My Lords, this is my first time proposing a Private Member’s Bill and I therefore ask that your Lordships be gentle with me as I find my feet. I begin by taking this opportunity to pay tribute to my honourable friend in the other place, Tim Loughton MP, who I see is here listening today. He has worked so hard to champion these issues and it is through his determination and constructive dialogue that the Bill has progressed and is in such good shape today. To continue this theme of collaboration, I thank Tim and the officials from the Home Office and the Government Equalities Office, led by Linda Edwards, for their support in preparing its journey through this House.
In the other place the Minister summarised this Bill as being about “hatches, matches and dispatches”. This light-hearted reference, while apt, perhaps does not convey the emotional and personal impact wrapped up in the fourfold practical purpose of the Bill. I am delighted that these clauses now represent current government policy and I shall outline each in more detail.
The purpose of Clause 1 is to address an issue with marriage entries. There is currently provision for only the father’s name to be recorded in the marriage entry when couples get married, as I was surprised to discover when my eldest son got married last summer. This has been the position since 1837 and it is high time it was addressed. The provisions in this clause will enable the updating of the marriage entry to allow for the names of the couple’s mothers to be included. The clause is narrow in scope and seeks only to change how marriages are registered.
Making changes to how marriages are registered and moving to a schedule-based system has previously been the subject of debate. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, who is also with us today, introduced identical measures in the Registration of Marriage Bill, which was debated in this House last year. That Bill is currently in the other place, awaiting a Second Reading. It has been apparent during the debates that the provisions in the clause have cross-party support. Moving to a schedule system similar to the one that has been in place in Scotland since 1855, and which also applies in Northern Ireland, will enable changes to be made to the marriage register entry much more easily in future, without the need to replace all the paper marriage registers. I believe that there are around 84,000 marriage registers in use across register offices, churches and other religious buildings.
The creation of civil partnerships in 2004 marked a significant moment on the road to equality for same-sex couples. For the first time, same-sex couples were able to formalise their intimate partner relationships, publicly acknowledging their commitment to one another, and able to access certain rights, responsibilities and protections. We continued to celebrate the legal and formal recognition of same-sex relationships with the introduction of same-sex marriage in 2013. However, we are left with a situation in which same-sex couples are able to either get married or form a civil partnership, whereas opposite-sex couples can only get married.
While marriage holds great value for many as a means of formalising and recognising intimate partner relationships, we know that not everyone feels that this type of relationship is for them. Some people who would very much like to have their relationship recognised in the eyes of society and the law find themselves, and often their children, without protection or security simply because they do not wish to marry. We were therefore delighted when, in October, the Prime Minister announced the Government’s intention to extend civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. Following this announcement, my honourable friend Tim Loughton introduced an amendment on Report in the other place which now stands as Clause 2. This places a duty on the Government to legislate to bring about equality between same-sex couples and other couples in terms of their future ability to form a civil partnership. I know that the Government have concerns about Clause 2, which include the lack of detail in the regulation-making power, and I am pleased to be working closely with my honourable friend to draft an upgraded amendment to replace Clause 2. Our hope is that this will allay these concerns and ensure that the Bill is able to deliver as intended.
Clause 3 provides for the Government to prepare a report on whether and how the law should be changed to require or permit the registration of pregnancy losses, which cannot be registered as stillbirths under the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953. Currently, parents whose babies are stillborn after 24 weeks’ gestation are required to register the baby’s name and they receive a certificate of registration of stillbirth. When a pregnancy ends before 24 weeks’ gestation, hospitals may enter a baby’s name in a local book of remembrance or issue a local certificate to commemorate the baby’s birth for those parents who want to do so. However, there is currently no formal process for parents to be able to register their loss legally.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of pregnancies end before 24 weeks’ gestation due to miscarriage, ectopic or molar pregnancy, or because parents make the difficult choice to terminate a pregnancy due to congenital anomalies. For many parents, this experience can be utterly devastating. The loss of a baby before 24 weeks’ gestation is made worse for some by the fact that there is no official recognition of these losses. That is why it is critical that the Government ensure that parents who experience a pregnancy loss receive the best empathetic care and support possible, through the NHS. As part of this ambition, Ministers should look into all options for changing the current system to recognise pre-24-week pregnancy loss. I am pleased that the Department of Health and Social Care has commissioned a review on this issue and has already made progress on gathering evidence and stakeholder views about how the current system might be improved, as well as examples of best practice. The Bill is an important part of driving this work forward and I strongly encourage noble Lords to support and contribute to the review. Losing a child is one of the worst experiences a parent can go through. By placing a duty on the Government to prepare and present a report setting out whether and, if so, how the law on the registration of pregnancy losses should change, I am confident that the Bill provides the next step in giving parents who have lost a baby the recognition they are due.
Clause 4 makes provision for coronial investigations of stillbirths. Currently, under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, coroners have a duty to investigate deaths in certain circumstances, such as where a death is violent or unnatural or where the cause of death is unknown. This duty extends to the deaths of newborns of any age, including those who die immediately after birth. However, coroners do not have jurisdiction to investigate where the baby showed no signs of life independent of the mother, including where the baby died during labour.
The clause places a duty on the Secretary of State to prepare and publish a report on whether and how the law ought to be changed to enable coroners to investigate stillbirths. It also provides an enabling power for the Lord Chancellor to make regulations that would amend Part 1 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 to enable or require coroners to conduct investigations into stillbirths, to provide for when, and in what circumstances, coroners will investigate stillbirths.
I realise that the House may have concerns about a power to make regulations in this way, but the safeguards written into the clause will ensure that it is used appropriately. For example, where the regulations would amend primary legislation, they will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, so there will be scrutiny by both Houses, and the regulations cannot be used to create any criminal offences unless the offence has an equivalent in Part 1 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.
The Government fully support the introduction of this provision. However, given the sensitivity of the issues raised, I understand the need for the Government to undertake a full review and produce a report before making any changes. This will ensure that the regulations take into account the views of all relevant stakeholders.
Finally, this provision will support the work currently being undertaken in the Department of Health and Social Care to improve maternity safety, including the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch independent investigations into all English cases of term stillbirth occurring during labour—as defined by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ Each Baby Counts criteria.
I urge noble Lords to support the clauses in the Bill and I beg to move.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, and Tim Loughton for their work on the Bill, which in all main areas seeks to deliver equality and fairness—a task we failed to complete during the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. I say to the noble Baroness that I will certainly be as co-operative as I can, but I may not be so friendly with the Minister, because there are areas that the Government need to address.
First, on changing the law so that opposite-sex couples can form civil partnerships, in the Commons the Government, while supporting the general principle, expressed the belief, as we have heard, there were still several issues to be worked out. Tim Loughton’s new clause makes no prescription about the method, wording and reach of the legislative change required, leaving that to the Government. I therefore welcome the remarks made by the noble Baroness to the effect that she is working with the Government to prepare a suitable amendment—to be considered in Committee, I hope—which would give powers to draw up appropriate regulations for equal civil partnerships by the end of 2019. That is very welcome, but I share the concern of many that the Government may be using things such as consultation to drag their feet. We cannot wait any longer.
Talk of dragging feet brings me to my second bit of unfinished business from 2013. During the passage of the 2013 Act, the Government, instead of accepting legal recognition of humanist marriage, proposed an amendment that mandated public consultation first, as well as taking the power to bring in humanist marriage by statutory instrument. In 2014, the Government held a consultation which revealed that over 90% of respondents were in favour of legally recognised humanist marriages. In 2015, the Law Commission reported that failing to grant humanists the same rights as religious people in marriage was fundamentally unfair. In June 2018, the Northern Irish Court of Appeal ruled that there is a human right to humanist marriage. I therefore hope that in her response today the Minister will say that, without any further prompting or delay, she will use the UK Government’s existing powers to legally recognise humanist marriages in England and Wales. I hope that will happen as soon as is practicable.
My third bit of unfinished business is our failure to deliver equal marriage for all citizens in the United Kingdom. A year ago, Karen Bradley, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, stated that same-sex marriage could be legislated for in Northern Ireland by the UK Parliament and that the Conservative Government would allow a conscience vote. My honourable friend Conor McGinn, to whom I pay tribute, introduced a Private Member’s Bill extending same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland on
My final bit of unfinished business—I hope we will have a debate on this in Committee—relates to the role of the Church of England. In the context of the Bill, I should like to know whether it will continue to say yes to same-sex civil partnerships but no to same-sex marriage. In his recent book Reimagining Britain, the most reverend Primate addressed the tension between scripture and tradition on the one hand and contemporary reality on the other. He tells us that the Bible’s teaching on marriage is profoundly positive but, he notes, the social reality in modern Britain is radically changed today, with cohabiting, blended, single-parent and same-sex configurations. He continues:
“If fluidity of relationships is the reality of our society, then this should be our starting point for building values, because all values must connect with where people are and not where other people might like them to be”.
