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Lord Lester of Herne Hill: Unwittingly, we are getting into territory which is not quite fair to the Government. The starting point is that the reason that they have used the marriage code as a benchmark is because it provides the comparator—the comparison for the treatment of same-sex couples. The question one has to ask is if married couples can have X, why should not same-sex couples have X? That provides the benchmark, and that is why the Government have done it that way.
 
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Every time the Government deviate from that which is given to married couples, gay and lesbian couples could quite rightly ask them how that could be justified because the Government would be perpetuating a difference of treatment that was not justified. On that, I think the Government have acted sensibly. However, it means that once one has the England and Wales provisions, which we are going through in some detail, and because we live in a devolved system that has different legal systems, one has to look at what adjustments should be made to the provisions for Scotland and Northern Ireland. If those adjustments are not appropriate in legal terms, that must concern us. No one has yet suggested that that is the case.

So far as Northern Ireland is concerned, the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, will recall that when she and I were consulted by the usual channels about whether there should be pre-legislative scrutiny of a draft Bill, which we both opposed, we were told by the Minister—at least, I certainly was—that one strong argument for pre-legislative scrutiny was the need to consult in Northern Ireland. I said, as I am sure did the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, that that was not a good reason for not going ahead with the Bill because of the urgency of getting it through to protect these vulnerable groups. Therefore, it is not quite fair to the Government, given that we rejected pre-legislative scrutiny, to complain now that they have consulted, for which they are to be commended, and have produced amendments after the Bill was published. I was certainly told that they would be doing that. Those amendments are standard in the sense that they copy over for Northern Ireland that which is applicable to England, Wales and Scotland, making changes to respect the Northern Ireland legal system.

That seems to be a perfectly proper process, and we have ample time in the passage of the Bill, guided by the Law Society of Northern Ireland, the Bar, NGOs and Churches to take account of any special Northern Ireland legal or other issues that have not been properly accommodated.

Given the conduct of the two Opposition parties in rejecting pre-legislative scrutiny, it does not lie in our mouths now to complain when the Government do what we ask them and warn us that we would get these amendments late. I am not a member of the Labour Party and I am not a member of the Government, but I think, in fairness, I ought to say that.

Earl Ferrers: the noble Lord, Lord Lester, is one to whom one always listens with great interest. However, I think he has shot the ground from underneath his feet completely this afternoon by what he has just said.

The noble Lord said it was right that marriage should be regarded as the benchmark—what happens in religious or civil marriage should be the benchmark for what happens in a civil partnership. If you do that, you are equating a civil partnership with marriage, as the right reverend Prelate says. Whatever one says about the arguments, the two are not equatable. In marriage, two people join together with the idea of procreating children and in civil partnerships they do not. You start off by saying that the two are not
 
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equatable. If you then say that we will try to make them similar, you run into the problems that we have at the moment. To say that it is quite right to mirror marriage is saying, as the right reverend Prelate said, that this is a Bill for civil marriage as opposed to civil partnership.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, went on to say that the Government said that they would introduce amendments and we understood this, therefore it is quite all right to have all these amendments. There is a common tendency for governments to introduce Bills and then say that they are going to amend them. I think this is a bad thing on the whole. A Bill ought to be introduced with the Government saying, "This is what we intend" as opposed to saying, "This is what we intend at the moment but we will alter it later". Nevertheless, the Government have said that they will do that, and that has satisfied the noble Lord, Lord Lester.

The noble Lord is a man of words and a man of letters. You cannot say that to introduce 125 pages is simply filling up holes—of course it is not. What is written is very important. That is why we have simple amendments like leaving out "and" and inserting "or". How do you incorporate 125 pages without discussing or considering them?

I feel that this is quite the wrong approach. I can understand the reason for it but I think the Government ought to give people time to consider what they are proposing.

Baroness Amos: I thank the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, for her welcome to my addition to the team working on the Civil Partnership Bill. Let me begin by dealing with the point about timing—it has been raised by many noble Lords and it causes me a degree of concern.

Of course I apologise if members of the Committee feel that they have had insufficient time. However, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, was quite right—the Government made it absolutely clear last year that we were prepared to offer the Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny; we wanted to consult in Northern Ireland and to have the results of that consultation before moving to draft the part of the Bill relating to Northern Ireland.

The proposal for PLS was rejected and it was agreed that we could go ahead and publish the Bill. However, it was absolutely clear at that point that a significant number of amendments would then have to be made at a much later stage.

I repeat what has been said many times before. These amendments mirror the provisions for England and Wales. They differ in that they relate to differences that exist in the legislation that applies to Northern Ireland. So with respect to the principles underpinning the Bill, there is no difference between what the Government are trying to do in Northern Ireland and what we are seeking to do with regard to England and Wales.

I totally understand that Members of the Committee are trying to be helpful. Perhaps I can go back to those first principles again and underline what
 
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I know my colleagues have already said. Same-sex couples are unable to marry. Their relationships are invisible in law and they face unnecessary problems as a result. That is what civil partnership is designed to address. The Government have no plans to allow same-sex couples to marry. These proposals are for an entirely new legal status of civil partnership. For reasons of equality and social justice, we are convinced of the need to offer same-sex couples the opportunity to gain a legal status for their relationship, with an associated package of rights and responsibilities.

I have listened very carefully to the points that were made, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, and the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, regarding the concerns expressed in the consultation with respect to these proposals being applied in Northern Ireland. There are some areas in which the Government have to take a lead. I particularly consider that that is the case in areas where we are pushing forward with respect to equality, social justice and humanity. That is what we are doing through this legislation.

There are two key arguments for proceeding with civil partnership in Northern Ireland. The first concerns social justice, fairness and equality. The second is that once the decision to proceed with civil partnership in Great Britain is taken, the need to ensure that same-sex couples in Northern Ireland are treated in the same way is overwhelming. In that sense I totally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lester. There are strong practical and legal reasons for ensuring that the creation of a new status of civil partnership is applied consistently across the three jurisdictions of the United Kingdom. That is the basis on which we are introducing these proposals which will relate to Northern Ireland.

I turn to the specific questions that have been raised. The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, mentioned the census data. We have to recognise that there is still a significant degree of homophobia in Northern Ireland. We have to look at the probability that a lot of same-sex couples would not want to declare their status or their relationship through a public census because of that homophobia. In terms of what I have already said with respect to the issues of fairness, equality and social justice, it is important that we move ahead with these amendments.

As regards the wider issue of the inclusion of Northern Ireland in this legislation, we need to have these amendments so that we have a full range of provisions to set up a system of registration and dissolution, including financial arrangements, in Northern Ireland. As with the English provisions, the law on marriage is replicated.

I turn to the question of religious premises, that was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain. The provision is not on the face of the order for marriage in Northern Ireland. That is why it is not in this Bill. In Northern Ireland comparable provision is made in the regulations, and the same will apply here.
 
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This has been a wide-ranging and general debate. Very little of it related to Amendments Nos. 61A and 61B which I moved originally. But I hope that in the light of the explanation that I have given, these amendments can be agreed.


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