The Lords Spiritual and Civil Partnerships Legislation

The following is a timeline that summarises the speeches and votes of bishops in the House of Lords on civil partnership legislation from 2002 - when a Private Member’s Bill was first brought before the House by Lord Lester of Herne Hill - to the passing of the Government’s Civil Partnership Act in November 2004.

The bishops, consistent with their place as independent and non-whipped members neither spoke nor voted as a bloc on these issues when they were before the House. The Government’s 2004 legislation that resulted in the introduction of civil partnerships was welcomed at Second Reading by the Bishop of Oxford and with more qualification, by the Bishop of Peterborough. More critical speeches followed from the Bishops’ Bench during the Bill’s subsequent stages. Six bishops voted in favour of (and one against) what was widely considered to be a ‘wrecking amendment’ to the Bill at Report stage; however when the Commons removed the amendment and returned the Bill to the Lords in November 2004, eight bishops voted in support of the decision taken by the Commons (two voted against). Extracts from speeches by the Lords Spiritual and links to the parliamentary record of the speeches and votes are below.

Richard Chapman
Secretary for Parliamentary Affairs  


Lord Lester’s Bill, 2002

On 25th January 2002 the House of Lords debated the ‘Civil Partnerships Bill’– a Private Members Bill that had been introduced by Lord Lester of Herne Hill. The Bill sought to offer a legal framework of recognition to opposite-sex cohabitees (excluding ‘close relatives’) as well as those in same-sex relationships.

Introducing the debate, Lord Lester said “the Bill seeks to achieve a law which gives full partnership rights and responsibilities to all mature adults, whether same sex or opposite sex, who wish to enter into a binding legal compact to organise their common life together.”

In the debate, speeches were made by both the then Bishop of Winchester, Rt Rev Michael Scott-Joynt, and by the then Bishop of Guildford, Rt Rev John Gladwin.

The Bishop of Winchester spoke against the Bill and urged Peers not to give it a Second Reading. He said “the Bill before us today enumerates all, or nearly all, of the civil obligations and rights resulting from marriage….I take the Bill's basic premise to be that those living in partnerships short of marriage should have the same rights as those who are married. I believe that that premise is mistaken because it is not comparing like with like.”

He outlined the positive benefits of marriage for society, and why it would be wrong to conclude that it was somehow inappropriate for public policy to ‘discriminate in favour of marriage’. He proposed a more limited set of measures to address the problems of possible hardship and disadvantage suffered by those in unmarried but long term relationships on the ending of those relationships. He also raised questions about pension liability, about the possible applicability of legislation to those in family or friendly (non-sexual) relationships, and about the qualifying time period for forming or dissolving a civil partnership, which he felt was too short to foster the creation of long-term and stable relationships.

The Bishop of Guildford acknowledged that “those who legislate have a duty to seek ways and means of ending such unjust discrimination for the benefit of all”.

My concern is for gay and lesbian people who are, both by the nature of their relationship and the nature of marriage, unable to avail themselves of their understandable needs for financial and other personal arrangements that are non-discriminatory.”

He went on to say “I have no great concerns with a civil registration of partnerships, per se. It is in what might follow therefrom that the thorns and thistles grow up”. The test of the legislation was whether it offered a fair, practical and proportional response to the problem it intended to resolve and he urged caution that those legislating “in seeking to offer a good to a few, not end up undermining the greatest strength for the many…Whether we are gay or straight, whatever is done to address the injustices of same sex and cohabiting couples we must not undermine the central place of marriage and its essential role and normative place in our society and family life today.”

Recognising the value of public declarations to those in relationships he said “If there is a need for appropriate secular or spiritual declarations these can and should be made.”

He said that, whilst most cohabitees saw that arrangement as a staging post to marriage, it would be important not to give the privileges of marriage to those who have chosen not to marry and urged Government to ensure that they had explored all existing avenues to make remedies (such as on public sector pension provision) outside the need for new legislation.

The motion to give the Bill a Second Reading was passed without a Division of the House, though it did not proceed further because of the advance of the Government’s own proposals.

Government Consultation on Civil Partnerships, 2003

In June 2003 the Government issued a consultation document entitled: 'Civil Partnership: A framework for the legal recognition of same-sex couples'. As the name suggested, the proposals within the consultation marked a departure from Lord Lester’s in that they applied solely to same-sex couples.

The Archbishops’ Council submitted a response, dated 30th September 2003, which can be viewed here.

Queen’s Speech, 2003

In November 2003 the Government announced in the Queen’s Speech its intention to introduce a Civil Partnerships Bill.

