new clause and amendment are put to the vote, they will go through without a Division, but if there is a Division, I will be interested to see whether the Government try to argue against what the Prime Minister has already assured us of—namely, that the Government are on the side of the proposal in the new clause.
I will be very brief. I just want to explain to the Minister why I feel very impatient—she looked grumpy with me for complaining that she was taking a long time. She used words such as “soon”, “as soon as possible” and “quickly”, and while Ministers often use those words, they mean absolutely nothing in parliamentary language.
On the Minister’s timetable, we might get a Bill in the next Session, but I would not be surprised if the next Session was a two-year Session, like this one, which might mean us waiting another two and a half years. Every year, I have straight people coming to my surgeries who had lived with a partner of the opposite gender for years and years in a relationship that had felt in every respect like a marriage, but who never wanted to enter into a marriage and consequently suffered when their partner died due to a lack of a legal arrangement because civil partnerships were not available to them. They suffer exactly the same distress as gay couples did until civil partnerships were brought into law.
We must reflect on the misery and anguish that such people feel when lawyers then say, “Well, you could have got married but chose not to. Obviously your partner did not intend you to succeed to the tenancy”—or get the house, or whatever it is. Everybody should be treated equally under law and we should all be impatient about that. The right hon. Lady is a wonderful Minister, however, and I am sure she will rush away from the House today determined to make sure that her timetable is beaten, and that we have all this sorted out in months, not years.
Question put and agreed to.
New clause 1 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.