Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Bill - Committee

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:45 am on 1st February 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Barker Baroness Barker Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Voluntary Sector) 11:45 am, 1st February 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, for struggling in today; she is clearly not on top form. I thank her very much for the comprehensive way in which she took us through the amendment. Noble Lords know that I not only support her Private Member’s Bill but I wish to see it enacted as quickly as possible, because there are a great many couples in this country for whom this is very important legislation.

However, as I have already flagged to the noble Baroness in preparation for today, I have one or two misgivings about aspects of the Bill and her amendment. It is important, however well disposed one is to a piece of legislation, that it is subject to proper scrutiny. It is the noble Baroness’s misfortune that her Bill comes in the middle of a slew of government Bills taking Henry VIII powers to realms previously unimagined.

The noble Baroness will have seen the report issued on 29 January from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, and the Constitution Committee’s report published yesterday. They are both very forthright in their views on the Henry VIII powers in the Bill and the scope for Ministers to make regulations. I am indebted to Mark D’Arcy of the BBC, who described the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House as a body in which the raising of an eyebrow was considered a severe criticism—by this stage, I think it is pushing chairs through windows. The committee is very sceptical about the scope, extent and reason for the Henry VIII powers in the Bill.

I will come on to the second area when we get to Amendment 3, but I wish simply to address proposed new subsection (3), which would be introduced by Amendment 1, which the noble Baroness just moved. It states:

“The Secretary of State may, by regulations, make any other provision that appears to the Secretary of State to be appropriate in view of the extension of eligibility to form civil partnerships in England and Wales to couples who are not of the same sex”.

That is very widely drawn. I have one particular concern, which I raised on previous occasions.

As the noble Baroness knows, I do not believe it is in any way appropriate for civil partnerships to be extended to siblings. It seems it is possible to read this subsection as enabling siblings—a brother and sister—to form a civil partnership for the reasons the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, has explained concerning property and inheritance. I believe that is very deeply wrong, because I do not believe that a body of legislation devised for consenting adults to form voluntary relationships is in any way appropriate to be applied to relationships that are consanguineous and cannot be broken. That raises the possibility of women, although it could apply to men, coming under pressure in their families to protect family property by forming a civil partnership.

Therefore, it is not just important but necessary that we look again at the drafting of subsection (3). Perhaps the noble Baroness can explain why she believes it to be necessary in the form it is in when she replies. If it is to go ahead, at the very least the Committee would have to be satisfied that it is not the intention that the law will apply to sibling couples and that it cannot be interpreted in that way. That is a very important reassurance, which would have to be made in the strongest of terms for me to consider allowing this to pass. That apart, and in all other respects, the noble Baroness’s amendment is helpful, and I would wish to support it.