What are these values? According to the most reverend Primate himself,
“in Christian understanding, the core concepts of households and family include holiness, fidelity, hospitality and love above all, because God is holy, faithful, welcoming and overflowing in love, and any human institution that reflects these virtues also in some way reflects God”.
Surely, therefore, it is time for couples who wholeheartedly embrace those values to have the right to, or not to be refused, a blessing in their church simply because they are of the same sex.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson of Abinger, for the way in which she introduced this Bill, which deals with matters of enormous importance and sensitivity to a very small number of people. I am delighted to speak today not least because my father married a lot of people. He was a nonconformist minister, and I must tell your Lordships that the day on which the Church of England took a more enlightened view towards the remarriage of divorced people was a cause of great sadness in our household.
Turning to Clause 1, in 2016, I was absolutely delighted to get married in a beautiful chapel—it was medieval and deconsecrated, I have to say—but it was none the less a wonderful day. During the preparations, my wife and I had to see the registrar, and we all concluded that the fact that we had to tell the registrar who our fathers were but not our mothers was simply and utterly anachronistic.
I am also indebted to my dad for reasons why we should accept the Bill today. Many years ago, my father was officiating at a wedding in Glasgow University Chapel. In fact, it was the wedding of some family friends. When he took the couple out to sign the register, they turned to the groom’s mother, who was in fact a professional registrar—and she had forgotten the certificate. So my father and mother had to disappear from the reception to go and get it so they could be married. Until today, few people knew that the pictures of the happy couple are in fact of them signing a bit of blotting paper for the purpose. So it is high time that we leap forward with tech and make the changes to the schedules outlined in Clause 1.
Turning to Clause 2 and civil partnerships, there has been a huge debate about why, given that gay people are now allowed to be married and we have civil marriage, we need equal civil partnership. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this, not least because my dad often married people in church and had to think carefully about whether that was the most appropriate thing to do. He had the right to refuse to marry people—it was a right that he exercised sparingly, but he did think about it. Back in those days, he thought that there were times when it was not appropriate for people have their ceremonies in church.
On the question of civil partnership, I am greatly indebted to friends of mine. I am thinking in particular of one person who at a very young age was party to a violent and traumatic marriage. She managed to escape from that and subsequently spent more than 30 years with another man whom she loved deeply, but the idea of entering into something called marriage was absolutely not right. That is no reflection on the value of their relationship, and for her, a civil partnership would have been highly appropriate. I am indebted to her for getting in touch with me last night. When I told her that we were going to be discussing this, she said, “Look, there is a point in this. People who talk about marriage frequently talk about it being a union of two people. I do not disagree with that at all, but for me, the fact we are talking about a civil partnership—a partnership of two people who are interdependent rather than dependent on each other—is extremely important”. She, other friends of mine and others who are a part of the campaign for equal civil partnership have often talked about that point.
I too want to talk about this in the context of the role of religions. I have spent a lifetime observing and wandering around the religious sensibilities of other people. Through all the arguments we had about civil partnership and same-sex marriage, time and again opponents were quick to throw at us the accusation that somehow this was undermining marriage as it is understood by the religious bodies in this country.
No one ever recognised the fact that sometimes, a person falls in love with someone who is not of the faith into which they were born, and part of the process of managing their relationship with their family is that they do not get married. Until now, if those people are heterosexual, there has been no way to enter into a legal commitment with their partner while at the same time juggling sensitivities with their family. This is therefore an important step forward.
Later, we will hear from the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, why we should extend civil partnerships to people who are from the same family, because of the issue of tenancies and property. It is not news to him that I oppose that. I believe it is wholly wrong to take a body of legislation designed to apply to adults who, of their own volition, come together to form a family unit and apply it to relationships which are consanguineous and cannot be broken. I agree with him that there is an anomaly in our fiscal law that needs to be sorted, but our fiscal law already makes allowances for children. Those who have children’s best interests at heart should go down that route and desist from this campaign, founded and funded by evangelical Christians, to have a go at civil partnerships and same-sex marriage. We are talking about two completely different things.
I will leave it to my noble friend Lady Benjamin to talk—far more eloquently than I could—about the registration of pregnancies that cease before 24 weeks, but I believe that if we can show greater understanding and humanity to people who undergo that trauma, we should.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, is right that the involvement of coroners is a complicated subject, not least because we would not want to do anything to undermine in any way the duty of candour of obstetricians and gynaecologists in an extremely difficult area of medicine. I think I am right in saying that the largest proportion of liability claims against the NHS are to do with perinatal medicine and what happens during birth, which is one of the most complicated and dangerous areas of medicine. The noble Baroness is right to raise this subject but I do not think that we are quite there yet.
Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, I think that Clause 2 needs more work. Most people think there is a need for greater consultation but nobody wants to drag this out any longer, if possible. As when we were working on the original civil partnerships and same-sex marriage legislation, there are couples for whom the need to sort out their affairs is urgent. Nevertheless, more detail is needed.
Finally, I agree absolutely with the noble Lord, Lord Collins. I am pleased to say that in this country, we are still making progress in this area of social reform. It is absolutely wrong that the citizens of Northern Ireland remain set in some 1950s view of the world that no longer pertains to their lives, and it is absolutely wrong that some of our country’s citizens do not enjoy the same status as the rest. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, and Tim Loughton for his persistence in moving forward on this issue. I hope that we can achieve consensus today and get this on to the statute book as soon as possible.
I support all the provisions in the Bill but, in the interests of time, given that two Private Members’ Bills are waiting in the wings, I will address my remarks only to the first part of the Bill, which enables the registration of the names of the mother of each party to a marriage or civil partnership. I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, who has worked hard, with good grace and patience, to bring forward this reform. Of course, he started by introducing his own, more narrowly focused, Registration of Marriage Bill last January. I spoke at its Second Reading in strong support of its objectives.
Since 1837, wedding certificates have featured simply the names and occupations of the spouses and the names and occupations of their fathers. Mothers’ contribution to family life has been erased from history. Being a witness was the only thing they could do, which is what happened in my case: both my mother and my mother-in-law were witnesses. Now we have the chance to ensure that the details of the couple’s mothers can be included on the online version. This would be the first major reform of how marriages are registered since 1837, early in Queen Victoria’s reign. This is a Bill to put right what most people would be astonished to find is still the case in 2019. For some years, there has been a cross-party campaign to achieve this move towards equality in the registration of details on marriage. I am very pleased to see that remain; I hope that this cross-party work continues throughout the passage of the Bill.
Previously, it was argued that changing the paper certificates would be too expensive because there are around 84,000 open marriage registers around the country in more than 30,000 churches and religious buildings—plus the ones in register offices—and because, in compliance with existing legislation, physically they feature spaces for only the fathers’ names. If the mothers’ names were to be added, it was argued that new hard copy registers would need to be provided, at an estimated cost of £3 million. The Bill removes the requirement for paper marriage register books to be held in so many places, creating a digital marriage schedule. That should enable the schedule to be designed in a format that makes it possible to include the names of both parents of the couple.
“To clarify, by the names of the parents it will say ‘Mother/Father/Parent’ for both parents. That will apply to children of opposite-sex couples, same-sex couples and whatever we have to come”.—[Official Report, 29/6/18; col. 345.]
For the avoidance of doubt and for clarification about the provisions of the Bill, I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister could confirm that Clause 1(1) and 1(4)(a) make it not only possible, but certain, that her commitment in this House will be fulfilled. Can she confirm that it is her firm expectation that the Secretary of State and the Registrar-General will exercise their powers in a way that ensures that the “Mother/Father/Parent” option appears on the schedule, and that it remains possible for people to leave the section blank if they wish?
In Committee, my noble friend the Minister also said that,
“the regulations are an early draft and further drafting is required … I will make further drafts of the regulations available in the Library in due course”.—[
I am grateful to the Library of this House for providing me with a copy of those draft regulations and to the Home Office for providing the Library with an updated version last night so that I could see the latest version. Speed-reading through the regulations on my iPhone last night was quite tricky but, at first sight, they do not appear to refer specifically to “Mother/Father/Parent”. Indeed, they seem simply to replicate the provisions of Clause 1(1) and 1(4), which give permissive powers to the Secretary of State and the Registrar-General to prescribe the content of a marriage schedule. It is important that we have a government commitment on the record today that those powers will be used, as I am sure my noble friend the Minister will be able to say quite easily, to enable the entry of the mother’s name on the marriage record. I invite my noble friend to provide that assurance.
The road to this stage, where we have a Private Member’s Bill that stands a good chance of getting on to the statute book, has been long and winding. Even where there is cross-party support, Private Members’ Bills are the most fragile animals in Parliament. After Second Reading on
I congratulate my right honourable friend Dame Caroline for working so assiduously on this matter for several years. She made it clear that she was ready to assist her honourable friend Tim Loughton with his more complex—but I still say welcome—Bill, which last year had been successful in getting a date for Second Reading in the Commons. His Bill successfully completed its Commons scrutiny and is before us today. Dame Caroline offered to ensure that Mr Loughton’s Bill contained provisions within it which achieved the same objective as that of her Bill and that of the right reverend Prelate. She was selfless in offering to put the reforms to the registration of marriage before her efforts on her own Bill.
