Equal Civil Partnerships

Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan  appeared at the Royal Courts in London today seeking to overturn the government ban on different-sex civil partnerships. They are arguing that the ban on different-sex civil partnerships is unfair because it treats people differently dependent on their sexuality. In contrast recently, Claire Beale and Martin Loat became the first UK-based heterosexual couple to enter into a civil partnership in the British Isles. The couple had to travel to the Isle of Man for the ceremony. So whilst our island cousins have made this step toward equality, the government over here on the mainland are claiming, as they did when Rebecca and Charles first went to the High Court in January and when I first tabled an amendment to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, that such a change would be costly and complicated.

I am not convinced by the Government’s excuses – this change is very straightforward. I have twice tabled a Private Members Bill that will offer opposite-sex civil partnerships on exactly the same basis as same-sex civil partnerships. Just as with same sex civil partnerships, it would not be possible for someone to become a civil partner with a close family member, or if that person was already in a union, and the union would need to be subject to the same termination criteria. It is a straightforward proposal. All that is required is a simple one-line amendment to the Civil Partnership Act 2004 that my Bill would enact. It could all be done and dusted in Committee by teatime.

I find it deeply perplexing how one can justify extending equality to one group in society, as the Government claimed to be doing with equal marriage, whilst in the very same piece of legislation create an entirely new inequality.

When same-sex marriage was accepted by Parliament a few years ago it created an equal opportunity for same-sex couples to marry, yet it inadvertently created another inequality, namely that heterosexual couples were unable to enter into a civil partnership. In the Government’s original consultation before the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, 61% of respondents were in favour of extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. Alas, for some inexplicable reason, it never made it into the legislation, which would have made it a better and fairer Act.

There are two main rationales for extended civil partnerships to heterosexual couples; first, it will correct that unintended but glaring inequality resulting from the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, whereby same-sex couples are still entitled to continue in a civil partnership, to take up a civil partnership or to enjoy the recent extension of marriage, while opposite-sex couples have only the option of conventional marriage, albeit by a larger range of religious institutions. This from an Act that was designed to promote equalities.

Secondly, extending civil partnerships has the potential to enhance and promote family stability. The Centre for Social Justice has calculated that the cost to this country of family breakdown is some £48 billion, or some 2.5% of gross domestic product. That is a big problem, a growing problem, and a costly problem—costly, both financially and socially, to our society.

In 2010, an Office for National Statistics report said that there were some 2,893,000 cohabiting opposite-sex couples in this country—almost double the figure reported some 15 years earlier. Some 53% of all birth registrations are to married parents, but around a third are to unmarried parents who are living together. Indeed, cohabitation is the fastest-growing form of family in this country, and we need to recognise that our society is changing.

With this in mind, fewer than one in 10 married parents have split up by the time a child reaches the age of five—compared with more than one in three of those who are cohabiting but not married—and 75% of family breakdowns involving children under five result from the separation of unmarried parents. The Centre for Social Justice has produced a raft of statistics showing that a child who is not in a two-parent family is much more likely to fall out of school and 70% more likely to be addicted to drugs, and is more likely to get into trouble with the law, to be homeless, or not to be in employment, education or training. That is not to be judgmental about parents who find themselves having to bring up a child alone through no fault of their own, but two partners make for greater stability.

We know that marriage works, but we also know that civil partnerships are beginning to show evidence of greater stability for same-sex couples, including those who have children, be it through adoption or surrogacy. There is a strong case for believing that extending civil partnerships would improve that stability for many more families in different ways. If just one in 10 cohabiting opposite-sex couples entered into a civil partnership, that would amount to some 300,000 couples and their children. It would offer the prospect of yet greater security, greater stability, less likelihood of family breakdown, better social outcomes and better financial outcomes.

There is also a hidden problem whereby many women in particular living in a long term partnership think they are protected by the status of being  common-law wife. Only when things go wrong and they split up without any automatic rights over property, pensions and  home do they find out that no such status exists in law. Offering a formalised role of opposite sex civil partnership could save a lot of retrospective ignorance and ensuing heartache.

If the job of government is to allow people to be as free as possible to make their own decisions without harming the freedom of others, what on earth is it doing failing to make it lawful for people of the opposite sex who happen to love each other enter into a civil partnership when it allows that very same freedom to people of the same sex. 70,000 people have signed a petition calling for civil partnerships to be extended; they are clearly as baffled as me. The current situation is unfair, illogical and needs to change, and that is exactly what my Bill will do, so I hope I can count on the support of proponents of equality across the House.