Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill — Second Reading (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:23 pm on 3rd June 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Lister of Burtersett Baroness Lister of Burtersett Labour 9:23 pm, 3rd June 2013

My Lords, this Bill is about human rights and, as one citizen wrote to me, the creation of a society,

“where citizens are equal both in rights and responsibilities”.

In other words, this means equal citizenship for lesbian, gay and transgender couples. In the words of an LGBT carer, cited by Barnado’s, which supports this Bill in the interests of children, despite the fears expressed by a number of noble Lords,

“this is an opportunity to take away yet another barrier to equality, removing something that makes our families different to straight families”.

I would like to cite and pay tribute to a colleague of mine at Loughborough University, who has been at the forefront of the battle for equal marriage, Professor Sue Wilkinson, and to her partner, a former colleague of mine, Professor Celia Kitzinger. They married in Canada when Professor Wilkinson was based there, only for their marriage to be automatically deemed a civil partnership in this country when she returned. That for them was not equality. The noble Lord, Lord Deben, has explained extremely well why it was not equivalent. They wrote:

“As long as marriage is open only to heterosexuals, and civil partnerships only to lesbians and gay men, the British government is maintaining a symbolic separation of straights and gays, and sending out the clear message that our relationships are of less value to society than heterosexual ones. This is insulting, demeaning and profoundly discriminatory: an affront to social justice and human rights”.

I thus congratulate the Government on legislating to remove this affront.

In doing so, however, the Government risk creating a new source of injustice: the denial of the right of access to civil partnerships for same-sex couples. The announcement of an early review of civil partnerships is therefore welcome. I very much hope that that review will lead to their extension to same-sex couples, not their abolition. The Government Equalities Office published a document challenging some of the myths around the Bill. It states:

“MYTH: There is no difference between civil partnership and marriage. REALITY: There are some small legal differences … But for many people there are important differences in the perception of and responsibilities associated with these separate institutions”.

In the interests of those same-sex and opposite-sex couples alike for whom these differences matter, it would be a backwards step to do away with civil partnerships.

When the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member, questioned Ministers, the Secretary of State had some trouble in understanding why some straight couples might prefer a civil partnership over marriage. The noble Lord, Lord Faulks, who is not in his place, explained:

“There are a number of people, particularly women, who do not perhaps share your enthusiasm for marriage and think that marriage oppresses women. None the less, they would like the benefits of a civil partnership and find it rather peculiar that they would not be able to have the benefit of this relationship when same-sex couples can”.

I have to confess that I was one of those women who chose not to enter what I saw as a patriarchal institution, even if the likes of George Clooney were available, which of course he was not. However, I might well have welcomed the possibility of a civil partnership—particularly with Mr Clooney. The committee also questioned Ministers about the costs argument that they had advanced. The Minister for Pensions cited a figure of £3 billion to £4 billion, but later indicated that this figure referred to the cost of total equality in public service pension schemes. Of course, the Bill does not end discrimination in pension schemes, an issue that was raised in the Commons. Could the Minister now provide a more accurate and focused estimate of the cost of extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples?

In the time available, it has not been possible to go into the Bill’s details or raise issues such as the legal recognition of humanist weddings, which I would support in principle. To finish where I began, I believe that this Bill represents an important step for human rights and equal citizenship. I therefore hope that your Lordships’ House will support its basic principles when we come to vote tomorrow.