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Consular Marriages and Marriages under Foreign Law Order 2014 — Motions to Approve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:07 pm on 27th February 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Lords Spokesperson (Women & Equalities), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development) 5:07 pm, 27th February 2014

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I beg to move the six Motions standing in my name on the Order Paper en bloc. Both this House and the other place overwhelmingly supported the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act. The Bill was fully debated in detail, passed through all its parliamentary stages with overwhelming support in both Houses, and received Royal Assent on 17 July 2013. The passage of the Act was a historic moment, delivering, at last, full legal equality for lesbians and gay men in England and Wales. As such, it is a hallmark of the fair and inclusive society that we all wish to see. The Act, quite simply, extends the important institution of marriage to same sex couples, ending the unfairness which has prevented people from marrying simply because of their sexual orientation.

Noble Lords will recall that in our debates during the Act’s passage, some were worried that it would change the nature of marriage in some way. However, we made it clear then, and I am happy to make it clear again now, that the Act does not affect marriage as it currently exists between opposite-sex couples in any way at all. Nor does it affect the understanding of marriage held by many religious organisations and individuals that marriage should only be between one man and one woman. The Government entirely accept and respect that view of marriage, and the quadruple lock of religious protections in the Act ensures that no religious organisation or representative can be compelled in any way to participate in the marriage of a same-sex couple against their beliefs.

The Act does not change marriage but simply opens it up to more couples; that is the basis on which it secured wide agreement on all Benches in your Lordships’ House. The statutory instruments we are considering today simply give effect to the matters we have already agreed in the Act. These six affirmative instruments, along with the six negative instruments laid on 23 January and 13 February, are concerned only with the practical implementation of the Act’s provisions that will make marriage a reality for same-sex couples in England and Wales.

I will briefly explain each of the affirmative instruments in turn. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 (Consequential and Contrary Provisions and Scotland) Order 2014 does three main things. First, in Schedule 1, it makes amendments to primary legislation that are consequential on the coming into force of the 2013 Act, the Civil Partnership Act 2004 and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008. These amendments give effect to the central aim of the 2013 Act—that the existing institution of marriage should be extended to same-sex couples. That general position is achieved, in the main, through provisions in the Act which we refer to as the gloss—Section 11(1) and (2) and Schedule 3—which provide that references to marriage in existing law will be read as including the marriage of a same-sex couple, and a reference to a married person is to be read as including a reference to a person married to someone of the same sex.

However, in some cases there is also a need to make a consequential change to the law to ensure that the correct result is achieved so that the marriage of same-sex couples has the same effect as the marriage of opposite-sex couples. This is the case where there are historical gender-based differences and we need to equalise provision between married opposite-sex couples in order to treat all married people in the same way. In some cases we are also correcting minor omissions made when the Civil Partnership Act was brought into force.

We have always been clear that there are exceptions to this general approach, where for practical reasons married same-sex couples will be treated differently from married opposite-sex couples. In these cases we therefore need to make provision that is contrary to the gloss in order to achieve the right result, so the second thing that this order does this is to make contrary provision in Schedule 2. This approach is needed where the Government’s policy is that married same-sex couples should be treated in the same way as civil partners rather than married opposite-sex couples, and where historical gender-specific provisions are to be maintained. For example, we agreed this approach during the passage of the Act in relation to pension survivor benefits—although noble Lords will recall that we also committed to reviewing that position, and I will return to that review later. Schedule 3 to the order then makes textual amendments to existing provisions where this is needed to make the effect of the law on different couples completely clear.

Thirdly and finally, the order provides for marriages of same-sex couples under the law of England and Wales to be treated as civil partnerships in Scotland. The Scottish Ministers have given their consent to this provision, which is necessary pending the extension of marriage to same-sex couples under Scottish law.

I turn now to the Marriage of Same Sex Couples (Registration of Shared Buildings) Regulations 2014. Noble Lords will remember that we agreed the approach to the registration for the solemnisation of same-sex marriages of formally shared religious buildings—that is, those with agreements under the Sharing of Church Buildings Act 1969—in Schedule 1 to the Act. These regulations apply the agreed approach in the case of religious buildings that are informally shared. They deal with the processes for the registration and cancelling of the registration of informally shared religious buildings, and what happens when the identity of a sharing church changes.

