Thank you for agreeing to come in a bit early; we are going to be very kind and let you go at 8.55 am so that you can hasten away to what I am sure will be an important Cabinet meeting.
Before we ask a series of questions, I understand you might want to make a few opening comments, but would you first introduce yourselves for the record.
Maria Miller: That is very kind.
I would briefly like to remind the Committee of some of what I said on Second Reading. Marriage is a good thing, and what we are proposing in the Bill is extending marriage to more people. It is apposite that we are discussing this in the week of Valentine’s day. The Bill is about fairness and making sure that those who want to get married have the opportunity to do so, but also about protecting the rights of those who do not agree with same-sex marriage. A great deal of the Bill sets out the protections that we believe are important for that belief.
All religious organisations—Jewish, Muslim, Christian or any other—will be able to decide for themselves if they want to conduct same-sex marriages. The Church of England and the Church in Wales, which have a particularly unique position in our country because of the legal duty on their clergy to marry parishioners, have specific provisions. That is not to set them out as different, but to make sure that we can effect the same end result, which is that they enjoy the protections that other religious institutions have, as set out in the Bill.
As I have said, the Bill is about fairness and giving more people the opportunity to get married. It is very straightforward and I hope that we can have a constructive discussion on it this morning.
Thank you very much.
Before I call the first Member to ask a question, I remind all Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill and that we must stick strictly to the timings in the programme order that the Committee has agreed. I hope I will not have to interrupt Members mid-sentence, but will not hesitate to do so if need be.
A happy Shrove Tuesday—pancakes for all.
I think that the Bill is slightly more complicated than it needs to be, but perhaps that is because of the anxieties to which the Secretary of State just referred. Will she explain why she has not consulted on extending civil partnerships to heterosexual couples? I do not mean brothers and sisters and everybody else, but just heterosexual couples.
Maria Miller: That was something that was covered in the consultation. We obviously paid great attention to the results, because there was an indication that there was support for such an extension, although I have to say that I think that the way in which the question was phrased in the consultation may have been somewhat complex. I take a very straightforward view on this matter, which is to ask whether there is a need to extend civil partnerships to heterosexual couples. There is clearly already an opportunity for heterosexual couples to enjoy civil marriage, or indeed marriage through a religious ceremony, which afford all the benefits that a civil partnership would afford. Based on that, we do not believe that there is a need to extend civil partnerships to heterosexual couples.
Over and above that, we believe that the Bill is all about extending marriage. That is what we believe is the gold standard and the thing to which people aspire. That is why we want ensure that we focus the Bill on that particular issue.
That makes me feel as if my civil partnership is not the gold standard, and I gently suggest that the Secretary of State might want to rethink the way she talks about that matter.
Getting down to the nitty-gritty, the Government have included a small provision in relation to adultery. Will the Secretary of State explain why they have put anything about that in the Bill at all, as previously statute law has not referred to adultery? Is she happy with the bizarre anomaly whereby a gay man cannot commit adultery with another man, but can with a woman?
Maria Miller: Just referring back to my previous comment, if we were content with the current situation, we would not be extending marriage. By definition, we believe that it is important to extend marriage to more people, which is why the Bill is in front of us, and I would not want to cause any offence to the hon. Gentleman, but ultimately that is the reason why we are doing this. We are not content with the current situation, and we believe that there should be equality and that everybody should have the ability to access marriage, which is an internationally recognised status.
To move on to the point that the hon. Gentleman raised about adultery and the way in which it is treated in the Bill, the approach that we have taken is to recognise that whether we are referring to adultery or to consummation, those things are recognised within the law. Adultery relates to heterosexual couples and will continue to relate to the relationship between heterosexual couples. It is a relevant consideration in divorce, as if people want to divorce, they can cite adultery as a reason for doing so. We have no intention of changing that provision. For same-sex couples who face difficulties in their relationship and wish to consider divorce, the provision on unreasonable behaviour is available—in fact, many couples already use that as grounds to effect a divorce. Therefore that provision will be available to same-sex couples as a clear avenue that they can take if they wish to dissolve their relationship. That is a practical way of dealing with this issue, and leaving adultery as it is defined in law and unchanged is an effective way of dealing with this, given that we have provisions around unreasonable behaviour for same-sex couples to access.
