Equal marriage: why we need equal civil partnerships too

Tim Loughton MP, the sponsor of yesterday evening’s amendment to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill which would have introduced Civil Partnerships for opposite sex couples, does not have a record of supporting LGBT equality. Indeed, his motives in putting forward the amendment may not have been entirely straightforward, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that I liked what it was trying to achieve.

It seems a nonsense to me that, should the Bill pass into law, same sex couples will be able to enter into a legally recognised union by either marriage or civil partnership and yet mixed sex couples can only marry. Where’s the equality in that?

I am a great supporter of the Government’s objective of allowing everyone to be able to marry and want this legislation to succeed, but not if it leaves an inequality whereby mixed sex couples have less choices available to them than same sex couples.

And despite denials by proponents of the Bill in its current form, this is a real issue. As Mr Loughton said in the debate yesterday, there are 3 million unmarried cohabiting couples in the UK, living without the protection of a legal union. It is my contention that many of them (though by no means all) find the concept of marriage difficult, but may consider entering into a civil partnership were that option available to them. Indeed in the Government’s consultation on Equal Marriage, 61% of respondents thought that civil partnerships should be made available for opposite sex couples.

In the debates that raged on Facebook and Twitter yesterday evening, some people asked why equal civil partnerships were necessary. Speaking from my own perspective, I, like many friends, find a certain discomfort in the historic and religious concept of marriage, for example a woman being property transferred from father to husband or worse still a holy sacrament ordained from on high. As such it was not something that I would have entertained for myself even had it been an available option, clearly depending on the gender of any partner.

I do however find the idea of civil partnership, formally recognising a relationship, to have some attraction as I know do others in a similar position.

There are significant advantages to a civil partnership over a wedding, including far greater flexibility in the nature of the ceremony which, at its most basic, can be just signing the register with no vows, promises or oaths at all. Alternatively, you can write your own ceremony in a way that suits you, rather than following the requirements of the State or of a particular religion.

If we are to create genuine equality in domestic unions, then I believe that there should be a choice, open to all, between marriage and civil partnerships, recognising that the two are different, at least in emphasis and tone. I only hope that the urgent review of civil partnerships promised last night by the Government as part of its deal to stop Labour supporting the Loughton amendment, will produce a sound and sensible and equal outcome.

Some further thoughts:

“Wrecking amendment”: Opponents of the Loughton amendment, said that it was an attempt to ‘wreck’ the Bill and that it would create a vast delay in introducing equal marriage and would attract a £4 billion price tag. I believe, though cannot prove, that these scaremongering pronouncements were entirely made up to act as a deterrent to passing the amendment. As Caroline Lucas said in the debate:

“Ministers need to explain exactly why opening up civil partnerships would delay the implementation of gay marriage and why, for example, it is not possible to work on the basis set out in 2004, when some of the essential consequentials were put in place for civil partnerships. Of course, the issues for same-sex couples are different from those for opposite-sex couples, but I struggle to see how it could take two years or more, if the political will was there to sort it out.”

She was right, of course. Most of the preparation work has been done and I am sure that equal civil partnerships could be introduced alongside equal marriage within twelve months.

“Gay Marriage/Straight Civil Partnerships”: The language used in some of these debates has been hugely frustrating for those of us who are neither gay nor straight. It would be good if those speaking in the House of Commons or commenting in the media would recognise that not every mixed sex couple is heterosexual nor is every same sex couple lesbian or gay.

The role of Stonewall and Summerskill: I have been somewhat sickened by the constant hurrahs from Ben Summerskill claiming that equal marriage was somehow a victory for Stonewall. Let us not forget that when the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative LGBT organisations promoted the idea of equal marriage at the 2010 party conferences, they were roundly told to ‘shut-up’ by Summerskill who believed that we should be content with civil partnerships. He and his organisation arrived very late to this party and – whilst their lobbying on the subject (led by the excellent Ruth Hunt, not by Summerskill) has been first class – this cannot be claimed as a victory for Stonewall alone, far from it. What is worse is that, as ever, Summerskill forgets the bisexual stakeholders in his LGB charity and was implacably opposed to equalisation of civil partnerships. Yet again, Ben has got it wrong.

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