''This Bill sends a clear message about the importance of stable and committed same-sex relationships.''—[Official Report, 12 October 2004; Vol. 425, c. 174.]
As the clause is drafted, it does not send such a message because it would be possible for people aged just 16 to participate in a registration ceremony as civil partners, notwithstanding the fact that in order to establish a stable and committed same-sex relationship prior to the age of 16 they would have had to be committing a criminal offence. I am sure that the Minister and the Government do not want to have the process of civil partnerships tainted by the prospect that people can enter into them under the age of 18. If it is the avowed intent of the Government that they should reflect mature, long-standing relationships, it must surely make sense that no one below the age of majority should be able to enter into one.
On the point that the hon. Gentleman made about participation in a stable relationship by same-sex couples below the age of 16, he makes the assumption that they must be having sex. Does he make a similar assumption in the case of couples who enter holy matrimony?
The hon. Gentleman knows that we are dealing with this Bill at the moment, and it is unlawful for two people to engage in homosexual practices if one of them is aged under 16. [Hon. Members: ''Or any sexual practices.''] Yes, but I am addressing this issue. In a situation involving two people of different sexes, one of them may be pregnant, for example. That will not arise in a partnership between two people of the same sex.
Since it is the avowed intention of the Government—[Interruption.] I know that some people treat the matter with a frivolous air. It is very serious stuff. We are talking about creating for the first time in English law what will amount to same-sex marriage in all but name. I should have thought that people of a liberal disposition—I am sure most members of the Committee would claim to be of a liberal disposition—would wish to listen to the arguments on both sides with some respect. It is very disappointing and does their cause no good, if they start trying to ridicule those of us who come to this Committee with the confidence that we are speaking for the majority. We know that on this Committee we are not a majority, but that is by the bye; we know that we are speaking for a majority outside. Therefore, it
behoves members of the Committee at least to listen to the arguments we put forward and address them on their merits rather than to try and smear us.
My hon. Friend has a point when he says that he is concerned that 16 is too young, although those of us who have participated in many of these debates believe that equivalence is important. However, there is a safeguard already written into the Bill in clause 5, which states that parental consent is required for anyone under the age of 18. Does my hon. Friend not think that in the circumstances a sufficient difference between holy matrimony and civil partnership, where two men—two boys if they are aged 16—or girls might wish to enter into a partnership, is already contained in the Bill?
I accept that clause 5 is some safeguard, but I do not think it is a sufficient safeguard. I think that I am right in saying that the Government are in the process of ensuring that no one aged under 18 can purchase alcohol in the pub. That would be an absolute prohibition on the behaviour of people under the age of 18, recognising, as the Bill does, that someone under that age is technically a child in law. The Government have placed a lot of restrictions on the activities of people under 18, and yet they seem to be content that one can enter into a stable and committed same-sex relationship at the age of 16. There may be people on the Committee who think that is perfectly reasonable, but I happen to think it is not, which is why I have tabled the amendment.
I oppose the hon. Gentleman's amendment because it again seems to create a difference between heterosexual people and gay and lesbian people, this time with respect to whether they can enter civil partnerships or get married. Although he has not mentioned it, the implications are that the age of consent should somehow be unequalised. We have spent a long time reaching an appropriate situation in which the age of consent has been equalised across the piece and regardless of sexual orientation. His amendment would create a situation in which those who were gay or lesbian would have to wait two years longer before they could enter into a civil partnership.
On the point made by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton about parental consent, adequate protection would be provided through such means, and I see no reason why Parliament should legislate to create a completely different age at which gay and lesbian people should be allowed to commit to each other from that at which heterosexual people may do so. For that reason, if not more, I hope that the hon. Member for Christchurch will realise that, although he has just called for respect from the Committee, he does not really respect those of a gay or lesbian orientation because he believes that they must be older in order to be proved to be responsible. That is a profoundly insulting basis for an amendment, so I hope that the Committee will oppose it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is quite sensitive about being accused of
holding a wrong view or showing prejudice. As the hon. Lady just said, he has demanded that his arguments be treated with respect. I have known him for the best part of two decades, and my answer is that his arguments should indeed be treated with respect, subject to one rather important caveat, which is that he should be honest about his motivation for introducing them. As dishonesty is not permissible in the proceedings of the House, I am sure that he will want to clarify his intentions.