How many people cite adultery for divorce now? You may not be able to provide the precise numbers, but the numbers and the proportion would be helpful for the Committee.
Maria Miller: As my hon. Friend will know, there is no one definition or meaning of marriage. Already we have a situation in which the state defines marriage more broadly than religious institutions do, and that is basically a result of the fact that some religious organisations do not have a wish to recognise divorce, so there are already differences. I see marriage very simply as an ability for two people to come together and stay together, and to pledge their commitment to stay together for life. It is that strength of commitment that we as a society thrive on, and that is why I support so strongly the idea of extending marriage to all people.
Maria Miller: In this Bill, we are extending marriage to more people. Marriage will mean different things to different people. It will mean different things if one is getting married in a religious institution or if one is getting married through a civil registry office. That is the premise on which we have put forward this Bill.
I am not one to read the Daily Mail too much, but it made reference to e-mails going between the Equalities Office and the Department for Education that talked about to the implications of same-sex marriage on schools’ legal responsibility to teach marriage. Apparently an e-mail from the Equalities Office warned of the possibility of walking into a minefield on this. How have both Departments considered the impact on schools in relation to the Bill?
Michael Gove: As you would expect, both Departments have looked carefully at the impact, not just on schools, but on public services and their provision overall. I have had the opportunity to talk at length with the Department’s superb legal team and we have sought external legal advice as well. We have also been helped by the public debate, to which a number of eminent lawyers—not least David Pannick, Lord Lester and Baroness Helena Kennedy—have contributed.
Michael Gove: I have not read that advice, but it is perfectly clear that there will be no requirement on any teacher to promote a view or doctrine with which they feel any discomfort. At the moment, any teacher is required—for example, in sex and relationship education —to refer to concepts such as adultery and to deal with facts such as divorce or abortion. It may well be that if a teacher—whether they are Roman Catholic or strongly of another faith, or of no faith but with clear moral convictions—is invited by a student to express their view, they might express their disapproval of the termination of an unborn child, for example, or the premature termination of a marriage. However, no teacher can ignore the fact that divorce is provided for in the law of the land or that abortion is a key reproductive right that women can deploy. There is a key difference between denying a fact and a law of the land—if the Bill passes, equal marriage will be a fact and a law of the land—and requiring someone to promote it. It is on that distinction that the liberty of conscience of teachers—and, indeed, of anyone in public service—rests.
Maria Miller, given that a lot of my heterosexual friends seem to think that concepts of consummation and adultery are themselves rather antiquated, did you consider modernising the general marriage law in this Bill, given the problems over such issues that you may well encounter as it passes through Parliament?
Maria Miller: No. We looked very closely at the relevance of those two concepts to extending marriage, but I did not really feel that it was appropriate to get into reforming those particular concepts as part of the scope of the Bill. This is obviously an issue that generates a great deal of strong feeling on both sides, and trying to keep it very much focused on extending marriage was our objective from the start.
The Culture Secretary just said that she thought that the definition of a marriage was the ability of two people to come together and commit together for life. Why is that not already catered for under civil partnerships? She said that the Government were not content with the current situation. At what stage did they become discontent, and why?
Maria Miller: My hon. Friend will know that “A Contract for Equalities”, which was published at the time of the general election in May 2010, indicated very clearly that we would look at this area with a view to considering whether there was need for reform, so I think that that showed very early on—indeed, prior to the formation of the coalition Government—that there was an intention to consider this very closely. My predecessor, the Home Secretary, did a great deal of subsequent work such as talking to religious organisations and also undertaking the largest public consultation that any Government have ever undertaken. That consultation was announced just over a year ago and continued through 2012. I think that we took a great deal of time to ensure that people were aware of the Government’s position and then to ask their thoughts on how that might be implemented. Since the beginning of the coalition Government, there has been clarity about our lack of contentedness in this area.
I think that the first part of your question was about strengthening marriage—that is what I have written down, Mr Loughton.
