My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question in the other place on same-sex marriage in Bermuda:
“We are obviously disappointed about the removal of same-sex marriage in Bermuda. However, the Domestic Partnership Act, to which the Governor of Bermuda assented yesterday, does ensure that Bermudians who have been legally married in Bermuda since the Supreme Court decision will retain their married status and enjoy the same legal rights as those in domestic partnerships.
Less than a year ago, same-sex couples had no legal recognition at all under Bermudan law. While the Act withdraws the entitlement for same-sex couples to marry, it replaces it with a provision for domestic partnerships for all couples, regardless of gender. The intent of the Act is to provide domestic partners with the same benefits as married couples, including provision for pensions, inheritance, healthcare, tax and immigration.
After full and careful consideration in regard to Bermuda’s constitutional and international obligations, the Secretary of State decided that in these circumstances it would not be appropriate to use this power to block legislation, which can only be used where there is a legal or constitutional basis for doing so and even then only in exceptional circumstances. It is important to recognise that a regime for domestic partnerships, which Bermuda has implemented in its Domestic Partnership Act, can also meet the European Court of Human Rights requirement for legal recognition of same-sex relationships.
The Government are committed to promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality globally through projects, partnerships and persuasion. In engaging with the British Overseas Territories, we have to respect that they are separate, self-governing jurisdictions with their own democratically elected representatives and that they have a right to self-government”.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the response to the Urgent Question. I also thank my right honourable friend Chris Bryant for securing it in the other place. I have a special interest in Bermuda. My grandfather spent his whole working life in the naval dockyards there and my father was born there, so I have a deep interest in the affairs of Bermuda and this is a terrible backwards step. It turns same-sex couples into second-class citizens just a year after winning equality through the courts. We are told by the Minister in the other place that these are not “exceptional circumstances” for the governor to withhold consent. Surely protecting the rights of British citizens are exactly the circumstances in which to act, especially when those rights have been affirmed by the courts. I remind the Minister that not so long ago, on the sanctions Bill, he outlined LGBT rights as being an exception for the Government to act. So I have two straightforward questions for the Minister. What steps will the Government now take to mitigate or reverse this decision? Will the Government give financial support to British citizens who may wish to launch a legal challenge on this matter?
My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the reply to the Question in the other place. This is clearly a backward step, not just for LGBT rights but for human rights of LGBT citizens across the Commonwealth. Therefore, the Government are beholden to make a direct and forceful intervention in this situation. I have two questions for the Minister. First, what direct action did either the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary take to contact Bermuda’s Prime Minister or any other Minister of that area? Secondly, will the Government commit to ensure that this issue is now on the agenda of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting this April so that it can be addressed as a human rights issue for every LGBT citizen in the Commonwealth?
My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their questions. To add my own views on this, quite specifically, the decision that was taken is deeply regrettable and disappointing. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked what steps can be taken now. He will be aware that, after the election of the new Government in Bermuda, I raised this issue directly in my two direct meetings with the Premier of Bermuda. I can assure noble Lords that it will be an issue that I will continue to raise with him. I hope that we will move forward in a progressive way in Bermuda and in other overseas territories within the Caribbean region. On the issue of financial support for legal challenges, I am sure the noble Lord will accept that it would be inappropriate at this time for me to speculate on the nature of legal challenges and how they take place. Of course, if there are developments in that respect, I shall update him accordingly.
In answer to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, about raising this directly with Ministers in Bermuda, as I have already said I have raised it directly on two occasions with the Premier of Bermuda and will do so again. Our governor has been in regular contact with the Premier of Bermuda and we will continue to raise the issue. In all bilateral meetings we have expressed deep disappointment but as I said earlier, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, in taking the decision not to block assent did so while considering very carefully both the legal and constitutional positions in this respect.
The noble Lord also asked about the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting which is due in April. I have spoken to various noble Lords, both bilaterally and within this Chamber. As all noble Lords will accept, the formal agenda has to be agreed by all now 53 members—as many noble Lords will know, Gambia has just joined the Commonwealth and we welcome it in—but we are looking at appropriate opportunities, which the Prime Minister is absolutely focused on, to raise these matters both bilaterally and through the different fora which are being held in the week leading up to the Heads of Government Meeting. Indeed, there is an acceptance and an agreement that the recommendations from those four fora—particularly the People’s Forum, where civil society groups will be present which advocate and strongly represent different LGBT interests—will be reflected through in the final status. However, I reassure all noble Lords that, whether it is in the context of our overseas territories or in the context of the Commonwealth, the issue of LGBT rights remains a priority and we will continue to raise it as such.
My Lords, it gives me no pleasure to engage on this question. I refer your Lordships to my interests set out in the register, particularly as an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global LGBT Rights. I know the Minister is personally committed—and, for all I know, the Secretary of State is also committed—but in the end it is government action that matters, and it has failed. The Government could have taken action because the Bermudan law is in breach of the Bermudan constitution. On those grounds alone, action could have been taken to prevent assent. Is the Minister aware that the Government’s credibility on the international stage on human rights and LBGT rights is now seriously damaged? This is deeply worrying, particularly in the run-up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in April. Is the Minister also aware of the feeling of utter betrayal not only in Bermuda but in the wider international human rights and LGBT rights community?
I thank the noble Lord. We have talked about issues of LGBT rights in direct meetings and when I last met the APPG. I reiterate that we will continue to raise the rights of all LBGT people wherever in the world. In the context of the points he made on the Bermudan law, time will tell how that is tested. As I said earlier in the context of the ECHR, the test is that same-sex couples have legal recognition, which this new Act provides. On our future on the global stage, we have consistently raised human rights records across the piece, including LGBT rights. I assure the noble Lord as a Human Rights Minister that LGBT rights will continue to figure as a key priority whether in the Human Rights Council or elsewhere and we will continue to challenge discrimination in this regard.