Faithfulness is intrinsic to the promises a married couple make to one another. I feel very strongly that, as we go forward in our scrutiny of the Bill, this House must find some way of including that faithfulness equally for all married couples, if we are looking to something that has been described as equal marriage. On the grounds of equality that is an omission and in terms of the social significance of faithfulness, which is central to marriage, this omission diminishes the status that couples of the same sex stand to receive from being married. As the Bill stands, such same-sex marriages could be accused of being of a lesser standard in terms of faithfulness than heterosexual marriage unless this point is attended to.

Lord Alli: I thank the noble and learned Baroness for bringing forward this amendment. I have listened to what she said most carefully and I can see the point she raises. Unfaithfulness is understandably a cause for which many people seek divorce but I do not think that anything in this Bill will prevent people divorcing their partners for unfaithfulness. In my view, marriage is a contract that varies in its nature, understanding and commitment from couple to couple. The issue and the importance of fidelity is one that, equally, varies from couple from couple, but it is fair to say that fidelity is a cornerstone of most religious marriages. I think the same should be said of civil marriage, too.

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The definition of the sexual act that defines fidelity for heterosexuals is outdated and, in my view, very cumbersome. The noble and learned Baroness is very brave to bring the issue to this House. When one looks at penetration as part of that definition, or we try to import the definition of penetration from rape into this, it does not deal with lesbian couples, for example. So much of our sexual law is defined by the male and not by women that a complete class of marriage is ignored by what the noble and learned Baroness is trying to do. If we had had more and broader discussions on the Civil Partnership Act and over the Bill, we may find common ground, but simply importing the definition of penetration—anal, vaginal or oral—into this would leave lesbians at a complete disadvantage regarding fidelity. While I completely understand what is behind this, we come back to the definition of fidelity. I think the Government’s position has been not to disturb the current arrangements as far as possible, to avoid tampering with existing legislation. It is a much wider question, which I certainly welcome. There is no way anyone can accuse the noble and learned Baroness of being homophobic in her amendment.

12.15 am

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I will merely say that my noble friend Lord Alli has put his finger on the point. This discussion is not about biology but—as the right reverend Prelate said—fidelity. I suspect that the Government have been round this course. I know from reading the record in the Commons that they had these discussions and settled where they did. At the moment I cannot see any way of moving from that point. I do not accept the biological descriptions and solutions suggested by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. The Government have probably ended up in the right place.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston: My Lords, I was wondering earlier how BBC Parliament would cope if this group of amendments came up before the 9 pm watershed. However, we are clearly okay.

Baroness Thornton: They could turn the lights down.

Baroness Stowell of Beeston: At least we are not going to be subject to an inquiry by Ofcom.

The effect of the amendment of the noble and learned Baroness would be that the question of how adultery and non-consummation would apply to same-sex marriages would have to be determined over time by case law. The Government believe that such an approach would leave the law uncertain in respect of divorce and nullity, and would not give people adequate protection. The noble and learned Baroness will know better than I that the definition of adultery has developed in case law over many years. In order for a definition to be determined for same-sex couples, it would have to go through a similar process. That would provide uncertainty for same-sex couples, which is not what any of us want.

The Bill provides greater clarity by confirming that only sexual intercourse with a member of the opposite sex outside marriage will constitute adultery for all

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couples, both opposite sex or same sex. The noble Lord, Lord Alli, rightly said that the Government had taken the approach, in designing all parts of the Bill, of trying to avoid disrupting existing marriage law as far as possible. This provision confirms that the current case law definition of adultery applies to the marriages of same-sex couples. I make it clear that at the moment, if a married man has an affair with another man, his wife would not be able to divorce him on the grounds of adultery. However, she would be able to cite unreasonable behaviour, so she would not be denied the right to divorce; only the grounds that she relied on would be different.

Equally, for same-sex married couples, sexual activity with a member of the same sex will support an application for divorce, since it will be open to someone in a same-sex marriage to cite unreasonable behaviour. This will not mean that same-sex couples have any reduced right to divorce or will suffer any delay in applying for it, because the same procedures apply to divorces on the grounds of adultery and those on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour. If a woman in a same-sex marriage has an affair with a man, her wife would still be able to apply for a divorce on the grounds of adultery. If she has sex with another woman outside the marriage, her wife could not seek a divorce on grounds of adultery but would do so on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour. That is what currently happens. As we know, it is not that unusual for someone in an opposite-sex marriage to have an affair outside the marriage with somebody of the same sex.

The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the right reverend Prelate argued that these provisions in the Bill mean that there is no requirement for same-sex married couples to be faithful, because adultery is not available to them in the way I have just talked about. The right reverend Prelate used a particular word that I cannot remember; I think he talked about “standards”. I think it is worth making the point that we need to avoid assuming that in order to be faithful people need to know they can divorce someone on the grounds of adultery. It is not the possibility of divorcing someone on the grounds of adultery that leads someone to be faithful to the person they are in a relationship with. What makes people faithful is far more complicated than that. The issues around fidelity, the reasons why people stay together, and their trust and commitment to each other are very complex. Even so, in terms of the law, marriage does not require the fidelity of couples. It is open to each couple to decide for themselves on the importance of fidelity within their own relationship. The law does not lay down requirements about the consensual sexual activity which should or should not take place for married couples.

