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Extending Civil Partnerships to Opposite Sex couples

February 26, 2013

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.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. February 27, 2013 8:37 am

    So, not being a Hansard enthusiast, I think I’ve picked out your three points:
    1) because it furthers the concept of “equality”;
    2) because “… there may be some demand for it …”; and
    3) because there is some social stigma or discomfort with the concept or word of “marriage”.

    It strikes me that your three points all point towards a particular question which you have not addressed: what is the difference in rights and responsibilities between entering into a marriage or entering into a civil partnership? There is no point talking about how unmarried and un-civil-partnered people have fewer rights and protections. What is at the crux of your amendments is that something different happens when you get married, that happens differently if you get c-partnered. Are there differences in tax, child responsibility, inheritence, property rights?

    Please explain.

    Richard Fox

  2. February 27, 2013 9:22 am

    The legal rights are virtually identical. But the institutions are perceived differently. There are 6 million people in co-habitation relationships who have chosen not to get married. Some would undoubtedly prefer a civil partnership. As I conclude, no harm but potentially a lot of good. So no risk taken by Parliament in proceeding as I’ve suggested.

  3. Nick Lowe permalink
    February 27, 2013 12:42 pm

    Rather than keeping two parallel systems, which makes little sense to me, has the committee considered that it might instead retire civil partnerships to new applicants if-and-when equal marriage rights become available? Those that exist could then be converted to a marriage, if so desired, by those that have them and the new formation of civil partnerships would not be available.

    While the difference between a civil partnership and a marriage is, for the most part, a semantic one, there are important, emotionally loaded distinguishing factors: the term marriage is presently imbued with a cultural significance that civil partnerships are not, and no longer would I and other same sex couples instead be offered something that is separate-but-equal, which is not equality at all.

    I am a gay male, 27, and in a long term relationship. I certainly have no intention of ever “civil partnerising” my partner, Sean. Rather, I hope and desire to one day marry him and to do so on the same basis that an opposite sex couple may marry, and to be able to proclaim it proudly as such.

    In my view, civil partnerships should be seen for what they are and were at the time of inception, a necessary stepping-stone to full marriage equality. It would surely have been wholly infeasible to have given the rights they granted back nearly a decade ago now under the banner and guise of marriage and not civil partnership considering the sensibilities of the time, but we have moved on as a society and we should recognise that, so should the law.

    While I understand that you may collectively consider it to be out of scope for the bill, I do not wish the see the surely absurd, inequitable situation arising of civil partnerships only being available to same sex couples and not to opposite sex couples. This would be due to legal vestiges alone, unnecessary in my view, and for no genuine reason that would stand any level of scrutiny. Pragmatism of the bill be damned, either offer civil partnerships to both, or to neither. Pray, do not leave it in a limbo and use the opportunity that you have to get it right now so that the legislation does not have to be revisited again in the not so distant future to clean things up.

    Warm regards to all,

    Nick

    • February 28, 2013 12:22 pm

      Nick, sounds as though you agree with me….that both institutions should be open to same sex and opposite sex couples.

      • Nick Lowe permalink
        February 28, 2013 12:30 pm

        If civil partnerships are to remain available to new formation, yes, that’s definitely the case. I strongly agree with you.

  4. Will Harris permalink
    February 27, 2013 3:41 pm

    Stephen,

    Delighted to read your proposed amendments, best of luck with them. I am in one of the unmarried heterosexual couples you write about as we look to formalise our commitment to each other we would like the opportunity to do so in an ‘institution’ that is based on equality, which historically, marriage has not. Civil partnerships fill this gap.

    Is this also an opportunity to look at the law with respect to licensing venues – it results in an effective monopoly of the wedding ‘industry’ with wealthy landowners repeatedly cashing in on peoples nuptials

    Thank you for taking up this issue in parliament

    Will Harris

    • February 28, 2013 12:25 pm

      Will, I also have New Clause 3, which has been developed with the British Humanist Association, which would open up who can conduct marriage ceremonies and on what premises.

  5. Nick Lowe permalink
    February 27, 2013 4:02 pm

    Interesting point, Will. Could civil marriage not be the vehicle for that institution that is based on equality though? Or, in your opinion, are the religious and historical connotations of marriage too strong for that? I am inherently cautious and dubious over the need for opposite sex civil partnerships as I feel it adds unwarranted complexity and separation and true equality is having one system for all, open and happy to be persuaded otherwise though! :)

  6. Will Harris permalink
    February 27, 2013 5:16 pm

    Nick, If a system of formalising relationships were to be devised from scratch I doubt you would want/need two categories of partnership, and in this respect I agree with you.

    As it is we have two forms, CPs and marriage (with religious and secular flavours). Preventing future CPs might have an adverse effect on the status of preexisting CPs. If they continue to exist then they should be open to opposite-sex couples in the interests of equality for all. In the process you open up another route to formalising realtionships (positive if children are involved) without the ‘baggage’ of marriage. I think Stephen made a fair account of why some couples (gay or straight) might wish to avoid an institution with a history of inequality.

