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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill represents a historic step on what has been a long journey to respect and dignity for lesbians and gay men in Britain. It is a natural progression in our vision to build an inclusive society. As such, it builds on reforms that began back in 1967 with Leo Abse's private Member's Bill, backed by the then Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins. The Government's commitment to equality has been strong and unequivocal. We have equalised the age of consent, outlawed discrimination in the workplace on the ground of sexual orientation, secured protection from homophobic hate crimes and supported the abolition of section 28.
In creating a new legal relationship for same-sex couples, this Bill is a sign of the Government's commitment to social justice and equality. It is also a recognition of the realities of modern Britain. Across this country today thousands of same-sex couples have made the decision to share their lives, their home, their finances and the care of their children or of older relatives. They may have loved and cared for each other for many years, yet their relationship is invisible in the eyes of the law. The Bill sends a clear message about the importance of stable and committed same-sex relationships.
Will the Minister recommend to the Treasury that carers, those being cared for and family members living together in their own family units should have the benefit of inheritance tax relief and capital gains tax relief?
No, I will not. It is rather unfortunate that some Opposition Members have chosen to use an important equality Bill to pursue their campaign about inheritance tax. I will come back to some of the amendments that have been made in the Lords.
The Bill sends a clear message about the importance of stable and committed same-sex relationships. It marks a major step in helping such couples gain greater social acceptance of their partnership and overcome the distressing consequences for many people of their legal invisibility.
During consultation we heard and were moved by the personal stories of difficulties faced by same-sex couples precisely because they lacked a way of obtaining legal recognition of their relationship. They included terminally ill people and their partners who had to face not just the heartbreak of death and separation but the added trauma of being unable to leave a shared home or pension benefits. One man who had been involved in a major car accident was shocked to find that it was not his partner but his parents who were consulted about his medical treatment, that his partner might have faced difficulties registering his death and that although they had shared their lives he and his partner had no way of safeguarding their shared interests. Fortunately, in that instance, the parents were supportive through a difficult time, but that is not always the case.
Another man, on the death of his partner, found himself excluded from funeral arrangements and thrown out of his home by relatives of his partner who had had no contact with him for many years. Another person had to buy the couple's joint possessions from the parents of his deceased partner. A woman was kept away from her partner's funeral. These are the inhumane consequences of the invisibility of same-sex relationships.
I do not believe that some of the issues that I have identified do apply. There is a particular significance to a partnership between two people who have chosen to share their home and their life, to love each other and to care for each other. I will deal with the issue of other types of carers, which I take seriously, later, but to conflate the two is to do justice neither to the same-sex couples whom the Bill seeks to serve nor to carers in the sort of relationships that the hon. Lady describes.
The Minister describes a loving couple who have lived together for many years, sharing their house, their lives, their food. Do her arguments apply to the elderly sisters in my constituency who have lived together for 40 years and care for each other and love each other in a very real way as much as they do to lesbian couples?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was listening carefully when I identified the specific problem for same-sex couples—the legal invisibility of their relationship. Of course there are issues about sisters living together, but their relationship is not invisible—it is already recognised by society, and often by the law.
The hon. Gentleman is plain wrong: of course their relationship is recognised in law.
The Bill would allow same-sex couples security in life, peace of mind in the event of a partner's death and fair treatment should their relationship break down. It provides the opportunity to enter into a legal relationship in which rights are balanced with responsibilities and the couple's commitment is recognised in law—giving solutions to the practical problems that too many people face—and makes an important statement about this country's support for stable, long-term committed relationships. These are the marks of a civilised and humane society. They are the principles that we set out to fulfil with this Bill, yet others have sought to wreck the principles on which the Bill is founded.
Before the Minister goes into more detail, may I ask her about Northern Ireland? I understand that this is a reserved matter so, conventionally, what happens there will be determined here. The Liberal Democrats are keen to see the legislation implemented in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister give an assurance that that is the Government's intention?
I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. It is the Government's intention that, under this Bill, not least given some of the issues that I have identified, the new legal ability to gain recognition for one's relationship will operate across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The Minister will be aware that in all political parties in Northern Ireland there is opposition to this Bill. She will also be aware that in the consultation 86 per cent. of the answers were no. Why is the Bill not going to be left until the Assembly is up and running again so that the people of Northern Ireland can make the decision themselves? [Interruption.]
The hon. Gentleman is right about the responses to the consultation, although I can report to the House that, as of today, we have received nearly 400 letters of support for the Bill from Northern Ireland, and there were 462 responses to the original consultation. The hon. Gentleman is wrong, therefore, to suggest that there is no support for the Bill in Northern Ireland. Given the universality of some of the issues that I have described, it makes sense to legislate, as we propose with the Bill, for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
I welcome this groundbreaking Bill, but one issue—survivor benefits in occupational pensions—has worried a lot of people. Will my right hon. Friend take another look at the Bill, because it will create an inequality of treatment between same-sex couples and married heterosexual couples in relation to survivor benefits under occupational pension schemes? Will she see whether she can iron out that manifest discrimination?
My hon. Friend and other Labour Members have certainly worked very hard to raise that issue. Given that, as I have said, the Bill is about equality, I can undertake, as she asks, to look in considerable detail at the way in which we are able to provide, as we are in the vast majority of provisions in the Bill, equality in relation to survivor benefits under pension schemes, difficult though some of the issues may be.
The Minister has several times used the word "equality". Will she be very specific? Is the equality that she seeks that whereby a homosexual relationship based on commitment is treated in future in exactly the same way as marriage in law?
If the right hon. Lady looks at the Bill, she will see that, in the vast majority of cases, it is the Government's intention that those people who enter into a civil partnership will receive the same rights and take on the same responsibilities as those that we expect of those who enter into civil marriage.
It would surely be much fairer to Members on both sides of House if the Government came clean and announced that they support gay marriage. Why will they not do so?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman heard me make the important point that civil partnerships under the Bill mirror in many ways the requirements, rights and responsibilities that run alongside civil marriage. I recognise that hon. Members on both sides of the House understand and feel very strongly about specific religious connotations of marriage. The Government are taking a secular approach to resolve the specific problems of same-sex couples. As others have said, that is the appropriate and modern way for the 21st century.
I wish to move on to the amendments—frankly, they are wrecking amendments—passed in another place. Our belief, which is supported by many hon. Members on both sides of the House, is that certain amendments passed in another place render the Bill unworkable. Those amendments would allow close relatives over the age of 30 who have lived together continuously for 12 years to form civil partnerships. Of course, we recognise that there are genuine concerns about the position of carers. That is why the Government introduced the first ever national carers strategy and ensured that the carers grant that we introduced to provide vitally needed breaks is six times higher this year than it was in 1999, and it is why we supported the private Member's Bill proposed by my hon. Friend Dr. Francis, but this Bill is entirely the wrong place to deal with those concerns. Parents, children and siblings already have legally recognised relationships to one another that are widely acknowledged and accepted in society.
The Opposition amendments passed in another place would also lead to myriad legal absurdities. A woman who formed a civil partnership with her grandfather would have her own mother as her stepdaughter. A grandfather could leave a survivor's pension to a civil-partner grandson. That turns pension provision on its head and could cost the taxpayer £1 billion a year and the private sector some £1.25 billion a year.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that those amendments can fairly be described as wrecking amendments, designed to prevent the Bill from becoming effective, and that they were tabled in that form by people who are afraid to come out and express their real motive, which is to oppose equality?
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. As I have said, those amendments fail to recognise the principles on which the Bill is based and they will lead to some of the legal absurdities that I have outlined. I hope that all hon. Members will be honest about their real views, their real motivations and their real objectives in what they propose.
I was saying precisely that the effect of those amendments would be to wreck the Bill. Those who voted for them, whatever their motives, need to be aware that that would be the effect of the amendments. I was going through the legal absurdities. For example, a son in a civil partnership with his elderly mother could lose entitlement to jobseeker's allowance, based on his mother's ability to support him financially. That would take our social security system back to the 1930s. Even more bizarrely, if he then wanted to marry someone else, he would have to live separately from his mother for at least two years, or he would have to prove her unreasonable behaviour. For those reasons and many others, the amendments stand condemned by the TUC, citizens advice bureaux, the Solicitors Family Law Association, the Law Society, Stonewall and many others, but, worst of all, they stand condemned by the very people whom they purport to help—carers. Carers UK believes that the amendments may even harm the position of carers and create new problems for them.
The House will also be aware that those amendments have rendered me unable to declare under the Human Rights Act 1998 that the Bill is compatible with the European convention on human rights.
The Minister is being very generous with her time in giving way. Will she confirm that one of the issues for carers is that they will lose their entitlement to benefit if they register such a relationship because joint incomes will be taken into account? Some of those whom the Bill is directly designed to help would lose the most.
The hon. Gentleman points out yet another difficulty with trying to impose an ill-thought-out wrecking process on a Bill that was intended to deal with another problem. He is absolutely right.
My right hon. Friend refers to the European convention on human rights. As I understand it—perhaps she will correct me if I am wrong—heterosexual couples can take advantage of the Bill only if they are aged 30 and have been in a relationship for 12 years. If so, does that not breach the European convention on human rights, as it is discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation?
My hon. Friend is right. That is precisely one of the reasons that make the Bill in the amended form incompatible with the convention. For all those reasons and many more, we will seek to reverse those amendments and restore the Bill to its original purpose.
Is not the truth of the matter that those who tabled those amendments in the other Chamber did so because they do not believe that homosexuals are equal to heterosexuals, and that, unfortunately, that includes many of the bishops?
As I suggested earlier, I hope that people will be honest about their motivation today—I suspect that my hon. Friend is right about some people's motivation.
I acknowledge concerns expressed by hon. Members and those in another place about the vulnerable position of unmarried opposite-sex couples, many of whom are under the misapprehension that they enjoy more rights than they actually do. That is the very reason why the Department for Constitutional Affairs is running a campaign to inform cohabitants of the significant differences between their rights and responsibilities and those of married couples. We agree that there are aspects on which all couples who live together need protection, especially those with children. That is not a matter for the Bill, but the Government are mindful of the issue, which is why we recently asked the Law Commission to carry out a project on cohabitation for inclusion in its ninth programme of law reform.
The Minister will be aware that page 12 of the report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights referred to the undertaking that the Government have given, but said that it did not go far enough and asked for more information. What information have the Government provided in response to paragraph 26 of the report?
I have replied at length to the specific issues raised by the Joint Committee and I am sure that it will have ample opportunity to consider my responses. The Bill will provide the same opportunity for same-sex couples to gain legal recognition of their relationship as currently exists for opposite-sex couples through the route of marriage. That does not mean that all same-sex couples will choose to enter into that arrangement, just as not all opposite-sex couples choose to marry. However, same-sex couples currently have no route of legal recognition, so the Bill will put that right.
I shall now turn to the detail of the Bill. Part 1 defines civil partnership and makes the point at which a civil partnership is formed and ends clear. It makes it clear that a civil partnership may be formed in the UK, or overseas under UK law, and that same-sex relationships that are registered under the law of another country may be treated as civil partnerships under UK law. Part 5 provides a way of identifying those overseas relationships that can be treated as civil partnerships, and deals with the jurisdiction of UK courts in overseas cases and the recognition of orders made by courts abroad.
Part 2 sets out the procedure for forming and terminating a civil partnership in England and Wales and some of the rights and responsibilities that will flow from that relationship. The rights and responsibilities are serious, so entering a civil partnership will represent a major commitment. The registration process will be delivered by the local registration service, and there will be a formal, court-based process for dissolution if a civil partnership breaks down. That process would involve both rights and responsibilities for the civil partners involved. The provisions will ensure that civil partnerships are entered into seriously, that they cannot be exited lightly and that the rights and responsibilities that same-sex couples are given support them in their lives together.
Does the Minister share my disappointment that the Scottish Parliament is not considering the Bill, despite the fact that it has the competence to do so? There are differences involving dissolution and registration in the Scots courts. Is it the case that the Scottish Parliament is afraid to deal with the issue and is thus happy to let the Government pass legislation on its behalf?
I completely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. As we consider the Bill in more detail, I have no doubt that any hon. Member who so wishes will be able to examine the detail of how we are responding to the specific nature of Scots and Northern Irish law. However, both legislatively and for the people who will be affected, it makes sense to legislate through one Bill because of its complex legal implications.
Further to the point made by Pete Wishart, surely the situation illustrates the grown-up nature of the devolution settlement. The Scottish Parliament and Executive indicated well in advance their intention to pass a Sewel motion if the Bill was to their satisfaction. That allows Scottish Members, such the hon. Gentleman and me, to participate in the debate in the knowledge that the Bill will be applied in Scotland, although it might seem on the face of it that the debate relates to England and Wales. We should celebrate the situation as a success of devolution, rather than criticising it.
My hon. Friend is right. The Labour party has a grown-up approach, and I hope that all parties will adopt that approach.
After going through the process, same-sex couples' relationships will no longer be invisible and their duties and obligations to each other as civil partners will be significant. They will have responsibilities during their relationship, during the dissolution of their relationship—should that be necessary—and on the death of a civil partner. The provisions span registration, dissolution, property and financial provisions, measures to protect the interests of children and amendments to intestacy rules. They will directly resolve many of the problems that same-sex couples face, including issues of housing and tenancy, domestic violence and fatal accident claims.
