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Jacqui Smith: Amendments Nos. 21, 23 and 24 are a response to the commitment that the Government made in Committee to look again at the definition of religious premises in clause 6, and the commitment made by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland to look at the drafting of clause 93. Those clauses deal with the place where a couple may register as each other's civil partner. The other amendments in this group are largely technical, and I shall turn to them in due course.
On Second Reading and in Committee, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) expressed concerns about the definition of religious premises in clause 6, and the Government gave an assurance in Committee that we would look again at the issue, and I am pleased to tell the House that we have tabled the amendment to meet his concerns.
Before I explain the amendment in more detail, it is worth while reiterating to the House that the Government have not changed our policy that civil partnership registration, like the registration of civil marriages, should be wholly secular. We believe that allowing the formation of civil partnerships to take place in religious premises would undermine the public perception of civil partnership as a secular registration procedure and should be avoided. However, as I have said, we are keen to ensure that the statutory definition of religious premises is not unnecessarily restrictive.
We have listened to the hon. Gentleman's concern that, where a building has ceased to be used for religious purposesfor example, where a former chapel has become a private home or where an old church is now an hotelthere is no good reason why those premises should be caught by the statutory definition of religious premises. However, as I spelt out in Committee, we are also mindful that some buildings that were used as churches or chapels might not be currently in use as places of regular worship. While such buildings are not in use, their character does not change in any material way. They are not solely or mainly used for other, non-religious purposes. For example, it would not be right for a dormant church or chapelsometimes known as a chapel at easeto be used as a place for the registration of civil partnerships. Our amendment would ensure that that remains the case and that such buildings would be caught by the definition of religious premises.
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We have accepted that the first part of the definition is not appropriate because the design of a building should not be relevant when evaluating its purpose and character. The amendment will thus remove that part of the definition.
That will ensure that decisions made by registration authorities will be taken by reference to the purposes for which a building is solely or mainly used, or, if it is not in use, by reference to the purposes for which it was last solely or mainly used. Former religious premises with a verifiably different character, by reference to their sole or main use, will not be caught by the new definition, so it will be possible for proposed civil partners to put forward such premises to a local registration authority for its agreement as the place of registration. For example, a former church or chapel that is in use as a private home, hotel, or indeedin honour of the hon. Member for Rutland and Meltongay club on the Charing Cross road will fall outside the new definition. A church or chapel that is disused or closed, but has not, since closing, acquired a sole or main use for purposes other than religious ones will remain within the definition.
Government amendments Nos. 23 and 24 arise as a direct result of the consideration of the Bill by the Scottish Parliament as part of the Sewel process. On 12 May, the Justice 1 Committee of the Scottish Parliament questioned whether the provision that is now clause 93(2) was drafted too narrowly. As drafted, the provision precludes from consideration by a local registration authority for civil partnership registration a place where one or more
It was made clear in reply to the Scottish Parliament that the policy intention behind clause 93 was to focus the attention of the local registration authority on the primary purpose of a place. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland undertook to re-examine the provision in the light of the Scottish Parliament's views, and we have thus tabled the amendments to ensure that the clause follows our policy intention. We believe that the amendments address the justifiable worries of hon. Members while ensuring that there are appropriate safeguards against the use of disused religious premises that have not acquired a new sole or main use for civil partnership registration. As such, they strike a careful yet fair balance, and I hope that hon. Members will support them.
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Government amendment No. 22 will alter clause 93 slightly to bring it in line with procedures in Scotland on civil marriage. If the Registrar General for Scotland gives his approval, section 18(2) of the Marriage (Scotland) Act 1977 allows a registrar who is authorised to solemnise civil marriages to do so in the registration office of another authorised registrar, or in a place in the district of another authorised registrar in which civil marriages may be carried out. The provision can be used when a local registration authority does not have a registrar available on a specific occasion to conduct a civil marriage, but a neighbouring authority can supply a registrar. It can also be used when a couple want a friend who is a registrar to conduct their marriage, but when that is to take place somewhere other than the registration district in which the friend works. The provisions offer flexibility to the conduct of civil marriages in Scotland, so it is entirely appropriate that similar flexibility should be available for civil partnership registration.
Government amendments Nos. 25 to 27 are technical amendments that deal with transitional issues that could arise if two people who had registered an overseas relationship in a country or territory outside the UK had dissolved or annulled that relationship, or obtained a legal separation outside the UK, before the Bill came into force. The amendments will ensure that, if a couple dissolved or annulled their overseas relationship before commencement, and if that dissolution or annulment met the requirements for recognition in the UK that would apply if it had taken place after commencement, they would not be civil partners under clause 215, and they thus would not generally be treated as having been civil partners either.
Clause 215 provides that an overseas relationship that is registered before commencement is to be treated as a civil partnership that has been formed at commencement. Amendment No. 25 will ensure that, if the overseas relationship was dissolved or annulled before commencement, a civil partnership would not be recognised as existing after commencement. However, proposed new subsection (3B) inserted into clause 215 will allow for limited cases in which there are good policy reasons to make an exception to that principle and treat the parties after commencement as having been civil partners who have dissolved or annulled an overseas relationship. In particular, schedules 7, 11 and 17 allow the parties to an overseas dissolution, annulment or legal separation to apply to the courts in the UK for financial relief in certain circumstances.
Proposed new subsection (3B) also provides for flexibility by enabling an order to be made under clause 259 to specify additional provisions for the purpose of which the parties are to be treated as having been civil partners, subject to any modifications prescribed in the order. There may be other provisions that it would be right to apply to parties who have been in a past overseas relationship.
Amendments Nos. 26 and 27 make it clear that the provisions in chapter 3 of part 5 allow an overseas dissolution, annulment or legal separation to be recognised under that chapter even if it took place before commencement. They ensure that the provisions relating to the recognition of overseas relationships and
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overseas dissolutions deal adequately with pre-commencement events, and that only those provisions which it is appropriate to apply to relationships that were dissolved prior to commencement do apply.
Those technical amendments put the Bill into better order. They also recognise concerns of hon. Members about the definition of religious premises and strike a fair balance. I hope that the House will accept them.
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