I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for civil registration of a relationship between two people who are cohabiting, and for such registration to afford certain legal rights;
and for connected purposes.
The terms "common law wife" or "common law husband" are frequently used to describe people who live together. There are various urban myths about what the terms mean and about what rights people have over one another or over one another's property after they have lived together for a period of time. The time could be six months or two years—it all depends on what one hears. However, in British law there is no such person as a common law wife or husband; no legal rights or responsibilities are earned by people who live together in a relationship.
Before Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act 1753, people's relationships could be recognised in several different ways, which attracted some legal and social consequences. One of the most widely known practices was jumping the broomstick. A couple jumped over a broom that was leant against their front door, thereby gaining certain legal rights and responsibilities. Divorce was certainly easier in those days because the relationship was undone by jumping back over the broom in the presence of witnesses. There is no indication of the means used to resolve arguments over the distribution of assets held in common, although probably there were no assets.
The 1753 Act resulted in relationships being recognised by law when a marriage ceremony took place in a church or chapel. Subsequent legislation widened the measure so that non-conformist ceremonies and those held in register offices were accepted.
What do I seek to do through the Bill? In July, my constituent, Rose Green, visited my advice surgery. She had lived with John Pendlebery for more than 12 years; they were engaged but they had never married—they never got around to it. They loved each other and saw no reason to change their situation. They expected to spend the rest of their lives together, but in September last year John Pendlebery died tragically and suddenly from a brain haemorrhage. That is when Rose found out that people who live together have no rights or responsibilities towards each other. She was not allowed to register John's death. She was not allowed to sign for his funeral. She even had to get his family's permission to make an entry in the book of remembrance.
"It was as though I didn't exist, that I had never been part of his life. It was very hurtful. He was my common law husband, my partner, my best friend, my soulmate. I feel that I am John's widow, though technically I'm not. I have no status. There's no word in the English language to describe what I am to John."
That is why I seek leave to bring in the Bill, so that people like Rose and John who live together can have some rights and responsibilities towards each other.
I am grateful for the support that I have received from the Law Society in preparing the Bill. If anyone wants to read the philosophical underpinning for the changes to the law that I propose, they could do worse than look at the report published by the Law Society in September 1999: "Cohabitation proposals for reform of the law". It can be found at www.lawsoc.org.uk under family law.
I have recently been contacted by the Solicitors Family Law Association which also proposes that there should be a new cohabitation law, separate and distinct from matrimonial law. Those proposals are based on the experience of the association's 5,000 members in dealing with the breakdown of families, both married and unmarried. They are members of the legal professions who work daily with people in the same situation as Rose and John, their children and families. Members of the association say that the existing law is unclear, uncertain and inadequate.
I am also pleased to have the support of the Thames Valley Police Federation. It is campaigning against inequality in the police pension scheme. If unmarried police officers die, their pension dies with them, whereas if they are married, an annual pension of one half of their final pension is payable to their spouse.
That inequality does not affect only a few people, as some have suggested. A recent survey showed that 52 per cent. of the 6,000 employees of Thames Valley police are unmarried; 40 per cent. of that number have said that they have no intention to marry. That means that 600 Thames Valley police officers, or 10 per cent. of that force's employees, would benefit from the Bill.
I also pay tribute to WPC Alison Brown of Thames Valley police. Alison has been in a stable relationship for more than a decade and, like all Thames Valley police officers, pays 11 per cent. of her salary into the scheme, yet should she die her partner would not be looked after. Alison has been leading a campaign for a change in the police pension scheme.
It is ironic that that situation is reflected throughout public sector pension schemes, while many private sector schemes recognise the rights of partners and allow people to nominate whoever they wish to receive benefits if they should die. Although I said that the situation for Thames Valley police is reflected throughout the public sector, that is not quite true. In July, hon. Members voted for our own scheme to allow pension benefits to be paid to unmarried partners. I supported that change and voted for it. It would be ironic if hon. Members opposed the Bill, thus denying others the rights we so recently gave ourselves. I ask hon. Members to consider how that might look outside the House.
Can we learn from the rest of the world? Is there anything similar elsewhere? In some parts of the world, people are considered to have a de facto marriage after they have lived together for a certain period. That is the case in most states in Australia. I considered that option, which would automatically cover all people who live together, but I rejected it. It is important that people choose to have rights and responsibilities towards each other and that they opt in.
If we look closer to home and to Europe, we see a different model of people who live together earning rights and responsibilities. People have to choose to opt in. The model is one of partnership registration, as I propose today. It already exists in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, France, Germany, Belgium and the Catalonia region of Spain. Denmark has had a scheme for registration of partnerships since 1989, with the other countries following on at intervals. Virtually all our near European neighbours have introduced the change and the sky has not fallen in.