It was about your definition of marriage as the ability of two people to come together and commit together in public for life. Why can they not do that already under civil partnerships and, going back to the first question, at what stage did that change? Just mentioning “A Contract for Equalities,” which apparently came out three days before the election and of which I think most Conservative MPs were blissfully unaware, let alone the public at large, does not answer the question of at what stage and why the present Government have become discontent with the nature of marriage. I want to know what happened between this Government and the previous Government—in 2004, they were saying that civil partnerships absolutely achieved what we all agreed we needed to achieve, but then something apparently happened three days before the election, and more recently, for this legislation to be introduced. Under your definition of marriage, there was no need for it.
Maria Miller: I am not sure it is for me to answer for the decisions made by the previous Government on civil partnerships. I have already set out quite clearly that it was always the intention of the Conservative party to consider this. I can certainly remember sitting down and reading “A Contract for Equalities” very closely. Over the past two and a half years, there has been great clarity about how the Government wanted to move forward on this issue. With the Bill now in front of us, that is coming to fruition. It does not feel like a process that has lacked transparency when more than 250,000 people have participated in it, so I hope that I can reassure Mr Loughton on that.
On whether civil partnership offers the same things as marriage, I think that it is important as a society that we recognise the importance of dealing with people equally. Marriage at the moment is open only to some, not all, couples. As a Government and as a society, we want to treat people fairly. Giving same-sex couples access to marriage as well as civil partnership is a question of fairness. I do not personally believe that we should be nurturing a two-track approach. It is important that we have a strong institution called marriage and we should be strengthening that.
Just for the sake of completeness, Mr Streeter—I know this issue was considered on Second Reading—we looked closely at whether we should continue the availability of civil partnerships for same-sex couples. We came to the conclusion that we should do so for a very important reason: there might be same-sex couples who, for religious reasons, decide that marriage is not something that they wish to opt into. That view was expressed on Second Reading. It would be wrong to deny such individuals the ability to formalise their relationship through a civil partnership. That is the logical reason why we decided to leave it in place, but we will continue to look at that as we move forward.
I am not entirely sure that that answers my question about what happened three days before the election and now. However, on the question of fairness, which you have come back to several times as a justification for the legislation, how is it fair that a same-sex couple who happen to be Anglicans and church attenders, who have been in a stable relationship for many years and might have had a civil partnership, will not be able to get married in a church?
Maria Miller: With respect, it is not what we are trying to do. We are trying to give religious institutions the option to follow their beliefs and their conscience on these issues. We know that there are religious institutions—the Unitarians, Quakers and others—that wish to opt into being able to conduct same-sex marriage. They see it as a way of strengthening and taking their faith out to a broader community. I think that is an interesting view and it is something that I applaud.
Equally, there are Churches that do not wish to take that approach. In the Bill, we have given such organisations the ability to opt in if they wish to, but not if they do not wish to. That is an important point for the Committee to understand. There is no bar on any organisation being able to opt into undertaking same-sex marriage. It is down to the organisation itself.
My first question is for the Secretary of State for Education. I want to pursue a little more the protections for teachers, because a lot of public anxiety has been expressed. My understanding is that teachers are required to teach about the nature and importance of marriage. I think that that is the Education Act provision. If they are teaching about the nature and importance of marriage, and this Bill is passed and becomes an Act, as I hope that it will, implicitly they will have to acknowledge that same-sex marriage is valid, whether that is contrary to their religious beliefs or not. What protection is there for a teacher—as described by the Secretary of State a moment ago—who says, “I will teach you that this is very important, but I do not believe it”?
Michael Gove: First, the language that you refer to exists in the statutory guidance that was issued in 2000 when David Blunkett was Secretary of State for Education. That statutory guidance has not changed, and I see no reason to change it. There is a difference between acknowledging the importance, both historic and current, of an institution such as marriage, and acknowledging how it has changed over time and brought within its ambit different people in different ways, and then inviting someone to endorse a moral view that they do not share. I think all teachers understand the difference between teaching facts, introducing students to knowledge and at the same time expressing an opinion.
We would not expect teachers in any area to express strong or polemical opinions. In fact, there is legislation to ensure that overall when teachers are presenting anything that is political, they must ensure that children have access to a balanced view on the matter. But any teacher, if asked direct or invited to share his view by a parent or a student, is perfectly at liberty to say, with equal marriage—as with adultery, divorce or abortion—what their own moral view might be.
