Baroness Scotland of Asthal (Minister of State (Criminal Justice System and Law Reform), Home Office; Labour)
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 1.
We come before this House today to discuss a Bill that provides same-sex couples with legal recognition of their relationships. We have developed this policy over a period of three years in relation to a specific problem faced by same-sex couples. We have done so after much work in government, after consultation with experts and the public, and by bringing forward appropriate legislation that provides not just for important protections for civil partners but also for onerous responsibilities and heavy obligations.
During the scrutiny of the Bill in this House a series of amendments were passed on Report that brought within the provisions of the Bill close family relations. I have no wish to rehearse all the arguments we made at that stage. I am aware that many noble Lords voted the way they did for the best and most generous of motives in an attempt to improve the lot of relatives and carers. However, as I explained at Third Reading, the result would have been to rewrite the whole basis of social security, pensions and family law and render the Bill unworkable. The elected House removed those amendments and on that basis approved the Bill by a huge majority of more than 300 votes. It is important for this House to recognise that the Bill also has the support of all three party leaders. On this Bill we have consensus.
I am pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, appears to have accepted that certain of the amendments had unfortunate, almost absurd, consequences which I am absolutely confident she did not intend to flow. I am also sure that other noble Lords who participated in that debate, and who have contributed immeasurably to the development and understanding of our laws and legal system, did not intend some of the bizarre and absurd consequences either. That is why I believe that many did not fully appreciate that the consequence of what they were voting for when they passed these amendments in June was in effect to bring the Bill to an end. I know that for some the repercussions have not been easy, and I very much regret that. I hope that today we can continue our discussions about this Bill in the finest traditions of this House with temperance, with good humour and with humanity.
I believe that Martin Luther King said on
"Where do we go from here?"
In preparing for this Bill I was struck by the following words of Martin Luther King:
"Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love".
We in this House have the power to do something remarkable for people who have been without succour and support for a very long time.
The noble Baroness has put down further amendments that she seeks to propose in lieu. I do not wish to pre-empt that part of the debate. Therefore, I wish to address what I believe is the key concern of a number of noble Lords who voted for the noble Baroness's earlier amendments, which is the position of relatives and carers. There was a powerful sense that issues about which we needed to do more were unaddressed in relation to such people.
Throughout our earlier debates, we heard much about the position of, as an example, two elderly sisters who lived together. I share noble Lords' entirely justifiable desire to help such members of our society to live their life in the best possible way. Perhaps it might help were I to explain the considerable rights already enjoyed by relatives who care for other relatives or live with them for significant periods before the death of one or the other.
I shall take for my example two elderly sisters who own a property. They could arrange their affairs to be joint tenants, so that the survivor took the full title to the property absolutely on the death of the first person. If not, the surviving sister could be left the property absolutely by the other sister in her will. In that case, the surviving sister would enjoy a tax-free inheritance of £263,000. Where inheritance tax is an issue, the rules have already recognised in principle that people inheriting big, immovable assets such as a house can have difficulty meeting their tax bills up front. The provision exists for tax to be paid in instalments on generous terms, with an attractive rate of interest over as long as 10 years.
It is then already clear that, for close relatives, there are ways in which the current system mitigates the effects of inheritance tax. Tenants often already have specific rights for family members. For instance, if two sisters live together with one of them renting the property from the local authority, on the death of the tenant, her sister typically would not be made homeless and have to move out, provided that they had lived together for a year. That is because typical local authority tenancies have statutory provision for succession to the tenancy by a family member who has been living with the tenant for just 12 months.
In the private rented sector, under the Rent Act 1977, a family member who has resided with a tenant for two years before his death may succeed an assured tenancy. Family members of agricultural tenants also have special rights. By succession, they may become a protected occupier of a statutory tenancy under the Rent (Agriculture) Act 1976, where a protected occupier dies and the family member has resided with him for a specified period immediately preceding his death.
The relevant legislation provides other rights to relatives. For example, relatives may also join in the purchase where a tenant exercises the right to buy under the Housing Act 1985. More generally, family members of long leaseholders are able to acquire rights to a freehold or extended lease on the death of a tenant under the Leasehold Reform Act 1967.
I know that the matter has caused concern, as several noble Lords have raised it on a number of occasions. I remind them that the Law Commission's recent review of tenure recommended that there be a single type of tenancy for all social housing with considerable security of tenure. It proposed that succession rights be available to spouses, cohabiting couples, other members of the family and carers. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is considering those recommendations and will respond to the Law Commission following publication of its draft Bill, which is expected early next year. There are also provisions in relation to fatal accident claims and dependency.
I assure noble Lords that the position about which people have been concerned already offers considerable protection. Since 1997, the approach of the Government to the needs of relatives who care for one another has been a process of careful deliberation followed by measured action. I truly believe that we can be proud of that record. It is on the basis of it that I ask noble Lords to let us continue to deal with other similar issues in the most appropriate manner.
Many of the improvements have arisen from the National Carers Strategy launched by the Government in 1999. The strategy was groundbreaking in that it was the first ever attempt to recognise formally the contributions and concerns of carers. We developed the strategy carefully after consultation with carers and the organisations that represent them. As issues arose out of that consultation, we took action to meet those concerns in a tempered and sensible way. For example, we have listened to the difficulties that carers and relatives can face in organising breaks away from their caring responsibilities, but at the same time having peace of mind that the people for whom they care will be well looked after. In order to improve support, we introduced the carers' grant, which supports councils in providing breaks and services for carers. That grant has increased annually, providing more than £325 million over the past five years.
In 2000, we passed the Carers and Disabled Children Act to deal with the concern that, whoever they care for, carers all need the opportunity to make informed choices about the extent of their caring role, to maintain their own health and well-being and have sufficient freedom to maintain relationships. We have built on that with the short-term voucher scheme. In 2004, we progressed our valuable work further by supporting the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act, which ensures carers are able to take up opportunities which those without caring responsibilities take for granted. The current Mental Capacity Bill ensures that those making decisions in the best interests of a person should, wherever possible, take into account the views of,
"anyone engaged in caring for the person or interested in his welfare".
That would include carers and relatives.
All those are sensible, measured improvements in the lives of those who care for others. They are targeted at the most needy. It is, after all, important to remember that not all relatives who live together will necessarily care for one another, so it is important that we target our measures at those who most need to benefit from any improvements. Indeed, the Government recently consulted Carers UK, which represents the needs of carers, whether they be relatives or not.
Through that organisation's extensive surveys, carers have made it clear that issues such as capital gains tax and fatal accident compensation are not among their priorities. Their prime concerns include breaks for carers, services for disabled people, better financial support for carers while they are caring, the option for flexible working and the direct payments system. All those are issues that the Government have sought to address over recent years. I assure noble Lords that we will continue to look carefully at all those issues as they arise. We see no reason why progress should not continue to be made in that way. The Government are clear that we wish to build on those successes.
Some noble Lords may say that that does not deal with the central issue, which is inheritance tax. However, the Government, as was the case for the previous administration, have other priorities than the abolition of inheritance tax. Inheritance tax affects only five in every 100 deaths in this country, but abolishing it would deprive the Exchequer of approximately £2.8 billion in 2004–05. Where would that shortfall be made up? Do noble Lords who propose the change advocate higher income tax or VAT, or would they cut the public services that help carers and relatives? The detail does not bear out the issues of concern. Where relatives live together as a long-term household, the inheritance tax provision of which they can take advantage amounts to £526,000. That is worth an awful lot, even at today's prices.
It does not make any sense to create civil partnerships or voluntary registration schemes to tackle the concerns of relatives in caring situations. Indeed, we know of the strong concerns that carers' organisations themselves have about the arbitrary creation of a new legal status. This new legal status of civil partner has been specifically designed to meet the needs of same-sex couples. The solution to their problems has been determined by the particular nature of their relationship.
The solution to the problems faced by other groups of people should equally be determined by the particular nature of their relationship. Noble Lords will appreciate that a whole plethora of different relationships can exist. In each case, the nature of that relationship will influence the nature of the solution. We say that one size does not fit all and I think we demonstrated that at Third Reading.
The Law Commission issued a report in 2002 on home-sharers and concluded that it is far better to look at these issues on a case-by-case basis, determined in each and every case by the nature of the relationship. The Government respectfully agree.
