Clause 170 - Grounds on which civil partnership is voidable

Civil Partnership Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 26th October 2004.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 11:00 am, 26th October 2004

I beg to move amendment No. 243, in clause 170, page 83, line 33, at end insert—

'(ca) at the time of its formation, the respondent was suffering from a communicable sexual disease;'.

The amendment mirrors amendment No. 227 to clause 50, which we could not debate in the previous sitting because of the guillotine. My hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) and I have refrained from voting against many clauses in this part of the Bill because we want to get on to debate some of the amendments.

This is one of the amendments that I tabled so that we would have the opportunity to debate the subject and tease out the Government's thinking on it. I am sure that I will be attacked for saying that the amendment is a recognition that we are talking about same-sex marriage, when I am against same-sex marriage. However, I recognise that that is what the Bill is about and if we are going to have nullification of same-sex marriage, we might as well have the same grounds for voidability as we have for what I would call proper marriage.

The amendment would add a new ground and would make a civil partnership voidable if at the time of its formation the respondent was suffering from a communicable sexual disease. That is nothing new under the law in the sense that that is already the law as it applies to marriage under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. For those who do not have the terms in front of them, section 12 of that Act provides that a marriage celebrated after 31 July should be voidable ''on the following grounds'' only. Many grounds are set out and ground (e) is that at the time of the marriage the respondent was suffering from venereal disease in a communicable form.

The amendment is intended to put the provision in the Bill on a par with what happens under the law of marriage as it stands under the 1973 Act. Of course, the provision would be subject to the following clause, as it is under the 1973 Act. If the other party to the partnership—or, in terms of the 1973 Act, to the marriage—consents to or connives at this, that remove the grounds for nullity. However, in the absence of the other partner's knowledge, that would remain a ground on which a civil partnership would be voidable. It must be in the public interest to prevent a party to a civil partnership from finding out that the other party was carrying a communicable sexual disease at the time that the partnership was formed, without his or her knowledge. The provision is a necessary protection to be applied in those circumstances.

We do not need to go into the crisis in sexually transmitted diseases among people of all ages. However, you may be familiar, Mr. Cook, with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology note No. 217, issued in April of this year and headed ''Teenage sexual health''. One can see from that the trends in sexually transmitted infections in 16 to 19-year-olds. To say that they present a horrendous picture is to understate the situation. We can see that

there have been percentage increases in the incidence of various sexually transmitted disease diagnoses that range from more than 50 per cent. to doubling. We are talking about quite small numbers, but there was a fivefold increase in one sexually transmitted disease.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

Can the hon. Gentleman say how such provisions would be a protection, as they would simply void a civil partnership as they can void a marriage? Is that not closing the stable door after the horse has bolted? If we wish to protect people from communicable sexual diseases, it cannot be done by voiding a marriage. It must be done by proper education in such matters prior to people beginning sexual relations with each other, regardless of whether they are married, in civil partnerships or not. Even if he does not approve of it, he will surely admit that quite a lot of sexual relations go on outside of marriage.

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

I agree with the hon. Lady. We are not at odds on the matter, and I was quoting figures only to indicate that the problem is widespread. At present, if a party to a marriage, unknown to the other party, is carrying a sexually transmitted disease, that is a means of making that marriage null and void. We are not talking of something fanciful because the figures show that under this Government—this is not a party political point but a fact—such cases have become more commonplace. It is important that we should extend the same protection to those engaged in civil partnerships that we extend to those in lawful marriage.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

The hon. Gentleman has just said something rather staggering, which is that the political colour of a Government seems to have some relationship to the level of sexually transmitted disease. If he stops and thinks, he will realise how ludicrous that actually is.

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

When the hon. Lady reads the record, she will see that I did not say that. All I was doing was quoting the figures that happen to cover the period during which the Government have been in office. Even my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton realises that, tempted as I was to make a party political point, I was not going to do so, and expressly said that I was not.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

As a parent, I share the hon. Gentleman's genuine concern about the prevalence of communicable sexual disease among young people, but he will be aware that in many communities one of the biggest sources of AIDS infections is among gay men who are in the closet, possibly even concealing their sexuality from themselves, who persist in heterosexual relationships and do not talk about such issues. That is one of the greatest sources of infection. If we are trying to address the prevalence of communicable disease, perhaps we should issue a call to gay men in the closet to come out today and stop infecting hapless women who have no means of knowing that they are in the closet.

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

I am sure that the hon. Lady is right, but her argument goes slightly beyond the terms of the amendment, which is confined to what happens after

people have registered civil partnerships. It is only saying that in a situation where one of the parties to a civil partnership is the carrier of a sexually communicable disease and the other party does not know about it, that should be the ground of setting the relationship aside.

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

What happens if the partner carrying the disease did not know about it either, and could not have done so?

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

I do not know about ''could not have done so''. I am not sufficiently knowledgeable about matters relating to medicine to know which sexually communicable diseases are such that the carrier is ignorant of them. Even if both parties are ignorant of such a disease, under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, ignorance is no excuse. The law considers the facts, and if the other party to the marriage wishes to annul that marriage as a result of his or her marital partner having a sexually transmitted disease, they can do so under the 1973 Act.

