Schedule 6 - Marriage overseas

Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:53 pm on 7 March 2013.

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Question proposed, That the schedule be the Sixth schedule to the Bill.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

Before we zoom further down the amendment paper, I wish to ask some questions about the schedule because it has some interesting implications. I am particularly interested in part 1, which covers the carrying out of marriages—whether same-sex or opposite-sex marriages—on consular territory, presumably at embassies throughout the world.

I have been reading the explanatory notes, and my understanding of paragraph 1(2)(c)—a condition for a same-sex marriage to be able to go ahead on a consular property overseas—is that

“the authorities of the country or territory in which it is proposed that they marry will not object to the marriage”.

I am presuming therefore that certain countries that do not recognise same-sex marriage effectively have a power of veto over its taking place. I want clarification from the Minister if that is so.

Various things happen within British embassies throughout the world that are deemed to be British sovereign territory that do not necessarily accord with the practice of the host country. For example, on a visit to Tehran a few years ago during the World cup, I remember enjoying the excellent hospitality of the British ambassador at the British residence there and watching a World cup football match over a few beers. It would not have been in accordance with the customs of that country if we had stepped outside the embassy with our bottle of Stella in hand. Of course, we know that British ambassadors tend to keep a good cellar in countries where one is difficult to find and that it would be punishable by anything up to death if a person were found in possession of a good cellar and partaking of its contents, particularly if that person were one of the locals.

There are other things whereby the relationship between the host country and the residents and officials who operate within the British sovereign territory of an embassy or embassy property is something of a moot point. If we look back to what happened in London in the 1980s and the shooting of PC Yvonne Fletcher—those circumstances came back to our screens again last year—we see that British authorities were powerless effectively to enter the premises under diplomatic protocols to apprehend suspects or investigate that crime.

What exactly is the relationship between a host country and the ability of British officials who, under British law, would be empowered to conduct a same-sex marriage on British embassy territory in a country where same-sex marriage was not recognised? For example, in Saudi Arabia or certain other Arab countries, homosexuality is considered an offence, let alone coming together in recognised same-sex unions. Is there a power of veto by the host country? Will it be a formal power of veto, or will it be an act of effectively turning a blind eye, as happens with the Iranian authorities in respect of the British ambassador’s drinks parties within the embassy compound?

If there is a grey area around diplomatic niceties, as we all know there can be, what happens if a same-sex couple, who will be entitled to marry under British law, if the Bill passes—complying with all the criteria for marrying in the UK and therefore entitled to the same treatment on British sovereign territory in other parts of the world—when a British embassy goes ahead in good faith, with the embassy chaplain or whoever conducting their same-sex marriage on embassy premises, only for the Saudi Government or whichever authorities to tell them, “You cannot do that.”? Is that marriage effectively annulled, or would it still be recognised as long as the participating couple legged it quickly out of the country, in a diplomatic bag or otherwise, because they had offended against the host country’s laws?

I seek clarification about same-sex couples who, for all sorts of reasons, might want to use embassy premises overseas for their same-sex marriage. I suspect that the schedule is of very limited application. In other words, it will apply only in the, I think, 11 other countries whose jurisdictions currently recognise same-sex marriage. Either way, I seek clarification about whether the definition is right and about what happens when a marriage goes ahead but is objected to by a host country on the principle that it is illegal or not recognised under its law.

Photo of Helen Grant Helen Grant The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities 4:00, 7 March 2013

Consulates offer British nationals abroad consular marriages and consular civil partnerships by providing them with the facility in a consulate to get married or enter into a civil partnership under UK law. They can offer such services only where there are insufficient facilities for British nationals to get married or enter into civil partnerships under local laws and in host states that consent to such marriages or civil partnerships. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office currently provides consular marriage services in six countries, which are all in the middle east, and consular civil partnerships in 18 countries. It conducts an average of 37 consular marriages and 85 civil partnerships a year.

The schedule will allow the FCO to amend current legislation, so that it can offer all forms of marriage and civil partnerships overseas, including same-sex marriage, where host Governments do not object and local facilities do not exist. Given those caveats, the FCO does not expect a significant increase in the number of consular marriages that it performs each year—a matter raised by my hon. Friend.

