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Lord Alli: My Lords, I do not question the motivation of the noble Lords, Lord Goodhart and Lord Lester of
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Herne Hill, in tabling this amendment. They have always had equality at the heart of all they have done. However, I have some concerns with Amendment No. 1, which may in practice have unintended consequences that would not be at all helpful. I have said throughout our debates that civil partnership should contain those rights and responsibilities that heterosexual couples can acquire through civil marriage. I am concerned that adding the concept of relationships being "mutually committed" creates an additional hurdle that heterosexuals do not have to clear. That is not fair. I thought that essentially we wanted parity with civil marriage but this amendment would introduce a new and additional test that clearly moves away from the position of equality.
My concern, in particular, is that the new provision could be called into play at a time when people are most vulnerable. For example, one could envisage a situation where a recently deceased person's will could be contested by an aggravated family member on the basis that the partnership had not been "mutually committed". That would be a mischief that could not arise in the case of a married heterosexual couple. I do not believe that the noble Lord would want that to happen. I do not.
I have no objection to the words being added by Amendment No. 9. Indeed, I think it is helpful, giving couples greater clarity about what they are committing themselves to. My question is whether it is required on the face of the Bill. I wonder whether this could be done through guidance. I understood from the Minister in Grand Committee that wording very similar to this would probably be adopted for the oral consent required. Will she clarify the position? If that will be the case, I think it should satisfy both the noble Lord and me on this point.
Lord St John of Fawsley: My Lords, I feel that one should not criticise anything that is done in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, in view of his very important pioneering work in this field but I have two comments to make. One is on the substance of the amendment and the other is on what the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has said.
First, in effect, the words "mutually committed" add nothing at all to the Bill. If people have applied for this relationship or contract, or whatever it is, it must surely be presumed that they are mutually committed. If they are mutually committed, to what are they mutually committed? What does "mutually" mean? This is simply adding confusing words to what is already a fairly confused situation.
I welcome the fact that "relationship" is not defined in the Bill. If a relationship were to be defined, which is what lies behind this amendment, one would be in very deep waters indeed. There is no reference to homosexuality in the definition in the Bill, and a very good thing too. People have a rather limited idea of any relationship where sex is involved. After all, there are relationships that can be loving, committed and celibate. If one attempts to define the nature of "relationship" by words of one kind or another, one will merely create a harvest of difficulties for the future.
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With respect to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, my second point is that I do not think that it is helpful constantly to draw parallels between the facilities provided by the Bill and traditional Christian marriage, as some people do. The words that are quoted from the Prayer-Book are applicable only to a sacramental marriage. A sacramental marriage cannot be contracted by those who are of the same sex. Much of the opposition to the Bill comes from those who feel that it is an attack on Christian marriage or, indeed, on civil marriage, which has its roots in a Christian tradition. I therefore think that these references to the Prayer-Book and the attempt to find similar words are not helpful.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, does he accept that the wording to which I referred was not from the Prayer-Book but from the Marriage Act? It applies to civil marriages. Of course, if one goes back far enough in history, the concept of civil marriages may derive from Christian marriage, but it is quite clear that for many decades past, if not centuries, it has applied to marriages between non-Christians as well as between Christians.
Lord St John of Fawsley: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that intervention. As one would expect, he has put the point that I was making much more clearly, definitively, authoritatively and legally than I could. I am extremely grateful to him for explaining his remarks and for doing so in such a helpful and enlightening manner.
Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I certainly support the principle behind this amendment to draw attention to the importance of commitment. It is clear from experience and all modern research that a stable committed family relationship is important for the upbringing of children. We are looking at a situation where same-sex couples are increasingly going to adopt children and perhaps have children by other means, as technology advances. I have been extremely concerned about the Bill. Unstable, uncommitted civil partnerships might enable same-sex couples to adopt children and leave them in a position of insecurity. I believe that the word "commitment" should be crafted into the Bill in some way.
The Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, I support what the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, is seeking to do, even if the Minister says in her clarification that guidance will be introduced to include the words of commitment that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, is seeking and the word "committed" itself on the face of Bill. It has always seemed to me that the Bill has two functions and that that lies behind the passions that the debate arouses. One function is to rectify some civil disabilities that same-sex couples experience. The second is to recognise the moral seriousness of what the couples are undertaking, and have undertaken for many years and generations, in a culture where that is particularly important since commitment over a long
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period is extremely difficult to achieve in any area of life. It will not really do to say that all we are trying to do in the Bill is to rectify civil disabilities. If we simply confine ourselves to that, then I think that we shall not meet the needs of many of those whom the Bill is designed to assist.
