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 Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill will make a number of changes to the law on marriage and civil partnership, but the centrepiece is obviously the legalisation of same-sex marriage, which will allow all people in Scotland who love each other the same opportunity to have their marriage recognised in the eyes of the law. That will create a more tolerant society in Scotland and will mean that there are genuine equal rights in respect of marriage across the entire community.

The bill makes provides that married transgender people will be able to obtain gender recognition and stay married, thereby removing the need to divorce. That provision will make a huge beneficial difference to the lives of transgender people and their spouses. I will turn later to the detail of the bill and, in particular, to the points that the Equal Opportunities Committee’s report raises.

Before doing so, I will give a brief general overview of the provisions in the bill. The bill contains a number of changes to marriage law that have been planned for some time, and some other changes to ensure that marriage ceremonies in Scotland continue to be carried out with due solemnity and dignity.

The bill also provides greater flexibility on where civil marriage ceremonies can take place; it will permit civil marriage ceremonies to take place at any location that is agreed between the couple and the registration authority, as long as that place is not religious premises.

The bill also clarifies the position of belief celebrants and puts them on the same footing as religious celebrants. That is a welcome change that acknowledges the role that humanists, for example, play in solemnising marriage in Scotland.

The bill will increase flexibility in relation to civil partnerships and will allow the religious or belief registration of civil partnership where the religious or belief body is happy to take part.

While providing greater freedom and flexibility for couples generally, the bill will also ensure that marriage procedures in Scotland remain rigorous. For example, the bill clarifies the offence of bigamy, and a number of other provisions in the bill show that we in Scotland will not tolerate sham or forced marriages, which are real problems in Scotland today, so I pay tribute to registrars and others across Scotland who are vigilant in tackling those issues.

The bill will extend the normal notice period for marriage and for civil partnership from 14 days to 28 days. That reflects the reality of the length of time it can take to check that a person is eligible to marry or to enter into a civil partnership. It will also be a deterrent to sham marriages. The bill will allow district registrars to require specified nationality evidence when a couple is seeking to enter into a marriage or a civil partnership. Such information may be needed for a variety of reasons, for example for statistical reasons. Again, requiring such evidence could combat sham and forced marriages.

The bill will also empower ministers to make regulations on qualifying requirements for religious and belief bodies to meet before their celebrants can be authorised to solemnise marriages or to register civil partnerships. Scotland has a rich diversity of religious and belief bodies that can solemnise marriage. That is very welcome, but it also means that we need to make certain that the dignity and solemnity of the ceremonies are upheld. The qualifying requirements could cover such issues as the requirement not to carry out ceremonies for profit or gain and the requirement to have an awareness of forced and sham marriages.

We will consult widely with religious and belief bodies and with others before we make any regulations. I know that religious and belief bodies share our determination to ensure that marriage ceremonies remain dignified. Equally, though, the state must not interfere with the internal workings of religious and belief bodies, so we need to ensure that a reasonable balance is struck.