Clause 7 - Place of registration

Civil Partnership Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 21st October 2004.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda 3:45 pm, 21st October 2004

I beg to move amendment No. 18, in clause 7, page 4, line 3, at end insert 'and'.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 19, in clause 7, page 4, line 4, leave out paragraph (b).

Amendment No. 20, in clause 7, page 4, line 7, leave out subsection (2).

Amendment No. 15, in clause 7, page 4, line 8, leave out paragraph (a).

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

As Members will know, subsection (1)(b) states that registrations may not take place in religious premises, while subsection (2) defines ''religious premises'' as premises that are

''designed for use solely or mainly for religious purposes, or . . . in use solely or mainly for religious purposes.''

There are some problems of precision. Primarily, the difficult part of defining religious premises is defining not premises but religion. I will not go into this at great length, but premises used ''for religious purposes'' could include a church hall, a youth club run by the YMCA or YWCA, or the Christian Aid operation across the river. It could include a series of different buildings that I am sure it is not the aim of the Bill to catch.

Moreover, many smaller churches do not meet in what we would recognise as traditional church buildings or buildings that were exclusively designed to be used as church buildings. Such a church may meet on a Sunday morning in a youth club, which is used as such for the rest of the week, a gym or any building that is large enough to accommodate it. Some of these churches are profoundly evangelical or fundamentalist and are unlikely to want to allow such registrations. However, the Metropolitan Community Church for instance, which is a largely gay and lesbian Church, operates around the country not in traditional church buildings but in venues of the sort that I have mentioned. The Bill would not allow a civil partnership registration service to be held in a Church of England building, but it might allow one in the Metropolitan Community Church. That imprecision must be ironed out.

The other point is that we should allow churches to do what they want. If they want to offer their premises to be used for such events, we should permit them to do so. It is up to the registration authority to decide precisely what premises can and cannot be used, but we should not preclude it from allowing religious premises to be used, particularly those that want to do so.

As an addendum, in case there is not a stand part debate, I note that subsection (5) states:

''A registration authority may provide a place in its area for the registration of civil partnerships.''

What happens if a registration authority chooses not to do so or to make somewhere available that is wholly inappropriate according to almost everybody who

wants to register a civil partnership in that area? What powers would local people have to insist that a decent and proper place is made available?

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State for International Development 4:00 pm, 21st October 2004

What the hon. Gentleman said illustrates the fact that defining a religious building or religious premises is increasingly difficult. The days have gone when such premises were consecrated ground with a steeple or tower and bells ringing on a Sunday morning. All sorts of religious services take place in multi-purpose buildings and their change of use is frequent.

This is a perilous clause to draft. Buildings that are consecrated under the established or any other traditional Church are easy to define. Buildings used by evangelical or other religions or denominations are far more difficult to define, and one might find that a gymnasium or hall is deemed to be in use mainly for religious purposes, which may or may not be fair. The whole area is fraught with difficulty.

I understand what the hon. Member for Rhondda is saying, but I shall speak principally to amendment No. 15, which is straightforward, as I hope the Minister will agree. Clause 7(2) states:

'' 'Religious premises' means premises:

(a) designed for use solely or mainly for religious purposes, or

(b) in use solely or mainly for religious purposes.''

In practical terms, only paragraph (b) is necessary to achieve what the Bill sets out to achieve. A building that was designed as a church may since have been deconsecrated and now have no religious purpose whatsoever. The word ''designed'' is highly inappropriate and utterly inaccurate, and it must be removed. For instance, many deconsecrated Methodist churches in many villages around the country are now private houses. On the Charing Cross road, there is a former church that is a gay club. The building was designed for use solely or mainly for religious purposes, but it is not in use for or mainly for such purposes. There is another place called The Sanctuary that has never had anything to do with the Church. The point is that this is bad drafting and unnecessary. It is utterly superfluous. This is quite a simple amendment of logic to remove the difficulty. I do not accept what is in the mind of those who drafted the Bill when they used the phrase ''designed for use''. That should be removed, and the provision should simply read ''in use''.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Opposition Whip (Commons)

Would my hon. Friend's amendment have any effect on chapels at ease? I understand that they are church buildings that are not currently in use as such, but which have not been deconsecrated. There is the hope and probably the expectation that they will be brought into religious use at some point.