As a result, in Committee on Mr Loughton’s Bill in the Commons on
Previous attempts to achieve this reform have failed at every hurdle along the way. This one has got over so many hurdles that it is my hope today that we can continue with cross-party support, leave the hurdles behind and get it into law by the end of this Session.
My Lords, I thank Tim Loughton MP and the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson of Abinger, for bringing this Bill forward in the Chamber today. It is a complex Bill because it brings together a number of different issues and therefore the danger is that it could fall because a group of people does not like one particular bit of it. I know just how hard it has been working on just the focused registration of marriage part of it, let alone the other focuses. For that reason, I will resist the temptation to widen the debate beyond the scope of the Bill; for example, to explore the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury. I do so because I want us to focus absolutely on what we are trying to deliver. That does not preclude us from having other debates on the points he has made but I do not believe that they are relevant today. Indeed, the danger is that it will confuse matters if we go beyond the scope of what we are trying to do.
As has already been spelled out, the proposals in Clause 1 reflect almost exactly my own Registration of Marriage Bill, which passed through this House with support from your Lordships. Perhaps I may say how grateful I am to the considerable number of people who were immensely helpful. It was only my second attempt to get a Private Member’s Bill through. I am a complete novice at this and I discovered just how complex it is to move a Bill on. I was therefore delighted to have the huge help of so many Members of your Lordships’ House. As has also been mentioned, we decided to do something which I am told is very unusual. We developed a pincer movement with Dame Caroline Spelman MP introducing a Private Member’s Bill with almost exactly the same words in the other place, because we were so determined to move this very focused piece of legislation on and try to get it into law.
The Bill before us today originated in the other place but both the respective Bills have passed through one of the two Houses and both share a core belief that marriage registration needs to be updated and modernised. Clause 1 would correct a clear and historic injustice. When a couple is married and the marriage is registered, currently there is provision only for the fathers’ names to be recorded. It is an archaic practice, unchanged since Victorian times, when children were seen as the father’s property and little consideration was given to the role of the mother, in particular any sense of them having joint responsibility.
In England and Wales the law currently requires all marriages to be registered once they have taken place. Following the marriage ceremony, the person responsible for registering the marriage, such as a registrar or a member of the clergy of the Church of England, registers the marriage in a marriage register book and handwrites the marriage certificate. I have done that myself many times. Another aspect which features in both my Bill and this Bill is the modernisation of the system of marriage registration. For too long the system has been solely paper-based. Certificates are an exact copy of the register entry, with the prescribed particulars registered for marriages including details only of the fathers but not the mothers of the couple.
Leaving aside the obvious benefits of digitalisation, which is already available to couples in Scotland and Northern Ireland, there have been calls from both within and outside Parliament for the mother’s details to be included in marriage registration. For my own Bill, the Church consulted internally and won support from senior clergy across the Church. It has also worked for many years with the Home Office and the General Register Office on the finer points of its implementation.
Incidentally, I have been surprised by the unexpected support of groups of people who would not normally spend time engaging with the minutiae of parliamentary legislation. Genealogists, for example, have reacted with a huge sense of relief. I have received quite a number of letters from genealogists saying, “It is about time because it is so much harder to trace families back in this country where the mother’s name is not recorded at this key point”. Elsewhere, I have been glad to amplify the voices of feminists and women’s groups on this important issue.
Last year we marked the centenary of women’s suffrage, so surely it is time to bring the registration of marriage into the present age. I hope that we will all support the Bill.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, and the honourable Tim Loughton MP for bringing this legislation forward. It is about time. I want to say simply to the right reverend Prelate who has just spoken that I find it unbelievable that there is or ever has been any hesitation about putting the mother’s name on the certificate. However, I am often shocked by the way the world works.
I will address the part of the Bill which covers civil partnerships. I always say that my nephew was killed by the state. He died aged 35 in the contaminated blood scandal. He had a 10 month-old baby and had been with his partner Olga for 14 years. The financial problems which flowed from that were insupportable.
Noble Lords may or may not be aware that as a Minister in the coalition Government, I was the originator and architect of the same-sex marriage law. My story began right at the end of the journey to equal marriage rights and I stood on the shoulders of giants. The credit for the same-sex marriage law goes to them and to lifelong campaigners, some of them in this House. I mention my noble friend Lady Barker and the noble Lords, Lord Cashman, Lord Alli and Lord Collins, along with many others. But I could never have done what I did if it had not been for civil partnerships. We would not have same-sex marriage if the Labour Government under Tony Blair had not taken that tremendous step forward for equality. But at the end of the same-sex marriage journey, as has been mentioned, an inequality was left; that is, you can get married or enter into a civil partnership if you are gay, but you can only get married if you are straight. I want to take this opportunity to put on the record the history or story of straight civil partnerships. I am not talking out of school because this is all in the public domain in my book, Equal Ever After. It had to be approved by the Cabinet because if you have been a Minister you are not allowed to publish a book without its approval.
I cannot say how delighted I am that the Conservative Government are supporting this move. However, I am not surprised, because my Secretary of State was Theresa May and she was always in favour of straight civil partnerships. When I first got it into my head that we should introduce same-sex marriage, even though it was not in the party manifestos or the coalition agreement, I asked my civil servant how I could do this. He said that I had to write the words to be approved by my Secretary of State. She would then use those words to write to the Cabinet. That is how new policy is brought before the Government. The words I wrote were as follows:
“During the consultation on civil partnerships in religious premises it has become clear that there is a genuine desire on the part of some to move forward to equal civil marriage and equal civil partnerships. The Government will work with those with a key interest in this to examine how we might move forward to legislation”.
Theresa May approved my words and they passed the Cabinet write-round to create this new policy. Two Cabinet Members objected but they were overruled by David Cameron. Noble Lords may notice that the original wording did not include religious marriage, which did come to pass, but did include equal civil partnerships, which did not come to pass. How did that change happen? David Cameron supported same-sex marriage because he believed in marriage. As he said to PinkNews on
“I told the Tory conference that commitment through marriage was equally valid whether between a man and a woman, a man and a man or a woman and a woman … I want to do everything I can to support commitment and I’m open to changing things further to guarantee equality”.
When I read that, I thought he would not object to what I was doing. He was open to it and supported it, but was not so keen when it came to civil partnerships. No. 10’s preference was to abolish civil partnerships altogether. The view from No. 10 was that marriage was the gold standard of relationships and that if gay couples gained the right to marry there was no longer any need for civil partnerships. There is a sort of—not very good—logic to that, unless like me and many others you believe it is not for the state to judge. Some people believe in marriage; some do not. It is not the state’s role to judge which is better but to facilitate both equally.
Although Theresa was in favour and it had passed Cabinet write-round, there was continued and continual pressure from No. 10 to drop civil partnerships. I confess that my methodology to repel this push was to stomp around the Home Office declaiming that this defining equality policy of same-sex marriage was not only right but would go a long way to detoxifying the previously toxic reputation of the Conservative Party on LGBT rights. Did it really want to wreck its whole reincarnation and detoxification by scrapping civil partnership, such a hard fought-for and hard-won step on the equality ladder?
Conservatives had begun moving in the right direction, mostly supporting civil partnerships, and David Cameron had changed the atmosphere—but whether it was the upset in the Conservative associations at same-sex marriage or he simply did not believe in civil partnerships, I do not know. This came to a head a day or two before the 2011 Liberal Democrat autumn conference, at which I was to have the honour of announcing the new policy and the consultation that would be launched. It had been a year and a half getting to this point and I was so excited about finally going public. No. 10 special advisers and Nick Clegg’s special advisers acting for me were at loggerheads. They rang me to say that No. 10’s position was basically that if I did not agree to drop straight civil partnerships, David Cameron would kill the whole thing dead and would not allow same-sex marriage to go ahead. I instructed our special advisers to fight back. But many hours and phone calls later, in the end No. 10’s position was final: drop straight civil partnerships or same-sex marriage is dead in the water.
With a heavy heart, I made the decision that same-sex marriage was the big social change, the big equality step forward, and vital to get through in this Parliament. I was also 100% sure that straight civil partnerships would inevitably follow, as we would be left with the inequality of gay couples having the choice between marriage and civil partnerships but straight couples only able to marry. I insisted that a question on this remained in the consultation, and it did. In the consultation responses—the biggest response to a government consultation in history with around 289,000 responses, I think, but I may stand corrected—people overwhelmingly supported straight civil partnerships. Tim Loughton tabled an amendment during the same-sex legislation but it was kicked into the long grass for a review, as it was then regarded as potentially derailing or delaying the same-sex legislation—pretty much the same as happened with humanist weddings—but here it is today, exactly as I predicted. Thank goodness. If it had not come forward, I would have felt guilty for the rest of my life, but happily we have that opportunity today, so I am delighted to support this Bill and equality in marriage and civil partnerships at last.