Similarly, the Government believe that not applying provisions on non-consummation as a ground for the nullity of the marriage of a same-sex couple is the correct approach. There has been a lot of discussion of procreation, not so much tonight but certainly at earlier stages of our debates. Historically, consummation was linked to procreation, although now in law it is not. I want to make it clear that there is no requirement in law that a couple should consummate their marriage in order for it to be a valid marriage. We do not consider that there is a need to extend non-consummation

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as a ground for annulment to same-sex marriage. This also ensures that the law is clear for same-sex couples, as I already noted.

I think the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alli, in response to the proposal of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, to transfer the definition of penetration from that of an opposite-sex couple to that of a same-sex couple, but focusing only on men, serves to demonstrate that we have not addressed what penetration means for a lesbian couple. That is why, as I say, it would take a long time to develop this in case law in a meaningful way. The Government do not believe that the Bill’s approach to adultery and non-consummation for same-sex couples represents an inequality with opposite-sex couples. We believe the Bill makes appropriate provision for same-sex couples, while ensuring that the law for opposite-sex couples remains exactly as it is now.

However, I thank the noble and learned Baroness for bringing forward her amendments because, as she rightly says, this is a very sensitive topic. It is not one that people find easy to debate. I never thought I would stand at a Dispatch Box talking about these kinds of things. She serves the Committee well by raising this matter, but I hope I have been able at least to clarify that by not changing what now exists in law we are not actually creating an inequality. I think the desire of same-sex couples to have a successful relationship through marriage does not require the possibility of adultery for them to remain faithful to each other, if of course that is what they intended when they first married. I hope the noble and learned Baroness feels able to withdraw her amendments.

Baroness Butler-Sloss: I have perhaps found this topic rather easier to talk about, having been a divorce judge and indeed a judge who tried a lot of nullity suits. However, it is a sensitive subject, and I am very grateful to the Minister for the way in which she dealt with it, and to the noble Lord, Lord Alli. I said earlier that I recognised that looking at the issue of penetration was taking only it half way. I also threw out the potential olive branch of saying that you could call it something similar to adultery.

I remind noble Lords that for several thousand years adultery has been the opposite side of the coin to faithfulness for married couples. It has not been an issue only for Jews, Muslims and Christians; it has gone far wider than that. Those who do not believe in any religion do none the less see the importance of making a promise—it has to be a promise, whether explicit or implicit—that, if you marry, whatever your stable relationship is, during that period when it matters, you remain faithful to one another. After nearly 55 years of marriage, I see that as extremely important. However, I see it as equally important for the stable relationships of which I am well aware among those who—

Baroness Stowell of Beeston: I hope the noble and learned Baroness will forgive me for intervening very briefly. I absolutely understand the point that she makes and I do not want to give the impression that I do not take the issue of faithfulness seriously because I certainly do. However, it is important for me to make

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clear for the record that in the context of a civil ceremony it will be possible for those getting married to make promises and commitments in the form of words that they choose. We are not suggesting that we do not think this issue is important. However, we do not think that it is necessary to make provision for adultery in this measure. This is not about denying the importance of fidelity, which is clearly important when people first come together.

Baroness Butler-Sloss: I hear what the Minister says and of course I accept that she is saying on behalf of the Government that faithfulness in marriage of whichever sort is important. I do not for a moment disagree with that. However, there are two sides to the coin—faithfulness and adultery. As I say, for several thousand years adultery has been a ground for setting aside a partnership because of the way that one partner has behaved. To call it unreasonable behaviour, or cruelty in the old days, is not the same thing. I am sad that the Government are not prepared to tackle this because something akin to adultery could be achieved to put everybody who is involved in marriage in exactly the same position. Currently, with the Civil Partnership Act, and now this Marriage Bill going through the House, they will be in different positions. You cannot get away from that. I find that very sad, as, I know, does the right reverend Prelate. I will reflect very carefully on what the noble Baroness has said and, indeed, what the noble Baroness,

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Lady Thornton, has said about this, but I remain very unhappy about it. However, at this moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 40 withdrawn.

Amendment 41 not moved.

Amendments 42 to 44

Moved by Baroness Stowell of Beeston

42: Schedule 4, page 28, line 13, leave out “as to the validity of a marriage” and insert “of validity”

43: Schedule 4, page 29, line 29, leave out “as to the validity of a marriage” and insert “of validity”

44: Schedule 4, page 30, line 34, at end insert—


6 In this Schedule “declaration of validity” means—

(a) a declaration as to the validity of a marriage,

(b) a declaration as to the subsistence of a marriage, or

(c) a declaration as to the validity of a divorce, annulment or judicial separation obtained outside England and Wales in respect of a marriage.”

Amendments 42 to 44 agreed.

House resumed.

House adjourned at 12.29 am.