Lords debate Civil Partnership reform

Parliament

The House of Lords yesterday debated reform of the law on marriage and civil partnerships.  Introduced in 2004, civil partnerships are currently only open to same-sex couples.  An expectation in 2013 that they would fade away once same-sex marriage was brought in as an option, they have carried on with a steady stream of people choosing them over marriage – as well as, in Northern Ireland, having to opt for civil partnership because the DUP prevented the marriage law being introduced there.

As they are not fading away, the pressure has grown to ensure they are no longer weirdly limited by the gender of the partners involved.  Mixed-gender civil partnerships must surely be legalised soon.

The Civil Partnerships, Marriages And Death Bill covers a range of issues including extending civil partnerships to any couple, as well as tackling the strange historic anomaly that registering your relationship involves stating your father’s name, rather than the names of your parents whoever they might be and in whichever combination of genders.

The bill also looks at issues such as the registration of pregnancy losses.

Conservative peer Baroness Hodgson opened the debate noting the bill addressed the exclusion of Northern Ireland which represented:

“our failure to deliver equal marriage for all citizens in the United Kingdom.”

urging that:

“I hope the Minister will not say that the Government will drag their feet on these issues but will commit to ensuring that all citizens of the United Kingdom are treated equally and fairly”

She also highlighted issues around faith and partnership recognition:

“My final bit of unfinished business—I hope we will have a debate on this in Committee—relates to the role of the Church of England. In the context of the Bill, I should like to know whether it will continue to say yes to same-sex civil partnerships but no to same-sex marriage. In his recent book Reimagining Britain, the most reverend Primate addressed the tension between scripture and tradition on the one hand and contemporary reality on the other. He tells us that the Bible’s teaching on marriage is profoundly positive but, he notes, the social reality in modern Britain is radically changed today, with cohabiting, blended, single-parent and same-sex configurations.”

Responding to the bill for the Labour Party Lord Collins noted that it:

“in all main areas seeks to deliver equality and fairness—a task we failed to complete during the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013”

Baroness Barker gave a long intervention from the Liberal benches but one that covered a lot of important ground – more so than the speech moving the bill from the Baroness Hodgson.

“My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson of Abinger, for the way in which she introduced this Bill, which deals with matters of enormous importance and sensitivity to a very small number of people. I am delighted to speak today not least because my father married a lot of people. He was a nonconformist minister, and I must tell your Lordships that the day on which the Church of England took a more enlightened view towards the remarriage of divorced people was a cause of great sadness in our household.

“Turning to Clause 1, in 2016, I was absolutely delighted to get married in a beautiful chapel—it was medieval and deconsecrated, I have to say—but it was none the less a wonderful day. During the preparations, my wife and I had to see the registrar, and we all concluded that the fact that we had to tell the registrar who our fathers were but not our mothers was simply and utterly anachronistic.

“I am also indebted to my dad for reasons why we should accept the Bill today. Many years ago, my father was officiating at a wedding in Glasgow University Chapel. In fact, it was the wedding of some family friends. When he took the couple out to sign the register, they turned to the groom’s mother, who was in fact a professional registrar—and she had forgotten the certificate. So my father and mother had to disappear from the reception to go and get it so they could be married. Until today, few people knew that the pictures of the happy couple are in fact of them signing a bit of blotting paper for the purpose. So it is high time that we leap forward with tech and make the changes to the schedules outlined in Clause 1.

“Turning to Clause 2 and civil partnerships, there has been a huge debate about why, given that gay people are now allowed to be married and we have civil marriage, we need equal civil partnership. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this, not least because my dad often married people in church and had to think carefully about whether that was the most appropriate thing to do. He had the right to refuse to marry people—it was a right that he exercised sparingly, but he did think about it. Back in those days, he thought that there were times when it was not appropriate for people have their ceremonies in church.

“On the question of civil partnership, I am greatly indebted to friends of mine. I am thinking in particular of one person who at a very young age was party to a violent and traumatic marriage. She managed to escape from that and subsequently spent more than 30 years with another man whom she loved deeply, but the idea of entering into something called marriage was absolutely not right. That is no reflection on the value of their relationship, and for her, a civil partnership would have been highly appropriate. I am indebted to her for getting in touch with me last night. When I told her that we were going to be discussing this, she said, “Look, there is a point in this. People who talk about marriage frequently talk about it being a union of two people. I do not disagree with that at all, but for me, the fact we are talking about a civil partnership—a partnership of two people who are interdependent rather than dependent on each other—is extremely important”. She, other friends of mine and others who are a part of the campaign for equal civil partnership have often talked about that point.

