Clause 253 - Commencement

Civil Partnership Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 26th October 2004.

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Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State (Industry and the Regions and Deputy Minister for Women), Department of Trade and Industry 3:45 pm, 26th October 2004

I beg to move amendment No. 118, in clause 253, page 124, line 26, leave out

'Parts 1 and 2, including Schedules 2 to 10, come'

and insert

'Part 1 comes into force in accordance with provision made by order by the Secretary of State, after consulting the Scottish Ministers and the Department of Finance and Personnel.

( ) Part 2, including Schedules 2 to 10, comes'.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendments Nos. 119 to 126.

Government new clause 9—Gender recognition where applicant a civil partner.

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

Amendments Nos. 118 to 125 relate to clause 253, which provides for the coming into force of the provisions of the Bill. All substantive provisions are to come into force by commencement orders, which will be made by the Secretary of State, except in the case of provisions for which legislative competence has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament or would be devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly if it is re-established. The Scottish provisions will be commenced by the Scottish Ministers and the Northern Ireland provisions will be made by the Department of Finance and Personnel—in both cases, after consulting the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State must also consult the Scottish Ministers or the Department of Finance and Personnel before commencing certain other provisions where the connections between devolved and non-devolved areas are strong.

The consequential amendments ensure that the arrangements for the commencement powers properly reflect the devolution settlement. They correct references to numbering and ensure that the subsections of the clause refer to the relevant related parts of the Bill.

Amendment No. 126 removes clause 254(2), which was added on Third Reading in the House of Lords as a privilege amendment to avoid infringing the privilege of the House of Commons to decide the financial consequences of the Bill. Since a money resolution has been agreed to, subsection (2) can now be removed.

New clause 9 amends the Gender Recognition Act 2004 as a consequence of the introduction of civil partnerships. It ensures that civil partnerships are treated in the same way as marriages for the purposes of that Act. It was not appropriate to include those changes in the Bill earlier because the Gender Recognition Act received Royal Assent only in July 2004. The Gender Recognition Act provides that if an applicant for a gender recognition certificate is married, they cannot be recognised in their acquired gender until the marriage is brought to an end. In order to achieve that, they are issued with an interim gender recognition certificate, which provides grounds for them to annul—or in Scotland, dissolve—their marriage. The court that makes the annulment or dissolution absolute then grants a full gender recognition certificate, which means that the person is subsequently to be treated for all purposes as a person of the acquired gender.

The new clause provides for civil partnerships to be treated in the same way. In particular, it inserts a new section 5A, which provides for the granting of a full gender recognition certificate by the court that makes the final nullity order, or, in Scotland, grants the decree of dissolution, in relation to a civil partnership. That is similar to the procedure already provided in section 5 of the Gender Recognition Act for cases in which an existing marriage is annulled or dissolved. As

in section 5, if the civil partnership comes to an end in a defined period by virtue of annulment, or dissolution on any other ground, or the death of the person's civil partner, an application for a full gender recognition certificate can instead by made to a gender recognition panel. That amendment follows the principles that the House agreed on when considering the Gender Recognition Bill.

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

It may well be that, for those following our proceedings and thinking about their future plans, this clause is one of the most important. I think that all of us have faced the questions, ''When will this be law? When will people be able to enter into a civil partnership and, crucially, so to organise their financial and legal affairs that they can put into practice the provisions contained in the Bill?''

A measure of confusion has arisen, notwithstanding the momentary hiccup in another place, about the interaction between the Bill that will become an Act and a Finance Bill that will give efficacy to the most crucial of provisions—tenancy, wills and so on—that flow from it. There was a measure of uncertainty in an exchange between my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and the Minister about what ''the next available Finance Bill'' means. Does it mean the one that is still going through Parliament and might yet have something put into it on Report? Does it mean the next Finance Bill?

A Finance Bill takes a long time to go through Committee. Once that has happened, might there not yet be another full year before everything that we are discussing can practically be implemented? So that we are clear about the affairs that we are discussing, it would be enormously helpful if the Minister would give a clear forward picture about when she predicts that the commencements are likely to be triggered and how they will work hand-in-hand with the Finance Bill that will implement the provisions of the Bill.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Notwithstanding the legitimacy of my hon. Friend's queries of the Minister, I put it to him that, in essence, the position should be simple. If the Government plan to make provision in the next Finance Bill, because they decide that that is the next available Bill, and the Bill goes through before the election, all is well and good. In the event that it does not, it is incumbent on the Conservative party to make it clear in the run-up to the election that, having won that election, we will make the necessary provision in our first Budget and in the ensuing Finance Bill that flows from it.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I cannot promise him that I will be Chancellor of the Exchequer but I certainly promise him that, like him, I will do everything I can to accelerate things if we are in government.

The serious point is that there is not much clarity in people's understanding of the likely timetable for putting the Bill into practical effect. There is a measure of uncertainty, partly because it is thought that there is an election looming and we are not sure when the Finance Bill will happen. So, will the Minister give an indication of what she thinks is the likely timetable for

triggering everything that is needed to get the Bill fully into effect?

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

I think that we already said publicly that we envisage that—assuming that the Bill completes the stages of its consideration in this House and in another place and that it receives Royal Assent—implementation will take about a year following Royal Assent.

Interestingly, that is not largely because of the tax provisions, which I will return to, but because some complex changes need to be made to, for example, court rules. There are some lengthy conditions about consultation with respect to court rules. Changes would need to be made to registration arrangements. Training would, of course, need to be given to judicial officers with respect to the legal implications, not least the requirements on dissolution and annulment. We have been honest in saying that although we are very keen to ensure that the provision is implemented as quickly as possible, there are some complex issues of implementation that will need to be put into operation.

