Extending Civil Partnerships to Opposite Sex couples

The committee of MPs considering the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill got down to the serious work of line by line debate this morning. By late afternoon we had agreed the first clause, establishing that marriage between same sex couples is lawful. Three Tory MPs and the sole DUP member voted against. All Lib Dem and Labour MPs voted in favour.

While the Bill is receiving this detailed scrutiny MPs have the opportunity to move amendments and new clauses. At the end of this afternoons sitting I introduced two new clauses, enabling the extension of existing civil partnership law to opposite sex couples. This has initiated a debate that will continue when the Bill returns to the full House of Commons in late March, when a vote will be taken. Here’s what I said, as extracted from the Hansard record. My opening remark about cricket was made as we had sat through several tedious long winded speeches from Tory MP David Burrowes, one of the lead opponents of marriage equality, who’s speeches are littered with cricket metaphors…

The Chair:

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 1—Part 1 of the Civil Partnership Act 2004—

‘(1) Part 1 of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 is amended as follows.

(2) In section 1, subsection (1), leave out “of the same sex”.’.

New clause 2—Part 2 of the Civil Partnership Act 2004—

‘(1) Part 2 of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 is amended as follows.

(2) In section 3, subsection (1), after “if—”, leave out—

“(a) they are not of the same sex”.’.

>Stephen Williams

I promise the Committee that there will be no cricket metaphors, analogies or references in my speech. On one of the occasions I appeared in the Daily Mail sketch, Mr Letts said, “Mr Williams is just the sort of man who you know will be absolutely no good at cricket.” I think it was meant as an insult, but he was actually very accurate, as my games teacher from school could no doubt confirm.

The Bill is about extending the institution of marriage to same-sex couples and, from that perspective, about equalities and civil rights. New clauses 1 and 2 would complete the circle of equality by extending the rather more recent institution of civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. I shall advance three reasons why I hope the Committee will consider that this is a good proposal. More importantly, by the time that we get to Report, I hope that the Government will either embrace the new clauses or table provisions of their own to put the proposal into effect.

The first reason is that we should have parity of esteem between civil partnerships and civil marriage—a parallel legal and societal recognition of loving, sexual and exclusive relationships between two consenting adults. Civil partnerships will remain after the Bill is enacted. The Government must have considered whether to abolish them, perhaps at some point in the future, but they have decided not to do so. They will therefore remain for the couples who have them as a legal recognition of their relationships. Same-sex couples will still be able to enter into new civil partnerships under the Bill. Some of the existing holders of civil partnerships may decide to convert them into a civil marriage, or even into a religious marriage, if their denomination or faith opts into the provisions of the Bill.

I describe that process deliberately as a conversion. I do not see converting from a civil partnership to a civil marriage or even a religious marriage as trading up. I do not think that marriage is necessarily the gold standard. It would be regrettable if, after the Bill’s enactment, people who have civil partnerships and do not wish for whatever reason to convert them into civil or religious marriages feel that they are somehow members of a residual class of relationship that declines in importance as more people take up civil and religious marriages. Parliament should not only continue with civil partnerships for same-sex couples, but extend the opportunity to enter into a civil partnership to opposite-sex couples.

The second reason is that there may be some demand from opposite-sex couples to take up a civil partnership, as opposed to the civil or religious marriages that are already available to them. Modern Britain has many different households and we are a very diverse society. We have many people who live alone and are in no particular relationship. We have single-parent families. We also have families with children who have two fathers or two mothers, as well as the more traditional family units of which I have no doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate would approve. We therefore need modern laws that recognise the sort of relationships that people have in modern Britain.

The latest Office for National Statistics report on household structures in the UK that is relevant to this debate is from 1 November 2012. It is entitled “Cohabitation in the UK” and shows that there are 2,893,000 opposite-sex couples in the UK who are not married. That figure is up from 1,459,000 in 1996, when the figure was previously reported, so between 1996 to 2012, the number of opposite-sex cohabiting couples doubled. Almost 6 million people are in relationships and living under the same roof, but not married, and that is the fastest growing type of family unit in the UK. Among different age groups, it is fastest growing among those aged over 65, who are clearly not entering into such relationships to have children.

While those 6 million people are currently cohabiting, as society sees it, but unmarried, as far as the law sees it, they are none the less in committed relationships. They share a home and there will quite possibly be children in the household. We can speculate about why people would choose to do that. It could be inertia, because they might have decided that their existing relationship works fine for them and see no reason to change it. It might even be cost, and I am sure that the Chancellor will have received representations about that prior to the Budget, perhaps even from several hon. Members in the room, who might wish to intervene to say that tax is the reason why people do not enter into a marriage. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate will tell us.

