2nd reading: House of Commons
Friday 13th January 2017

(7 years, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Civil Partnership Act 2004 (Amendment) Bill View all Civil Partnership Act 2004 (Amendment) Bill Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Second Reading
Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am very excited because, in almost 20 years in the House, this is the first time that a Bill of mine has ever got an airing on a Friday morning. That shows what can happen if we persevere, and I do hope the Minister is not going to spoil it when he gets up to signal his vast support for this very sensible and much needed measure.

The debate over the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 has passed. The Act has become law, and over 15,000 couples have taken advantage of that new opportunity. Whatever people on the opposite sides of the argument, then or now, think, the world has not fallen in. However, as some of us argued at the time, the extension of marriage then has unwittingly created a new inequality, and a Government who argued zealously that same-sex marriage was an equality issue seem to have rather lost interest when it comes to an equality that affects opposite-sex couples. That new inequality is that marriage is available to same-sex and opposite- sex couples, yet civil partnerships are available only to same-sex couples.

Philip Davies Portrait Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con)
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I absolutely support my hon. Friend’s Bill. He will recall that, at the time, the same-sex marriage Bill was known as the equal marriage Bill by many people. Does he agree that, for it to be truly an equal marriage Bill, it is essential that his Bill is enacted to make the situation properly equal as between homosexual and heterosexual couples?

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton
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I do agree, which is why, at the time, I argued that the amendment that forms part of the Bill would have prevented the inequality that was created, closed that loophole and made that Bill more acceptable for people who had difficulties with it. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab)
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Many constituents have contacted me about this issue—different-sex couples who wish to give legal recognition to their relationship but not necessarily to get married. Does the Bill not deal precisely with that situation?

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton
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That is right, and I will come on to explain precisely why the Bill is needed.

I have described the inequality, but some people may say, “Well, so what?” Opposite-sex couples have always been able to get married in a church or a register office —or even, now, in medieval castles, on exotic beaches, or, increasingly, wherever else takes their fancy. The problem is that a great many of these couples choose not to go down that traditional marriage route.

The Office for National Statistics estimates that there are just under 3 million cohabiting opposite-sex couples in this country—almost double the figure reported some 15 years earlier—of whom over a third, about 38%, have children. Indeed, cohabitation is the fastest growing form of family in the UK. We need to recognise that our society is changing, just as we did when recognising same-sex partnerships in law back in 2004. That was the right thing to do, and I enthusiastically supported it at the time. It was a glaring inequality and injustice that until then loving same-sex couples were not recognised in the eyes of the state and enjoyed no protections under the law. That anomaly was rightly addressed by this House back in 2004, and I was proud to be part of that.

People choose not to get involved in the paraphernalia of formal marriage for a variety of reasons. It is seen as too much of an establishment thing to do. For many, it is identified as an innately religious institution; even if done in a register office, it has religious connotations. Some see it as having a patriarchal side—as being some form of social control and not a proper partnership. Those are not my own views, necessarily, but they are certainly how many people see it. There are a whole lot of complex motives as to why many of our constituents do not go down the formal marriage route. They are mostly still in committed, loving relationships, but if they do not want to go for traditional marriage, they have no way of having those relationships recognised in the eyes of the state, just as was the case for same-sex couples pre-2004.

David Nuttall Portrait Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con)
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Can my hon. Friend think of any reason why all those who supported the same-sex marriage legislation would not want to support his Bill?

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton
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Absolutely not. At the time, my proposal, which I set out in an amendment, was the policy of the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats, and supported by a good many Conservative Members, but for various reasons people voted against it. The logic is that of course we would want to address this inequality.

There are also various practical reasons for doing this. Particularly worrying is the common misconception that there is such a thing as a common-law wife or common-law husband, as a woman typically finds out abruptly on the death of a partner when there is an inheritance tax bill on the estate and potentially on the family home.

Pauline Latham Portrait Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) (Con)
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Does my hon. Friend think that if people realised that there was no such thing as a common-law wife or husband, they would opt for this to give them the protection in law that they do not have currently so that they would not lose their home?

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton
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That is a very practical advantage of this Bill. There is a great deal of ignorance among constituents who think that they have these protections.