My Lords, I take the opportunity, as others have, to congratulate both Tim Loughton and my noble friend Lady Hodgson on the progress made on this Bill so far. I have given them an indication of the subject on which I want to speak, and it will come as no surprise to many people that it is Clause 2 and the question of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for his reference to my Private Member’s Bill.
Before I move on to that, I am prompted by a comment made by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, who referred to her father. We live in a much more liberal and open society than many years ago, and I thank all the different Governments and people who have campaigned on behalf of that. I once sat in the Strangers’ Gallery in the Commons with the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, Ian McKellen and Boy George. It was reported in the papers that the four of us were there for a debate on the age of equality. That happened to out me to my parents, so I went back to my parents to discuss the subject with them. My father was completely relaxed about it. He said: “I don’t mind what you do in your life, with one exception: please never get mentioned in the same sentence as Boy George again”. We have moved on, and are now in a position where we can consider the whole question of same-sex and heterosexual equality in one form or another.
I am today wearing the tie of the Kings Cross Steelers, the world’s first gay and inclusive rugby club. I hope not to wear it so often, because I have worn it on each occasion that I have spoken on same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. Sooner or later, I want to make progress on this. I have pursued it in a number of different ways. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, I have worked with the Member for St Helens in the other place, introducing exactly the same Bill. We have been told over and over again that it is a devolved matter. That is the answer that the Minister, Victoria Atkins, gave when the subject was debated in Committee in the other place. But we cannot go on waiting for ever. Sooner or later we have to say that, because there is no devolved Assembly, we now have the responsibility of changing the law in this place.
It is a common supposition that there is broad support in Northern Ireland for this but no support from the DUP, which blocked the legislation when there was a Northern Ireland Assembly. But I pay credit publicly now to members of the DUP for giving me assistance and advice since
When I spoke on this in the debate here in October, I mentioned that the previous week I had been present, very close to here, at a wedding that involved a friend of mine from Northern Ireland and his partner—but they could not have got married in Northern Ireland if they had wanted to. Surely that is an unacceptable position in this day and age and this society. We must find a way of making that change, whether in this Bill—I will raise it in Committee in more detail—or on another occasion in another place. We cannot go on saying to people that they can be equal in one part of the country but not another. It is utterly unacceptable.
It seems that it is our responsibility to say through legislation that it is a human right for everybody in every part of the country to share the same rights on marriage and relationships. As I have indicated previously, when this Bill gets into Committee I will therefore be pursuing the need to change the law as it relates to Northern Ireland. I wish it well, and I hope that, when it comes out, we will have changed the attitude of all those involved so that we can get a fair passage and a speedy change to one aspect of the legislation, about which I and many other people in this Chamber are seriously concerned.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness for introducing the Bill today and to Tim Loughton for having the determination to steer it through the Commons. He is building on the work done by others, and I am particularly pleased to see the Bishop of St Albans in his place today after everything he did last year.
The civil registration service is one of the hidden administrative gems in this country. Every year, around 1 million births, deaths and marriages are recorded throughout the country. It happens routinely, without drama, and provides the legal evidential base for our very existence, so its accuracy is key. Civil registration as we know it has remained largely unchanged since it was introduced in 1837. It is administered by registrars in local authorities as well as by the General Register Office in Southport. My noble friend Lady Featherstone asked how on earth we were at the point where women were not recorded on marriage certificates. The answer goes back to the fact that, when civil registration was introduced, it moved the system which was already in place for the recording of baptisms, marriages and burials. The prevailing thinking at the time was, frankly, that women did not matter all that much.
The keeping of church registers had been haphazard until 1538, when Thomas Cromwell ordered that every priest should keep a proper record of baptisms, marriages and burials. Later, they were required to be recorded on parchment and kept in secure parish chests. Copies were made regularly and sent to the bishop. The Rose’s Act of 1812 standardised all this information on pre-printed forms, which included only the father’s name and occupation on baptismal and marriage records. As I have said, civil registration imported that system. As to civil registration, copies of local events do not go to the bishop but to superintendent registrars and then to the Registrar General, who holds a repository.
This system is entirely paper based. In an increasingly digital world, we have a totally paper system of civil registration. Each time these documents are copied, there is scope for error and the current arrangements are complex, as you can imagine, if you want to correct or change them for any reason. Basically, the system has served us well. However, it has not kept pace with technological and societal change. There is never any time for legislative change in civil registration—it never gets to the front of the queue—and yet it is where routine state administration touches some of our most personal experiences. It is therefore important.
I shall confine the remainder of my remarks to the registration of marriage. Noble Lords may have gathered that I am something of an enthusiast for this topic. This comes from my interest, which is shared by millions of people, in family history. As such, I tend to take a long view of these matters. One of the most vexing questions for serious researchers is the standard of proof to which you work. Therefore, adding details to the public record—and particularly the mother’s maiden name and occupation to a marriage certificate or baptismal record—would be important extra pieces of validation for future generations of family historians.
It has even more significance because, when you really get into family history, other people often say to you, “How far back can you go?” It is an inane question and not what it is about. You are interested in what your ancestors were like and what they did. Yet we have written women out of the record, which is both morally repugnant and difficult from a research point of view. Genealogy tends to drift towards the male line because the name does not change. Therefore, anything that can help in your research into the female line is useful. To be frank, it is the only line with which you can have biological certainty. There are currently an estimated 2 million single-parent families, of whom 90% are women, and they are absent from the marriage records of their children. Given that, what on earth will future generations make of our attitude to women?
The Government have been moving to digital systems for some time now, and civil registration should not be an exception. We should regard this now as the beginning of a sort of digital parish chest. I hope the Government will give some thought to how we can also deal with registration of births and deaths—not, I hasten to add, in this Bill, but in the future. The Minister in the Commons reflected that there are estimated savings of £33.8 million from the measures in this Bill, and I wonder whether any work has been done to quantify what might be saved from digitising birth and death records.
Not only does the Bill do good things in a range of ways which reflect new attitudes towards the formation of families and the recognition of life events such as a stillbirth, but it also helps us to modernise and future-proof civil registration so that later Parliaments can deal with, for example, how to recognise those with two female or two male parents or no legally recognised father. It is a useful Bill in its contribution to all of these matters. I emphasise the point made by one or two other noble Lords that we must be mindful of the temptation to put too much into this Bill because what is really important is that it passes.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to recognise the exceptional work done by Tim Loughton, the cross-party work in the other place and the work done by the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, in introducing this important Bill. It is important because it strikes at my very heart—or, dare I say, raison d’être—which is equality and fairness. Equality and fairness define the society in which we live, especially minorities, who are so often misrepresented and defamed.
I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, whom I congratulate on the work he is doing on the Northern Ireland same sex marriage Bill, reminded me of 1994 when we sat in the Gallery for the age of consent debate. I had forgotten that I was sitting with Boy George, but I remembered that I was sitting with the noble Lord. His father said to him that he did not mind what he did, but he did not want to see him in public again with Boy George. When I led the campaign against Section 28 and I was featured on the evening news, my father, an old docker, said to my mother, “I don’t mind him being gay, but does he have to go on the news about it?” How times have changed. They have changed because people have had the courage to leap forward where others have hesitated, to give a voice to the voiceless and to recognise those who might otherwise remain invisible in our society.
This is a simple Bill. It addresses inequalities and unfairness. I welcome Clause 3, but we need to proceed carefully. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, said, to lose a child is calamitous to a parent. Therefore, in considering whether there needs to be registration below the threshold of 24 weeks, I suggest that this should be a discretionary rather than a mandatory process, because it may ask some parents to face something which is too difficult.
On Clause 2 and the resistance of the Minister in the other place to accept a time limitation to bring forward these measures, I urge the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, and Tim Loughton, when the Bill finally resurfaces, to stick to this timetable. I am desperately worried—this is no reflection on the brilliant civil servants that we have—about capacity in our departments. I am particularly worried at this moment about capacity in the Home Office, dealing as it has to with the repercussions of Brexit or possibly no Brexit. An example, which I offer the House as a warning, is that, during the passage of the Policing and Crime Act in January 2017, I introduced an amendment, which the Government accepted, to widen the pardons and disregards to include the criminal records of homosexual and bisexual men who were convicted of actions that are no longer crimes. More than two and a half years down the line, nothing has been delivered. In August 2018, a letter from the then Minister stated that work was under way. Here we are, six months later, and still no work has been done. I know the Minister the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, is committed to this, but we do not want commitments; we need delivery. So it is vital that we stick to this.