The Law Commission, the Law Society, the Solicitors Family Law Association, Carers UK, Citizens Advice, Age Concern and the trade unions all accept that this Bill is not the vehicle to make progress for relatives or carers. Holding this Bill to ransom to hasten that progress, will, however, benefit no one. Although we sympathise and understand the concerns of those who urge inclusion, we invite your Lordships to accept the amendment made by the other place and to allow this Bill to go forward unamended.
Baroness O'Cathain (Conservative)
rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 1, at end insert "and do propose Amendments Nos. 1A and 1B in lieu of the words so left out of the Bill":
1A Clause 253, page 125, line 29, at end insert—
"(10) No order may be made under this section until the Secretary of State has established a voluntary registration scheme, or schemes, whereby two persons can register their relationship where they—
(a) are within the specified degrees of family relationship,
(b) are both aged over thirty years,
(c) have lived together as co-dependents for a continuous period of twelve years immediately prior to the date of registration.
(11) The scheme or schemes referred to in subsection (10) above shall entitle two people who have registered their relationship to be treated no less favourably than two people who are civil partners of each other in respect of the following—
(a) inheritance tax,
(b) capital gains tax,
(c) housing and tenancies,
(d) fatal accident claims.
(12) Schedule (Specified degrees of family relationship) contains provisions for determining when two people are within the specified degrees of family relationship for the purposes of this section."
1B After Schedule 29, insert the following new schedule—
:TITLE3:Specified degrees of family relationship
(1) Two people are within the specified degrees of family relationship if one falls within the list below in relation to the other.
Former adoptive child
Former adoptive parent
(2) In the list "sibling" means a brother, sister, half-brother or half-sister."
Baroness O'Cathain (Conservative)
My Lords, the Government introduced this Bill as,
"a measure for social justice and equality".
The need to promote fairness in society is, I hope and I am sure, always uppermost in our minds when we work together on legislation in this House. Sadly, however, this Bill in meeting that objective for one group of people seriously militates against another group. This cannot be fair or just. By this Bill, a new situation is created whereby special rights are given to some but not to others who are in equal if not greater hardship.
Last June, your Lordships' House passed amendments to extend the benefits of the Bill to close family members who live together on a long-term basis. Of course it was right to vote for an attempt to remedy an injustice created by the Bill. The Bill has been returned to us without these amendments. Since June, many have mulled over the issues that were raised during those debates. This new amendment takes a new approach and I believe that this House should ask the other place to think again.
First and foremost, the amendment does not change the nature of the Civil Partnership Bill. What it does do is seek to establish a parallel, but a very much more limited scheme for family members. Probably most of those who have spoken on this issue during the parliamentary proceedings both in this House and in the other place accept that a case has been made for the extension of the rights to siblings. In principle, it is widely accepted that, for example, two sisters who have lived together on a long-term basis should enjoy similar rights afforded to civil partners under the Bill.
A recent opinion poll found that 80 per cent of the public would endorse this position. The principle has even been accepted by Stonewall, the gay rights group, but the argument has been—and I admit this straightforwardly—that this is not the right Bill. My concern is simple: we may never get the right Bill.
The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, sent me a letter in which she stated that there may be a time and place for a proper discussion and even future reform of family law. That is hardly a guarantee that the concerns of family members will be addressed in the near or even medium-term future.
I passionately believe that the issue is so important it should not be left to chance. To reiterate: the principle of this amendment is to right an injustice which needs to be addressed. The Government have proposed that Parliament should help some people who suffer hardship because they cannot marry while at the same time refusing to help others in equal or even sometimes greater hardship; namely, family members who also cannot marry. It is not in the tradition of this House that we willingly pass legislation which creates injustice. We really must think again.
There have been all sorts of half-hearted commitments to right this injustice. My amendment requires action and requires action now. But I would like to describe what this amendment seeks to achieve. In essence, it requires the Government to set up a parallel scheme for family members before this Bill is implemented. Under the Bill as it now stands, family members will have fewer legal rights and privileges than same-sex couples in a civil partnership. They will, therefore, have a lower legal status. In other words, to enforce my point, the Bill creates more injustice, not less.
Let me be specific. A civil partner will be able to inherit assets tax free from the estate of his or her former partner. In the long address which the Minister gave on Amendment No. 1, she said that inheritance tax could be paid in instalments over 10 years. She also said that inheritance tax affects only five in every 100 deaths in this country. That is a slightly out-of-date statistic. The problem is a simple one. Whereas the value of houses has increased by approximately 100 per cent over the past five years, the value of the inheritance tax allowance has increased only in single figures in percentage terms.
To say that inheritance tax can be paid in instalments over 10 years is a generous offer. However, most of the people to whom I refer in the amendment have no income. The only way in which they can pay the inheritance tax is by selling the home, the asset, which is what we want to avoid. We do not want people who have been in a caring, co-dependent, mutual relationship as family members to be booted out of their home on the death of one member, having to sell the asset to raise enough money to pay the inheritance tax and then to buy another home on a lower scale than that which they shared with the now dead partner. The civil partner will be able to inherit the assets tax free, but that is not so with family members.
Civil partners will be able to pass on lump sums to each other free of capital gains tax. This is not so with family members. Under the Bill, a member of a civil partnership can inherit a statutory tenancy if his or her partner dies. With family members, such as two sisters, if one sister dies the surviving sister has the right only to an assured tenancy, as the Minister said. But there will be cases where that could result in rent increases or even eviction. The Minister stated that the Government were currently considering all this, but nothing concrete has emerged. However, when the Civil Partnership Bill becomes law, the civil partners will have a concrete advantage.
The last of the four issues covered by Amendment No. 1A is fatal accident claims. In the case of fatal accidents, both civil partners and family members can sue for financial loss. If the accident is caused through the negligence of a third party, the civil partner can sue for bereavement damages of £10,000 but that course of action is not available to family members.
All those injustices would be remedied by my amendment, which addresses the four areas of inheritance tax, capital gains tax, housing and tenancies, and fatal accident claims. It does not cover pensions or benefit entitlements—I can see a look of relief coming over the face of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. The Minister will note that, unlike the previous amendments, social security and pensions legislation need not even be mentioned in our debate because they would not be affected.
I repeat that only the four areas that I have listed would be affected, and those are the ones that, rightly, I call "crisis areas". If those were addressed, it could make a huge difference to family members when facing the most traumatic and difficult time in their lives. The provision relating to those areas would not come into effect until after the death of a loved, caring and co-dependent family member.
My amendment would require the Secretary of State to certify, before the commencement order was made for the Civil Partnership Act, that a parallel scheme for family members had been introduced. There is absolutely no reason why the amendment should delay the commencement of the Bill. I am not—I repeat "not"—holding the Bill to ransom. Bearing in mind that Ministers said that it will take a year for the Civil Partnership Act to be implemented, in the interim, provided that there is a will, there seems to be no reason why a parallel scheme for family members should not be drawn up and introduced. Given the widespread support for the proposal to help close family members, the Government could bring forward a short Bill. Obviously the details would be up to them, but my amendment would ensure that that was done.
The range of family members covered in the amendment is narrower than in the amendment passed in your Lordships' House in June. It does not cover aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, grandparents or grandchildren.
The Minister spent up to five minutes dealing with the issue of carers. My amendment does not cover carers; it does not even mention them, although the people who would benefit would all be involved in a mutually caring, supportive co-dependency. The National Carers Strategy does not apply, and nor do any of the other issues to which the Minister referred—the Carers and Disabled Children Act and the vouchers and so on. That is a red herring that should be eliminated from our discussions.
There is nothing to prevent the Government bringing forward proposals to widen the amendment. However, in my view, the amendment before us deals with the most difficult cases of unfairness which are likely to arise as a direct result of the Bill.
The amendment does not offer an easy way through for family members. The requirement is that close family members must have lived together in a relationship of co-dependency for 12 years—not just months or even a small number of years, but 12 years. Co-dependent family relationships deserve protection and this proposal would give it, albeit limited to the four crisis areas that I have outlined. The Government would be required to devise the detailed proposals relating to only four areas, which would in no way mirror the complete catalogue of rights to be given to civil partners under the Bill.
The debates on my previous amendment led to the Government saying, in effect, that it was all too difficult. In view of the complexity of the pensions issue, I have some sympathy with that, although I remain convinced that, if the will had been there, the obstacles could have been overcome.