If a woman has a child with her partner and the relationship breaks down, she is not entitled to any automatic form of financial support if they are not married, and there is no automatic entitlement to property even if she had been paying into the mortgage. Surely couples should not be forced to choose between having no legal protection or entering into an institution that is not right for them.

Oliver Colvile Portrait Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con)
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The other issue that is incredibly important is dependency, whereby, for example, a daughter who is looking after her elderly mother finds that when her mother dies her home is therefore in danger. Is that not something else that needs to be looked at?

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton
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This is about the future maintenance of children. It is about an inheritance tax bill that happens all of a sudden that could lead to the sale of a property so that someone finds themselves, in effect, homeless. These are all potential dangers currently faced by people who are not in a formal, legally recognised relationship.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow (Taunton Deane) (Con)
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My hon. Friend is making a very sound case. I was fascinated to hear the current statistics on cohabiting. If we are to build a balanced society, bringing up our children in a fair and good way, surely it is very important to bring forward the ideas encompassed in this Bill in order to help society as a whole.

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton
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My hon. Friend pre-empts a large plank of my speech. Rather than let everybody pre-run what I want to say, I think I shall get on with saying it. Perhaps I will take some contributions at a later stage.

Returning to the problem that I have identified, when one partner is much older than the other and there is a reasonable expectation that they will die some years before the other, the long-term survivor would not receive the same tax benefits as a married person or someone in a civil partnership, which is also discriminatory towards the couple’s children. Even a couple who are engaged to be married have more rights than a cohabiting couple. Offering a formalised role within an opposite-sex civil partnership could save a lot of retrospective ignorance and the ensuing heartache and financial implications.

It is for those reasons of natural justice and protecting the rights of partners that I am yet again promoting a private Member’s Bill to extend civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples, which I have been trying to do since the change to the legislation back in 2013. There is a deal of déjà vu involved in my reappearance on the same subject here today.

Without Government support, the Bill is unlikely to make headway, despite the support of hon. Members from all parts of the House and a nationwide campaign that has so far attracted more than 71,000 signatures to a petition. I am particularly pleased that we have the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady), who is the chairman of the 1922 Committee, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). We have the support of hon. Members from just about every party represented in this House. The hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), who speaks for the official Opposition on equality matters, wrote on her blog:

“we have the chance to take another step in extending true equality, admittedly only in one aspect of our lives; choosing the type of partnership that best suits our needs, faith and aspirations.”

She gave her support and that of her party to the Bill, and is sorry she could not be here to give it in person.

Christina Rees Portrait Christina Rees (Neath) (Lab/Co-op)
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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing forward the Bill. I have supported this proposal for a long time, as it is all about equality. I had a private Member’s Bill, which did not get as far as his, that would have corrected another anomaly in the law by putting mothers’ names and occupations on marriage certificates. The hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) has taken up the mantle on that. The Bill before us is about equality. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, despite the result of the appeal in the High Court, which is being challenged, it is for this House to decide the matter because it is of great public interest?

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton
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The hon. Lady is right. I will refer to that case, which will go to appeal imminently, as she says. My Bill may not get much further than hers if I succeed in talking it out in the remaining minutes, so I will make some progress.

The Bill has high-profile supporters, including Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, the couple who instigated the campaign. I pay tribute to them. They appeared in the royal courts in London last November seeking to overturn the Government ban on different-sex civil partnerships, arguing that it is unfair because it treats people differently dependent on their sexuality.

By contrast and more recently, Claire Beale and Martin Loat became the first UK-based heterosexual couple to enter into a civil partnership in the British Isles. The catch is that they had to travel to the Isle of Man for the privilege. Bravely, the island recently made this reform to its legislation. While our British island cousins have made this step towards equality, the Government on the mainland of the United Kingdom claim, as they did when Rebecca and Charles first went to the High Court in January, and when I first tabled an amendment to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, that such a change would be costly and complicated. I just cannot see how or why.