I am concerned that while a school may have a policy and a teacher may be required to follow it, there is no Ofsted inspection of PHSE, so we will not know, or be able to validate, the way in which schools approach this. Is there any concern in the Department about what teachers may be doing and saying in schools and how we can know what is going on?
Michael Gove: I suppose there could be two concerns on either side of the spectrum. There could be a concern from people who, because of strong religious faith, fear that children are taught things about sex and relationships that they may consider too permissive, for want of a better word; indeed, there is then the opposite concern that some people may think that a particularly traditional teacher may present a moral world view that is at odds with the view that they hold as parents.
Parents have several protections. The first protection is that there is an absolute right on the part of any parent to withdraw their children from sex and relationships education; the only exception to that is the national curriculum content in biology which refers, basically, to the birds and the bees—the mechanics of reproduction. If any parent had the slightest concern, they could withdraw their child. Of course, it is the case that, prior to that, there is an expectation that any parent would raise any concerns that they had with a teacher or head teacher.
As well as those protections, and the article 9 protection which exists for any teacher to safeguard their freedom of thought and conscience, there is another thing that is important to bear in mind: common sense. We expect teachers—particularly, but not exclusively, in secondary schools—to navigate their way through all manner of potentially contentious areas; whether that is citizenship or history, parts of personal, social, health and economic education or SRE, there are all sorts of tough questions that young minds face as they grow up and part of the approach that we take is to respect the professionalism of teachers and to respect the way in which head teachers operate. By definition, there is no way that we can turn our schools into Orwellian institutions in which a central inspector can be aware of every word that is uttered by every teacher at every time, but it seems to me to be curious to imagine that on this issue, as distinct from any others, teachers will somehow collectively take leave of their senses and obligations to young minds and seek to turn themselves into either latter-day Torquemadas or anything else.
Obviously lots of people wrote to us about provision of services and that area. Secretary of State, could you talk a little about how those people who perhaps hold strong Catholic views, such as the hotelier and the famous bed and breakfast owner, would be impacted by this and your expectations of them under current legislation?
Maria Miller: Obviously, the Bill deals particularly with marriage and extending that, in a civil sense, to more people. It does not impact directly on those people who provide services such as those that Ms Ellison suggests. Clearly, as we all know, that is something that has been raised as a spectre, particularly for those who might be offering marriage ceremonies within their premises. I know that one particular example was cited where someone with a strong religious faith who runs a hotel and may be offering civil marriages within their premises would be concerned about the impact of this. I would draw the Committee’s attention to the fact that, actually, those individuals already have an obligation to offer civil partnerships—it is part of their licence—and they would already be in breach of their duties if they were to refuse same-sex civil partnerships, so those individuals have probably had to take the decision on whether they are happy to undertake same-sex civil partnerships on their premises already. The most telling thing is that I am not aware that there have been any problems in the area or that there have been any breaches of duties in that respect. Although I understand entirely this particularly theoretical concern, I think it is that—a theoretical concern. In practice, it does not seem to be creating the problems that people might be worried about.
Maria Miller: You are absolutely right to raise the issue of people with strong religious beliefs, whether it is providing services or in the public sector. They have a clear ability to demonstrate their faith at work. Some of the recent rulings from the European Court of Human Rights affirm the Prime Minister’s strongly held belief that people should be able to wear a cross at work as long as there are no health and safety reasons why they would not do that. People should be able to profess their faith in an appropriate way in a work setting.
However, there is always a reality that we have to do that in a way that does not discriminate against other people. The right to assert one’s belief cannot be at the cost of another individual being provided with services. That perhaps returns to the bed and breakfast case and, most recently, to the case of civil registrars having to balance very carefully their religious beliefs with their public duty to provide civil partnerships for individuals of the same sex. I think the Court’s rulings have shown that we have the right balance at the moment. That was a good thing to see coming out of the Court recently.
Just a quick question for Mr Gove. There is still a considerable level of homophobic bullying in schools throughout the UK. You have described the difficult balancing act that teachers have to strike. Would you expect them, whatever their views of same-sex marriage, to offer appropriate support to any child who was suffering homophobic bullying?
