Clause 9 - Notice of proposed civil partnership and declaration

Civil Partnership Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 21st October 2004.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:15 pm, 21st October 2004

I beg to move amendment No. 189, in clause 9, page 4, line 33, leave out 'a registration authority' and insert

'the registration authority for the area in which they reside'.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 190, in clause 9, page 4, line 35, leave out '7 days' and insert '6 months'.

Amendment No. 191, in clause 9, page 4, line 36, at end insert

'and at least one of them must be domiciled in England and Wales on the date of the application for registration of the civil partnership'.

Amendment No. 192, in clause 9, page 5, line 9, leave out '7 days' and insert '6 months'.

Amendment No. 194, in clause 10, page 5, line 38, leave out '7 days' and insert '6 months'.

Amendment No. 195, in clause 11, page 6, line 2, leave out '7 days' and insert '6 months'.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The amendment, and amendment No. 190, have the purpose of making the process of registration much more open and publicly accountable, as befits a public process.

At the moment, the procedures designed and set out in the Bill seem almost to encourage the declaration of civil partnerships inside the closet, as one might put it. It is in the spirit that motivated the Government to introduce the Bill to ensure that civil partnerships can be brought outside the closet, and if that is so, we should have a registration process that makes partnerships much more apparent. Why should a civil partnership not be registered by the registration authority for the area in which the civil partners reside? One has to register a death with the registration authority area where the death occurred. Why are there different rules relating to the registration of civil partnerships?

Why should only seven days' residence in England or Wales be sufficient before the giving of notice? Surely six months would be more appropriate, and that is the import of amendment No. 190. Amendment No. 191 introduces a requirement that at least one of the civil partners should be domiciled in England or Wales on the date of the application for registration. That suggestion was first put forward by Lord Lester in his private Member's Bill to which I have referred on several occasions. Committee members seem to think that he was barking up the wrong tree, but I still think that his Bill was common sense, which is why I hope the amendment will find support.

Amendments Nos. 194 and 195 insert the six-month provision, instead of seven days, in clauses 10 and 11. I hope that the Government will accept that the whole process of registration should be open and above board, and be part of public process, thereby enabling proper public scrutiny to take place. If the Bill is left unamended, it will be possible for the registration process to be almost under cover.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

I have looked at the amendments. Although I shall not refer directly to some future amendments, as you would not let me, Mr. Gale, I have taken them into account in my assessment of what the hon. Gentleman is trying to do, and I must say that I find some of them to have a sinister import that the Committee should explore.

Taken together, the amendments that the hon. Gentleman has tabled to clause 9 appear to have as their basic aim to make it practically and psychologically more difficult to contract a civil partnership than the Bill suggests ought to be the case. Practically that is so because of the extensions of what I can only describe as living-in-sin time from seven days to six months, but I presume that the hon. Gentleman thinks that all gay people exist and live in sin anyway, so making them live in sin for six more months before they can contract a civil partnership should not make any difference to their immortal souls. However, registration is psychologically more difficult because his amendment makes it a requirement that it must take place where those entering civil partnerships live.

Regrettably, gay people face more difficulty being open in some places than they do in others in this country. There is the reality of hate crime and homophobic crime. I know many people—friends and people who have come to see me as part of my duties as a Member of this House—who have been subject to hate crimes and have been beaten up because of homophobia. The hon. Gentleman's amendments attempt to deny individuals in those circumstances the chance to register a civil partnership, which because of homophobia is a brave thing to do, as well as a serious commitment, in a place that they feel is safer for them.