Parts 3 and 4 deal with provisions relating to Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively. Although there are differences between the provisions for civil partnership in parts 2, 3 and 4, most of the differences are procedural and reflect distinct legislative history and legal systems. As we have heard, the Scottish Parliament has debated a Sewel motion and agreed that Scottish provisions should be included in the Bill.
Part 6 ensures that references to certain familial relationships in legislation, such as step relations, can be read as including relationships that arise through a civil partnership. Parts 7 and 8 deal with several discrete areas of legislation that must be amended to reflect the existence of the new legal relationship of a civil partner. For example, schedule 24 will ensure that income-related benefits rules treat same-sex couples in the same way as opposite-sex couples. Child support rules will assess civil partners in the same way as married people, and civil partners will be entitled to most state pension benefits from the date of commencement of the Bill. The Bill also contains powers to require that pension benefits provided to married people are made available to civil partners from the date of the Bill's commencement, notwithstanding the commitment that I made earlier.
I must inform the House that the Government will move several amendments during the Bill's passage through this House. Most of them will be minor and I will write to hon. Members with detailed explanations of them. The great majority were tabled for consideration in the other place, but because of the impact on the Bill of the amendments passed on Report, which would fundamentally change the nature of civil partnerships, it was impossible for us to proceed with them.
Will the Minister clarify the reference that she made earlier to survivor benefits? Is she saying categorically today that equal rights will be retrospectively applied for public sector pensions?
I made a comment at the behest of my hon. Friend Angela Eagle. She and other hon. Members have rightly emphasised the Bill's objectives on equality and the possible inequality that could arise with survivor benefits under pensions. I undertook to examine her representations and those of others in more detail.
The Bill has commanded widespread support and I would like to offer the House just two examples of that. A fortnight ago, I was able to visit the registration department of Brighton and Hove city council. It opened a pink wedding waiting list in July and people came from all over the country and queued around the block to express their personal wishes to register their relationships and support the Bill. I commend Brighton for that initiative.
The Bill makes clear the process that registration authorities will need to put in place to ensure that civil partners have the opportunity to have that civil partnership recognised.
Support has also come from across the political spectrum. In November last year, a leader in The Daily Telegraph said:
"The time has come to give homosexual couples some legal recognition . . . It is perverse that existing law should actively discourage any two people in a lifelong relationship from enjoying legal and financial security . . . Allowing gay people to affirm their relationship within a civil contract does not undermine the institution of marriage. It might even reinforce it".
I do not often agree with The Daily Telegraph, but I do in this respect. The support recognises that the Bill offers a reasonable and principled solution to the disadvantages that same-sex couples face because they cannot gain legal recognition of their relationships. Amendments passed in another place do not weaken our resolve to see the end of that unfair treatment and exclusion.
The Bill sends a clear and unequivocal message that same-sex couples deserve recognition and respect. It is a crucial step on the road to a fair and inclusive society, and I look forward to the House restoring it to its original purpose. I commend it to the House.
My hon. Friend should show a little patience. My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition has stated openly many times that he supports civil partnerships and will vote for their introduction. I am pleased to repeat and share that commitment. However, as my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth rightly and forcefully points out, Conservative Members have a free vote. The Bill is not whipped. It is up to my hon. Friends to vote as they choose, from the position of principle that they will undoubtedly argue, although I am confident that a large number will share my view that supporting the Bill provides a timely opportunity to show that the party understands the world in which we live and that, as my right hon. and learned Friend the leader of the party has said, we are a party for all Britain and for all Britons.
Will my hon. Friend clarify, in the same way as the Minister did—I have to say with some honesty—that the Bill is actually about homosexual marriage?
I do not accept that, but I will try to clarify the situation. In anticipation of my right hon. Friend's assessment of the Bill, I intend to devote a lot of time to answering that question, which it is fair and reasonable to ask. I hope that I might even be able to allay her concerns to the extent that she might approach the Bill differently.
I live in hope.
The demand for the Bill is far greater than many people realise. One of the facts about people's attitudes to gay people in the modern world is that essentially they are relaxed—utterly unexercised—about the phenomenon until the time when which they detect intolerance, at which point they become deeply and profoundly indignant. That is the climate in which the Bill is sought, not just by those who benefit from it, but by those who see the benefits it confers on others. It has much wider support than from those who are directly affected by it.
In passing, perhaps the Minister will confirm in the wind-ups that there is no danger, as highlighted in the report in The Independent on Sunday, that the passage of the Bill is under threat from the compression of time as we reach the end of the Session. I do not think that that many amendments will be tabled in Committee.
Does my hon. Friend think it reasonable that the Committee will have only two days to discuss this detailed Bill, plus all the Government amendments?
I am not aware of how many days are proposed for the Committee, but I am sure that that will be discussed by the usual channels. I am sure that the Committee stage will be extended appropriately if amendments are tabled so that the Bill can be properly discussed.
I shall deal first with the Bill as the Government introduced it in another place, before turning to the amendments passed there. The need for the Bill is obvious to anyone who has seen and felt some of the heart-rending injustices that can occur when a committed gay couple are denied the basic rights that a married heterosexual couple would take for granted. Despite sharing their lives together, too many of these people find that their mutual love and commitment count for absolutely nothing in the eyes of the law. As the Minister mentioned, practical matters such as pension rights and financial issues are on one side, but more serious still are cases—sadly, all too common—in which the partner of a terminally ill patient is denied the right to make key medical decisions, or even the right to visit the ill person. On death, the surviving partner can be crippled by inheritance tax and evicted from the home they have both shared for years.
To illustrate that I shall quote just one of the examples, which is vivid, contained in a briefing from Stonewall. It says:
"Rex is 76. His partner, John, died after they had spent 45 years together. Their house was in both names and John left everything to Rex in his will. Rex faced a huge tax bill in order to be able to stay in his own home. He also lost John's pension. Had he been married to a woman for just one day, no tax would have been payable, and Rex would have had a survivor's pension."
I hope that those reasons alone are enough to convince hon. Members that the Bill is needed.
Do the hon. Gentleman and his Front-Bench colleagues support, as I and many of my colleagues do, retrospective survivorship benefits on pension schemes for registered gay couples?
We will consider that in Committee. I am not clear about the likely cost. If it is minimal, the public sector might give serious consideration to retrospectivity. Shifting actuarial calculations is much more difficult in personal and private schemes because other people in a similar scheme could be disadvantaged by the retrospectivity applied to same-sex couples. That needs to be discussed properly in Committee in a responsible way.
Gay men and women are a fact of life in our country, in our communities and in the House. There are some who wish it were not so, but it is. Gay couples live together in committed relationships across the land and are accepted as couples by their friends and families. The Bill's purpose is to say that continuing to use the law to penalise them cannot be justified. It is designed to recognise same-sex relationships while applying the same restrictions as marriage regarding consanguinity—the bloodline links—thereby excluding partnerships between son and father, daughter and mother, siblings and so on. It is also designed, as the Minister said—I share her view—to apply equally across the country, so as to leave no pockets of discrimination within our United Kingdom, and to avoid the absurdity of people rushing from Gretna Green or Belfast to avoid it.
Civil partnerships have already been introduced in different forms around the world. Denmark introduced the first registration scheme in 1989. Today, eight EU members have some form of civil partnership, as do Norway, Iceland, Canada, Australia and some states of the United States. All have recognised the need for such provisions and have legislated for them.
One argument, brought up by my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh, is that civil partnerships create gay marriage and thus damage and undermine the institution of marriage. Some may see it that way; the House may wish to see it otherwise. First, although there are of course many similarities between the two institutions, they remain distinct in several important respects. While marriage is an ancient institution with special religious significance, civil partnership is a secular legal arrangement. That difference is made clear in the drafting of the Bill. Registration is given effect by the signing of the register rather than by the verbal affirmation, and a religious service is specifically banned during the signing of the register; in both such important respects, civil partnership is very different from marriage.
Even taking into account the elements of the proposed partnerships that are similar to marriage, the argument that they will damage the institution of marriage still does not stack up. If we preach that the values inherent in marriage—love, mutual commitment and responsibility—strengthen and enrich society, how can we claim that the replication of such values for gay couples will cause damage? Imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery.
True, the two institutions are designed on similar lines, but they are designed on parallel lines; and parallel lines, as we all know, never meet. They are separate institutions for different groups of people. Gay men and lesbians are different precisely because of who they love, so the formal recognition of that love will itself create differences. One can therefore argue strongly that the Bill does not undermine or compete with marriage. After all, we are not exactly fishing in the same pool.
Many practical issues will need to be dealt with as civil partnerships become accepted. For example, what does one call one's civil partner? It is a problem of modern manners that the term "partner" has many meanings these days: it can mean a business partner, a casual boyfriend, a girlfriend, or someone in a longer-term relationship. As developments take place, we may well find that we need to find new etiquette and new manners to enable us, in our changing civil society, to describe others in a form that makes people comfortable. I invite hon. Members to try to think of an appropriate word. As a prize, I offer a bottle of pink champagne. [Laughter.]
I disagree with my hon. Friend. He supports the creation of an institution that is formalised in a register office, has all the attributes of marriage and can be terminated only by a form of divorce. Marriage does not need to be a Christian contract; it can be carried out in a register office, just like the proposed partnerships. Why will he not simply be honest and say that what we are creating is a form of gay marriage? He is entitled to that view, and he should be honest about it.
The honesty emerges from a clear difference in respect for religious institutions. If we were forcing partnerships on a Church or religious institution, my hon. Friend would have a valid argument that they would conflict with what is now regarded primarily as a religious or religiously blessed institution. It is up to Churches, not up to Parliament, to decide what happens in future, but the clear distinction between a civil secular partnership and the institution of marriage will, in my view, be preserved. If my hon. Friend does not agree, he can vote against the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very good speech. In fact, the Bill prohibits Churches from taking such a step, despite the fact that many lesbian and gay Christians and ministers might want to do so.
It is up to the Church. Yes, the Bill prohibits any sort of ceremony for the purpose of these partnerships in a religious institution. By the way, the Bill is flawed in that respect: it refers to any religious institution "so designed", but on Charing Cross road there is a gay club in an old church—a building designed as a religious institution. That might have to be dealt with in Committee. However, I repeat that it is for the Church to decide. That reinforces the point that I made in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough: the Bill establishes a clear distinction between secular civil partnership and the existing institution of marriage.
I am following my hon. Friend's argument about parallel lines with great interest. If one accepts that that argument is correct, does it not follow that heterosexual couples who do not want to marry might feel that the terms of the Bill unreasonably exclude them from entering into a civil partnership?
The answer is clearly no, because such couples have the option of marriage, in either a church or a register office, and under the law as it stands they can use other legal means to register their interdependency, so to apply civil partnerships to such couples would undermine marriage. That is why such a provision should not be made in the Bill.
I, too, have been following my hon. Friend's parallel lines with great interest. Citing the religiosity of the institution, he makes a distinction between marriage and the proposed partnerships, but what is the distinction under the Bill between a civil marriage carried out in a register office and a civil partnership? Will he admit that there is none?
No. I admit that there is not a massive difference, except in terms of the ceremony itself: in marriage, the verbal vow is the contract, whereas in a civil partnership it is the written signature. In that sense, there is a legal distinction. Although I want to stick religiously—if I can put it that way—to the geometry of my parallel lines, I acknowledge that they appear to get ever so slightly closer together in that respect.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. Earlier, he read out a long list of countries that have civil partnerships, some of which have had them for years. Has his research revealed any shred of evidence that the existence of partnerships has in any way undermined heterosexual marriage?
In my personal view, no. In many respects, their creation has introduced in those countries' societies a degree of stability that is currently prohibited in ours by the law as it stands.
The hon. Gentleman said that consanguinity is applicable in civil partnerships as it is in marriage. Why, when the partnerships signify a secular relationship but the degree of prohibition comes from religious teaching?
Because the proposed partnerships are a recognition of loving couples in stable relationships, not an endorsement of incest—something that I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not want to see in any legislation. I shall address those points when I discuss the amendments made in another place.
Concern is frequently expressed that civil partnerships will undermine the family. Let us consider those arguments. Today's families come in many shapes and sizes and people face many challenges. Marriages break up, parents remarry and the structure of the family changes. Many families no longer fit perfectly into the traditional two-parents-and-2.4-children framework, but are extended families in which there has been remarriage and same-sex relationships. The latter are increasingly acknowledged and accepted, even by grandparents, who 25 years ago would have found such relationships abhorrent. No one suggests that the absence of traditional arrangements within those new family units has led to the absence of bonds of loyalty, commitment and support that hold families together. Despite the difficulties of modern life, those values have shown a reassuring durability.
I must challenge my hon. Friend on that point. All the Office for National Statistics surveys illustrate that children brought up in a married household do better than those brought up in a cohabiting household, let alone in a homosexual household. The question that my hon. Friend has to answer—I am sure that he will do so elegantly, if not persuasively—is, is he not setting up yet another alternative lifestyle, which young people will consider equally valid, and will not the nuclear family be destroyed?
What the Bill does is recognise what already is, and it tries to introduce a measure of permanence and stability into those relationships. I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend that a mother and a father together in a happy marriage are the best forum in which to bring up children, but I disagree with his suggestion that the Bill undermines that in any way. I do not think that it does.
I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman's speech. May I contrast it with some of the clarion calls from Conservative Back Benchers, which confirm the view that theirs is very much the nasty party? What does he say in response to the illiberal and intolerant attitude that has been demonstrated by some of his hon. Friends?
