Mr Ben Wallace contributions to the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Act 2019

Fri 15th March 2019 Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Bill (Commons Chamber)
Ping Pong: House of Commons
4 interactions (920 words)

Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Bill

(Ping Pong: House of Commons)
Mr Ben Wallace Excerpts
Friday 15th March 2019

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Bill Main Page
Home Office
Karen Lee (Lincoln) (Lab) Hansard
15 Mar 2019, 11:10 a.m.

I associate myself and my hon. Friends with the comments about the terrible events in New Zealand. I am sure everyone’s prayers and thoughts are with them.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) again on introducing this important Bill, and I am grateful for the great work of our colleagues in the other place to improve it further. The Opposition are pleased to see that the duty to investigate deaths in certain circumstances will be extended to the death of newborns of any age, including those who die immediately after birth.

My sister had a baby who was stillborn, and I know at first hand just how traumatic it is. I know the huge sense of grief, loss and emptiness. People think that, because a parent did not know the baby, it is somehow different, but it is not—it is really not.

As I have previously indicated in the Chamber, the UK has a woefully high number of stillbirths for a western country. I have worked in reproductive services in the NHS, and I have seen at first hand how traumatic stillbirths can be for mothers. We need to do more to support mothers and to prevent stillbirths. We agree that stillbirths that occur before 24 weeks should be formally acknowledged and registered, but I reiterate that by no means would we want to see such a measure used to undermine abortion rights and a woman’s right to choose.

I spoke in an earlier stage of the Bill in this House, and I remain proud that civil partnerships were a landmark policy introduced by Labour. My party has fought for the equal rights of LGBTQ+ people, and it was our Civil Partnership Act 2004 that paved the way for same-sex marriage. This Bill should be the final step in creating equality in the formal recognition of relationships, but while I am pleased that we are nearly there, it is obvious that we have not quite arrived.

Times have changed since the days when Labour Members cautiously did not push to further extend civil partnerships during the passage of the 2004 Act for fear of losing it altogether. I remember we were met with much hostility, but we were on a mission to ensure some level of equality as quickly as possible, and we achieved just that. With changing times, however, must come a change in how we approach matters of equality.

We welcome the Government’s willingness on suitable amendments to draw up appropriate regulations for equal civil partnerships by the end of 2019, but I must share the concern of my colleagues in the other place that they may be using consultations to drag their feet. We cannot wait any longer. I agree on the importance of gathering information, but it should not be used as a delaying tactic. The measures in the Bill are long overdue, and we will do a disservice to all those we are meant to represent if we do not get on with the job of ensuring equality.

On the issues of marriage more generally, I echo the concern of Members in the other place about the failure to deliver equal marriage for all citizens in the UK—namely, in Northern Ireland. I also reiterate the concerns about humanist marriages. The Government held a consultation in which more than 90% of respondents were in favour of legally recognised humanist marriages. Surely there is nothing inconclusive about such a response. Further, in 2015, the Law Commission reported that failing to grant humanists the same rights as religious people in marriage was fundamentally unfair. With the Northern Irish Court of Appeal ruling in June 2018 that there is a human right to a humanist marriage, I hope that Ministers will get on with the job of ensuring that humanist marriages are also recognised in England and Wales.

It is disappointing that the Government, having joined us in passing same-sex marriages, have previously made excuses for not expanding civil partnerships to all couples. One of these was inconclusive consultations. This is precisely why we accept them hesitantly. Some voices still suggest that we abolish civil partnerships altogether. This would definitely be a step backwards. It is our job as lawmakers to give further protections to our constituents, not to claw them back. The institution of marriage is not for everyone, and it is wrong to prevent those who want their relationship recognised in the eyes of society and the law from having it so recognised. It can put them and their families in legally challenging situations.

In conclusion, we in the Opposition support the Bill, as we have done throughout its passage. We ask only that the Government act to expedite these measures, which clearly have the support of the British public.