One concern about the Bill is the financial implication. It would amend social security legislation to place registered partners in the same position as spouses and unmarried heterosexual partners. At present, lesbian and gay partners are treated more generously under social security provision, and it seems likely that the savings to the Treasury that such a change would involve would offset any small costs arising from changes to inheritance tax and pensions.
I am also grateful for the support and help that I have had with the Bill from Stonewall and Angela Mason. Shortly after a piece appeared in my weekly newspaper, the Reading Chronicle, about Rose Green, the constituent I mentioned earlier, I was contacted by Ed and Tony who have been in a stable relationship for many years. Because he was a few years older than Tony, Ed was concerned about what would happen if he died first. I am grateful for the support that I have received from Ed and Tony in putting together the Bill, but they are not alone.
John is in a seven-year relationship. With his partner, he is buying a car, and the model comes with a year's free insurance, but that insurance applies only to what are described as "normal" couples. Therefore, John and his partner have to decide who can be insured for free—the other will have to pay.
Dick and Ben are in their 70s and have been together for 50 years. They have endured the general prejudice against the gay community, as well as some of the injustices that the Bill sets out to correct. They jointly own their home and most other assets, so they will face massive inheritance taxes that might make it impossible for the survivor to remain in their home.
Rachel has been with her partner for 21 years, and they are life partners. Rachel has just been diagnosed with cancer and, because she is the breadwinner, that has brought home to both partners the financial, legal and other concerns that they have. Rachel says that the NHS has improved in its recognition of same-sex partners, although she has also said that one is left feeling grateful rather than with the feeling that one has the right to be recognised.
Mark wrote to me to support the Bill. He said:
"Many people criticise homosexual people for the alleged frequency and rapidity with which they change partners, yet still take the opinion that a measure to support enduring and meaningful gay relationships is also wrong."
I have introduced the Bill for that reason.
An article that appeared in The Times on
"Anyone who registers a death on a death certificate must indicate the capacity"—
I oppose this ten-minute Bill. [Interruption.] I oppose it notwithstanding the comments made behind me and I do so as a Member of Parliament, as the Second Church Estates Commissioner and on behalf of my constituents. My hon. Friend Jane Griffiths knows that I hold her in the highest respect and I accept fully her right to introduce the Bill. She has mentioned a number of constituency cases, so I will mention some constituents of mine.
As the Second Church Estates Commissioner, I put my opposition to the Bill crisply and succinctly. Marriage, as the law and as the Church of England understands it, is a commitment between one man and one woman. There is no provision in the Church's understanding for anything other than such a union in marriage. As the House of Bishops makes clear, marriage is a pattern that is given in creation and is deeply rooted in our social instincts. Marriage is not, of course, the only pattern given us for a life of love. Unmarried people may have a different pattern of loving relationships that are also to be valued and appreciated.
The Church recognises that love is not only a question of intimate relationships. Married people love others as well as their partners; they love their children, their friends, strangers and sometimes even their enemies.
I respect my hon. Friend, but I wish to refer to some of the concerns of the constituents who have written me. Constituents from whatever constituency have equal rights and they are entitled to be heard in the House.
One constituent has written to say that the Bill is an attempt to bring in by another route what are, effectively, same-sex marriages. The briefing that my hon. Friend sent me on how civil partnership works in France confirms that. She says that, once registered, the partners enjoy virtually the same tax, social security and property and inheritance rights and obligations as married couples except for the fact that they are not allowed to adopt children. Couples who have a civil registration will, in reality, have all the rights of a married couple. That is also clear from the wording that states that Bill would provide
"for registration to afford certain legal rights".
Such registration is not needed for heterosexual couples and my constituent would not wish it be extended to same-sex couples.
My constituent also points out that there is nothing to prevent such couples from making wills in one another's favour and that my hon. Friend's Bill would bring about a major redefinition of what is involved in marriage.
Homosexual relationships are not new but—notwithstanding references to other jurisdictions— every society has restricted marriages to heterosexual relationships that are intended to be monogamous and for life. Were there to be such a major change from that concept, there should be not only a public debate but a referendum. In any event, the Government's position is that marriage is the surest foundation for raising children and remains the choice of the majority of people in Britain.
I also draw the House's attention to the categorical assurance that the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr. Straw, gave to me on the Floor of the House in the debate reported in Hansard on
I am on public record as being totally opposed to any form of discrimination—whether in the workplace or anywhere else—in relation to one's sexuality. However, I oppose the concept of civil partnership that my hon. Friend proposes. It would provide the same rights as those conferred by marriage, leading to an unravelling of the undertaking given to me by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn.
I shall oppose the Bill for all those reasons. I urge all my right hon. and hon. Friends to follow me in the Division Lobby.