If gay couples can have civil partnerships, so must straight couples

Plus: Ordeal by 'Question Time' (sorry, my words on how it would feel to leave the EU were ill-chosen) and how I met a cabbie with top Tehran gossip

Chris Bryant
Friday 17 May 2013 19:21
Heterosexual couple, Ian Goggin and Kristin Skarsholt pose for a photograph after being refused a civil partnership outside Bristol Register Office on November 23, 2010 in Bristol, England.
Heterosexual couple, Ian Goggin and Kristin Skarsholt pose for a photograph after being refused a civil partnership outside Bristol Register Office on November 23, 2010 in Bristol, England.

On Monday and Tuesday, the Commons will be debating the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. Doubtless there will be the usual appeals to biblical texts and church teaching and complaints about the immorality of “redefining marriage”. We will be threatened with plagues of pink locusts, swarms of rainbow-coloured frogs and the end of civilisation as we know it. Exaggerated concerns will be raised about teachers in religious schools being forced to mention the existence of homosexuality.

Some will even complain that civil registrars will be required to perform same-sex marriages, even though registrars are civil servants employed expressly to register that which is legal, and we would never allow them to refuse to marry divorcees just because of any personal convictions they may have about the indissolubility of marriage.

Despite all the huffing and puffing, there will be a hefty majority in favour of the Bill, and I hope that when it comes to it, the unelected House will remember that the Commons is more representative of the country.

The Bill is not perfect. It creates a strange and unfair anomaly. Same-sex couples will be able either to form a civil partnership or marry, but opposite-sex couples will only be able to marry. Now why on earth, you might say, would anyone want to form a civil partnership when they can marry? Well, because they do. The official figures say that nearly three million heterosexuals cohabit in England and Wales, and many of them have children. Some decided many years ago that they did not want to marry, either in church or in a register office. Often that is not because of a lack of personal commitment to their partner, but because they dislike the religious connotations of marriage or the patriarchal attitudes of our forebears. Some are religious and, despite being divorced, feel that marriage is for life.

I’ve heard people give short shrift to these ideas. Get thee to a register office, they say. But the truth is that people’s motives are complex, so why should the state actively prohibit straight couples from entering a slightly different form of legal commitment, just because of their sexuality?

After all, cohabiting couples are vulnerable. There is no such thing as a “common-law wife”. If one partner dies, the other has no rights. No right to inherit, act as medical next of kin, automatically enjoy a survivor’s pension, or take over a tenancy. And if they part company, there is no legal certainty for either of them – or for their children. So, if just one in 10 cohabiting couples were to enter a civil partnership, that would be 300,000 people given greater security, which must be progress.

In the end, though, the issue is simple: everyone should be treated equally under the law and nobody should be discriminated against merely because of their sexuality.

Ordeal by ‘Question Time’

I was on Question Time on Thursday, from Ipswich. It has the largest audience for a news programme and it’s always harrowing. You are on in your own right but you are also carrying your party’s banner, so you don’t want to let anyone down. The programme has been recorded “as live” for a decade now, which means that by the time the programme goes out, the contestants (sorry, panellists) are on the train back home, eagerly inspecting their Twitter accounts.

The responses were fascinating. Gillian Tett was getting plenty of online compliments, but many of them were so – how can I put it – salacious, that she gave up reading them. (Apparently this is common for women who appear on the programme.) Peter Bazalgette was excited to reach 1,000 Twitter followers, but profoundly depressed to be likened to Lembit Opik. And the programme-makers were very excited to see that Simon Le Bon tweeted that he really liked Charles Kennedy.

My words were ill chosen

For the first 20 minutes of the show, the Twittersphere’s views on me were dominated by a row over a phrase I used to describe how Britain would seem if we left the EU – “a tired old spinster left on the sidelines”. It would be fair to say that the spinsters of the world rose up in united condemnation of this. Disgusting. Pathetic. Misogynist. Sexist and ageist. As one email put it: “I hope you will reflect on your use of language and the impact it has in the future.” Some people weighed in on my behalf, but if I’m honest, the National Association of Spinsters had a point. Too many pejorative analogies that men use with casual ease are derogatory about women – witness “a bit of an old woman”. I’d have been better saying that if Britain were to leave the EU we would be like “a lonely, impoverished divorcee left on the sidelines”. Mea maxima culpa.

A cabbie with top Tehran gossip

The last bit of the journey home was a taxi from Liverpool Street station. The cabbie was a real character. Born in Tehran, he studied at the LSE in the 1970s and got stuck here when the Shah was toppled. He’d been married three times and was preparing to do so again, in Iran later this year. He told me that whenever he has £2,000 in his account he goes over to Tehran, where he has a large flat that he bought a few years ago for the price of a Vauxhall Vectra. When he learnt I was a Labour MP, he filled me in with a stream of political gossip about Iran, including which senior religious figures are “well known” to be gay, which ones are freemasons, and whose sons and daughters drink alcohol. It was the most interesting cab ride I’ve had, and while it was depressing to see a man with two degrees in mathematics working as a cabbie, I felt proud that he has had safe harbour here.

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