Column Number: 075
Standing Committee D
Thursday 21 October 2004
[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]
Formation of civil partnership by registration
Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 14, in clause 3, page 2, line 19, at end insert
'and has made a spoken declaration of commitment as may be prescribed by order'.—[Mr. Duncan.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following amendments: No. 17, in clause 3, page 2, line 20, leave out 'and (4)' and insert 'to (4A)'.
No. 16, in clause 3, page 2, line 32, leave out subsection (5) and insert—
'(4A) Each of the civil partners shall, either before or after signing the civil partnership document under subsection (1) and in the presence of the witnesses and the civil partnership registrar—
(a) make one of the following declarations: either ''I do solemnly declare that I know not of any lawful impediment why I, AB, may not be joined in civil partnership to CD'' or ''I declare that I know of no legal reason why I (name) may not be joined in civil partnership to (name)''; and
(b) say to the other civil partner either ''I call upon these persons here present to witness that I, AB, do take thee, CD, to be my civil partner'', or ''I (name) take you (or thee) (name) to be my civil partner''.
(4B) Subject to this section, the registration of a civil partnership may be accompanied by such form and ceremony as the civil partners may see fit to adopt.'.
No. 184, in clause 3, page 2, line 32, leave out from 'used' to end of line 33 and insert
'for or in connection with the formation of a civil partnership by registration'.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I was addressing amendment No. 16, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). Proposed subsection (4B) could just about sit beside subsection (5), but it would create an exceptionally messy situation. One can imagine the priest being pulled out of the cupboard as soon as the registrar left the room. For that reason, I would be less inclined to support his amendment than the one proposed by the Conservative Front Bench spokesman, but they both come from the same direction and are broadly worthy in their intent.
With regard to amendment No. 184 and the explanation given of it by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), I would say that I share the analysis of the hon. Member for Rhondda concerning what constitutes religious marriage, if I can call it that, or holy matrimony. I take that view as a Christian who was married in church. Throughout my dealings with the Bill, I have taken strongly to heart the difference
Column Number: 076
between what the hon. Member for Christchurch called holy matrimony and civil marriage, which is entirely secular. However, it is right that we should allow for Christian analysis other than that to which I or the hon. Member for Rhondda may subscribe. For Parliament to dictate to the Church what it may or may not do is fundamentally wrong. The establishment of the Church of England notwithstanding, an important constitutional principle is at stake.
Having said that, my final thought is that, as the hon. Member for Rhondda said, we have a curious situation in which civil registrars will not allow even religious texts or scripture reading to be used in the course of a service, and some sort of flexibility should be introduced to civil marriage. If we are re-enacting the provisions of civil marriage, warts and all, that is one of the warts that we should re-enact for civil partnerships, but with a view to reintroducing flexibility at a later stage. Once civil partnerships are put on to the statute book, they can be dealt with at the same time as civil marriage.
The Chairman: Order. Before I call the Minister, a point was raised this morning about amendments Nos. 14, 16 and 17. I have received no indication from the hon. Member for Rhondda that he wishes to seek to press his amendments to a vote, but I have to advise the Committee that amendments Nos. 16 and 17 taken together and amendment No. 14 taken separately are not compatible.
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Gale. I did not understand that. When you say that the amendments are not compatible, do you mean they will be taken separately or not?
The Chairman: No, they will not be taken separately, and they are not compatible. In other words, it would not be possible for the Committee to vote on all three. Amendment No. 14 refers to a prescription by order, whereas amendments Nos. 16 and 17 insert the relevant words into the Bill. It has to be either/or; it could not be both.
The Minister for Industry and the Regions (Jacqui Smith): We have had a useful debate on the amendments. I hope that I shall be able to help the Committee by explaining briefly why the Government have neither included a mandatory spoken declaration nor replicated the declaratory and contracting words used in the civil marriage ceremony, as is proposed in amendment No. 14 and amendments Nos. 16 and 17 respectively.
This is an area in which there is a justifiable difference between the civil marriage process and the process proposed for civil partnerships. A decision was made that the registration procedure for forming a civil partnership should be a written procedure. To that end, we have designed the registration provisions so that it is the signing of the civil partnership document that is crucial to the legal formation, rather than the speaking of any words. We therefore need to be careful to be clear that spoken words could not have—and we would not want them to have—a specific legal significance. It is important,
Column Number: 077
notwithstanding what I will go on to say and what I suggested earlier that the Government intended to do with Government amendments Nos. 23 and 25, that we are clear about the legal basis.
In a civil marriage ceremony, the parties become married at the point at which they have exchanged their spoken vows. Registration subsequently records the marriage, which has legally already taken place. The words exchanged are a solemn and important aspect of the marriage ceremony. As I have explained, the Bill establishes a different procedure for the formation of a civil partnership. The administrative registration process does not require words to be spoken by, or exchanged between, the proposed civil partners. In a civil partnership, it is the signing of the civil partnership document that marks the moment of the formation of a civil partnership and the parties' change of status to civil partners.
We believe that that is simple and clear, and that it is all that is legally necessary. To add to that statutory steps to require a spoken declaration would therefore alter the emphasis of the procedure and would also risk introducing confusion into the registration procedure to the extent—this is the risk with amendment No. 14—that the legal trigger for entry into civil partnerships would potentially be unclear.
Mr. Carmichael: I am having some difficulty following the Minister's argument. I hope that there is something more substantial to come, because I am not desperately impressed by what I have heard so far. If there has not been such confusion in civil marriages, why does she think things would be different for civil partnerships?
Jacqui Smith: As I was explaining, we start from a different position with civil marriage from the position with civil partnership. With civil marriage, the point at which the marriage is formed is the point at which the couple declare the words. With civil partnership, we have started by saying that the point at which the civil partnership is formed is the point at which the couple sign the paper. In other words, the legal basis is that it is a written procedure. If we were starting from scratch today with civil marriage, I would make quite a strong argument that the legal basis should be the signing and that what comes on top of that should be on top of the legal basis. That would be my starting point, and that is our starting point for civil partnerships.
Mr. Carmichael: The Minister says that civil partnerships are different, as if there is some reason written in tablets of stone as to why they have to be. I can see no good reason why they should be different. I have listened carefully to what she has to say and I have not heard her explain why there should be a difference in that one aspect.
Jacqui Smith: This is not written in tablets of stone, but it is written in the way in which we have designed the legislation. The hon. Gentleman is asking me to justify that. It seems perfectly appropriate and clear that there will be a legal process, as designed in the Bill, which is dependent for its legal effect on the point at which a piece of paper is signed, as opposed to the
Column Number: 078
point at which people make a declaration. I could imagine death-bed civil partnerships, for example. I agree with quite a few points made by hon. Members today, one of which was that in a large number of cases people may want to make a declaration. The question is: should that be statutorily necessary for the partnership to take effect? The written procedure should give legal effect to a civil partnership, but that does not mean that we have not been willing to listen to those who believe that the ability to add a legal declaration to that legal minimum would be of significance and importance to those involved and others around them.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): This is not one of the better arguments that the Minister has so far advanced, and she knows that I have the highest regard for her and that there is a camaraderie among those of us who support the Bill, so I hope that she does not take that comment in the wrong spirit. Saying that it seems appropriate to have a written form of registration is an assertion. Equally, one could add that there is no incompatibility with having spoken words as well. The argument about those who make death-bed partnerships is used in extremis. One can always make exceptions, for example for people who are, unfortunately, mute. I briefly worked in Government as a special adviser, and so far it sounds as though the written advice from the officials is, ''Minister, bang on, bang on, don't give way, and''—dare I make this very poor joke—''stonewall.''