Michael Gove: Absolutely. It is striking that some of the schools that are best in dealing with bullying of all kinds, including homophobic bullying, include faith schools. The evidence is that, in the playground, there are new ways in which bullying is directed towards students, and homophobic bullying is a feature of that. It is a growing problem in some playgrounds.
Some of the evidence to the consultation urged the Government to take this opportunity to equalise pension provision for same-sex marriage couples, civil partners and widowers with benefits currently enjoyed by widows. Why have the Government not taken this opportunity to do that?
Maria Miller: As the Committee will know, we have done a great deal to try to equalise pension provision in this country. In the vast of majority of cases, men, women, civil partners and same-sex married partners are treated equally.
There are issues regarding the state pension, particularly for individuals who are over 63. Equalising the anomaly that particularly affects that group of people would cost around £80 million. Particularly given the difficult economic times we are in, we did not feel that that would provide enough benefit for the amount of money that was being paid out. We would be paying disproportionately, and potentially not always hitting the right target.
Thank you for that figure. I have a supplementary question. What work have the Government done to look at the impact on occupational pensions and the benefits enjoyed by people from those?
Maria Miller: Again, we have looked at the matter in some detail. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the issue is reasonably complex. For occupational pensions, same-sex married couples will be treated the same as civil partners. The right to pension benefits for their survivors will be based on rights accrued since 2005, when the Civil Partnership Act came into force. That was something which, as hon. Members present who were on that Bill Committee will remember, was a particular point of debate at that time. The important thing to say here—I think this is really interesting—is that the majority of occupational schemes actually exceed the minimum requirement at the moment, and I think that is something to be applauded. I hope the Committee will urge more occupational pension schemes to take this approach, so that civil partnership pension rights are actually more than they are required to be by law. I think that shows good will by those organisations, and we should urge them to do even more.
This is a question for Maria Miller. It returns to the position of the Church of England and the Church in Wales about the duty to marry parishioners who wish to get married, either in their local parish church or in a nearby parish church. Why did you not consider removing this obstacle from the other end, so to speak, by removing that common-law right of people to marry in a parish church if they wish to?
Maria Miller: Because we did not feel that it was necessary to do that. We could effect the end that we wanted, which is to give organisations like the Church of England the choice whether to opt in or not, simply by not extending that common-law duty. I think that is a more positive way of achieving the same end.
Would not removing that common-law duty actually remove the major problem with this Bill, as seen by a lot of religious organisations? They feel that they need protection under the Bill, but the only reason they need protection is because of that common-law expectation in the first place.
If I were a Church of England priest and I had a gay or lesbian couple in my congregation, under this legislation I would not be allowed to marry them in my church. Would I be allowed to officiate at a ceremony at a Quaker meeting house, or one of the other churches that will offer marriage?
Maria Miller: This is very much something you would perhaps want to talk to the Church of England about. I have considered that very carefully, and my interpretation of their rules—and it is my interpretation—would be that for a priest within the Church of England to officiate at a ceremony at another church in their official capacity might well put them in breach of their obligations to the Church of England. As I say, that is something about which you may want to question the Church of England further. Each religious institution in this country has its own different ways of dealing with marriage. In the Church of England a vicar is able to practise within that Church, and also within the premises of that Church. If they are given a dispensation to go into a Quaker church to practise, our interpretation would be that that would potentially be in breach of the Church of England’s regulations.
Let us move forward a year to the celebration of LGBT History Month. There is a teacher who quite rightly would stick to the law and say that same-sex marriage exists, but wants to put forward her view that she does not in good conscience believe that it is equivalent to traditional marriage. Will she be fully protected in asserting that view? As LGBT History Month will go across the curriculum and teach children about the value of same-sex marriage, will parents have the opportunity to withdraw their children, not just from sex education, but also from other classes?
The first thing is that again the article 9 rights of any individual are not affected by this legislation. Any individual has perfect liberty of conscience and freedom of expression. The question would arise if any teacher on any subject chose to go beyond the bounds of what we would consider to be reasonable behaviour for that teacher. If a teacher in the course of history or any other subject were to advance a view that was unbalanced, and which might lead any member of the class to think that they were subject to inappropriate teaching or any parent to think that they were subject to inappropriate teaching, of course there would be an opportunity for that parent or that individual to raise the issue with the teacher or the school. However, I have to say that I cannot see what the concern is here. By definition, if you express a view on any issue reasonably and explain what your position is, there is no problem. If you express an unreasonable view on any issue or abuse the opportunity to be in charge of young minds, that could become a question for the school leader. The desire to suggest that the Bill changes the position of teachers perplexes me.
