The confusion deepens

The Civil Partnership Bill moves to the Commons

The Civil Partnership Bill has now been republished on its introduction into the Commons on 5th July 2004. It has been enlarged from 196 clauses to 254, while the accompanying notes have grown from 708 to 997. One clause and one schedule have been added because of a successful amendment in the Lords on June 24th, that sought to extend the benefits of a civil partnership (CP) to members of a family, in other words to extend the potential privileges, for example to unmarried sisters living together, as I have argued in previous articles (June and July 2004).

It is quite clear that this amendment wrecks the Bill and equally clear that the second edition has been so formulated that the amendment can and will be summarily removed at the first opportunity. We should nevertheless applaud those who passed it, for it revealed the deliberate and even deceitful silence imposed by the government (see also the box). Nothing in the Bill explains why the amendment should not have been added, nor why other attempts to extend social justice and compassion might not be equally worthy of consideration.

Tempers are clearly running high. The government are intent on forcing through legislation without saying why they want it; opponents are increasingly frustrated that they can introduce no definition or constraint on this new legal entity. There is a peevish note appended to the Bill by ‘Ms Secretary Hewitt’ to the effect that the amendment may contravene the European Convention on Human Rights by not extending the privileges of a CP far enough. It would discriminate ‘against opposite-sex couples (who would be ineligible for the new legal relationship)’. Which is exactly what opponents have been saying all along!

A CP will give legal recognition and status to what are called in the Bill ‘same-sex couples’. Since this basic unit will not be, cannot be and must not be defined, the legislation will only work if there is a clear, unambiguous and shared understanding. If we cannot talk about it (and let’s be fair, there is still sufficient prejudice to make any discussion highly charged and problematic), we must rely on a common assumption. The only model available is marriage.

The government minister, Baroness Scotland, is unequivocal. ‘We have made it clear again and again that we see a very significant difference between the consequences, import and nature of marriage and the civil partnerships that we are now contemplating.’ Unfortunately for her, note 990 states equally clearly that the procedures for CP registration and dissolution are deliberately modelled on those for civil marriage. In other words, it is to be both exactly the same and significantly different.

It gets worse. The procedures to be adopted for CPs are actually modelled on proposed procedures for civil marriage that have been published in a consultation document. In other words, we shall, some time later if this Bill becomes law, see the state reformulating the laws about marriage to make them consistent with CPs. This might just be acceptable if there truly were a shared assumption, but there is not.

The only reference to gays and lesbians is in a footnote to one of the explanatory notes, in which it states that the government’s own figures suggest that a CP will only be one tenth as popular among gays as marriage is among heterosexuals (and that at a time when the popularity of marriage has fallen dramatically). There is an asymmetry here which argues emphatically that there is, even among gays, no shared assumption about what constitutes a same-sex couple.

The gay lobby, understandably, have focussed on the unofficial declarations of the good intentions behind the Bill. Forget the intentions and consider the effects. Because no words are used, there will be in the new CPs nothing about commitment, nor about exclusivity, nor about permanence, and nothing about children except certain procedures regarding adoption, and responsibilities after a dissolution.

Because the take-up will be so low, there is nothing directly to be fussed about; rather, it is the effect upon marriage that is potentially devastating, this bedrock institution of civilized society. Again, we need to stop and reflect. The problem is not what it will do to heterosexual couples, though the future removal of all notions of commitment, exclusivity and permanence from civil marriage would be thoroughly bad. The problem is with that central purpose of marriage: the care and nurture of children.

The state’s responsibility for children cannot be fulfilled by initiatives of a nanny state, but by clear, solid support for the institution which has, throughout human history, been the only reliable context for their upbringing, marriage. Forget personal relationships between couples, but do not forget the next generations of children. The state’s responsibility for marriage is not about being ‘nice to heterosexuals’, it is about its responsibility for children. The objection to this Bill is not about being nasty to gays, but about being deeply worried for our nation’s children.

Let same-sex couples have their rights, but do not destroy marriage to accomplish it. We do not need this experiment in social engineering. We need a simpler, more modest Bill. It will be debated in the Commons in the autumn, and will only get through by government use of parliamentary procedure.

Silence

Within the Bill there is no definition of what form of relationship may be registerable, except that the couple must be of the same sex, not within the prohibited degrees, and must not be registering in order for one to obtain a EU passport. Despite pressure in debate, no expression of ‘commitment’ will be allowed at the registration, nor anything that might express or explain why a CP matters to the two people involved.

The government minister (Baroness Scotland) made it clear that for a CP ‘spoken words are not part of that registration process.’ It is the signature alone (Clause 3) that marks the formation of the partnership. ‘We believe that that is simple, clear and all that is necessary. To add into that procedure a requirement for spoken words would alter the emphasis of the procedure. In our view that is unnecessary and could introduce confusion.’

The central act of a wedding is what philosophers call a ‘performative utterance’, the giving of consent and the declaring of the vow. It is by word that a marriage is made; it is in enforced silence that a CP is registered. The removal of confusion by the removal of all words is certainly a strategy, but it runs counter to the evidence of human history, and is not a happy idea for Christians, for those who know the Word as the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Nicholas Turner is the Curate of Martons Both in the West Riding.

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