I am not convinced by the Government’s excuses. This change is very straightforward. Just as with same-sex civil partnerships, it would not be possible for someone to become a civil partner with a close family member or someone who is already in a union. Such a union would need to be subject to the same termination criteria. All that is required is a simple one-line amendment to the Civil Partnership Act 2004, which is what my Bill would enact. That is why it is a very short, one-clause Bill. It could all be done and dusted in Committee by tea time.

Philip Davies Portrait Philip Davies
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Will my hon. Friend give way?

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton
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I will give way very briefly.

Philip Davies Portrait Philip Davies
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I promise not to interrupt my hon. Friend again. Obviously, the other way of equalising the law would be to ban civil partnerships for gay couples. Would he be in favour of equalising the law in that way?

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton
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That would indeed provide equality and close the loophole, but it would be a retrograde step. For the reasons I mentioned, some couples do not want to go down the formal marriage route, whether they are of the same sex or opposite sexes. We would therefore be denying the civil partnerships to an awful lot of people. Many people have chosen to go down that route and many have chosen not to convert a same-sex civil partnership into a marriage, which they can now do.

Clearly, they have reasons why civil partnership suits them, but those of the opposite sex cannot have that same privilege if it suits them better than traditional marriage. My hon. Friend suggests one way of doing it, but there would be serious downsides.

In the Government’s original consultation before the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, 61% of respondents were in favour of extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. Alas, for some inexplicable reason, it never made it into the legislation, which would have made it a better and fairer Act. Other hon. Members and I wrote recently to the Secretary of State for Education, who is also the Minister for Women and Equalities. In her reply on why the Government do not support the measure, she said that, as part of the exercise after the Act was introduced, the Government examined whether or not people supported extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples and found that the majority did not. However, a clear majority in a more extensive consultation before the Act did support the extension. Why do those views no longer count?

Aside from the equality question, there is a further major practical benefit of opening up civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples: family stability, which my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) mentioned. The Centre for Social Justice has calculated that the cost to this country of family breakdown is some £48 billion each and every year, or some 2.5% of gross domestic product. That is a big, growing and costly problem—it is costly both financially and socially.

Fewer than one in 10 married parents have split up by the time a child reaches the age of five, compared with more than one in three of those who are cohabiting but not married, and 75% of family breakdowns involving children under five result from the separation of unmarried parents. There are all sorts of statistics showing that those children are more susceptible to not doing well at school and not ending up in good jobs, and that they have problems with housing, mental health and so on. That is not to be judgmental about parents who find themselves having to bring up a child alone through no fault of their own, but two partners make for greater stability.

We know that marriage works, but we also know that civil partnerships are beginning to show evidence of greater stability for same-sex couples, including those who have children, be it through adoption, surrogacy or whatever. There is a strong case for believing that extending civil partnerships would improve that stability for many more families in different ways. If just one in 10 cohabiting opposite-sex couples entered into a civil partnership, it would cover some 300,000 couples and their children. It would offer the prospect of yet greater security and stability, less likelihood of family breakdown, and better social and financial outcomes. That, surely, is progress, and would be particularly good for children in those families.

There is a further application. Many people who have strong religious beliefs, particularly Catholics, who end up getting divorced, which is in conflict with certain religious teachings, may not be inclined to get married again if they meet a new partner because their Church supposedly believes that they should be married for life. In many cases, however, they would be able to reconcile that position by entering into a new formal commitment through an opposite-sex civil partnership. There are a number of practical real-life scenarios in which civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples could achieve something very positive that would not be available to those loving couples otherwise.

Opposite-sex civil partnerships have not been cooked up haphazardly in this country. In South Africa, the Civil Union Act 2006 gave same-sex and opposite-sex couples the option to register a civil union by way of a marriage or a civil partnership on the same basis. In France, the pacte civil de solidarité, or PACS as it is known, was introduced in 1999 as a form of civil union between two adults of the same sex or the opposite sex. Gay marriage has been added. Interestingly, one in 10 PACS has been dissolved in France, while one in three—many more—marriages ends in divorce. There is evidence that some of those civil partnerships have created greater stability, whether they are opposite-sex or same-sex partnerships. In countries such as the Netherlands, where marriage and civil partnerships are open to all, the vast majority of different sex couples continue to choose marriage, so the measure in no way tries to undermine the traditional partnership of marriage. A significant minority choose civil partnerships, so surely UK couples should have that choice.