Notwithstanding what might or might not occur in a general election next year, I therefore find it difficult to envisage that within a year of gaining Royal Assent for this Bill we will not have had an available Finance Bill. I have made it clear, but I shall reiterate it, that the tax consequences of the policy that we have identified in the Bill and have stated publicly will take effect on the commencement of the Bill's provisions. I hope that that will give the hon. Gentleman the certainty that he understandably asks for on behalf of those who are keen not only that the Bill goes through but that its provisions come into effect as soon as possible

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

Following on from what the Minister has just said, I should point out that every week one reads in the financial columns of the newspapers new implications of administrative decisions being taken by the Inland Revenue that have an impact on people who are living together in same-sex relationships. If I may give an example, the Government have recently said that if a husband and wife are engaged in a business together as a company, the husband running the business and the wife a principal shareholder, the money paid to the wife by way of dividend will be treated as the husband's income for tax purposes. Where does that leave a situation in which two partners of the same sex are carrying on a business as directors and shareholders? I give that as a current example of where it seems that there is a different rule, under the law, for those engaged in business as husband and wife and those in the same position in a same-sex relationship.

The Minister says that she wants to clarify all that and sort it out. On that point, which does not need any legislation at the moment but is just a matter of administrative practice, can she advise the Committee what the Inland Revenue's practice will be? My understanding from reading some of the other material is that putting the social security rules on the treatment of cohabiting same-sex couples on a par with those relating to cohabiting heterosexual couples is to come in immediately. That is not dependent on the Royal Assent of this Bill because it covers same-sex

relationships outside civil partnership. If that provision is to come in immediately, what will happen with examples such as that which I gave of a company where the directors or shareholders are in a same-sex relationship?

Will the Minister explain in simple language how the Gender Recognition Act 2004 will impact on the Bill? If a partner to a same-sex partnership changes sex, will it then be open to the parties to that partnership to continue to have that partnership registered, or will there be a requirement for it to be annulled, so that if the two wished to stay together thereafter they would have to enter a civil marriage, instead of a civil partnership? Or—this is my understanding of what the Minister said—would that be optional, meaning that if one partner changed gender there would not be a requirement for the partnership to be annulled? Perhaps she could clarify that.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 4:00 pm, 26th October 2004

In the hope that you will call my amendment No. 232, Mr. Cook, I shall be brief. The consequence of the Minister's amendments will be that the Department of Finance and Personnel in Northern Ireland will determine, in consultation with the Secretary of State, the commencement order and its timing. That is the same Department that conducted the consultation process in Northern Ireland prior to the Bill being introduced in Parliament. That consultation process was highly unsatisfactory and the response received during the process was not reflected in any way in the Bill that is before the Committee. The Minister should reflect on what she is suggesting in her amendments and consider my amendment No. 232 that the elected representatives in Northern Ireland should have the final say on the matter, not an unelected Government Department.

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

The hon. Member for Christchurch was right. First, as I identified at length on schedule 24, in many areas of benefit provision, cohabiting same-sex couples will be treated in the same way as couples who live together as husband and wife. Those provisions will come into effect on commencement of the legislation and not, as the hon. Gentleman seemed to suggest, before Parliament has finished its consideration.

Secondly, on the hon. Gentleman's point about company law, I do not take my briefing about the impact of company law from the financial pages of newspapers, nor even from his ministrations, so I shall consider in more detail his suggestions about the Inland Revenue's current practice and will write to him about the extent to which there will be an equivalence with cohabiting same-sex couples. As we have suggested throughout our discussions today, on the whole we have attempted in the Bill to replicate within a wide variety of legislative areas the provisions for married couples for civil partners and the provisions for opposite-sex cohabiting couples with same-sex cohabiting couples.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

As an ex-Minister at the then Department of Social Security, I know that considerable sensitivities are involved in the regulations covering people living together as husband and wife and the way in which they are put into effect by Jobcentre Plus employees of the Department for Work and Pensions. That has always been a sensitive but important area. Will the Minister assure me that as the provisions are rightly extended to same-sex couples, who must bear the burdens of the change in legislation as well as receiving the benefits, there will be adequate training covering some of the sensitivities surrounding this matter—it is obviously sensitive, whatever one's sexuality—so that the employees of the Department for Work and Pensions, who generally do a very good job, are aware of how best to approach the issues before them when considering whether people who live in the same house are presenting as living together as husband and wife, be it in a gay or lesbian relationship or a heterosexual cohabiting relationship?

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

My hon. Friend makes an important point and I think that I can reassure her. Not only will there be training, but there is already consideration and some modelling of the impact of using the current living-together husband-and-wife test in the context of same-sex couples to ensure that it is appropriate, achieves the right result and models the sort of training and guidance that will be necessary, both for DWP employees and for Inland Revenue employees where they apply a similar test with respect to tax credits, for example, or in other areas. I can give my hon. Friend that assurance.

I was about to come to the point raised by the hon. Member for Christchurch on gender recognition. I thought that I had spelled that out quite clearly in my introduction to the new clause. However, I will go through it again. If two people are in a civil partnership and one of them wishes to change their gender, he or she would first get an interim gender recognition certificate. The policy intention is precisely the opposite of what the hon. Gentleman said. The policy intention is that they will be required to annul or, if it is in Scotland, to dissolve their civil partnership if one of the partners changes gender, just as they will be required to annul or dissolve a marriage if one of the partners changes gender.

