Report on civil partnership

Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 18th July 2018.

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“(1) The Secretary of State must make arrangements for a report to be prepared—

(a) assessing how the law ought to be changed to bring about equality between same-sex couples and other couples in terms of their future ability or otherwise to form civil partnerships, and

(b) setting out the Government’s plans for achieving that aim.

(2) The arrangements must provide for public consultation.

(3) The Secretary of State must lay the report before Parliament.”—

This new clause provides for a report to be prepared on the changes which ought to be made to bring about equality between same-sex and other couples in terms of their future ability or otherwise to form civil partnerships. It replaces the current Clause 2 (see Amendment 1).

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment (a) to new clause 1, line 5, after “partnerships” insert—

“(aa) how the law could be changed in Scotland to achieve that aim,

(ab) how the law could be changed in Northern Ireland to achieve that aim,”.

Amendment (b) to new clause 1, line 6, at end insert—

“(1A) In considering the matter specified in paragraph (1)(ab), the Secretary of State shall also consider the implications for equality in civil partnerships of the difference in legislation on marriage in Northern Ireland compared with the rest of the United Kingdom.”

Amendment (c) to new clause 1, line 8, at end insert—

“(3A) The Secretary of State must also consult—

(a) Scottish Ministers,

(b) Northern Ireland Ministers.”

Amendment 16, in clause 5, page 3, line 13, leave out subsection (1) and insert—

“(1) Sections 1, 3 and 4 extend to England and Wales,

(2) Section (Report on civil partnership) extends to England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.”

See explanatory statement for Amendment (a) to NC1.

Amendment 11, in the title, line 1, leave out from beginning to “make”.

This amendment, together with Amendment 13, reflects the changes proposed by Amendment 1 and NC1.

Amendment 13, in the title, line 3, after “partnership;” insert

“to make provision for a report on civil partnerships;”.

See the explanatory statement for Amendment 11.

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

I shall speak to new clause 1 and amendments 16, 11 and 13, which are in my name and that of the Minister. No doubt the hon. Member for Harrow West will then want to speak to his amendments (a) to (c) to new clause 1, and I will be happy to comment on them after he has done so.

New clause 1 replaces clause 2, but of course it still only obliges the Secretary of State—the Minister for Women and Equalities, who is now my right hon. Friend Penny Mordaunt—to prepare a report on how to bring about civil partnership equality, which is perhaps the meatiest part of the Bill. We know that there are two ways to achieve equal civil partnerships. One is to abolish existing civil partnerships for same-sex couples. That would leave just straightforward marriage, which is now available to all couples. The other—I hope the Government take this route, in accordance with the clear will expressed by the House in our many debates on this issue—is to extend civil partnerships to all, so they are available to same-sex and opposite-sex couples equally. By doing that, we would achieve equality in marriage and civil partnerships.

That is the unfinished business left over from the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, which I tried to amend while it was still a Bill and subsequently through two private Members’ Bills—a ten-minute rule Bill and a presentation Bill. I am pleased that the Government agreed on Second Reading to look at this issue again, and I was pleased with the urgency the Minister showed at the Dispatch Box. Indeed, she actually issued a letter to hon. Members, announcing that she would start the consultation she said was required straightaway, before she had said that at the Dispatch Box, and she had to quickly reel that in again. She might like to give us some details about that.

I was also pleased that the Prime Minister appeared to support my Bill and endorse a change in the law when I challenged her at Prime Minister’s Question Time on 27 June, although I gather there was some hasty backtracking at the subsequent press conference about what she actually said. I was less pleased with the Command Paper, “The Future Operation of Civil Partnership: Gathering Further Information,” which was issued back in May and gave details about how consultation would take place. In particular, paragraph 17 states that questions about consultation

“will be included initially in the May 2018 ONS survey and will be repeated in subsequent surveys for approximately 10 months to secure a big enough sample,” and that the Government intended to analyse findings no sooner than summer 2019 and, at some stage after that, come back with suggestions.

That rather kicked the issue into the long grass, so I was relieved that the new Minister for Women and Equalities indicated that we will not have such a long-drawn-out consultation, and that whatever work she thinks still needs to be done could be completed no later than this autumn. I will suggest how that work might be brought forward even further. I am particularly pleased that she indicated publicly that she is in favour of achieving equalisation by extending civil partnerships for all, and that she does not support scrapping existing civil partnerships to achieve equality through marriage only.