In the many years I have been banging away on this subject, support for the campaign has grown. The London Assembly recently gave its unanimous support to the change in the law and passed a motion that states:

“The Assembly notes that whilst same-sex couples are able to form a civil partnership, different-sex couples cannot.

The Assembly acknowledges that approximately one in five households in London consist of a cohabiting different-sex couple.

The Assembly believes that the current legal situation which prevents different-sex couples from forming a civil partnership is unfair and prevents these couples from being able to get legal recognition for their relationship in a way that matches their values.

The Assembly recognises that City Hall has often been at the forefront of efforts to extend rights and liberties: in 2000 it introduced the first ever registration scheme for same-sex couples.

The Assembly calls on the Mayor to support the equal civil partnerships campaign and urges him to make representations to the government for a change in the law if the Court of Appeal rejects Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan’s appeal against the High Court’s decision to reject their application to form a civil partnership.”

Last week, there was a very supportive article in the Solicitors Journal, which referred to the current anomaly as “discriminatory”. Marilyn Stowe, the senior partner at Stowe Family Law, said:

“To some couples the concept of marriage is outdated. They do not wish to marry but equally seek a legally recognised civil union where vows and promises to each other are not required.”

There is, therefore, a lot of support for this measure. I have received many emails from couples around the country who are waiting for this change in the law to be able to signal in the eyes of the public, their friends, the law and the state that they are part of a loving, secure and sustainable long-term union. It is just a different arrangement from that which many other people choose.

I would like to quote from two emails I have received in recent days:

“Dear Mr Loughton, my partner and I have lived together for 25 years. We are not religious, nor do we feel a registry wedding is suitable for us. We have worked full-time and very hard all our adult lives and feel we deserve the recognition that other couples enjoy. As we get older”—

they are in their 50s—

“we feel we deserve the financial and long-term benefits that are given to other couples who have contributed to this great nation, but we are currently being denied these rights.”

The second email reads:

“My male partner and I”—

she is female—

“have lived together for 38 years. We do not wish to marry for many reasons, for example my mother was very adversely affected by marriage in the days when women were immediately ejected from their careers upon marrying, and rape in a marriage was legal until 1991. My mother’s advice was ‘try to enjoy it, as it might reduce the physical damage.’ But we do want a civil partnership. We are now both dependent on our pensions, but if my partner died tomorrow, heaven forefend, I would not be recognised by his pension provider and would receive nothing from them. If we had a civil partnership, they would recognise my claim.”

That is just another example of the instability facing loving couples—in this case, they have been together for 38 years—if one of them dies, because the state does not recognise their relationship.

We need to close this anomaly. I do not understand why the Government have reneged, effectively, on their promise, after the Same Sex Marriage Act, to pursue this properly and to draw an end to the inadvertent inequality that has come about through that Act. Regardless of the Act, there is a case for extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples for the whole raft of positive reasons that I have set out in my short comments today. If the Government are to allow people to be as free as possible to make their own decisions without harming the freedom of others, what on earth are they doing failing to make it lawful for people of the opposite sex who happen to love each other to enter into a civil partnership, when they allow that very same freedom to people of the same sex? The current situation is unfair, illogical and needs to change. That is exactly what my Bill will do with minimum fuss and that is why I commend it to the House today.

Rupa Huq Portrait Dr Rupa Huq (Ealing Central and Acton) (Lab)
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I rise to support the Bill on behalf of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition. The Bill has genuine cross-party support. It is backed by colleagues who voted on both sides of the argument on same-sex marriage in 2013, including the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). He made a very powerful case. Indeed, he has nicked many of the points I want to make in my speech. Over 72,000 people have now signed the online petition—I think he has slightly old figures.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Martin Loat and Claire Beale. They are my constituents—they live in the next road to me in Ealing—and, as he pointed out, they were the first people in the British Isles to enter into a civil partnership. However, they had to go to the Isle of Man to do that. I am sure the Isle of Man is a lovely place, but if the Bill is passed, no one will have to make that journey again. [Laughter.] Let me say, before people write to me from the Isle of Man, that I am sure it is lovely. I have never been there. [Interruption.] I am going to crack on, because my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) is going to speak about workers’ rights, we hope and pray.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the London Assembly, and its unanimous vote in favour of this move. Early-day motion 619 expresses genuine cross-party support, from Democratic Unionists as well as the usual suspects. This is clearly a matter of public interest that the Government ought to revisit.