  7. February 27, 2013 9:35 pm

    Firstly, let me thank you for putting forward this amendment for mixed-sex/opposite-sex civil partnerships.

    I notice at no point have you recognised some minority groups which will benefit from mixed-sex civil partnerships who will be discriminated against otherwise. I am a bisexual woman and under the current form of the same-sex marriage bill I would be able to marry anyone I chose, but only get civil-partnership with someone who was deemed to be the same-sex as myself. This creates a difference based on my legal gender and the legal gender of my partner about what options are available to me or us. Difference can often become prejudice or discrimination and I refer you to David Lammy for a suitable take-down of Different but Equal as a concept.

    I would not like to see Civil Partnerships destroyed as for many people they are distinct from marriage in some positive ways, removing historical baggage of power imbalance and ownership of women by men etc etc over the centuries. I would not be keen to marry anyone, while I am happy with the idea of civil partnership which to me feels very different. It would be wrong to remove civil partnerships and auto-convert them to marriages as many people I know who have civilised as it were would like myself not wish to be married.

    Trans people are a group who are not well represented or supported in the same-sex marriage equality bill. I believe amendments are being put forth by Julian Huppert via Sarah Brown in the Liberal Democrat party to try and redress some of the wrongs done both now, and during the creation of the Civil Partnerships Act and the Gender Recognition Act. If civil partnership is open to mixed-sex couples then in cases where one partner transitions and becomes legally the opposite-sex from their existing civil partner they will not have to change their civil partnership. This can only be a good thing all round.

    In summary mixed-sex civil partnership actively benefits trans and bisexual people as well as being a good thing overall.

    I know I am not the most articulate, so I link you to the consultation response + article from Bisexual Community News, BiUK and Bisexual Index published in Bi Community News at http://bicommunitynews.co.uk/1148/bi-do-bisexuals-and-marriage/ . These three organisations are ones I consider to represent my needs, issues and desires as a bisexual person living in the UK.

    Thanks for the space to comment and for your work so far.

  8. February 28, 2013 12:34 pm

    Hi Natalya, language is a minefield in this area, which is why I have said “opposite sex” and “same sex” most of the time, rather than, gay or lesbian, or homosexual or heterosexual, straight or gay, etc etc. What I am trying to achieve on equalising access to CPs should satisfy everyone.
    On separate issue of transgendered rights, I have discussed this with Julian and also the Minister from the MoJ who will deal with trans issues, Helen Grant. Some amendments have been drafted but it is possible that the govt will come forward with its own changes. They will certainly get an airing, whatever route is followed.

  9. Tom B. permalink
    February 28, 2013 8:02 pm

    As a homosexual myself, I wholeheartedly agree with the proposed changes.

    After David Cameron’s initial decision to introduce, or more rather extend, marriage to include homosexual relationships, I was happy to see a Conservative make the change. Although I did feel like Cameron was seeking a diversion from the economic slump, it was nonetheless a good starting point to bringing about further equality for homosexuals in what most people in the UK today would probably consider a liberal society. However, his attempt at modernising the party was largely unsuccessful as more Conservatives were against same-sex marriage than in favour, in contrast to the Liberals and Labour who largely voted for same-sex marriage, which I think is fantastic – definitely a step forward in today’s progressive society.

    From my perspective, marriage is symbolic of the commitment between a loving couple, regardless of whether it’s a man and a woman or two woman, or two men – if you are dedicated to your partner, whom you love, then there’s no reason why two individuals in these circumstances should be denied the right to marry one another. In reference to the extension of civil partnerships, I think it is an absolutely brilliant idea and I’m happy that you’ve decided to make a stand on this Stephen. Although same-sex marriage will create more equality for homosexuals, I think the extension of civil partnerships for heterosexuals is equally important in creating complete equality.
    I also agree with your point about the feelings that surround civil partnerships and marriages, that to some extent, civil partnerships are deemed to carry a weaker, lesser status and is not considered to portray the same level of commitment or is not as representative in highlighting a couple’s love for one another as marriage does. By extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples will hopefully rid these sorts of feelings.

    Anyway, as an 18 year old, I would like to apologise if I somewhat misunderstood anything or what I have stated is of complete and utter irrelevance but I would like to add that I am very grateful that you, Stephen Williams, have taken this step and I will do my best to support your cause in whatever way I can – if that is possible.

    Thank you :)

  10. Erin Fury permalink
    May 17, 2013 12:43 pm

    How do we go about supporting this and spreading the word? I’m putting your post on my Facebook but if we support it should we start a petition or right to our MP or what?

  11. Erin Fury permalink
    May 17, 2013 12:50 pm

    Or is it too late?

    • May 17, 2013 10:14 pm

      Hi Erin, the matter comes back before the Commons on Monday 20th May. Best just to encourage people to email their MP now. Thanks for your interest and support.

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