Amendment to the Motion

Civil Partnership (Opposite-sex Couples) Regulations 2019 - Motion to Approve – in the House of Lords at 3:57 pm on 5th November 2019.

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Lord Collins of Highbury:

Moved by Lord Collins of Highbury

At end insert “, and while this House agrees with the general principle of the Regulations, nevertheless regrets that Her Majesty’s Government is continuing with the new legislation following the criticisms of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments in their third Report that the Regulations ‘will plainly discriminate on the ground of sexual orientation from the moment it is in force’ and that that Committee ‘has a real doubt as to whether it would be lawful for the Secretary of State to include regulation 37 in the proposed Regulations’; and calls on Her Majesty’s Government to replace these Regulations with new ones which ensure equal rights and are not discriminatory.”

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development)

My Lords, I make it clear at the beginning that the reason why I have submitted this amendment is that I felt it was really important that this House debates the reports under consideration from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and this House’s Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. It is important so that the Minister can answer the questions raised by those committees. In her introduction, she gave the same answers that she gave to the committees, but they were not satisfied with those answers. That is why we need a full debate today. Also, the Government Chief Whip told me yesterday that there was no business scheduled this afternoon apart from this statutory instrument, so I took the precaution of preparing a six-page speech, to make sure that we are here for most of the afternoon. I assure noble Lords that I will not read it all out.

What I am concerned about is that the Government should have taken responsibility for this matter in the first place. When the Supreme Court made its judgment in June 2018, this Government had the opportunity to decide on primary legislation and subject that legislation to the scrutiny it should have received. However, they decided not to. We had a Private Member’s Bill, which I agree with the Minister was ably pursued by the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson. We had the Supreme Court judgment in June 2018. Why did the Government have to wait from 2013 until the Supreme Court judgment, when people who wanted civil partnerships were pursuing this matter? Why did it take a Supreme Court judgment to make this Government react?

In October 2018, Theresa May announced with great fanfare that the Government intended to extend civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. I am fully aware of the concerns of opposite-sex couples who want to have the opportunity to enter into a civil partnership. I know they are concerned about the time they have had to wait. I share that concern completely, so my amendment today will not delay the implementation of this statutory instrument. However, I want to say that I personally experienced the consequences of delay. When I originally planned my civil partnership, this House imposed restrictions that delayed it for a year. We had to celebrate our planned day without having a formal, legal civil partnership. We were kindly allowed to use the offices of the London mayor and have a civil partnership in City Hall. True enough, 12 months later to the day, the law changed and we entered into a civil partnership. As the Minister mentioned, that was because same-sex couples had no other choice; civil partnerships were all that was open to us.

When same-sex marriage was mooted by David Cameron, I was in two minds about it. Did it undermine the equal status I had in a civil partnership? What was this about? I actually congratulated David Cameron and said that this was worth doing because it is that final step to equality under the law and equal treatment. My husband and I took great pleasure in converting our civil partnership. It did not undervalue it—we still felt that we were married under the law—but we wanted to celebrate something else: not only the change in society, but the fact that it would personally affect us. We were really pleased to do that.

The noble Baroness might think, as she said today, that there is a difference between that situation and the one we have now. I am not so sure. The consultation has not finished. I wish that we had been able to conflate all this into one proper process. There are very good reasons why people might not want marriage. It is often because they do not want the religious connotation. Sometimes—I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, will refer to this in much more detail—a couple might want a civil partnership because of religious differences. There are all kinds of reasons, but I would not exclude the possibility that once people enter into a civil partnership—I have mentioned the words of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, who talked about the journey the Church of England has been on—they might see the value of that legal recognition and decide that at some future stage, they would like it to be a marriage. Does that mean that they have to stand up in court and divorce, so that they can be married?

I know that the Minister will say that this will be subject to a separate consultation, but the Joint Committee has raised two principles. It is about equal treatment. I want to be very clear that the Government will be absolutely wholeheartedly behind the principle that we end up with equal treatment for same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples; that there will be no division in this and we will not end up with a different situation for same-sex couples.