The person changing gender will receive an interim gender recognition certificate. That enables the court to annul or dissolve the civil partnership and a final gender recognition certificate is then granted. At no point, having received the full gender recognition certificate, will a person go from one relationship to the other. If a person who had changed gender subsequently wanted to re-enter a legal relationship with their partner they would need to enter a civil marriage.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and for explaining that. My only residual point was, if someone has an interim gender recognition certificate, must they go on to get the full certificate or can they keep an interim certificate and keep that in play within the subsisting partnership?

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

Of course it is up to the parties, but an interim gender recognition certificate is precisely designed to enable the person to get the annulment or the dissolution. To a certain extent it would not be an awful lot of use. It is not the final gender recognition certificate. A person cannot live in the acquired gender with only an interim gender recognition certificate.

I turn now to the points raised by the hon. Member for Lagan Valley. He asked whether elected Members, as opposed to the Department of Finance and Personnel in Northern Ireland, should decide on the commencement. All subordinate powers are exercised by Departments, subject to ministerial control. That is not an unusual situation. He backed up his argument by suggesting that the consultation carried out by that Department had been unsatisfactory, so I am rather surprised that he prays it in aid as the reason why the provisions in the Bill should not be extended to Northern Ireland.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My dissatisfaction is not with the response to the consultation, but with the fact that only 25 days after the consultation closed the Government inserted Northern Ireland into the Bill, completely ignoring the response to the consultation exercise.

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

As I suspect we shall be discussing in a few minutes, the consultation was important, but it was not a referendum. We will now move on to a discussion about why the Government and I believe, and many others believe, that the provisions should extend across the whole of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 119, in clause 253, page 124, line 31, leave out 'and 14' and insert 'to 20'.—[Jacqui Smith.]

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I beg to move amendment No. 232, in clause 253, page 124, line 33, at end insert

'but such an order must not be made unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing the order has been laid before and approved by a resolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly.'.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The amendment is supported by the hon. Member for Christchurch. I was astonished that on Tuesday last week the Minister should assert that the Government had received at every stage approbation and support from the majority of those who have responded to the Government's consultations on the proposals. I was astonished because, as the Minister knows, 86 per cent. of the respondents to the consultation in Northern Ireland opposed the plans in the Bill. On Second Reading the leader of my party drew attention to that fact, and it was raised many times in debates in the other place.

From the Minister's statement on Tuesday last that at every point consultation respondents gave their approbation, I can assume only that she feels that the responses of people in Northern Ireland do not count. Her comments a few moments ago point to that. The Government do not care that much about what people genuinely expressed in their responses. If she is suggesting that the responses do not accurately reflect the view in Northern Ireland, I must challenge that. Right across the community in Northern Ireland,

there is concern about the imposition of the Bill on the part of the United Kingdom that I represent.

Earlier in the debate today, the Minister acknowledged that Northern Ireland has a different history of applying law. As a Unionist I believe that, where appropriate, laws should apply across the United Kingdom. The Government support the concept of devolution, and in supporting that, they recognise that there are regional variations; otherwise, why have regional assemblies and Parliaments? Yet, by ignoring the consultation responses, the Government ignore the regional variation in Northern Ireland and the strong feelings held about this issue in that part of the United Kingdom.

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

It would be very helpful if the hon. Gentleman could remind the Committee of those provisions that would be the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly were it functioning today.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Clearly many issues in the Bill would be devolved and come under the remit of the Northern Ireland Assembly, but I accept that some consequential and accepted matters would be reserved. When the Assembly has considered legislation in the past, it has enacted reserved matters with the consent of the Secretary of State. It would not have been difficult for the Assembly to consider this matter. If the hon. Gentleman is implying in his question that it would, I am not sure that that is true.

My amendment requires only that the Assembly considers whether the Bill should commence. I am not suggesting that the Assembly take the Bill and amend it. The amendment relates to the commencement order and whether the Assembly feels that this legislation is relevant to Northern Ireland and should be applied. It is best placed to do that. As a Member of the Assembly, I believe that devolution in that sense is appropriate. I accept that the Assembly is suspended. My party is involved in discussions as we speak, which I hope will result in the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland. The Assembly ought to have the final say about the commencement of the legislation.

Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State for International Development 4:15 pm, 26th October 2004

Just for the record, does the hon. Gentleman envisage any circumstances in which he personally would vote for the commencement of this Bill?

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that I would not vote for the Bill. That does not mean that no other Assembly Member would vote for it. At the end of the day, the local elected representatives should be given the final say, particularly given the real concerns raised during the consultation process by people who actually live in Northern Ireland.

Imposing civil partnerships on the Province regardless of the views of its people shows that their moral and religious convictions are of little or no interest to the Government. I make no apology for saying that I am an evangelical Christian and that I have concerns about the Bill and what it means in terms of my faith and my beliefs. I know that that view is shared by many people in Northern Ireland.

Earlier, the Minister repeated her claim made on Second Reading that she had received 400 letters of support from people in Northern Ireland since the consultation had ended. I cannot think of any previous occasion on which an official Government consultation has been regarded as less important than a folder full of letters produced by a letter-writing campaign. It does not obviate the reality that the consultation generated 86 per cent. of respondents against what the Government are seeking to impose on the people of Northern Ireland.

