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Standing Committee Debates

Eighteenth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation




 
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Eighteenth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman:

†Mr. Joe Benton

†Austin, Mr. Ian (Dudley, North) (Lab)
Cable, Dr. Vincent (Twickenham) (LD)
†Davies, David T.C. (Monmouth) (Con)
†Fabricant, Michael (Lichfield) (Con)
†Field, Mr. Mark (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)
†Flello, Mr. Robert (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab)
†Flynn, Paul (Newport, West) (Lab)
†Healey, John (Financial Secretary to the Treasury)
†McKenna, Rosemary (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch, East) (Lab)
†Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Ruffley, Mr. David (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con)
†Snelgrove, Anne (South Swindon) (Lab)
†Stuart, Ms Gisela (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab)
†Tami, Mark (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab)
Viggers, Peter (Gosport) (Con)
†Watson, Mr. Tom (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury) (Lab)
Miss Libby Davidson, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee


 
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Thursday 14 July 2005

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Draft Civil Partnership (Amendments to Registration Provisions) Order 2005

8.55 am

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (John Healey): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Civil Partnership (Amendments to Registration Provisions) Order 2005.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton.

The Civil Partnerships Act 2004 received Royal Assent on 18 November. In line with the commitment given by the Government during the Act’s passage through Parliament, it will come into force across the United Kingdom on 5 December this year, with the first civil partnerships to be formed soon afterwards. The order is one of several pieces of secondary legislation that need to be put in place between now and December so that once couples have formed their civil partnership, they can be treated in a similar way to married couples.

The 2004 Act creates a new legal status of civil partner, which will allow same-sex couples to gain legal recognition of their relationship by forming a civil partnership. Civil partnership is distinct, and has a separate legal status, from marriage, but it has always been the intention that many of the legal processes and administrative procedures relating to the formation of civil partnerships should be similar to those in place for civil marriages. The order puts that general principle into practice and deals with how couples will form their civil partnerships in England and Wales. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, the procedures and systems were already put in place by the principal Act. That Act received strong support from both Opposition parties, which I welcome and acknowledge.

The order amends the 2004 Act to assimilate as appropriate provisions relating to the formation of civil partnerships in England and Wales to provisions relating to civil marriage in England and Wales. The authority for the order is sections 35 and 258(3).

Although civil partnership has a separate legal status distinct from marriage, the intention has been that many of the legal processes and administrative systems relating to the formation of the new civil partnership should be similar to those in place for civil marriages. As there is currently no prospect of legislative change in relation to civil marriage, it is necessary to use the powers in the 2004 Act to assimilate the provisions in that Act with current civil marriage law. I will take the Committee through the main provisions in the draft order.


 
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Paragraphs 2 and 7 of the schedule to the order introduce restrictions on when and where civil partnership formations under the standard procedure may take place. Those restrictions are the same as those in place in England and Wales for civil marriage, in that it will be possible for a civil partnership formation to take place only between the hours of 8 am and 6 pm in a register office or approved premises such as hotel or stately home.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Will the Financial Secretary give way?

John Healey: I will give way to the Opposition Whip. It is a pleasure to see and hear him.

Michael Fabricant: It is well known that the idea of my being a silent Whip is most unlikely, so the Financial Secretary should not be too surprised. I was just curious about why there is a provision that the formation can happen only between 8 am and 6 pm. I have visions of a nightclub where it might be done at 11 o’clock at night if someone were available to do it.

John Healey: I am not sure what the intention was of the hon. Gentleman’s party leaders in appointing him as Whip, but it clearly is not keeping him quiet. The provision is a curious feature of the system that dates back to 1837, after the passing of the Marriage Act 1836. At that time, a marriage ceremony had to be conducted during daylight hours, essentially so that people could see what they were doing and whom they were marrying. In this modest draft order, our intention is to mirror the appropriate provisions of the current civil marriage procedures in the system for civil partnerships.

Paragraph 3 inserts new section 6A in the 2004 Act to provide for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make regulations to provide for and in connection with the approval by registration authorities of premises for the purposes of civil partnership formation. That provision is designed to be used in conjunction with the equivalent provision in the Marriage Act 1949, so that we can provide a joint application and approval process and premises that are approved by local authorities for civil marriages can be approved at the same time for civil partnerships.

Paragraph 12 amends section 34 of the 2004 Act to allow registration authorities to collect a fee from the proposed civil partners for the attendance of a civil partnership registrar at the formation, which will of course take place at approved premises. We propose to make that fee consistent with the fee already in place and chargeable for civil marriages.

In a similar vein, paragraph 11 makes it an offence to officiate at a civil partnership formation that takes place on premises that are not approved and outside the hours of 8 am to 6 pm. Similar provisions exist for civil marriages. Paragraph 14 provides for a civil partnership to be rendered void if the process takes place on premises that are not approved and the couple are aware of that at the time.