Mr Burrowes:

I am hoping that my hon. Friend will be able to tell me. I understand that Stonewall attended the Lib Dem conference in 2010 and pointed out that the extension that he seeks would cost £5 billion over 10 years. I am not sure where that figure came from, but is he aware of it? Has he been able to assess the likely cost of his proposal?

>Stephen Williams:

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I was not aware of the figure. No doubt the Minister will give us reasons why the Government have chosen not to extend civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples under the Bill. Cost may well be one reason, but perhaps it is not the most compelling one.

Six million people are currently cohabiting in a relationship, perhaps living with children. While that might be due to inertia or cost, I suspect, in many cases, that it is simply a conscious decision that people have made, perhaps because they have an objection to the historical institution of marriage, as it has been defined over time. After the Bill becomes an Act, the perception of marriage might change. However, it has been put to me that many people see the current institution of marriage as a means of social control to which the equal rights of women have been a relatively recent addition.

People in the room, such as the hon. Member for Rhondda, are much more qualified than me to talk about the marriage ceremony. I believe that the phrase “love, honour and obey” has disappeared from the marriage service or is not usually an option any more, but it none the less it lives on in folklore and memory.

I am sure that all of us on the Committee can think of people, perhaps friends or members of our families—certainly several members of Bristol council—in long-term relationships in opposite-sex couples, perhaps living with children, who have chosen not to marry. If we passed the new clauses, those couples could have the option of entering into a civil partnership to give recognition to their commitment and, by that legal underpinning, perhaps also strengthen it, especially if there are children.

4.45 pm

The ONS report to which I referred says that, in 2012, 39% of unmarried couples had at least one child in their household compared with 38% of married couples. The latest statistics from the registrar of births, marriages and deaths show that, in 2010, 53% of birth registrations were to parents who were married. Some 31% of registrations were to unmarried parents who live together, while the remaining 16% were to parents living separately or when the father was not identified for whatever reason.

It is therefore clear that marriage is not necessarily about procreation, and a number of people who enter into marriages do not procreate. Equally, a large number of family units in the United Kingdom certainly do procreate but, for whatever reason, choose not to enter into the existing institution of marriage that is legally available to them. Roughly four out of 10 unmarried couples choose to have children and roughly a third of children are born to unmarried parents living together. Extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples would give legal recognition to such family units.

The third reason behind the proposal is that the legal rights of unmarried couples, or couples who are not in a civil partnership, are not equal to those of couples who are married or in civil partnerships. There is no such thing—certainly in the law of England and Wales—as a common-law husband, wife or partner. While I was reading up on this, I discovered that even a couple who are engaged to be married—as long as there is an indication of clear intention, perhaps by buying a ring—have greater legal protection than a cohabiting couple. That is provided for under the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1970, with which I am sure that at least one of the Ministers in the room is very familiar—or is about to be, if they are not.

At present, unmarried opposite-sex couples can have separation deeds or can enter into cohabitation contracts. These existing societal arrangements seem to offer very good work for solicitors. We have all heard of pre-nuptials for people who are considering entering into marriage—I understand that some family lawyers refer to these agreements as no-nuptials—in order to protect existing property rights. An obvious example would be where a man—it probably would be a man in many cases—owns a house and his girlfriend moves in. They may live together for many years, but if that relationship breaks up at some point in the future, the girlfriend would have absolutely no rights if there had been no intention to marry and they had not been engaged. Even if there were children present, they would still need to have recourse to the courts under the Children Act 1989 to try to establish rights to what everyone else would see as the family home. Extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples, particularly if children were present, would provide for protection under the law much more easily.

This Bill is about equality and civil rights, but it would be perverse to pass it unamended and thereby create a new excluded minority—a large, 6 million-strong minority—who cannot enter into a civil partnership if they wish to do so. During our evidence sessions, many of us asked the witnesses whether they supported, or saw any objection to, civil partnerships being extended to opposite-sex couples. I do not recall a single witness who replied negatively. Some were neutral, but nobody put forward an opinion of why we should not do this. Indeed, Baroness Kennedy and Lord Pannick said the Bill would be much better if this extension were included.

The new clauses represent no harm to society, but could be an opportunity to create much happiness in the country. It is very rare that parliamentarians are able to vote on things that do not represent any harm but have the potential to create much happiness, so I hope that we will embrace that opportunity at some point.

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