The Government has consulted twice before on the continued operation of civil partnership: in 2012, during the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, and again in 2014. In both, the Government invited views on three possible options: whether civil partnerships should be abolished, closed to new registrations or extended to opposite-sex couples. The previous consultations did not reveal any consensus about how civil partnership should develop and the Government therefore decided not to make any changes to the civil partnership regime.
On 10 May, the Government issued a further policy paper, The Future Operation of Civil Partnership: Gathering Further Information, explaining that it proposes to gather additional information on the issue and that “When this work is completed, the Government should have the information it needs to bring forward proposals for the future of civil partnerships”.
The Government believes that further research is needed on four areas to help assess whether there continues to be a demand for civil partnerships among same-sex couples now that marriage is available to them and whether there is demand for civil partnerships amongst opposite-sex couples:
- trends in civil partnership and marriage amongst same-sex couples– which the Government already has under review;
- a survey to assess demand for civil partnership and marriage among opposite-sex couplesin the UK;
- research into the motivations of same-sex couples who choose civil partnership; and
- a review of what has happened in other countries.
In assessing trends, the Government will collate data on civil partnerships among same-sex couples and marriage among same-sex couples and examine changes over time to see how the take-up of civil partnerships has changed since marriage for same-sex couples was introduced. It will also look at the characteristics of same-sex people who take up civil partnership and marriage, such as age and sex, and whether this is changing over time.
The declared intention is that all this should enable the Government to make a well-informed assessment of potential demand for civil partnerships by early 2020 and the intention is to consult on the future operation of civil partnerships in 2020 at the earliest.
All the above raises two questions, at least to my mind. The first, obviously, is whether a third consultation is really necessary at all. The second – crabby old cynic that I am – is whether any of this could possibly be connected, however remotely, with a matter on which we have commented previously: the forthcoming Supreme Court hearing of the appeal against the two-to-one decision in Steinfeld & Anor v Secretary of State for Education  EWCA Civ 81 on whether the bar on civil partnership for opposite-sex couples is in breach of Article 14 (discrimination) ECHR together with Article 8 (respect for private and family life). [With thanks to Joshua Rozenberg for drawing attention to the policy paper.]
And see Martin Downs, UKHRB: Should civil partnerships only be available to same sex couples?
Frank Cranmer [Full disclosure: I contributed to the crowdfunding for the appeal in Steinfeld.]