Secretary of State for Culture, I want to ask about anomalies. We will end up with a lot of anomalies if the Bill is enacted exactly as drafted. An issue that we came close to just now is that a religious same-sex couple can have religious symbols at the hotel where their civil partnership is celebrated, but a heterosexual couple getting married using exactly the same venue and the same registrar will not be allowed to use religious symbols. For that matter, a same-sex marriage will not be allowed to use religious symbols. Are we not in danger of creating an awful lot of anomalies?
Maria Miller: I do not believe so. We are simply saying that individuals, institutions and religious organisations are able to choose whether to opt into the measure. We are saying that people who currently offer marriage and civil partnerships on their premises should be able to extend that to same-sex marriages. I do not believe we are making it as complicated as the hon. Gentleman suggests. Perhaps he can explain his point further so I can give a fuller answer.
Michael Gove: Very briefly, when you deal with religions, which by definition are collective expressions of belief, there are anomalies. It is the case that the Roman Catholic Church would not allow either of us to take part in mass, but the Church of England allows members of other Churches to take communion.
Let me ask one quick question to each witness. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport said on Second Reading that she intends to see Northern Ireland brought into the remit of the Bill. How does she intend to do that, given the current situation with devolution and the recent vote in Northern Ireland?
Maria Miller: We will achieve it in the same way that we do with other devolved issues. We will seek a legislative consent motion. I have already been in communication with the Northern Ireland Government to seek such a motion, in the knowledge that they do not seek to extend marriage in the way that we are doing in England and Wales—I believe that Scotland intends to extend it as well.
I would like to return to the pensions issue. I was contacted by a trans couple who are pleased that the Bill will allow them to remain married—they are married currently—after one member of the couple changes their gender. However, after making that transition and becoming a same-sex married couple, one partner will lose their pension rights. Has consideration been given to that anomaly? Is the decision that that couple faces not rather unfair?
Maria Miller: As with all pensions issues, we look to be as fair as possible, but this is a particularly difficult area. If we make an exception for private and occupational pension schemes when a person changes their legal gender, we place additional regulatory and administrative burdens on pension schemes. We would require schemes to ask survivors intrusive questions to establish the gender history of the deceased and therefore be able to evaluate what the appropriate survivor benefits were. It is a very difficult and complex area that we have looked at in some detail. We have decided that it is best to avoid over-regulation and allow schemes to be flexible in the way that they provide these benefits. Some schemes can and do provide more than the minimum, as I have said before.
We are making an exception in this area for state pensions, because otherwise a married woman’s pension payment could be reduced when her marriage becomes same-sex. This could happen if a spouse was born before April 1950. That is the particular area. We have tried to put in place an approach which will give as much equity as it can, but clearly I am very interested to hear in the discussions of this Committee whether you feel that further improvements can be made. We have tried to work within the existing framework as much as we are able to, but clearly Ministers will be interested to hear any further thoughts in that area.
The Education Secretary keeps referring to inappropriate teaching being a trigger for action being taken against a teacher who had a problem teaching about same-sex marriage. Recent cases in the ECHR referred to a registrar and a Relate counsellor who felt it would be inappropriate and that they would be unable to carry on in that work. That was not upheld and they were effectively sacked. If a teacher in a Catholic school, for example, said that he or she was unable to take an RE lesson—because you do not have to be an RE teacher—or a sex and relationship education lesson unless he or she could refer to same-sex marriage as, for example, a “pretend marriage”, would that be inappropriate teaching? What would be the repercussions?
As a recent survey has shown, there are many teachers who hold to the view that they did not agree with same-sex marriage. If a teacher was perfectly happy to teach religious education or sexual relationship education, but would not be able to include teaching about same-sex marriage without explaining his or her view—the conscience that you have referred to—that it was not a real marriage, a pretend marriage for example, on that basis would she or he be allowed to take that lesson or not?