I am sure that the Minister, in her usual gracious manner—she knows that I have the utmost personal respect and affection for her—will concede that I have adopted a much easier approach, albeit, I admit, at the cost of continuing injustice to family members in some severe areas of hardship. The amendment gives the Government flexibility in introducing a parallel scheme. It is simple; it is caring; it removes some injustice; it does not affect the rights proposed for same-sex couples in the Civil Partnership Bill; and, above all, it makes the Bill fairer for ordinary family members. I commend it to the House and beg to move.
Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 1, at end insert "and do propose Amendments Nos. 1A and 1B in lieu of the words so left out of the Bill".—(Baroness O'Cathain.)
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Labour)
My Lords, this Bill is very much required. I hope that the House will accept the form in which it has come back to us from the Commons and reject the amendments moved by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain.
The Bill is important because it deals with many of the issues which currently present problems for same-sex couples. At present, no mechanism is open to them for giving their relationships legal recognition or status. Those difficulties may relate to the rights of the next of kin, visiting rights in hospitals, key medical decisions or inheritance or pension issues. Anyone who knows of gay couples in secure, permanent relationships will know of the insecurity, trauma and distress that can be caused because currently no legal recognition is given to their relationship. I have no doubt that if the Bill is passed as it left the other place, it will provide stability to partnerships based on permanent and loving relationships.
I listened very carefully to the speech of the noble Baroness. No one who heard that speech could doubt her sincerity in moving the amendment and no one could doubt the concerns that she has. That is not in question. But I believe that, if we were to pass the amendment, we would, in effect, make the Bill unworkable.
The noble Baroness seeks to develop a parallel scheme for family members on the basis of what is contained in the current Bill, albeit with certain restrictions, as she described. Her amendment follows others which were discussed seriously in the other place and which I believe would have had largely the same effect. Not surprisingly, the Commons rejected those amendments by very large votes. They rejected them for very practical reasons, having been of the view that the Bill was not the right vehicle in which the matters raised by the noble Baroness should be considered. The Government and my noble friend have responded sympathetically this afternoon and have said that they will consider some of the issues raised in these debates.
I turn to the practical reasons why we should reject the amendment. It is a fact that siblings and other family members already have legal recognition by virtue of being related. They do not need legal recognition in the way that same-sex couples do. The amendment is concerned with inheritance and capital gains tax, but what would be the cost? Today, the House of Lords is asked to take a decision which would commit the expenditure of billions of pounds. Today, in relation to inheritance tax my noble friend talked of a figure of £2.8 billion. If that figure is correct, it is a huge amount of government expenditure for the House suddenly to decide to commit. We do not have time to study the figures, and we have not had a chance to scrutinise them.
The noble Baroness has not explained to any satisfaction why her amendment confines the matter to two people. Today, she came to the House with a figure of 12 years, but what is the justification for that figure? Why should the people involved have to be aged over 30? I have five children. What would happen if three of them shared a home, and two of them wanted to enter into partnership and one did not? Those practical difficulties need to be fully explored before your Lordships can decide whether this is a wise course of action.
The amendment concerns practical, difficult and complicated matters of family law. Surely we should not alter the law without careful examination and parliamentary scrutiny of the highest order. Can we seriously commit ourselves to the amendments proposed by the noble Baroness and stop the rest of the Bill being enacted without giving those matters such careful attention?
I doubt very much whether the Bill is the right vehicle to deal with the very legitimate questions raised by the noble Baroness. It is expressly designed to deal with same-sex couples; it has been thoroughly debated and examined on that basis. Why should single-sex couples in stable relationships have to wait for a long time before the legislation can be passed? If the amendment is passed this afternoon, I doubt whether the Bill will ever come into force because of the legal, practical and financial difficulties involved.
A further and conclusive reason why we should reject the amendments is that the Government have clearly accepted that some of the questions posed by the noble Baroness deserve careful consideration. My noble friend Lady Scotland, in her careful introductory speech, has already spoken of the current rights of relatives and carers. I accept that the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, does not suggest that we should talk about carers today, although they have been a subject of discussion in previous debates. My noble friend has already talked about what has been achieved and has said—I noted it very carefully—that we will continue to look at these other issues.
This is a revising Chamber, and the Government have said that they are prepared to look at some of those matters. In the best House of Lords tradition, should we not accept that as a sensible way forward? Surely, on the basis that the issues have been raised and the Government have said that they are prepared to look at them, we could pass this Bill without amendment, bring comfort and security to many same-sex couples, and bring to the statute book a Bill that, I believe, commends itself, and ought to commend itself to Members of the House.
Lord Campbell of Alloway (Conservative)
My Lords, I support the amendment. It depends how one looks at the issue, like most problems. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, addressed it in one way—from the point of view of same-sex couples. I agree that it is right that their status should be recognised. However, I disagree with the noble Lord because he raises no criticism of my noble friend's amendment in principle, or in its intrinsic purpose and value.
I approach it in this way. If one seeks to do what the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and I both want to do, if what my noble friend Lady O'Cathain wants to do is not open to serious critical objection, and if this is a fair way of looking at the situation, is it not right to have parallel provisions in the interests of justice, so providing a position that does not create disparity between the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, looks at the issue and the way I look at it?
The amendment has a very limited intendment. As I see it, it is not related to the status of marriage, although the lobby appears to think otherwise. It refers only to registrable family relationships. It is an attempt not to wreck the Bill, but to address a disparity and to create a just and fair resolution of a problem that requires resolution. It is inequitable to address one problem without addressing the other. The fact that it came late in the day is, I accept, unfortunate. But the fact that it is late cannot affect the fundamental merits of the argument. If the argument is sound, we have to deal with it.
The amendment addresses the needs of a surviving partner. In an ageing population—I have read the debate—when there is little prospect of any satisfactory pension structure, when we hear about Land Commission proposals—I have heard about Land Commission proposals all my life and very few of them have ever been implemented—and, far more importantly, when there are security of tenure issues, there may be a need to sell up the home to fund the cost of care to which my noble friend referred, as so often has been the case and will continue to be the case.
In a sense, the parallel not only rights the imbalance, but it serves as a humanitarian measure. It is an interim measure. The problem is that, at the moment, the scheme favours only one aspect of the social problem. It is obvious that implementation of the scheme will involve fiscal matters that will have to be dealt with in a Finance Act. Security of tenure will have to be dealt with by amendment to relevant extant legislation in that sphere. But the principle of the amendment is entirely sound and fair and should be accepted as such.
At this stage it would have been wholly inappropriate—perhaps it is unfortunate because it is late—to set out detailed provisions of how each relevant extant statute should be amended to give effect to the principle. This is an amendment in principle; it is sound in principle; it is fair in principle; and it is worthy of your Lordships' support.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote (Crossbench)
My Lords, I fully support the aims of the Civil Partnership Bill. Moreover, perhaps not unnaturally with my equal opportunity background, in June I was one of those who voted for the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain. Frankly, that was because I shared, and still share, the noble Baroness's concerns about the oft overlooked difficulties faced by family members living together, and, indeed, although they are not part of the amendment, by carers who often face severe financial and social hardship.
Since we last debated the matter I have studied the many letters that I am sure many of your Lordships will have received and have listened to what the Minister has said and what she has said in letters to those noble Lords who wished to hear about the matter. I am now persuaded that there are substantial as well as technical reasons why this Bill is not suited for the laudable—and I do mean that—intentions of those supporting the noble Baroness's amendments.
On this occasion, therefore, I shall, if a Division is called, vote for the Bill as it has been returned to us. That certainly does not mean that the aim to bring family members to equal status with those in civil partnerships should be abandoned. When I say others in similar situations I have in mind, for example, the caring relationship that might exist between three elderly siblings and an elderly parent with more than one child supporting him or her. I am now convinced that a framework based on a partnership model of just two people is clearly inadequate to cope with situations of that kind.
But once this landmark legislation is passed, as I very much hope it will be, the leapfrogging series of laws of the 1960s, 1970s and even later, by which women and ethnic minorities gradually achieved equal rights, sets a possible and important precedent for the way forward.
So I hope very much that the Government will bring forward an early—and I mean early—Bill to achieve that aim. If the Government do not, then if the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, brings forward a Private Member's Bill, I, for one, shall do my very best to support her.
The Bishop of Chelmsford (Bishop)
My Lords, the noble Lord is very kind. I thank him.
I think that all noble Lords around the House very much share the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain. I believe that that places us in a difficulty. However, I want to suggest two principles that are at stake that might suggest to the noble Baroness and to the House that the Bill is not the vehicle within which to achieve her aim.