Giving a speech on climate change during the Lords debate on the Queen’s Speech on 27th November, the then Bishop of Hereford, Rt Rev John Oliver, said  

I shall digress just for a moment to express a warm welcome to the announcement in the gracious Speech of ..the promise of legislation for civil partnerships, particularly in its helpfulness in terms of inheritance and pension issues.”


The Government’s Civil Partnership Bill, 2004

Lords Second Reading

The Civil Partnership Bill was debated at Second Reading in the Lords on 22nd April 2004.  During the Second Reading debate the then Bishops of Oxford, Rt Rev Richard Harries, and Peterborough, Rt Rev Ian Cundy, made speeches.

The Bishop of Oxford welcomed the Bill and said “More important than my personal view, however, is the fact that the Church of England, through its official pronouncements, has recognised that at the moment same-sex partnerships are treated very unfairly in a number of ways and that this Bill will rectify a range of injustices in relation to inheritance, pensions, hospital visiting rights and so on.”

He drew attention to a recent vote in Synod that had both affirmed marriage and suggested that new legal rights were required to address issues of hardship and vulnerability for people whose relationships are not based on marriage; and quoted at length from the consultation response from the Archbishops’ Council before concluding “There we can see very strong support from the official announcements of the Church of England to rectify a range of unfair anomalies.”

He said that “there are fears that the Bill could undermine the institution of marriage and its special place in the law of this country. I state those views because they are widely shared in Church circles, and the Government will need to address them… However, my own conviction is that, properly understood, this Bill could very well support and strengthen the institution of marriage in our society, rather than weaken it.

He also raised concerns, on religious liberty grounds, about the clauses that prevented registration taking place in religious premises. The lack of definition of the commitment being entered into through a civil partnership (“a commitment of two human beings to one another through all the vicissitudes of human existence”) was, he said, also a concern

The Bishop of Peterborough gavea cautious welcome” to the Bill and “what the Minister has called the measured response to a recognised need. It has, as she said, been shaped by consultation, including with the Church, and it offers a secular solution and does not seek to weaken the importance of marriage.”

He acknowledged and explained the differences of opinion within the Church and, noting that “Government have made it clear that they do not see the introduction of civil partnerships as undermining marriage”, with several parts of the proposals (such as the prohibition on religious ceremonies) making that distinction deliberately clear, went on to explain the reservations many in the Church still held. 

Since the publication of the Bill, some have argued that by accepting same-sex unions in legislation that mirrors to a great extent the legal protection given to marriage, thereby creating equality in law, will at least cause confusion about the essence of marriage, and would therefore not be consistent with the desire expressed by the [Archbishops’] Council and by the Government….Those who feel that the move will undermine the unique status of marriage acknowledge that law shapes people's understandings and behaviour. In their view, creating equality in law with marriage gives a signal to society that marriage and civil partnerships are equally important to the well-being of society. My brother bishop, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, has argued the contrary view, and I, personally, have some sympathy with it. However, if a bishop may admit to such a failing, I find myself to be slightly agnostic on the matter.”

He also called for clarity on the purposes of a civil partnership – in order to ensure a balance of rights and responsibilities - and on the nature of the “unreasonable behaviour” that might lead to dissolution.

The Bill was granted a Second Reading without a Division of the House and progressed to the Committee stage.


Lords Grand Committee

By the rules of the House, no votes were taken during the Grand Committee stage, though a number of amendments were put, to be debated then withdrawn and returned to at later stages.

On day one of the Grand Committee stage, 10th May 2004 the Bishop of Oxford  returned to the concern he had voiced at Second Reading, about the absence of prescribed words to accompany the registration of a civil partnership “indicating that this is a profound commitment of two people”. The intervention was made during debate on amendments from Baroness O’Cathain to expand the categories of person who could enter into a civil partnership, to include those in caring, platonic or sibling relationships. The Bishop said “If there were some prescribed words, however simple—and not necessarily the same as those in the marriage service—, it would get over the question of whether this is a sexual relationship that we are talking about

On day two of Grand Committee, 12th May, the Bishop of Peterborough spoke during debate on clause 6, which prohibited the registration of civil partnerships on religious premises, and a probing amendment from Baroness Wilcox to remove the prohibition. He said “while I cannot speak for other religious groups, I believe that I speak for many of my colleagues and others in the Church of England who take the view that the Government's proposals are appropriate… The Government are not legislating for what religious groups may or may not do subsequent to registration. That is up to the religious group concerned and if it wishes to add a religious ceremony it is free to do so.”

The Bishop of Peterborough also spoke briefly during debate on an amendment from Lord Higgins about special procedures for contracting a civil partnership in circumstances where one party may be terminally ill and close to death.