I say simply that the hon. Gentleman is wrong. We should dignify the House by accepting one another's differences in a proper way that puts arguments in an honest and direct context, which my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe does on so many issues, many of which I do not find myself in agreement with. There we are. Difference in the House, as a form of democracy, should be respected.
Let me follow on from what has been said. The fact that the bonds of relationships have endured is due in no small measure to the way in which our predecessors in the House have adapted the law to allow it to keep pace with social change. We have seen reforms of property rights, tax arrangements, divorce law and child care, which have all played their part. We have always accepted that ordered change is the best way to conserve those things that we value. The issues of child care and work-life balance are a growing item on the political agenda and are becoming increasingly important.
Measures such as those before us today are a way of protecting the family in changed times, not of damaging it. As I have said, gay couples are a fact of life. Rather than ignoring their existence, perhaps the House can now take a positive stance on their position in society.
I am sure that the issue of child care, which often causes strong feelings, will arise during the debate. It will be argued, rightly, that the best environment for bringing up a child is with two loving, married parents. However, that is not always possible, for a host of reasons, and children are now raised in many different circumstances. What is most important is that love is given to the child and that there is stability in his or her home life.
We had these debates at length two years ago during the passage of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which legalised joint adoption by gay couples. I openly admit—the Minister was the judge of this—that even I was not entirely comfortable with the concept for a number of reasons. I was largely undecided. I had some qualms about whether it was the right way in which to proceed, but we passed the legislation. In many ways, that was a far more emotive issue than the one that we are discussing today. Having passed such measures into law, it makes even more sense now to approve civil partnerships. If we are concerned that children should be brought up by a stable, loving couple, these measures, when seen in conjunction with gay adoption, make a positive contribution to the family, rather than detract from it.
There is much in the Bill that I believe can be seen as deriving from the values in which Conservatives believe. It promotes responsibility and removes the intrusive hand of the state from people's personal relationships. As a whole, the Conservative party has always been welcoming of people from different backgrounds, and does not pigeonhole people from different backgrounds. It does not pigeonhole people into restrictive categories. I may be the first openly gay Conservative Member, but history will show that gay men and women have played leading roles in our party for many years, and I am pleased to say that many are among our candidates in winnable seats at the next election. So I do not accept that the Bill is in some way incompatible with conservatism. I personally welcome the measure, but it is up to my right hon. and hon. Friends to decide how they wish to vote.
I shall deal with the concerns that exist over the consideration of the Bill in another place and the amendments that were passed there. I begin from the basis that although the issues of discrimination and unfairness which the original Bill was aimed at tackling are, in my view, the most widespread—in many ways they are damaging and pernicious—they are sadly not the only ones that exist. Other groups are still disadvantaged, and the Bill as introduced does not, or did not, assist them.
It is profoundly unfair that carers and siblings who cohabit are disadvantaged on the death of one or other of them by being forced out of their home by their tenancy terms or by the burden of inheritance tax. So it was right for these issues to be raised in debate, and in doing so the plight of those who are disadvantaged in this way has been drawn to a wider audience. That is one of the purposes of our parliamentary system of scrutiny, and I am glad that the efforts and effective advocacy of colleagues in another place resulted in the Government promising—they did so, and I remind the Minister of this—to take further action to address these issues.
"I shall certainly undertake . . . to give the House the more mature reflection of the Government in relation to how to respond to that issue".
That is, the issue of siblings and carers. The Minister then said that
"these issues have percolated to the top of the discussions on a number of occasions. They are issues with which the Government have grappled and they will wish to continue to do so."—[Official Report, House of Lords,
As they have now had since May to grapple and to percolate, I look to the Government, as I think all Opposition Members do, to fulfil that undertaking. I seek a clear guarantee from the Minister of State of the Government's firm intent to bring forward measures to address these issues at an early opportunity.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is highly inappropriate, regardless of the merits of argument about home sharers, to think that the solution somehow lies in civil partnership arrangements? Will he be voting to take out the provisions in section 2(1) and schedule 1, which so disfigure the Bill?
The hon. Lady's timing is impeccable. I was coming on to that issue and I can assure her that I think she is right. I accept that the Bill was not the appropriate vehicle for such action. When those in another place supported the Back-Bench amendment to widen the scope of the Bill, I believe that they did so with good intent. However, in doing so they fundamentally changed the Bill's nature and effect. They created a Bill that is at best bad legislation, and at worst unworkable and damaging.
"We foresee many potential negative impacts"—
I think that this is the same quote—
"on the cared for person and the carer with the amendments to the Bill . . . The changes could have a devastating impact on the income of the carer and the person for whom they care."
So we are not doing a favour to carers if we move an amendment about carers that they do not want.
As the Minister said, many other anomalies and rather absurd unintended consequences arise. For example, a woman who formed a civil partnership—the Minister said with her grandfather, but I can equally say with her grandmother—would, following the amendment, have her own mother as a stepdaughter. That is clearly absurd and unworkable. On a more serious point, by allowing the degrees of prohibitive blood relationships within the existing family to be breached—I hope that this is persuasive to my right hon. and hon. Friends—to form a partnership with one another, the amendment does a great deal to destabilise and compromise the traditional family unit.
Their Lordships' amendment destroys what it sets out to protect. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said in a letter to people who have written to him on this issue, if
"two sisters were to register their partnership, they would have to pool all their assets. If later on, one of them wanted to get married, the only way they would be able to terminate this partnership would be through complicated legal proceedings."
That would be divorce. Imagine Doris and Violet, aged 80, going through a divorce. All that they would really need would be inheritance tax deferral so that one partner would not have to sell their home when the other dies.
Whatever the good intent, the Bill, as amended in another place, is now unworkable. The impression has been given that the Conservative party has sought to wreck the creation of civil partnerships, which I can assure the House is certainly not the case. That is why my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said explicitly that he would like to see the amendment reserved—[Interruption.]—reversed. I can give that guarantee. We have a free vote, but I am confident that that is likely to happen.
I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to use the time that we have available during the debate to discuss other issues of detail, of which there are many. The issues of carers and siblings deserve their own bespoke legislation. If right hon. and hon. Members want to advance this cause, I hope that they will join me in demanding that the Government bring forward any such Bills at an early opportunity. I hope also that the Minister will now withdraw her rather abrupt refusal to do so in response to the intervention of my right hon. Friend Mr. Redwood. In a sense, what she said starkly contradicts the comments of Baroness Scotland in another place.
The Bill is not, as some have argued, about giving an extra set of rights to gay couples and thereby discriminating against other couples. On the contrary, it is about removing a discrimination that already exists in law against them. For this reason, it is a case not of greater state intrusion, but of less intrusion, which is to be welcomed. As far as I am concerned, the duty of the state is to intervene where two people are hurting each other and not where two people just happen to love each other. As a Conservative, I believe in encouraging committed long-term relationships that strengthen society. That is one of the best reasons that I can give for supporting the Bill.
For too long there has been perpetuated a negative stereotype of gay love as less committed, less stable and less valid than that between heterosexuals. That has been at the root of much homophobia, and has been used by otherwise rational people to argue for the retention of discrimination. "I am not homophobic", they say, "but gay people are promiscuous and do not want long-term relationships." That argument is not only insulting but inconsistent. How can people argue, as the Christian Institute does, that the proposals
"create a counterfeit moral standard that is imposed on all" while also claiming that there is no demand for them? If we refer to our personal experience, I suspect that most of us can see at once how wrong that contention is. Most of us know at least one gay couple who live together in a loving, committed relationship. Many of us also know of at least one heterosexual couple whose relationship may not be so healthy or committed. The simple fact is that love comes in many forms, and so do the relationships that give expression to that love. It would be odd indeed if those who espouse and defend traditional values of commitment and faithfulness opposed giving gay couples the choice to live their lives according to those values. There is a long way to go in eroding the homophobia that still exists in certain places in Britain today. Gay people still face many barriers to full acceptance, but eliminating discrimination from our laws is an essential first step to eliminating discrimination from our hearts and minds.
It is a privilege to follow Mr. Duncan, whose speech was most elegant and, more importantly, tremendously moving. The whole House, whatever the position of individual Members, will treat it with great respect, and I congratulate him on it.
Seven years ago, I went to a beautiful summer wedding with my husband and daughter. I love weddings—it is like seeing a Shakespeare play performed with a different cast—and attend them with great anticipation. On that lovely day, we were all very pleased for the happy couple. Like anyone who is married, I remembered my own wedding, now some 27 years ago, and recalled the emotions, the commitment and the shared responsibilities that I embraced on that occasion. I turned to a friend who was sitting beside me at the ceremony and talked about that. She is in a long-standing lesbian relationship. We were all enjoying the lovely occasion, but she told me that the possibility of a commitment to her long-standing partner in which rights and responsibilities were exchanged was not open to her. That made a great impression on me, and I discussed it with my family and friends afterwards. I vowed that if I ever had the opportunity to do something about it, I would. I was therefore pleased to have had the opportunity in December 2002, when I was a Minister, to say that civil partnerships for same-sex couples were a good thing.
Before I made that announcement, there was a great deal of nervousness in government about what would happen, how people would react and what they would say. Would the heavens fall in? However, I made the announcement and that did not happen—life went on as before, and society did not appear to have suffered any disruption. Almost as soon as I made the announcement, my offices in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and in my constituency received many messages of support from people who had been in same-sex relationships for years. They loved and cared for one another in sickness and in health, but had never had the opportunity to register their relationship and enjoy the rights that many of us take for granted.
The proposed legislation, which I warmly support, is important for two reasons. First, it deals with equality and social justice. It gives people in loving relationships an opportunity to register those relationships. There will no longer be terrible cases of people who are in dire straits at times of great sickness or bereavement being denied access to their partner. Secondly, it will show that our country has grown up and come of age. We have heard about the great reforms of the 1960s, but those reforms decriminalised homosexuality and did not deal with acceptance. They did not achieve equality and social justice, but the Civil Partnership Bill will change that. It is therefore right to look at the Bill's approach to rights and responsibilities.
Make no mistake—we are doing something of fundamental significance for equality and the society in which I want my daughter to grow up. We must treat people with respect and compassion, which means that we must go even further than we are going today. If, for example, the Bill is enacted, as I am certain that it will be, and the first civil partnership registration takes place, the happy couple may decide to go on holiday to celebrate. The holiday company, however, may refuse to accept their booking because they are a same-sex couple. Most people in the House would be outraged by such behaviour, but the practice is not outlawed. People cannot be discriminated against at work, from nine to five or whatever hours they work, on the grounds that they are gay, lesbian or bisexual. After five o'clock, however, if they go to the pub with their friends they could be refused a drink. Until very recently, a well-known holiday company, Sandals, which offers Caribbean holidays, overtly prevented same-sex couples from going on some of their holidays. It has now reversed its position following pressure, but discrimination is still possible under the law. It has changed its policy, but there is nothing to prohibit discrimination against gays and lesbians on the ground of sexual orientation in the provision of goods and services.
If this House truly wants to show that it has come of age, it should move to outlaw discrimination on the ground of sexuality in the provision of goods and services. That is long overdue and we should resolve to take action as quickly as possible.
In all the campaigning on this issue, the speeches and articles that have been written and the questions that have been asked in this place and elsewhere, one organisation has campaigned particularly hard—Stonewall. I congratulate it on the way in which it has conducted its campaign. It is perhaps one of the best lobbying organisations in this country, and it is known to hon. Members in all parts of the House. It conducts its lobbying and campaigning in an exemplary way, but operates on a shoestring. It is amazing that it manages to do what it does. As we deliberate on this Bill, we should recognise that we owe a great deal to that organisation and to the people who have worked with it, campaigned with it and supported it.
We often assume in this House that it is we as Members of Parliament who have brought about legislation, but that is not the case. We also owe a great debt to the civil servants and officials who have spent months, if not years, putting everything together. From personal experience, I know that there is a devoted team of officials in the women and equality unit who have pioneered this legislation. In particular, one of them is a woman who has dedicated her life over the past couple of years to ensuring that it is introduced. I thank those people very much indeed. For them, this has been not a 9 to 5 job, but a life's work ensuring that we get the legislation that is so important.
I am grateful for having had the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I know that many important speeches will be made. I believe that we are doing something very important today that other parliamentarians will look back on in future years, and say, "I wish I could have been here then." Our Parliament has grown up, our country is growing up and we truly are striving for a society that is equal and in which there is social justice.
It is a pleasure to follow Mrs. Roche, who did a great deal while she was in government to promote and pursue this agenda. I agree with her remarks about the need for equality of access to goods and services, although she may accept, as I understood her to do on the "Today" programme this morning, that this Bill is not the appropriate place for that. I wish to place on record my admiration for the manner in which both the Minister and Mr. Duncan conducted themselves. They both made comprehensive and compelling contributions. In particular, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton made what I consider to be the best speech that I have heard from the Conservative Front Bench since I entered Parliament. Before hon. Members rush to accuse me of damning him with faint praise, I assure him that my comments are sincerely and warmly intended as a compliment.
The Liberal Democrats are pleased to give the Bill a warm and unequivocal welcome. We see it as an opportunity to offer the same rights and opportunities to people in same-sex relationships as are currently offered to people in civil marriages of mixed sex. It is an opportunity to offer fair and equal treatment to all in our society today, regardless of their sexual orientation. For us, the question on this Bill is not so much how we can support it as how we could not do so.