Let me put the matter in another context. Let us suppose that the Minister had come to this House with a Bill to set right the issues of civil justice for people of the same sex who are living together. Under the terms of matrimonial law I would have had real difficulty. This Bench and people more generally would have had difficulty. Matrimonial law is a parallel, but it is a different field of law. Perhaps I may say to the Minister that it would be good to have on record that the public understanding of marriage held in the law of this country is not affected by this Bill. That would help us enormously in getting the matter clear.
I said in the Third Reading debate that the mess we got ourselves into at the end of the day was also about the principle. In this House we should not pass Bills that lack clarity of principle. 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 third thing to say—and here I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Howe—is that 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. If the Minister were able to give us a little more encouragement in that area, I think that we might be able to progress with this Bill.
However, what 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.
Lord St John of Fawsley (Conservative)
My Lords, I am grateful to right reverend Prelate for that contribution. I am glad that I observed the convention of this House and gave way to him because I agree with almost all that he has said. My one caveat is on the question of marriage. I think that people who equate—I know the right reverend Prelate did not—this Bill with marriage do a great disservice to the Bill and to marriage. Marriage is quite a different relationship. It is the union—one hopes for life—of a man and a woman. It has a special place in our tradition because it has been sanctified by the sacramental tradition of Christianity. It is very important to preserve that. Those who either support or oppose the Bill obfuscate the whole issue when they talk about gay marriages.
We do not have to take our theology from the tabloid press; we do not even have to take it from the compact press. That is an arcane tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, who unfortunately is not in his place because he is having a tooth out. While I agree entirely in principle with the noble Baroness—and, indeed, said so on Report—I have my doubts about the matter because of the risks that this amendment poses to the success of this Bill, which has been achieved with so much sacrifice and with so much preparation.
So my objection to my noble friend's amendment is not that it is wrong in principle—it is right in principle. If the Government really want to see this Bill get through, I would very much welcome some firmer words, as the right reverend Prelate has said, as to what would be done for these families. I should be very happy to join my noble friend Lady O'Cathain in an ecumenical effort—ecumenical in these circumstances because we are in disagreement on this point—to do something positive, concrete and real to help not only relatives but also carers.
The amendment is wrong not in principle but in practice. It is the wrong time and the wrong place. To take the time first, to produce an amendment of such importance and complexity for the whole of our family and constitutional law at the last moment surely cannot be right. It cannot be right for the House, without the supporting documentation, research, knowledge and all the preliminary work that must be done, to accept the amendment.
Secondly, it is in the wrong place. My noble friend said that the Bill would right an injustice and create others, but we can look at it in quite a different way. There are all sorts of injustices in these complex relationships. The Bill does not create a new injustice; it gets rid of one of the injustices, which is a very important advance. Therefore, we can support the Bill in good conscience while wanting other measures to be proposed to right other wrongs.
No one could disagree with my noble friend's principle, but the effect of the amendment could be to wreck the Bill—she does not intend that, but I am considering not her intentions but the effect—which rights an injustice and which carries the hopes of many people with it.
Lord Alderdice (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, it is the mark of a skilled, astute and experienced parliamentarian to be able to use a measure proposed for one purpose in order to bring to the attention of the House and the country at large another matter of enormous importance. The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, has clearly done that.
There is little doubt in anyone's mind that the noble Baroness has pointed up a matter of injustice and enormous and widespread importance. There is no doubt about that. However, it is also clear that what she has raised is a separate matter—she herself described it as a parallel matter. The right reverend Prelate clarified for the House in a marvellous way why it is such a separate matter. The matter that we embarked on with the Bill was the way to address the question of same-sex relationships between two people and the fact that there was no legal standing for such relationships and it was important that legal standing be given not just for financial reasons but for a range of important compassionate reasons.
When the noble Baroness raises this further question, she ventures into an area of enormous complexity, because it is not just about the relationship between two people. Many families involve many more than two people, and the two who are living together may not necessarily be the two who are closest together by relationship.
Perhaps because of the average age of the House, there has been a good deal of concentration on elderly couples who may be living together—two older sisters, or whatever. But a very common situation is that of a woman or, indeed, a man in her or his 30s or early 40s with an ailing elderly parent. Were there such a system, there might be pressure to enter into an arrangement for practical, personal and other reasons. Then, someone else important comes along for that relatively young person, in her or his 30s or 40s, which complicates the issue. It complicates the issue in any case, but it will complicate it a good deal further if questions of registration, finance and so on have been brought to bear.
I do not raise that as an argument for not addressing the question. I am simply saying that the noble Baroness has encouraged us to consider a question even more complex than she has perhaps been able to address in her amendment. The difficulty is that in an attempt concisely and perhaps a little briskly to address a particular injustice—injustice there undoubtedly is—one can create a worse situation, which is not what anyone wants to do. Matters of family and relationships require consideration; they require us to think them through. Of course, no matter how deeply we think them through, we will not remove all difficulties, complexities or injustices, but we owe it to those who may be affected to give them serious consideration and ensure that, as far as possible, we remove complexity, difficulty and injustice.
For myself and, I suspect, for most Members of your Lordships' House, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising that question. When she says that she thinks that it will be prolonged beyond next year, she is perhaps being a little despondent about what results next year may bring. The matter that she has raised should not be forgotten, but nor should it be given short shrift, either by being set aside or by being too readily adopted. That might not only disadvantage the Bill on which we have embarked but not do the service that she would wish to the many people who deserve our attention on that other side of complex family relationships.
Lord Elton (Conservative)
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, has a great gift for making what I call the penultimate speech, the speech that is designed to draw forward the Front-Bench speakers, because everything that must be said has been said. Most things that must be said have been said, but just a little has been left out. I ask your Lordships' indulgence for a brief speech. I have spoken only once before during these proceedings. That was on Second Reading, to say that, on balance, and with some regret, but with honest intention, I was in favour of the Bill. I remain so.
I do not accept the argument that the amendment would wreck the Bill. There is plenty of time for the other place to send it back without the amendment and an opportunity would then be provided for Members of the other place also to say something that has not been said that should be. We have all been schooled throughout all these debates to regard this as something distinct and separate from and not related to marriage. So be it, let us accept that it is so.
In that case, all the issues in the Bill must be dealt with as not pertaining to marriage. One of them, probably the most delicate and therefore the least referred to, is the relationship between those whom the Bill is principally designed to benefit and the rest of the community. At present, the Bill is designed to benefit them outside marriage in a way that other couples, such as those that my noble friend has described, who are, let us admit, far more numerous, are not to benefit. That will be seen as unfair and will attract hostility.
I expect that your Lordships will test your feelings on the matter in a Division; I shall support my noble friend. Whether the amendment goes back to the other House or falls here, the Government must accept that, in engendering the Bill, they have brought on themselves a duty to secure a perception of fairness between those who benefit from it and those who are excluded from those benefits. I remain a friend of the Bill, but my friendship is tempered by the imperfection that my noble friend is trying to remedy. If she fails, as I fear she may, that must be tackled by the Government, and soon.
Baroness Howarth of Breckland (Crossbench)
My Lords, following a series of extraordinarily elegant speeches, I want to pick up on two issues and respond to the noble Baroness's question of justice. There are many injustices in this nation and this world. I have spent most of my working life struggling and working against those injustices as a social worker, a carer, and in many other roles. Speaking from the Cross Benches, I am clear that, if we vote for the noble Baroness's amendment, we will wreck the Bill, and therefore will not alleviate one injustice but create another.
For all the eloquent speeches that we have heard, the Bill is about a real justice: equality for people who choose to live in same-sex couples and to spend their lives together in fidelity, honesty and caring. My many friends in such relationships, whom I know well, who have brought up children—I have worked with children in those situations—show many of the wonderful characteristics that one finds in a good marriage. I do not equate those relationships with marriage.
I plead that we do not lose the Bill. Many hope that it will confer on them a status that means that, when they go into hospital, the person with whom they live can make decisions about their treatment if they are unconscious, not parents who have been hostile to them for 20 years, since they began to live with their partner. They hope that they will not have the worry of inheritance—I accept that many others have that worry—and that they will not find themselves making difficult choices between their family and their partner, for practical rather than emotional and loving reasons.
I know that many noble Lords will have voted for the amendment at the previous stage, believing that they were supporting many other people in the community. Regardless of what the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, says, there are other issues to be addressed. If we try to address them in this Bill, we will have laid down a marker for those people, but we will have lost equality for same-sex couples.