As has already been pointed out, it is a matter of equality. Civil partnerships currently exist only for same-sex couples in the United Kingdom, but in a democracy, all people should be equal before the law. I am proud to say that my party has authored much of our anti-discrimination legislation: the Race Relations Act 1976, the equal pay legislation, the legislation that abolished the heinous section 28, and the Equality Act 2010. The Bill seems to me to be a logical next step.

Civil partnerships were a new Labour creation in the first place. They were ground-breaking at the time, allowing LGBT people to have their loving relationships recognised by law and to enjoy the same benefits as married couples. The present anomaly is, I think, an unintended consequence that was necessary on the long and winding road to equal marriage, and it needs to be rectified now. Although civil partnerships represented a huge step forward in 2004, that was 13 years ago, and it is now time to open them up to all.

As we have heard, that could easily be done. The Bill is very short: it consists of only a couple of lines. All that we need to do is delete the words “of the same sex” from the Civil Partnership Act 2004. No new law is necessary; this would merely be an extension of what is already on offer. The Equal Civil Partnerships campaign estimates that 2.9 million people are in partnerships and, for whatever reason—a long list of reasons has been given today—choose not to marry, although the figure may be higher, and that 39% of them have dependent children.

When same-sex marriage became legal, many gay couples in civil partnerships had an upgrade, “trading up” to full marriage. Here we have the opposite case. We are talking about people who want to take a leaner, modern, 21st-century option, affording their families the same legal protections. Fairness, consistency and equity in legislation: who would disagree with any of that?

Back in 2013, my party tabled an amendment stating that the Government should consult on allowing all couples access to civil partnerships as soon as possible following the passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. Since then, however, the Government seem to have found all sorts of pretexts for not granting access to civil partnerships for all, or even revisiting the issue in a serious way. They have argued that the results of their consultation were inconclusive, and that they must await the outcome of pending legal action before they can possibly reopen the issue. To the outside world, all that sounds like excuses.

We can look further afield to other jurisdictions. A French case has been mentioned. When I was an international student in France more than 20 years ago, the term was “concubinage”. The French thought it was completely normal, and could not understand why we did not have it here. I could go into all the complexities of international law, but there are academic papers out there that people can google. Articles 8 and 14 of the European convention on human rights—thankfully, we are still in it, and it seems likely that we will not be leaving in any great hurry—promise equality in the application of the convention and freedom in relation to family life. It could be argued that the current law contravenes those provisions. Case law shows that our Government have been on the wrong side of the convention on previous occasions. We do not want a repetition of the waste of public expenditure and time that featured in, for instance, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions v. M.

I shall not eat up any more time. In short, this is the right thing to do. As my constituents Claire and Martin put it,

“Imagine two houses: one says marriage and one says CP on the front. All couples are allowed in the first house, but only gay couples are allowed in the second. Now heterosexual couples like us just want to be let in to the second house, too.”

For the sake of fairness, equality, the tangible benefits that would flow from it and the right of couples to choose the type of partnership that best suits their needs, faith and aspirations, we support the Bill and urge the Government to revisit this matter without further delay.

David Morris Portrait David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Con)
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This has been a fantastic day for private Members’ Bills, and I believe that this Bill will be welcomed across the land. It really is time for us to address this issue, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for securing this date in order to explain his Bill to the House.

My personal feeling is that if people love each other—same sex, heterosexual, it does not matter—it should be entirely up to them if they wish to enter into an agreement or partnership. The law should accommodate any partnership that is legally binding, especially when it comes down to the sharing of property. If, God forbid, one partner should be left behind—either, sadly, through death or for other reasons—they should be legally covered. I know that the previous Government moved mountains to achieve equality by introducing legislation on same-sex marriage, but the question of civil partnerships should now be looked at more intently and as a matter of urgency. My hon. Friend has spoken eloquently and at length today about his wish to see his Bill become law, and I, too, commend it to the House.