As the first Scot to contribute, I wish to say that I thought that the intervention of Pete Wishart was remarkable. I was astonished to hear a member of the Scottish National party talk down the Scottish Parliament as he did. Indeed, he should be aware—I am astonished that he does not seem to be aware of this—that the Justice 2 Committee of the Scottish Parliament discussed the Bill at length and produced an excellent report. Many of the concerns were taken on board by the Scottish Executive, which responded positively, and were well on their way to being included in the Bill as amendments in another place before Baroness O'Cathain did her work. I am confident that we shall see them back in Committee.
I am staggered by what I understand the hon. Gentleman to be saying. I intervened earlier to say that the Scottish Parliament is fully competent to deal with this issue. It could have dealt with the specific points in Scots law that arise. It chose not to do so because of the fear of controversy; it was like passing the buck back down to Westminster. The Scottish Parliament could have dealt with the matter and it should have done so, and the legislation would have been better as a result.
Time will tell just how good or ill the legislation is. The hon. Gentleman ignores the fact that the Scottish Parliament has already considered the provisions in detail, so it is not a question of running scared. Whether he likes it or not, he must recognise that there is a clear confluence of interest on many aspects of the Bill that have UK-wide application and involve Scotland. For him to suggest that the matter is better undertaken with a piecemeal approach is verging on the absurd. [Interruption.] Does he wish to intervene again, or is he happy to chunter away from a sedentary position?
The Minister and the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton cited a number of examples—I am sure that many others will deal with such cases—in which, after the death of a partner in a same-sex relationship, the surviving partner is frozen out of everything from the funeral arrangements to the disposal of the family home and other items of the deceased's estate. The treatment of the survivor in a range of other ways is discriminatory and wrong and the Bill provides the tool for ending that discrimination.
The Minister referred to the progress of legislation on equality that started with Roy Jenkins in the 1960s. She will also recognise that this Bill in particular is the result of a process that started two years ago with the private Member's Bill introduced in the other place by my noble and learned Friend Lord Lester. I wish to place on record my admiration and appreciation of the work that he has done to get this issue on to the political agenda. It is also to the credit of the Government, whom I have not been slow to criticise on occasion for being timid in tackling difficult and challenging political issues, that they are seeing this work to a conclusion. It would be churlish—I try not to be churlish, Madam Deputy Speaker—not to recognise the courage that the Minister and the Government have displayed.
The Liberal Democrats are, however, not uncritical of the Bill as it stands. The provisions that seek to create categories of civil partners other than same-sex couples, worthy though they may be, do not belong in this Bill, and they should be removed. When the Government table amendments in Committee to remove those provisions, the Minister will have the support of its Liberal Democrat members. On that issue, we are at one with the Government.
Notwithstanding the Minister's warm words, I fear that we will not achieve a similar consensus on the Bill's provisions on pension entitlement for surviving partners. It makes no sense to undertake an exercise such as this Bill to remedy injustice, unfairness and unequal treatment, only to enshrine injustice, unfairness and unequal treatment in the new law. The Bill will allow same-sex partners to accrue survivor's pensions in public sector schemes from the date of its enactment, which will probably be some time next year.
I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman's direction, but his last remark is entirely inaccurate because the Bill does not say anything of the sort. The Bill allows the Government to do what they want on pension provision for surviving partners, and given what we have heard this afternoon, I hope that the Government move in that direction. However, he is wrong to say that the Bill prevents the Government from providing pensions for surviving partners on the basis of parity with spouses.
If we examine the outcomes, they amount to much the same thing, and the hon. Gentleman is harsh in saying that I am wholly inaccurate. The matter may require further textual analysis, in which I will be happy to indulge in Committee. Given what the Minister said today and what Ministers said in the other place, however, my point is that the Government intend not to afford survivors of civil partnerships equal treatment on pensions.
I welcome that reply. I hope that I have not become cynical after three and a half years in this place, but I have seen other Ministers get through Second Reading debates in which a tricky issue is causing disquiet among Government Back Benchers by promising carefully to re-examine the matter. I am delighted that the Minister is prepared to look again, but I would be even more delighted if the Government made a concrete improvement to their position, and I hope that the reconsideration is not just a measure to get the Minister through today's debate.
To allow even limited retrospection to 1988, the date when the equivalent provision was introduced for mixed-sex couples, would represent true equality of provision, and we shall introduce amendments to achieve that in Committee. That process will involve the insertion of a new clause, so Chris Bryant may have a point.
Quite apart from the inherent inequality of the Government's current position, surely it is wrong to penalise people who have done what the Government are always encouraging them to do by saving for their retirements. So why do the Government continue to resist? The argument is twofold and concerns cost and an aversion to retrospective provisions. Turning to the latter point first, I accept that it is undesirable to make retrospective provision in such matters, but it is not written in tablets of stone that it should not be done. If the choice is between retrospection and discrimination, surely retrospection should win the day.
The matter is not without precedent. In 1994, the Conservative Government changed the rules to allow female part-time workers who had been excluded from occupational pension schemes to obtain retrospective rights back to 1976, if they had paid the appropriate contributions. As far as parties to a civil partnership are concerned, the contributions will already have been paid, so we seek not an improvement in their position, but merely the removal of discrimination. In that case, employers bore the cost, whereas public sector pensions entail a cost to the Treasury.
What will the actual cost be? The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton referred to that point, and Stonewall has received actuarial advice that the cost would be between £6 million and £12 million per year over 15 years depending on the take-up of civil partnership or, to put it another way, between 0.01 and 0.02 per cent. of the pensionable payroll. Indeed, the Treasury might make a net saving, because parties to a civil partnership are entitled to equal treatment in relation to benefits and tax credits, which could amount to some £60 million per annum if the Government's position remains unchanged.
The question of survivor pension rights is the only substantive point of difference between the Government and Liberal Democrat Members, but it will not go away. Even if the Government refuse to concede the point here, they may be forced to concede it if the Bill is challenged in the courts. The Government will be aware of the decision in the House of Lords on the Godin-Mendoza case on
I shall expand my earlier remarks on the application of the Bill to mixed-sex couples and, in particular, to the much cited cases of carers and spinster sisters living out their latter years together. In principle, I have some sympathy for the arguments in both those cases, but we have gone well beyond arguing broad principle and are dealing with a Bill, and a fairly substantial Bill at that. It is apparent to anyone who bothers to read the Bill that the Government have, with some care, sought to re-enact the provisions relating to civil marriage for mixed-sex couples, warts and all. They have sought to put same-sex couples in exactly the same position as people who are married in a civil ceremony.
If one considers the Bill as being about outcomes rather than about labels, one must ask what benefit a mixed-sex couple would accrue by entering a civil partnership rather than a civil marriage. I cannot see one. Like a civil marriage, a civil partnership requires a declaration to be made before a registrar and witnesses, the same degrees of relationship are forbidden and publication of the intention to enter into the partnership remains the same as for marriage.
Should a civil partnership fail and be shown to have broken down irretrievably—the only ground for divorce in a civil marriage—it can be dissolved only by a court process, which addresses all the same issues as a divorce. So what is the difference for a mixed-sex couple? The only difference would be the acquisition of inferior pension rights for a surviving spouse in certain circumstances, but as I said, we have plans on that matter. In principle, I do not object to making the Bill available to mixed-sex couples, but in practice I can see no material benefit in doing so.
Turning to the Baroness O'Cathain provisions, I sympathise with the points that she raised in the other place but, as others said there, the Bill is not the place to address them. The argument concerns people who cohabit and who have a relationship based on love—albeit that the love that exists between siblings is very different from that which exists between partners drawn from outwith the family. The law has always treated such relationships differently for strong social, genetic and scientific reasons, and to abandon that approach in this Bill would be dangerous to say the least.
In some parts of my constituency, a higher than average number of people—either siblings living together or a child caring for an elderly parent—live in that way. In my experience, those people mostly manage to regulate their affairs and do not create problems for themselves or others in their family. However, I suspect that many of them would be offended by the suggestion that their relationship was in some way comparable to that of a husband and wife or a same-sex couple in a long-term relationship.
One can imagine even greater difficulties being created by the Bill as it stands. The example cited is usually that of the adult's offspring who gives up his or her job to care for an elderly parent, but what about the same person who gives up a job to care for both elderly parents? He or she would be prohibited from entering into a civil partnership until one or other of the parents dies. That surely cannot be right.
Most of the perceived inequalities could be eliminated by changes to taxation and property law, but that is not what the Bill is about. There will be another Finance Bill next year whereby such changes can be effected.
We need to pay attention to several other aspects of the Bill, and we shall do so in Committee. There are interesting debates to be had about the use of church buildings for the conduct of ceremonies and the recognition of civil partnerships in other jurisdictions. I look forward to hearing the Minister's explanation of the Government's position regarding the recognition of same-sex marriages constituted in Massachusetts. However, those are more issues of detail than of substantial principle, and they properly belong on the Committee Corridor, not on the Floor of the House.
For today, I am satisfied that the Bill is necessary and overdue. It is about ending discrimination and promoting equality, and we should all take pride in giving it the Second Reading that my colleagues and I will support tonight.
I welcome this groundbreaking Bill, which has been introduced by a Labour Government, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs. Roche, who had a great deal to do with its early stages. Although she was unable to be around for its production, she has every right to very proud of the work that she put in.
This is a complex and comprehensive Bill—exhaustive, even, as I thought when I looked at some of its details the other night—and it has been three years in the preparation. It covers all the bases in terms of giving, as closely as possible, with the proviso of a few little kinks that I shall mention, equality of legal recognition to same-sex partners, who until now have not had their partnerships, however long-standing or loving, recognised in law at all. It is a time of celebration for many of us and of considerable personal interest for some of us.
For many years, same-sex couples have had to live not only with bigotry and ignorance, but with being legally invisible. We have heard some moving comments about the awful situations that that has created for them in times of great personal hardship. It is a great moment for celebration that the Government—and at least some Conservative Members, notably those on the Front Bench—realise that now is the time to put that injustice right and to grant legal recognition to same-sex partnerships. That gives them rights and responsibilities in terms of expressing their own partnerships with each other and having those partnerships recognised in law over a range of issues, including equitable treatment for life assurance; almost equal pension benefits, with, I hope, even more movement during the passage of the Bill; next of kin rights; rights to death registration; intestacy recognition; and gains in respect of recognising partnerships for capital gains tax and inheritance tax purposes. Those measures will avoid distressing tales of the kind that we have heard during the long consultation period and the response from many members of our society to the Government's comprehensive and long-awaited proposals.
As is only right in these circumstances, there should be responsibilities too—for example, a duty to provide maintenance for a partner in a civil partnership and any children who happen to be involved in the family.
Today we are celebrating the validity of same-sex partnerships. If the Bill becomes law, as I hope that it will at the end of this Session, and is enacted about a year from now, people will finally be able to celebrate their partnerships in that way.
The Bill does not represent an unusual obsession of the Labour Government—it is in the mainstream of change that is taking place world wide. Mr. Duncan mentioned some of the international comparisons in his excellent speech. In western Europe alone, 13 other countries—Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Spain, Iceland, France, Germany, Portugal, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Finland, Belgium and Luxembourg—have already introduced forms of registered partnerships or have such proposals in the pipeline. Areas of the world with similar plans include Hungary, Croatia, Canada, various states of the USA, and parts of Australia. New Zealand will consider a civil union Bill later this year. The Bill is in the mainstream of legal reform throughout advanced societies.
We have seen today a welcome change in the attitude of Conservative Front Benchers. However, there is still a Janus-faced side to the Conservatives that perhaps explains the free vote. They have a schizophrenic attitude; one need only read the debates in the House of Lords to understand how that manifests itself. I wish Conservative Members who are fighting the good fight well and hope that they continue to make progress. Some of the comments that were made in the House of Lords give some measure of the distance still to go in order to persuade Conservative Back Benchers that they should share the welcome views expressed by their Front-Bench colleagues. Baroness O'Cathain said that the Bill creates
"a parody of marriage for homosexuals".—[Official Report, House of Lords,
That echoes the awful and hurtful phrase, "pretend family relationships", which so damaged many same-sex couples during the era of section 28. Many Conservatives in the Lords are associated with the spoiling and wrecking amendments that have effectively torpedoed the Bill unless we can reverse them.
A great deal of work is required to persuade some Conservative Members that they should show respect to people who may not be of an orientation of which they approve but nevertheless have the same human rights as they have. I hope that the time of oozing hostility and distaste is passing, but there is still a fight to be had, and I wish those on the right side of the Conservative party well.
The extraordinary thing about the Bill's passage through the House of Lords was that it was used as an opportunity to drive a coach and horses through inheritance tax. It was used to argue that liabilities to inheritance tax or property rights somehow ought to be minimised through the Bill. The amendments that were passed, which, thankfully, the Conservative Front Bench will oppose, and which, I hope, will be overturned today, would cost £2.8 billion annually in forgone tax liabilities. I cannot think of anything less respectful than trying to turn something so important into a tax loophole.
The fact is that inheritance tax raises £2.6 billion a year in total. The hon. Lady cannot seriously suggest that the changes proposed by my noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain would result in an even greater forgoing of tax by the Treasury than the total amount currently claimed by inheritance tax.