The Minister says that this will be for only a short time. Maybe or maybe not; we do not know how long the consultation will take. I remember that when the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, moved her replacement for Clause 2 of her Private Member’s Bill, which we all had concerns about, she said that the Government had concerns about the original clause since they believed that it would not deliver,

“a robust opposite-sex civil partnerships regime”,

and pointed to,

“the lack of detail in the regulation-making power”.—[Official Report, 1/2/19; col. 1290.]

We have now gone through the process. The noble Baroness’s amendment was clearly tabled following detailed consultation with the Government—it was, in effect, a Government-backed amendment—and was clearly going to address those issues.

Whether I like it or not, or whether anyone else does, the two committees responsible for scrutinising secondary legislation are saying that these regulations are at fault. I come to the other principle. The Minister mentioned the fact that there was no objection from the other place. My biggest concern about this is that we have these committees as part of our job of scrutiny. These reports were produced so late in the day. I was sitting in the office on Friday trying to read them and to submit an amendment to ensure that we have a proper debate. My first concern is the delay in considering the reports and in the opportunity to see the Government’s response to the committees’ concerns. All the Minister’s responses today were given to both committees. They were not satisfied with them, so there is an issue here that she needs to address.

Let me make it clear: we back these regulations. We want them to be implemented. I do not want an opposite-sex couple to suffer the same delays, having their expectations raised and then dashed by this House. I want the regulations to go through, but I also want the Government to respond to the committees’ questions. There are process issues here.

Once again, the general election called by the Prime Minister has seriously affected our ability to scrutinise legislation. We need to be able to do so, because if this is against the Human Rights Act and considered to be in breach of equal treatment, then we need to know the full consequences and to be reassured by this Government. I come back to the basic point: this Government could have legislated much earlier. They changed their views about civil partnerships. I do not know whether they will change their views again, but I do know that David Cameron appeared reluctant to support civil partnerships after the introduction of same-sex marriages. I was not unsympathetic to some of those views, but I was persuaded, and I am strongly persuaded, that people should have that choice, which should apply equally to same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples. I hope that the Minister can reassure us.

There are a couple of points that I want to bring in. The date of 31 December was in the amendment to the Private Member’s Bill introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, and was backed by the Government. The Government knew what they were doing. They should have been better prepared, to ensure that this legislation came into effect in a proper and timely way. Can the Minister confirm that we have produced clear guidance to local registration services about the commencement of this scheme? Will this have been published in time for 2 December, in preparation for couples who wish to enter civil partnerships on 31 December? It is a great way to end this year. I wish all those couples who wish to enter into civil partnerships all the best. I certainly do not want to appear to be acting as a barrier to it. However, I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us in relation to those quite stringent and strong comments of the Joint Committees.

There are other issues that I was going to raise. The basic issue is whether the Minister can update us about the further consultation period. What are the timeframes and timescales involved in that? She assures us that it will be a short period. I hope that we end up with a system in which we are all treated equally under the law. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Cashman Lord Cashman Labour 4:15 pm, 5th November 2019

My Lords, I support of the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Collins of Highbury. I will not rehearse the very powerful statement that he made to your Lordships. I too spoke in the debate and supported the Private Member’s Bill, so ably and rather brilliantly presented and steered through this House by the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson. I had concerns about discrimination continuing despite these regulations coming into force. I share the deep concerns of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and I would welcome the Minister’s response to the items raised by my noble friend Lord Collins.

I also have to reflect on this as someone who undertook a civil partnership and welcomed the work that was done. It is good to see the noble Baroness, Lady Hunt of Bethnal Green, in her place; I am sure that if she had made her maiden speech by now, she would be taking part rather forcefully in this debate. I recognise the work that she and Stonewall, and many others, did to achieve consensus on equal marriage.

This country is better for the fact that equality is shared, regardless of difference or perceived difference. Why do I say, “perceived difference”? It is because, although I am not blessed in having children—I think that an atheist can use the term “blessed”—I believe that everyone wants to see the best for their child, offspring or partner. To see same-sex couples, along with opposite-sex couples, having the opportunity to celebrate their relationship and commitment of love publicly makes us all better for that commitment. I say that because within these regulations, we reinforce the principle of discrimination. Again, this was raised in our debate on the Private Member’s Bill. We reinforce the concept that religious organisations and bodies can choose to discriminate by saying that they do not or will not celebrate same-sex civil partnerships. Surely, rather than reinforcing the principle of discrimination within the regulations, we should be encouraging and reinforcing the principle of openness, and moving towards a universal celebration. Equally, opposite-sex couples cannot convert their civil partnership into marriage, so again we are reinforcing the principle of discrimination and inequality.

