A few months ago Liberal Democrats celebrated a landmark achievement for equalities, with the passage of the Same Sex Marriage Act. Starting with a motion three years ago at our conference, introduced and championed by Lynne Featherstone as Equalities Minister, bolstered by Nick throughout and supported by MPs and Peers alike, we proved that we were prepared to stand up for our core liberal values, and secure what I think will be seen as one of the great historical achievements of this Coalition.
We argued for this when neither other party did, and when many people said it was too hard a change to deliver. By the end, the other parties were desperately trying to lay claim to the credit – but the achievement is the key, the memory that must stay with us.
But it is not the end. Even when we have sorted out all the rough edges, fixed the same sex pension problems, equalised civil partnerships and allowed humanist weddings, there will be more. After all, not everyone wants to get married or have a civil partnership.
Cohabitation is on the rise, creating families of all shapes and sizes. In the UK more and more couples, different sex and same sex, are choosing to live together without entering into civil partnerships or getting married. In 2010 more than 15% of all families in the UK were living as cohabiting couples. This represents a doubling in numbers from where they stood in 1996, a trend which is set to continue.
These couples may have invested time and energy into bringing up children, making a home warm and welcoming and into the relationship itself. But if the relationship breaks up they are afforded little protection under law. The often believed concept of ‘common law marriage’ simply does not exist – although many couples trust that it will protect them.
The law, to be fair and just as it should, must recognise these commitments and reward them. The Law Commission agrees. In 2007, after a comprehensive consultation, they called for more protections for cohabiting couples branding the current processes “unclear and complicated”. These calls were ignored in England and Wales – Labour weren’t up for it. Liberal Democrats tried even then pushing the issue forward in the form of a Private Members Bill put forward by Lord Lester.
In Scotland and the Republic of Ireland they have been more sensible. The definition of cohabitation and property rights under the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006 essentially pre-empted the Law Commission’s recommendations. A liberal approach by our Scottish and Irish friends has been upheld in the highest court of the land, the UK Supreme Court, and that remedy is needed south of the border too. Of course, people should be able to opt out of these protections – not everyone would want them, and so our proposals and those of the Law Commission defend people’s rights not to be part of this.
This conference, Lord Marks and I will call on you to pick up this banner. The Tories and Labour will stand against us – at least to start with – but as with same sex marriage we can be certain that along with the professionals and public support we will have history on our side.
This motion should be seen as the first step, the start of a public information campaign to be marked in our manifesto, during the elections and into the next Government. We now know that we can deliver fundamental liberal change – let’s do it again. Let’s speak to those millions of cohabitors.
The scary fact is most British people still believe that there is such a thing as ‘common law marriage’. In reality it is a hodge podge of various laws drawn from all over which can be used; an ineffective, costly and timely process which may still result in one party at a significant disadvantage.
Women tend to lose out in this system, equality and fairness lose out, and ultimately love loses out under uncertain laws and sour court battles. It is time to do what we do best and this starts now.