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Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Bill - Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:30 am on 1st March 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development) 11:30 am, 1st March 2019

I thank all noble Lords who spoke in the debate, particularly the noble Lords, Lord Faulkner of Worcester and Lord Collins of Highbury, who outlined the various challenges here. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, articulated, this amendment is in a way a message for the Church. He outlined the progress that the Church of England has made, while the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, articulated some of its lack of progress. If we were to sum it up, the message is one of leadership and determination. This will be a matter for the Church, but I am very grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford for his thoughtful explanation of the current situation.

The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, also talked about the support the Church has given to this agenda to try to move it forward. My noble friend Lord Elton talked about the message we of the pew can send to the synod in making progress in this area. But clearly, the Government have to resist the amendment. It is probably best for me to go through the Government’s position regarding what we can do.

The amendment’s aim is to require the Secretary of State, by regulations, to make changes to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act to allow the Church of England and the Church in Wales to opt in to the provisions of that Act, which allow them to solemnise the marriage of a same-sex couple, as noble Lords have said. It requires these regulations to be made through the affirmative procedure and to come into effect within six months of this Bill receiving Royal Assent.

I acknowledge that the noble Lords’ intention in trying to ensure that everyone is able to marry in a way and place of their choosing, regardless of their sexual orientation, is an honourable one; being gay does not mean that you do not have any faith. But we have been clear that no religious organisation should be forced to host civil partnerships, unless they choose to. Noble Lords made that quite clear. A number of religious organisations have chosen to opt in or to provide blessings. We hope that more will choose to do so, but it is right that, at this stage, it remains a decision for them.

However, my primary reason for objecting to the noble Lords’ amendment is quite simply, as I think the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford mentioned, that it is unnecessary. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act provides an opt-in system so that same-sex marriages can occur only on religious premises or under religious rites where the governing religious body has expressly consented. There is no requirement for these bodies to give such consent.

The Act does not include a specific mechanism for the Church of England to opt in in the same way, which I know has caused some to believe that the Government are unnecessarily tying the hands of the Church through this. However, the actual reason, as the right reverend Prelate outlined, is primarily that the Church of England already has the ability to opt in using its own devolved legislative powers. It would be inappropriate for the Secretary of State to legislate on a devolved matter.

I am pleased to hear from the right reverend Prelate that the Church of England is continuing to hold conversations on this important matter. It is absolutely vital, albeit that the pace of change is slow. It is clear that the Church, along with other faith groups, has a vital leadership role to play in influencing society and culture in communities around the world, including the way LGBT people are treated. I have had separate debates on that, as noble Lords will know. I hope the Church will consider the needs and experiences of LGBT people in its communities seriously and with the gravity and sensitivity they deserve. With those words, I hope that the noble Lord, albeit reluctantly, will withdraw his amendment.