My Lords, I think we would all agree—certainly those of us who joined forces last summer to ensure that the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill reached the statute book—that today is a cause for celebration. I was reminded by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, about that happy day when I found myself outside on the pavement with the Minister holding a placard that said, “Girls marry girls—get over it”. I have the picture on my phone and I promise that I will publish it at some point. That was indeed a happy day and a happy event, and today we are taking another step nearer the first time that an actual marriage can take place between a same-sex couple.
I know that the Government have been determined to allow that happy event to happen as soon as possible and I congratulate them on doing that. This means that there are still some matters outstanding, and the fact that we want this to happen as soon as possible should not excuse us from the need to do some scrutiny.
I have given the Minister notice of a few questions, some of which have already been asked today. First, of course, how soon can the conversion of a civil partnership to a same-sex marriage take place and what timetable might achieve that? The Act provides for same-sex couples seeking to convert civil partnerships into marriages to do so, as well as for an opposite-sex married couple to remain married where one of the partners wishes to change gender—an important matter which we dealt with last summer. These are provisions which the update says should come into force by the end of the year. I would be grateful if the Minister could give some indication of when further necessary legislation will be brought forward, as well as providing an update on when we might expect to see these provisions come into force.
From the commencement of the Scottish Act, if a trans person living in England or Wales wishes to get married and wants to ensure that they could not later be subject to spousal veto when applying for gender recognition while in that marriage, they could well be able to circumvent this process by opting to get married in Scotland—but why should they? Can the Minister explain whether a couple whose marriage was registered in Scotland but who subsequently lived in England would be able to apply to the sheriff courts for their interim GRC, or will the Government review and revise this entire area so that they do not need to do so?
At present, of the 11 legal jurisdictions in Europe which have same-sex marriage, only those trans people in existing marriages registered in the legal jurisdiction of England and Wales are subject to a spousal veto on their access to gender recognition while married. The other 10 legal jurisdictions, including Scotland, allow gender recognition without requiring the consent of the trans person’s spouse. We discussed this issue during the passage of the Bill but it is not covered, obviously, by these orders. Does the Minister at least accept that this issue does not sit well with the drive for equality for all groups? Will she therefore seek to continue working on this to make the changes that trans people want to see?
Turning to the issue of pensions, which was debated at length and with some passion throughout the passage of the Bill, Section 16 places a duty on the Secretary of State to arrange a review, as we have recognised. I am very happy to hear that this seems to be on track and will be published within the year. However, is a consultation going to take place? As far as I am aware, as yet there is no public consultation being issued by the Department for Work and Pensions. Given that there are only 18 weeks left between now and when the review is supposed to be complete, what is going to happen and how might that consultation take place? Indeed, if it is to be launched, can the Minister offer an assurance that the Government will not simply be listening to the occupational pensions industry, which will quite clearly have strong and shared financial interests in this report saying one thing, and that there will be a consultation which listens to and consults independent experts?
If the Secretary of State decides in his report that the law on survivor benefits should be changed to fit in with the spirit of the Act, will the Minister ensure that the necessary orders are brought forward quickly to redress the inequality as soon as possible? As I am sure the noble Baroness will be aware, this issue has been in the news over the past week following the conclusion of a case under the Employment Appeal Tribunal, which found that it was legal under European law for employers and pension scheme trustees to discriminate against same-sex couples. If it becomes clear that companies are not going to do this voluntarily, the sooner the Government complete their deliberations the better for all the couples concerned—even if it is just that they will now know where they will stand financially in later life and be able to plan accordingly.
I seek some clarification about whether the Government intend to allow foreign civil partners to convert their civil partnerships and civil unions to marriage in England and Wales in the future. Similarly, where civil partnerships or civil unions established in a foreign country are converted to a marriage in Scotland, will these be recognised as marriages in England and Wales?
I am concerned about the use of the Armed Forces’ chapels regulations, which the Minister has explained to the House. While it is obviously to be welcomed that these chapels can now be registered, I am worried that this provision is unlikely to result in very many requests for registration actually being approved. The wording of the order is:
“In considering whether to make an application and the timing of such an application, the Secretary of State must have due regard to the following matters … any agreement or objection by the relevant governing authority of a relevant religious organisation as to the proposed application”.
These regulations require the Secretary of State to undertake a process of consultation before making an application to establish the views of the faiths and their congregations that make significant regular use of the relevant chapel. The Explanatory Memorandum states that the majority of Armed Forces’ chapels are shared by several faiths, which may adopt different positions towards the marriage of same-sex couples. If the results of the consultation favour the beliefs of faiths that do not accept same-sex marriage, does that mean that same-sex marriages in Armed Forces’ chapels would be vetoed and what do the Government propose should happen under those circumstances?
Could the Minister advise us on whether she has undertaken any initial discussions to determine what the attitude of various religious authorities is likely to be? For example, if a place of worship is used by a faith that wants to offer same-sex marriage and one that does not, will one position automatically trump the other, as it has done elsewhere in this legislation? I am trying to get to the bottom of how a decision will be made if there are two different faiths using one building or chapel and one wants to permit same-sex marriage and one is opposed to it. Given that the Secretary of State for Defence’s current views are in opposition to this legislation, I am slightly concerned about how the decision would be made.
Finally, there is the issue of guidance. The Explanatory Notes mention that the Equality and Human Rights Commission will produce some overarching guidance on the Act itself. Could the Minister tell us when that guidance will be published, who it will be aimed at, what input her department will have in its drafting, and how comprehensive distribution can be ensured, given the severely reduced resources of the EHRC over recent years?
I put on record my thanks to the Minister for her openness, her consultation and the way in which these orders have been handled. It has been a continuation of how we took the Bill through to become an Act last year. I know we are not quite at the end of the road yet, but I can assure the noble Baroness that she will have our full co-operation to make sure that we get to where we want to be as soon as possible.