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Appeal against refusal of registration authority to find lawful impediment

'(1)   If the registration authority has refused to uphold an objection to a proposed civil partnership the person who made the objection may within 7 days appeal to the Registrar General.

(2)   On an appeal under this section the Registrar General must either uphold the appeal or direct that a civil partnership schedule be issued.'.—[Mr. Chope.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Chope: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause would have been dealt with more appropriately in Committee, but the Government so truncated affairs there that 118 clauses, more than 20 schedules and a host of Government amendments were not debated. We have the opportunity to debate it briefly now, however.

The essence of the new clause is equity, a principle that the Government find hard to understand or accept. Clause 13 provides for a person to object to a proposed civil partnership during the 15-day waiting period following the giving of notice. Clause 14 provides that the relevant registration authority must investigate the objection and cannot issue a civil partnership schedule until it has so investigated. Clause 15 allows proposed civil partners to appeal to the Registrar General, but there is no equivalent right for an objector to appeal against refusal to uphold an objection. My proposal would not build in a significant delay. The new clause says that an appeal would have to be made within seven days, and I hope that it will commend itself to the Government as a reasonable way of introducing a level playing field and a balance that does not exist at present.

In Committee, the Government said that some of the differences that the Bill will introduce in the civil partnership registration process, by comparison with the registration process for births, marriages and deaths, will anticipate changes to be brought about in the
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overall registration process. One issue discussed in Committee, however, was the concern that the registration authority will not have to publish the address of proposed civil partners, and proposed civil partners would not even have to register in the area in which they were residing. With those weaknesses in the proposed system, it is all the more important to agree to new clause 4.

Jacqui Smith: First, let me make it clear that the provisions as drafted for the registration process, including any objection, mirror those in place for marriage, which already work well and the Government cannot see any reason to differ from those arrangements. I shall go through the process when an objection is made. In most cases, under the standard procedure, two people would give separate notices of their intention to form a civil partnership to any registration authority. Once those notices have been recorded in the register, the relevant information must be publicised by a variety of appropriate registration authorities. The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) implied that that information would not be in the public arena, but it would be publicised by the registration authorities where either of the partners gave notice, and by the registration authorities where either of the partners lived. The information would be widely publicly available.

Any person who wishes to object to the issuing of a civil partnership schedule in respect of one or both of the proposed civil partners may object to any registration authority during the 15-day waiting period. The objection must be related to a problem with eligibility and must be recorded in the register as soon as possible by the registration authority that receives it. The registration authority to which the first notice of proposed civil partnership was given has the duty to investigate the objection and would notify the proposed civil partners of it. Depending on the nature of the objection, the registration authority would request information relating to the objection from either the proposed civil partners or the objector, giving an appropriate length of time to reply. Should the objection be dismissed, the waiting period would be concluded in the normal way and a civil partnership schedule issued. Should the objection be upheld, the civil partnership schedule would not be issued.

The basis of the hon. Gentleman's new clause 4 appears to be that somehow there is an equivalence of effect between the objector and the civil partners. I do not accept that equivalence. In particular, we see no reason for providing for the objector to have an appeal against the refusal of the Registrar General to uphold the objection. Civil partnership is a legal relationship between the proposed civil partners, and between that couple and the state. The objector is not a party to that process but essentially acts as an informant to the registration authority. For the purpose of the formation of a civil partnership, he or she is not in dispute with either one of the proposed civil partners and does not require the same right of appeal.
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Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Does the Minister agree that if the Registrar General has considered the objection and refused it, that judgment would be justiciable if it was thought that he or she had not acted properly or professionally in the matter?

Jacqui Smith: I am sorry, but I missed the word in the middle of that question.

Mr. Boswell: If the Registrar General made or was thought to have made a mistake, would it be possible to mount a legal challenge to that decision?

Jacqui Smith: In the final conclusion, it would be possible to submit the Registrar General's decision to judicial review. Therefore, if a legal problem arose regarding an objection, there would be a route to redress.

The proposed civil partners are in a different position from the objector's. If an objection were upheld, they would be prevented from forming a civil partnership—a fundamental right of theirs should they be eligible. The objector is not being prevented from forming a legal relationship but having their objection accepted or rejected. In that respect, the objector is acting in a similar way to an informant in a benefit fraud case, for example. While they may raise a concern with the relevant Jobcentre Plus agency, they are not in dispute with the person on whom they are informing and it is up to the agency to decide whether to investigate further.

As I suggested in outlining the process, it is important that the civil partners and the objector be kept informed of the investigation's progress—we would certainly want to ensure, through guidance, that that is the case—but that is far from giving a right of appeal to that objection. I hope that I have convinced the hon. Member for Christchurch that that is neither appropriate nor desirable in such cases.

5.30 pm

Mr. Chope: I am grateful to the Minister for her response, but I am not wholly convinced by what she says. By drawing an analogy with an objector to benefit fraud, she immediately opens the argument that, under the Bill, an objector whose objection is deemed frivolous will be liable to a claim for damages. That is certainly not the situation in relation to frivolous objections to benefit fraud. Having heard what the Minister says, however, and being mindful of the fact that we have only 29 minutes to discuss the rest of the Bill on Report, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 6

Place of registration

Jacqui Smith : I beg to move amendment No. 21, in page 3, line 38, leave out from 'means' to end of line 40 and insert 'premises which—

(a)   are used solely or mainly for religious purposes, or

(b)   have been so used and have not subsequently been used solely or mainly for other purposes.'.

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Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government amendments Nos. 22 to 24.

Amendment No. 33, in clause 131, page 66, line 30, at end insert—

'(4A)   In section 10(2) of the Succession (Scotland) Act 1964, for "legitim" substitute "legitim and rights under section 131 of the Civil Partnership Act 2004".'.

Government amendments Nos. 25 to 27.

Amendment No. 32, in schedule 20, page 326, line 26, at end insert—

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