Ironically, that attempt to manufacture a fig leaf of public support for the plans implies that the Government's public consultation was faulty and failed to reach all sections of society or elicit responses that were truly indicative of the views of the people in Northern Ireland. As a matter of fact, I am sure that a figure of 86 per cent. is about right for the level of opposition to what is effectively, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has repeatedly stated in Committee, a pseudo gay marriage Bill. If anything, it underestimates the views of people in Northern Ireland. All that is just another example of the Government's selective use of statistics. If the consultation favours what they want to do—as in England and Wales—they issue a press release boasting about the result, but if it does not favour their plans, they simply ignore its results.

The 2001 Labour party manifesto, in a section on Northern Ireland, said that

''we will bring about the key reforms in the civil and criminal justice system which secure the respect and trust of both traditions.''

I wonder whether the Government really think that the Bill is a legal reform that has the respect and trust of both Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. All evidence points to the fact that both sides are opposed to the Bill, not because they hate people who are of a homosexual disposition, but because they have a high view of Christian ethics and, in particular, marriage.

In fact, the Government have achieved the remarkable feat of creating a cause around which both Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland have united. All of the main Churches in the Province have come out against the Bill. I would be interested to hear how the Minister thinks that that level and scale of opposition meets the Labour party's commitment to secure changes to the civil and criminal justice system that have the respect and trust of both traditions.

The Government have been riding roughshod over the people of Northern Ireland, including in how they introduced the Bill. Its first imprint was produced on 30 March this year, only 25 days after the consultation in Northern Ireland closed. Provisions applying civil partnership to Northern Ireland were already included, although incomplete. Clearly, the Government had already decided to impose civil partnership on the Province, whatever the outcome of the consultation. There is no way that the responses could have been properly considered in 25 days. In fact, the report on them was not produced until 10 May. Given that the Bill was published on

30 March, that gives us some indication of the Government's real agenda for Northern Ireland.

The Government needed the report because they wanted to table 52 clauses and six schedules on 11 May to attempt to fix the holes in the Northern Ireland provisions. In fact, a total of 120 pages of amendments relating to Northern Ireland were passed in the other House with virtually no scrutiny. When asked whether the consultation in Northern Ireland had made any difference whatsoever to the drafting of the Bill, the Minister in the other place, Baroness Scotland, could not answer.

I turn now to my amendment, which would give the Northern Ireland Assembly the final say on whether civil partnership would apply fully to Northern Ireland. Part 4 of the Bill, which contains the Northern Ireland provisions for registration, dissolution and so on, would come into effect only if approved by a resolution of the Assembly. I understand that the Province would still have to give limited recognition to civil partnerships registered in the rest of the UK, but the Assembly should be allowed to take a view on whether Northern Ireland itself grants marriage-like status to homosexual relationships.

The Scottish Parliament has had its own debate and vote on the provisions. In Northern Ireland, where the issue is much more controversial, we should, at the very least, have the same opportunity. It seems particularly egregious that the Government should railroad the proposals through while the devolved Assembly for the one part of the UK where there is the most opposition to civil partnerships is out of action.

Some hon. Members will argue that it is a new departure to put a sunrise clause on the Northern Ireland provisions of a Westminster Bill. It is true that that has not happened on other legislation passed during the suspension of the Assembly, but there has not been another issue on which there is quite as much opposition from almost every shade of political and religious opinion in the Province. There has not been another issue on which nine out of 10 people who responded to the Government consultation rejected the proposals.

As my party leader pointed out on Second Reading, the 2001 census found that there were only 288 same-sex couple households in the whole of Northern Ireland. The Government say that, at most, only 5 per cent. of same-sex couples will commit to civil partnerships. As I pointed out earlier, 5 per cent. of 288 households in Northern Ireland is 14. On their own statistics, the Government are destroying the basis of family law in Northern Ireland and riding roughshod over the convictions of nine out 10 people who responded to their consultation, all for the sake of 14 same-sex couples. [Laughter.] Well, those are the Government's statistics. As usual in such matters, if the facts and figures do not suit the Government's argument, they say that they do not count.

In the case of the census, they say that homosexual couples sharing a home would have been fearful of declaring the fact on the census because of homophobia. I will not comment on the implicit

accusation that the entire population of the Province either hates or fears homosexual people, other than to say that it is absolute rubbish. Quite frankly, in Northern Ireland we are more worried about Semtex than same-sex.

The census is confidential. Why should anyone fear any comeback from answers that they put down on a census form? Are the Government telling us that their system has leaks and that confidential census data can get into the hands of people outside the system? Besides, if two people live together as a same-sex couple, it will probably be obvious to their neighbours. What difference does it make if they say so on the census?

I know that my amendment was tabled twice before, and it was twice rejected by the Government in the other place, but the reasoning of Ministers there has not convinced me, nor has it convinced the vast majority of the people in Northern Ireland. I raise the issue again today to determine whether gay rights are still more important to the Government than devolution. That is the question that they must address. It is and ought to be for the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland to have the final say on the commencement of this legislation, and the Government ought to give careful consideration to that. The collective rights of the people of Northern Ireland ought to be taken into account.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Opposition Whip (Commons)

I commend much of what the hon. Member for Lagan Valley said. I have a couple of questions that I hope the Minister will answer when she responds to the debate. First, if the Government proceed to implement the Bill as drafted will they allow the Northern Ireland Assembly to revisit the matter when it is reconvened, as we all hope that it will be? I reiterate the argument used by the hon. Gentleman, that it seems a perverse use of the devolutionary settlement that the Government constructed in the United Kingdom to let the Scottish Parliament debate these matters but to deny the Northern Ireland Assembly that opportunity.