The Minister for Women and Equalities confirmed that—it is on the record—in an interview with Stonewall. I was pleased to see Stonewall support the extension of civil partnerships. In so doing, it followed in the footsteps of many others, including the Church of England, as the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, will confirm. The Church announced as long ago as April 2014 that it did not want same-sex civil partnerships to be abolished and it supported equalisation by extension. And as of this morning’s count, 139,593 people have signed the petition, organised by the Equal Civil Partnerships group, in support of extending civil partnerships. This measure has huge support.

Of course, things have moved on considerably with the unanimous ruling of the Supreme Court on 27 June 2018 in the case of Steinfeld and Keidan, of whom one and a mini one are not far from our proceedings today. I attended the opening of that hearing on 14 May and also went to the judgment. It was a unanimous five-nil judgment, and the terms used in the judgment were absolutely categorical; it was absolutely clear.

Let me pull out some quotes. The judges stated that

“to create a situation of inequality and then ask for…time—in this case several years—” which is what happened by creating same-sex marriage but not equalising civil partnerships at the same time—to determine

“how that inequality is to be cured is…less obviously deserving of a margin of discretion.”

That is their lordships’ discreet way of saying, “Get the heck on with it.” They also said in the judgment that there was no end point “in sight” for the present inequality of treatment, and therefore they found in favour of Steinfeld and Keidan, because the situation was incompatible with article 14, taken in conjunction with article 8, of the ECHR. They could not have been clearer than that.

The written findings refer to my Bill in paragraph 8. In fact, there is a whole chronology of the various Bills that I have brought forward on this subject in that paragraph. Towards the end of the judgment, it says:

“The amendment to Mr Loughton’s Bill which the government has agreed does no more than formalise the consultation process to which it was already committed. It does not herald any imminent change in the law to remove the admitted inequality of treatment.”

Basically, the judges are saying that this Bill, or Government action in lieu of this Bill, needs to go a lot further.

The Government have not yet by any means discharged their duties, according to the findings of the Supreme Court, so it will be interesting to hear the Minister’s take on those findings. They came out three weeks ago, but so far we have had no detailed statement from the Government as to what their response is likely to be. Clearly, work needs to be done; preparations need to be made, but the Government have had several years. This was not a bolt out of the blue. Most people thought that the judgment would find as it did—I do not think most people thought it would find quite as forcefully as it did—so the ball is very much in the Government’s court to change the law and, crucially, to get on with it.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful case. May I remind him and others of the genesis of the current inequality? It was not a point of great principle; it was essentially a point of raw politics. At the point when the marriage equality measure was going through the House of Lords, there arose within No. 10 Downing Street a certain nervousness, shall we say. It was felt at the time that it was more important than anything else that we should preserve marriage equality, and it was for that reason, and that reason alone, that the defect that we seek to rectify today was allowed to go ahead. I do not know what is in the judgment, but I suspect that that would have weighed very heavily with their lordships in their consideration of the Steinfeld case.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham 3:00 pm, 18th July 2018

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Wherever that nervousness came from and on account of what, now is the time to be bold and to comply with the highest court in the land. The Secretary of State ruled out the abolition of civil partnerships. If that had happened, it would have left the 63,966 same-sex couples who at the end of 2016 had been through a civil partnership and still have one—the net figure will be slightly higher or lower now—high and dry. It would also deny the opportunity for the stability of cementing a partnership to 3.3 million opposite-sex cohabiting couples, many of whom would want to take advantage of a formal recognition of their status. Like it or not, that is the fastest-growing form of family unit. Therefore, the only option for them, and everyone else, is to extend civil partnerships to all.

Unless the Minister has a cunning wheeze up her sleeve—she has no sleeves, so that is unlikely—a commitment from her now to use my private Member’s Bill as a vehicle to bring about equality is a bit of a no-brainer. Will she signal an intent to go ahead with this change? The Bill may well be the vehicle for that, but if she has a quicker way of doing it we would all embrace that and rejoice.

