The UK government has come under cross-party pressure to explain why it gave permission for Bermuda to repeal same-sex marriage rights, after the British territory became the first place in the world to make such a move.
The legislation, decided by the island’s elected government, was signed into law on Wednesday by its governor, the British diplomat John Rankin. It revokes the right of same-sex couples to marry, introduced after a supreme court ruling last year, and replaces them with domestic partnerships, which are available for all couples.
The Labour MP Chris Bryant secured an urgent question in the House of Commons to ask why the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, had approved the move.
Harriet Baldwin, the junior Foreign Office minister sent to deal with the question, said the government was “obviously disappointed” with the repeal of the law, but felt it had no choice.
She said: “After full and careful consideration in regard to Bermuda’s constitutional and international obligations, the secretary of state decided that in these circumstances it would not be appropriate to use this power to block legislation, which can only be used where there is a legal or constitutional basis for doing so, and even then only in exceptional circumstances.”
The new civil partnership law met European human rights standards, Baldwin said. She told MPs that ministers had limited powers over Britishoverseas territories, which were “separate, self-governing jurisdictions with their own democratically elected representatives that have the right to self-government”.
Responding, Bryant said this was not good enough. “However the government tries to dress this up, it is a backward step for human rights in Bermuda and in the overseas territories,” he said. “Gay and lesbian Bermudians have been told that they aren’t quite equal to everyone else. They’ve been told that they don’t deserve – this is the word being used – the full marriage rights that other Bermudians deserve.”
Another effect of this, Bryant said, was that Cunard and P&O ships registered in Bermuda could no longer hold same-sex weddings at sea.
He said: “Does the minister not really worry that when she tells the Russians to respect LGBT rights in Chechnya, or when she tries to convince India or Pakistan or Indonesia to change the law to benefit LGBT people, those countries will just laugh at her, and say: look, the first territory in the world to repeal same-sex marriage is British Bermuda, and they did it with your express permission?”
Bryant asked Baldwin to provide fuller details of discussions with Bermuda and whether Johnson or other ministers had sought to persuade the island’s government against their action.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “We are seriously disappointed that the domestic partnership bill removes the right for same-sex couples to marry in Bermuda, but we recognise that the bill has been democratically passed by the parliament of Bermuda.”
However, Baldwin came under pressure from MPs from a series of parties, including the Conservative Nigel Huddleston, the SNP’s Carol Monaghan and Jamie Stone of the Liberal Democrats. Several pressed her to find out more details of Johnson’s discussions.
The island held a referendum in 2016 to ask about both same-sex marriage and same-sex civil unions. Both proposals were rejected by voters, but the turnout was below the 50% requirement.
Walton Brown, Bermuda’s minister of home affairs, said the legislation would offer balance on the socially conservative island while complying with European court rulings ensuring recognition and protection for same-sex couples.
“The act is intended to strike a fair balance between two currently irreconcilable groups in Bermuda, by restating that marriage must be between a male and a female while at the same time recognising and protecting the rights of same-sex couples,” said Brown, whose ruling Progressive Labour party proposed the repeal.
LGBT rights groups said domestic partnerships amounted to a second-class status and it was unprecedented for a jurisdiction to take away the legal right to marriage after it had been granted.
About half a dozen same-sex marriages that took place in Bermuda between the supreme court ruling in May 2017 and the repeal will continue to be recognised under the new law.