Civil Partnership Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Duncan: Is there not a problem of read-across here? In retaining the distinction between marriage and civil partnership—if that is what we are doing—and recognising that in a civil partnership the contract is the signature rather than the spoken word, the hon. Gentleman is taking the contract from a marriage ceremony and asking for it to be said in a civil ceremony. The point is that asking about just impediment is in the written contract rather than the spoken word in the civil partnership, and he is mixing the two in an increasingly awkward way.

Chris Bryant: I rather disagree, and I think that the hon. Gentleman has become a bit obsessed about the issue of the contract. In a ceremony of holy matrimony—a marriage contracted in a church with a clergyman or clergywoman—the contract is the signing of the register; it is not the ceremony itself. The hon. Gentleman is looking querulous, but I think that I am right about that.

More importantly, these two declarations will be made in a civil partnership, but they will be made in advance because that is the only basis upon which the partners are then able to sign the document on the day. All I am saying is that I believe that the process of them saying those things out loud and in front of witnesses is a significant part of the process of them making a declaration about their relationship and commitment. It would be more appropriate if witnesses were to hear people saying those two things rather than merely assenting to them, especially as the two partners will have had to have written that they are doing those two things beforehand rather than on the day, and all they then do on the day is sign.

Mr. Duncan: Could not then the hon. Gentleman just withdraw his amendment and support mine, because mine allows for both the provision of what he wants and a debate on finding the best form for doing that?

Chris Bryant: Or, alternatively, the hon. Gentleman could withdraw his amendment and support mine; I do not want to be competitive about this, obviously. Many Committee members and—I hope—the Government are trying to arrive at a situation where there is an acceptance that there will be some form of ceremony and that people will have some degree of flexibility.

I do not want the law to specify what vows people should make to each other, if they want to make vows—some people might not want to make vows at

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all. I suspect that if we were to go down the route of the hon. Gentleman's spoken declaration of commitment, we would end up with a more comprehensive document than I would like. I would like there to be something that is very limited and that only refers to those two specific things that have to be done in law, so that everything else is then entirely up to the two civil partners, obviously in negotiation with the civil partnership registrar.

Mr. Chope: In order to understand the hon. Gentleman's motivation, will he say whether, in principle, he supports the idea of homosexual marriage, because it appears that his amendment is designed to get as close to that as possible?

Chris Bryant: I was waiting for that; I have here a piece of paper that states, ''Christopher Chope will now say'', and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his predictability.

My answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is that I do not support that; I believe that marriage is an institution that is ordained of God and should be celebrated between a man and a woman. However, I also believe that two men or two women can have a relationship that in many ways mirrors that between a man and a woman but is not identical. Therefore, I believe that we should have in law separate institutions that reflect that reality. The truth is that just because two elements of the ceremonies may be similar, that does not necessarily mean that they are identical, nor that we believe that they should be. I do not think that one is more valuable than the other—they are simply different. Nevertheless, certain elements are needed, notably the declaration of assent and the declaration that people are not barred, by virtue of some legal impediment, from entering into the civil partnership.

Mr. Donaldson: The hon. Gentleman seeks to bring in a religious dimension, or for people to have the opportunity to bring such a dimension to a civil partnership. He has indicated that he does not support the concept of gay marriages, but I am confused. Where does it say in the Bible that there is provision for civil partnerships?

Chris Bryant: Where does it say in the Bible that there should be provision for civil marriage? Where does it say that marriage shall be formed in a particular manner? The Bible says many things. I would be more than happy to debate the moral and ethical rights and wrongs of homosexuality and the interpretation of different passages of the Bible, but now is not the right time to do so.

11.15 am

The Chairman: Order.

Chris Bryant: As you are about to tell me, Mr. Gale.

The Chairman: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would find it in order.

Chris Bryant: I am grateful, Mr. Gale.

It seems bizarre for anybody to argue that people should be proscribed from using any religious words or ceremony. The hon. Member for Lagan Valley may not want to accept the fact, but there are homosexual clergy and bishops, and many homosexual Christians

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in this land would dearly love their parish priest or minister of religion to join them and say some words and officiate at some form of ceremony. It is, therefore, curious from a libertarian and a Christian perspective that the law should proscribe that.

Mr. Chope: I should like to speak briefly to my amendment No. 184, because, in a sense, the hon. Gentleman has let the cat out of the bag. He referred to the difference between the wording in the Bill and that of the Marriage Act 1949. My amendment would insert the words

    ''for or in connection with the formation of a civil partnership by registration.''

Its purpose is to prevent a religious service being conducted before or after the civil partnership registrar has officiated. Without the amendment the way would be open for a religious service to be held in defiance of the Government's avowed intent. The current lacuna in clause 3 should be filled by my amendment, because I do not think that I am unduly cynical in believing that the Government have chosen loose and imprecise wording to facilitate the loophole that amendment No. 16 advances.

Malcolm Bruce: I rise briefly to support amendment No. 14. I do not intend to get into the debate on the religious dimension, because there are two separate issues, as I think the hon. Member for Rhondda would freely admit. However, as things stand, the Bill appears to suggest that two people turn up at an appropriate place and sign a piece of paper, after which they go away formally contracted to be civil partners. If a civil marriage were conducted in that way, many people would feel slightly cheated and the essence or purpose of signing the paper would not have been declared.

Let us consider a separate situation. Many of us believe that we become Members of Parliament when the returning officer declares that we have enough votes to be the Member returned, but in reality we know that that is not true. We only become MPs when we take the oath or affirmation and sign the book. There are four elected Members of the House who are not MPs because they have not gone through that process. I will not enter that debate, either, because it would be completely out of order.

The point is that we recognise, in a number of contexts, that people do not merely sign a contract, but make a verbal declaration about the purpose of the contract and the undertakings in it. That gives the act of signing greater solemnity and underpins the relationship into which they are entering.

My point is not only that the amendment, or a Government amendment that we are persuaded will have the same effect, is desirable, but that a civil partnership contracted without any verbal undertakings whatever will not achieve what the Government want, which is—and I have no problem with this—to find a contract that is not the same as, but gives the same benefits, rights and responsibilities as, marriage. Something similar is highly desirable for the declaration.

I can tell the Committee—it is no secret—that I have been married twice, the first time in a religious

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ceremony and the second in a civil ceremony. I was pleasantly surprised that there was a remarkable similarity between the two ceremonies and the undertakings associated; I thought that that was right and proper. If I understand the aspirations of many same-sex couples who want to avail themselves of the benefits of the Bill, many of them feel that there should be a common way, not a prescribed and strictly controlled way, of entering into the contract and the undertaking that would give it the seriousness that we want. I agree with the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton on that. Amendment No. 14 meets the objective that his earlier amendment did not. That is why I would be happy to support it.

Mr. Bercow: We observed a brief and good-natured competition between my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton and the hon. Member for Rhondda, each praying in aid his amendment. On this occasion, I am in the peculiar position of arguing the case for a third way. I strongly support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend, but I also strongly support that of the hon. Gentleman. Whether legally it is possible to go for both—and I think that it is, as they relate to different parts of the clause—I do not know; I very much hope that it is. Doubtless we shall be advised on that when we press for a Division. However, the essential difference between the amendments and the amendment that we debated earlier is that those in this grouping do not erect a hurdle; rather, they provide an opportunity.

A solemn declaration of commitment, and some sort of prescription as to the form of it, is desirable. I shall probably cause the least surprise of anyone who has spoken this morning when I say that I am not able to give my support to the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, precisely because it is centrally an obstacle. It is, in my terms, repressive and, if I may say so, deeply centralising.

 
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