Speed is of the essence. Examples have been given in the Supreme Court, and in many social posts and blogs, and in everything we have seen of couples who would like a civil partnership—for whatever reason of their own choice they do not want to enter into a marriage—where one of them is terminally ill. If a civil partnership is not available to them in a matter of months, they may be denied the opportunity ever to take advantage of one. We have spent several years talking about this and doing nothing; the Supreme Court has said those days are over.

If the Minister were to signal her intent, that would indicate a further move forward in the Government’s equality agenda and win her many friends among the equal civil partnerships movement, the 139,000 people who signed the petition and well beyond that. This change is part of the bigger jigsaw of family law reform that we must look at, on which there are many moves in particular from their lordships at the moment. It would also make me very happy.

We would be doing a bit of catching up with many other countries throughout the world for whom civil partnerships have been part of their fabric for many years. That includes Gibraltar and the Isle of Man, which brought them in in 2016. Someone not a million miles from this Committee Room was the first UK citizen to take advantage of a civil partnership in the Isle of Man; the only trouble is, that partnership is not recognised by the Government when he and his partner set foot back on the mainland. The Falklands also recognises civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples, having brought them in in 2017. However, they do not happen in England or in the United Kingdom.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party

I find myself in a deeply unusual situation, as it has been difficult to disagree with anything the hon. Gentleman has said thus far. Nevertheless, specifically on new clause 1 and geographical reach, will the Secretary of State’s report cover Northern Ireland and Scotland, or will it not?

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

I see the point the hon. Gentleman is getting to. My earlier, cruder attempts were to amend the Civil Partnerships Act 2004, which is UK-wide. We have civil partnerships in all parts of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, but we do not have same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. That is the point of his amendments, and we will come to that. Absolutely, I want to extend civil partnerships to all same-sex couples in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England; it is a UK-wide measure.

I appreciate that the Minister is not in a position to table amendments in Committee, so soon after the Supreme Court judgment. I absolutely appreciate that the process is perhaps a little more complex than the one-line amendment to the 2004 Act that formed the basis of my previous, very short, Bills. I also appreciate that the Minister stated, as did the Secretary of State before her, that she wanted to carry out a further consultation to gauge the demand for extending civil partnerships, despite their having been two previous consultations on it, both before and after the same-sex marriage Bill.

However, I can help the Minister on that score, thanks to Professor Anne Barlow, professor of family law and policy at the University of Exeter—an excellent university, which I shall attend tomorrow for the graduation of my elder daughter. She has surveyed extensively using the NatCen panel survey technique, which is a probability-based online and telephone survey that robustly selects its panel to ensure that it is as nationally representative as possible. She commissioned that work in February 2018, around the time of my Bill’s Second Reading but ahead of the Supreme Court judgment.

That format can turn around surveys within eight weeks of their being commissioned. The professor’s survey had a sample of more than 2,000, which I gather is double the amount the Government intended to survey, and which they were to take at least 10 months to do. I am sure it is much cheaper to do it Professor Barlow’s way. Her survey posed the question, “How much do you agree or disagree that a man and woman should be able to form a civil partnership as an alternative to getting married?” It found that 35.3% agreed strongly, 36%.7 agreed, 21.1% neither agreed nor disagreed, only 4.5% disagreed and only 2.5% disagreed strongly. More than 70%—even better than the Brexit referendum—of those 2,000 people absolutely thought that civil partnerships should be made available to all.

The work has been done for the Minister, and for free. Perhaps she can tell me what surveying has already taken place—we were promised it would start in May—what further surveying the Government think is necessary and what they will produce at the end of it. The ball is in the Government’s court. How and when will they comply with the Supreme Court’s clear ruling, particularly given the absolute clarity of their lordships’ statements about the delay that has already taken place?

It is perfectly feasible for us to amend on Report the terms of the Bill as it now stands. I will propose the amendments and the new clause as they are on the Order Paper, but with a view to the possibility of revisiting them at the end of October, if that is when Report takes place. That gives the Government more than three months to decide their course of action. I will work constructively with the Minister to bring about that change, and then lots of people can be very happy rather sooner than the Government had perhaps intended.

I will comment on the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Harrow West when we discuss them. Amendments 11 and 13 would amend the long title of the Bill, so that it would say

“to make provision for a report on civil partnerships”.