I wish to reinforce the point made by the noble Lord on the Liberal Democrat Benches. Much of my work has been in contentious family situations. We must remember that many caring situations and family situations—noble Lords know their own families—are not benign; people live in hostile and difficult situations. The amendment could put them into a chained situation. I have had to intervene where dominant, aggressive, old fathers have been determined to keep their daughters caring for them. The amendment would give such people a real opportunity to continue that.
I am relieved to hear that we are not focusing on carers, but they are an important element. The noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, cannot attend the debate because of a family difficulty. But she would have been careful in saying, with her grace and authority, that carers, carer organisations and family organisations are all anxious that the amendments are not agreed. Those of us who deal in family law know that the complications would be horrendous for ordinary families, and many legal groups have told us so.
I recognise that, depending on what we do, we will send out a different message. I do not believe that the message will go out that we do not care for people who live together. Like the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, I think that the combinations in the amendment are extraordinary—if you were living for four years with someone for whom you cared, or if you lived with three siblings for five years, you would receive these benefits. I cannot understand the package that creates these odd benefits. I would like the Government to think the matter through in detail. If we agreed the amendment, we would send out the message that we do not believe that gay people in a relationship have the right to establish themselves in equal households.
These days, many noble Lords are afraid to use such words in the House because of the difficulties caused in the previous debate, but I say with great gentleness that the people in those communities who feel that homophobia is still rife in this country will receive another message if we wreck the Bill: that we are a homophobic society which does not care that these groups of people have a right to love, justice, care and tenderness. The amendment would wreck the Bill, although I am sure that the noble Baroness does not intend it. I therefore deeply hope that noble Lords will reject the amendment and keep the Bill.
Earl Ferrers (Conservative)
My Lords, to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, is to be in a formidable position, because she speaks with great knowledge and understanding. I hope that I may be permitted to make just a few observations, despite the fact that my noble friend Lord Elton, in that engaging way that he sometimes has, says, "I fancy that this is a penultimate speech, so I shall make my speech and everyone else can keep in their place".
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, in a most engaging and impressive speech, tried virtually to remove from its place the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lady O'Cathain, suggesting that it was impossible and unusable. My noble friend was right to table the amendment. The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, said that they had tried to rewrite the whole basis of family law; that is a very impressive and formidable task. Part of the trouble is that the Bill has produced an inequality, which my noble friend Lady O'Cathain is trying to address.
The Bill is specifically designed, as the noble Baroness said, for same-sex couples. That is fine, except that it happens to have upset the balance with ordinary couples. We heard the story of two sisters who had lived together for a number of years. One died and the other was obliged to pay inheritance tax. That would not apply to a same-sex couple who had lived together for two weeks. My noble friend is trying to point out that that is not fair. If the law was wrong previously, we have tipped it over into being wrong again now. It is hard when that happens.
It has been said that there are 40,000 couples living in a same-sex relationship, but it is reckoned that only 5 per cent—2,000—are likely to take advantage of the provision. One wonders whether it is right to introduce a law which specifically benefits 2,000 couples but equally specifically does not benefit others in a similar set-up, in so far as they live together but do not have the particular business of being in a same-sex relationship. That is the point that my noble friend makes. If we alter the law for same-sex couples, that is fine, but we should not prejudice the law against those who are not of that particular persuasion. If the time comes, therefore, I will vote for my noble friend's amendment.
Viscount Bledisloe (Crossbench)
My Lords, the noble Earl has frequently told the House that it is entirely wrong to pass the Hunting Bill because it has had insufficient consideration. How, then, does he think it right to agree to this amendment, which first saw the light of day yesterday?
Earl Ferrers (Conservative)
My Lords, I am surprised that the noble Viscount can bring the hunting law into the debate on this Bill. This Bill has been considered for a very long while, and there is an injustice in it. It is my noble friend's endeavour to remove that injustice.
Baroness Hayman (Labour)
My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, made what I think was a very good Second Reading speech on a proposed Bill to set up arrangements to deal with couples and family members who live together in relationships other than marriage and civil partnerships. But inherent in that Second Reading speech was the problem inherent in the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain.
I urge the noble Baroness to look at the success that she has had in raising consciousness about inequalities and injustices that undoubtedly exist. What has been achieved so far should be used as the basis for taking forward a parliamentary campaign in which we can give, as legislators, proper scrutiny and consideration to the immensely complex issues involved, even in the skeleton arrangements outlined in her amendment.
I would urge that we should behave as responsible legislators in this revising Chamber. It is not responsible to try to legislate in haste and on the tailcoat of other legislation that is dealing with a specific issue on areas of complexity and importance that other parliamentarians need to consider in great detail.
The noble Earl just spoke about the Hunting Bill. It seems to me that that is a very good Baldrickian cunning plan for dealing with all sorts of related issues to different legislation. We could have an amendment on the Hunting Bill proposing that it should not come into force until the Secretary of State has brought forward a scheme to deal with factory farming or fishing or all sorts of other animal welfare issues that people think need to be addressed. We do not have time—I hope that there is not time—for anyone to take this forward as a manuscript amendment.
The withdrawal of the original amendment shows that we do not have a situation in which a Bill can simply be extended to deal with another category of cases. If we do not have that, we should not attempt to deal with it in this legislation. We should accept that a great deal has been achieved in highlighting injustices and take that forward in a separate way.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (Conservative)
My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, on the issue of responsible legislators, would not the simple remedy be for her Front Bench to give a commitment to bring in the necessary legislation?
Baroness Hayman (Labour)
My Lords, I cannot answer for my Front Bench. But every one of us is able to put pressure on the Front Bench. It is not as if the Government have not moved already and signified their intention to take those matters forward. The exact detail and proposals have to be done as proper legislators and policy makers. Every one of us is capable of participating in that process.
Lord Northbourne (Crossbench)
My Lords, in the context of the previous two speakers, I should like to put a proposition to the House. When any government introduce legislation to right an injustice against one group of society and inadvertently in doing so introduce an injustice against another group in society, it seems to me that that government have an obligation to right that wrong.
If, as in this case, the first group are powerful and a well organised lobby and the second group are weak and have no voice—the subject of a voice for parents is very close to my heart—the Government have a double responsibility to care for those who are disadvantaged. I am sorry that they do not seem to be taking seriously their responsibility in that respect. I was grateful to hear such assurances as the noble Baroness gave, but they did not to me carry great conviction. I would hope for a very much stronger assurance from the Front Bench before I would be prepared to let up on the pressure that the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, is bringing on the Government, quite rightly in my view, to take the matter further—whether through or beyond this Bill.
It is with a great sense of regret that I have to say that over the past two or three years—entirely contrary to their assurances on the subject—the Government have taken a number of actions which suggest that they are less conscious of the huge debt that we as a nation owe to families, to the work that they do, to the mutual caring that they carry out and to their job in raising children. The Government are much less conscious than they ought to be. They are not leading us in the direction of appreciating the role that families play in our society.
I shall not delay your Lordships for more than about another minute. Turning to the Bill, I take a different view to a number of speakers. There is plenty of time for the Government to come back tomorrow if they want to. The amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, is capable of being amended in such a way that would overcome quite a number of the objections that the Minister has put forward. It is right to vote for the amendment and to try to force the Government to go at least one stage further either in accepting the amendment, and amending it in a suitable way, or in giving us much stronger assurances that they will really address this problem.
The Bishop of Chester (Bishop)
My Lords, perhaps I may briefly make another penultimate speech in your Lordships' House. I am grateful for the assurances of my right reverend friend the Bishop of Chelmsford that the Bill before us does not introduce same-sex marriage. I am grateful for the assurances of the Government at earlier stages. But the 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. The range of relationships that ought to be dealt with under a Bill, as has been stated so eloquently, not least by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, is very persuasive.
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.
I should like to ask the Front Bench to offer at least some indication or assurance that the range of issues raised today will be taken seriously. The logic of the Bill before us demands that.
The Earl of Listowel (Crossbench)
My Lords, in response to what my noble friend Lady Howarth said about equality of family households comprising same-sex or opposite-sex couples, I have been very reassured from what I have heard today about the distinction between marriage and what we are proposing here.