No, but inheritance tax is only part of the tax loopholes created by the vote to incorporate new clause 2 and schedule 1 in the Bill. The figure represents the cost of the whole effect of the provisions that we are considering. Although the hon. Gentleman is obsessed with inheritance tax, other loopholes are created by what the Lords did to the Bill.
We have all been brought up to respect the level of debate in the Lords, assisted by all the extremely expert people whom we are told are always in there. But this debate, I believe, is one of the most shameful that have been held in the House of Lords. It has had a ridiculous effect on the Bill. I shall quote a few of the people whom it purports to help. The Solicitors Family Law Association called the amendments an "unworkable mess" and an "absurdity". Lord Alli said—rightly, I think—that they were
"spoiling amendments designed to make the Bill unworkable."
The Lesbian and Gay Lawyers Association said:
"We do not believe that people who care for their elderly parents would want to be in a situation where they would be prevented from marrying . . . and be jointly assessed for welfare benefits with their parents".
Carers UK, who were meant to be assisted by the amendments, said:
"The changes would have a devastating impact on the income of the carer and the person for whom they care."
The Law Society said that
"it is inappropriate simply to include them"— family members—
"within the categories of those who can register a civil partnership. Registration will not solve their problems and may even worsen their position."
Many who have spoken in the debate so far have referred to the absurd effects of the amendments. I will give another example: a daughter entering into a civil partnership with her elderly mother to avoid inheritance tax would be effectively married to her own mother, and if she met a man whom she wished to marry, she would have to go to law to prove that her relationship with her mother had irretrievably broken down. She might also be legally liable to support her mother financially in any subsequent settlement. Clearly, that is ridiculous and inappropriate, and I am a glad that Front Benchers of all the major parties have said that they will be in the Lobby to expunge those amendments from the Bill.
The hon. Lady has just used an interesting term. She said that if a daughter and mother entered into a civil partnership, the daughter would be married to the mother. Therefore, she is saying that the Bill is about homosexual marriage. It is about one person in a civil partnership being married to the other.
It is not for me to interpret what the Government Front-Bench team want. I was careful in my choice of phrase—I said that such people would be effectively married. Whether one believes that that is homosexual marriage, as the right hon. Lady clearly does, or that it is a parallel state, which recognises—rightly, in my view—the legal rights and responsibilities for people who live in caring same-sex relationships, is irrelevant. Clearly, it is a completely inappropriate state to expect mothers and daughters, grandfathers and grandsons and other numbers of family members or carers who may be unrelated to the people for whom they are caring to resort to, in order to avoid some of the problems that currently occur with inheritance tax or property rights. When important disadvantages are associated with that, one needs to consider changing property rights or tax law to deal with the matter, rather than opting a whole load of people, who are sometimes closely related to each other, into what is either a marital state or something parallel to a marital state. I hope that she will agree that that would be completely unhelpful and absurd.
I want to spend a little time talking about pensions for surviving partners. I very much welcome the commitment that the Government gave earlier to taking another look at the problem of unequal access to occupational pension entitlements under the Bill as drafted. We welcome the fact that it grants equal access to state pension entitlements in what is a highly complex and technical set of provisions, but as Mr. Carmichael rightly identified, as drafted it treats same-sex couples and married heterosexual couples unequally in respect of survivors' pension benefits under occupational pension schemes. Indeed, the same point is made in the fifteenth report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I recommend that everyone read. It deals with the issue extremely cogently.
That admirable report points out what would happen under the Bill as drafted. Let us compare the situation of a married couple, one of whom dies, and a couple who entered into a civil partnership, one of whom also dies. Even if both deceased people make exactly the same contributions to exactly the same occupational pension scheme and die on exactly the same day—for example, the day after the Bill is enacted—there will be completely different outcomes for the surviving spouse and for the surviving partner of the civil partnership couple. One will get 17 years of their partner's pension contributions, but the other will get nothing. For what is a small sum—as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland explained, the Government's figure is £9 million a year for 15 years before the provision fades away—we could put right an anomaly that will discriminate purely on the ground of sexual orientation if the Bill is passed in its current form, even though such people have made exactly the same contributions to the same pension scheme.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be odd if someone like me, who has been paying into a public sector pension fund for nearly 30 years, did not have the same rights as a married heterosexual man, and if they did not receive any discount in respect of the amount that they had been forced to pay throughout that period?
My hon. Friend makes in a much shorter way precisely the point that I am labouring to make. Fixing this kink in the Bill as drafted is a question of equity rather than retrospectivity. Given that the contributions to these schemes have already been made, retrospectivity does not arise. What matters is ensuring that people in a similar state—civil partners or spouses—have access to the same benefits in the same way. So arguing about retrospectivity distracts us from the real issue, which is equity.
I am delighted that the Government have recognised that this is an issue. I hope that we will get a little more information in the winding-up speech on how they intend to proceed, but I certainly welcome their open-mindedness in taking another look at this problem. I hope that, if we can fix it appropriately, we can then concentrate on dealing with the wrecking amendments introduced in the Lords, and speed the passage of this extremely overdue but welcome legislation on to the statute book.
I believe that this Bill is wrong. If we pass it today, we will undermine the uniqueness of marriage, which is why I will oppose it at every stage. In a moving and interesting speech, Mrs. Roche paid tribute to those who have worked hard to bring the Bill about. I pay tribute to those who have worked hard and fearlessly for many decades, in an increasingly secular and sardonic society, to defend the institution of marriage, to defend traditional values, and to defend families.
I believe that what we are doing today is misconceived. I challenged the Minister, who responded with nearly 100 per cent. honesty, to say whether the Bill is really about homosexual marriage. I also challenged my hon. Friend Mr. Duncan, who responded with a parallel lines analogy, but had to admit, under pressure, that those lines almost converged. He said that they did not quite cross, but I believe that, when it comes to civil marriage and the Bill, they do. That is what we have to address: do we think that homosexual marriage is right?
Everyone on this side of the House would cleave to the proposition that it is wrong of the Government to interfere in the exercise of free choice. The fact is that the Government do not interfere in the exercise of the free choice of homosexual individuals to form relationships—sometimes very committed ones—or to set up domestic arrangements together, which may then prove to be of very considerable or permanent duration. There is nothing in our law—or, increasingly, in the attitudes of society, which have been a bigger barrier in the past—to prevent that.
I recognise the strong reasons why the right hon. Lady will oppose the Bill on Second Reading this evening, but the Bill is made up of many parts and provisions. I would be interested to know of which specific parts of the Bill that will assist same-sex couples the right hon. Lady approves and of which parts she disapproves.
I am coming on to that, if the hon. Gentleman will be patient. I am currently setting out the grounds of my opposition to the Bill.
Failing to pass the Bill will not stop, put any barrier in the way of, or make it illegal for two homosexual individuals—whether they be male or female—to set up a permanent relationship. If I thought that the law prevented that from happening, my attitude would be different, but it does not. The question before us is not whether we prevent that from happening, but whether we bless such arrangements with equivalent rights that have been wholly reserved for marriage in the past. That is the question that has to be answered today.
I accept that there are some unkindnesses and "inequalities"—to use the buzzword, though I noticed that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton has a concept of both equality and costless equality, which are apparently rather different—in the way people who have set up a homosexual relationship will be treated by comparison with those who have set up in a proper married state. People whose domestic arrangements and sharing and caring responsibilities place them outside marriage will also face similar unkindnesses and problems.
I happen to agree that the Bill is not the right place or context to rectify those problems. I do not impute wrecking motives to those who voted in a certain way, because they were making a point, saying that the inequalities are not confined to homosexual couples so that if we are concerned about them in the one context, we should also be concerned in the other. The Bill is not, as I said, the place to address that matter.
Equally, the Bill is not the right way to address those problems when applied to homosexuals. The essence of the Bill is that people sign a register, as they do when they marry, which automatically confers all the rights of marriage. If there are problems, such as being dispossessed of a home because of inheritance tax or tenancy arrangements, they should be dealt with separately and they should cover not just homosexual arrangements but others as well.
To do what the right hon. Lady suggests, one would have to decide beforehand which people would be affected. Would that not mean that some kind of civil partnership would have to be set up?
No. As Angela Eagle pointed out just now, it would be nonsensical to have a civil partnership between a mother and a daughter. I believe that we must look again at the categories of person who are disadvantaged by a given provision, and then deal with problems on their merits in appropriate legislation—for example, the Finance Bill.
The fundamental premise being put forward by my right hon. Friend is that she wants to defend and protect traditional heterosexual marriage, and I think that all hon. Members agree with that. However, does she accept that homosexual love exists, as do permanent long-term homosexual relationships? Those relationships are of considerable value, even though they may be different. People who are gay are never going to enter into a heterosexual marriage, but does my right hon. Friend accept that their wish to be recognised as partners in no way competes with or undermines the heterosexual marriage that she wants to defend?
No, I do not accept that. I am usually in agreement with my hon. Friend, but perhaps not on this occasion. He says that homosexual love exists, and of course it does. As I said earlier—and I think that most Conservative Members will agree—it is inappropriate for Government to intervene in people's exercise of choice. People who want to enter such relationships should be able to do so because, after all, Almighty God gave us all free will. My question is whether we should deal with some of the anomalies that exist in homosexual relationships, and other caring arrangements, by means of a Bill on civil partnerships which, of necessity, precludes any arrangements other than homosexual partnerships. Alternatively, should we not look at each case individually and then decide whether to extend some of the provisions to certain groups in certain specified circumstances?
What is proposed, however, would restrict to one group only the rectification of the unkindnesses and injustices that I have mentioned. That would be achieved not by addressing the individual laws involved but by creating a register that exactly resembles the marriage register and by making the divorce provisions exactly the same as those that apply to civil marriage. As a result, the proposals would extend to another group a property that has always been unique to marriage.
There will be two views in this House about whether that is desirable, but we should have the basic honesty today to acknowledge what it is that we are doing. If we pass this Bill, we will send out of this House the message, which will be translated into law, that marriage is no longer unique. I want to keep it unique, but other hon. Members may not.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman and hon. Lady will forgive me, but I am under some time pressure—[Hon. Members: "There is no time limit on speeches."] The pressure does not arise from any time limit, as I am about to explain.
If we want to keep marriage unique we should vote against this Bill. That is not to say that I do not recognise that the law contains certain unkindnesses that could and should be addressed in other ways. However, when we address them we should not restrict our efforts to one group, and certainly no effort in that regard should take the form of this Bill.
Madam Deputy Speaker, may I apologise to the House for the fact that I will not be present for the wind-up speeches? In case anybody accuses me of wimping out, I sincerely hoped that I would be able to get back for the vote but I have an urgent and completely unavoidable engagement which, owing to circumstances beyond my control, is now imminent. I apologise for that: when I asked to speak in the debate, it was certainly not my intention to miss the vote. However, I wanted to be able to make a clear statement of the fact that I believe in the uniqueness of marriage. I am prepared to address injustices, but not through aping marriage.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate on this groundbreaking Bill. The Bill represents the partial completion of more than three years' work, because almost three years ago I was proud to move the Relationships (Civil Registration) Bill under the ten-minute rule. My Bill sought to allow all couples living together to register their relationship, but this Bill addresses the issue of same-sex couples. That is why I describe it as a partial completion. I will not rehearse the arguments about that now—others will do and have done so ably. However, I welcome wholeheartedly this Bill as a major step forward for the rights and responsibilities of an important section of our community.
It has been said that all people deserve to be treated with respect. That is right and that is what the Bill is about. As an aside, I may say how pleased I am to see gay and lesbian people as part of the mainstream of our society and no longer having to skulk, as they did 30 or 40 years ago, in little establishments that the rest of us were not even supposed to think about. I draw the House's attention to the first ever Pride festival in Reading last month. It was a delightful occasion and I invite all hon. Members to join us in future years.
When I introduced my Bill I received much support from Thames Valley police and, in particular, from WPC Alison Brown, who 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 her pension scheme. However, should she die, her partner would receive nothing. Alison has led a campaign for a change in the police pension scheme. In that respect, I am pleased to hear from Ministers today that the whole pensions issue will be reconsidered. I appreciate that the issue is complex and may be costly, but sometimes its costliness can be exaggerated. It should not be forgotten that gay and lesbian couples are not treated as households for the purpose of benefit entitlement. When I introduced my Bill I had letters from several people in same-sex partnerships who said that they were claiming benefit because they could. Their partners could afford all the household expenses, but my correspondents claimed housing benefit because they could. That is wrong. Benefits should be paid because they are needed, not because someone can claim them. That is the sort of anomaly that should disappear when the Bill becomes law, as I fervently hope it will.
Can we learn from the rest of the world? Many countries in Europe and the developed world have partnership registration legislation and schemes, and other hon. Members have ably described them. Some countries have gone even further and allowed same-sex couples to marry. That has been a matter for some debate, especially in the United States, but also in Europe. Almost all our near neighbours have introduced some changes to allow same-sex couples some rights and, of course, some responsibilities and, as Chicken-licken might have said, the sky has not fallen in.
I was pleased that following the introduction of my Bill in 2001 much work was done in government. I was pleased to hear from my hon. Friend Mrs. Roche about some of that work and the commitment to addressing the issue shown by officials and Ministers. As I have said, lesbian and gay partners are at present treated more generously under social security provision than others. A system of civil registration would allow same-sex couples to be treated in the same way as other couples. If people are not working, for whatever reason, the benefits they receive should not be affected by whether they are gay or lesbian, or heterosexual.