Secondly, will the Minister tell the Committee the purpose of the Government's consultation exercise in Northern Ireland? I am highly sceptical about consultation exercises undertaken by local or central Government, and so are many of my constituents. There is a growing feeling among members of the public that although Governments and local authorities may undertake consultations, they merely proceed to do exactly what they were going to do anyway. That appears to have been the case in respect of the consultation in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

The previous two speakers will not be surprised to hear that I do not agree with a single word that the hon. Member for Lagan Valley said, which is as predictable as the hon. Member for Christchurch has been in earlier debates. I have several reasons for disagreeing with the hon. Member for Lagan Valley, not least because he presented the most anti-Unionist argument I have yet heard, which struck me as rather curious. I cannot think of any nation state in the world where the rights that are accorded to people in one part of the country are completely denied in another

part of the country. The suggestion, which the hon. Gentleman let out of the bag, that he would not only want the Assembly to have the right to say yea or nay to whether any of the provisions were brought into force in Northern Ireland, but that he would seek to ensure that they did not come to pass, is therefore an argument for the dissolution of the Union.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

It is not inconsistent with being a Unionist to support the concept of devolution. Northern Ireland had its own devolved Parliament for 50 years, so I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's argument. In the United States of America, there are many examples of laws being enacted at state level that confer on the citizens of the state rights that do not apply in other states. Therefore, it is wrong to say that there is not another country in the world where there is a right in one region or area that does not apply in another. There are many examples of regional variations throughout the world.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

I think what the hon. Gentleman wants is a united states of Britain, where there is a supreme court that decides on a national constitution.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda 4:30 pm, 26th October 2004

The hon. Gentleman says ''devolution'' from a chuntering, sedentary position. But the point about devolution is that it is decided that certain responsibilities should be devolved to the lowest level at which people are most directly affected, and some things are reserved to the nation state. It seems extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman could argue that individual human rights, which is what the Bill is about, and the right of people to live with and inherit from one another, should be devolved. Why do not local councils decide? It seems self-evident that if matters were to be devolved to that degree, with completely different rules governing people's ability to form a stable relationship and inherit tenancies, pensions and so on from one another, it would mean dismantling devolution and moving towards a completely different system, which would not be in keeping with the Unionist cause that I thought the hon. Gentleman espoused.

Secondly, I wholly disagree with the way that the hon. Gentleman has presented the statistics. I am glad that his mathematic was better than that of the leader of his party, who on Second Reading stated that 5 per cent. of 288 was 12, and that he has been able to work out that it is 14. Like others before, I submit to him—I know that he dismisses this argument—that if 86 per cent. of the people in Northern Ireland are, as he attests, wholly opposed to people being able to form civil partnerships or display their love for one another because they are homosexual, it is likely that people would be reluctant, either on paper or in public, to declare their homosexuality.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

Will my hon. Friend explain to me why, even if the statistics are correct, such a lot of worry is created by the prospect of 28 people in Northern Ireland being able to live together with proper protections and in harmony? It seems an awful over-reaction.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

Indeed. The argument falls both ways against the hon. Member for Lagan Valley. Either there are so few people involved that it will hardly rock the whole of society, the church and the foundation of marriage, or there are more than he presumes. I suspect that the latter is true because I have had letters and e-mails from a lot of people urging me to ensure that this legislation applies in Northern Ireland. The number of couples who have written to me is almost up to 14, so I suspect that, by the end of Third Reading, I may be able to prove his statistics wrong.

The third point is that when one is trying to right an injustice—I know that the hon. Gentleman will not accept that that is what the legislation is trying to do—it is not enough to say that only 14, 15 or 16 people are affected. If there is only one person—[Interruption.] One good man. Indeed, it is a profoundly biblical point. If there is one good man, woman or couple, I believe that we should change the law, because we are righting an injustice.

The amendment would delay the process. It is an unfair amendment regardless of what position one adopts about the morality or ethics of homosexuality. Almost inevitably, as the peace negotiations continue in Northern Ireland—one hopes leading to the setting up again of a Northern Ireland Assembly—the issue of gay rights will be entangled in the process of setting up the Assembly. That would be invidious to the position of lesbians and gay men in Northern Ireland. It would also not exactly help the peace process and therefore it is a poor amendment.

I would not call myself a born-again Christian, except in the sense that all Christians maintain that they are born again in baptism. However, I believe that it is perfectly possible to hold as a Christian that homosexuality is not necessarily a sin—it may be lived in sinfully or as part of a good life. Many Christians in the world sincerely believe that God created them as homosexuals and that the best that they can do to live a holy and spiritual life is to do so under God and with God's blessing in a committed relationship, which the Bill allows.

Even more importantly, I do not believe that we should create a theocracy in this country. In Matthew chapter VII, Jesus said:

''Judge not, that ye be not judged.''

It is equally important that one can argue some things to be immoral and wrong, but that does not necessarily mean that the law should make them illegal. I happen to believe—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton is trying to bring hunting into this issue because he is a little ferret really. He should be dismembered for trying to bring in other issues, which I am sure you would not want to be introduced, Mr. Cook.

The point that I am making is simply that I believe that this is a moral and ethical Bill because it allows people to establish their relationship on the basis of a commitment—one to another. It is not a commitment that will be entered into lightly. I think that many Christians can support the Bill and I hope that, in the fullness of time, there will be many Christians in Northern Ireland—perhaps even members of the

Church of the hon. Member for Lagan Valley—who one day will respect the rights of gays and lesbians.

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

The afternoon gets better as it goes on. Earlier we had pre-emptive gratification; now we have the vision of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton being dismembered for his views. That sounds a little Old Testament to me.

