Civil Partnership (Opposite-sex Couples) Regulations 2019 - Motion to Approve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:57 pm on 5th November 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) 3:57 pm, 5th November 2019

My Lords, this instrument was debated in the other place on 31 October. Its main purpose is to allow opposite-sex couples in England and Wales to form civil partnerships. The Government want to see more people formalise their relationship in the way that they want with the person they love. We know that there are over 3 million opposite-sex couples who cohabit but choose not to marry. These couples support 1 million children but do not have the security or legal protection that married couples or civil partners enjoy.

That is why we announced last year that we would extend civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples and why we supported the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc.) Act 2019, guided so ably through this House by my noble friend Lady Hodgson of Abinger. Section 2 of the Act enables the Secretary of State, by regulations, to amend the eligibility criteria for civil partnerships and to make other appropriate and consequential provision. The Act requires the regulations extending eligibility to come into force no later than 31 December 2019.

This instrument therefore amends the eligibility criteria in the Civil Partnership Act 2004 to allow opposite-sex couples to register civil partnerships under the law of England and Wales. It provides specific protections for religious organisations and persons acting on their behalf in relation to civil partnerships. Importantly, the regulations prevent religious organisations and persons acting on their behalf from being compelled to do specified acts, such as allowing religious premises to be used for civil partnerships. The instrument also ensures that, where religious organisations do choose to participate in civil partnerships, they can distinguish between opposite-sex and same-sex civil partnerships, as with marriage.

The instrument amends legislation relating to children and parenthood to provide opposite-sex parents in a civil partnership with generally the same rights as opposite-sex married parents in a number of areas. It also amends the Gender Recognition Act 2004 to allow applicants to obtain a full gender recognition certificate without the need to dissolve their civil partnership, provided that the other partner consents, as is currently the case for married couples. The instrument makes consequential and related changes to primary and secondary legislation, including to pensions entitlements and the registration of opposite-sex civil partnerships overseas by UK consular officials.

The instrument also amends the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013 so that, for now, only same-sex couples will be able to convert their civil partnerships to marriage pending the outcome of our consultation on conversion rights, which closed on 20 August. I know that this last change has been drawn to the attention of Members of this House by the JCSI and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. It is also the subject of an amendment expressing regret, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury— although I note that this is somewhat at odds with the comments of Dawn Butler, who welcomed the regulations and did not mention the JCSI’s report during the debate in the other place.

We have given very careful consideration to the committee’s concerns about the provision but, on this occasion, we do not agree with them. Our approach on conversion maintains a difference between opposite-sex and same-sex couples in terms of their ability to convert their civil partnerships into marriage. Importantly, these two groups are not in a directly comparable position. The right to convert a civil partnership into marriage was introduced to enable same-sex couples to marry without having to dissolve their civil partnership, as marriage historically had been denied to them. That same consideration does not apply to opposite-sex civil partners, who have always been able to marry.

Even if same-sex and opposite-sex couples can be compared, the Government consider that maintaining the status quo in the very short term—we anticipate for no more than a few months—is fully justified. Extending conversion rights on an interim basis to allow opposite-sex couples to convert their civil partnership to marriage now, while we are considering responses to the consultation, would risk creating uncertainty and confusion over future rights. We do not wish to introduce a new, potentially short-term conversion right that might be changed later in 2020 when we determine our long-term position on conversion.

In addition, it is difficult to see that opposite-sex couples are disadvantaged by this interim position. Couples who have waited for the chance to form a civil partnership as an alternative to marriage are highly unlikely to wish to convert their relationship into marriage in the first few months. Once we have made civil partnerships available to opposite-sex couples, our priority will be to resolve the longer-term position on conversion rights for all civil partners and to bring forward further regulations as soon as possible next year.

I hope that this reassures noble Lords that we have carefully considered these issues and why we consider the regulations to be compliant with the Human Rights Act 1998.

Before winding up, I again pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Hodgson and to Tim Loughton in the other place, for their great skill and tenacity in steering the 2019 Act through Parliament; I pay tribute also, of course, to noble Lords who took part in the debates here.

I know that my noble friend is keen for the first opposite-sex civil partnership to be formed before the end of 2019. Our intention is to commence the regulations on 2 December, which would allow the first opposite-sex civil partnership to take place on 31 December, given the usual 28-day notice period. I know how long some opposite-sex couples have waited for the opportunity to formalise their relationship and enjoy the stability, rights and entitlements that other couples enjoy. This is the final legislative step in the process and I look forward to the first opposite-sex civil partnership being formed by the end of the year. I commend this instrument to the House.