On day three of Grand Committee, 13th May, the Bishop of Chester, Rt Rev Peter Forster, spoke during the debate on an amendment from Baroness O’Cathain to delay the implementation of civil partnership legislation in Northern Ireland. He said “The thought that this Bill could be enacted and not apply to part of the United Kingdom is inherently difficult to contemplate, and I imagine very difficult to contemplate from a legal point of view because of the pressure of the European courtsOnce you get into shadowing the provisions for marriage, you enter the slightly anomalous situation we have that different legal provisions apply to marriage in different parts of the United Kingdom. Might the Bill not have been much better if it had been distanced somewhat from marriage We [the Lords] are trying all the time simply to shadow the provisions for marriage and are not coming clean about what we are doing.”


Lords Report Stage

The Bill progressed to its Report Stage, on the floor of the House, on 24th June 2004.

On Report, the then Bishop of Worcester, Rt Rev Peter Selby, spoke in support of amendments from Lord Goodhart and Lord Lester, which (quoting Lord Goodhart): “make it clear that a civil partnership involves a commitment akin to that entered into by marrying heterosexual couples, and is therefore not appropriate to be extended to the relationship of home sharers or close relatives, who—under the amendments tabled at this stage—are of different sexes.” The amendments were withdrawn after debate, as the Government committed to tabling its own to a similar end. In the debate the Bishop said that one of the purposes of the legislation was “to recognise the moral seriousness of what the couples are undertaking…I therefore think it preferable that the word "commitment" and some words of commitment be on the face of the Bill, because that is one of the things which people are looking to Parliament to provide for them. I think that it is a proper thing to look to a Parliament to do. I say that, of course, without derogating from the seriousness of the debate that goes on particularly in religious communities, and particularly in my own Church, about whether it is proper for people to enter into such commitments.”

The Bishop of Winchester co-sponsored a series of amendments with Baroness O’Cathain and others that would (quoting Baroness O’Cathain): “extend the benefits of the Bill to family members who have lived together on a long-term basis...Two sisters or any two close relations who have lived together for 12 years would be able to register a partnership and take advantage of the provisions of the Bill. These are benefits which are currently unique to married couples and under the Government's Bill will be extended only to one other group; namely, those in same-sex relationships.”

The then Bishop of Rochester, Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, the then Bishop of Southwell, Rt Rev George Cassidy and the Bishop of Winchester spoke in support of these amendments. The Bishop of Worcester spoke against.

The Bishop of Rochester saidI applaud the stated purpose in bringing the Bill forward, which is to remove injustice in a variety of matters—tenancy, pensions, inheritance and other areas suffered by people who choose to live together…[but]… could not the social justice and compassionate aspect of the Bill have been achievable through legislation that does not look so much like marriage?...If the Bill is about dealing with the difficulties faced by those in long-term relationships, then how can it be just to ignore the case of two sisters living together for support and protection? If we are addressing injustice, can we overlook the plight of the daughter who dedicates her life to caring for an elderly parent? What is the status of vulnerable adults who live with a parent or another relative?”

The Bishop of Southwell said: “Some argue that it is perfectly legitimate to debate the defects in inheritance law, landlord and tenant law and so on, but that the proposed Bill remedies those problems only for a select group of people—those who become civil partners under the Bill. In other words, the new legislation is, to my layman's mind, partial, discriminatory and perverse if it stands unamended…I hope these amendments succeed in gaining the support of the House. Is the Minister prepared to give a categorical assurance that the Government will speedily follow up with legislation that benefits other categories of relationship?”

The Bishop of Worcester said: “I find it difficult to accept the notion—and I speak out of a long theological tradition here—that one should have to register in order to have the privileges that come from being a family member. It seems to me that I am a member of the family of which I am a member not from any choice, registration, or covenant, but by virtue of a given relationship that I have. In the amendment as she has now drawn it, there is the confusion of two different objectives; one to support the family, and I wholly support that, and the other to support and honour caring relationships, and I wholly support that. If you are going to do the second, it seems to me that a far wider group of people should he included, as in the initial Committee amendments. If you are going to support the family, it should precisely not be necessary for people to register partnerships in order to achieve the benefits of family membership…I say all this to try to look at this amendment, at this late stage in the Bill, in a detailed and rational way, and not simply to engage in the fundamental debate, which of course goes on all the time under the surface.”

A vote was taken on the amendments:

Six bishops voted content (for the Baroness O’Cathain / Bishop of Winchester amendments): the Bishops of Coventry, Liverpool, Peterborough, Rochester, Southwell, Winchester.

One bishop voted not content (against the amendments): the Bishop of Worcester.

The Contents won the vote, by a margin of 18: 148 to 130.

The acceptance of the amendments was the cause of some procedural confusion on the part of the Government and other benches and the Bishop of Winchester spoke during these exchanges. The House resolved to continue with its consideration of the Bill.