That is the crux of these technical amendments, but there is very much a piece of work overhanging it. We know what we want to do and the Supreme Court has told the Government what they need to do. We need to hear from the Government how they will do it.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

Civil partnerships were introduced in 2004 to enable same-sex couples to formalise their relationships, at a time when same-sex marriage was not available to them. Since then, we are proud to be the Government who introduced marriage for same-sex couples. At last, same-sex couples are able to celebrate their relationships in the same way that other couples have for centuries.

However, putting right this obvious inequality has meant that we now have a situation in England and Wales where same-sex couples can enter into either a marriage or a civil partnership while opposite-sex couples can only get married. Therefore, earlier this year we announced a plan of work to address that inequality, including a research programme which was to run until 2019, assessing the demand for, and impact of, the various options.

The recent Supreme Court judgment in the Steinfeld case, however, emphasises the need to address the issue. In response, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities recently announced that, in the interest of making good progress, we would bring forward elements of our research on the future of civil partnerships, with a view to concluding it later this year. We recognise the sensitive and personal issues involved in the Steinfeld case, and we acknowledge—as the Supreme Court does—the genuine convictions of the couple involved and those who have campaigned alongside them.

Clause two, as amended, will place a duty on the Government to prepare and present before Parliament a report setting out how the law on civil partnerships should change and how we plan to achieve that. It will also ensure that the voice of those affected is taken into account during the decision-making process, by providing for a public consultation.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party

Does the Minister expect the report to cover Northern Ireland?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He knows that the Civil Partnership Act 2004 covers both Scotland and Northern Ireland, but both civil partnership and marriage are devolved matters. It would, therefore, be up to the relevant Administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland as to how civil partnership and marriage should be regulated and administered, just as it was their decision to be included in the 2004 Act. He also knows the particular issues in Northern Ireland at the moment, and the Government do not feel that this private Member’s Bill is the place to resolve those issues. It has to be a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly and I am sure that he will join me in wishing that it will reconfigure as soon as possible.

To return to the issue of progress, much work has already been done and we were very much spurred on by the Bill’s Second Reading, but of course even more urgency has been added by the Supreme Court judgment. The Government proposed to conduct four research measures. The reason the original deadline was 2019 was that there was going to be five years’ worth of research on the numbers of marriages and civil partnerships. We now propose to bring forward that deadline, so there will be four years of research instead of five.

We have also started the Office for National Statistics lifestyle survey—that is happening now—to calculate the projected number of opposite-sex couples who would wish to enter into civil partnerships. The third strand of research in on how other countries have dealt with civil partnerships and marriages, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has set out. The fourth category is a qualitative survey of same-sex couples in civil partnerships, because we are very conscious of the need to tread carefully for those couples who are already in civil partnerships.

That was all wrapped up in the Command Paper, which was presented in May. As the Secretary of State has said, the clause will shorten the research programme so that it can report to Parliament with urgency, and we will include a public consultation so that members of the public can also contribute their views.

My hon. Friend urged on me that this private Member’s Bill should be the vehicle to drive forward civil partnerships. He makes a very important point. We know we need to move quickly. At the moment, the Bill is the immediate vehicle to do that, but we are also considering other options and we want to reach a conclusion that creates equality as soon as is viable. We acknowledged, even in advance of the Supreme Court judgment, that the law needs to change, so a great deal of work is being done and the Bill will help with that.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith 3:15 pm, 18th July 2018

I am encouraged by what the Minister has said. If the Government are committed to equality on this issue, and if they have separately given undertakings that they will not withdraw the option of same-sex civil partnerships, there appears to be a certain logic that we are moving in a particular direction. Although I appreciate that the timetable has been advanced, perhaps the Minister could reiterate that that is the position. It would give comfort if she could give as much guidance as possible on what the vehicle will be following the consultation and tell us how quickly the change in the law is likely to come about.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

I regret that I cannot offer such assistance at the moment. I feel a sense of impatience with many parts of my ministerial portfolio but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government have to act on evidence: we have to commit to a public consultation and review the evidence. As I have said, we are working closely on the issue. I hope my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham agrees with him on shortening the length of our research programme. We must ensure that we observe the Supreme Court guidance in the important Steinfeld case and that we follow not only the letter but the spirit of the law. I am delighted that the Bill provides us with a platform not only to report to Parliament, but to give the public the opportunity to give their thoughts on how the legislation should develop.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party