Kevin Foster Portrait Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con)
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I am conscious of the time, so I shall keep my remarks fairly brief. I am planning to get married in June, and I am interested to see this Bill. Hazel and I feel that marriage in a church is the right choice for us, but I know that there are others who feel it is not for them and who wish to go down the path of entering into a civil partnership.

It is good to see the newest member of the Women and Equalities Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), here on a Friday and taking his duty to be a champion for equality seriously. He makes his points strongly. I note that some other Members who might have liked to speak on this subject have not found the time to join us today.

For me, this is about giving people a choice. The Minister might like to reflect on the fact that this links into a wider debate. There is a debate to be had about civil partnerships and civil marriage—obviously, the situation is different for those who want a religious marriage—in relation to if and how we continue the system. If it does continue, it would be strange for civil partnerships to be retained purely as an arrangement for same-sex couples. I think we probably all take the view that that situation should not be maintained in the long term. Perhaps the Minister could also tell us what impact the extension of marriage to same-sex couples has had on the numbers of civil partnerships taking place.

Civil partnerships originated as a bit of a compromise, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) rightly said. At the time, it was felt that legislation on same-sex marriage would not get through, but this arrangement at least gave legal protection to long-standing same-sex couples. There had been numerous notorious examples of families suddenly developing rather Victorian attitudes towards a loved one or relative who had been in a same-sex relationship when they realised that certain legal precedents might help them to get hold of assets and property. Civil partnerships were originally brought in to stop such behaviour and to give people the certainty of legal protection. Then, some years later, the momentous step was taken to equalise marriage in a civil sense, and same-sex couples are now able to be married under the law just as opposite-sex couples can be.

I welcome the Bill. It is right that we should have a debate about what types of relationships we recognise in law. The only thing on which I slightly disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham is that those who seek religious relationships may be disappointed in that civil partnerships will probably be viewed in many parts of the Church as almost equivalent to being married if such a commitment is made. However, whatever my personal religious beliefs may be, they should not affect the legal definition of the type of relationship that someone has. That was certainly something that Hazel and I reflected on in our discussions given what we were looking to do, but we found that the views on marriage of the Catholic Church or the Church of England do not necessarily reflect the position of the law of land, which has been the case since 1836 when the concept of civil marriage was created.

Finally, it is a sadness that it is currently unlikely that I will be able to have my mother’s name on the marriage certificate, but I will sit down now not only because I want to let the Minister speak, but because I will be hanging around until 2.30 pm in the hope that some legislation on that front may be able to make progress as well.

Robert Halfon Portrait The Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills (Robert Halfon)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on introducing this Bill. He said that this was the first time that he has been able to speak on a private Member’s Bill—[Interruption.]

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton
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On my own.

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon
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On his own. Given that this is about civil partnerships and marriage, I congratulate my hon. Friend on losing his virginity with this Bill.

My hon. Friend talked about the 2014 consultation, which ran during the time that same-sex marriage was introduced. There were 11,500 respondents, 76% of whom opposed extending civil partnerships. The Government’s position is that we want to see what happens and to look at the data before taking any further decisions on the matter.

My hon. Friend also said that marriage has patriarchal and religious associations, but the concept of marriage has moved on from when women were considered chattel. Civil marriage ceremonies are available to all couples and contain no religious element. In fact, when I got married a few months ago, we had the “The Wizard of Oz” playing and a tin man in the registry office. Civil ceremonies can be personalised by the couple, which is exactly what we did, to include non-religious words and vows. There is no requirement for a couple to take vows to honour or obey each other. The only requirement is that the marriage takes place in the presence of witnesses and that the ceremony includes the statutory declarations and contracting words. It is no longer for everybody a religious and patriarchal way of making a commitment.