 
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Paragraph 4 requires notice to be given to the registration authority in which the proposed civil partners have had their usual residence for the preceding seven days. That period is consistent with that required for civil marriages. Paragraph 15 provides that it is not necessary, in support of any civil partnership already formed, to prove that either of the civil partners was residing in the registration authority given in the notice of the proposed civil partnership. The purpose of that rather opaque provision is to prevent any challenge to the validity of the ceremony after the event on the basis that people did not give notice in the required way. That is consistent with the provisions in place for civil marriages.

Paragraph 5 removes the provision that allows a registration authority to request evidence of address. Administrative arrangements will be in place to ensure that the person attesting the notice is satisfied as to a person’s residence before the notice is taken. Similar arrangements are in place for civil marriages and they work well.

Paragraph 9 amends section 22 of the 2004 Act to create an additional condition that must be met in order for a civil partnership to take place under the special procedure when one of the proposed civil partners is seriously ill and not expected to recover. With the introduction in the order of restrictions on the place of formation, it is necessary to be satisfied that the person who is ill cannot be moved to a place where the couple could be registered as civil partners under the standard procedure.

Paragraph 10 omits section 29(4) of the 2004 Act to remove the requirement for the Registrar General to make available to the public a list of civil partnership registrars. That is because we are retaining a place-based system. In other words, as for civil marriages, people who wish to register for a civil partnership apply to a registration office or to an authorised place where formations can take place.

The order puts into practice the principles that were set out and makes appropriate amendments to the 2004 Act. It does so in good time, so that the Act can come into force on 5 December 2005. The first civil partnership formations can and will take place shortly after that. The principal Act had the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House when it was passed by the House. I hope that members of the Committee will likewise support this implementing technical order.

9.5 am

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton. As the Financial Secretary rightly said, this is a relatively uncontentious piece of legislation, and I thank him for taking the trouble of going into the various amendments. I should like to make one or two brief comments and ask a question or two.

I am pleased that the Minister confirmed that the legal process will be separate from marriage, but equally, it makes sense that the formation of civil partnerships be done on a similar basis. I have no absolutely no objection to the policy of a unified
 
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system for the approval of premises for civil partnerships and civil marriages. That seems to be a sensible way forward. I am interested to know whether there is any evidence of concerns being expressed during the consultation by religious groups, many of which were concerned about the idea of marriage being diluted or watered down. Was there any evidence that those who wish to promote civil partnerships felt that there should be a difference between forming civil partnerships and religious marriage?

The Minister referred to fees being set at a particular level. Is there any difference in the process of registration that might make a different fee a more logical way forward? I accept that we are at an early stage of the legislation, but is there any evidence that the civil registration process will be either more straightforward or more complicated, which could give rise to the view that there should be a differential fee process?

I thank the Minister for his explanation. It is always difficult when there is a mad rush to bring measures into law, so I am sure that he and his civil servants are pleased that we have been able to put the statutory instrument in place in July, rather than having to wait until October, which would have been a matter of weeks before the commencement date of the Act. I hope that there are no strong objections. Other hon. Members may wish to say something about the legislation, but I am interested in the outcome of the consultation, and whether any aspects were highlighted, taken into account, or not taken into account, by the Minister.

9.8 am

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton. When the 2004 Act was enacted, the Government proposed wide-ranging changes to civil registration, including changes to the registration of marriage. They had originally intended to make such changes using order-making powers and the Regulatory Reform Act 2001. The proposals were originally intended to be implemented in two stages: those relating to births and deaths, and those relating to marriage. However, both the parliamentary Committees that considered the registration of births and deaths rightly concluded that the proposals were not appropriate for the regulatory reform procedure. That obviously left the Government with a problem.

The order provides a short-term solution, which is to assimilate the registration provisions for civil partnerships with similar provisions for marriage. That is a sensible short-term solution, so I do not intend to oppose the regulations today. However, as has already been pointed out, the registration provisions for marriage are rooted well before the invention of the electric lightbulb. I hope that the Financial Secretary will explain what the Government’s intentions are for modernising the registration regulations to being them into line with the needs of the 21st century.


 
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I have only two questions about the order. First, why are the Government repealing the provisions of the 2004 Act that apply where one of the partners lives in Northern Ireland, and what will happen in cases where one partner is in England or Wales and the other is in Northern Ireland? Secondly, why in the case of the armed forces serving outside the UK, is the order restricted to someone who is serving on board a ship at sea? What will happen in the case of RAF and Army personnel? These regulations are certainly sensible for the short term and I do not intend to oppose them today.