Prior to tabling new clause 1, what discussions did the Minister have with Ministers in Scotland and those who previously served as Ministers in the Northern Ireland Assembly?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

I am just looking for guidance. I personally have not had discussions. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there is no Assembly at the moment in Northern Ireland, so it is difficult to have discussions with an organisation that does not currently exist. He might be aware of recent litigation in Northern Ireland that questioned the way in which the Government have tried to deal with the conundrum of the Northern Ireland Assembly and how its absence has caused delays in other fields of legislation. There has been a lot of toing and froing on how that will progress.

I am conscious that I have not addressed in detail amendments (a), (b) and (c), which were tabled by the hon. Gentleman. I seek guidance on the procedure.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party

For the avoidance of doubt, when the Minister sits down I shall speak to the amendments and then I will be delighted to hear her response.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

I thank the hon. Gentleman. Procedure is confounding us all on this hot summer’s afternoon. In response to his earlier intervention, I am told that Scotland has conducted its own consultation, as one would expect given that it is a devolved matter. Indeed, it was quick to move on civil partnerships and same-sex marriage. I hope that addresses his point. Given that he is going to speak to his own amendments, I am delighted to accept new clause 1 and look forward to further discussions.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party

As a near neighbour it is a particular privilege for me to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. It was a weak and vulnerable moment when I agreed to support the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend Conor McGinn, knowing that he would not be here. I say that because, as all hon. Members will be aware, on 28 March he made an impassioned speech promoting his private Member’s Bill to make provision for the marriage of same-sex couples in Northern Ireland and to end an inequality with which we are all familiar and which I suspect, although I do not know for certain, all Committee members want to see an end to as a matter of urgency.

I am, therefore, slightly disappointed by the Minister’s response. She rightly alluded to the very difficult situation in Northern Ireland, but as my hon. Friend asked in March, why should the fact that the Northern Ireland Assembly is suspended mean that same-sex couples in Northern Ireland who want to get married are denied that right? New clause 1, in which the Minister has agreed to ensure that the Secretary of State prepares a report, seems to be an opportunity to make progress.

Most political parties in Northern Ireland already support same-sex marriage, and a broad coalition is already very active in campaigning on this issue. Opinion polls in Northern Ireland continue to demonstrate considerable support for allowing same-sex marriage, so I struggle to see why the Secretary of State cannot seek to advance the case for change in Northern Ireland through the report. Why, for example, cannot the Secretary of State and the Home Secretary not consult political parties in Northern Ireland? Why cannot they ensure that there is a consultation with other civil society organisations to continue the process of building support for change? Why cannot the Government commit to saying what they will do if it becomes clear—although we all hope that this will not be the case—that the Northern Ireland Assembly will not be re-established?

I support the report as it stands, as it will make progress in England and Wales, but it represents a missed opportunity for making progress in Northern Ireland. I hope the Minister will reflect on the opportunity that new clause 1 and the report represent in moving forward the agenda in Northern Ireland for same-sex marriage.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

I fully support the amendments in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North, and I am particularly persuaded by the eloquent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West.

I will briefly address the new clause. I pay huge tribute to the way in which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has pursued this issue through the many avenues available to us. He has put together the pieces of the jigsaw such that we now have very powerful arguments for this substantial change to legislation, which will enable millions of people across the country to enter into legally binding and protected arrangements, and which will be very good for them and the security of their families. On those grounds alone, the Government should support it.

As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has said, this anomaly should not have occurred in the first place. We heard from the Minister about the good progress that the Government have made—gradually at first, but now at an accelerated rate. The final piece of the jigsaw should be the Supreme Court judgment. I attended when it was handed down, in part because my constituents Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan doggedly pursued their case despite the difficulty—and let us not underestimate this—of the four-year process of going through every higher court and getting first of all a knock-back, then a partial encouragement, and then a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court. That decision said to the Government, in judicial language—I have not seen this in a judgment before—“Can you please get a move on here and hurry up?” I think that message has got through to the Minister.