I therefore think it preferable that the word "commitment" and some words of commitment be on the face of the Bill, because that is one of the things which people are looking to Parliament to provide for them. I think that it is a proper thing to look to a Parliament to do. I say that, of course, without derogating from the seriousness of the debate that goes on particularly in religious communities, and particularly in my own Church, about whether it is proper for people to enter into such commitments. The fact of the matter is that, in terms of the life of our community, many people do. I think that the amendments which the noble Lord is proposing do in fact confer an element of recognition that this Parliament should not withhold.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord St John of Fawsley, and my noble friend Lord Alli in saying that the Government clearly do not intend to question the intent behind Amendment No. 1. We have always made it clear that the need for the Bill arises from the fact that same-sex couples in supportive relationships cannot marry but deserve the opportunity of legal recognition. The rights and responsibilities that will accompany the relationship are clear evidence of that. I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, recognises that.
The inclusion of the words "mutually committed" in Clause 1 would, however, present problems in their practical implications for the Bill, as has already been outlined in this debate. We understand why the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, would seek to highlight the point. However, all same-sex couples will make their own decision about how they choose to live out their obligations to one another. If we included the words "mutually committed" in Clause 1, there would be a real question as to how it would be possible to set a common standard to define what the phrase means.
Perhaps I may give a couple of examples. First, although the Bill sets out eligibility provisions, that the parties are "mutually committed" is not one of them. However, the fact that they agree to support each other and to take on the many obligations in respect of each other that attach to their new status of civil partner speaks for itself and is evidence of the level of commitment that they are both agreeing to take on.
Secondly, the Bill already makes provision for the dissolution of a civil partnership on the evidence of unreasonable behaviour. The notion of being mutually committed is not used here and we would not wish it to be imposed as a test of any kind. Just as heterosexual couples choose to share their lives together and meet their responsibilities towards each other, civil partners
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will be expected to meet their rights and responsibilities. How they choose to do so really should be a matter for them.
I turn to Amendment No. 9. We have had a very useful and constructive debate on this issue on Second Reading, in Grand Committee and now at Report stage. It is clear that noble Lords are concerned that those who form a civil partnership should make a spoken statement to each other, or exchange words, during steps taken to form a civil partnership. Perhaps I may therefore explain why the Government have not included any spoken words in the registration procedure.
First and most importantly, in civil marriage, the point at which the marriage is formed is when the spoken vows are exchanged in the course of the marriage ceremony. Registration records the formation of the relationship which has already occurred. The structure of the Bill is somewhat different as it establishes a quite different procedure for the formation of civil partnership, and spoken words are not part of that registration process.
For civil partnership, by contrast, it is the signing of the civil partnership document in an administrative procedure that marks the moment of the formation of the partnership and the change of status. We believe that that is simple, clear and all that is necessary. To add into that procedure a requirement for these spoken words would alter the emphasis of the procedure. In our view that is unnecessary and could introduce confusion about what was the vital step in the formation of the civil partnership.
Secondly, civil partners will have the option of exchanging spoken words with each other. Local authorities are able to offer the option of a ceremony which would very likely include spoken words, and couples will also be free to organise any religious blessing with any vows or other statements that they might wish to make to each other.
We have, however, listened very carefully to what noble Lords have said. While we still believe that it would be problematic to prescribe spoken words, we have tabled amendments to Clauses 14 and 25. Clause 14(2) provides that a,
The purpose of the amendments is to widen the scope of Clause 14(2) and Clause 25 so that regulations may make provision as to the content of a civil partnership document rather than just the information in it. That will allow for the inclusion in the civil partnership document of a form of words.
The Government will consider what is the most appropriate form of words to be printed on the civil partnership document as part of the implementation work to be taken forward after Royal Assent. I hope
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that that will satisfy the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and give voice to the comments made by my noble friend Lord Alli. I am hopeful that the amendments will meet the noble Lords' concerns. These proposals would not upset the structure of the registration procedures, as it would remain clear that the signing of the civil partnership document was the legally significant event.
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