I know that the Minister is personally committed to the principles of equality; I believe in all good faith that so, too, are the Government. I am concerned about the perception now coming from the Home Office. She would expect me to say this, particularly given that I tabled an amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill, which was adopted by the Government in what became that 2017 Act, widening the disregards and pardons for those homosexual convictions which are no longer crimes. Two and a half years later, regulations come there none—despite repeatedly asking the Government to bring forward those regulations. I know that there are problems of capacity within all government departments in relation to the work that has to be done on Brexit but, in the end, we cannot excuse the fact that inequality rumbles on and blights the lives of those who carry these convictions, which often prevent them going into occupations which they love and would want to pursue. While these convictions remain, they cannot.

This is blighting people’s lives and I therefore urge the Minister to reassure me and others that the inequality raised within these regulations will be addressed swiftly. I am a non-aligned Peer—that sounds rather luxurious—but I still wish to call the noble Lord, Lord Collins, my noble friend. As he rightly said, let us get this through and allow those who may wish to take this wonderful opportunity—perhaps on 31 December or even 1 January—the luxury to say that in a country where we are equal, they celebrate the person they love regardless of the gender of that person.

Photo of Baroness Hodgson of Abinger Baroness Hodgson of Abinger Conservative

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Minister for her extensive explanation of the regulations before the House today. I know that she has taken a particular interest in the civil partnerships Bill and I am most grateful to her for her care and attention to it. As my noble friend has already said, I had the honour to sponsor the Private Member’s Bill in your Lordships’ House and I therefore welcome these regulations. I pay tribute to the honourable Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, Tim Loughton, who took the Bill through the other place.

As the House has already heard, these regulations are part of the commitment made during the passage of the Bill and we should not forget that they are of enormous importance to many people. There are over 3 million opposite-sex couples who cohabit and choose not to marry, and they support a million children, yet they do not have the legal protection that married couples or civil partners have. When taking this Bill through your Lordships’ House, I was surprised to receive such an enormous postbag on this subject and it was clear to me that many opposite-sex couples would like to formalise their relationship and enjoy legal security but not be married; they have waited a long time for this legislation to be introduced. However, these regulations extend only to England and Wales. Where have we got to in Scotland and Northern Ireland? I understand that there has been a Bill in the Scottish Parliament and I would be grateful if the Minister could update me on its progress.

I am grateful that the Government have given time to getting the Bill on to the statute book and that these regulations are before the House today. It was important that opposite-sex couples should be able to have a civil partnership before the end of this year, so I very much hope that, in spite of the impending general election, the regulations will still be able to come into force by 2 December and thus the first civil partnerships will be able to be registered 28 days later on 31 December this year.

This is, of course, just one part of the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Act. Will my noble friend update the House about progress on the other parts of the Bill—notably that mothers will be able to sign their child’s marriage certificates—and also on the two reports on registration of pregnancy loss before 24 weeks, and whether coroners will be able to investigate when a baby dies after 38 weeks’ gestation without having had independent life?

However, as I have already said, I enormously welcome these regulations. I am incredibly grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the passage of the Bill and are speaking to encourage these regulations to go through. They are a milestone in getting nearer to opposite-sex couples being able to have a civil partnership.

Photo of Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Crossbench

My Lords, as a member of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, I have had the opportunity of carefully considering these regulations. There are, without doubt, still imperfections with regard to the conversion of opposite-sex civil partnerships to marriage, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, outlined so well. However, we need to proceed so that people who wish to have a civil partnership but are of the opposite sex are not disadvantaged. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, gave me some time at lunchtime to discuss this, because I feared that he might want to hold it up. His remarks, and those of the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, this afternoon brought home to me how very fortunate I was 38 years ago to be able to marry the person I love, and that other people were unable to form similar relationships because they were of the same sex. I thank those noble Lords for their generosity and support in enabling people of opposite sexes to have a civil partnership if they wish to, often for very personal reasons. I know of one person who was married but in a very abusive relationship who feels she could never marry again but would like a civil partnership.