There is a degree of confusion as we debate this matter. Earlier in our deliberations—I shall not dwell on them, otherwise I would get into trouble with you, Mr. Gale; I am merely animadverting to them for the purposes of illustrating my present argument—my hon. Friend complained that, without his amendment to allow registration entitlements for heterosexual partners, the essence of the Bill was discriminatory.
Further to the criticisms of my hon. Friend's amendment made by the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), he ought at least to acknowledge that his amendment is discriminatory and that it entails and legislates for inequality. It is perfectly open to him to say to the Committee, ''Yes, it is discriminatory. I am applying a different principle to partnerships of people of the same sex from that which I would apply to opposite-sex partnerships, but I believe that there is good reason to do so. I am legislating for inequality, but I believe that it is right.'' However, to try to suggest that the amendment is not about discrimination and inequality flies in the face of the facts.
Would my hon. Friend accept that he is labouring under the fallacy—I know that he would wish it to be otherwise—that civil partnership is equivalent to marriage, which it quite clearly is not?
We are treading on old ground. The answer to my hon. Friend is that civil partnership is not the same as marriage, but it is a means by which those who are not eligible for marriage should nevertheless be treated equally before the law. To recall the language used by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton on Second Reading, it is a question of establishing parallel lines, or, as I put it, guaranteeing in the law parity of esteem. It is that equality of recognition and treatment before the law that matters. We can argue for ever and a day about what we choose to call the institution, but what really matters is its status in legal terms and what flows, in legal terms, from what this House chooses to do.
The hon. Member for Wallasey was justified in making her point about the read-across to the age of consent because, in a sense, these matters are inextricably bound up with each other. I do not have the Division list from the Second Reading of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill on 10 February 2000, but I would certainly wager confidently that if my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch were present on that occasion—as he is an assiduous attendee in the House, I have no reason to suppose otherwise—he did not cast his vote in favour of equalisation in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton and I did.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has never recanted of his opposition to an equal age of consent. We do have an equal age of consent, however, and I think that it is right and proper that we should. Just as we have an equal age of consent, so we should have equality in the capacity to enter a civil partnership relative to the entitlement to enter civil marriage. His amendment, as he knows, would in effect relegate or even demean the status of civil partnership. He is a very shrewd fellow, and he knows perfectly well that that is what he is attempting to do. He is entitled to try, but he is not entitled to pretend that he is not trying, and I reject the attempt that he is making.
The amendment is thoroughly undesirable. In the league table, it is not as objectionable as some of the others that my hon. Friend has tabled, but—[Interruption.] Well, I am happy to consult the record on that, but this amendment concerns a matter of important principle. There must be equality, and any attempt—of which this amendment is one—to legislate for discrimination and inequality should be rejected. I strongly oppose the amendment.
I have listened with care to the arguments of the hon. Member for Christchurch, and I have to say that as a parent I am most dismayed that he is so dismissive of the provision allowing for parental permission for those under 18. If he believes in the family, which I sense that he devoutly does, he must believe that the majority of parents carry out their duties conscientiously. I therefore cannot see why he is not satisfied with allowing parents to judge whether someone under 18 is ready to enter the state of civil partnership.
I am moved to intervene to say that it would be nonsense to change the age to 18. When in every other respect the Bill's aim is to remove discrimination, to legislate for one new piece of discrimination makes no sense at all.
I take issue with the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). If she has regard to the provisions relating to Scotland, she will see that there is no equivalent to clause 5, because we have no equivalent requirement for parental consent for civil marriage. I wonder whether, when civil marriage is revisited, that requirement will still be thought necessary, because there is something quite patronising about the idea of someone who is 17 and three quarters having to get parental consent. However, that is really a matter to be determined by colleagues representing constituencies south of the border.
I shall make a few brief points. In defence of the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, I would argue that probably the only justification for it, which is a strong one, is that not everyone's sexual orientation is fully formed by the time they are 18. I know that that is a matter for dispute, and I have disputed it with the hon. Member for Rhondda on the Floor of the House on previous occasions. I am well aware that there are those who
have a firm view about whether such matters are decided genetically, before birth or at birth—
In a moment.
There are those who have firm views that sexual orientation cannot be changed. That is one point of view, and anyone is entitled to hold it if they so wish. However, there is another school of thought, backed up with some scientific evidence—the evidence of people's own experiences—which says that that is not always the case. At 16 or 17 some people's views on these matters are not fully formed, and all sorts of factors may influence them. For that reason, I think that there is some value and purpose to my hon. Friend's amendment.