I equally have to associate myself with the eloquent and powerful contribution of my noble friend Lord Collins of Highbury on unfinished business. In 2006, something happened that I never believed would happen in my lifetime. I stood with Paul Cottingham as we undertook a civil partnership. At that time, I had shared 23 years with him. The ability to commit yourself in public to someone you love is indescribable. Some people wish to do that in a church because of their faith and belief. It is shameful that a church that professes love excludes such people who wish to practise their love and commitment within their faith. We should allow all churches to celebrate and solemnise—all faiths and none. We must move forward.
In view of the time, I wish to move on very swiftly. Civil partnerships and marriages—relationships—are the building blocks of our society. I have never really understood why people want to build civilised, strong societies and to deny commitment. Some heterosexual couples do not believe in the institution of marriage, and therefore including them in the right to civil partnership is vital. I urge the Government not to go down the easy route of transferring civil partnerships into marriage or of dissolving partnerships and passing them into marriage. That would be wholly wrong.
I offer my two final points to the Government, who may not wish to come back with an immediate reply because of the sensitivity and misrepresentation on the issue. We have had a consultation on the Gender Recognition Act. I wonder whether the Government might wish to look at the approach undertaken by the New Zealand Government where changing one’s sexual identity, one’s gender, can be addressed by seeking a change in the birth registration. That is one route that the Government might wish to look at. They should certainly look at the New Zealand experience.
Finally, I wish to thank—not finally; politicians use that word far too often when we actually mean we are thinking—the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, for the generous and open way she has always worked on equality issues and for the ground-breaking and courageous work she undertook in making same-sex marriage a reality.
I said finally, but this is finally. We cannot go on denying people in Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom that we vociferously defend as part of our union, the same rights as are afforded in the rest of United Kingdom. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, and I look forward to working with her.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, for bringing this Bill to the House. I want to speak on Clause 3 of this important and brave Bill and on the traumatic and devastating issue of baby loss, which sadly affects around one in four pregnancies each year across the UK, resulting in around 258,000 losses. It is estimated that around 38 million baby losses occur globally each year. I am one of those statistics, as I have experienced three miscarriages, and I am sure most women in this Chamber have also experienced a miscarriage or know of someone who has. It is heartbreaking. As in my miscarriages, the majority of people who experience baby loss do so during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, yet sadly these individuals, couples and families have no formal recognition of their child’s life, as current legislation provides certification and registration only for loss that occurs after 24 weeks’ gestation.
Thirty-five years ago, I tried to raise this issue by attempting to get a television programme commissioned to highlight the issue, but at the time it was a taboo subject, and the programme was not made. For years, women and their partners have suffered in silence. I am thankful that six years ago the significant and important issues surrounding baby loss were highlighted globally by Zoe and Andy Clark-Coates, the founders of the Mariposa Trust, better known as the charity Saying Goodbye. I declare an interest as one of its ambassadors. They have worked tirelessly to provide crucial support to parents, siblings, grandparents, extended families and friends affected by this type of bereavement. They provide international services of remembrance that allow tens of thousands of families to have their babies publicly acknowledged for the first time. They also provide training to raise the standard of care given to those devastated people and campaign for improvements in how bereaved parents are cared for and supported by the NHS and beyond.
Zoe and Andy formed the charity because of their five-times personal tragedy of baby loss. Those experiences showed them the desperate need for parents to receive better support. They knew that improvements in the care people received at the time of loss, as well as access to information and advice, were essential, so the charity has developed key resources, provided free of charge, that are widely used across the NHS and support groups. They have also pioneered the use of social media to support people effectively. Two years ago, when I heard Zoe’s inspirational call for a new baby loss certificate, I pledged to work with her to make it a reality, so I introduced a Private Member’s Bill, the Certificate of Loss Bill, in the hope of giving grieving parents the opportunity, for the first time, to receive a document that would show that their child existed.
It is with this in mind that I want to speak today, given the progress of the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Bill introduced by the honourable Tim Loughton MP in the other place. To give some history about where we are, in February 2018, the right honourable Jeremy Hunt MP, the then Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, announced that he wanted to launch a review into the introduction of certificates for babies lost prior to 24 weeks’ gestation. This coincided with the Second Reading of Tim Loughton’s Bill, which in Clause 3 asks for a review of the registration of baby loss. In March 2018, the Secretary of State appointed Zoe Clark-Coates to co-chair the review, utilising her expertise as a leader in the field of grief and baby loss, as an author on the subject and as a mother who has experienced baby loss.
Following the announcement of the review, the Secretary of State expanded it to include a review of all care relating to baby loss. Over the past 10 months, the national pregnancy loss review has been conducted by Zoe and her co-chair Samantha Collinge, a specialist bereavement support manager at the University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust. They have gone to extraordinary lengths to investigate how parents are cared for and supported following the loss of their babies and whether certification should be introduced. They have visited numerous hospitals to speak to front-line NHS nurses, doctors and midwives, conducted forums with bereaved parents around the country and engaged with stakeholders and religious and minority groups, as well as local and national charities, parliamentarians and other experts in the field. They have seen passionate and hard-working midwives, doctors and medical professionals going to extreme lengths to care for people, witnessed both good and bad practice, heard horrific stories of care going wrong and seen the shortfalls in the current provision of care. They are currently finalising their recommendations, which will be published this year.
This review is the start of what should be a major overhaul of how bereaved parents are cared for following loss. The introduction of certification would be a significant move towards providing parents with formal recognition that their child existed, which is what everyone universally is calling for. I have made this recommendation to the right honourable Matt Hancock, the current Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, who, along with others, I hope shares my belief that the findings of this review need to be actioned and not just left on a shelf to gather dust.
I fully support introducing registration and certification for losses that occur before 24 weeks’ gestation where the following conditions are met: that the scheme is voluntary and there is no legal requirement for a parent of the child to register the loss; that all loss pre-24 weeks is eligible for registration; that medical verification is optional; and that retrospective registration and certification is available for all future and past pre-24-week losses, which will help people on their bereavement journey.
It has become clear that medical verification might not be available for the registration of all cases of pre-24-week loss. Those experiencing early loss might never have been seen by medical professionals, and early first-trimester loss might have been managed at home outside the medical environment. Therefore, I support the recommendation that medical verification should be optional and that, if no verification is available, that should not prevent parents registering their loss. This would allow the greatest flexibility for applicants and would support retrospective registration where medical verification might no longer be available.
I believe that registration and certification should be as inclusive and generous as possible, and that therefore all loss pre-24 weeks should be eligible for registration should the parents choose to do so, as this offers true compassion. In the spirit of this generosity, retrospective registration should also be available. It is clear from various sampling conducted by the Mariposa Trust and other organisations that there is a high demand for this. In a survey conducted by the trust in January 2017, of the 2,634 responders, 82.4% stated that a certificate being issued to them would have made a real difference and 88.4% stated that the issue was very important to them.
I believe that we are at a crossroads. We could continue to give sub-standard support and not formally recognise these losses for what they are—the death of a baby—or we could acknowledge the long-term negative effects of baby loss, such as trauma, relationship breakdown, and physical and mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, and do everything we can to address them. I believe that we should embrace the national pregnancy loss review findings and support the implementation of its recommendations to improve care across the NHS, as well as implement certification. I also believe that the current chairs of the review should be engaged to oversee the implementation and outworking across the NHS and beyond. They have the expertise and experience to do so with dedication, compassion and commitment. Clause 3 lays a foundation for certification to be introduced, so I strongly believe that it should be supported on its journey through the House of Lords.
In conclusion, to focus our minds on the importance of this issue and the devastating effect of baby loss, in the time I have taken to speak in this debate today, around five families in the UK and 650 families around the world will have lost a baby.
My Lords, this is undoubtedly an important piece of legislation, and we are indebted to my noble friend Lady Hodgson of Abinger for explaining its various aims and purposes to us with her customary clarity. A tribute has rightly been paid to the Bill’s progenitor, Mr Loughton, who so skilfully secured its passage through the Commons, showing tenacity and resolve during the considerable period in which it was under discussion.
I must thank the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, for her trailer. We are, sadly, at odds over the main point that I will be addressing—the position of sibling couples—but we are not at odds over everything. I am at one with her and with the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Cashman, and my noble friend Lord Hayward about the extension of same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland. I have endorsed its extension on a number of occasions in this House over the last few years. As a unionist, I feel very strongly that a common core of human rights should be applicable in all parts of our country. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, and I were on the point of commissioning from a mutual friend of ours, a great expert at York University, a short Private Member’s Bill when Mr McGinn MP and my noble friend Lord Hayward came forward with their Bill, which I very much look forward to supporting at every conceivable opportunity.
As regards this Bill, I shall confine my remarks to Clause 2, which would permit opposite-sex couples to enter into civil partnerships instead of marriages, if that is their wish. A long campaign has been conducted to achieve this major change. All those who have participated in the campaign, and the many opposite-sex couples who look forward to entering into the kind of legal relationship that they want for themselves, will rejoice at the further progress that the Bill is making today. I look forward particularly to hearing the Government’s position.