The Government have rightly taken great pride in championing equality for all. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act was passed in 2013 and during the passage of the legislation the question arose of whether, if marriage was available to same-sex couples, civil partnerships should be open to opposite-sex couples as a matter of equality. My hon. Friend pointed out that the Government considered the issue at the time and decided that it would be a mistake to rush to amend the Civil Partnership Act 2004 owing to the unknown, untested effects on myriad legislation spanning areas such as pensions, devolution, international recognition, gender recognition, adultery and consummation. At the time, the House recognised that to invite such risk would be irresponsible and that the unforeseen issues that may arise, as with all issues that come from great legislative change, will take time to identify, understand and account for, lest we burden the public with expensive, ineffective laws.

I mentioned the consultation and the number of people who responded to say that they wanted no change to civil partnerships. My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who introduced his brilliant Bill, as the Minister for Digital and Culture said, with real panache earlier, also asked about civil partnerships. There has been an 85% decrease in the number of civil partnerships since 2013. In 2015 there were 861 civil partnerships, compared with 5,646 in 2013.

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton
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I understand what the Minister is saying, but all the potential legislative implications of my Bill are no less than, and no different from, the implications of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act itself for laws that had to be changed. Those changes were rushed through in a space of months, whereas we have had several years to think about this. It is almost three years since the consultation, and I repeat that there was a big consultation before the Act was introduced in which the majority said that they wanted civil partnerships to be extended to opposite-sex couples. How much longer will we have to wait?

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon
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My hon. Friend and other hon. Members will know that there are ongoing legal proceedings. I am sure he would agree that it is right for the Government to wait to see the Court’s judgment. It is fairly reasonable to say that, as the Court is considering this issue, the Government should wait to see what happens. His Bill would amend the Civil Partnership Act so that opposite-sex couples can form civil partnerships. As has been highlighted, he has tabled the proposal previously, and in response the Government tabled their own amendment to require formal review of the operation and future of the 2004 Act in England and Wales once marriage became possible for same-sex couples.

One reason for the Government moving their own amendment is that the impact on demand for civil partnerships caused by the extension of marriage to same-sex couples could not be predicted. When civil partnerships were introduced, there was a peak in the first year, and it took only a couple more years before the numbers started to stabilise. The coalition Government said at the time of the 2013 Act that we expected an early rush to marry for same-sex couples from 29 March 2014, when the Act came into force, and for there to be a similar initial peak in the number of same-sex couples wishing to convert their civil partnership to a marriage from 10 December 2014.

The coalition Government also believed that some couples might take much longer to decide between civil partnership and marriage if they wanted a legal relationship or, in particular, to decide whether conversion to marriage was a step they wished to take. Even now, it is still too early to tell whether that will happen in practice.

That is not the only reason why the Government now believe that my hon. Friend’s proposals would require significant further work. I will take each reason in turn: the legislative complexity introduced by a change to the law; the difficulty in estimating the size of the challenge in successfully making such a change; complications introduced by marriage being a devolved matter; treatment of other overseas relationships; the reaction of religious communities and stakeholders; and finding parliamentary time during this Parliament.

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton
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I understand that every single one of those considerations applied to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, which was taken through Parliament in a matter of months. Three years on, why is that an impediment?

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon
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There is always the law of unintended consequences, as I am sure my hon. Friend would acknowledge, and it is right that the Government make sure that all these avenues are carefully looked at before making any further changes to the law. That is not an unreasonable position.

My hon. Friend will know that marriage law is an inordinately complex landscape. References to marriage and civil partnerships are peppered through the entire body of law in this country. If we were to change the Civil Partnership Act to amend the definition of a civil partnership so that the term, wherever it appears in legislation, means a relationship between both same-sex and opposite-sex couples, we would need carefully and methodically to assess the impact of the change on all other relevant legislation where the term appears. We would need to check every position in all relevant legislation to ensure that the legislation still works as intended and, if not, to provide for consequential amendment of that legislation.

Let me give the House an indication of the complexity of this task. Policy decisions would need to be made by a number of Departments on issues such as pensions and benefit entitlements of same-sex couples entering into civil partnerships, the dissolution of civil partnerships for same-sex couples and the rights of same-sex couples in relation to assisted conception. In each case, the question would be whether—

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No.11(2)).
Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 24 March 2017.