As regards a difference between the age of consent and the age at which a civil partnership is allowed, it is perfectly respectable to say that a civil partnership is a serious commitment that is supposed to be for life.
I was persistent because I could sense that the hon. Gentleman was moving on to another point, and I wanted to ask a question about his first point, which was about sexual orientation not being fixed. Does he accept that, if it is not fixed—and I do not intend to argue the matter one way or another—sexual orientations can go both ways? In other words, a 16-year-old might not be fixed as heterosexual or fixed as gay or lesbian. The hon. Gentleman argues that we should increase the age for entering into all types of partnership, whether it be marriage—civil or religious—or a civil partnership, to an age at which sexual orientation may be more established. Surely he is not arguing that his case can only be made for those of gay or lesbian sexual orientation?
I understand the hon. Lady's point. I come to these matters from the perspective that there are more serious implications for same-sex partnerships. My reading of the evidence—and I have also heard this from people whom I have met—is that there have been more changes among people who were of same-sex orientation than among people who have always been of a heterosexual orientation. However, that is a huge subject of debate, and I am not sure that you, Mr. Gale, would tolerate our going into it at great length. This is not the right place to pursue the issue, but I hope that the hon. Lady will accept that there are different views on the subject. I respect her view, and I simply ask her to respect mine. There are many others who think the same way as I do.
I want to respond briefly to the point made by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington about parents, which was perfectly fair.
Sadly, my experience from my constituency and elsewhere is that many parents today do not always act with proper care and attention for their children. That is why I am not sure that clause 5 is a sufficient safeguard on its own. The point was perfectly valid and proper, but because of the way in which some people parent, the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has merit.
If we accept the hon. Gentleman's assertion that people do not know their own sexuality at 16 or 17, how on earth can we expect their parents to know it for them?
I am not sure that that argument follows. All that I am saying is that I am not sure that parental agreement is sufficient safeguard for someone entering a civil partnership if there is a possibility that their sexual orientation is not fully formed at 16 or 17.
The amendment would raise the age at which a person could form a civil partnership. Clause 4, which it would amend, sets out the eligibility criteria that those who wish to form a civil partnership must meet. That is one part of clause 4 that we are not going to amend. One of the criteria is that a couple are not eligible to register as each other's civil partners if either of them is under 16. However, as we have heard, forming a civil partnership would constitute a significant life decision and a person aged 16 or 17 would not be able to form a civil partnership in England and Wales unless they had the consent of the appropriate person. That is dealt with in clause 5 and is similar to the approach taken to consent for marriage.
The effect of the amendment, as the hon. Member for Christchurch made it clear, would be to prevent those who are 16 or 17 from forming a civil partnership. Other hon. Members have pointed out some of the illogicalities of some of his arguments. The first was the suggestion that somehow or another people enter into a civil partnership only in order to recognise a relationship that is already long-term and stable. That is not an argument that I have ever advanced.
Someone might enter into a civil partnership at the beginning of the relationship to help maintain its stability. There appears to be the implication that there must be some sort of cohabitation before people enter into a civil partnership. That is not part of the legislation; it is not a condition. Ironically, the hon. Gentleman's arguments would imply that that should be the situation.
As other hon. Members have pointed out, the arguments about whether or not one is secure in one's sexuality at the age of 16 or 17 apply equally to marriage. This is one of those areas where I believe that there is no objective justification for a difference between the consent arrangements with respect to 16 and 17 year-olds and their eligibility to enter into a civil partnership, and those for civil marriage.
The Government consider 16 to be the appropriate age at which people could form a civil partnership; it is the age at which people may marry. There is no good reason to prohibit people who are 16 or over from
forming a civil partnership. The integrity of such partnerships would be undermined if younger people were involved in forming them. We have made it very clear in the Bill that that would not be appropriate and it would not be legal.
I can see no justification for the differential that the hon. Gentleman is proposing. I hope that he will withdraw the amendment, but as I am not hopeful of that, I hope that hon. Members will resist it.
This has been a short, but illuminating debate. What the Minister has just said about the Bill's encouraging people to enter into a civil partnership at the beginning of a relationship is complete news to me. I had always understood from everything that she and the Government had been saying that it was a way of being able to give legal recognition to a subsisting relationship.