The schedule will allow the FCO to put into good order a range of outdated marriage powers, to provide a uniform service for British nationals who wish to marry or to register a civil partnership overseas. For example, the schedule will allow the FCO to modernise how it issues certificates of no impediment, which will simplify the process of marrying overseas for all British nationals.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Minister (Equalities)

I apologise if I am anticipating what the Minister is about to say. This morning, we discussed the implications of consular marriages for Scottish same-sex couples. Is she going to comment on that?

Photo of Helen Grant Helen Grant The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities

I will touch on that issue and the one relating to Northern Ireland in a moment.

Part 3 of schedule 6 provides a power, by Order in Council, to make provision for members of the armed forces serving overseas and accompanying civilians, including both opposite-sex and same-sex couples, to marry. The provision for an Order in Council is necessary because the Foreign Marriage (Armed Forces) Order 1964, under section 22 of the Foreign Marriage Act 1892, cannot be extended to the marriage of same-sex couples. That is because section 22 currently provides that such a marriage is valid as if it had been solemnised in the United Kingdom. Such marriages, therefore, have effect under the law of every part of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

I raised specific questions regarding part 1, so before the Minister goes down the blind alley of Scotland, this is an overseas schedule that applies only to territories outside the United Kingdom. With respect, what she has read out is a permutation of what it says in the explanatory note. I wanted explicit confirmation of whether in practice this will apply only to 11 other countries, to ask what happens in the specific incidence of a host country taking exception to it, and to ask about the grey area in between.

Photo of Helen Grant Helen Grant The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities

I will come back to what my hon. Friend raised earlier. On agreements, it is essential that the host country is quite happy with what we are doing. Under international law, the establishment of consular relations between states is based on the consent of the states concerned. Conducting same-sex marriages without host Government permission could be contrary to international law and risk damaging bilateral relations, which, of course, we would not want to do. So, to answer his question, if we did not have the agreement of the host country, of course it would not happen. The result of that would be that in some locations around the world, it would not happen. Numbers may not, therefore, be considerably greater than they are now. I hope that that has answered his question.

Photo of Helen Grant Helen Grant The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities

I would like to continue, but if my hon. Friend needs to come back to me, I do not have a problem with that.

Coming back to the provision for an Order in Council, it is necessary because the 1964 order under section 22 of the 1892 Act cannot be extended to marriage of same-sex couples. That is because section 22 currently provides that such a marriage is valid as if it had been solemnised in the United Kingdom, which I think was the point that the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston was touching on. Such marriages, therefore, have effect under the law of every part of the United Kingdom. Since there is no plan to permit the marriage of same-sex couples in Northern Ireland—I know that is a matter of interest to the hon. Member for Strangford—it is necessary to provide the order to make a new Order in Council to replace the 1964 order. The new order will authorise armed forces marriages of same-sex couples only if the couple involved would otherwise be eligible in England or Wales, not Northern Ireland or Scotland.

In relation to the marriage of a same-sex couple, the order could include provision prohibiting the use of particular religious rites or usages, such as those of the Church of England, or particular premises, such as military chapels. Or, it may specify the consents that may be required, such as the consent of religious organisations that use a particular building as a place of worship. On that basis, I commend the clause to the Committee.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

I still want a point of clarification. What the Minister has said in alluding to agreements is helpful. Is she actually saying that, as a result of the Bill passing, every embassy or high commission around the world will have to seek the agreement of the host Government—whichever Government Department is responsible for marriages—before it can carry out a single same-sex marriage? If my understanding is correct, will she confirm that the Foreign Office will be doing that?

Photo of Helen Grant Helen Grant The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities

I have made the position very clear. I will repeat what I said so that it is on the record. Conducting same-sex marriages without host Government permission could be contrary to international law, which, of course, we would not want to break. At the same time, it would risk damaging bilateral relations, which, of course, we would not want to do. I think I have made the position clear.

Question put and agreed to.

Schedule 6 accordingly agreed to.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.