Putting the jigsaw together has been a painstaking process. The pressure is on the Government now, with all the indications given, hopes raised and options ruled out. A consultation is now under way and there must be mechanism—of which the Bill is an important part but not the end—to put the measure into law.

The law will be changed at some point to allow opposite-sex civil partnerships. However long overdue that unfinished business is, we must welcome it. This is an important stage of the process, where the Government have a chance to set out their intentions at length, so it would be helpful if the Minister could set out, as far as possible, the mechanism and timescale involved. Every possible encouragement has been given by the House, the Supreme Court and the public at large, who are hugely supportive. As we have heard, this is a matter of some urgency for some families.

I congratulate all those involved in the process. It has been a good example of successful joint working across many institutions and bodies. We just want the Minister to explain where we go next.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

I thank the hon. Members for Harrow West and for Hammersmith for their comments. The hon. Member for Harrow West knows the political situation in Northern Ireland. In fairness, the issues have been devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly—and to the Scottish Parliament. There are no members of the Scottish National party here, but there is a Scottish Member present, and I am not sure how the Scottish Parliament, the matter having been devolved to it, would take a report from the Secretary of State telling it what to do. Given that it has already held a consultation—perhaps I am speculating here—it might have matters in hand anyway.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I served on the Standing Committee on the Civil Partnership Bill in 2004. It was dealt with here with a legislative consent motion from the Scottish Parliament. The feeling at the time was that that was an easier way of doing it—another pragmatic step along this long road. I am reliably informed that there are fairly good telephone services between London and Edinburgh. It would not be that difficult to work out the Scottish Government’s intentions.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

Given that this is a private Member’s Bill, I am afraid that we feel constrained to observe the political fact—as well as the political courtesy—that the matters are devolved. I understand the motivations of those who want change across the whole UK, but I regret that on this we must observe the fact that the matter is devolved. Not only must we underline our view that the Bill is not the right place in which to grapple with the political situation in Northern Ireland; we must allow it to resolve what are devolved matters.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith made a powerful speech on behalf of his constituents on Second Reading. I understand his wish for a timetable. At the moment, we have the timetable set out by the private Member’s Bill. The work is ongoing. Those who assist me and the officials have a great understanding of the urgency of the situation. We want to get to a position where we have the evidence and we have ensured that we have lined up all the other matters connected to an act of civil partnership and the issues that flow from that for other Departments. The Secretary of State is always in listening mode, as am I. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hammersmith.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham 3:30 pm, 18th July 2018

Obviously I would like the Minister to go further, but will she at least acknowledge that it is in principle possible to amend the Bill on Report, were that to be at the end of October, to satisfy the findings of the Supreme Court? Alternatively, she alluded to the possibility, without going into detail, of an even faster way of doing it, in which case the Government’s priority is to do this as rapidly as possible, but hopefully no later than on Report.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

I regret to disappoint my hon. Friend, but I am but a small cog in the Government machinery. Although, as my hon. Friend knows, the Secretary of State is very much seized of the matter and concerned by it, I would not want to take the risk, respecting this Committee and colleagues from all parts of the House as I do, of speculating at this stage.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I very much endorse the views of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. Given the terms of the Supreme Court judgment, I encourage the Minister to represent to those whose agreement she will need within Government that at the very least we should be entitled to some sort of timetable, so that we know the Government’s intentions in bringing UK law back into compliance with the European Court of Human Rights.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

Very much so, and these discussions will assist others who are perhaps not intimately involved in these matters in understanding the concern that Members from all parts of the House have on the urgency of the situation.

I regret that I have to resist strongly the amendments put forward in the name of the hon. Member for St Helens North, which were spoken to with great eloquence by the hon. Member for Harrow West. The Government support new clause 1, as proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham.

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

I rise to respond to the amendments that the hon. Member for Harrow West spoke to. In principle, I am very supportive of them. That may be a slight surprise, as I was not the biggest fan of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 for reasons at the time, but it has become law and the world has not fallen in. It will remain law, and I certainly would not vote to change it.

I believe in law for the United Kingdom. We have the present dilemma over the availability of abortion, but I support the rights for women to be able to access abortion in just the same way as the United States—crikey, not the United States; that is a whole different ball game. I support the rights for women to be able to access abortion in Northern Ireland in just the same way as in any other part of the United Kingdom. Similarly, if we are to have equality in civil partnership and same-sex marriage, they should be available to every citizen or subject in Northern Ireland in the same way as they are for someone in London, Edinburgh or Cardiff.