I was grateful, too, for the help and support that I received from Stonewall when I was preparing my Bill. At the time, I was contacted by a couple in my constituency—Ed and Tony—who have been in a stable relationship for many years. Ed was some years older than Tony, so he was concerned about what would happen if he died first. I am grateful for the heartfelt support that I received from Ed and Tony and for the support that I know they give this Bill. They are not alone. I have been contacted by a number of people who told me about their circumstances.
John has been in a relationship for seven years and is buying a car with his partner. That is a normal thing to do—couples do that all the time. The model comes with a year's free insurance but, under the scheme, it applies only to what are described as "normal" couples, so John and his partner must decide which of them 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. Of course, they have endured the general prejudice against the gay community—if we can use that word—as well as some of the injustices and, as Miss Widdecombe said, unkindnesses that the Bill sets out to correct. I was interested that the right hon. Lady used that word; it is one that should be used in the House.
Dick and Ben jointly own their home and most of their other assets, but in the high-cost area that they, and I, inhabit they will face massive inheritance tax, which is likely to make it impossible for the survivor to remain in their home. I understand that, at present, inheritance tax is a shibboleth of the Conservative party and this is not the place to explore the complex issues surrounding it.
I received a letter from Mark in support of 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."
Those real life examples provide evidence that the change we want to make is so right and that the wrecking attempts in the other place are so wrong. I am proud to have played a part in getting the Bill to this point and I look forward to it becoming law.
The Bill is about justice. The subject of civil partnerships is a heady mixture of sex, prejudice and religion, and the Bill is a serious attempt to address the injustices facing same-sex couples in the context of changing social attitudes and evolving religious interpretation of the scriptures.
It is a great strength of the Bill that it offers a secular solution to the way in which same-sex couples are treated, but there is also an important religious dimension. The Church of England, rightly, is the established Church of our country and Christian values are intertwined throughout our constitution.
I was a signatory to a cross-party letter urging support for the measure, sent to all Members of the House in September. We think that the Bill will remedy many of the injustices faced by stable same-sex couples. We also believe that it should be passed in its original form, without the amendment passed by the House of Lords on Report, which extended the scope of the Bill to family members and carers. I have great sympathy for siblings and others in mutually supportive relationships—we all know many such people in our constituencies—but I am convinced that the provision is wrong. That view is shared widely by Carers UK, the Law Society and others, so I very much hope that the House will remove the amendment. I am delighted that that position has the support of the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition.
It is easy for any Government to misjudge the speed of social change, and it is also easy for the House to do so; both must proceed with caution. Similarly, Christian interpretation of scripture moves on and practice in the Church evolves. It does so in a way that some find too fast, while others find it too slow. I believe that now is the right time for both Parliament and the Church to take a lead, which I am sure will be acceptable to the majority of our citizens, including Christian congregations.
It is good that the Bill proposes justice for gay and lesbian people. Is it not interesting, Madam Deputy Speaker, that 10 or 15 years ago those words would not have passed my lips? If we are honest, it is a measure of our own prejudice that I would not have spoken the words "gay" or "lesbian" then—certainly not in public.
The Bill would remove some of the almost mediaeval prejudices against gay and lesbian people. If they enter a civil partnership, the Bill would ensure similar legal recognition and similar consequences for their relationship as those enjoyed by married couples. I am a strong supporter of traditional marriage and I declare my interest. I have enjoyed 36 years of marriage and I look forward to many more. I believe that the term "marriage" and the cultural identity that it implies should be reserved for heterosexual couples and that it should have a religious as well as a secular dimension. I can understand why some committed same-sex couples yearn to call themselves married, but I urge them not to alienate opinion by pressing that wish and to settle instead for civil partnerships.
By giving legal and practical recognition to same-sex relationships, the Bill may help to support them and encourage their stability. Surely it is good to minimise the breakdown of any relationships. I believe that the Bill will enhance the institution of marriage by increasing public approval for stable, committed, loving interdependent relationships in society. I fail to see that acknowledgement of one permanent, faithful, stable relationship can undermine the status of another legally acknowledged, permanent, faithful, stable relationship. How can my marriage be undermined by someone else's civil partnership, or the other way round? Surely the more committed, stable relationships there are, the better. Furthermore, the fact that opposite-sex couples cannot enter into a civil partnership because they have the option of marriage stops civil partnerships being an alternative to marriage. It is marriage or nothing for a straight couple, and civil partnership or nothing for a same-sex couple.
The Bill will reduce prejudice against such relationships and reduce homophobic violence. It will also reduce homophobia because it challenges the view that the social benefits of marriage, which I think are stability, faithfulness, the nurturing of children, mutual support and so on, can apply only to relationships between people of the opposite sex. That is important. I have found it quite a struggle intellectually and emotionally to come to the view, for example, that same-sex couples can become parents. They do not always want to do so, and it is not always appropriate. Opinion remains very divided within the gay community, let alone within the heterosexual community, about the merits or otherwise of in vitro fertilisation or embryo manipulation among lesbian partners, but it takes place. As more lesbian and gay people become parents, there is now a growing body of research from the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and the United States that finds no measurable difference between the children of lesbian mothers in terms of gender identity, social or emotional disturbance, quality of friendships, social acceptance or sexual orientation. Those are the facts. I have faced them and I have talked to some same-sex couples in my constituency. I have concluded that I was as prejudiced about this as most people are, not because I was wicked or perverse or stupid but because that is the received wisdom of the society in which I was born and educated.
It requires effort to open one's mind and adjust one's attitude, and it can be a painful process and a journey that, for all sorts of reasons, many people are unwilling to take. In short, we follow the pack or we take a lead, and I hope that the House will take a lead.
During scrutiny of the Bill in Committee, I hope that the Government will think again about the pensions issue. I believe that a wider power than exists in clause 245(1) is needed to allow limited retrospection to 1988, which I think is the appropriate date. Individual pension schemes could then be altered by regulation after Royal Assent. This is an issue of fairness. Yes, there would be a cost. It would amount to about 0.02 per cent. of pensionable payroll, which equates to about £12 million over 15 years. There would also be savings to the Treasury of about £60 million a year on income-related benefits.
To return for a moment to the Christian dimension, I was heartened that both the bishops who spoke on Second Reading in the House of Lords—the Bishops of Oxford and Peterborough—were broadly in favour of the original Bill. I am a Christian and I am doing my best to live a Christian life, so I pay attention to what the leaders of my Church say. In 2003, the House of Bishops of the Church of England published its guide to the debate, entitled "Some Issues in Human Sexuality". The chairman of the working group that produced it was the Bishop of Oxford. It makes very heavy, but very necessary reading if a non-theologian such as me seeks wisdom in place of prejudice.
May I repeat the point that I made earlier? Three of the four bishops who took part in the vote supported the amendments proposed by our noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain. My hon. Friend is a little wide of the mark in suggesting that there is a firm view. In fact, three bishops out of four voted for those amendments.
My hon. Friend is confused about the vote in the other place. I was referring to the debate on Second Reading, in which only the Bishops of Oxford and Peterborough took part, and they were both broadly in favour.
The Bishop of Oxford gave the official view of the Church of England—as it happened, on my birthday earlier this year—during the debate on Second Reading in the Lords. He said that the General Synod had voted to reaffirm the unique place of marriage in the law of this country, but recognised that there are issues of hardship and vulnerability for people whose relationships are not based on marriage that need to be addressed by the creation of new legal rights. That motion was passed by 248 to 27 votes in the General Synod of the Church of England. He also reported that, in its response to the Government's consultation on the Bill, the Archbishop's Council reiterated the central and unique place of marriage and endorsed the need for new legal rights because
"the law no longer reflects current social patterns and needs amendment to remedy injustice".
In coming to my decision to support the Bill, I have been grateful to many organisations and individuals on both sides of the argument for their advice. I am grateful, too, to the quiet and thoughtful gay and lesbian people in my constituency— many of them active Conservative voters—for explaining why the Bill will change their lives for the better. I have received e-mails from as far afield as New Zealand, which has been through such a debate already.
I am particularly grateful to Jacqueline Humphreys—an English barrister specialising in family, matrimonial and ecclesiastical law—for pointing out some of the legal problems that the Church of England may face if the Bill becomes law. The problems range from the consequences of the clergy entering civil partnerships, including the possible conflict with the Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003 and the exclusion of part II of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 in respect of women priests. There could also be new challenges in the occasional offices of baptism, marriage and funerals.
I am also grateful to the people who have put me in touch with a growing number of Christian websites that tackle morality and sexuality issues from all angles. I started with www.inclusivechurch.net and moved from there across the spectrum of the debate and around the world. I was particularly struck by the discontent among evangelicals at their traditional line.
In discussing the Bill with people of all ages, it is clear to me that there is indeed a generation divide. First-time voters—indeed, second, third and fourth-time votes—cannot understand how politicians in the House can be so out of touch. They have little or no sympathy for sexual prejudice. We say that we want to listen to young people, but they do not believe us when they hear or read some of the exchanges in the House. It is far harder for people over the age of 40-something to cope with change of all kinds, especially cultural, social and religious change. So, mindful of our heritage and core beliefs, I am convinced that the future is more important than the past, and I hope that Parliament will put the Bill on the statute book as soon as possible.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak about a Bill in which I have a personal interest, because I hope to take advantage of it once it is passed. I can think back to what society was like when I was in my late teens and early 20s—in the late 1960s and early 1970s—after the Sexual Offences Act 1967 was passed and compare it with what it is like now. The 1967 Act made it possible for gay men to live without such a risk of being criminalised, but it did not mean that that was easy, so few entered into lifelong relationships. In about 1971, I met a couple in Huddersfield, where I grew up, who had met during the war—they seemed very old to me at the time, although they were probably about my age now. Couples from previous generations have lived in lifelong relationships, so it is nothing new.
I have had the privilege of being a Member of the House for the past seven years, during which there has been a sea change in public attitudes to, and legislation affecting, gay people. I have a short list of the measures that the House has taken in that time, because it is sometimes useful to remember what the Labour Government have done since 1997. There have been measures to equalise the age of consent; to equalise sexual offences legislation; to give employment rights; to abolish section 28; to allow gay people to serve in the military; to give adoption rights; and to allow spouses from overseas to join their partners in this country. Those are the measures that I have remembered since I entered the Chamber this afternoon. That batch of legislation has generated changes to public attitudes.
Miss Widdecombe mentioned some of the unfairness of current legislation and suggested tackling that piecemeal. That would be totally wrong. When people, be they heterosexual or gay, meet someone special, a relationship develops. One can be in love with a person, but that does not mean that one wants to share one's mortgage with them. When the point comes in a relationship when couples decide that they want to make a lifelong commitment, such a commitment should involve rights and responsibilities. If we are considering the structure in which we want couples to live, dealing with only the unfair and difficult bits, such as next-of-kin issues, or a little bit about inheritance tax, will not address the responsibility aspect.
If we are to provide a proper framework for relationships, there must be a way in which rights and responsibilities kick in. Mixed-sex couples reach that point when they decide to get married, but I believe that too many such couples feel that they can drift along without taking on rights and responsibilities in full, with the misguided assumption that everything will be all right. When people are relatively young, all the ifs, maybes and things that could go wrong seem to be in the distant future, so they wonder why they should worry about them. However, I am beginning to wonder how my partner would cope if something happened to me, because I am not 20-something, but 50-something. That consideration has become crucial to me and many others who are in long-term same-sex relationships.
I am fortunate that my partner and I have the support of an extended family, so problems involving next of kin, funerals and what happens in hospitals are unlikely to arise as starkly as they do for others. However, there are well-documented cases of the partners of people who have died or become ill being completely excluded from any consideration. We need to address such matters comprehensively, which is what the Bill does.
The issue of rights and responsibilities relates to benefits. It is crucial that same-sex couples are treated as a single household, not as separate households, in the benefits system. That is part of the quid pro quo of what we want to establish. Whether people see that as the equivalent of marriage is not important. What is important is that we provide a structure for same-sex couples to live their lives in a way that gives them some security, especially as they move towards old age. That is when such issues become very important.
When I speak to constituents about the subject, they say, "What's the big deal? Why is there a problem? I assumed you'd be all right anyway", or "Is that what would happen if you died and your partner was left on his own? I didn't realise that was the case." All those issues are in the melting pot.
There is something important for a couple in publicly demonstrating and affirming their commitment to each other. It is not simply about signing the bit of paper, but about having a big do with families and friends in which the relationship is publicly endorsed by people for whom we care and who care for us. That may be like marriage, but it is important to be able to do that in the family in which I live. It is crucial to demonstrate to my family and friends, and to my partner's family and friends, that this is who we are, where we have come to and how we care about each other.
The amendments agreed in the Lords will, I hope, be thrown out in Committee. No matter how good the intentions, they are clearly unworkable. If we are to tackle some of the issues raised by the amendments, it is better done elsewhere.
I have some concerns about the part of the Bill that deals with pensions. I said in an intervention that I have paid into a public sector pension for nearly 30 years. No one has offered me a discount, because survivor's rights are not applicable to me. It is a matter of equality, not retrospectivity. I and thousands of other gay men and women have paid into the pot knowing that our partners will not benefit from it, yet we have had to pay for other people's surviving partners.
The Minister made a helpful contribution. I look forward to hearing an even more helpful contribution in the wind-ups. I certainly look forward to the Bill's successful passage, with full equality on pensions in due course.
