Civil Partnership Bill [Lords]

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The Chairman: The Question under discussion at the moment is that the programme motion on the amendment paper be agreed to. Since then, I have received a manuscript amendment. In view of the fact that the amendment paper was available to Members only first thing this morning, I am minded to accept for discussion that manuscript amendment to the timetable motion. The amendment is debatable within the same half hour, which means that this debate will have to be curtailed at 9.40.

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Manuscript amendment proposed: in line 1 of the table, leave out ''5.00 pm'' and insert ''6.30 pm''.—[Mr. Chope.]

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): When I spoke in the Committee about the programme motion on Tuesday, I observed that, given the size of the Bill, although it would be possible to examine it in the time allowed, there would not be much spare time, and that in order to complete a proper examination it would be incumbent on all hon. Members to be responsible in their remarks and not to delay the Committee unnecessarily.

It is now apparent that certain hon. Members were not minded to proceed in that way. The amount of business that we got through on Tuesday made it inevitable that the Programming Sub-Committee should reconvene, as it did last night. It seems to me that the Government, in making available extra time in an extra sitting on Tuesday, have quite properly recognised that the necessary progress was not made. We need to scrutinise all parts of the Bill, and I am particularly concerned about the parts relating to Scotland, as I am sure other hon. Members are. It is inevitable from the progress that we made on Tuesday that that scrutiny could not be carried out without the insertion of the knives. Accordingly, we should agree to the programme motion without the manuscript amendment of the hon. Member for Christchurch.

Mr. Chope: I hoped that in tabling the amendment I would have the support of the Committee. It seems reasonable that if the House is going to sit until 6.30 pm, this Committee should do so too. As it stands, the motion means that by 5 pm there will be no time for any further consideration of the Bill relating to England and Wales. I do not dispute that it is important to be able to discuss issues relating to Scotland and Northern Ireland, and I look forward to joining in those discussions, notwithstanding that I represent an English constituency, but it would be reasonable to extend today's sitting to 6.30 pm.

In the good old days, Committees quite often sat until the early hours of the morning, because Members of Parliament thought that their first obligation and responsibility was to scrutinise legislation, whether it was the Finance Bill or any other important measure affecting millions of people. In those days, proper scrutiny was given to legislation, and today we have the opportunity to scrutinise this legislation and send out a signal to the wider public that at least some Members of Parliament are serious about the business and responsibility that they have had imposed upon them by the electorate and want to discuss the Bill in detail and hold this Government to account.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Will my hon. Friend assure me that, in the event of the Committee voting for his amendment to extend consideration today by 90 minutes, he in turn will undertake to absorb of that 90 minutes only the proportion of time that his membership of the Committee represents?

Mr. Chope: My hon. Friend has had the opportunity to table a lot of amendments, and I do not think that he has tabled any. [Interruption.]

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Perhaps he has tabled one or two, and if so, he will have the opportunity to debate them.

In the context of what the Minister said, no serious consideration was given in the other place to applying the same principles to opposite-sex cohabitation as apply to same-sex cohabitation. That principle was not debated seriously in the other place, which was more preoccupied with the idea of extending the provisions to people who are partners in an asexual relationship, such as siblings.

I have tabled a series of amendments relating to that part of the Bill, and I would have thought that it was reasonable to consider them, because more than 4 million people in England and Wales live in cohabiting relationships, representing about 8 per cent. of the population. Half those cohabiting couples are in the 20 to 34 age group. I make that point with my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) very much in mind, as he is as keen as I am to ensure that Conservative Members propose arguments that are relevant to the interests of that group. By contrast with that statistic, there are only 78,522 cohabiting same-sex couples. If one considers the comparison between the numbers in one group and the numbers in the other—

The Chairman: Order. Until the hon. Gentleman began to explain why he felt it necessary to table his amendments, I was with him. I believe he is now beginning to stray into a much wider debate.

9.30 am

Mr. Chope: I certainly do not want to go into the wider debate, because I am sure that there will be plenty of opportunity to do that later, particularly if my amendment is accepted.

Question put, That the manuscript amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 13.

Division No. 3]

Bercow, Mr. John Chope, Mr. Christopher Donaldson, Mr. Jeffrey M.
Duncan, Mr. Alan Selous, Andrew

Abbot, Ms Diane Borrow, Mr. David Bruce, Malcolm Bryant, Chris Carmichael, Mr. Alistair Eagle, Angela Love, Mr. Andrew
McGuire, Mrs. Anne McKechin, Ann Simon, Mr. Sion Smith, Jacqui Stewart, Mr. David Watson, Mr. Tom

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 13, Noes 2.

Division No. 4]

Abbot, Ms Diane Borrow, Mr. David Bruce, Malcolm Bryant, Chris Carmichael, Mr. Alistair Eagle, Angela Love, Mr. Andrew
McGuire, Mrs. Anne McKechin, Ann Simon, Mr. Sion Smith, Jacqui Stewart, Mr. David Watson, Mr. Tom

Chope, Mr. Christopher
Donaldson, Mr. Jeffrey M.

Question accordingly agreed to.

