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Time for full equality in our marriage and partnership laws

June 27, 2018

The Supreme Court ruling that civil partnerships should be open to opposite sex couples is a welcome instruction to the government to update our personal relationship laws.  Marriage law has long been an interest of mine, both as a politician and due to one of my major hobbies outside politics, as a genealogist.  It’s time that marriage moved from its legal origins of advancing the property rights of men and safeguarding the male lineage to a fully equal institution recognising loving and committed sexual relationships and celebrating them in an inclusive way.

The case decided unanimously by the Supreme Court judges today is an important victory for the plaintiffs Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, who want a civil partnership rather than a civil or religious marriage. The anomaly in the law was created by the Civil Partnership Act 2004 and the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. The former gave legal recognition for the first time to same sex relationships. The latter extended the rights of marriage to same sex couples.  In a radical change from the usual state of our laws this meant that gay and lesbian couples had more legal rights and options than heterosexual couples. This anomaly was never likely to last long and should have been prevented when the gay marriage Bill was progressing.

Gay marriage is one of the landmark reforms of our century and will be seen as an enduring achievement of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government.  On a personal level, it was something I was proud to play a role in achieving. The reform started in the Home Office, initiated by my Lib Dem colleague Lynne Featherstone and supported by Theresa May.  It was given enthusiastic support at the top of government by both David Cameron and Nick Clegg.  By the time the legislation was ready for its Parliamentary stages Lynne had moved to the International Development Department.  The Bill was to be led for the government by a Tory minister from DCMS, Hugh Robertson. As the Liberal Democrats’ first openly gay MP I asked if I could lead for the party during its Commons stages.  I thought it was important that the Bill was not seen as a Tory achievement and that gay MPs should be involved in its passage.  I was joined on the Bill committee by my Lib Dem colleague Stephen Gilbert, our second openly gay MP.

During the evidence sessions in advance of the formal committee stage (where most of the time was spent dealing with the agonies of the Church of England and other denominations) it became obvious that at the end of the process gay couples would actually have two relationship recognition options open to them, while straight couples could only marry, though their religious options were wider. So I tabled an amendment, opening up civil partnerships to opposite sex couples.  You can read about that amendment in my blog written at the time – https://stephenwilliamsmp.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/extending-civil-partnerships-to-opposite-sex-couples/

I assumed, perhaps naively, that the government would accept the amendment.  But it was made clear to me by Nick Clegg’s office that Cameron wanted the smoothest possible passage of the Bill.  This meant no amendments, no matter how worthy.  The Bill was unpopular with many Tory MPs and Cameron did not want any opportunity for it to be derailed.  There was an implied threat that the Bill would be withdrawn if it ran into difficulties and delays. So I withdrew the clause.  Later on, during the Report Stage, Tim Loughton, a Tory MP who had not been very supportive of equal marriage at the committee stage, tabled his own amendment for opposite sex couple civil partnerships.  He had recently been fired from the government by Cameron and many people saw his amendment as more to do with causing difficulty for Number Ten than with a genuine interest in relationships equality.  So I voted against his cynical manoeuvre.  Loughton has taken up the issue again in 2018, perhaps this time with genuine commitment.

I hope that the government will now act swiftly and amend the Civil Partnership Act in the way that I intended five years ago.  I hope that they will also take the opportunity to amend several other aspects of relationships law that were also discussed in 2013.  Humanist marriages should be recognised in England and Wales in the same way as they are in Scotland.  I proposed such an amendment in 2013 and (being made angry by the dismissive response of Tory minister Helen Grant) pushed it to a vote.  The result was a tie, which meant that the Bill was left unamended! Reform is also needed in the law governing married couples where one of the spouses transitions gender.  Again, Edinburgh is more advanced than Westminster on this issue, avoiding a spousal veto.  While on the subject of devolution, as the Northern Ireland has been suspended for some time, I hope Westminster will legislate for same sex marriage and other reforms in Northern Ireland.  Given Theresa May’s dependence on the extremist DUP, this may be a forlorn hope.

It’s time that our relationship laws reflected society in the 21st century.  Marriage is available to straight couples but it is estimated that there are over 3 million “cohabiting” couples who do not want to join the institution.  Many of them want to enter a civil partnership.  Enabling them to do so would be a reform that enhances the rights of one group of people without diminishing those of anyone else.  It’s a liberal reform that would bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.  The Supreme Court has spoken, Parliament must act.

Addendum

This was my speech in February 2013, at the start of the Same Sex Marriage Bill – https://stephenwilliamsmp.wordpress.com/2013/02/12/marriage-same-sex-couples-bill-commons-debate/

 

 

 

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