If my amendment were carried, there would be no difference between what would happen in a civil partnership and what would happen in a lawful marriage. Although I have not been able to carry the Committee on several of my amendments, I would have thought that it would be concerned to protect the interests of a partner in a civil partnership who is ignorant to the fact that the other partner is carrying a sexually transmitted disease that would torpedo the effectiveness of the relationship.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham 1:15 am, 26th October 2004

As I understand it, no such provision exists for England, Scotland or Wales, so my hon. Friend is proposing an arrangement that does not obtain in any other part of the United Kingdom. Is there a reason for that?

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

Yes, the reason is that I tabled an amendment on this matter for England and Wales, which was not reached, so I had no chance to move it. This is an important issue, and I am sure that if the amendment were carried in relation to Northern Ireland, the Government would introduce on Report amendments reflecting the will of the Committee to extend the change to England and Wales and, subject to further advice, to Scotland. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the fact that an amendment originally tabled for discussion during the first part of the Bill was not reached because of the really mean guillotine motion introduced by the Government.

Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) (Scotland)

Amendment No. 243 would add the provision that a civil partnership would be voidable at the time of its formation if either partner were suffering from a communicable sexual disease. I must correct, with the greatest respect, the hon. Member for Buckingham: there is a provision in section 14 of the Matrimonial Causes (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 for marriage to be voidable if the applicant can show that at the time of the marriage the other person was suffering from venereal disease in

a communicable form. That is a similar provision relating to the marriage law of England and Wales.

As hon. Members know, the Government's intention in drafting the Bill was that civil partners would be treated in the same way as spouses except where there was justification for a difference in treatment. This was one matter on which we felt that there was justification for difference. It is a medical fact that men and women may carry certain sexually transmitted infections for many years without knowing it, and we do not believe that it is appropriate in present-day circumstances to include that as a ground for nullifying a civil partnership. The deliberate transmission of a sexually transmitted infection might well be considered as a basis for dissolution, as a factor proving unreasonable behaviour.

I suggest that were we starting now to create marriage law, it would be highly questionable whether we would include such a provision in that law. It is a provision from a bygone age when, perhaps, we were less informed about sexually transmitted diseases. The Government have clearly stated in their national strategy for sexual health and HIV that we need to de-stigmatise the whole issue of sexually transmitted infections if we are to tackle the increasing infection rate, as two of my hon. Friends have said. Suggesting that sexually transmitted diseases should be treated differently from any other communicable diseases in that regard is counterproductive to that aim. I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment, which adds nothing to the Bill.

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

Again, this has been a fascinating insight into the Government's thinking. The Minister has made an important policy announcement, namely that she does not believe that the existing Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, the law relating to marriage in England, Scotland and Wales, should any longer, in the light of modern-day events, contain a provision that a marriage should be voidable on the ground that one of the parties to it has a communicable sexually transmitted disease. She is saying that although the Government are not introducing any amendments to marriage law to reflect her opinion on that at the moment they think that, contrary to everything else that has been said on equating this Bill with a marriage Bill, they should be anticipating such a change in the law on marriage and removing from this Bill any references to sexually transmitted disease as a ground for nullity.

That is rather analogous to the debate that we had earlier, prompted by my amendment on the process of registration and whether it would have to be carried out in the locality where the parties were living. The challenge that I put to the Minister is this: if it is reasonable to be thinking about changing this provision in marriage law in due course, and if the Government want to have this Bill on a par with the laws of marriage as far as possible, why is this provision not included in the Bill now so that when in future the Government decide to change marriage law they can at the same time change the law on civil partnerships? At the moment, if the amendment is not accepted, civil partnerships will be the only type of

marriage that may not be voided on the ground that one partner suffers from a sexually transmitted disease. So I will not withdraw my amendment.

Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) (Scotland)

I advise the hon. Gentleman that the Law Reform Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland is looking into marriage law in Northern Ireland.

I also suggest to him that he should not put words into my mouth. I put on record that the situation in England and Wales would be questionable. The hon. Gentleman, in response to the hon. Member for Buckingham, obviously did not appreciate that. My opinion, which got some consideration in Committee, is that that is where we will start. The underlying principle of the Bill is, as the Government have suggested all along, that we will treat civil partnerships equally except where there is a justification not to do so. In this case, we think that there is a justification not to do so.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 1, Noes 15.

Question accordingly negatived.

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

On a point of order, Mr. Cook. Yet again we seem to be on the verge of being beaten by the clock. Among the amendments and Government amendments yet to be debated are several important ones relating to pensions. I hope that, even at this late stage, the Minister will put forward a change to the timetable so that we can debate all the Government amendments that are on the amendment paper for discussion between now and 11.25 am.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

In view of the discussions that have taken place in prior sittings of the Committee, that is not a point of order for the Chair.

Clause 170 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 171 to 189 ordered to stand part of the Bill.