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Lord Henley: In the absence of my noble friend the Duke of Montrose, who is in Scotland, I intervene briefly to thank the noble Lord for introducing these amendments. They are some distance away from his native Wales, but, no doubt, he is learning fast about Scotland. I congratulate the Scotland Office for at least tabling their amendments in time and I repeat yesterday's comments by my noble friend Lord Tebbit
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about the somewhat excessive number of amendments that came in rather late. I appreciate that we had an explanation yesterday from the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, mostly relating to Northern Ireland,
In all my years here I have never known a Bill that has effectively doubled in size in this way or has had to be completely rewritten at this stage. When one considers the long gestation of the Bill it is a sad reflection on the efficiency of the Governmentand I exempt the Scottish Officethat they should have to introduce such a selection of amendments at such a late stage. No doubt, others will wish to comment on that later when we reach those amendments.
Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: I thank the noble Lord for that intervention. In fact, yesterday the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, dealt in considerable detail with the reason for these amendments, but I join him in congratulating the Scotland Office and officials who have come down from the Scottish Parliament for the quality of the work that they have done for us on the Bill.
"COUNCIL TAX: LIABILITY OF CIVIL PARTNERS
After section 77 of the Local Government Finance Act 1992 (c. 14), insert "77A LIABILITY OF CIVIL PARTNERS (1) Where
(a) a person who is liable to pay council tax in respect of any chargeable dwelling and any day is in civil partnership with another person or living with another person in a relationship which has the characteristics of the relationship between civil partners; and
(b) that other person is also a resident of the dwelling on that day but would not, apart from this section, be so liable, those persons shall be jointly and severally liable to pay the council tax payable in respect of that dwelling and that day. (2) Subsection (1) above shall not apply as respects any day on which the other person there mentioned falls to be disregarded for the purposes of discount (a) by virtue of paragraph 2 of Schedule 1 to this Act (the severely mentally impaired); or
(b) being a student, by virtue of paragraph 4 of that Schedule."."
The noble Lord said: I bring to the Committee a further amendment relating to the Scottish provisions in the Bill. The purpose of the amendment is to provide that civil partners be jointly and severally liable for payment of council tax on a property in the same way as spouses. The requirement for spouses in Scotland is made in the Local Government Finance Act 1992. The
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amendment seeks to include provision in that Act to take account of the new legal status of civil partners. I beg to move.
The noble Baroness said: Amendments Nos. 61A and 61B make technical adjustments to Clause 131. The first amendment places on the face of the Bill a provision that witnesses to a civil partnership registration must be 16 or over. This corresponds to a provision in the Marriage (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 and ensures consistency of approach to the age at which a person may act as witness.
The second amendment makes clear that, following the registration of a civil partnership, the fact of registration is to be recorded by the registrar rather than registered in the official register of civil partnerships which each registrar and the Registrar General will keep. The current wording may have appeared confusing as to the point in time at which the registration formally took place.
Baroness O'Cathain: I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, the Leader of the House, to the Grand Committee. I hope that she finds it interesting. I also hope that she realises the very difficult circumstances and awful working conditions; but we have gone through that so many times that I suppose I had better not repeat it.
Although this particular amendment is uncontroversial, following the debate on Northern Ireland in Grand Committee on 10 May, I wish to set out my stall and reiterate why I feel that Northern Ireland should not be included in the Bill.
On the first day of Grand Committee, last Monday, I moved an amendment to leave Northern Ireland out of the Bill entirely; that is at col. GC44 of Hansard for 10 May. Although my amendment was rejected, it seemed to be agreed that there is a very different religious and political culture in Northern Ireland. The Minister admitted that the majority of ordinary men and women who responded to the consultation in the Province were opposed to civil partnerships. But the Government's view is that the Government are right; the people who responded to the consultation are wrong; and they are going to impose civil partnerships upon them anyway.
Lord Alli: I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness quite so early in her speech. As I think I said in Grand Committee yesterday, I have very carefully read her comments. I, too, was quite worried about the distortion in Northern Ireland. I think she is right that part of that is probably due to different cultural factors.
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Nevertheless, I wrote to the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland of Asthal, to ask whether, based on respondent numbers, she or her civil servants could identify any concerted letter-writing campaign in the consultation process. I was surprised at the low number of responses462to the consultation. The Minister has replied to my letterI have just been handed a copyand I am more than happy to copy that to the noble Baroness. It states that there is evidence of repeat replies and a large number of letter-writing campaigns that may have influenced the result.
So I hear what the noble Baroness is saying. I think that an organised letter-writing campaign involving repeat replies is not quite the same as genuine responses to consultation. I will certainly ask the Minister to copy her letter to the noble Baroness. Perhaps she will be able to study it before Report stage.
Baroness O'Cathain: I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alli, very much for his intervention, and I look forward to seeing the reply. However, I would also point out that I referred in yesterday's debate to the campaign that was certainly launched in England and Wales. That consultation was mainly with organisations known to be in support of the Bill. Two wrongs do not make a right. However, I thank the noble Lord for his intervention.