My concern is that we must avoid confusion about the desirability of same-sex couples having children. I know that most research so far suggests that that is not harmful for children. But I would like to put on record that I am concerned that if a boy is born into a family where both parents are women that may leave a boy quite confused when he grows older about what it is to be a man and how a man and a woman relate together. I should like to take this opportunity to convey that concern.
Lord Tebbit (Conservative)
My Lords, perhaps I may follow what the right reverend Prelate said about the nature of the Bill. A little while ago, I asked the Government in a Written Question:
"In what respects, other than its availability to persons of the same sex, a civil partnership as envisaged in the Civil Partnership Bill differs from a civil marriage".
The noble Baroness gave me her Answer:
"There are a number of differences between civil partnership and civil marriage; for example"—
this is the sole example that she gave—
I leave noble Lords to decide whether that is a very clear and emphatic distinction between the two.
I want to say something immensely personal about this amendment. Twenty years ago my wife and I were severely injured. Had the IRA been a little more successful, and had I died, I have no doubt whatever that one of my children would have put aside their life and career to care for my wife. Under the law as it is and under the law as the Government intend to leave it, there would be no option, when my wife then died, but for that child of ours to be forced out of the family home by the need to sell it in order to pay inheritance tax.
Had I been so deeply affected by that bombing, and had my wife died, that I should have chosen to enter into a civil partnership with someone I had known for only a few weeks, when I died my civil partner would not be in the position in which one of children would have been put. That answers the question of whether there is any injustice in this Bill.
Most noble Lords accept that there would be an injustice. I regret that so many who have spoken say that they are in favour of removing that injustice, but not yet. It is of course entirely wrong to say that the amendment of my noble friend is a wrecking amendment. It would make no change whatever to any provision of this Bill as it affects same-sex partners. I repeat: none whatever. Therefore it cannot be a wrecking amendment.
I have before me all 400 pages of the Bill in which not a single mention of inheritance tax is made; not one word. Yet the debate we are now having centres not on society's regard for those who enter into the sacred contract of marriage as opposed to those who form a civil partnership; rather, the debate we are having is about money, and nothing else.
As ever, I like to help people out of problems into which they have got themselves. Therefore I offer a solution which would enable my noble friend to withdraw her amendment and for the Bill to go on its way. The solution is very simple; that is, for the Government to state that in subsequent Budgets they will not make changes to the arrangements for inheritance tax as a consequence of the passage of this Bill. Civil partnerships would be accorded whatever standing people like to give them while marriage would go on in the same way. And there would be a blessed interval during which all those who are anxious about what they, Ministers and all of us see as an injustice in respect of taxation towards children, parents and siblings would be able to correct it.
The Government could undertake not to bring forward in any Budget arrangements affecting civil partnership which did not extend to the categories of persons broadly encompassed by those affected either by the amendment passed by this House and rejected by the Commons, or those who might be affected by my noble friend's amendment. That would get us all off the hook. If the Government choose not to do that, I hope that noble Lords will see that this is a matter about money and taxation, and that it is a question of introducing a new inequality between the very large numbers of parents, children and siblings who would suffer an injustice and the very small number of same-sex partners who would benefit financially from the kind of Budget we may envisage in the future.
This Bill can go through, but I want to hear the Government say that they will not give a tax advantage to civil partners which they will not give to others who are equally deserving. The problem would be resolved and I hope and believe that my noble friend would be willing to withdraw her amendment.
Lord Dearing (Other)
My Lords, I want to introduce a different dimension to the debate. We have been concerned about taxation and about carers, but I should like to speak on behalf of those who are in need of care. I come to this debate as a trustee of a body called the Home of Compassion. It is a place that cares for people in physical distress and infirmity.
I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, has had to leave her place—although I see that she has not left the Chamber—because I want to refer to the Care Standards Act 2000 which changed so substantially the requirements on care homes that, with the kind of finance that is available for indigent old folk, they are finding it difficult to continue in being and provide care. As the noble Baroness will know, many hundreds of care homes have had to close. I understand that in the year up to April 2004 some 500 homes had to do so, resulting in the loss of something approaching 10,000 places; and over the years the loss has been much greater.
It seems that there is a squeeze on the ability to provide care in care homes for those who need it. That filters through to the financial disadvantages visited on those who undertake to care for relatives. I had an aunt who, as the youngest daughter, devoted her life to caring for others. Such people are heroes in our society. We owe them so much. However, if on the one hand we are putting a squeeze on the provision of places in care homes and on the other hand not providing the kind of support and fair deal that would encourage people to continue in their caring roles, then we are doing a great disservice to those in need of care.
There is a lacuna in the Government's thinking on this. Where do they stand in supporting and helping those in need of care? I align myself with the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord St John of Fawsley. We want more than an undertaking from the Minister to consider these issues. We want a commitment from the Minister that the Government will bring forward proposals, perhaps in a White Paper within the year, to address this urgent and important problem in our society.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, on bringing this matter to our attention from her standpoint, but I hope that the Minister will reflect on the other issues I have raised and see if she can go further—tonight—and give us an undertaking that the Government will not only consider the matter, but will also bring forward a White Paper containing proposals.
Baroness Park of Monmouth (Conservative)
My Lords, I rise to say only that I take exactly the same position on this Bill as my noble friend Lord Elton. I support it and I think that its provisions are good, but it would be utterly wrong not to support my noble friend Lady O'Cathain in sending this Bill back to the Commons with her amendment. We all know that the Commons can override us, but it would be wrong not to take the opportunity to make them think about this issue. Moreover, I am afraid that I do not have much faith in the proposal to see some interesting proposals five years hence. It is time now to remind them that there are other issues as well as the important one—which I fully support—of recognising the problems of single sex relationships.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, we welcome back the Bill in a much healthier state than when it left the House. I should like to record our thanks to the Ministers and their team who have worked so hard to make this reform a reality. I should also like to pay tribute to the late Lord Williams of Mostyn who did not live to see the fruition of a measure which he supported with great personal conviction. We miss him greatly.
In the other place, the previous amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, which the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, powerfully supported, was removed by a majority of five to one, with firm and welcome leadership from the Opposition Front Bench. We share some of the stated aims of the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, but not her means of achieving them, for reasons that have been repeated again and again throughout the House.
The new amendments are narrower than the original version, which was overwhelmingly rejected by all political parties in the Commons, but, if enacted, they would still be wrecking amendments, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, in particular, has so clearly explained. They are alien to the central purpose of the Bill and would make it impossible for the Bill to come into force.
The new amendments would prevent the Bill coming into force until a voluntary registration scheme, or schemes, had been established by the Secretary of State which would entitle only relatives over 30 years of age who had lived together for 12 years to be treated in the same way as same-sex civil partners as regards what the noble Baroness describes as "four crisis areas".
"I have lived with my sister for 15 years. When she died I had to sell our home to pay the inheritance tax. Why should I have less house-sharing rights than a gay couple?".
The advertisement carried a photograph of a sad lady with a wistful expression. But in the fine print it emerged that she was not a real person but what was described as,
"an image posed by model for illustrative purposes only".
I am sure it was none the worse for that. The Minister has explained very clearly the legal protection already given to sisters living together which is not available to homosexual couples.
A further answer to the question posed by the Christian Institute's advertisement, and a short answer to these amendments, is that two sisters living together are not in the same position as a married couple any more than they are in the same position as a same-sex couple who register their partnership under the Bill, if it becomes law. As we all know, a homosexual couple living together cannot marry because they are homosexual. Two sisters living together cannot marry, not because of their sexuality but because they are sisters, just as a father cannot marry his daughter even though they are of the opposite sex.
In other words, this is not a case of what is sauce for the goose being sauce for the gander. Those whom the Bill is designed to protect—same-sex couples who are willing to enter into a partnership with rights and responsibilities as if they were married—are not comparable to two sisters who have lived together for 12 years. So, when the amendments state that two sisters are to be treated no less favourably than two people who are civil partners—that is, a same-sex couple—they are making a false comparison; they are not treating like with like.
The Bill does not undermine marriage by treating registered homosexual couples in terms of their rights and obligations as if they were married couples. But it would indeed undermine marriage if two sisters, or perhaps more, were treated as if they were married to one another.
The noble Lord, Lord St John of Fawsley, is right to emphasise the need not to confuse civil partnership with marriage. I have always made it clear ever since my Private Member's Bill that I would not wish to do so. I am very glad that we have not followed the position taken, for example, by the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, which led to certain consequences, perhaps, in the presidential election in the United States.