A consultation exercise on the extension of civil partnerships is to be held this year, as my noble friend Lady Williams of Trafford confirmed in a Written Answer to me recently. No doubt she will give details of when the exercise will start and finish, and tell us what will happen after it has been concluded, when she comes to reply to this debate. We need to be clear too about whether the Government intend to keep to their original commitment to hold a full public consultation. That is what is needed so that all those who would like to become entitled to civil partnerships can make representations and have their claims assessed, but perhaps the Government have now backtracked and propose to confine the consultation to the legal technicalities of bringing opposite-sex couples within the scope of civil partnerships. I look forward to hearing the details.
I have a simple question to pose in this debate. Now that the extension of civil partnerships beyond same-sex couples has been accepted in principle, have all the appropriate additional criteria for eligibility been included in this important Bill before us today?
For my part, I have for years backed wholeheartedly the widespread view that, by one means or another, eligibility should be extended further so that sibling couples, committed to one another in secure, platonic, long-term cohabiting partnerships, symbolised by the home they have created together, can come within its scope. It is a view that first found strong backing in this House in 2004, when an amendment to include cohabiting family members in what became the Civil Partnership Act was passed, but the Labour majority in the Commons declined to accept it. A clear majority of Conservatives were in favour—something that should be remembered today.
Since 2004, support for the legal recognition of sibling couples has always been present in both Houses. It was expressed most conspicuously on
A very important point was made from the Cross Benches in that debate by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, who has been tireless over the years in seeking to extend the rights provided by civil partnerships to cohabiting family members. Referring to the Supreme Court ruling which gave this Bill added urgency, she said:
“If civil partnerships are to be extended to heterosexual couples by virtue of … Article 14”,
“the same must be true of sibling couples”.—[
Two of the House’s leading lawyers, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, who could not be present for the debate in July, made clear their full support for the Bill. My Bill would authorise civil partnerships between siblings over 30 years of age who have cohabited in shared property for at least 12 years. It awaits a Committee stage, which it deserves but will not get because the Government will not provide time for it.
The Bill before us today highlights once again the injustice suffered for so long by sibling couples who have decided to make their lives together in homes that are their proud, shared possessions, filled with the memories of two platonically entwined lives. That is the inevitable consequence of extending legal rights to some couples in the form that they want them, while ignoring the just claims of other couples who are so badly in need of them, and in exactly the same form, to protect their common interests.
A crucial point arises here. Civil partnerships were introduced for the express purpose of conferring legal rights on couples who were ineligible to marry. Now the plan is to extend them to all those who possess the right to marry while denying them only to couples who cannot marry. It does not make sense. No one even attempts to argue that denying all legal rights to cohabiting siblings is defensible; yet whenever the issue comes up, government Ministers and other short-sighted politicians everywhere say that this is not the time, the place or the right piece of legislation to address it. This must stop. It is hard to think of anything better suited to dealing with this issue than a Bill to change the nature and purpose of civil partnerships by extending them beyond those for whom they were originally intended.
Let us not mince words about a supposedly overwhelming obstacle to using civil partnerships to bring justice to sibling couples. Delicately and coyly, we are told that civil partnerships are for only those in intimate relationships. Others, like sibling couples, who are living chaste lives together, cannot have a civil partnership. There must be sex. This is a complete canard. There is nothing in the 2004 Act which makes sex a prerequisite. Church of England clergy are allowed to form civil partnerships on the understanding that the couple will go separately to bed.
It is difficult to forgive the indifference shown by a Conservative Government to sibling couples. Their values are Tory values, and the Government should not be perpetuating discrimination against them. They should be celebrating and applauding the contribution made by devoted cohabiting partners to the well-being of society. Cohabiting partners save the state the cost of social care: they release housing by setting up home together and often look after elderly relatives and children.
Undertaking such responsibilities and providing unbroken mutual support entitles them to the legal rights of civil partners, particularly joint tax allowances, joint pension rights and the deferral of inheritance tax. Many sibling couples have been in touch with me. All are worried, many in despair, about the probable loss of a joint home when the first sibling dies, because of the real risk that the survivor will have to sell up to raise the means to meet an inheritance tax bill—and at a time of deep personal distress. I referred earlier to the constant support given by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, to the claims of sibling couples. On several occasions, she has been told that deferral of inheritance tax until after the second death must be for only those who have made a legal, binding commitment to each other in the form of a marriage or a civil partnership.
Sibling couples are shut out from civil partnerships because of official insistence that there must be an intimate couple relationship—in other words, sex—for which there is no legal requirement at all. Has discrimination ever been more blatant? The former Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve, whose words I have quoted before, has expressed perfectly the reasons why change must be made:
“The basis for creating civil partnerships is the recognition by government of the value of close, mutually supportive relationships outside traditional marriage. As such the exclusion of cohabiting blood relations from the right to form one is discriminatory and a serious mistake that needs to be corrected”.
I come back to the question of whether this Bill does all that is needed to extend eligibility for civil partnerships. It does not remove the discrimination suffered by sibling couples. The law on civil partnerships will not be in a truly satisfactory state until sibling couples are brought within it.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, and Tim Loughton for bringing forward this Bill. It covers a large number of areas. I will begin with pregnancy loss, an area that I wish to talk personally about, and then cover the others. I start by thanking my noble friend Lady Benjamin for her very moving speech. I also thank the Mariposa Trust, the Miscarriage Association and Sands, the stillbirth and neonatal charity, for all the work they do with parents who face baby loss.
My eldest child would have been 41 this year. I remember, in my early 20s, having a miscarriage in a public toilet in a castle in the highlands of Scotland. When I finally got to see a doctor two days later, the only response was, “Oh, well you’ve had an abortion”. What they meant was a spontaneous abortion, but, for any woman who suffers miscarriage or baby loss, the inconsiderate use of terminology by medics can be very traumatic. It was unfortunately not my first miscarriage; like my noble friend Lady Benjamin, I had recurrent miscarriages. I will come on to why the registration is important for reasons other than the care of parents and the recognition of the loss of a baby.
There is an issue for me with Clause 3(2), and the definition of pregnancy loss as,
“when a person’s pregnancy ends and, after being parted from the person”.
I will explain. My fifth miscarriage came when I was carrying twins, in my middle trimester. I was seen by a doctor because, by then, everybody knew that I had trouble having babies. I was seen and scanned and, after two weeks, the sonographer said that there was a problem. I was extremely lucky that my consultant, the wonderful Lesley Regan, decided to come and have a look herself. Had she not done so, we would not have known that I had another twin sitting behind the first baby who had died. Lesley said to me, “She is waving for attention; we need to do something about this”. I then spent two and a half months on my bed, unable to move. Slowly, as we became confident that I had retained my other baby, I was able to start my life again. Yet under the terms of this clause, I did not lose the twin who had died until I gave birth to my other daughter, and it would have been classed as a stillbirth. That was not the case. I fear—in fact I know, because I have talked to other parents who have lost one of their twins—that this is a real issue around how you manage what has happened. I am concerned that the definition here is too strict; it may miss cases out and may not be helpful.
Interventions nowadays mean that parents know when they are pregnant much earlier than those of us in my generation did. Scans are available from eight or nine weeks or, if you have had problems, as soon as your pregnancy is confirmed. That is why the relationship that mothers, fathers and other family members have with the baby pre-birth is completely different. The arbitrary figure of 24 weeks for the definition of stillbirth and the recognition of baby loss is a real problem. I know this as the grandmother of twins who were born at 29 weeks; throughout the pregnancy, there were warnings that one or possibly both would not make it. Therefore, while I accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, that the matter of whether registration is chosen should be discretionary, the discretion must always remain with the parents. It is vital that that happens.
I have one extra concern. Lesley Regan came to believe that there were causes for multiple miscarriages. My cause—which we did not know at the time because nobody then understood it—was autoimmune disease. I am now on my fifth autoimmune disease, and recurrent miscarriage was one of them. I am sure there are other illnesses that are not obvious which cause miscarriage and baby loss. The point of registration is that there is then a burden upon the medics to track miscarriages and at what point they have happened.
I mentioned the slightly cavalier treatment that I had after my first miscarriage because I am afraid that it still happens today. There are still doctors who pat women on the leg, as I was, and say, “Get up and get on with your life; you will be able to have another baby”. Actually, there may be an underlying cause that needs to be looked at.
On stillbirth, I completely accept my noble friend Lady Barker’s important point about the duty of candour for obstetricians and gynaecologists, but, frankly, we have had too many scandals where departments have not looked after mothers and babies and there have been baby losses. The helpful part of having a coroner is to identify bad practice and bad processes where a body outside the NHS needs to be able to identify it.
On marriage registration, I was delighted to hear my noble friend Lady Scott taking us back in history, because it is important to understand why our paper systems exist—and it would not be the House of Lords if we did not go back to 1538 and Cromwell and his parchments. However, we need to change the technology, and I am grateful to my noble friends Lady Scott and Lady Barker for pointing this out.