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Chapels at ease are essentially those that are facing desuetude. They are not in active use. However they are not used for any other purpose. In my belief, while they remain consecrated, even though they are not in active use, they would be covered by paragraph (b) because they will not have been used for any other purpose. A chapel of ease would fit within the

definition that I think would suffice for the purpose that the clause is intended to achieve.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

I take the same view as the hon. Member for Rhondda in his amendments. I do not think that it is the job of this place to tell Churches what they can and cannot use their buildings for. If it is appropriate, if it is the wish of the parties to the civil partnership and if there is no objection from the governing body of the Church—the kirk session or whatever they have in England—[Interruption.] It is a parochial church council. I have learnt a lot today. That is surely a matter for the Churches, and it is not for us to intervene.

I also agree with the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton about the definition of religious premises. The existing definition is drawn far too widely and far too loosely. That is sloppy drafting, and it will provide work for lawyers. If the question of what constitutes religious premises was wrongly interpreted by the registrar, would that be grounds for declaring a civil partnership null? It seems that we are making an unnecessary rod for our backs here.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I support amendments Nos. 18, 19, 20 and 15. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton has argued for clarification of language and of interpretation. I simply rest the case on the overall argument of principle for which there is notable support in the Committee. That is the principle that there should not be a decree by the state; there should be scope for local discretion under the terms of the Bill. It was put eloquently on Second Reading in the other place by the Bishop of Oxford:

''it infringes the proper freedom of religious authorities to control such premises. As a matter of principle, it is for those authorities and not for the state to decide whether or not their premises should be available to be used for registration purposes''.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 April 2004; Vol. 660, c. 399.]

He is absolutely right. These amendments reflect precisely the same conviction, and I support all of them.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State (Industry and the Regions and Deputy Minister for Women), Department of Trade and Industry

These are amendments to clause 7, which sets out several provisions relating to the place of civil partnership registration.

I should like to start by responding to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda. Provision of civil partnership registrations, including relevant places, will be a duty under the Bill with registration authorities, although they will become the responsibility of local authorities. Therefore, if premises that were offered for the purposes of civil partnership registration were not considered suitable, representations could be made. There will be a responsibility to provide civil partnership registration and places in which to carry that out.

The group of amendments can be divided into two. First, there is a continuation of our earlier discussion about the extent to which we should ensure the secular nature of civil partnerships. There is also another argument about the quality of the drafting of the clause—the argument of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton in amendment No. 15.

The clause as drafted makes it not possible to carry out civil partnership registrations in religious premises.

The Government's position is that civil partnership registration, like the civil registration of marriage, is and should be purely secular. As such, to allow civil partnership registrations in religious buildings would undermine the public perception of civil partnership as a secular registration procedure and should therefore be avoided. The limitation in the Bill to the use of premises that are not religious premises is intended to mirror the provisions that prevent civil marriages from taking place in places with a recent or continuing religious connection.

Those who wish to celebrate the formation of their civil partnership after the statutory steps of formation will, as we discussed earlier, be free to do so anywhere they wish. If they choose to organise a religious blessing in religious premises, that will be a matter for them and the religious minister concerned. The Church and other religious groups are completely free to recognise the importance of civil partnerships by offering those premises. There is nothing to prevent couples from arranging to follow their civil partnership registration with a ceremony or blessing in the premises of their choice, which might include churches, chapels or other buildings that have been or still are used for religious purposes.

