UK government to consider ‘phasing out’ civil partnerships, or opening them to straight couples

Prime Minister Theresa May

The UK government has said it will consider opening up civil partnerships to straight couples – or phasing them out altogether.

The government made the announcement in Parliament today after a Tory MP brought a private members’ bill on the issue .

Civil partnerships were introduced across the UK from 2004 as a form of union for gay couples ‘distinct’ from marriage.

The system was left in place after the introduction of same-sex marriage in England, Wales and Scotland – but critics have criticised the “inequality” of gay couples having two forms of possible union, while straight couples are only able to marry.

Conservative MP Tim Loughton, a historical opponent of equal marriage, used his one chance to table a private member’s bill in Parliament to press for change, branding the situation a “new inequality”.

Responding to his bill, junior Home Office minister Victoria Atkins explained: “Our amendment to it will require the Government to undertake a further review of the operation of civil partnerships, and to bring forward proposals for how the law ought to be changed so that the difference in treatment in the current system is resolved.

“The amendment will go further than the current marker clause in the Bill before the House, in that it will require the Government to report to Parliament and to include a full public consultation.

“I assure Members that this is a commitment on behalf of the Government. We are committed to resolving this issue, but we have to get some better evidence than we have at the moment in order to deal sensitively with the civil partnership issue.

“I wish it were a simple matter of changing a sentence in the Civil Partnership Act 2004, but we have to recognise that this is not just about eligibility; it is also about the rights that flow from any changes. For example, the rules for the dissolution of civil partnerships and divorce in the case of marriage are different for same-sex and opposite-sex partners.

“The Government intend to get on with this piece of work.”

(Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

She said: “The work to which we are committing involves four elements. First, we are committing to continue our existing work on assessing the relative take-up of civil partnership and marriage among same-sex couples. Since 2013, when marriage was introduced for same-sex couples, an increasing number of couples have chosen marriage instead of civil partnerships. We do not know, however, whether the current levels of demand will be sustained or whether they will change over time.

“We currently have only two full years of data for civil partnership formation following the introduction of marriage for same-sex couples. Given the scale and significance of the decision, it is proportionate to gather more data so that we can be sure that demand has stabilised. Our assessment is that we will have a proportionate amount of evidence by September 2019 to be confident in assessing the ongoing level of demand for civil partnerships among same-sex couples.

“The second piece of work that we are committing to undertake relates to those already in civil partnerships. We continue to consider whether phasing out civil partnerships for same-sex couples is the best way forward. We want to approach the issue sensitively and delicately because it would be wrong to rush towards a decision without understanding how it would affect same-sex couples who continue to opt for a civil partnership and who do not wish to convert their civil partnership into a marriage. We are therefore committing to undertake research with same-sex couples to understand their motivations for forming and remaining in a civil partnership, and what they may do if the evidence drives us to remove them.

“The third piece of work we are committing to is to undertake surveys to understand the demand for civil partnership among opposite-sex unmarried couples. Our previous consultations did not suggest that a significant number of opposite-sex couples wished to enter a civil partnership. Indeed, the most recent survey, which was conducted in 2014—admittedly, with a relatively small number of respondents—suggested that people would not wish for an extension of civil partnerships. But rather than relying on that survey, we want to conduct a thorough survey to ensure that our evidence is accurate and up to date when it comes to assessing the demand for civil partnerships from opposite-sex partners.

“The fourth piece of work will be a review of what has happened in other countries when they have been faced with similar choices. This is an important part of the evidence base. Although drawn from a different social context, the experience of other countries gives us information on the choices couples actually make when offered the choice between marriage and another form of legal recognition, such as civil partnerships.”

Speaking in the Commons today Mr Loughton, who allegedly tried to derail equal marriage legislation in 2013, pressed the government for change.

He said: “The House decided in 2013 that it was time for equal marriage. That has happened, the skies have not caved in and we have moved on. I certainly do not want to reopen the bruising debates that we had at the time, especially across my party.

“However, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 gave rise to an unintended new inequality, and it is surely time for equal civil partnerships—a natural extension that was supported across all parties when the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill was introduced and that has just as much support now. “

He added: “[My bill] will correct the unintended but glaring inequality that results from the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, whereby same-sex couples are entitled to continue in a civil partnership, take up a civil partnership or enjoy the recent extension of marriage while opposite-sex couples have only the single option of conventional marriage, albeit by a larger range of religious institutions.

“That is not fair, and it gives rise to an inequality in an Act that was billed as promoting equality.”

He was joined by Sir Edward Leigh, another opponent of equal marriage, who suggested that incest laws should be changed so that civil partnerships can be opened up to siblings.

The MP said: “If the Bill makes progress, people will be able to get married to, or have a civil partnership with, anybody of any sex.

“I have been written to by two sisters—this is also a long-standing campaign of my own—about the burning injustice in this situation. The two sisters have lived together all their lives, but when one of them dies, the other one will have to move out of their home because they will not be able afford the inheritance tax. Only the Treasury stands in the way of righting this injustice; it is about money.

“I hope that when my hon. Friend works on the detail of the Bill, he will try to ensure that it helps siblings to stay in the homes in which they have lived all their lives.

He added: “Does my hon. Friend recognise that it is an injustice for everyone apart from siblings to be able to have whatever legal relationship they want?”

LGBT rights campaigner Peter Tatchell had backed straight civil partnerships.

He said: “It’s time for ‘straight’ equality. It cannot be right that same-sex couples now have two options, civil partnership and civil marriage, whereas opposite-sex partners have only one option, marriage.

“In 2016, the Isle of Man became the first part of the British Isles to open up civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. If the Isle of Man can have civil partnership equality why not the UK?

“The government’s public consultation in 2012, involving over 200,000 submissions, found that 61% of respondents supported allowing opposite-sex couples to have a civil partnership. Only 24% opposed.

“In a democratic society, everyone should be equal before the law, with the same rights and responsibilities. It is outrageous that for 14 years successive governments have been unwilling to legislate equality.”

The founders and lead opposite-sex couple in the Equal Civil Partnerships (ECP) campaign are Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld.

Charles Keidan explained: “Currently, more than three million unmarried couples in the UK cohabit. That’s an average of over 4,500 couples per parliamentary constituency. Two million children in the UK have parents living together as unmarried couples.

“Over 80,000 individuals have signed our petition in support of equal civil partnerships. The vast majority of those polled are in favour of the extension of civil partnerships, according to Populus.

“Same-sex civil partnerships remain popular in the LGBT community. The number formed in England and Wales rose from 861 in 2015 to 891 in 2016, an increase of 3.4%, according to the Office of National Statistics. There is every reason to believe they would appeal to a sizeable number of different-sex couples if they were legalised.”

Rebecca Steinfeld added: “The current situation is self-evidently unfair. Civil partnerships promote stable families and protect children. They should be available to everyone. There is no such thing as common law marriage. This leaves unmarried couples and their children vulnerable.

“Couples choose not to marry for many reasons: its history, cost and past bad experiences. The State’s responsibility is to protect children, not judge their parents: children should not be placed at risk, just because their parents don’t marry.

“The number of same-sex couples opting for civil partnerships increased last year, despite the introduction of same-sex marriage. This shows that the demand for civil partnerships is not going away and it is likely that many different-sex couples would like this option. There is cross-party support for equal civil partnership legislation.“