The regulations will enable marriages of same-sex couples to take place in informally shared places of worship according to religious rites other than those of the Church of England and Church of Wales, but only if the governing authorities of all the qualifying sharing religious organisations have given consent to the building being registered for the marriages of same sex-couples. Sharing religious organisations can give consent to the use of the premises for marriages of same sex-couples by other sharers while still refusing to conduct such marriages themselves, and they can withhold their consent to the registration of the building if they wish, in which case no marriages of same sex-couples can take place there. The regulations also deal with the process to be followed where a religious building that is registered for the marriage of same-sex couples becomes shared, or where a shared religious building ceases to be shared.

I turn now to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 (Jurisdiction and Recognition of Judgments) Regulations 2014. These regulations do two things. First, they set out when a court in England and Wales will have jurisdiction in proceedings for divorce, judicial separation or annulment for married same-sex couples. Secondly, they set out when a court in England and Wales will recognise a judgment of a court of another EU member state in respect of such proceedings. These arrangements mirror those already in place for marriages of opposite-sex couples and civil partnerships.

I turn now to the Marriage of Same Sex Couples (Use of Armed Forces’ Chapels) Regulations 2014, which set out procedures for the Secretary of State to register and cancel the registration of Armed Forces’ chapels for marriage of same-sex couples. The regulations provide that, before applying to the Registrar General to register a military chapel for marriage of same-sex couples, the Secretary of State must consult the relevant governing authority of any religious organisation that makes significant use of the chapel. When considering whether and when to make an application, the Secretary of State must take into account various matters, including a same-sex couple who wish to have their marriage solemnised in the chapel and the rights of the religious organisations that use the chapel. The regulations also ensure that Armed Forces’ chapels consecrated by the Church of England under ecclesiastical law will not be registered for marriages of same-sex couples.

The Overseas Marriage (Armed Forces) Order 2014 allows marriage overseas where one of the parties is a member of the Armed Forces, a civilian subject to service discipline or their child, but in respect of marriage of same-sex couples only where the host country or territory has given consent in writing. The couple will need to nominate the part of the United Kingdom according to whose law they wish to marry. It allows religious rites to be used, but religious ceremonies for same-sex couples can be conducted only if the relevant religious organisation has opted in and the authorised person is willing to be present. The order does not apply to Northern Ireland. Opposite-sex Armed Forces couples wishing to marry overseas under the law of Northern Ireland will continue to use the existing procedures under the Foreign Marriage Act 1892.

Finally, I turn to the Consular Marriages and Marriages under Foreign Law Order 2014. Like the previous order, it replaces the existing regime for marriage of opposite-sex couples in overseas consulates with one which is extended to include same-sex couples, and it includes a requirement for the couple to nominate the relevant part of the UK under whose law they wish to be married. The reason for this approach is that, until the Marriage and Civil Partnerships (Scotland) Bill is implemented, marriage of same-sex couples will be lawful only in England and Wales.

I will touch briefly on some issues that are not covered in these instruments but in which I know that some noble Lords are particularly interested. First, some have asked when couples who are in civil partnerships will be able to convert their civil partnership into marriage. Our priority has always been to ensure that same-sex couples who are not currently in a civil partnership and who have been waiting to marry in order to formalise their relationship are able to do so at the earliest possible opportunity. I am delighted that we are now doing that earlier than we anticipated, so that the first same-sex weddings will be able to take place on 29 March. We understand that some couples in a civil partnership want to be able to convert their civil partnership into a marriage quickly, and we are working hard to ensure that they can do so as soon as possible. We aim to do this before the end of 2014.

Similarly, we are working hard to implement the provisions in the Act which, for the first time, will allow people to change their legal gender without having to end their marriage, where both spouses want the marriage to continue. Again, we aim to do this before the end the year.

The Act also requires the Government to undertake three reviews, and the House might find it helpful to know about the progress on these. First, Section 14 of the Act requires us to review whether non-religious belief organisations, such as humanists, should be able to conduct legally valid marriages of both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. As part of the review, we will work with interested belief organisations, including the British Humanist Association, and will carry out a full public consultation on the issues involved. We expect to publish a report setting out the outcome of the review by the end of 2014, as required by the Act.

Secondly, Section 15 of the Act requires a review of the operation and future of civil partnerships in England and Wales. As part of the review, we launched a public consultation on 23 January and will consider responses to the consultation alongside evidence about marriage of same-sex couples, civil partnership and possible options for the future.

As I mentioned earlier, the Government are also undertaking a review to explore what the costs and other effects would be of making changes to reduce or eliminate differences in survivor benefits in occupational pensions, as required by Section 16 of the Act. I can assure the House that the review is currently under way, and is looking at the differences in survivor benefits between various different groups. We are also taking views from key stakeholders. We will publish a report on the review before 1 July this year, as required by the Act. I commend these statutory instruments to the House.