I greatly appreciate that your Lordships do not want to hold this up, despite the fact that there remain some inequalities, which it is essential that the next Parliament resolves. I ask the Minister to ensure that opposite-sex couples will be able to form civil partnerships by the end of this year.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat 4:30 pm, 5th November 2019

My Lords, it appears that on the issue of equality, we are snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Like other noble Lords who have spoken, I do not want to hold back these regulations, because they are not just a step but a huge leap forward for opposite-sex couples’ equality. However, I despair a little that the Government have not been able at this point to bring about true equality.

I wear this lanyard, as others do, not because I am proud to be LGBT or an LGBT ally, but because I believe in fundamental equality before the law and in human rights. I have spoken in this House before about not being able to marry in a religious institution, which is a form of discrimination. I would not want somebody who is part of an opposite-sex couple to feel that sense of joy being deflated by not being able to convert their civil partnership into a marriage. There is no legal reason why that cannot happen but just a bureaucratic one, based on “some consultation is taking place”.

I know the Minister and her personal passion for equality, which is beyond doubt. However, she kept saying “short term”. How short is short term? The one thing she cannot give is any certainty. We are going into a general election, so short term may be longer than the noble Baroness feels. In addition, it may be short term to the Government, but for somebody who is in an opposite-sex civil partnership and wants to convert, it may take much longer than the short term, particularly if that person has a terminal illness. People make decisions because of life-changing events, so we may be denying somebody the equality that they want based on where they are in their life.

I therefore ask the Minister and the whole House, to ensure that, whoever is returned after the general election, short term must mean a matter of weeks or months. This cannot go on for years because of some bureaucratic government view about consultation.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I have listened to important comments from the noble Lords, Lord Collins, Lord Cashman and Lord Scriven, with whom I agree so much on matters relating to civil partnerships and same-sex marriage. However, I would like to return briefly to a deep injustice which the extension of civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples has made even more glaring.

Civil partnerships were introduced for the express purpose of conferring legal rights on couples who were ineligible to marry. Through these regulations, civil partnerships will be extended to all couples who now possess the right to marry. They will be withheld from people who cannot marry—in defiance of the very principle on which they were established in the first place.

I have brought up on a number of occasions in this House the question of why the Government feel it is acceptable to continue to withhold from long-term cohabiting siblings who choose to live together for companionship and mutual support all the legal rights and fiscal safeguards they offer, through civil partnerships, to couples they presume to be in sexual relationships.

Do the Government think that two siblings who live together in mutually supportive and financially independent relationships are less in need of the legal protection and fiscal safeguards afforded by civil partnerships than sexual couples? If not, why do they continue to reject both the argument that they should extend civil partnerships to long-term cohabiting couples and the suggestion that they should address that discrimination through other means—for a start, by reforming the rules governing inheritance tax so that bereaved survivors of a sibling couple are at least spared losing the joint home to inheritance tax on the death of the first sibling? I am in touch with a large number of elderly siblings who have lived together, often all their lives, in committed and caring relationships. They simply cannot understand why the Government refuse to recognise them as a single legal unit or give them any help whatever by other means.

Take Beatrice and Mary, sisters whose mother was widowed in their teens and whom they looked after throughout their adult lives in their jointly owned home until her death at the age of 100. The sisters are now 91 and 87. When one of them dies, the survivor will face an inheritance tax bill so hefty on her sister’s share of the estate that there will be nothing left of their joint savings for her own care. If they were civil partners who had known each other for just a few weeks, they would be spared.

A responsible Conservative Government must recognise the value of arrangements such as that of Beatrice and Mary, bring an end to this injustice and finally put the family, in all its manifestations, back where it belongs: at the heart of Conservative social policy. The regulations advance the principle of equality in human affairs—although perhaps not as fully as many would wish—and that is very important, but Conservatives should be no less concerned with the welfare of families in all their forms.

