Sharon led Labour on a Committee to approve consequential changes to the law to implement the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act.
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and to play some small part in helping to implement a historic piece of legislation. A lot of fine and moving words were said about the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 when it was before Parliament last year, including by my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), and I do not seek to add unnecessarily to them this morning.
It is rare as a parliamentarian to be able to see through a measure that will have the direct effect of making so many people so happy for so many years, not because we have given them just under £4 a week, but because we have removed the barriers to their expressing their love for one another in a way that many of us already take for granted. The Minister will no doubt be pleased that I do not intend to divide the Committee on the statutory instruments today although, given that there are one or two members of the Committee who did not support the legislation, I feel that she might also appreciate an assurance that we will support her if a Division is called. Colleagues will also no doubt be pleased to hear that I do not intend to detain them for very long in discussing the provisions. I would, however, like to take this opportunity to ask a few questions of the Minister.
First, it is a matter of some regret that it has taken this long for the necessary secondary legislation to come before Parliament, especially given that it is just a little over five weeks until the first happy couples will be taking their vows. Will the Minister enlighten us as to why this has been the case and, particularly, what the hold-ups have been? The Act also provides for same sex couples to convert civil partnerships into marriages, as well as for an opposite sex married couple in which one of the partners wishes to change gender to remain married—provisions that the most recent update from the Department that I have seen states will come into force before the end of the year. Although I realise that these are complex areas of law, and the Government have to be sure that the secondary legislation is thorough, I do think we could reasonably have expected to discuss all the provisions together; after all, it has been more than seven months since the Act was granted Royal Assent, and these matters must have been under consideration even as the primary legislation was being drafted. I will therefore be grateful if the Minister can tell us the cause of the delay, when further necessary secondary legislation will be introduced, and when the provisions will come into force.
The glaring omission from the equal treatment of same sex marriage relates to pension rights. A modicum of progress on survivor benefit was made in the House of Lords: section 16 of the Act places a duty on the Secretary of State to arrange for a review of occupational pensions, to gauge both the extent of the inequalities in survivor benefits for same sex couples and the cost of remedying that inequality. Subsection (5) requires that that piece of work be completed and published by 1 July this year, giving the Government precisely 18 weeks in which to complete their deliberations and publish the report. As the Minister will know, subsection (4) places a duty on the Secretary of State to run a consultation as part of that process. As far as I am aware, no public consultation has been issued yet by the Department for Work and Pensions, which I understand is leading this work, and 18 weeks leaves little leeway for one to be conducted. I therefore have several questions for the Minister.
Has the review begun yet? If not, why not? If it has begun, when does the Minister expect it to report? Will there be a public consultation, and if not, why not? If there is to be no public consultation, has a behind-closed-doors consultation been under way? Will we be able to see who or which organisations are being consulted as part of that and the evidence they have provided to the Government? Can the Minister assure us that the Government will not listen simply to the occupational pensions industry, which will clearly have strong and shared financial interests in the report saying one thing; and that if there is to be no public consultation, the Government will consult and listen to independent experts? If the Secretary of State decides that the law on survivor benefits should be changed to fit the spirit of the Act, will the Minister ensure swift introduction of the orders necessary to redress the inequality as soon as possible?
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Simon Hughes): I can help the hon. Lady with one matter, because two of the orders are the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice, whereas my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities will lead on the others. The hon. Lady asked about the timetable and the delay. One of the reasons is that the Ministry of Justice believed it was right to consult on the shared buildings regulations. That short consultation—it lasted a month, ending in November—was not compulsory or a requirement, but it is one of the reasons why it has taken a little longer from the legislation being enacted to the statutory instruments coming before the Committee today.
Mrs Hodgson: That is very helpful. Has that consultation been made public?
Simon Hughes: Yes, the results were published on 23 January and are in the public domain—both the summary of the responses and the Government’s response. The bulk of the responses from the main Church organisations were supportive of the regulations before the Committee today.
Mrs Hodgson: I thank the Minister of State for that information. I am sure that he and his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State are both aware that the matter has been in the news in the past week, following the conclusion of a case before the Employment Appeal Tribunal, which found that it was legal, under European Law, for employers and pension scheme trustees to discriminate against same sex couples. It is clear that companies are not going to offer equality in pension rights voluntarily, so the sooner the Government complete their deliberations and make up their mind, the better for all the couples concerned—if only so they know where they will stand financially in later life and can plan accordingly.