I have no problem in principle with supporting what the hon. Member for Harrow West is trying to do. If his hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North had needed to take his ten-minute rule Bill on the subject to a vote, I would have happily voted for that, but I just request that this is not the Bill to do it—I have enough work on my hands as it is trying to get the Bill through both Houses without adding a whole dimension that involves the Democratic Unionist party and certain other forces in Northern Ireland. It could kibosh the entire Bill. The Minister has given her view, and we can have a separate debate about what happens about making law in Northern Ireland in the absence of its Assembly. I will continue to support the Bill proposed by the hon. Member for St Helens North, but I would ask that the amendments to this Bill in his name, which have been well and truly probed, are not pressed to a vote. They might cause ruptures in this Bill, which I do not want. I hope that the hon. Member for Harrow West will see my reasoning for that.

The Minister is certainly not just a cog in the Government machine; she is a substantial part of the winding mechanism and is going places, as we all know. The problem here is that she is not in the Department that now has responsibility for equalities legislation, which part of the Bill relates to. Frustrating though that might be at this stage, there are conversations going on behind the scenes, and I know that she is constrained in what she can say, although I sense that she would like to be able to say more. The key point, however, is that the Government Minister responsible has made it very clear that abolishing civil partnerships is not an option to achieve equality, so the only option is to extend civil partnerships.

It has also been made clear that time is of the essence and too much delay has already taken place. That was the basis of the Supreme Court’s ruling. I do not see what additional research, surveying or opinion polling is going to bring to the party. Frankly, it is academic, because this is a matter of equality. If the number of the 3.3 million cohabiting couples who came back and said, “Yes, we want to enter into a civil partnership” were a smaller proportion than anticipated, it would still be a proportion to whom the option of equality is not available, and it has not been since 2014, and that is in contravention of the European convention, as has been set out very clearly.

If the Minister wants numbers, one number that I would certainly like to repeat is that up to the end of 2016, 71,017 same-sex couples had entered into a civil partnership. Of those, just over 7,000 have been dissolved and 7,732 have been converted into a marriage. That is just 12% of civil partnerships, so the vast majority of those entering into same-sex civil partnerships who were then given the option of converting that into a marriage under the 2004 legislation chose not to. That suggests that there is a very significant demand for civil partnerships from those people who undertook them; for them, that is what they wanted to achieve. Although the numbers entering into new same-sex civil partnerships have fallen back substantially because there is now another choice, the number did go up last year. A substantial number of people would be left in a very exclusive and rather awkward little grouping of people if civil partnerships were to be abolished, and that is why it is not a victimless option.

If we come back to Northern Ireland, there is another dimension. If civil partnerships were to be abolished, nothing would be available in Northern Ireland—civil partnerships are available in Northern Ireland, but equal marriage is not—so same-sex couples in Northern Ireland would have absolutely no route to have their partnerships recognised with all the protections that the state brings, either through civil partnerships or through marriage. That would create a huge problem.

We need to make it clear that civil partnerships are here to stay. The sooner the Government say that on the record, in support of what the Secretary of State has already said—and the sooner that they say we are going to extend civil partnerships and have consulted—the better. I hope that the Minister and I can work closely together over the summer to see that whatever procedures need to happen, happen at pace, and that there is the intent and ambition to try to reconcile the matter in time for the Bill to be amended at a later stage. I am open to even speedier ways of achieving equality, if that is possible.

I just wanted to put those points on the record. The Minister is nodding to indicate that she has heard them, if not necessarily that she will agree to execute them. On that basis, I ask Members to support new clause 1 and the accompanying amendments 16, 11 and 13, and I respectfully ask the hon. Member for Harrow West not to press amendments (a) to (c) to new clause 1 to a vote.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Party Chair, Co-operative Party

Having once successfully promoted a private Member’s Bill, I understand the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman faces, and I will not press the amendments.

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

I am exceedingly grateful to the hon. Gentleman. On that basis, I will sit down—let’s get on with it.

Question put and agreed to.

New clause 1 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

Clause 3