Listening to the debate, I have been wondering why the Bill is called the Civil Partnership Bill rather than the same-sex partnership Bill. I suspect that the amendment was passed in the House of Lords—I include myself among those who sympathise with the arguments made there—because people took the Bill at face value and thought that it was about giving new rights to people who are in partnership outside marriage. If it were designed merely to enable those in settled long-term relationships to have a better deal from inheritance tax law or pension benefit law, I would have no problem with it.
The extent of the financial burden borne by those in settled long-term relationships outside marriage is apparent from the estimate of the Government Actuary's Department, but just extending survivor pension rights in contracted-out pension schemes to close family members could cost as much as £2.25 billion a year. That is not as much as the £5 billion being taxed by the Chancellor from pension funds every year, but it is still a large sum.
I therefore do not take seriously the Government's suggestion that they will address the issue. Answering interventions, the Minister of State was remarkably vague about what the Government would actually do.
I welcome what my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said on the subject. His letter states:
"I therefore think it better to allow the Bill to be returned to its original form and fight vigorously for provisions to be included in a Finance Bill which would remedy the unfair disadvantages which affect them"— that is, people not of the same sex who are engaged in relationships outside marriage. He continues:
"This is what we shall do our best to achieve in the House of Commons during the passage of the next Finance Bill."
However, if we go along with the Government's arguments on rejecting the Lords amendments to the present Bill, we will have missed a great opportunity to get a fair deal for participants in long-term relationships outside marriage.
My hon. Friend states the very point implicit in my remarks. It is disingenuous of the Government to argue that they will give serious consideration to the matter when they have an opportunity, in the form of the Civil Partnership Bill, to ensure that there is no discrimination between different types of relationship outside marriage. We should deal with all such relationships on the same basis.
Ultimately, we shall have to face the problem that is succinctly and coherently set out at paragraph 22 of the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which states:
"when the Bill comes into force, exemption from inheritance tax will be available to a surviving spouse and a surviving civil partner, but not to the surviving partner of an unmarried heterosexual couple, even though they may have lived together as though husband and wife for the whole of their adult lives, and possibly raised children together."
That is the problem that we as parliamentarians should be addressing, but the Government are ducking it.
Surely the difference is that an unmarried heterosexual couple have the opportunity to rectify that problem by entering into a secular or civil marriage. That course of action is not available to same-sex couples.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made that intervention, because it brings me to my next point. The argument he makes has been echoed by Lord Lester and Ministers, but it is not justified, as paragraph 24 of the Joint Committee's report points out:
"The Government's argument is that there is an objective justification for any difference of treatment, because unmarried heterosexual couples may be free to marry. But a decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in a case called Miron v Trudel illustrates that the courts may not accept this line of argument. The Canadian court recognised that heterosexual couples who choose not to marry may do so for very personal reasons of conscience and belief, for example because of the historical implications of the word 'marriage' and the historical nature of the institution in which the woman was treated as property. Second, the court noted that being unmarried may not always be a choice made by both partners in an unmarried relationship. Both of these considerations would call in to question the Government's reliance on 'choice' as the justification for not extending the scope of the Bill to opposite-sex unmarried couples."
I am sure that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, know people who have been widowed and who do not wish to enter into a new marriage because they feel that they have had their one and only marriage, but that does not stop them entering a long-term relationship. At present, such people are discriminated against by the legislation. So, too, are the many people whose marriage has collapsed but who, because one party to the marriage objects, have to serve out their five years of separation before they can get a divorce. There are many examples of people who live together but who do not effectively have the choice to get married. That is where I disagree with some of the observations that have been made by those who seek to justify the distinction that is being drawn.
Why are the Government not concerned—
I have listened to the hon. Gentleman's arguments with great interest. Will he explain whether he wants to encourage more people to get married or whether he wants to encourage people to have the benefits of marriage without getting married? Does he feel that that would be entirely within traditional Conservative family philosophy?
I believe that people should be free to choose whether they want to get married or to enter into any other sort of relationship. I am not in the business of encouraging people to do this or that. If I were to encourage people to take a particular direction, that would probably be counter-productive.
Why are the Government putting one particular type of relationship outside marriage on a pedestal, in preference to all others? The unavoidable conclusion that I have reached is that the Bill is a homosexual marriage Bill in all but name. As a result, it will be a double whammy. It will further undermine the institution of marriage—the holiest state of matrimony. At the same time, it will be an affront to Christians and other faith communities. It will also be an insult to all those who happily share their lives with relatives or friends outside marriage, because their relationships will be given institutional inferiority to homosexual ones.
I ask the hon. Gentleman, as a Christian myself, to draw the distinction between marriage—as I see it and as I have benefited from an institution being solemnised in a church—and civil marriage, which is a highly secular and different institution.
I am happy to draw that distinction. I was lucky enough to be married in Wimborne Minster. I have not been married for as long as my hon. Friend Mr. Key, but I hope that I shall be able to be married for as long as him before my time is up. I recognise the distinction. I am concerned about the way in which the Bill does all but equate the terms of marriage breakdown with civil partnership breakdown.
For example, why is it necessary for a party to a civil partnership to have to wait for a year before they can start divorce proceedings? Why is it necessary in a civil partnership to have to prove irretrievable breakdown of the relationship before that relationship can be severed in law? Why is it that we are adopting, in the language of the Bill, exactly the same provisions as those that are contained in the laws relating to the breakdown of marriage? It seems that that is being done because the Government's mindset is that the Bill is about homosexual marriage.
The only difference is that one of the grounds for breakdown leading to divorce in a proper marriage is sexual infidelity on the part of the other partner to the marriage. I have not seen any provision in the Bill that refers to sexual infidelity on the part of the other partner to a civil partnership as being a ground for "divorce".
I regret that I find this to be an extremely muddled Bill. That brings me to a brief and succinct conclusion. If one is minded to use contemporary slang, the most appropriate expression to sum up the Bill is that it is a buggers' muddle. When we turn to the dictionary of slang, we find that that means that it is an absolute mess.
It is a pleasure to follow many Members who have spoken this afternoon, with the possible exception of Mr. Chope, who seems to have a muddled view of the legal definition of adultery, which does not apply to relationships between same-sex partners.
I support the Government's proposals and welcome this progressive and timely reform. I very much hope that co-operation will be achieved in both Chambers to allow the measure to complete its passage before this Session ends. My hon. Friend Mr. Borrow gave a compassionate explanation of the dilemmas facing same-sex couples in permanent long-term relationships and there is an increasing sense of injustice at their treatment under the law. I welcome cross-party support for the Bill from Front-Bench spokesmen and I appreciate the considered speeches made by the hon. Members for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) and for Salisbury (Mr. Key). I hope that other Conservative Members will accept without qualification that the amendments made in the Lords make nonsense of the Bill and should be deleted. In the Scottish context, it is heartening to note the approval of the overwhelming majority of respondents to the Scottish Executive's consultation on the proposals.
Nowadays, it seems extraordinary that homosexual acts in Scotland were illegal as late as 1980. At that time, the comments of Miss Widdecombe would probably have been considered very liberal. However, there was a sea change in attitudes in Scotland to homosexuality in the years after the unfortunate debacle when the Scottish Parliament legislated to remove the utterly iniquitous section 28 or, as it was known in Scotland, section 2A. Most Scots were deeply embarrassed about the hostile, macho, aggressive and narrow-minded manner in which that debate was conducted by a small minority of people in our community and the way in which Scotland was projected to the world as a result. It is an experience that the vast majority of Scots do not wish to repeat. Most of our constituents recognise that the Bill tackles the need to provide formal recognition for same-sex couples and to address the disadvantages that they face under our civil law.
I do not accept the argument perpetuated by some commentators, including Pete Wishart, that the Scottish Parliament is too scared or feart to seek to legislate on so-called controversial issues. The fact that it had the courage to face down such a personalised and bigoted attack is often forgotten, and it deserves our congratulations. I am confident that any legislation on this subject would pass through the Scottish Parliament with very little controversy, but there are good reasons, not least the fact that changes to the taxation system remain reserved to the UK Parliament, to cover the whole United Kingdom with one piece of legislation and to implement it throughout the country at the same time. In a survey conducted by the Scottish Executive, 82 per cent. of respondents wanted a comprehensive package of rights and responsibilities in devolved areas that largely mirrored those in other parts of the UK, subject to the reforms being firmly based on Scots law. By and large, the proposals in the Bill reflect those sentiments. In fact, the Law Society of Scotland—I declare an interest as a member of that body—in its response to the consultation conducted by the Scottish Executive stated that one single Act covering the whole United Kingdom
"would have the advantages of avoiding inconsistencies between the jurisdictions, smoothing cross-border issues and ensuring a comprehensive location for the law on this issue."
Hon. Members have commented on the Bill's pension provisions and I am encouraged by the Minister's assurance this afternoon that she will look at the matter again. On
A better analogy is the legal change in the civic status of children born out of marriage and the reforms to provide them eventually with the same rights as legitimate children. In Scotland, that is now set out in the Law Reform (Parent and Child) (Scotland) Act 1986. Those rights started immediately on commencement of the legislation and were not restricted to a certain period. The legislation before us seeks to remedy an injustice, rather than simply give additional rights. It recognises that our society, on the whole, now views same-sex relationships as having validity in our communities, just as we recognised 30 years ago that questions of legitimacy should not affect a child's rights or status in our society. The Bill should be viewed on the basis of principle rather than mere fiscal advantage.
In evidence to the report issued on
The matter should also be set against a context of a society in which increasing numbers of adults, such as me, are not married or in permanent relationships, which offsets any increase in fund claims. I do not think that it would be too difficult to set up some form of interim arrangements, perhaps based on proof of years spent residing at the same address, to allow these important pension rights to be backdated. I urge the Government to think again about those points, and to propose new amendments to the Bill.
On a similar point regarding equity, I also wish to raise with the Minister the issue of succession rights, especially as they apply in Scotland. As she will be aware, the Bill will amend the Succession (Scotland) Act 1964 to provide surviving same-sex partners with prior rights to their partner's intestate estate. However, the Bill does not provide that same-sex partners will have legal rights to an estate where their partner dies with a will or where the estate exceeds the level of prior rights. I should explain that prior rights are given for separate categories of estate in Scotland, based on values of heritage, furnishings and movable estate. As the common law currently applies in Scotland, we have always held to the notion that it is not possible to disinherit one's spouse or children. Given that legal rights can amount to either a third of the deceased's movable estate if there are surviving issue or one half if there are no surviving issue, that can be an important entitlement.
I note from the Justice Committee's report of
I understand that the Scottish Executive intend to conduct a review of the law of succession. Given that it is 40 years since the previous major measure, that is probably well due, but I hope that any briefings or advice notes on civil partnerships will strongly recommend that parties consider making their own wills.
I agree with those hon. Members who have expressed concern about the lack of verbal affirmation to the registration process. Given that in a significant number of cases such partnerships will have repercussions for not only couples, but their children, it is preferable to include a measure that positively indicates consent rather than its simply being inferred. Same-sex couples who express consent want to do so explicitly, particularly because it is likely that friends and family will accompany them through the registration process. It is not too much to insist that they be allowed explicitly to give their consent at such services.
Finally, I reiterate my support for the Bill. I hope that it will pass through Parliament in this Session, because many same-sex partnerships face hardship and discrimination and they will benefit from the measure.
It is a pleasure and privilege to follow Ann McKechin. Since she entered this House, and probably for a substantial period before her election, she has been an articulate champion of sexual equality. Today, she once again made a compelling speech of which she can be proud.
I strongly support the original form of the Bill, which was introduced to help lesbian and gay couples, and it should be official Conservative party policy to do so. The essential issue is discrimination, which takes the form of the non-existence of gay couples in law. Such discrimination is best tackled—indeed, I would argue may only be tackled—by the legal recognition of same-sex partnerships. The Bill is not about encouraging homosexuality, but it is about recognising homosexuality; it is not about giving special rights, but it is about affording equal treatment; it is not about undermining marriage, but it is about promoting stable relationships; and it is not about political correctness, but it is about personal decency.
My hon. Friend is, as always, eloquent. Does he understand that some of us have a deep-seated and genuine fear that setting up what my hon. Friend Mr. Duncan called "a parallel institution" will send out the message to the people of this country that there are two equally valid lifestyles and that one can be in a homosexual relationship or a heterosexual—many of us would describe it as normal—relationship? That message will encourage the proliferation of homosexuality.
My hon. Friend is wrong—he is usually wrong on such matters and will probably continue to be wrong—but if he is prepared to exercise the modicum of self-restraint that he can muster in the circumstances, I will attend to his point in due course. Although he is entitled to his view—no one can deny him its possession or expression—I firmly and honestly believe that the Tory party must take a definitive, meaningful and forward-looking stance on the subject.
As a result of historical discrimination, it is undeniable that gay couples suffer grave injustices. Those injustices should be removed, which the Bill does by giving those who voluntarily opt for the status of civil partner a welter of rights and responsibilities that will be influential in the running of couples' lives. In that sense—I am pleased to make this point—the Bill is an excellent piece of social reform that will significantly improve the lives of a sizeable minority of our fellow citizens, and I warmly congratulate the Government on its introduction.
Such arrangements exist in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. Such arrangements exist in Hungary, Croatia, Canada, parts of the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Such arrangements exist in Brazil, Argentina and Israel.