I also agree strongly with the noble Lords, Lord Cashman, Lord Collins, Lord Lexden and Lord Hayward, and my noble friend Lady Barker that the issue in Northern Ireland is totally unacceptable and needs to be dealt with.
My noble friend Lady Featherstone put on record the story of why civil partnerships were not made accessible to heterosexual couples. The couple who were determined to make this happen, Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld, went everywhere that they could to campaign, including to the courts and to the Supreme Court for a judgment in 2018. They and more than 3 million unmarried opposite-sex couples now have the opportunity for their relationship, which is profound, deep and interdependent, to exist in law at the level that they want it to. I commend their campaign and those who worked with them to make that happen. I wonder if that is where we need to go with the Northern Ireland issue; it may take going through the courts to resolve it.
Further on the reform of civil partnerships, I have now been to a number of weddings confirming civil partnerships, and they are the most moving arrangements that I have ever seen; my noble friend Lady Scott was right to describe them as a hidden gem. I put on record my thanks to all the celebrants of those occasions, both formal registrars and those who have trained to carry out these moving ceremonies, which 100 years ago we would never have thought of as possible in our society.
As others have done, I want to say that there are some minor points here that I hope the Minister has heard and which we might be able to deal with, whether by amendment or by the Government accepting them. The most important thing is that the Bill progresses, and smoothly, because we need it in law. It would help a lot of people and make them happy, but it would also help those who are deeply unhappy to recognise and come to terms with the loss of their children.
My Lords, I am pleased and honoured to support the noble Baroness’s Bill from these Benches. I congratulate her and Tim Loughton on getting us to this point. I know, having done these things myself, that this is not easy but complex, and I offer the noble Baroness my support and help if she needs it throughout the passage of the Bill. I have enormously enjoyed this debate and the contributions from all noble Lords, particularly those from my noble friends Lord Cashman and Lord Collins and the noble Baroness, Lady Barker.
The Bill has six clauses and would do four things: it would facilitate the move from a paper-based system of marriage registration to a partially electronic system, allowing several connected changes about how marriages are registered, including the presence of mothers, for the first time; it would grant opposite-sex couples the right to form civil partnerships; and it would require the Government to publish reports on whether the law should be changed to allow the registration of pregnancy losses that occur before 24 weeks’ gestation, and on whether coroners should be allowed or required to investigate stillbirths.
Clause 1 would give the Secretary of State the power to make regulations enabling changes to be made to the Marriage Act 1949, providing a new system of marriage registration in England and Wales. Various terms have been used throughout the passage of the Bill: “antiquated patriarchal anomaly” is one that I noted from the Commons debates, while “modernise and future-proof” has been said by one noble Baroness today. I do not think I can add to the excellent remarks made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hodgson and Lady Anelay, and the right reverend Prelate. These changes are long overdue and very welcome, and they have our support.
Clause 2 would require the Secretary of State to make regulations granting opposite-sex couples the same right to enter into a civil partnership as same-sex couples. However, it would not change the other eligibility criteria set out in Section 3(1) of the Civil Partnership Act 2004, meaning that it would not be available to those already in civil partnerships, lawfully married under 16 or within prohibited degrees of relationship—for example, siblings and adopted children. I do not think I need to add anything to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, about the passion that the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, has about that particular issue, and I know that we will return to it again.
Why is that important? Several noble Lords have said this, and I congratulate the Equal Civil Partnerships organisation for the campaign that it has run on the issue of allowing civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples: it is fair, it is popular and it protects children and their families because, contrary to popular belief, there is actually no such thing as common-law marriage in UK law, as a result of which, when an unmarried parent dies or a couple separate, there is no legal entitlement for assets or wealth to be shared or for automatic tax relief, as there is for married couples or same-sex partners. That can and does cause huge distress to parents and children. I agree that the state has a responsibility to ensure that children and their partners are protected, and providing this option would make that easier. Children should not be placed at risk just because their parents are not married.
That being said, I wish to return to one or two of the issues that my noble friend Lord Collins regarded as unfinished business. The right reverend Prelate might not want to address these issues today, and I completely understand why he would not, but I have to say that the Church of England cannot keep turning away from the inequalities that still exist. I think it was Tim Loughton who said that the proposal before the Commons would allow registration to be adapted so that mothers’ details could be included in the marriage entry, and he described that as,
“the biggest reform of how marriages are registered since 1837”.—[
I congratulate him and the other MPs, Peers and officials who have brought us to this point, because it is about change in the name of equality. It is on this point that I wish to quiz the Minister.
“My Lords, marriage is a complex area of law that needs systematic review to enable any reform proposals to be delivered fairly and consistently. We are working with the Law Commission to draw up terms of reference for the wider review of the law on marriage ceremonies … The Government welcome the report of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group … and are carefully considering its findings”.—[Official Report, 22/11/18; col. 321.]
That, as we know, is government-speak for kicking something into the long grass. It is five years since Parliament said, during the course of the equal marriage Act, that humanist weddings should be made official and should take place, as they do now in Scotland and Northern Ireland but still not in England and Wales. I believe that the Government have bowed to lobbying and pressure from council registrars, who have a vested pecuniary interest, and the Church of England to deny thousands of people the choice of a humanist wedding—including, it has to be said, my own children. This is unequal and unfair, and if I could find some way to amend this Bill to this effect, I would surely do so, but I have promised the Minister that I will help her get it through. However, I make my protest. It shows that when the Government are actually minded to effect fundamental changes in the area of marriage and relationships, they can do so without so-called complexities. I would like the Minister’s view on this matter: is this complex or not? Are the Government minded to resolve it?
Turning to Clauses 3 and 4, the noble Baronesses, Lady Benjamin and Lady Brinton, spoke with great passion and explained why these clauses are essential. At present, the law means that coroners are not able to investigate stillbirths. I believe they should be given that power. I welcome the fact that the Government wish to engage with the public on proposals on this matter and support a review being conducted. I also welcome the Government’s ambition to halve the rate of stillbirths, neonatal deaths, maternal deaths and brain injuries that occur during or soon after birth by 2025. Of course, we would all support that. I was profoundly moved by the remarks made by my honourable friend Sharon Hodgson in the Commons during the passage of this Bill. She experienced the heartbreak of losing a baby pre-24 weeks and was distressed to find that she and her husband were unable to register the birth or death because the baby had been born a few days before the 24-week gestation threshold. I welcome that the Department of Health and Social Care’s advisory panel is carrying out this review.
In conclusion, I reassure the Minister that on these Benches, we will give her every assistance to put this important reform on the statute book. I think one noble Lord said that Private Member’s Bills were delicate things, but they are also an important opportunity to raise issues. The Government always say that if a Bill is amended, that will kill it. However, in my experience, that is not always the case. In fact, I understand that this Bill has already been amended quite fundamentally in the Commons, and it has got here; the Government also intend to amend it further in this House. While we certainly would not wish to jeopardise the Bill, I do not think we should dismiss the idea of changing or improving it. With those remarks, I wish the Bill well and thank the noble Baroness for bringing it to our attention.
My Lords, I start by thanking my noble friend Lady Hodgson for bringing her first Private Member’s Bill forward so eloquently. It includes many important issues that the Government fully support.
Clause 1 seeks to bring forward changes to the way marriages are registered in the future. Under present legislation, the marriage register entry provides space for the name of the father of each person in the couple to be recorded, but of course not that of the mother and this, unbelievably, has been the case since 1837. As my noble friend said, this topic was the subject of a debate in this House last year—I was the Minister who responded to it—when the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans brought forward a Bill containing identical marriage provisions. I would also like to acknowledge the long-standing work of my right honourable friend Dame Caroline Spelman, who has been tireless in her efforts to address this anomaly and introduced identical private provisions on more than one occasion in another place to ensure that the marriage certificate reflects the important role of both parents.
Moving to a schedule system is the most efficient and economical way to introduce these changes and bring forward the biggest reform of how marriages are registered since 1837, moving away from the outdated legislation currently in place. It would remove the requirement for paper registers, currently held in over 30,000 register offices and religious buildings to registration in an electronic register. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, asked about the savings that would be incurred. I suspect there would be an initial cost, but ultimately, the digitised system would probably bring savings. The basis of a schedule system is that the couple and their witnesses sign a marriage schedule instead of signing the marriage register book. It is worth mentioning here that couples will still be able to have that all-important traditional photo, but instead of signing the marriage register book, they will sign the marriage schedule with their witnesses. My noble friend Lady Anelay rightly asked me to confirm the ministerial commitment to the “Mother/Father/Parent” intention, and I can confirm that when the content is prescribed by the Registrar-General in secondary legislation, it will allow for the different family circumstances in society today. I think noble Lords would agree that this future-proofs any other changes that might occur as society changes.