"The majority of responses from individuals were opposed to the introduction of civil partnerships but, on the other hand, most groups or organisations who responded . . . were supportive".[Official Report, 10/5/04; col. GC 46.]
She did not say, but it is apparent from the document that the Women and Equality Unit posted to us on 11 May, that of 462 responses, 416that is, 90 per centwere from individuals. Only 46that is, 10 per centwere from organisations. In fact, 40 per cent of those organisations oppose civil partnerships. Overall, 86 per cent of respondents were against the plans.
As I pointed out yesterday, responses to a consultation are not the same as a representative sample. We would all agree with that. That certainly tallies with what I was saying on the first day in Committee about the very high level of opposition that I assumed there would be in Northern Ireland to civil partnerships.
Interestingly, 87 per cent of those who objected were concerned about the impact on marriage. They were right to be concerned because, as the deliberations on this Bill have progressed in Grand Committee, it has become overwhelmingly clear that this is a form of civil marriage for homosexuals. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, is not in his place. Yesterday, he said that he did not regard that as being the case. I know that he believes what he says.
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Legally speaking, by far the biggest difference between civil partnership and marriage is in the nomenclature. The rest is just detail. I am firmly of the view that we should not be imposing gay marriage on Northern Ireland against the wishes of the population. Nor do I think that we should be sneaking it through while the Northern Ireland Assembly is sadly suspended. If the Government are so convinced of their case, they should be willing to wait until the Assembly is re-established and try to persuade it to adopt it.
I also do not think that the procedure for imposing civil partnerships on Northern Ireland is appropriate. As my noble friend Lord Tebbit pointed out yesterday, we had some 120 pages of Government amendments dropped on us on Tuesday. We are expected to have been able to scrutinise them and are now expected to agree them on Thursday. That would be absolutely impossible even if I had a team of advisers similar to those available to the Minister. For us humble Back Benchers that is totally out of the question.
The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, yesterday reminded us, at column GC 127 of the Official Report, of her remarks at Second Reading, in anticipation of the arrival of these amendments. She said on Second Reading:
I am sorry to say that those remarks gave no indication of the extent of the changes. Nothing in those remarks indicated that we should expect 120 pages of amendments to a 260-page Bill. There was also no suggestion that we would be given just two days to contemplate them before we were asked to agree to their inclusion in the Bill.
The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, was open about the problems of timing yesterday when we came to the first of the enormous batch of amendments, which were tabled on 10 May. She said that these government amendments were not expected to be considered before Monday 17 May, which would be seven days after they were tabled. Why were they not tabled earlier? Why were proceedings on this Bill not delayed until after the officials had looked at the consultation responses and finalised the amendments?
I do not know what has gone wrong within the department, but the timing of the tabling of those amendments is totally unacceptable. This Committee and the process of proper scrutiny of legislation should not be forced to pay the price for bungling.
My noble friend Lord Higgins hinted at his displeasure at this yesterday. I think that we should do more than that: we should not agree to these amendments becoming part of the Bill at this stage. The Minister should move them and explain them, but then withdraw them to allow us time to consider whether to agree to them.
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I do not have time to look at the details. No one has. But even a brief inspection shows that the amendments touch on highly controversial matters. For example, Amendment No. 61C in the next group concerns the place of registration for civil partnerships in Northern Ireland. Astonishingly, it does not replicate the ban in Clause 6 on the use of religious premises in England and Wales and in Clause 89 for those in Scotland. I guess the answer will be that it will be in regulations, but regulations are not acceptable. In England and Wales and Scotland there is a ban in the Bill. The purpose of the amendment is to bring them into line with England, Wales and Scotland.
Amendment No. 61BH concerns the highly sensitive area of adoption. Civil partnership is to be recognised as marriage for many purposes regarding adoption law in Northern Ireland. That is despite the fact that adoption by homosexual couples is not allowed in Northern Ireland. I am sure that there are many other issues, but we must have time to discover them. I know that the Government said yesterday in column GC 158 of Hansard that they intend no discourtesy by the timing. But I hope that the Leader of the House will recognise the extremely difficult position in which the Committee is being placed and will not move the amendment formally today so that we can all have time to work out what on earth these amendments are for.
I know that it will be said that the amendments mirror provisions for England and Wales. But at Second Reading on 22 April, the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, also said, at column 391 of Hansard, that there were differences reflecting the Northern Ireland law, and it is those differences that concern me.
Finally, I hope that Members of your Lordships' House, particularly the Members of this Grand Committee do not regard me as a wrecker. I do not wish to sabotage the Bill as, I am told, I could by signalling "not content" to all the Government amendments on Northern Ireland. I will not do so. However, I give notice of my intention to scrutinise all those amendments between now and Report; and it will come as no surprise for those who have been here for the last two and a half days that I intend to return to them on Report or Third Reading if I feel that it is necessary.
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