In Committees in this place, I have often been able to make common cause with the hon. Member for Lagan Valley. We have argued that it is appropriate that provisions relating to Northern Ireland should be dealt with in primary legislation, such as the Bill that we have before us. We have often argued that it is highly unsatisfactory that provisions relating to Northern Ireland—a whole Bill effectively—are dealt with in an hour-and-a-half sitting on the basis of secondary legislation. On some occasions, we have been able to incorporate Northern Ireland provisions into primary legislation, as we are doing today. Together with the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, I have been privileged to serve on some of those Committees.

However, before now, I have never come across an instance in which a Member from Northern Ireland has sought to make a commencement provision such as the one that the hon. Gentleman has brought before the Committee. If I am wrong about that, the hon. Member for Lagan Valley can correct me. I have never seen it before, and that makes me ask why he is doing it. That comes back to comments made earlier in the debate—he probably was not here for them—relating to honesty of motivation. I commend him to read Hansard in that regard, because, sadly, those comments might apply to him as they do to others in the Committee.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I assure the hon. Gentleman that my only motivation in tabling the amendment was to give the Assembly, the devolved body in Northern Ireland, the final say in respect of part 4, which is the only aspect that relates specifically to Northern Ireland—it is the aspect dealing with devolved matters. There is a range of views in the Assembly. I do not have a monopoly on those views and, in that sense, although I accept the principle that generally Northern Ireland should be legislated for in the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom for as long as there is not a fully functioning devolved Assembly, on this issue I make an exception.

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

We are hearing from the hon. Gentleman what I would call pick-and-mix Unionism. He wants to have his cake and eat it. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) was rather harsh on him when he said that his argument was inconsistent with his Unionism, but clearly he wants to pick and mix those occasions when the Union is important.

If the Assembly were up and running, I would be prepared to entertain the arguments that the hon. Member for Lagan Valley brings before the Committee. In fact, in that case, we would not be discussing devolved matters unless it had been decided by the Assembly—presumably—that they were to be discussed in this place, in much the same way as the

Scottish Parliament discussed the issue in relation to the Sewel motion that brought the Scottish provisions to the Floor of the House here. However, we do not have a functioning Assembly and, at the moment, there is not even a prospect of having one. If there were some date even tentatively set for the commencement of a functioning Assembly, I might have some sympathy for the hon. Gentleman's amendments, but there is not, so I do not.

I see this simply as a wrecking amendment in relation to Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman questions the relevance of the measure to Northern Ireland. Those are his exact words. Well, I have to say—and I have had the privilege during the past two years of spending considerable time in Northern Ireland—that I consider equality of opportunity and of outcome to be as relevant to people in same-sex relationships in Northern Ireland as to those in this part of the country.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Opposition Whip (Commons)

I rise briefly to put to the hon. Gentleman the point that I put to the Minister earlier. Given that the Assembly is currently suspended, does he think that when it is reconvened—as we all hope that it soon will be—it should have the opportunity to revisit this matter?

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

The Assembly will have the opportunity to revisit those sections of the Bill in respect of which it has legislative competence. Just because the Bill is passed here does not mean that it cannot be meddled with later by the legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland, any more than that would mean that the Scottish Parliament were somehow prohibited from dealing with it.

The final point that the hon. Member for Lagan Valley made, as an evangelical Christian—I am never quite sure what a non-evangelical Christian is, but he clearly feels it necessary to differentiate himself from other Christians in that way—was that the main Churches were opposed to the measure. If that is the case, I profoundly regret it because as a Christian myself, I think that supporting the Bill is not only compatible with my Christianity but my Christian duty. It is about offering to people in same-sex relationships the same opportunities that others have, and I do not believe that discrimination is something that is in any way Christian.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way on that point, and I am grateful to you, Mr. Cook, for your indulgence on the scope of this particular debate. I shall test your patience a little further, because I think that it is worth making the point that a number of us, including I, accept that there are injustices and inequalities, recognise that those need to be dealt with and want to see them dealt with, piecemeal or case by case. However, the fact is that a legal structure is being set up that sits uneasily with many Christians throughout the country. It is quite possible as a Christian to want to remedy individual injustices—I would put myself firmly in that camp—but it is the means by which that is being done that is causing some unease among many people of faith.

Mr. Carmichael: I am sorry, but that makes even less sense. If it is necessary to have a legal framework in order to cure a system of injustices, then we should have a legal framework. I cannot think of anything in Church doctrine or teaching that tells us that it is wrong to create legal frameworks to cure injustices.

Finally, the Rainbow project has made a valid point, which I want to put on the record, about homophobic hate crimes in Northern Ireland. Those have significantly increased in the past few years, and even doubled in 2003. The one thought on Northern Ireland that I want to leave with the Committee is what signal it sends to the wider community and to gay and lesbian people in Northern Ireland if we say that it is important to make provision for equality in Great Britain, but not in Northern Ireland.

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

The quality of this debate shows how important it was that we used our discretion to enable it to take place, notwithstanding the guillotine. I hope that we will have the opportunity to put the amendment to a vote before the guillotine comes down at 5 pm.

Looking at the Library research on this matter, I was much impressed by the fact that in Northern Ireland more than 50 per cent. of people are married, compared with about 40 per cent. in England and Wales. The incidence of marriage is already some 25 per cent. higher in Northern Ireland than in England and Wales. I should have thought that we who represent constituencies outside Northern Ireland should be considering what we could do to try to emulate the sustainable, lasting relationships of Northern Ireland.

