Equalities chief Penny Mordaunt backtracks on proposal to scrap civil partnerships

Photo of Penny Mordaunt

Penny Mordaunt has insisted that the government is “open minded” on the future of civil partnerships, after a document published in her name raised the prospect of scrapping them.

The government this month raised the possibility that it could abolish civil partnerships, which were introduced under the Labour government in 2004 as a segregated form of union only open to same-sex couples.

The number of new civil partnerships has plummeted to just a few hundred per year following the introduction of same-sex marriage, and a government report on their future states: “If demand for civil partnerships remains low and this becomes a stable position, this might suggest that same-sex couples no longer see this as a relevant way of recognising their relationships, and that Government should consider abolishing or phasing out civil partnerships entirely.”

The report adds that “if significant demand for civil partnerships remains over time, this may indicate that the institution still has relevance,” leaving the door open to the possibility of keeping civil partnerships and opening them to opposite-sex couples.

Penny Mordaunt (Dan Kitwood/Getty)

The document was published in the name of the Secretary of State for International Development and Minister for Women and Equalities Penny Mordaunt.

But in a public statement Mordaunt branded media reports on the issue “inaccurate,” though she did not make any specific denials relating to coverage.

The statement says: “We commissioned some research to test attitudes among same sex couples and opposite sex couples about civil partnerships to help inform us about what we do next.

“Quotes attributed to Minister for Women and Equalities Penny Mordaunt by the Sunday Times at the weekend were taken from a policy paper on this research.

“We are open minded on this matter, and want to hear people’s views. Please get in touch by emailing [email protected].”

Stonewall’s Ruth Hunt added that Mordaunt had made an “unequivocal commitment [to the future of] civil partnerships” after a private meeting in which the issue was raised, adding: “Penny knows how important it is to so many of us.”

Penny Mordaunt (Jack Taylor/Getty)

A number of LGBT couples continue to opt for civil partnerships because they do not believe in the institution of marriage, but others see them as a legacy of a past time.

Abolition of civil partnerships would likely be complicated, as they are currently the only form of union open to same-sex couples in Northern Ireland, due to continued failure to secure marriage equality.

The government had said: “By September 2019 we will have access to four full years of data on civil partnership formation following the introduction of marriage for same-sex couples. We will also have completed the activities set out above, giving us the information we need to make a well-informed assessment of potential demand for civil partnerships by early 2020.

“Once these activities are completed the Government would be able to bring forward a set of proposals for how the law should be changed as part of a full public consultation.

“At the earliest, we would anticipate being able to consult on the future operation of civil partnerships in 2020.”

The government held two previous consultations on the future of civil partnerships, looking at three potential options – opening them to all, closing the system to new partners but keeping it for existing civil partners, and abolishing it entirely.

However, it decided not to act on the issue at all after there was no “clear consensus” in favour of one approach.

The news comes the same week that the Supreme Court heard an appeal from an opposite-sex couple who are seeking to enter a civil partnership.

Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan have been campaigning for civil partnership rights for some time.

Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld pose with placards outside the Royal Courts of Justice, Strand on February 21, 2017. (Jack Taylor/Getty)

Ms Steinfeld said: “We hope the Supreme Court will deliver a judgment that will finally provide access to civil partnerships for thousands of families across the country.”

Mr Keidan said: “Civil partnerships offer a legally binding arrangement that is fair, popular and good for families and children.

“The incredible support from many thousands of people who have signed our petition and backing from MPs across the political spectrum has enabled us to come this far.

“What started out as a personal effort to become civil partners has taken on wider significance as we realised that as many as 3.3 million co-habiting couples are affected by the status quo.

“Over the last few years, we’ve heard the same message: whilst most couples want financial and legal protection for themselves and their families, not all feel comfortable with marriage.

“Civil partnerships offer a legally binding arrangement that is fair, popular and good for families and children.”

The pair are supported by an unlikely alliance including Tory MP Tim Loughton, a historic opponent of LGBT rights, alongside gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.

Mr Tatchell said: “It’s time for ‘straight’ equality. The ban on opposite-sex civil partnerships is discrimination and a violation of human rights. It is outrageous that the government is unwilling to legislate equality and that this couple are forced to go to court to get a basic human right – the right to be treated equally in law.

“It cannot be fair that same-sex couples now have two options, civil partnerships and civil marriages, 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 male-female couples. If the Isle of Man can have civil partnership equality why not the UK?

“In February 2017, the Court of Appeal ruled that the current discrimination in civil partnership law could not continue indefinitely and, but in a 2:1 split decision, gave the Government limited extra time to remedy this inequality.

“Alarmingly, in order to end the current discrimination and comply with equality law, the Government is apparently now considering the abolition of same-sex civil partnerships, rather than extending them to opposite-sex couples. This would provoke a huge outcry and backlash within the LGBT+ community. It would adversely affect the 63,000 same-sex couples who’ve already entered a civil partnership, many of whom do not want to have it converted into a marriage; as well as future generations of LGBT couples who’d be forced to choose between marriage or nothing.

“The Government’s announced in February 2018 that it would undertake further research and consultation on the future of civil partnerships. This appears to be a delaying tactic. Way back in 2012, the government had a huge public consultation on opening up civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. It found 61% in favour and only 24% opposed. So why does it need another consultation?”