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The Chairman: We will shortly resume consideration of the Bill. Before we do so, I should like to offer the Committee a thought and a little guidance. It was suggested to me during the sitting of the Programming Sub-Committee that it might be possible to move a motion that the motion be put, because at the moment there is no motion before the Committee that can be closed. There is a procedure called the Golding closure, named after the late John Golding, which allows for that motion to be put, and it is up to the Chairman to determine whether there has been sufficient debate to require that it be put. That is not closure, but simply the putting of the question, after which substantive debate could commence.

As the Committee would expect, I have studied Hansard very carefully. I have noted that the hon. Member for Christchurch, who is speaking to the lead amendment, has given way to a significant number of Members on a significant number of occasions and that his own contribution to the debate so far has been relatively limited. On that basis, I would not be minded to accept a Golding closure at this point. I shall therefore invite the hon. Gentleman to resume his speech. If at some point further into the debate any hon. Member wishes to consider moving the Golding closure, I will shall be prepared to consider the matter at the appropriate time.

Clause 1

Civil partnership

Amendment moved [19 October]: No. 183, in

    clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out 'of the same sex'.—[Mr. Chope.]

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:

Amendment No. 185, in clause 4, page 3, leave out line 1.

Amendment No. 229, in clause 254, page 125, line 31, leave out 'Civil' and insert 'Same Sex'.

Mr. Chope: Thank you for those remarks, Mr. Gale. To remind hon. Members, the amendment would have the effect of removing the words ''of the same sex'' from line 5 of the clause, thereby ensuring that the Bill could apply to cohabitees of the same sex and of the opposite sex. I am grateful to the Minister for circulating the letter, which she sent on 29 July to the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. As I mentioned during the previous sitting, the Minister's response to the concerns expressed by the Joint Committee on Human Rights is highly material to our deliberations. Several of us are concerned about discrimination that would offend against human rights legislation being introduced by Parliament into the legislation.

The first four questions raised by the Joint Committee concern the Government's justification for limiting the eligibility to form a civil partnership to same-sex couples. The Joint Committee expressed its concern that the exclusion of opposite-sex couples from entitlement to participate in a civil partnership would be inconsistent with the European convention on human rights.

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Hon. Members will have read the Minister's response and attempt to argue that the concerns of the Joint Committee are not well founded in law. As this is a highly contentious area that goes to the root of whether the exclusion of opposite-sex partners from civil partnerships is discriminatory and, if so, whether such discrimination can be justified, I would like hon. Members to consider the detail of the Minister's legal case.

In five and a half pages of detailed argument, it is apparent that the Government's position that the Bill as drafted is not discriminatory is based upon a false premise. If the Bill were about establishing homosexual marriage on a par with heterosexual marriage, the arguments put forward by the Government would carry. However, as the Minister has been at pains to explain, the Bill does not create same-sex marriage but only what it describes as civil partnerships.

Turning to the Minister's commentary on the decision of the Canadian court in Miron v. Trudel, she says that the majority in the court emphasised that a distinction may probably be made between

    ''those who decide to marry and those who do not and that the choice made by the couple in question must be paramount''.

The Minister then refers to the fact that the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has confirmed that it is compatible with convention rights for contracting states to treat married couples differently from couples who do not marry, as is acknowledged in paragraph 23 of the Joint Committee's report. But then she goes on to state:

    ''Unmarried couples (including opposite-sex couples who could not marry because they could not divorce; opposite-sex couples who chose not to marry when they could have done so; and same-sex couples) have all been held not to be comparable to married couples.''

That is the point. The Minister cites several cases in support of her proposition: Shackell v. UK, Quintana Zapata v. Spain, Saucedo Gomez v. Spain, Mata Estevez v. Spain and Karner v. Austria. Those cases support the proposition that it is perfectly all right under human rights law for marriage to be treated separately from other relationships, but it is not all right that relationships outside marriage should be treated in a discriminatory way. That is what the Bill does: it picks one type of relationship outside marriage—same-sex cohabitation partnership—and gives it an elevated legal status compared with the cohabitation partnership of people who are of the opposite sex in a relationship outside marriage.

The Joint Committee was concerned about that, and that is why I believe that, on the evidence supplied by the Minister and in the light of the legal authorities, the Bill would be discriminatory if enacted according to the Government's wish. There is no proper justification for discriminating in the way that the Government propose in favour of same-sex partnerships over opposite-sex partnerships.

We had a short debate on the sittings motion. Again, it is significant that the Minister did not give any justification as to why she and her colleagues were not prepared to sit between 5 pm and 6.30 pm. If she had brought forward some arguments, they could have

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been considered and weighed up, but there were no supporting arguments, just an assertion that ''We're the Government. We're right. We've decided we must finish at 5 o'clock.''

However, the issue of human rights and discrimination is one that I should have thought that the Minister would be much more concerned about than seems, at the moment, to be the case. Unless my amendments are accepted, under this legislation unmarried same-sex couples will be in a privileged position compared with other unmarried couples.

At the time of the 2001 census, there were 78,522 people cohabiting in same-sex relationships. That represented 2 per cent. of all cohabitees and 0.2 per cent. of the population. The same census showed that more than 4 million people were living in cohabiting relationships in England and Wales—or 8 per cent. of the population. So, unless amended, the Bill will potentially give an elevated status to that entire group of 78,000 cohabitees in a same-sex relationship, although we know that only a small proportion of them will take up the option of a partnership. It would discriminate against the 4 million people living in cohabiting relationships for whatever reason.

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