The arguments about inheritance tax, capital gains tax and so on, and other family relationships and connections, are irrelevant to the central aim of the Bill, although not to the noble Baroness's other aims. The aim of the Bill, I repeat—it has been said again and again—is to give same-sex couples, who cannot marry and will not be able to marry, the protection of their relationship and the rights and responsibilities that will result from registration. It is a long-overdue measure of simple justice.
There is a legitimate case for extending some degree of relief from inheritance tax to family members or non-family carers who shared a home with the deceased, but that is a matter for a future Finance Bill, not for this Bill. The sole purpose of this Bill is to give legal recognition to same-sex unions. Relief from inheritance tax on property which passes to a surviving partner is a consequence and not a purpose of the Bill. Indeed, as has been said, the Bill does not provide relief from inheritance tax at all. The Government have said that that will have to be dealt with by the next Finance Bill.
Lord Tebbit (Conservative)
My Lords, as the noble Lord has underlined to the House, the financial questions are not part of the Bill. But they are proving a difficulty which could be removed if the noble Baroness—and, I hope, the noble Lord—will agree that there should be no movement on the tax aspects which would apply to civil partners unless the injustice to those other groups of people, of whom we have all spoken, is remedied at the same time.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I shall give the noble Lord two answers. I was about to give one, but I shall give the other at the same time. The first answer is that it is not the business of this House to be dealing with tax matters at all—certainly not at this stage and in this way.
The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, heard the second answer again and again when we were in the Moses Room. He said that the Bill was about money and nothing else. That is quite wrong and devalues the whole purpose of the Bill by a kind of obsessive materialism. I do not say that tax is not important to those who have to pay it, but it is quite wrong to devalue the Bill in that way.
The Constitutional Court of South Africa noted that same-sex partners were as capable as heterosexual spouses,
"of forming intimate, permanent, committed, monogamous, loyal and enduring relationships; of furnishing emotional and spiritual support; and of providing physical care, financial support and assistance in running the common household".
That great court also rightly observed that the message of the denial of equal rights to same-sex as to opposite-sex partners is that,
"gays and lesbians lack the inherent humanity to have their families . . . respected or protected. It serves in addition to perpetuate and reinforce existing prejudices and stereotypes".
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford has spoken eloquently and compassionately from a Christian tradition of true humanity, as one would expect. In the other place, my honourable friend Alistair Carmichael—speaking as a Christian, which I cannot—said:
"To my mind, the fundamental factor in Christianity is love. The tremendous thing about Christian love is that it knows no discrimination. That is why, when Jesus told us in the New Testament to love our neighbour, he did not qualify that by saying that we need not love those of our neighbours who are black, gay, fat, thin, tall or short . . . That is why I feel passionately that it would be wrong for us to prolong, in the name of Christianity, the discrimination and disadvantage that some people suffer".—[Hansard, Commons, 9/11/04; col. 805.]
The amendments would prolong, unintentionally perhaps, the discrimination and disadvantage suffered by gay and lesbian couples. We very much hope that they will be withdrawn or, if not withdrawn, firmly rejected.
Baroness Wilcox (Shadow Minister, Economic Affairs; Conservative)
I believe that this will be seen as a watershed debate. The Civil Partnership Bill is to be welcomed. It is a redress to an injustice behind which, only a year or two ago, few would have expected Parliament to unite as we have. We have the noble Lord, Lord Lester, to thank for his original Bill, which led the Government to this point today.
I believe that this amendment marks an equally striking turning point. Before my noble friend Lady O'Cathain took it up, the cause of siblings and family carers was an outstanding cause. After the stand that she has taken, the eloquence with which she has spoken, the heart-rending cases that she has, over the weeks, brought to our attention, the strong support she won in this House at an earlier stage and the many letters that I and so many Peers have received, I do not think that any halfway decent government could ever again sweep aside the cry for justice from siblings and family carers faced with being hounded from their home by the taxman on the death of their nearest and dearest.
It is one of the glories of this House—and long may it stay that way—that a Member can find an injustice and put it before the country in a way that cannot be ignored. I think of the noble Lords, Lord Ashley of Stoke and Lord Morris of Manchester, with regard to disabled people. I think of the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, and the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, with regard to war pensions. I couple with them my noble friend and her campaign for siblings and close family carers. Her stand will, I am certain, equally come to be seen as a stand for justice.
My noble friend has suffered many personal attacks before and since the Committee stage in your Lordships' House, the stereotyping of her views—even threats to her livelihood. Those attacks demean those who made them. My noble friend's whole life shows her commitment to public service and her concern for others. She is a person of courage, a person of integrity. I hope that when the Minister replies, she will condemn any threat to any Member of this House on the basis of what he or she has done or said in this House. We must not permit the emergence of a new intolerance in this country.
In the summer, the Government reacted in a negative way to my noble friend's amendment. No one who was in the House that day will forget how foolish Ministers made themselves look. They picked up their ball and they stopped playing. But I hope we have moved on from that. Since then, many of those who have campaigned for an end to injustice for gay couples have come out in support of my noble friend's campaign. I was confident that they would, for those who have suffered injustice know that you do not end one injustice by creating another.
I hope that the Government have rethought their position. The House will listen very carefully to what the Minister says, for her response—every little word, every conditional clause—will have been discussed and agreed at the highest level. So I ask her: will the Government address the injustice felt by siblings and family carers—yes or no? If not, why not? If yes, how and when?
The group, as defined in my noble friend's amendment, is not large—family members over 30 who have lived together for 12 years or more as co-dependants. We all know some of them, and we know them to be among the most deserving and admirable members of our society. It is clear beyond doubt that the Government must act. Yet a quite extraordinary Home Office paper, circulated by the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, says that if siblings or family carers were given the chance of a registration scheme, then there would,
"be a potential for abuse, with one relative putting pressure on another, perhaps a vulnerable or financially dependent one, to register their relationship".
That does not begin to be a serious argument. If it were, it would be an argument against civil partnerships of any form. It wholly ignores the everyday pressures that flow from the incidence of inheritance tax and the natural wish to protect and pass on a family home and family possessions. My noble friend's scheme, so far from creating pressure, would relieve it.
The Government also say that it would be contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights to protect some family members in this way but not others. If true, that is as good an argument as I have ever heard against the European Convention on Human Rights. Surely the Government, with their phalanxes of human rights lawyers falling out of every cupboard, have the ingenuity to surmount that. But do they have the will, my Lords? Do they have the will?
The Home Office paper is a tissue of pretext not to do something. What the House asked for this summer was for something to be done for these deserving people. The paper says that there may be a time and a place for proper discussion and even future reform of family law. As my noble friend said, that hardly sounds a ringing commitment. I hope for rather more from the Minister today.
Let me make it clear on behalf of my party that we fully accept the powerful case my noble friend has made. But we do not think that this Bill is the right vehicle in which to achieve it. Indeed, I think it is unfortunate that my noble friend's amendment would make the commencement of the Civil Partnership Act dependent on the prior implementation of a scheme for siblings and carers. In my view, both causes should be advanced in parallel. For that reason, passionately as I agree with her on the cause, I will not be able to support my noble friend if she presses her amendment, as it would delay introduction of civil partnerships. But the cause she presses is wholly compelling, in my view, and we on this side will fight to make it a reality. That is why, when the next Finance Bill is presented to Parliament, my friends in another place will lay amendments to correct this injustice.
If the Government cannot accept the amendment, when we return to office, we will act to address this issue. Will the noble Baroness be able to give the House a similar assurance? If not, then surely she must explain why the Government are not prepared to act to help these people. Tens of thousands of men and women in every part of this country today will be waiting to know the reason why. When the time comes for another government to act, they will owe a deep debt of gratitude to this House and to my noble friend Lady O'Cathain.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal (Minister of State (Criminal Justice System and Law Reform), Home Office; Labour)
My Lords, we have had a very full and, on this occasion, temperate debate. The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, knows well that I, too, hold her in the highest regard. I—without reservation, as I made clear in my opening remarks—dissociate myself and the Government entirely from anyone who sought improperly to put pressure on any Member of this House. I hope that I made that clear at the beginning.