It is important, however, that the premises in which the legal formation of the civil partnership takes place should be consistent with the secular nature of civil partnerships. On that basis, I resist the amendments that deal with the issue under discussion, which seek fundamentally to change those provisions. However, I repeat that the potential channel for those who wish to pursue the argument is the reforms and the consultation—in some cases, they are already under way, I think—and the review of the Registrar General into the precise nature of civil marriage, which I mentioned earlier. That is the appropriate route through which to argue that the Government's position—that we should protect the secular nature of civil marriage and civil partnership—is inappropriate, rather than trailblazing those ideas through the Bill.

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

I am sorry, but I am not clear from what the Minister said whether she has addressed amendment No. 15 or whether she is coming on to it.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State (Industry and the Regions and Deputy Minister for Women), Department of Trade and Industry

No; as I said, two qualitatively different arguments are being made. I am rejecting the first, but the hon. Gentleman might be pleased to know that I have somewhat more sympathy for his proposal.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State (Industry and the Regions and Deputy Minister for Women), Department of Trade and Industry

Is my hon. Friend jealous, then?

Amendment No. 15 is different, as it would alter the definition of religious premises in clause 7(2). It would remove paragraph (a), which the hon. Gentleman and others have criticised, and which states that premises would be religious premises if they are ''designed'' to be used solely or mainly for religious purposes. By leaving paragraph (b) on its own, the amendment would limit the definition of religious premises to premises that are ''in use'' solely or mainly for

religious purposes. Under that definition, it would be possible for civil partnership registrations to take place in premises that were designed for use solely or mainly for religious purposes but that were no longer used as such.

I know that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton wants to achieve some clarity in the wording. The reason for paragraph (a) was that we wanted to include those premises that may still be seen to have a recent or ongoing religious connection with a particular religion, practice or persuasion that would be incompatible with the civil, secular process of registration.

As I said, the hon. Gentleman argued on Second Reading and today that the current definition would rule out buildings that were formerly religious that now have no religious connection. He referred to various clubs in various old churches that I have not yet had the pleasure of visiting. Having listened to his representations, however, I can see some force in the point.

We would not necessarily wish to rule out a building such as a deconsecrated and disused church that has been converted into a family home—or even into a club—if it was seen as appropriate by the registration authority. However, present use may not be the only factor that we need to bear in mind. For instance, the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire spoke of—I forget the term.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State (Industry and the Regions and Deputy Minister for Women), Department of Trade and Industry

Chapels at ease. There is also the example of a disused church that has not been deconsecrated, or a small church that has been closed by the Church of England due to falling numbers or the merging of parishes. We need to consider whether that would be incompatible with the secular nature of the process. Our overriding purpose remains to ensure that, as with civil marriage, only places that still retain a religious connection are covered in the definition given in clause 7, and not those outlined by the hon. Gentleman, which do not retain that religious connection.

I undertake to look further at the question that the hon. Gentleman raises and to revisit the issue on Report. On that basis, I hope that he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

I was delighted to hear the Bishop of Oxford being prayed in aid, as I was the first person that he ordained. I wholeheartedly accept his authority.

I still disagree with the Minister about the deliberate secularisation and the refusal to allow any religious premises to be used. However, I see no need to press the matter to a vote.

The point that the Minister made about buildings that have changed their use is most notably made by the example of Bisham abbey, which obviously was clearly designed to be an abbey. For a long time, the England football team did much of its training there. It is a fine place for civil weddings; indeed, I have performed several civil weddings there myself. I

suspect that the abbey will want to offer itself on the market as a suitable place also for civil partnership registration.

If there is a means of moving in the direction suggested by the Minister by Report, I am more than happy to wait. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

On a point of order, Mr. Gale. Is it not proper for me to ask whether amendment No. 15 can be pressed to a Division, or are the amendments taken together?

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

The amendments are grouped together. The hon. Gentleman's amendment has not been moved, so it cannot be withdrawn.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

I answered on the hon. Gentleman's behalf.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

The Committee can only withdraw an amendment that has been moved.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

If the hon. Gentleman is telling me that he wishes to press his amendment to a Division

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

—then I would consider such a request.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

In which case, I have just been able to save the hon. Gentleman some labour.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.