The Committee will be aware that a corresponding Bill has recently completed its passage through the Scottish Parliament. It would be useful to have an assurance from the Minister that she has examined that Bill and that there are no inconsistencies between the two pieces of legislation that would give rise to claims of more equal treatment on one side of the border or the other, or, if there are inconsistencies, to know in which areas. One inconsistency has already been raised: the continuation of marriages after one party has been granted a gender recognition certificate, and specifically the spousal veto.
The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014 includes no spousal veto for trans people who are in marriages that were registered in Scotland, regardless of where in the UK they now live. A trans person who receives an interim gender recognition certificate while still in a marriage that was registered in Scotland can apply to the sheriff court to get their interim GRC changed into a full GRC though an administrative process, without the spouse being able to block it. From the commencement of the Scottish Act, if a trans person living in England or Wales wishes to get married and wants to ensure that they cannot later be subjected to a spousal veto when applying for a GRC while in the marriage, they could well be able to circumvent the process by opting to get married in Scotland, but why on earth should they? Will the Minister explain whether partners in a couple whose marriage was registered in Scotland but who have subsequently lived in England will be able to apply to the sheriff court for their interim GRC, or will the Government review and revise the law in this entire area so that they do not need to do so?
At present, of the 11 jurisdictions in Europe that have same sex marriage, only trans people in existing marriages registered in the legal jurisdiction of England and Wales are subject to a spousal veto on their access to gender recognition while married. The other 10 legal jurisdictions, including Scotland, allow gender recognition without requiring the consent of the trans person’s spouse. Does the Minister at least accept that that does not show the Government in a good light? Will she therefore continue to work to make the changes trans people want?
There is further inconsistency in relation to conversion of foreign civil partnerships. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 makes no provision for civil partnerships entered into according to foreign laws to be converted into a same sex marriage in England and Wales, but the Scottish Government have committed to allowing foreign civil partners to convert their civil partnerships to marriages in Scotland. If the UK Government do not allow conversion, those couples who have a civil union from another country but live in England or Wales will have to get their civil partnership dissolved before being able to marry. That could be highly inconvenient for couples, who may have to jump through hoops to dissolve their civil union before they can apply to have a legally recognised marriage. Do the Government intend to allow foreign civil partners to convert their civil partnerships or civil unions to marriage in England and Wales in the future; and if not, why not? Where civil partnerships and civil unions established in a foreign country are converted to marriage in Scotland, will they be recognised as marriages in England and Wales?
The explanatory notes for both sets of regulations state that no specific guidance will be published for those who are expected to implement the regulations. Was that position reached after consultation with the relevant organisations and agencies, and have the Government received assurances that they fully understand the regulations; or was that position arrived at in isolation by the Under-Secretary of State’s officials? The explanatory notes on the consequential and contrary provisions and Scotland order state that the General Register Office has issued guidance to registration service staff. Will the Under-Secretary say whether her officials have any input to that guidance, or are at least happy that it is comprehensive and accurate?
The explanatory notes also mention that the Equality and Human Rights Commission will produce more overarching guidance on the Act itself. Will the Minister tell us when that guidance will be published; at whom it will be aimed; what input her Department will have into its drafting and verification; and whether, particularly given the EHRC’s severely reduced resources in recent years, the guidance will be distributed or simply published online? I am sure the Minister appreciates that it is all very well and good publishing guidance, but that to ensure that it is adhered to may in many cases require formal training. Has her Department commissioned, or does it intend to commission or produce itself, any new training material for people in positions where they are required to implement the provisions of these statutory instruments or the Act more widely?
My final questions to the Minister are as follows: does she know yet who will be the first happy couple to benefit from the legislation—
Simon Kirby (Brighton, Kemptown) (Con): Perhaps I might mention Andrew Wale and Neil Allard, who, at one minute past midnight on 29 March, will become the first same sex couple to be married in the beautiful music room in Brighton pavilion.
Tim Loughton: Declare an interest: you’re going, aren’t you?
Simon Kirby: I am.
Mrs Hodgson: Indeed, that may be the answer to my question. If the Minister knows of a couple who are getting married sooner than that, perhaps she will tell us and say whether she is invited. It is fantastic news that the hon. Gentleman is going to that wedding; I hope he takes some pictures and shares them with us. On that note, I will end my remarks. I look forward to the Minister’s response.