We have heard a lot this evening about the financial consequences of the provisions, which I construe as being the benefits that are seen by some to flow from them. We have, however, heard very little of the responsibilities. The registration of these relationships does not simply bring benefit; it also brings responsibilities for the partner—to finance, to love, to support, to help and to provide. Those responsibilities are weighty.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford is absolutely right when he says that there is a clear distinction between these provisions and those of marriage. Marriage is not affected in any way by the Bill. The right reverend Prelate was absolutely right when he said that we have to look at the clarity of principle that the Bill seeks to address. If we cannot right all the wrongs, should we not seek to right those wrongs which we can? That is what this Bill seeks to do.
The ills that have flown from the problem, which have improperly impinged on the lives of people of the same sex who wish to have a long-term relationship, have been long standing. To ask for that relief to be postponed because we cannot deal with each and every one of the remaining issues in dispute would be to perpetuate injustice. To that extent, the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, was absolutely right. That was echoed by a number of other noble Lords around this Chamber, including the noble Lord, Lord St John of Fawsley.
In my opening address, I sought to deal with the issues of inheritance tax and the provisions that we already have are extensive. The noble Baroness said that all would be left deprived. However, a relatively privileged few are able to take advantage of assets in excess of £500,000, so there is a cushion for those who do have difficulty.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, made clear, this issue is one that we as legislators must look at responsibly. She was right when she asked whether it would be responsible to legislate in such haste. In my opening remarks and in the debates that we have had on this Bill I have tried to outline the plethora of complexities that pertain in relation to individual sets of relationships and how the ramifications of those relationships should be examined. When we are looking at a couple who are unrelated to each other joining in harmony and making a life together, that is one set of relationships. The relationship between brother and sister or father and daughter—all those who are referred to in the noble Baroness's amendment—are also complex. I know that by tabling this amendment, the noble Baroness is not saying that those are the only people who need to have their rights addressed. I concur with her on that, but not in this Bill.
I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, that of course care homes are an issue of future importance. The noble Lord will know well the complexity of how we have to order rights and responsibilities. Those are issues with which the noble Lord has wrestled for more than 20 years. They are complex and each time those individual Bills have come before this House, they have taken time and attention and care. This House and the other place have spent appropriate time on them. We cannot do it all: we have to do that which we can.
I hear the passion of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, who raised the delicate issue of the difficulties of those who may have been injured. He described his personal circumstances and none of us could have remained untouched by that. However, when it comes to the noble Lord's suggestion that we should somehow postpone the legislation, I recognise the comments that have been made about the noble Lord in another place. His honourable friend John Bercow said of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, that,
"cleverly conceived amendments of this kind would . . . cause the Government no end of trouble, and that Gordon's sums would be thrown into disarray, providing the opportunity for a great deal of fun".—[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee D; 19/10/04; col: 17.]
That may have been the sentiment, but that is not how it will feel to those who have been deprived of the rights.
Lord Tebbit (Conservative)
My Lords, there is nothing wrong with giving the Chancellor a little difficulty with his sums if he does not have enough already. However, the Minister said earlier that there was a clear distinction between civil partnership as envisaged in this Bill and civil marriage. Will she now elucidate what that difference is?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal (Minister of State (Criminal Justice System and Law Reform), Home Office; Labour)
My Lords, one of the major differences is, of course, consummation. For a marriage to be valid, it has to be consummated by one man and one woman and there is a great deal of jurisprudence which tells one exactly what consummation amounts to—partial or impartial, penetration or no penetration. If the noble Lord wishes me to give a dissertation on family law, of course I would be more than happy to do so although it will take some time.
There is no provision for consummation in the Civil Partnership Bill. We do not look at the nature of the sexual relationship that enters into the civil partnership. It is totally different in nature. I thought that that was fully and properly understood.
Lord Tebbit (Conservative)
My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister again. I do not want to prolong this into a family court, but if there is no question in a civil partnership of consummation, why cannot the measure be extended to people who have a close family relationship—two homosexual brothers, for example?
My Lords, that would trespass on the bounds of consanguinity. For several years in this country we have recognised that it is improper for those who are related to one another to enter into a relationship that is similar to that of marriage. That is something on which we do not trespass. The right reverend Prelates have made plain that they rightly wish to preserve the distinction between marriage and registered relationships. We have listened to that comprehensively. We think that the right reverend Prelates are right: I do not know whether the noble Lord would disagree.
We have made plain that those who enter into a same-sex relationship should have an opportunity to have their relationship recognised. I also know that the noble Lord's honourable friend, said of him that:
"We all know the ingeniousness and cheekiness of my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Tebbit of Chingford. When one is on his side, he is magnificent to watch. We all enjoy his actions and egg him on, and he is better at it than anybody else".—[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee D; 19/10/04; cols. 17–18.]
I understand that that may be the function that the noble Lord seeks to play in this debate, but on this occasion it is not fun.
This is very serious indeed. It is serious because the implications for the individuals who will suffer will be serious.
Baroness Blatch (Deputy Leader of the Opposition In the House of Lords, Parliament; Conservative)
My Lords, I break the silence that I have kept for 10 months in this House, but I must tell the Minister that her cheap jibe against my noble friend, who made all his comments in the utmost seriousness, deserves an apology.
My Lords, I regret that the noble Baroness feels that she has to rise to her feet because we all welcome very much her return to this House and we have missed hearing her voice. However, I have to deal with matters from this Bench as they arise. The noble Lord made a number of comments with which I have now dealt. I regret that the noble Baroness feels that the remarks were cheap. I am afraid that that is not a view which I necessarily share. However, if any inappropriate connotation was put on them that was not my intent.
To consider our present position, this House has spoken and the general nature of the House seems to be that we support the need for having these rights addressed, but it is not for this Bill. The amendments to which the noble Baroness referred are for another day. I have tried to make absolutely clear the way in which the Government have used every opportunity to address these issues. I have also made clear that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is reviewing the Law Commission's consultation in relation to tenure, which will look at the issues of carers and others and how they will be affected by the legislation.
I remind the House that when this matter first came before your Lordships, not least in the form of the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, we promised that we would look at this issue and look at it energetically. We have honoured that commitment. Not only do we commend the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for bringing it forward, but I hope he will feel that we on this side can also be commended for honouring our responsibilities. When we say that these issues have been validly raised, that we understand the import of them and that they will be examined, I hope that the noble Lords opposite will be able to take that in the same spirit.
The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, has raised an important issue. She has been a standard bearer for and has shone a light on things that needed to be made light. Knowing her, I know that she will not cease in her campaign on the issues; they will doubtless be brought before this House, and we will deal with them. I know how the House operates, and when it makes a commitment on something, it tends to follow through on that. These matters would come forward, whether the Government wanted them to or no—and we want them to.
The amendment would have the effect of a wrecking amendment, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, said. I know that that is not what the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, wants, but we cannot postpone justice for one group just because we cannot derive perfection for everyone else. This is a very important moment for this House, because we must act responsibly in discharging our duties as legislators. We cannot add an additional provision to a Bill which is not made for its carriage; we have to find a different vehicle. The amendment may be an important one, but not for this Bill and not for this day.
Baroness O'Cathain (Conservative)
My Lords, I shall speak briefly, partly because my voice is about to give out.
This has been a very interesting and thoughtful debate, and I want to thank every person who has contributed. Some feel as strongly as I do about the injustice; some feel strongly—rightly—that the Bill must go through. But the object of the Bill, as the Minister said, is to right all the wrongs. Even my amendment does not do that, and nor could it. The problem with the Bill is that it creates a new wrong, and my amendment does not do that—because it would not wreck the Bill.
My amendment is new. In fact, as all noble Lords who took part in the debate in June will know—I see a lot of familiar faces—this new amendment was distilled from that amendment. That amendment was voted on with a free vote only on our side of the House; there was a three-line Whip for the Government and Liberal Democrat Members, but it was still carried in this House.
That amendment was complex and complicated. I listened and mulled over it and introduced this amendment today, at the first opportunity when the Bill came back from the Commons. It is limited to two, but it could be limited to more; I wanted simply to bring out the parallel and put some parameters on it. The provision in the amendment is limited to 12 years; someone has said that is too long, but it could be seven years—it could be anything. The reason why I chose 12 years was that it reflected the long-term commitment of those family members to each other, not just a passing fancy. Above all, my amendment proposes a voluntary scheme. People who are in a caring, sustaining, loving, co-dependent relationship with family members do not have to register, because the proposal is voluntary.
I am sorry, but we have had no commitment to, or timetable for, action. Sadly, I have absolutely no confidence that anything will happen. In order to tell the other place just how we really feel—and how I really feel—about this injustice, I wish to test the opinion of the House.