Civil partnership is a public commitment, but many gay people face the daily reality of having to deal with their own safety in certain areas. The hon. Gentleman takes no account of that; he says that people will have the option of registering their civil partnership only where they live. That has a sinister import. If he did not intend it, and I certainly hope he did not but worry that he did, he must take into account the reality of many gay people's lives, in which they are subject to homophobic threats or attacks.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

In a minute. The hon. Gentleman's amendment, which would force gay people to register their civil partnership where they live, fails not only to take account of homophobia but has the practical effect of making it harder in some cases to register a civil partnership.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Homophobia and hate attacks are contrary to the criminal law of this country. The hon. Lady is saying that we should recognise that there are no-go areas in this country for people of a homosexual persuasion and that we should endorse that and encourage them to hide somewhere else. I would have thought that it was much better that the strength of the law should deal with those areas where she says that such hate crimes are rife. She knows that my view is that civil partnerships should be extended beyond the homosexual community, so if people want to enter civil partnerships and this Bill becomes law, surely it is the responsibility of the state and in the public interest to ensure that those partnerships can be registered where the people are living.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman recognises that homophobic hate crimes are a bad thing. I think that he agreed with that.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

I am never quite certain.

The key point is that, regardless of the criminal law, many gay people have lived with the reality of such crime. We know that murder is against the law, but it still sometimes happens and people who have to deal with risk in their everyday lives have to be sensible about how they deal with it.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

In a minute. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that gay people who have been subject to such attacks have developed ways of dealing with them and knowledge of where they are more or less vulnerable to them. It may not be desirable, but it is practical.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:30 pm, 21st October 2004

Does the hon. Lady accept that if a murder takes place in a location the obligation on the next of kin is to register the death in the district where the murder took place? It may not be anywhere near where the victim of the murder normally resided. Does she not understand that that must cause an enormous amount of angst for those who have to go through that process? Does she think that that is of less significance than what she describes?

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

I am astonished that the hon. Gentleman now seems to equate civil partnership with death. He might be making an interesting psychological connection and displaying it to the Committee, but it is not one that most Committee members would recognise in the creation of a civil partnership, which many of us think and know is an occasion for much celebration and not equivalent to death.

I am making a practical point. The hon. Gentleman's amendments would make it psychologically and practically more difficult to be registered in some places and would take away the freedom of choice of people who wish to register civil partnerships. Although some people wish to be married where they live, many do not. People have that choice, and I do not see why those who wish to enter into civil partnerships should not have a similar range of choices. In moving the amendment the hon. Gentleman is at best mean-minded and at worst being sinister. I hope that the Committee will oppose the amendment.

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

I am prompted to speak—I feel I have to speak—in defence of my noble and learned Friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill. I fear that the constant quoting of his words, with approval, by the hon. Member for Christchurch risks doing serious long-term damage to his reputation. My noble and learned Friend introduced a Bill of a very different nature, which started with a blank sheet of paper. The Government have taken a different approach. Their Bill seeks to run on parallel lines with civil marriage, to borrow the metaphor used by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, and trying to compare and contrast the two Bills does not advance the arguments at all.

To pick up a point made earlier by the hon. Member for Buckingham, the hon. Member for Christchurch should tell us at some stage whether he would have supported the Bill if the Government had advanced it in the same terms as that of my noble and learned Friend. I doubt it, based on everything that he has said in Committee so far. If the hon. Gentleman wants respect for his arguments, it is incumbent on him to be a bit more straightforward in presenting them.

The amendments before us are discriminatory. To change the period of qualification from seven days to six months is discrimination for which the hon. Gentleman gave no greater justification other than to say that in his view it was appropriate. He did not go on to say that there was any reason for its being appropriate. I suspect that that is because even on his planet there is no reason why it would be appropriate to have a six-month period.

It is fair that people are able to move around the country and enter into a civil partnership. At the moment people do that in respect of civil marriages, which I know because I represent the most beautiful constituency in the country—Orkney and Shetland—where there is a steady stream of people coming to enter into civil marriages, and we are delighted to have them. It is all good money.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

Do not stereotype the Scots.

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

Well, we are not quite Scots, but that is another matter. I will entertain the Committee on a different day about that.