Photo of Baroness Barker Baroness Barker Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Voluntary Sector)

My Lords, I am very pleased that, on the last day of this Session, we are returning to this business. Like other noble Lords including the noble Lords, Lord Cashman and Lord Collins, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson of Abinger, for all the work she did to get us to this point.

I have been a Member of your Lordships’ House for so long that I can remember all the rather tortuous path that we have been down, from when we started off, back in 2004, with a Civil Partnership Bill that was wrecked in this House and very nearly fell, but was then rescued and came back, through to where we are today. It is a tortuous path for two reasons. One is that, at every step of the way, the Government have felt that they have to pick their way round strong religious sensitivities. The second is that there is a fundamental flaw in all the reasoning as a result. We were told, way back when we were looking at civil partnerships, in definite terms by evangelical Christians and all the rest, that civil partnerships would undermine marriage. They do not.

In this House, from listening to officials at the time, I understand that at every stage we had to give in to the idea that civil partnerships were somehow a threat. I have never thought that they were for a very simple reason. My father married a lot of people. On Saturday afternoons, my dad would go out, perform a wedding, come back and we would say, “And what was the bride wearing?” Dad would say, “A white dress”. Because my dad was a nonconformist minister long before the Church of England saw the light on matters such as divorce, he was marrying a lot of people. He always had the right not to agree to marry someone. It was a right that he exercised very rarely—only in one or two instances when people came before him and he believed that one of them was under duress to do something that they did not want to. However, he quietly confided that he often officiated at marriage ceremonies where he felt that the people were getting married because that was all there was, and that if there had been an opportunity for them to have their relationship recognised in a different way, that would have been a more honest thing to do. If the Church had recognised that a long time ago, we would not have had to go through much of the difficulty that we now do.

Many people have shouted out their congratulations; mine go to Lynne Featherstone—my noble friend Lady Featherstone. No matter what anybody says, we would not have same-sex marriage were it not for her determination. For these regulations, I also want to give a shout-out to somebody else: Peter Tatchell. As one would expect, he has always single-mindedly stood up for full equality. Therefore, he has always been in favour of opposite-sex civil partnerships. So, we have got to where we are today. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, is right: the Government know that we on this side of the House do not want to stop the regulations. We are keen for people who have waited for such a long time to have their opportunity.

I want to ask about the territorial extent of this issue. I see that we are legislating for England and Wales. Speaking as a Scot, I feel that it might have other things to do on Hogmanay, but perhaps the Minister can explain the likely timetable for the Scottish Parliament to consider this matter.

I also want to talk about Northern Ireland. It is important that we get legislation of this type in Northern Ireland as quickly as possible, for the reason alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Collins. I know several people in committed relationships who have been brought up in a faith that means so much to them that they cannot bring themselves to offend their families and that faith, but want to secure their relationship in legal terms. For others, civil partnership is about equality; as the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins of Tavistock, said, other people have experienced difficult and violent marriages and want never to return to that situation, but are in partnerships to which they are committed. What is the envisaged timetable for introducing this in Northern Ireland?

My understanding of this legislation is that, just as happened with the abortion legislation for Northern Ireland, there will be a read-across from existing legislation. Therefore, I think I am right that the aspects of the regulations that deal with the GRA are a read-across from the GRA as it relates to same-sex marriage. The Minister will know that I and other people think that that legislation is flawed, and that the same flaw therefore appears in these regulations. I accept that this issue should be addressed through primary legislation and amendment to the same-sex marriage Act in so far as it affects the GRA but, when the time comes, this issue should be addressed for both same-sex marriage and opposite-sex civil partnership, for example through my Private Member’s Bill or perhaps through some forthcoming government legislation. I wish that she would understand that.

I want to ask about something that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and I have often talked about, which is the international recognition of partnerships which have been registered abroad. I see that the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, is in her place; I remember when she was on the Front Bench taking through the legislation for civil partnerships. We had the same debate about this issue for same-sex marriage. My understanding is that we make bilateral agreements with other countries. Can the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, explain the effect of this legislation on those agreements? Will opposite-sex civil partnerships be included in the same way as same-sex marriages? Further, how will that international recognition be updated, particularly following Brexit, as some of the recognition agreements we have were made under EU law?