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

I think that it is a matter of pride. The people of Northern Ireland have many things about which they should be proud, including their education system with its grammar schools and their ability to stick together in marriage. The corollary of what I have just said is that only about half the number of people in Northern Ireland are in cohabitation relationships as are in such relationships in England and Wales. Obviously, a very small proportion of those who are cohabiting in Northern Ireland are doing so in a same-sex relationship.

We are not comparing like with like, but talking about a distinct part of the United Kingdom, which, according to the results of the 2001 census, is demonstrated to have a different pattern of behaviour compared with what prevails in the rest of the UK.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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

No, I shall not, as we must get to the end of the debate as quickly as possible so we can have a vote.

At the heart of the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley is the issue of government by consent. We cannot run the government of the United Kingdom unless we have some consent—a debate that is going on in the other place as well today. There is clearly no majority in

favour of the provisions among the people of Northern Ireland, the elected representatives from Northern Ireland in this place or the Members of the suspended Northern Ireland Assembly. I do not think that it is appropriate that Members of this House should impose their will on the people of Northern Ireland when it is obvious that they do not wish to have it imposed upon them.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I have always liked the hon. Member for Lagan Valley. I have always admired his integrity and persistence in campaigning for his principles. Nothing has changed in that respect; I remain of that view and I shall continue to admire him, but I think that he is completely wrong on this issue.

At the outset, I have to say that I am not all that surprised that a Member of a Unionist party—and I do not say this slightingly—should argue for such a position, because it seems to me, as was pithily encapsulated in the phrase used by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, that all too often the Unionists want pick-and-mix Unionism. They want it when it suits them and not when it does not. I would also make the point in passing that it certainly would not surprise me to hear the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) arguing such a case. I make that point for the simple reason that I have never been remotely convinced that he is a Unionist at all. I have always subscribed to the view that what he really wants is an independent Northern Ireland of which he is head.

In response to the hon. Member for Lagan Valley, who argued his case with sincerity and no little passion, I would say that when it comes to human rights, one cannot have an opt-out. This is a matter not of devolution, but of the application of a common standard of humanity that reflects the belief that people should be treated equally, notwithstanding their different sexual orientation. I simply do not accept the devolution get-out clause, although I am prepared to accept that the hon. Gentleman is sincere in his intention.

Secondly, I entirely agree with what was said by the hon. Member for Rhondda on the subject of numbers. If one believes that this is a human rights issue, as I do, numbers are irrelevant. Notwithstanding my liking for the hon. Member for Lagan Valley, I did think it was a case of checkmate, or double bezique, when the hon. Member for Rhondda made the simple—all the best points are simple—but valid point that either way, the argument of the hon. Member for Lagan Valley is defeated. Either there is a huge thirst for civil partnership in Northern Ireland, in which case the attempt to prevent it is unjustified on democratic grounds, or alternatively, very few people will seek to take advantage of it, in which case the hon. Gentleman is making an unholy fuss about not very much. I do not know which way he wants it.

Throughout consideration of this issue, I have never accepted the argument—indeed, I made this point on Second Reading—that we are engaged in a zero-sum game on the subject. If it were a zero-sum game, it would follow that any benefit to one individual or

group must necessarily entail a disbenefit to another individual or group. It seems to me that that is mistaken. The numbers argument does not wash.

Thirdly, on the subject of religion, I confess that I do not have strong religious convictions. I am from a partly Jewish background. I have always strongly asserted a Jewish identity and a commitment to the state of Israel, but I suspect that I am not one of the more religious people on this Committee. People are entitled to their views and religious convictions in all their intensity, but that should not be the guiding criterion to determine what this House does by way of legislation.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is a profoundly un-British phenomenon so to wear one's religion on one's sleeve as to think that one should prescribe for other people. The Prime Minister has often been criticised for holding a personal view on the subject of abortion, but not voting for it in the Division Lobby. Although I criticise the Prime Minister for many things, I have always thought that that position is an eminently defensible one. He has a view about abortion personally, but he does not seek to impose it on others by the way in which he votes in the House of Commons.

This is, in essence, a matter of fairness and equity and of the challenge to counteract prejudice—a point referred to by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. I do not dispute that the hon. Member for Lagan Valley is not motivated by hatred. He is motivated by a very intense religious conviction and by a belief, if he is honest about it, that homosexuality is, at least in Christian terms, wrong. I do not think that he is motivated by hatred, but many people who would take advantage of the get-out clause in Northern Ireland would indeed be motivated by far more unsavoury considerations and impulses than would ever propel him.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is reflecting a view that has been put to him by his constituents, and I do not knock him for that. I hope that it is possible honourably to differ without malice or imputing wrong motives to one's colleagues, but I believe that his amendment is deeply flawed and that it should be rejected by the Committee.

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

In the few remaining minutes, I should like to echo what I believe is the view of the Committee. This should be a nationwide Bill, and there should not be left in the United Kingdom a pocket of potential discrimination that leaves the legislation like a car missing a wheel. It should be uniformly applied, so that we can remove the absurdity of not being able to have a unified taxation system and people having to leave Belfast to come to England to exercise their rights.

Perhaps I can echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham has said. The point he has hit upon embraces all the arguments that govern the entire view that anyone might have of this Bill. It is to do with the link between God and politics. The amendment is motivated by the belief that Northern Ireland has a higher level of religious observance and

therefore should be free to impose its views on Northern Ireland distinctly from the rest of the United Kingdom.

I commend to the hon. Member for Lagan Valley three pamphlets written consecutively in the early 1970s—''Law, Liberty and Morality'', by H.L.A Hart, Devlin, who became a Law Lord, and a priest called Mitchell. They try to wrestle with the extent to which any politician should impose some kind of uniform moral view through the exercise of law in a country. When I read those pamphlets as a teenager, I concluded that we should not do so, largely because it will not work, but also because one should not.