There is no reason why people should not be given that option when entering into a civil partnership. Again, the hon. Member for Christchurch has not advanced any reason why he regards it as inappropriate that people entering a civil partnership should be denied the same opportunities and treatment as that given to people entering a civil marriage.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I do not wish to weary the Committee, but it will not be surprised to know that I strongly object to the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. It is a great pity that my hon. Friend has advanced the arguments in the way that he has done. I am not an unduly sensitive person and I do not take personal offence—I emphasise the use of the word ''personal''—at some of the nastiness and insinuation of my hon. Friend's speech a few moments ago. However, I take exception to it because of the way in which it shows a lack of respect for gay individuals and gay couples. My hon. Friend was quite sensitive when he felt that his motives were being misrepresented, but I am not at all sure why, in the course of what I would call an argument by advocacy rather than evidence, he felt it necessary to use expressions such as ''in the closet'' and ''under cover''. That was gratuitous, but I think that it revealed something about the attitude that he holds towards gay and lesbian people. That is genuinely unfortunate.

My hon. Friend is an extremely experienced parliamentarian, and I do not mean this to sound patronising, though if he thinks it does, that is too bad. Frankly, he can do better than that. I say that to my hon. Friend, who was a sponsor of mine 17 years ago for the approved list of Conservative parliamentary candidates. He may well rue that decision today, but he was a sponsor of mine and we have known each other a long time. I do not say what I am saying in any spirit of malice; I say it more in sorrow than in anger.

In objecting to the amendments, I did not dissent from a word that was spoken by the hon. Member for Wallasey. However, there was a certain irony in Conservative Members having to listen, as we rightly

did, to her invoking the principle, as she rightly did, of freedom of choice. Conservatives would argue that that is an important principle in Conservative thinking too. If we believe in that principle, as I passionately do—I am willing to accept that the hon. Lady, in her terms, also does—we should uphold it, but it is not being applied in this case at all. The reality is that there is widespread discrimination and that in many circumstances gay couples would prefer to register their partnership somewhere other than the place in which they live.

I regret that, once again, the essence of the amendments is discriminatory. I recall, as I think the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland recalled, that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch said that seven days was not sufficient and quickly went on to say, ''Surely six months would be more appropriate.'' Having made that point without any sort of evidence to support his thesis, he immediately went on to his next point.

I put it to my hon. Friend that what he is seeking to do—as far as possible, given that he does not believe that he will be able to stop the Bill—is to devalue the concept of civil registration on one hand and to maximise the difficulty in securing it on the other. I do not share either of those objectives. I believe in facilitating the process and maximising, where appropriate, as here, freedom of choice as to where the process should take place. For those reasons, which I think have been advanced without hostility or malice but with reason, I oppose my hon. Friend's amendments.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

I shall be brief. I wholly concur with those who disagree with the amendments, but for a slightly different reason. The irony in the hon. Member for Christchurch tabling an amendment to extend the residency requirement from seven days to six months is that that parallels the requirement in respect of holy matrimony. If people want to get married in the Church of England, they have to have been resident in the parish for six months in advance. It is curious that the hon. Gentleman, who has been advocating for some days that we should not do anything that makes civil registration parallel with holy matrimony, now advocates a measure that would do precisely that. In the Church, it is bizarre when this happens. Many people who want to get married in the most beautiful churches in the land, even though that is not necessarily where they normally worship, end up managing to get on to the parish electoral register, not the normal electoral register, if the vicar so allows them—sometimes for a small consideration—or if they pretend that they meet the residency qualification by pretending to live somewhere other than where they actually do. The number of people who live in West Wycombe, where there is the rather beautiful Disraeli church, is quite extraordinary, but whether they all live there all the time, I rather doubt.

The second reason why I oppose the amendments is that I think that there will be many people, for example in London, who do not necessarily want to have their registration performed at Camden town hall; they might instead choose to have it in the Mayor's building on the south side of the river. For

that matter, many people in Rhondda Cynon Taff in my local authority may choose to have their registration in Cardiff city hall, one of the most beautiful buildings in south Wales. As the hon. Member for Buckingham put it earlier, eloquently as ever, we should allow people the freedom of choice.