The noble Lord, Lord Cashman, asked about lessons from New Zealand on the GRA, acknowledging that the GRA is not a subject for discussion here. We have been looking at Google to see exactly what the situation in New Zealand is like, compared to what it might look like here. I will take that away; his advice is always so welcome. I slightly hang my head in shame to think that it was two and a half years ago that we worked on the other Bill together and some of the changes to it that we both so much want to see have not been made. I want to place that on the record.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, talked about humanist marriages. Of course, Clause 1 affects only how marriages are registered; it does not enable wider changes to who can marry or where marriages can take place. The Marriage Act 1949 provides for a premises-based marriage system, as noble Lords will know. The Government consider that legislating in this way would create an anomaly for most couples, who cannot marry outdoors and are restricted to marrying in a register office, or approved premises such as hotels. That is all I will say about humanist marriages for the moment. I know the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, made the point that Private Members’ Bills can be amended, but I think the less a Bill is amended, the more likely it is to secure a passage. I think all noble Lords would agree that all the provisions of the Bill should be taken forward.
Turning to Clause 2, the House will be aware that the introduction of same-sex marriage in 2013 resulted in a situation by which same-sex couples could choose between a marriage or a civil partnership, but opposite-sex couples had only the option of marriage to formalise their relationships. Since then, the Government have carefully considered how to ensure equality of access to civil partnerships for same-sex and opposite-sex couples, and on
As my noble friend stated, while we highly value marriage, we know that for many reasons this is not an arrangement which suits everyone. Many opposite-sex couples have told us that they feel very strongly that marriage is not for them, but they would very much like a civil partnership to formalise their relationship. There are around 3.3 million cohabiting couples in the UK, almost half of them with children and all without the protections and security that a formalised relationship can bring. Extending civil partnerships will ensure that opposite-sex couples will be able to benefit from the protections and security that a civil partnership provides. The Bill gives us the opportunity to carry forward this objective of the delivery of a comprehensive and effective opposite-sex civil partnerships regime at the earliest possible opportunity. I am very optimistic that the Bill may provide scope as a vehicle for extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples.
Following its amendment at Third Reading in the other place, Clause 2 now seeks to create a power intended to enable the Government to legislate to equalise access to civil partnership between same-sex couples and other couples in their future ability, or otherwise, to form a civil partnership. The clause also contains a duty on the Government to make the necessary regulations within six months of the Bill reaching Royal Assent, and attempts to define what is meant by “other couples”.
As highlighted by the Minister of State for Immigration at Third Reading, the Government have doubts about the clause’s ability in its current form to deliver an effective and comprehensive opposite-sex civil partnership regime in the time it provides for. In particular, we have some concerns about the lack of detail in the regulation-making power as drafted. We are pleased to be working closely with my noble friend and the Bill’s sponsor in the other place, Tim Loughton, to draft a new amendment to the Bill, which we hope to lay before the House in Committee. This will hopefully address the concerns about the current shape of the clause and ensure that the Bill can deliver a comprehensive and robust opposite-sex civil partnership regime as soon as possible.
The noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Cashman, my noble friends Lord Hayward and Lord Lexden, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, all talked about same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. We all support the aim that it should happen, but it is a devolved issue. I am sure noble Lords will feel like groaning at that comment, but it would be for a democratically elected Assembly to decide whether to introduce same-sex marriage. I note very much my noble friend Lord Hayward’s comments about the DUP’s position on this, but it is why restoring the Northern Ireland Executive remains a top priority. Northern Ireland needs its elected representatives back in government to take these important decisions on the issues that matter most to the people of Northern Ireland.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, talked about blessings in, for example, the Church of England, which was also mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. We quickly referred to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans to provide expert advice on this. It would be a matter for a minister in the individual church. As a divorced Catholic, I was not able to get remarried in a Catholic Church, but my local priest absolutely understood my desire to have a blessing in my local church and absolutely beautifully obliged in that instance.
On sibling civil partnerships, we do not have any plans to extend civil partnerships to siblings—to brothers and sisters. We will ensure that the extension is restricted to opposite-sex couples in intimate relationships. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, talked about the fiscal consideration that a lot of the lobbying has come from. We have had previous debates on it. We do not intend to move from this position at the moment.
Could my noble friend give an indication of the scope of the consultation that the Government have announced, which she confirmed in a Written Answer to me and I raised in the course of my remarks?
My Lords, I was just coming to that. At this point, officials are working through all the policy issues before the content of any consultation is determined. Therefore, I have to tell my noble friend that I cannot say any more at this stage.
Turning to Clause 3, the Government are committed to ensuring that the NHS provides the safest and highest-quality care possible. This is particularly true for pregnant women. It can be achieved by instilling in the NHS a culture of patient safety, but also by making sure that, when things go so sadly and tragically wrong, we can provide empathetic care and support to bereaved parents and their families to cope with the tragedy of pregnancy loss. I was totally moved by the stories of the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Benjamin. No parent ever wants to go through what they had to go through.
Registration and certification can be an important part of acknowledging a pregnancy loss for some bereaved parents. The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, talked particularly about a twin who survives. That can be the only acknowledgement that their bereaved twin ever existed. I thought that was so pertinent. We fully support Clause 3, which provides for a report on whether the law should be changed to require or permit the registration of pre-24-week pregnancy losses. This clause requires the Secretary of State to publish the report.
The Government have already begun work to produce a report on this issue. The pregnancy loss review, commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Care, has engaged with many key stakeholders, including parents with lived experience of pregnancy loss, health practitioners, registrars, charities and academic experts with knowledge and experience of pre-24-week pregnancy loss. It is vital that the Government look into this sensitive and timely issue. I encourage Members across the House to support this important clause.
On Clause 4, under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, coroners currently do not have jurisdiction to investigate when a baby has not shown signs of life independently of its mother. Coroners can investigate if there is doubt as to whether a baby was stillborn but must stop if inquiries reveal that the baby was in fact stillborn. There have been calls for coroners to do more than this and to be able to investigate stillbirths, providing a transparent and independent assessment that will contribute to learning and improvements in maternity care. Clause 4 places a duty on the Secretary of State to prepare and publish a report on whether and, if so, how the law ought to be changed to enable or require coroners to investigate stillbirths.
The Government support the clause. We have already committed to look into extending coronial jurisdiction to stillbirths and to see whether there is a role for coroners that could support what is already happening in the NHS. Much work has been done to improve the ways that stillbirths are independently investigated, with learning fed back into practice. Recently, for example, the remit of the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch has been extended to enable investigations of some stillbirths, neonatal and maternal deaths and birth-related brain injuries. But the Government agree that we should look at what coroners can add and produce a report on whether and how they should be involved in investigations.
To that end, officials in the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health and Social Care have been exploring the issues and engaging with stakeholders. These include coroners and the Chief Coroner, medical professionals and academic experts, as well as bereaved parents and representatives from third sector and voluntary sector organisations. It has been invaluable and I add my thanks to those who have contributed. We are making good progress in developing our proposals and we will publish them soon. The sensitive issues and range of views means it is important that we fully consider everything that people have told us. It is also clear that we need to engage with the wider public to hear their views to make sure that any actions we take are the right ones. This clause is a very important step towards that.
This has been an excellent debate and I know that noble Lords recognise the importance of taking forward these changes in some very key and sensitive areas. The Bill will modernise how marriages are registered, introduce the provision for opposite-sex couples to enter into a civil partnership and provide for reports to be produced on whether there should be provision to register pregnancy losses and whether stillbirths should be referred to the coroner. These are key areas of people’s lives.
My Lords, I sincerely thank all noble Lords for their excellent contributions to this debate. A number of interesting points have been raised—too many to mention them all, although I know that my noble friend the Minister has mentioned quite a few. I also know that other Private Members’ Bills are waiting, so I will be quick. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, who said that consultation can mean the Government dragging their feet. The reviews mentioned in the Bill have actually started, so the horse has already left the stable.
I acknowledge all the previous work put in on the change to marriage registration by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and Dame Caroline Spelman, which has contributed so much to this Bill. It was very interesting to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, about the overwhelmingly positive response to her consultation on extending civil partnerships to all couples. That was very encouraging.
I extend enormous sympathy to the noble Baronesses, Lady Benjamin and Lady Brinton, on their losses. I commend their bravery in speaking out; I too lost a twin baby, so I know how hard this can be to do. They both spoke so overwhelmingly. I also have huge admiration for all the fantastic work that Professor Lesley Regan has done on miscarriages.
As your Lordships can imagine, we have received many letters on the issues raised in the Bill, particularly on equality and stillbirth. There is a passionate desire for us to get this through and I look forward to going into more detail in Committee. We have had a comprehensive response from the Minister on many of the technical answers to the questions and I do not think I need to add to them. Suffice it to say that my door is open to any Members who wish to discuss any of the issues raised today, so that we can ensure that we return to the Commons a piece of practical and workable legislation.
Overall, I am particularly grateful to your Lordships for being so generous to me and for the wide support for the Bill from across the House. I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, for her support and my noble friend the Minister for the Government’s continued backing of the Bill. I ask that the House give the Bill a Second Reading.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.