“I too want to talk about this in the context of the role of religions. I have spent a lifetime observing and wandering around the religious sensibilities of other people. Through all the arguments we had about civil partnership and same-sex marriage, time and again opponents were quick to throw at us the accusation that somehow this was undermining marriage as it is understood by the religious bodies in this country.

“No one ever recognised the fact that sometimes, a person falls in love with someone who is not of the faith into which they were born, and part of the process of managing their relationship with their family is that they do not get married. Until now, if those people are heterosexual, there has been no way to enter into a legal commitment with their partner while at the same time juggling sensitivities with their family. This is therefore an important step forward.

“Later, we will hear from the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, why we should extend civil partnerships to people who are from the same family, because of the issue of tenancies and property. It is not news to him that I oppose that. I believe it is wholly wrong to take a body of legislation designed to apply to adults who, of their own volition, come together to form a family unit and apply it to relationships which are consanguineous and cannot be broken. I agree with him that there is an anomaly in our fiscal law that needs to be sorted, but our fiscal law already makes allowances for children. Those who have children’s best interests at heart should go down that route and desist from this campaign, founded and funded by evangelical Christians, to have a go at civil partnerships and same-sex marriage. We are talking about two completely different things.”

The architect of the Same-sex marriage bill for Wales and England, Baroness Featherstone, interjected:

“at the end of the same-sex marriage journey, as has been mentioned, an inequality was left; that is, you can get married or enter into a civil partnership if you are gay, but you can only get married if you are straight.”

She’s never been very good at mentioning the “B”, but in this case her language happened to be exactly right.

From the Conservative benches Lord Hayward offered an amusing tale:

“We live in a much more liberal and open society than many years ago, and I thank all the different Governments and people who have campaigned on behalf of that. I once sat in the Strangers’ Gallery in the Commons with the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, Ian McKellen and Boy George. It was reported in the papers that the four of us were there for a debate on the age of equality. That happened to out me to my parents, so I went back to my parents to discuss the subject with them. My father was completely relaxed about it. He said: “I don’t mind what you do in your life, with one exception: please never get mentioned in the same sentence as Boy George again”.”

For Labour, Lord Cashman responded to the tale his colleague had just told:

“When I led the campaign against Section 28 and I was featured on the evening news, my father, an old docker, said to my mother, “I don’t mind him being gay, but does he have to go on the news about it?” How times have changed. They have changed because people have had the courage to leap forward where others have hesitated, to give a voice to the voiceless and to recognise those who might otherwise remain invisible in our society.”

But he added his concern about the huge impact that Brexit is having on all political and law reform in the UK and has had ever since June 2016:

“I am desperately worried—this is no reflection on the brilliant civil servants that we have—about capacity in our departments. I am particularly worried at this moment about capacity in the Home Office, dealing as it has to with the repercussions of Brexit or possibly no Brexit. An example, which I offer the House as a warning, is that, during the passage of the Policing and Crime Act in January 2017, I introduced an amendment, which the Government accepted, to widen the pardons and disregards to include the criminal records of homosexual and bisexual men who were convicted of actions that are no longer crimes. More than two and a half years down the line, nothing has been delivered.”

From the Conservative benches, Lord Lexden bemoaned the exclusion of siblings who want the benefits of being married or in a civil partnership, without same sense of being “in a relationship” as has traditionally been seen as part of marriage:

“It does not remove the discrimination suffered by sibling couples. The law on civil partnerships will not be in a truly satisfactory state until sibling couples are brought within it.”

For the government, the Minister of State Baroness Williams of Trafford rebuffed this attempt to add sibling partnerships to marital law.

For the Liberal Democrats Baroness Brinton noted the work of Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld in challenging civil partnership discrimination through the courts, resulting in last year’s Supreme Court ruling that has decreed the “same-sex couples only” rule must be removed.

Labour’s Baroness Thornton then challenged the continued lack of action to allow Humanist same-sex weddings in England and Wales.

The Lords then accepted the second reading of the bill without a vote, and it moves on to be discussed in committee.