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

The amendments affect clause 9, which is the beginning of the provisions that cover the process for the standard procedure for entering a civil partnership. By that procedure, each party to a proposed civil partnership must give their own notice of proposed civil partnership to a registration authority, together with personal information relating to both parties, which is to be prescribed by regulations. Each notice must also contain a declaration made by the person giving notice. Without veering off the subject of the amendments, perhaps I could just note that one item of information that will be prescribed by regulations will be nationality. That might help to address the issue raised earlier by the hon. Member for Christchurch on how we ensure that people do not enter sham civil partnerships to evade immigration control.

The declaration is to the effect that the person giving notice believes that there is no impediment to the formation of the civil partnership and confirms that both proposed civil partners have been resident in England or Wales for the required period of seven days immediately before the notice in question is given. Once signed by the person giving notice, and attested by the person authorised by the registration authority to attest notices, the fact that the notice has been given and the information that it contains must be recorded in the register as soon as possible. That is the first stage of the standard procedure.

The first four amendments in the group would fundamentally alter the basis on which same-sex couples could form a civil partnership. Furthermore, they would create a significant difference between civil partnership and marriage, which I do not believe has any justification.

For example, although the hon. Member for Christchurch did not make this argument very strongly when he moved his amendment, the effect of the requirement for a much longer domicile period would be that Amelia and Barbara, who met while living abroad, would be required to delay their civil partnership by six months, whereas Thomas and Susan in the same situation would need to be resident for only seven days before being able to enter a civil marriage. Further, I do not think that two people should be prevented from registering as each other's civil partners simply because they are not domiciled in England or Wales, which would be the effect of another of the amendments. There are many situations in which couples might legitimately want to register in England or Wales despite the fact that neither of them is domiciled here. For example, one or both of them might be a UK national who lived overseas.

It would be wholly impracticable to make domicile a condition of eligibility for civil partnership. A

person's domicile is not simply the place where they are from, or the place where they currently reside; it is a more complex matter, which takes account of their parents' domicile and their intentions about where they plan to reside permanently. It would therefore be very difficult for civil partnership registrars to verify domicile in practice, and their assessments would be likely to be subject to legal challenge. That sort of requirement would place an unacceptable administrative burden on registrars.

The point that the hon. Gentleman majored on was his requirement that each of the proposed civil partners should have to give notice to the registration authority for the area in which they reside. It might be helpful for hon. Members if I outline the fact that the Government are currently undertaking consultation on proposals for marriage law reform. The intention of those proposals is to allow those wishing to marry to give notice to any registration authority, as opposed to restricting them to giving notice in the area in which they reside.

Incidentally, the proposals, which are entitled ''Civil Registration: Delivering Vital Change'', would also make it possible to register a death in any registration authority. What we have quite rightly done—we will touch on this matter in later amendments—is model the Bill on proposals for the reformed provisions for civil marriage. Not least because of the arguments that have been advanced today, I see no reason why such flexibility should not be introduced for the civil partnership pre-registration procedure. That is the thinking behind how the procedure is designed. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel able to seek leave to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:45 pm, 21st October 2004

We have had another interesting debate. What the Minister said about the rationale for the way in which the Bill is drafted in relation to the registrar—it is based on anticipated changes to the law affecting civil registration—is interesting. She has said all along that the Bill would be a parallel Bill to the law relating to marriage as it is at the moment. If Parliament decides to change the law relating to civil registration, I am sure that, at that time, it will also wish to change the law relating to registration of civil partnerships. She is anticipating that, however, and legislating on civil partnerships in advance.

Will the Minister tell us when she expects the provisions that would enable deaths and marriages to be registered outside the area in which the death occurred or where the partners to the marriage reside to be brought before Parliament? It might be many years before that happens. In the meantime, the Bill will provide a different set of arrangements for civil partners. I think that what she said—very rationally—demonstrates how hysterical the response has been from other members of the Committee to the propositions that I have made. What I put forward is not revolutionary. All that I have tried to do is ensure that we have a system to enable the public—

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

Perhaps I can reassure the hon. Gentleman by saying that the proposals will come

forward for a regulatory reform order. It is also our intention that transitional arrangements will be in place so that, in the intervening period, civil partnership will mirror the current provisions for civil marriage. In Government amendments to later clauses, we propose to make provision to make any necessary changes subsequently, depending on what Parliament decides about the regulatory reform order on marriage. So there is, it seems to me, no incompatibility in the process through which we are intending to proceed.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention. I think that the debate has been productive, if for no other reason than that it has drawn her out on that point. I think she said that it was totally impractical to deal with the issues on the basis of domicile, yet that was promoted in the Civil Partnerships Bill in the House of Lords by Lord Lester of Herne Hill.

