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Civil Partnership

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:22 pm on 31st October 2019.

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Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham 4:22 pm, 31st October 2019

That would probably be stretching out of order, but I appreciate that my hon. Friend took up the issue before I did. It is a cause with which I have some sympathy, and there have been measures in the other place for a Bill on that topic. This legislation is about couples and relationships and recognition and protections that are not available. The matters to which he refers, which relate particularly to siblings who are living together and are entirely dependent on each other, are largely financial ones, and that should be addressed in financial legislation. I would absolutely support him if that were to happen in the future.

I just want to pay some tributes, because this might not have happened today. If this debate had not happened before the end of this Parliament, the necessary regulations that form part of the 2019 Act, which received Royal Assent back on 26 March, would not have been completed in time for the first civil partnerships between opposite-sex couples to take place, as promised, before the end of this year. I am therefore grateful to the Chief Whip, the usual channels, the Minister, the Statutory Instruments Committee, which met hurriedly yesterday, and the officials, who worked tirelessly in order to get us to where we are today. Otherwise, the promises that we made to the people who were looking forward to having their happy day on 31 December might not have been kept.

I have constantly stated that many register offices around the country have been taking provisional bookings for civil partnerships, including on the very last day of this year. A lot is hinging on this, and many people will be watching these proceedings and the news that comes out. The issue was that, in order for civil partnerships to take place by the end of this year, the regulations had to be laid and then there is a minimum of 28 days—it is not really a cooling-off period—between a couple registering their interest in a civil partnership before it is able to be conducted. That meant that if the regulations had not been approved before 2 December, that process could not have been gone through. I am therefore grateful to the Government, because it was always a big thing for me that this should happen this year, rather than there be yet further delay. The Minister, true to her word, was able to persuade the powers that be to agree to that. I am grateful to all the officials and Ministers who have made this possible.

It is something of an honour that this will be the last piece of debatable business in this Parliament and the last debatable business that you will oversee, Mr Speaker. You have been a big supporter of this change, although you would never admit it and show any degree of partiality, but I know, unofficially, that you have got behind this change, which has been of great help and comfort to people outside this House who see this as an obvious equality measure that should have happened some time ago.

The process has been expedited, but I just have a few brief questions for the Minister. First, will she confirm—I think she already has—that the fact that we are debating this well before 2 December does not mean that the 28 days start from today? If so, we may need to expedite the purchase of hats before the end of November, rather than the end of December, but I think she has confirmed that the earliest that the first civil partnership ceremony can take place will be 31 December 2019 for those who have registered their interest by 2 December. Emergency civil partnerships are an exception and, as happened with civil partnerships between same-sex couples back in 2014, could be approved in a matter of hours or days after 2 December. Some people who have been part of the equal-partner civil partnerships campaign and who have terminal illnesses are very much looking for the change to happen as soon as possible. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that for the benefit of those for whom the date is particularly crucial. Could the Minister also confirm the status of opposite-sex civil partnerships registered outside England and Wales, for example, on the Isle of Man, which was the first part of the British Isles to approve opposite-sex civil partnerships and where key people involved in the campaign have undergone a civil partnership? Will their civil partnership be recognised in our law from 2 December or 31 December, or will this still be contingent on further work on regulations that needs to take place?

I fully appreciate that this measure is not the end of the story; this enables new opposite-sex couples to engage in a new civil partnership and there is much work still to be done on the conversion for those who are already married, just as there was a conversion the other way round in respect of civil partnerships for same-sex couples. Looking through the regulations, which are detailed and technical, I appreciate the work that has gone into everything from gender recognition to the status of children, the warm home discount and digital switchover. All that legislation, extraordinarily, has to be considered in these regulations in order to get this right. Will the Minister therefore clarify the status of existing overseas or ex-England opposite-sex civil partnerships?

Will the Minister also issue guidance as soon as possible to registrars around the country that they should be open for business from 2 December? There has been confusion as to whether this would happen and some registrars, the more far-sighted ones, have been taking provisional waiting lists as from 31 December, whereas others have said, “It’s not happening, so don’t call us, we’ll call you after 31 December.” It is important that clear instructions are now issued. If she could signal from the Dispatch Box as well, that would be helpful, because people need to prepare. People who have been waiting years and years for this day to happen want to be able to get on with it, and we need to ensure that registrars know what they are doing in order to facilitate their request.

Finally, let me say that this is just but one part of my Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019. There are three other parts to it. I raised the issue of mothers’ names on marriage certificates with the Second Church Estates Commissioner, which is yet to be resolved by formal regulations. The second issue is about the Secretary of State giving the go-ahead for coroners to have the power to investigate stillbirths. The last issue is the review of sub-24-week stillbirths. They are all important parts of my multifaceted Act that still require further regulations. I appreciate that today we are dealing purely with the civil partnerships part of it, but it would be helpful if the Minister gave some indication that work is ongoing on those other important parts of this Act.

Once again, may I thank the Minister in particular for expediting these measures today, just in the nick of time? For many hundreds of couples up and down the country waiting on this, it is a really important and happy development.