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 Christian Allard Christian Allard Scottish National Party

I thank Mary Fee, the previous convener of the Equal Opportunities Committee, who welcomed me to the committee when we first considered the bill. A few months later, I welcomed Margaret McCulloch as our new convener.

Before I come to the detail of the recommendations that we made in our report, I thank all the members of the committee for their warm welcome and for the way that we worked together on the bill. I echo the words of Alex Johnstone and John Mason when I say that we agreed to disagree and then moved forward.

We made a couple of recommendations on registration of celebrants. The first came from the evidence of Ephraim Borowski of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, who addressed the definition of non-civil marriages, particularly in the context of humanist marriages. We feel that it is important to reflect the distinction between religious ceremonies and belief ceremonies, which is why we ask the Scottish Government its views on the suggested amendment on the redefinition of non-civil marriages.

Ross White of the Humanist Society Scotland gave evidence and commented on the Church of Scotland’s preferential status in law. We ask the Government to clarify its view on the claim that the Church of Scotland has a privileged status in marriage law.

A lot was said about the Government’s forthcoming review of civil partnerships and we heard the cabinet secretary today reassure us that the review will come soon. We note the Scottish Government’s plan to consider issues relating to civil partnerships, including opposite-sex civil partnerships.

To understand better the reasons behind the bill, we did a fair bit of travelling when taking evidence. Believe me, the international perspective was always there. Under the bill, same-sex couples who have entered into a civil partnership in another country will have to dissolve their partnership before being permitted to marry here in Scotland. The committee feels that such couples should be able to convert their civil partnership to a marriage, just as couples whose civil partnerships were conducted in Scotland will be able to do.

The Scottish Government believes that allowing gender-neutral ceremonies could cause problems for denominations that might not want to use a gender-neutral marriage declaration when marrying an opposite-sex couple. We kind of disagree, and we would like the Government to reconsider. It should be possible to allow a choice of gender-neutral or gender-specific language for marriage declarations.

Professor John Curtice told us how much public opinion has changed regarding attitudes towards same-sex relationships. I am pleased that a lot of our work was to recognise the change of gender for married persons or civil partners, as I feel that attitudes towards transgender communities have not yet changed as much as I would like. James Morton of the Scottish Transgender Alliance told us about his proposal for an amendment to the bill to make sure that a spouse cannot stop his or her partner’s gender recognition. James said that for someone to have their gender identity legally recognised and respected by their Government is a human right and something that no one should be able to stop.

We considered how spouses of people seeking gender recognition might find the process difficult, although an important point is that we have not received any evidence from their perspective. After long consideration, we came to the conclusion 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. In the report, we ask for the requirement for spousal consent for gender recognition to be removed.

We received evidence about lowering the age requirement to change gender. James Morton said:

“Transgender people aged 16 or 17 will remain discriminated against under the bill as drafted”.—[Official Report, Equal Opportunities Committee, 5 September 2013; c 1391.]

We do not think that we have enough evidence on lowering the age requirement, which is why we have asked the Government to provide a detailed response on the issue in advance of stage 2.

To conclude, I would like to share a thought about how the world has moved on. As members must know by now, I was raised on a chicken farm in Burgundy in France. I clearly remember the day my father told me about one of his regular customers, a farmer who lived in the remote village with his partner. I was struck by the way that my father spoke about this couple, with great respect and in a friendly tone. I disagree with Elaine Smith, who talked about a small group of activists, because I would not consider that couple, deep in rural France, to be a small group of activists. I wonder what happened to them, and I wonder how much those two farmers—those two men—would have liked to get married, like every other farming couple in rural France many decades ago.

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