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Civil Partnership

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:10 pm on 31st October 2019.

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Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women 4:10 pm, 31st October 2019

I beg to move,

That the draft Civil Partnership (Opposite-sex Couples) Regulations 2019, which were laid before this House on 21 October, be approved.

In what has been an emotionally charged and very moving day in the Chamber, this statutory instrument is, I hope, a cause for celebration, as it allows opposite-sex couples in England and Wales to form civil partnerships. This Government want to see more people formalise their relationships in the way they want with the person they love. We know that there are over 3 million opposite-sex couples who cohabit but choose not to marry. Those couples support 1 million children, but do not have the security or legal protection that married couples or civil partners enjoy.

That is why we announced last year that we would extend civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples and why we supported the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019, which was taken so ably through Parliament by my hon. Friend Tim Loughton. The regulations are before the House. In short, section 2 of the Act enables the Secretary of State by regulation to amend the eligibility criteria for civil partnerships to make other appropriate and consequential provision. The Act requires the regulations extending eligibility to come into force no later than 31 December 2019.

These regulations, as Madam Deputy Speaker said, have been expedited in their consideration by both Houses. I am extremely grateful to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which considered them yesterday. In particular, the chairmanship of Jessica Morden was helpful in understanding the urgency of this statutory instrument.

I will outline briefly the concerns of the Committee and the response of the Government to those concerns. Our approach on conversion—that is, conversion from marriage to civil partnership and vice versa—maintains a difference between opposite-sex and same-sex couples in their ability to convert their civil partnerships into marriages. Importantly, those two groups are not in a directly comparable position. The right to convert a civil partnership to marriage was introduced to enable same-sex couples to marry without having to dissolve their civil partnership as marriage had historically been denied to them. That same consideration does not apply to opposite-sex civil partners, who will always have been able to marry.

Even if same-sex and opposite-sex couples can be compared, the Government consider that maintaining the status quo in the short term is justified. Extending conversion rights to allow opposite-sex couples to convert their civil partnership to marriage now, while we are considering responses to the consultation, would risk creating uncertainty and confusion about future rights. We do not wish to introduce a new, potentially short-term conversion right that might subsequently be withdrawn in 2020.

Once we have made civil partnerships available to opposite-sex couples, our priority will be to resolve our longer-term position on conversion rights for all civil partners and to bring forward further regulations as soon as possible next year. I hope this reassures hon. Members that we have considered these issues carefully and we consider the regulations to be compliant with the Human Rights Act 1998.

Let me again pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, and also to Baroness Hodgson of Abinger, for their skill and tenacity in driving the Act through Parliament. I know that my hon. Friend has been invited to a civil partnership ceremony which the happy couple hope will take place on 31 December. We intend to implement the regulations on 2 December, which would enable the first opposite-sex civil partnership ceremonies to take place on 31 December, given the usual 28-day notice period. I very much hope that my hon. Friend will be able to make those celebrations.

I know how long some opposite-sex couples have waited for the opportunity to formalise their relationships, and to enjoy the stability, rights and entitlements that other couples enjoy. This is the final legislative step in the process, and I look forward to the first opposite-sex civil partnerships being formed by the end of the year.

I hope, Mr Speaker, that you will allow me a moment away from the important issue of civil partnerships, so that I can play my part in the tributes to you on your last day in that very special seat in the House. It is indeed an honour to be at the Dispatch Box today, and, of course, to hear the wonderful tributes to your chaplain, Rose. May I thank you personally for your service as Speaker of the House over the last 10 years?

As I was preparing for this debate, I sat in our wonderful House of Commons Library. Around the ceiling of one of the rooms are 30 wooden panels containing the names of every single Speaker, dating from 1377 to 2009, when you were sworn in. Your impact on this place will be present not just on those wooden panels in the Library, but in the day-to-day business and interactions of the House. Having sat here in the Chamber hearing some of the tributes to you—which have ranged from the very personal and very serious to some more light-hearted and fond recollections—I will, if I may, add one of my own. I consider it to be one of the achievements of my parliamentary career; it may, in fact, be the only achievement of my parliamentary career. By describing the name of my cat, I caused you to stand up and say:

“I am as near to speechless as I have ever been.”—[Official Report, 20 December 2018;
Vol. 651, c. 984.]

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for everything that you have done for the House, but also for me, at the Dispatch Box and also as a Back Bencher. I wish you, and your loved ones, the very best for your future.