The then Bishop of Chelmsford, Rt Rev John Gladwin, spoke supportively to an Opposition amendment on early reconciliation processes for civil partners (which was withdrawn after debate). He said “the clause that we are debating is a very interesting piece of legislation. I am delighted to see it, and I have some sympathy with the amendment because it also has an implication for matrimonial law and practice.”

The Bishop of Winchester made a minor intervention during a debate on amendments relating to procedures in Scotland. And again, on an amendment from Lord Lester relating to recognition of foreign same-sex partnership arrangements, namely in the US state of Massachusetts.

Both the Bishop of Winchester and the Bishop of Chelmsford then spoke during the debate on the final group of amendments, as the House reflected on that day’s business. The Bishop of Winchester said that the Government had been wrong to bring forward legislation so close in appearance to marriage, the reason for their losing the crucial vote:

The Bill has become enormous and spread because of the intention—perhaps as a result of a particular element of human rights legislation—to replicate painstakingly everything there might be concerning marriage. The position in which the Government have found themselves largely stems from that astonishing exhaustiveness of the Bill…Might there not be a question of remembering the advice that some of us gave two and a half years ago—that the Government might more easily get a much more straightforward Bill through, one that addresses some of the most critically and obviously distressing, disadvantaging and, frankly, wrong elements of the present system?”

The Bishop of Chelmsford expressed concern that the principle underlying the purpose of the Bill (that it be legislation to create same-sex civil partnerships alone) had been lost as a result of the vote. He said “we have to have legislation that is rooted in principle. All those in positions of political responsibility need to consider that, whatever their point of view. There is a variety of points of view on these Benches as well as elsewhere in the House. Given the damage that has been done today there has to be coherence in terms of principle. We have lost that today. I hope that those that are here every day through negotiation will help us to recover the situation.”


Consideration of House of Commons Amendments

The Civil Partnerships Bill was sent by the Lords to the Commons in September 2004, including the amendments made in the name of Baroness O’Cathain and the Bishop of Winchester, which had broadened the categories of people beyond same-sex couples who could enter into a civil partnership.

By a large majority the Commons removed those Lords amendments and the Bill returned to the Lords.

The Lords were invited to agree the action of the Commons – and so, to pass the Bill with its original principle restored - on November 17th 2004.

During the debate, Baroness O’Cathain moved a further amendment to once again extend the categories of people who could contract a civil partnership, specifically to family members. The Bishop of Chelmsford spoke against the amendment, whilst the Bishop of Chester spoke for it, on the basis of his continuing concern about the impact the Bill would be likely to have on marriage.

The Bishop of Chelmsford saidthe Bill is not the vehicle within which to achieve her aim… The clarity of principle of this Bill is that it deals with relationships between people of the same sex. That is the central principle of it. It is different from marriage but it has this parallel. One of the reasons people in my office and the clergy encourage people who are living together to enter into marriage, recognising that marriage is a relationship between the two of them and not just a statement in the law, is in order that the community as a whole should be clear about the relationship that they are in. The Bill achieves that for people of long-term relationships of the same sex. It is not just about gay couples; it is about people of the same sex. That is very important because a whole variety of relationships are covered under this matter. I believe that it is important that we hold to the integrity of the Bill… the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, would be better served by dealing separately with the complex matters of law that surround family relationships. There is a sense in which this amendment does not achieve all that needs to be achieved in that area. I think that we would be helped if the Government were a little more upfront in saying that they recognise that a whole field of relationships and consequences in human rights needs to be addressed….I am not happy to see is our losing the Bill around this issue. It is important that we do not lose the Bill at this stage in the Parliament.”

The Bishop of Chester saidthe difficulty is that the details of the Bill as it stands so closely parallel the arrangements for marriage that there is a real danger of a de facto introduction of same-sex marriage by that process. The history of social legislation in this country is often that the consequences are not quite those that are stated as intended. One sees that in all sorts of areas, including divorce and abortion in family law. In some ways, that makes it difficult to accept the amendment before us….However, if the Bill is left standing alone, without any other measures being introduced at some point, paralleling so closely the provisions for marriage, de facto we will have a perception of same-sex marriage. If that situation simply continues without the other provisions pressed for by noble Lords, it will look very anomalous and even more unjust than many noble Lords have suggested.”

A vote was taken on the amendment

Two bishops voted Content (with Baroness O’Cathain’s amendment): the Bishops of Chester and Southwell.

Eight bishops voted Not Content: the Bishops of Chelmsford, Manchester, Norwich, Oxford, Peterborough, St Albans, St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, Truro.

The Not-Contents won the vote by a margin of 115: 136 - 251


Royal Assent

The Civil Partnership Act received Royal Assent on 18th November 2004