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, that other matters were thrown into the Bill so that it became a bit of a clothes-hanger for different things. I am concerned about the regulations covering the involvement of coroners in investigations of stillbirth. When will those regulations be likely to align?

The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for whom I have the greatest admiration, will be wholly unsurprised by my next few sentences. He knows that I believe and will continue to believe that legislation which is meant to govern partnerships formed voluntarily by adults should not be the same as that which should apply to relationships of consanguinity; that is, if people are siblings, they have no choice about that. I therefore believe that if the Government were to be so misguided as to go down the route he suggests, the potential for abuse by one sibling against another would be enormous. I agree that many of the issues he wants to be addressed should be, but they are largely fiscal and property matters and should be dealt with in a different way.

As was the case during the passage of the Bill, there is a great deal of unanimity. Can the noble Baroness send a message back to her department that whatever the outcome of the next general election and whoever is sitting in the place she now occupies, this is a matter which, while there are one or two doubts, enjoys broad agreement that there should be equality and that the legislation in this form should be implemented at the earliest opportunity?

Photo of Lord Berkeley of Knighton Lord Berkeley of Knighton Crossbench 4:45 pm, 5th November 2019

My Lords, it is important and indeed incumbent on those of us who are in heterosexual marriages to express our support for the sentiments uttered by the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Cashman, and the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. That is because it is easy for these issues to appear as though they are being pushed by just one section of society. Therefore, I want to say how strongly I would like to see the elements which still need to be resolved here being addressed in the future. I have a feeling that the Minister feels similarly. In art as in social policy, a leap of a mile is often required to gain an inch. In this instance, the Government have gone a long way further than an inch, but I take this opportunity to encourage them to aim for the mile in the near future.

I will add just a note on the words of the noble Lord, Lord Lexden. I have enormous sympathy for his point about siblings, but there is a certain sense of Groundhog Day here because I can remember the same noble Lords talking about this. I cannot help feeling that this is a slightly different issue, although that does not mean that it is not one which the Government should tackle in due course.

Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench

My Lords, I am all in favour of civil partnerships for heterosexuals and of them being converted into marriage. However, I am a bit puzzled, because the argument for civil partnerships for heterosexuals is that they want to avoid the patriarchal nature of marriage—but, of course if you enter into a civil partnership, and good luck to you, you will take upon yourself all the financial and other burdens and unfairnesses that come about in marriage if you split your civil partnership; it will be just the same. Still, people should have the choice.

I want to say, in support of the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, that over the years I too have argued for protection for two people who live together, whether they are sisters, strangers or people in a legal partnership whose financial and social position depends so much on the way the state treats them, through tax law and, especially, inheritance law. I do not accept the argument that to give support to, say, siblings or a father and daughter would in any way undermine the respect due to civil partnerships and marriage.

So I hope that this goes through and that civil partners will be allowed to convert if they want to. I also feel that heterosexual civil partnerships will mean that there will not be any more call for extending the oppressive and unfair law we have at the moment regarding financial provision on split to cohabiting couples. If they choose to cohabit and do not want civil partnerships, which are readily open, good luck to them; they ought to be free of the law.

Photo of Lord Oates Lord Oates Liberal Democrat

My Lords, like my noble friend Lady Barker’s father, my father married a large number of people, although he did so as a Church of England clergyman rather than as a nonconformist minister. I very much support the equality being progressed for opposite-sex partners via this legislation. I also very much support the comments made by my noble friend Lady Barker, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and others about it being a shame that the Government did not take the opportunity to go all the way and ensure that there is proper equality.

While we are on the issue of real equality, I will raise an associated issue. When I formed my civil partnership 15 years ago, obviously I did not have the option of a same-sex wedding—but, even today, if I chose to convert it, I would not have the option of that wedding in a Church of England church. My father went to a register office for probably the first time in his life when he came to my civil partnership ceremony. I hope that both the Government and the Church, particularly as it is the established Church, will really reflect on the fact that, not only as a matter of choice by certain members of that Church but by law, a same-sex marriage cannot take place. I hope that they will consider the pain and sorrow that causes and will really think about that position. I recognise that this is not the matter before us, but the amendment expressing regret is about equality, and this is also a matter of equality.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, said right at the outset, the Commons can push things through quickly, but in your Lordships’ House we consider things very carefully before we give them our blessing, as it were.