The Liberal Democrat spokesperson for matters of equality, as I understand him to be, is present. He suggested that the Liberal Democrats have at all material times been in favour of a same-sex Civil Partnership Bill, so I remind him and the Committee that the then Liberal Democrat equality spokesman, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), said slightly more than a year ago:

''The decision to exclude opposite sex couples from claiming the rights conferred by civil partnerships will be a bitter disappointment to hundreds of thousands of heterosexual unmarried couples.

Currently the Government treat them as married when cutting their benefits, but Ministers are clearly refusing to reciprocate when it comes to pensions sharing. These couples are under pressure to marry for financial reasons. Civil partnership registration schemes established in London and Liverpool are for same sex and opposite sex couples. The Government should follow suit and legislate to give all unmarried couples the same rights.''

That was only a year ago.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Order. Before the hon. Member for Buckingham leaps to his feet, that is nothing whatsoever to do with the amendments.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am sure that you will agree, Mr. Gale, that it is very illuminating. It shows the extent to which, over the course of a year, the Liberal Democrats have been able to rewrite history.

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

If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my speech on Second Reading—and, indeed, had he had the wit to understand it—he would have heard my explanation that there is no difference in outcome between offering civil marriage and offering civil partnership, and there is therefore not the same need. If we were starting, as my noble and learned Friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill did, with a blank sheet of paper and seeking to create a completely different institution, the arguments would have been different. That was the principle on which my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon was arguing, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that my hon. Friend and I are as one on that point as far as the Bill is concerned.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Order. The hon. Member for Christchurch had his say, and I have allowed the hon. Gentleman to respond. Perhaps now we can return to the amendment under discussion.

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

On a point of order, Mr. Gale. Looking at the clock, we have nine minutes in which to debate 72 clauses, which is a highly unsatisfactory way of scrutinising a Bill. Despite the procedures that we know apply in this House, may I invite you to advise the Chairman of Ways and Means that this is what has happened in this Committee, and may well happen again on Tuesday, and that, having done 10 clauses maximum, if we get that far, there are 72 that we have not even touched?

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

As the hon. Gentleman is well aware, I am bound by the decisions of the Committee, and the Committee carried the timetable motion this morning. However, he will know that the Chairman of Ways and Means reads the Official Report assiduously, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's remarks will not be lost on him.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Absolutely. I am glad that you said that, Mr. Gale. Some people were suggesting earlier that I was the person who was taking up all the time, but I have probably taken up a disproportionately small amount of time during today's worthwhile debates. It is a pity the Government voted down our modest manuscript amendment this morning—it was proposed by me but supported by my hon. Friends—suggesting that we should sit until 6.30 pm. We are now faced with an impossible situation of having to debate all these important amendments and new clauses in the space of five minutes.

In order to try to save as much time as possible of those remaining five minutes, and in the light of what the Minister said about the proposals to change the rules relating to registration, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: No. 93, in

schedule 24, page 341, line 33, at end insert—

'In Article 5 (the income-based conditions), in paragraphs (1)(dd) and (e), for ''married or unmarried couple'' substitute ''couple''.

In Article 17 (effect on other claimants), in paragraph (2)(b), for ''married or unmarried couple'' substitute ''couple''.

In Article 17A (trade disputes: joint-claim couples), in paragraph (5)(c), for ''married or unmarried couple'' substitute ''couple''.'.—[Mr. Chope.]

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 1, Noes 11.

Division number 12 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 9 - Notice of proposed civil partnership and declaration

Aye: 1 MP

No: 11 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.