What the Minister says is that rather like people do when they get married, if they have not been cohabiting before, prior to any relationship being in existence—prior to any cohabitation or any sexual intercourse, to be blunt about it—they would make the arrangements to enter into a civil partnership for life. That is a very different proposition from what we have been discussing before.
Earlier, we were talking about the difference between people who have been cohabiting as same-sex partners and those who have been cohabiting as opposite-sex partners. We were discussing people who had been cohabiting and had an existing relationship. What the Minister is saying now is that the Bill will give recognition to non-cohabiting same-sex partners and enable them to have special legal recognition over and above those who are cohabiting opposite-sex partners. This is taking us much further than any of the propaganda that the Government have so far put forward about this. That is illuminating to me, although it might not be surprising to other Committee members.
As for my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham, it so happens that I had the opportunity to discuss with Lord Tebbit the remarks that my hon. Friend made about him during Tuesday's sitting. It might be important to put that on the record, because there is a similarity between the accusation that my hon. Friend made against my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Tebbit and the accusation that he made against me, namely that we are dishonest about motivation. Lord Tebbit is disappointed that my hon. Friend has referred to what was a private conversation, but he is even more disappointed that, as he put it to me, my hon. Friend's recollection of it is ''highly selective''.
I agree, Mr. Gale. I was not going to refer to the matter, but having been the recipient of the same accusation from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham as that which he levelled against Lord Tebbit, I had the opportunity to put it on the record.
As for motivation, let us consider the Civil Partnerships Bill, a private Member's Bill introduced by Lord Lester of Herne Hill. I do not think that anybody would suggest that he shares the same views about these matters as my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and me, but in speaking to his Bill he said that he did not think that civil partnerships should be available to people under the age of 18. He had that in his Bill, so is it so unreasonable? Yet the tenor of this debate is that it is unreasonable for anybody to argue that it would be sensible for people to wait until they have obtained the age of majority before entering into a civil partnership.
I do not regard the amendment as unreasonable; I regard it as being tantamount to common sense. When we are talking about people entering into long-term relationships, there is everything to be said for them being of the age of majority before they take such decisions and the responsibility for them.
Obviously, I am sorry that Lord Tebbit is sorry. Suffice it to say that I have many flaws, which are regularly on display, but I think that I can on the whole claim to have quite a good memory, and I remember very precisely the content of the conversation that I had with my right hon. and noble Friend on 25 March this year.
I put it to my hon. Friend that he is referring to Lord Lester's Bill, but he is also saying that up until now the discussion has been about, on the one hand, gay couples and, on the other, cohabiting heterosexuals. I put it to him also that I have been interested in this particular debate for three years this month—not as long as many people, I accept—and at no time have I thought that the Government were entertaining an idea of legislating for such relationships at 18, and I have certainly never thought that the Government were thinking in terms of having qualifying periods of advanced sexual intercourse or cohabitation. As far as I know that was never in their mind, and neither was it in mine.
I cannot be responsible for what my hon. Friend thought, but if he had read the contents of the House of Lords Civil Partnerships Bill, he would have seen that there is provision for a qualifying period—as he would put it—of cohabitation of six months. He might also have read the provisions that state that a partnership should not be entered into until the age of 18. If he had also read the glowing report given in the House of Lords by the Minister responsible at the time, the late Lord Williams of Mostyn, and he had addressed his mind to the task, he would have been able to imply from that the impression that many other people got, which is that the Government were interested in setting up a system that is separate and apart from marriage and that civil partnerships would have different qualifications and import compared with marriage, and that was where we were. Many people thought that when the Government said they would ''go away and
think about this'', they were still talking about partnerships with the same limitations as set out in the Bill to which I have referred. We now see that the whole situation has moved on. That does not mean, however, that those of us who were more attracted to the previous approach should be vilified for holding that view.
The Government, and those who support people entering into civil partnerships at the age of 16, are storing up trouble for the future. We have brought in other laws to limit the ability of children—that is, people under 18—to take decisions, because we are worried that they may lack maturity and responsibility. Anyone who knows 16 to 18-year-olds knows that some of them are very mature at 16, and some are pretty immature even when they are approaching their 18th birthday. We will not go into the position of those who are over 18, because they are not relevant to my amendment.
Civilised, grown-up men and women can differ on the issue that we are discussing, and I recognise that many members of the Committee have a different view from mine, but it has certainly engendered a useful debate. I hope that we will have a chance to express our opinions in the form of a vote.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 3, Noes 12.