I will start with the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. Whatever the outcome of the general election, we as Peers in this House who promote equality will continue to do so cross-party, because that is what we have always done. If we had not approached equality in a cross-party way, we would have made little progress over the last 50 years. So I look forward to working with noble Lords across the House in progressing what is a human right: equality.

Noble Lords’ criticisms have varied from saying that we are rushing things through too quickly to asking, “What on earth has been the delay since the Supreme Court judgment in 2018?” I know that these are meant not as opposition to these regulations but as scrutinising why we have been doing what we have, and why we have delayed in some parts and rushed in others. I totally take noble Lords’ points about not wanting to perpetuate inequality. That is certainly not what either I or other noble Lords wish to do. In progressing equality, we do not want to create the unintended consequence of inequality.

The first question from the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, was: why the delay? We announced our intention to gather further evidence in 2018, having previously consulted on whether to extend civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. I know it is frustrating, but consultation and evidence gathering can be quite time-consuming.

Can the Government guarantee equal treatment for same-sex and opposite-sex couples? That was the challenge from the noble Lord, Lord Cashman. We will absolutely ensure that future regulations on conversion are compliant with the Human Rights Act, as we have to with pretty much all legislation, or indeed secondary legislation, that we enact.

On the opportunity to see the Government’s response, again, it might be frustrating, but, given the limited time available, we waived our right to respond to the JCSI report. Victoria Atkins set out our position in the debate in the other place on 31 October. As noble Lords will know, the Secretary of State is under a statutory duty to bring the regulations into force no later than 31 December. As noble Lords have pointed out, a December election puts that at risk. We know that there are couples who are hoping to form a civil partnership early in the new year and that the availability of this new relationship is very keenly anticipated. It may be that couples have spent money and made detailed arrangements with their family, with the expectation that the new rights will shortly be available. We are very keen that that expectation will be met, if possible, and to meet the statutory deadline.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, asked about the consultation timing. As I said, it closed on 20 August and we are considering the responses. In addition to analysing the responses to the consultation, we must ensure that the operational processes are in place for conversions to take place. It is a priority. We will make further regulations early in 2020, to be debated in this House and the other place.

My noble friend Lady Hodgson and the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked about Scotland and Northern Ireland. On 25 June, the Scottish Government announced that they would introduce legislation extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples, and a Bill was introduced in the Scottish Parliament on 1 October. The Scottish Government’s Bill provides for opposite-sex civil partnerships registered in England and Wales to be recognised in Scotland as marriages, initially, and as civil partnerships when those relationships are available in Scotland. In Northern Ireland, Section 8 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 places a duty on the Secretary of State to make regulations so that couples in Northern Ireland are eligible to form same-sex marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships no later than 13 January 2020. The duty came into force on 22 October, after the Northern Ireland Executive did not reform, and my officials are working closely with the Northern Ireland Office towards the deadline.

The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, asked about individuals who are gravely ill. We are mindful at this stage that, for some people, the need to be able to form a civil partnership is urgent for a number of reasons, including, as he mentioned, terminal illness. Generally, couples must give 28 days’ notice of their intention to form a civil partnership, but in exceptional circumstances couples can seek a reduction in the notice period. There are also separate expedited arrangements for people who are seriously ill and not expected to recover. These processes will apply equally to civil partnerships between opposite-sex couples, meaning that those with life-threatening conditions will likely be able to form a civil partnership, rather than just give notice of it, as soon as the regulations come into force.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, asked me about the General Register Office issuing guidance to local registrars. It has already advised registration authorities to prepare for the commencement of opposite-sex civil partnerships from 2 December. As soon as the parliamentary processes are complete and the regulations are made, the GRO will advise registration authorities that firm bookings can be taken for notice to be given from 2 December and any provisional bookings can be confirmed.