9.10 am

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): I have two questions. First, I had no idea that the rather strange restriction on getting married outside certain hours existed. We may not want to end up with a situation like in Las Vegas, with people going to casinos all night and then getting married at two in the morning, but perhaps the time has come to modernise this for all kinds of marriage or civil partnerships.

Secondly, in his opening comments the Financial Secretary talked about the general principles of the Act, which allow same-sex couples to enter into a similar sort of legal arrangement as married couples. At present unmarried couples, same-sex or otherwise, can each nominate a property to be their main residence, meaning that they do not pay capital gains tax when they sell that property. Will same-sex couples who enter into a civil partnership still be able to have the right to nominate one property each as their main property for capital gains purposes?

9.12 pm

John Healey: I thank the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) for his kind comments. I could have gone into this in a good deal more detail, but I decided to concentrate on the main points. He asked about consultation. The principal period of consultation took place in the run-up to the 2004 Act in 2003. There was wide consultation including with church groups. It revealed a high level of support. Well over 80 per cent. of respondents were in favour of the principles of the provision set out in the Act. That is therefore reflected in the practical arrangements that we are putting in place in the order. It was generally accepted that for same-sex couples in a stable relationship who wanted that relationship to be recognised and to be treated on reasonable and equal terms with other partnerships, this legislation was the right way to proceed.

There is a distinction that perhaps I did not draw carefully enough in my opening remarks. Before us today are arrangements for the formation of the civil partnership. It is a legal process by which the partnership is registered and given legal form. It is different from any ceremony that might also be a part of a civil marriage or a religious marriage. If those
 
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entering a civil partnership wish to have a ceremony in addition that is entirely up to them, but it is arranged separately and does not fall under the remit of the legislative arrangements that we are considering this morning.

On the question of charging, as I have tried to stress, the process and the arrangements that we are setting out in the order are so similar in almost every respect to those of civil marriages that it seems sensible and reasonable to say that we will set the fee at the identical level to that which is charged for civil marriages. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) is right. We had intended to try to set up a set of rather wider reforms and had intended to try to use the regulation-making powers of a regulatory reform order, which was deemed inappropriate for the scale and breadth of the reforms that we wanted to introduce. I welcome the fact that he sees this as a sensible solution. It is second best. It was not our first choice. It was not how we planned to do it, but it means that we can give effect to the 2004 Act and put in place a sensible, straightforward system for administering the formation of civil partnerships. The hon. Gentleman asked about wider reforms. We are examining the options for what we are now clear should be primary, rather than secondary, legislation to give effect to the full range of our original intentions.

In respect of Northern Ireland and the armed forces, the hon. Gentleman asked why the proposals in respect of the armed forces were restricted to those at sea. As is consistent with the other matters to which I referred, it is because it achieves a parity with marriage. I did not mention paragraph 8, which amends section 20 of the original Act, in my opening remarks. It removes the provision relating to Northern Ireland and alters the provision relating to Her Majesty’s forces serving outside the United Kingdom to relate to those

    “borne on the books of one of Her Majesty’s ships”.

It modifies the requirement for both proposed civil partnership partners to give notice following a seven-day residence in a registration authority in England or Wales to allow notice to be given where one of the proposed civil partners is resident in Scotland or Northern Ireland or is serving in Her Majesty’s forces overseas.

The purpose is clear. Under these provisions, anyone on board ship, serving overseas, in Scotland or in Northern Ireland who may want to form a civil partnership, does not have to come to England or Wales and establish residence over seven days in order for the process to take place. Under paragraph 8, if the other partner is able to establish residence the formation can go ahead.

Mr. Reid: Will the Minister please clarify his answer? If one of the partners is in England or Wales and the other lives in Northern Ireland, does it mean that the partner living in Northern Ireland has to establish residence in England or Wales before the civil partnership can be registered?

John Healey: That is the case for someone who is living in Northern Ireland.


 
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On the broader matter raised by the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), there are good arguments for updating some of the arrangements that cover the current provisions for civil marriages. We are considering them, but they are beyond the scope of this narrow order. The purpose of the proposal is simply to make the provisions for the formation of civil partnerships consistent with those that are already in place for civil marriages. It is a fairly modest and restricted ambition, but nevertheless one that is captured in the order. The wider argument about whether aspects of the 1837 legislation might usefully be updated now that we have pretty well universal provision of electricity is well made. However, it goes beyond the scope of this order.

David T.C. Davies: I appreciate that it is on a wider point, but does the Minister have a specific answer to
 
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whether those entering into a civil partnership would still be able to nominate one—

The Chairman: Order. I am afraid that that is not in the order.

John Healey: I hope that on the basis of our questions and the useful and detailed scrutiny we have given the proposal, members on both sides of the Committee will consent to it.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Civil Partnership (Amendments to Registration Provisions) Order 2005.

Committee rose at nineteen minutes past Nine o’clock.

                                                                                           
 
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