Mr Ben Wallace Portrait The Minister for Security and Economic Crime (Mr Ben Wallace) - Parliament Live - Hansard
15 Mar 2019, 11:22 a.m.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for his thorough explanation of clause 2 as it now stands in the Bill. I also pay tribute to him and his co-promoter, Baroness Hodgson, who guided the Bill so expertly through the other place, for their commitment to the vital issues that the Bill seeks to address, including the extension of civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples.

The Government are very supportive of clause 2 and the policy intentions behind it. I would like to answer the concern voiced earlier about the difference between “may” and “must”. Clause 1 confers a power to make regulation, but clause 2(2) imposes an obligation to exercise that power by 31 December 2019. I hope that sets at rest those concerns arising from this long and often held debate about “may” and “must”.

I thank my hon. Friend and Baroness Hodgson for the open and receptive way in which they have worked with the Government, officials and others to improve the drafting of the clause. As my hon. Friend outlined, clause 2 now requires the Secretary of State to make regulations to extend civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples by no later than 31 December 2019 and empowers the Secretary of State to make other provisions in view of the extension of eligibility.

There remains much work for the Government to do before then. There are some complex implementation issues that will need to be considered in the coming months, including: the formation, dissolution and voiding of civil partnerships; considering what religious protections should be put in place; the implications for private sector, state and public sector pensions; other financial entitlements, including tax credits, capital gains tax and housing benefit; international recognition of relationships formed here and abroad; the consequences for a civil partnership of one partner seeking a gender recognition certificate; a series of devolution issues; conversion rights between civil partnerships and marriages and vice versa; checking the many thousands of existing references to civil partnerships across the statute book; and drafting the necessary amendments, scrutinising and laying the regulations, and scheduling time for debates in Parliament. This is because the Civil Partnership Act 2004 is bespoke to same-sex couples and simply amending that legislation will not give opposite-sex couples the necessary rights, protections and entitlements.

It is also important that we take the views of the public and stakeholders on many of these issues to ensure that we exercise the regulation-making powers to create a new civil partnership regime that works for opposite-sex couples, that is fair and that is human rights compliant. Previous experience suggests that we are likely to receive thousands of responses to the consultation, and we will need to allow time to consider these and for the Government to respond.

That said, the Government are committed to changing the eligibility requirements for civil partnerships by the end of the year. This is very much an end date, rather than a target, and we are working to implement the new regime at the earliest opportunity. Our aim is that by the end of this year opposite-sex couples will be able to register and form civil partnerships. I hope that hon. Members will support my hon. Friend’s amendments, which will enable the Government to make the necessary changes so that opposite-sex couples will finally be able to express their commitment to each other in the way that best suits them.

Throughout this debate, many colleagues across the House have contributed and paid tribute to my hon. Friend and the good work that the Bill is trying to do. I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and for Harborough (Neil O'Brien) and especially to my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), who gave a moving account of his mother and the desire to see her name on his marriage certificate. I am also grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) and for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) and to the Opposition Front-Bench team.

The Government have no intention of dragging their feet. It will come as no surprise to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that this is not a normal part of my portfolio as Security Minister, but I asked in preparation for this debate what exactly would take time to implement.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge - Hansard
15 Mar 2019, 11:27 a.m.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this measure will bring security to a great many people?

Mr Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace - Hansard
15 Mar 2019, 11:28 a.m.

I think we all need stability these days, and this will definitely add to that. Stability in our relationships is incredibly important. We all aspire to that as a good basis for our society. Strong personal relationships will lead to a strong society, and I fully endorse the aims of the Bill.

I rarely attend private Members’ days, but it is nice at this time—with the awful goings-on in Christchurch and the goings-on outside in this divided country—to see a succession of Bills, especially this one, that are about doing some good in people’s lives, which is what everyone across the House wants to do. I am incredibly pleased to have been a part of that in these few short hours. It is easy to forget that Members of Parliament, who are denigrated and now targeted and ridiculed at both ends of the political spectrum, more often than not do good things together to make people’s lives better, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend who has steered through both Houses a Bill that will make a difference for the good to many people’s lives.

Lords amendment 1 agreed to.

Lords amendments 2 to 6 agreed to.