Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 20th November 2013.

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Photo of Margaret McCulloch Margaret McCulloch Labour

No—I do not have time. I have a lot to get through on the report.

Some witnesses emphasised the concept of complementarity between men and women. The Catholic parliamentary office, on behalf of the Bishops Conference of Scotland, wrote:

“The complementarity of male and female, and their unique role in the transmission of life, underscores the reality of marriage as a natural social environment for the birth and growth of every person.”

John Deighan, from the Catholic parliamentary office, described complementarity as the “inherent essence” of and “rational basis” for marriage. However, John Phillips, who was representing the Religious Society of Friends—the Quakers—gave a different perspective. He said:

“For us, the crucial thing is the complementarity between two individuals who are making a committed relationship with each other”.—[Official Report, Equal Opportunities Committee, 5 September 2013; c 1382.]

Tim Hopkins, from the Equality Network, said:

“Our view is that the bill is about love—and marriage is about love. I think if you ask most married couples what their marriage is about they will say that it is about love, a commitment to each other and, if they have children, their family. All those things apply to same-sex couples, as well.”—[Official Report, Equal Opportunities Committee, 5 September 2013; c 1382.]

Colin Macfarlane, from Stonewall Scotland, says that the bill is

“about much more than the complementarity issue” and that it is

“about how gay people are viewed in society and about being equal in the eyes of the law.”—[Official Report, Equal Opportunities Committee, 5 September; c 1382.]

Indeed, we gave a great deal of consideration to equal recognition, human rights and public attitudes. Dr Kelly Kollman highlighted to us the “transformative” power of rights-based arguments in the debate.

I am aware that many of the responses to the Scottish Government’s consultation did not favour the bill. That point was made to the committee in written and oral evidence from John Deighan. However, Ross Wright from the Humanist Society Scotland commented that a consultation “not a referendum”. Professor John Curtice, from the University of Strathclyde, advised that we

“should not look to consultations as a way of understanding the balance of public opinion”,

but that we should instead look to

“the structure of public opinion”—[Official Report, Equal Opportunities Committee, 19 September; c 1516.]

and technical issues with bills and proposals. There was a huge amount of diversity as well as depth in the views that we received, so I hope that the whole range of opinions is adequately reflected in the report.

The committee also noted varying views among stakeholders on the approach that the bill takes to protecting celebrants of faith, as well as the freedom of religious organisations to conduct legal marriages that are in keeping with their own doctrines. We heard differing views on the opt-in approach for religious and belief celebrants, on protections for service providers and on concerns about attrition. In our report, we asked the Scottish Government to consider that range of views during the amending stages of the bill.

Under the Marriage (Scotland) Act 1977, there are two types of marriage ceremony: civil and religious. Since 2005, humanist celebrants have been authorised under a provision of the 1997 act that was designed for temporary authorisation of religious celebrants. The bill would retain two categories, but would redefine non-civil marriage ceremonies as “religious or belief” ceremonies, to capture a wider range of beliefs and to put religious and belief celebrants on the same legal footing.

Ephraim Borowski of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities considers that there is a distinction between religious and belief ceremonies, and so believes that belief ceremonies should form a third category. The committee notes the Scottish Government’s explanation for why the bill retains two ceremony categories, but we have sought the Scottish Government’s views on an amendment to the bill.

The committee took a range of evidence on civil partnerships, including evidence on the difference between marriage and civil partnerships, the treatment in the bill of civil partnerships that have been registered abroad, and the future of civil partnerships in Scotland. We note that the Scottish Government plans to consider issues relating to reform of civil partnerships, including civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples, in its forthcoming review.

Should same-sex marriage be introduced, there would be a procedure for converting civil partnerships into marriage. We believe that couples who enter into civil partnerships abroad, who would have to dissolve their partnerships before marrying here, should have similar rights to that procedure as couples whose civil partnerships have been conducted in Scotland.

The committee noted the Scottish Government’s position that it has struck the right balance regarding gender-neutral ceremonies, and that allowing such ceremonies could cause problems for denominations that might not want to use gender-neutral marriage declarations. However, we believe that it should be possible to allow gender-neutral language, which is why we call on the Scottish Government to reconsider its position.

We note evidence that calls for the requirement for spousal consent to be removed from the gender recognition process. The spouses of people who seek gender recognition may find themselves in circumstances that are difficult to face and we have not received specific evidence from their perspective. However, we believe that the non-transitioning spouse’s personal choice is sufficiently protected by the automatic grounds for divorce that are triggered by his or her partner seeking gender recognition. We also believe that the requirement of spousal consent for gender recognition, also known as the spousal veto, is unnecessary and should be removed.

We have drawn two further conclusions regarding gender recognition issues that were raised in evidence. First, we have welcomed the Scottish Government’s willingness to consult on difficulties that are faced by long-term transitioned people, in particular around evidence requirements, with a view to amending the bill at stage 2. Secondly, we have noted representations that were made by the Scottish Transgender Alliance about lowering the age at which a person can secure gender recognition. We accept that it may not be possible to deal with those issues effectively in the bill, but I feel nonetheless that it is important to highlight them to Parliament.

The committee took evidence on how the bill could impact on other areas of life, including the education system and chaplaincy in public services. We heard from John Brown, from the Scottish Catholic Education Service, and Michael Calwell, from the Family Education Trust, who spoke about the conflict between different views of marriage and the implications that they fear it could have for teaching in schools. However, when asked whether the bill would have an impact on how teachers teach in the classroom, Stephen McCrossan of the Educational Institute of Scotland said:

“I do not think that the bill will have a significant impact on the way in which teachers teach in the classroom. We simply see the bill as another strand in equality and diversity, promoting equal opportunities and challenging discrimination.”—[Official Report, Equal Opportunities Committee, 26 September 2013; c 1534.]

On behalf of the committee, I draw Parliament’s attention to the views that were expressed regarding the relationship between the bill and public services, and to the recommendations that were made by the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee, which we note and support.

To paraphrase Robert Louis Stevenson, we agree to differ, for agreeing to differ is a form of agreement, rather than a form of difference. The majority of the committee supports the general principles of the bill and recommends that Parliament approve the bill at stage 1. A minority of the committee does not support the bill. Those members either disagree in principle or are not convinced that adequate protections are in place. However, we are unanimous in supporting the right of individual members to decide on the bill as a matter of conscience.

On a personal note, I know what my conscience tells me; I associate myself with the majority view that is expressed in the report. I back the general principles of the bill and I hope that there is a majority in favour of equal marriage when we vote at decision time tonight.