Religion is about choosing to live one's life as one chooses, not about imposing that model on others through the power that we have as Members of Parliament. In my view, that fundamentally should govern how we as parliamentarians approach the application of this law throughout the United Kingdom.

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

This has been a very good debate. I intend to leave sufficient time for the will of the Committee to be tested on the amendment, but the Government strongly believe that the principles of social justice and fairness should apply to the treatment of same-sex couples in Northern Ireland, as they do to same-sex couples in the rest of the United Kingdom. Any delay or postponement of the commencement of civil partnerships in Northern Ireland would undermine those principles. That argument has been made very strongly by several hon. Members.

Of course, the continuing suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly is unfortunate. The Government continue to work with the parties in Northern Ireland to reach an agreement that will lead to the restoration of the Assembly, but in the meantime, the good governance of Northern Ireland must continue. The people of Northern Ireland expect that, and they are entitled to it during the period of suspension. While the Assembly remains suspended, legislation concerning Northern Ireland must be made by this Parliament. We have heard no convincing reasons why commencement of the legislation should be delayed.

In fact, what we have begun to identify in this debate is, I suspect, the real reasons behind the approach of the amendment with regard to delaying the commencement of the legislation. As other hon. Members pointed out, there has not been any other legislation on which the hon. Member for Lagan Valley or his colleagues have argued for a delay in commencement. That can only lead us to the conclusion that the argument is not about devolution or the sovereignty of the Northern Ireland Assembly, but about opposition to the Bill. As other hon. Members suggested, it behoves us to be clear about what our motivation is. In this debate, I am not sure that that has been clear.

The hon. Member for Lagan Valley suggested that there is no support for the legislation in Northern

Ireland. It is worth while to remind him that the majority of organisations in Northern Ireland that responded to the consultation—they include the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions—supported the Government's policy that civil partnership registration should be introduced to Northern Ireland at the same time that it is introduced to the rest of the United Kingdom. The SDLP, the Women's Coalition, the Alliance party, the Green party, the Progressive Unionist party and Sinn Fein all support the inclusion of Northern Ireland in the Bill. So there is cross-community support for the provisions.

I can go further still. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland identified this morning, since the introduction of the Bill at the end of March, the Government have received more than 400 letters from gay and lesbian people in Northern Ireland and their families and friends supporting the establishment of civil partnership.

On the point that the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) raised, of course the Assembly will, once it is restored, be able to revisit these issues and legislate on them within the remit of transferred matters. The benefit of having a specific Northern Ireland consultation is that it enables people in Northern Ireland to raise any additional Northern Ireland-specific issues that have not previously been addressed.

I support many of the arguments made by my hon. Friends and by Opposition Members as to why we should oppose the amendment. The principles are such that they should apply across the United Kingdom. There is no good reason why some couples should remain in an uncertain position while other same-sex couples in the rest of the UK can benefit. Whether in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh or London, lesbian and gay people must be able to benefit from the Bill at the same time as couples elsewhere. We strongly oppose the amendment, and I hope that the hon. Member for Lagan Valley will feel able to seek to withdraw it.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 3, Noes 12.

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendments made: No. 97, in clause 253, page 125, line 10, after 'sections' insert

'(Immigration control and formation of civil partnerships),'.

No. 98, in clause 253, page 125, line 10, after 'Schedules' insert

'(Immigration control and formation of civil partnerships),'.

No. 120, in clause 253, page 125, line 11, at end insert—

'( ) section (Gender recognition where applicant a civil partner) comes into force in accordance with provision made by order by the Secretary of State, after consulting the Scottish Ministers and the Department of Finance and Personnel,'.

No. 121, in clause 253, page 125, line 12, leave out from beginning to 'and' in line 15 and insert—

'(b) section 242 comes into force in accordance with provision made by the Department of Finance and Personnel, after consulting the Secretary of State,

(c) subject to paragraph (d), section 244(1) and Schedule 24 come into force in accordance with provision made by order by the Secretary of State,

(d) the provisions of Schedule 24 listed in subsection (7A), and section 244(1) so far as relating to those provisions, come into force in accordance with provision made by the Department of Finance and Personnel, after consulting the Secretary of State, and

(e) sections 244(2) to (6)'.

No. 122, in clause 253, page 125, line 16, at end insert—

'(7A) The provisions are—

(a) Part 2;

(b) in Part 5, paragraphs 62 to 80, 81, 83 to 92 and 95 to 97;

(c) Part 6;

(d) Parts 9 and 10;

(e) Part 13.'.

No. 123, in clause 253, page 125, line 21, after 'Parliament' insert

'or any provision which extends to Northern Ireland only'.

No. 124, in clause 253, page 125, line 23, leave out 'and'.

No. 125, in clause 253, page 125, line 27, at end insert

', and

( ) section 251(2A) and Schedule (Minor and consequential amendments: Northern Ireland) and, so far as relating to any provision which extends to Northern Ireland only, section 251(3) and Schedule 29 come into force in accordance with provision made by order by the Department of Finance and Personnel, after consulting the Secretary of State.'.—[Jacqui Smith.]

It being Five o'clock, The Chairman proceeded, pursuant to Sessional Order D [6 November 2003] and the Order of the Committee [19 October], as amended [21 October], to put forthwith the Questions necessary to dispose of the business to be concluded at that time.

Motion made, and Question put, that Clause 253, as amended, stand part of the Bill:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 12, Noes 3.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 253, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.