My noble friend Lady Hodgson and the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked about coroners investigating still-births and the mother’s name on marriage certificates. On the same day that the 2019 Act received Royal Assent, the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health and Social Care jointly published a consultation on proposals as to whether—and, if so, how—coroners should investigate still-births. The consultation will inform the report required by Section 4 of the 2019 Act. The consultation closed on 8 June. We received a good response from a wide range of people with an interest in this issue and officials are considering and analysing the evidence. The Government will publish the findings as soon as possible.

On the issue of mothers’ names on marriage certificates, the General Register Office is currently working on the secondary legislation, IT systems and administrative processes that are required to implement the marriage schedule system. Officials are also working with the Church of England and the Church in Wales on the details of the proposals. I will keep noble Lords informed.

The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked about civil partnerships formed in one country being recognised in England and Wales. Overseas relationships can be recognised as civil partnerships in England and Wales if they meet the conditions set out in the Act. The regulations include a list of specified overseas relationships that will be treated as civil partnerships here. Other overseas relationships can also be recognised as civil partnerships if they meet the general conditions. In all cases, such relationships must be exclusive and registered by two people who are not otherwise married or in a civil partnership.

The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, also asked about spousal consent and the read-over from the GRA. Our proposed changes to the GRA will align the provisions for civil partners more closely to those for married couples. Any substantive change to the spousal consent provision would require future primary legislation as it could not be addressed through the powers in the 2019 Act relating to civil partnerships. If, following our consultation on reform, we decide to change the requirement for spousal consent, we will make an equivalent change to the legislation relating to civil partnerships. I note that the noble Baroness’s Private Member’s Bill was given its First Reading the other day and I look forward to debating it with her if and when it comes to this place.

Sibling civil partnerships were mentioned by my noble friend Lord Lexden, and the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, neatly outlined that arrangements which have a predominantly financial basis are not the same as a civil partnership, and we have not made any changes to the existing rules which prevent siblings or other family members forming a civil partnership. Parliament has been clear throughout the passage of the primary legislation that there was no desire to do so.

I will conclude there. I thank all noble Lords for taking part in the debate. I look forward to these regulations being passed by your Lordships’ House. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

I forgot. I got carried away because the noble Lord was so smiley. I am sure the noble Lord will want to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development)

I thank the Minister for those kind remarks. I welcome the assurances she has given us this afternoon, in particular the commitment that the report of the consultation, which was completed in August, is a priority and that we will see revised regulations early next year. That is the fundamental issue that I wanted to address today.

I welcome the debate we have had today. It has been an opportunity to revisit issues and restate principles. I return to the point I made, which was also made by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and many other noble Lords. I welcome the fact that the noble Baroness, Lady Hunt, is in her place. I thought she would make a contribution, but I did not realise that she has not made her maiden speech. It must be terribly frustrating for her to sit there. No doubt at some later stage she will have a word in my ear.

We have been on an incredibly long journey. There is still much more to do. The right reverend Prelate listened to our contributions. I know that even in the Church of England there is a positive debate. When civil partnerships were first introduced in this House, the Church took a position against them. Now, I think the Church recognises their value. Certainly, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury has written strong and powerful articles recognising the value of civil partnerships and the loving relationships which are so important.

This will be a matter of choice. Heterosexual couples will enter into civil partnerships for all kinds of reasons. I do not accept the argument that marriage is a patriarchal institution that must be condemned. If two women can enter into a marriage nowadays, it is certainly not as patriarchal as it used to be. Marriage has developed and changed. It has strengthened our institutions, and I hope that civil partnerships will do likewise.

I welcome the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Lexden. I know he feels very strongly about this issue. We have worked together many times on equality and on ensuring that the injustices of the past are put right. I share his concern about the injustices that siblings potentially face. I beg to differ on the means to resolve them. I urge the Government to think about how they might resolve these very personal, difficult circumstances. To lose a sibling is very painful, but to lose your home at the same time is even more difficult, and I recognise that that is an issue that needs to be addressed.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, said, the battle for equality throughout the United Kingdom is not over. We still need to see it in one part of the United Kingdom. I hope that we will see it introduced rapidly, in the light of the noble Baroness’s comments.

This has been a good debate. I heard what the Minister said. I welcome those commitments. In the light of that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.

Motion agreed.