I have mentioned more than a score of very different societies, all of which are nevertheless united by a common bond of humanity that for them decrees that such provision should be available. I believe that the time has come for Britain to follow suit. To those who say, as my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth just did and doubtless others might, that the effect of civil registration arrangements for gay couples will be to undermine marriage, my response is twofold. First, if we look at the two countries that have had civil partnership registration for the longest periods—Denmark and Norway, since 1989 and 1993 respectively—we see that more people are getting married in those countries than was the case before the advent of the legislation.
Secondly, we should reflect on the premise underlying that argument—that helping those who cannot marry means hurting those who can. That is a flawed premise. It is wrong to argue that all politics and legislation represent a zero sum game in which a gain to one individual or group necessarily entails a loss to another. Neither my enjoyment of marriage nor the status of the institution of marriage in our society as a whole depends in any way whatsoever on discriminating against, repressing or vilifying gays and lesbians: far from it. It is possible and, I would argue, desirable for the institution of marriage, on the one hand, and civil partnership, on the other, peacefully to co-exist in this country every bit as successfully as they manifestly do in the plethora of other countries to which I referred. It is simply not correct to argue that, if one introduces a new arrangement, it will somehow corrode the institution of marriage. There is no evidence to justify that thesis.
As I said at the outset, I strongly support the Bill in its original form. Equally, I strongly oppose the amendment that was successfully pressed in the other place by my noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain to extend civil partnership arrangements to close family relatives over the age of 18 who have lived together for 12 years. That amendment has been variously described by critics as absurd, a distortion, inappropriate, unworkable, a legislative mess and the worst possible outcome. I should like to focus on four of the many arguments against it.
First, my noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain explicitly argued in the other place that because, following the passage of the Bill, gay couples will enjoy the inheritance tax relief that currently applies to married couples transferring assets to each other, close family relatives should be granted a similar relief. I am prepared to concede that there is an argument for such a policy, but it is a different argument for a different Bill at a different time. The rationale of this Bill is not to deal with inheritance tax, nor is it principally about tax relief—its focus is relationship recognition. If my right hon. and hon. Friends want to argue the case for the reduction or abolition of inheritance tax, good luck to them—I happen to think that they have a powerful case—but inheritance tax relief was never originally a rationale for the introduction of the Bill, and it certainly should not be allowed to hijack it and become its defining or central feature now.
Secondly, my noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain and her supporters were keen to emphasise that they back marriage and wish to bolster the family, yet if one looks at the detail of the amendment, it is clear that it achieves neither of those objectives. Indeed, it is not even neutral. It is counter-productive. It is a force for undermining marriage and damaging the family. Angela Eagle, in a persuasive speech, gave the example of a woman living in a civil partnership with her mother. It is important to underline the significance of that example. If that young woman decides that she wants to get married, she must extricate herself from the civil partnership and then demonstrate that there has been an irretrievable breakdown of her relationship with her mother—and there is a possibility that she could wait for up to five years before her wish to marry would be fulfilled. What could be more anti-marriage than that?
Let us take the other predictable scenario that is almost certain to arise in the event that the amendment remains as clause 2 in the Bill. If, within a family civil partnership, there is a breakdown, and the dissolution process is set in train, there would have to be, quite properly, equitable financial provision for all the different parties involved. Certainly, in most cases, it is foreseeable that the family home would have to be sold. The prospect exists that an elderly relative would be evicted from the home in which he or she had long lived. What could be more anti-family than to do that?
Thirdly, my noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain and her supporters argue that they want to help carers. Of course, as right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber will acknowledge, very large numbers of carers are within the family, and yet if that is the principal motive force behind the amendment, how does she explain the fact that she failed to consult the principal representative organisation of carers, which has been championing their interests for 40 years, Carers UK? She did not consult the Law Society or the Solicitors Family Law Association either. Each and every one of those three organisations—I name only three at this stage—believes that there are potent objections to the amendment. All, on the basis of their accumulated wisdom and experience, contend that the amendment would require a massive reactionary rewriting of social security legislation, which would take us back to a pre-Beveridge period. It would take a very long time to undertake, and some of the consequences are uncertain, but of one thing we can be fairly sure: as a result of the rewriting of the law, benefit levels would be lower, and tax payments for all too many people, although they would not yet be aware of it, would be higher. That seems to me a thoroughly counter-productive consequence.
My hon. Friend, of course, advances a very well-argued case, with which I do not entirely agree but which I respect entirely. Does he accept that, as many contributors to the debate have said, this legislation is to rectify an injustice? Does not he think that he is being unfair on my noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain, who was trying to put right an injustice whereby a daughter, for example, could look after her elderly family for many years, and when her mother and father die might have to leave the family home because she cannot pay the inheritance tax that would be due on the property, which has been her home for the whole of her life?
The argument that my hon. Friend advances can certainly be considered, but, if I may say so, his customary generosity gets the better of him. The reality is that most of us have studied the debates on the Bill, and my noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain set out her stall at an early stage, on Second Reading. I am willing to acknowledge that there will be people who voted for that amendment in good faith, who believe that it can be of benefit and who are not motivated by any desire to undermine the Bill. The trouble is that that argument does not work for my noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain, any more than it works in favour of my noble Friend Lord Tebbit. Both those individuals made it clear beyond doubt that they passionately opposed the Bill and wished that it had never been brought before the House in the first place. Indeed, Baroness O'Cathain explained eloquently and at some length that she would far prefer an inheritance tax abolition Bill and that she thought this a bad Bill that should not have been introduced, so I do not accept that argument.
I reiterate what seems an important constitutional point. It was grossly irresponsible of Baroness O'Cathain to press the amendment—successfully, as it transpired—without undertaking the elementary duty of consulting the organisations whose client groups would be affected. Equally, it was grossly irresponsible of the other place to allow the amendment to pass, in the full knowledge that Baroness O'Cathain had failed so to consult.
There is a fourth and final argument that I want to make against the amendment, which is that there would be a very substantial cost. The argument has been made by others, but let it be underlined. To suggest an additional £2.25 billion-worth of expenditure, which is what the extension to close family relatives of civil partnership arrangements would require, seems an extraordinarily profligate way in which to behave. I am bound to say to my right hon. Friend Mr. Letwin—the distinguished shadow Chancellor—that if my party is to pursue a policy of fiscal restraint, it seems a rather curious state of affairs to allow the party in the other place to go ahead with a proposal of this kind.
Ultimately, the O'Cathain amendment is but a smokescreen. It is a smokescreen erected by its proposers in a determined but ultimately doomed attempt to conceal their deep-seated hostility to the very principle of gay equality. For in fact, of course, they simply cannot abide it. They despise it. They are frightened by it. The policy of the Bill's most vociferous opponents is driven not by considerations of reason, logic or fairness, but by considerations of paranoia and prejudice. Such an approach should be thoroughly denounced and rejected.
The Tory party cannot just sit on the fence. We have to take a stance; we cannot be on both sides. It is no use simply saying, "Oh yes, we recognise the disadvantages and discriminations suffered by gay individuals and couples, and we think that something should be done, so perhaps there is something to be said for supporting the Bill," only then to be happy to participate in a cynical cabal with Members of another place, effectively to undermine the Bill and probably to destroy it. It is wrong in itself to behave in that way. It feeds the very cynicism about the political process that damages each and every one of us in this Chamber and beyond, and ultimately, such behaviour gets found out. It is a profound insult to the electorate's intelligence to think that we can behave in that way without their latching on to it. People are not stupid—they will see when someone is speaking with forked tongue.
My personal view is that it is not good enough for my own party, of which I have been and remain a proud member—indeed, I have been a member of it for 25 years—to argue that we can retreat underneath the comfort blanket of a free vote. No, I am afraid that that will not do. We on the Conservative Benches still have a great deal to prove. No member of the current shadow Cabinet voted on
I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition, who said in his speech at the Saatchi Gallery at the end of October last year that he wanted the Conservative party to be a party capable of representing all Britain and all Britons. He is right. We could start on the road to achieving that objective by voting with enthusiasm and en masse for this Bill in this House.
We have to decide whether we are to be a 21st century party. Of course that involves removing discrimination, but it involves more than that. It involves Conservatives ceasing to pat themselves on the back by saying, "Isn't it good that we preach and practise tolerance?". In the end, the debate is not about tolerance, but about respect—respect for the unique dignity of every individual, respect for all our fellow human beings, respect for the principle of equality before the law and respect for the call for parity of esteem.
To those who say, "You have changed your tune", I say, "Yes, I have changed my tune", like my hon. Friend Mr. Key, and I make no apology for it. The person who never changes his or her mind is the person who never learns anything. I am perfectly prepared to recognise the error of some of my past ways, but I passionately believe in the cause of human equality and social justice. There could be no better signal for the Conservative party to send than the fact that it has changed for the better and changed for good by adopting support for civil partnership as its official policy and giving the Bill, in its original and unadulterated form, the unequivocal blessing that it certainly deserves.
This has been a very heartening afternoon, and it is particularly heartening to follow Mr. Bercow, who eloquently articulated the reasons why the amendments passed in the other place have to be removed. I had thought myself perhaps a little cynical about the motives of those who tabled those amendments, but the hon. Member for Buckingham has made me realise that I am absolutely justified in my cynicism about them.
It is heartening to achieve a piece of social reform, which I am confident that we are going to do. It is a fine Bill. I quote Stonewall, who called it a "thorough and far-reaching" Bill. It is not often that organisations that we work with outside the House say such things. It is a ringing endorsement and something to be treasured.
With a few exceptions—perhaps the medieval wing of the Conservative party—everyone in the House is united on the need to finish addressing the outstanding inequalities and discriminations that our society has been carrying for far too long. The Bill not only brings us up to parity with all the civilised countries of Europe and the rest of the world, but almost completes an ambitious agenda for change on inequalities that the Government—and Stonewall—set out when we came to office in 1997. We abolished section 28 and so on and so forth—and now this Bill. All I can think that we will be left with when the Bill completes its passage is addressing discrimination in goods and services. If we do that, we will all have to think very hard to find anything else necessary to complete the package. When that happens, it will reflect extremely well on Parliament.
It is heartening that the Government have introduced this measure and it is heartening to hear the thoughtful and considered contributions of Conservative Front Benchers and other Conservative Members.
It is evident that a sea change is under way on the Opposition Benches. Over the past few years, this Government have set about reforming the homophobic elements in our law, some of which were put in place by hon. Members who are members of the current Opposition. Indeed, I seem to remember that it was the current Leader of the Opposition who introduced section 28, but I suppose that he has reformed now so perhaps we should gloss over that for the moment.
No, that is right.
I shall not speak for long as the debate has been very comprehensive, and has covered all the technicalities very well. Various hon. Members have referred to the important matter of pensions, and it would be a great pity if the Bill were to be undermined by the fact that it contained a serious flaw in respect of inequality of treatment for survivors of those in public sector occupational pension schemes.
I and other hon. Members have drawn up amendments to deal with that problem. There is no need to set out the arguments involved, as that has already been done. In her opening remarks, my right hon. Friend the Minister indicated that the Government were considering correcting that defect. I hope that when she winds up the debate she will say that the anomaly will be corrected and that the amendments that we have prepared will therefore be rendered superfluous. We should be only too happy not to have to table those amendments and to give the Bill's Second Reading a ringing endorsement in the Division later this evening. The Bill is capable of improvement in various ways, but the important thing is that it will offer people equal treatment. That is its entire purpose.
I am pleased to have been able to say a few words on this very pleasant afternoon. I am glad to see that the Conservative party is changing and that its rational wing is starting to win over the medieval wing.
At the beginning of the debate, the Minister agreed with me when I said that 86 per cent. of the people in Northern Ireland who responded opposed what is planned with this Bill. I shall direct my remarks to Northern Ireland, as this Bill will apply there.
Any part of the UK that is affected by legislation coming from this House should be given fair play. However, this Bill was printed on
The day after the amendments were published, the Bill went before the House of Lords. All the amendments were passed with virtually no scrutiny. So the final say, as far as Northern Ireland was concerned, was without consultation, because the amendments were tabled after the original Bill was published.
The census of 2001 found only 288 same-sex couple households in the whole of Northern Ireland. The Government say that only 5 per cent. of same-sex couples will commit to civil partnerships. Well, 5 per cent. of 288 is 14, so 14 couples in Northern Ireland will have the opportunity provided by the Bill, even though a majority of people who have a view on the matter across the political and religious divide oppose it. Their voices were not heard or taken into account. The basis of family law in Northern Ireland is to be changed for the sake of 14 homosexual couples.
More than 80 per cent. of the adult population in Northern Ireland are married or single, never having been married. The divorce rate in Northern Ireland is much lower than in England and Wales. The Government say that the Bill will remedy hardships in Northern Ireland. According to the census, there are 330 times more house sharers in Northern Ireland than people living as homosexual couples. However, those house sharers will not have their burdens eased or lifted by the Bill. The Government should come clean and tell us when they will legislate so that everybody who takes on responsibilities in their homes will be treated the same legally. It is essential that we have a response to that from the Government tonight.
My views on this matter are clear. I believe in the divine sanctity of marriage. I believe that marriage is a solemn and holy thing. A country that does not uphold the institution of marriage strikes at its own heart. The home is the building block of society. If we do not have good, moral and righteous homes, the nation will suffer. We must realise that.
Many comments have been passed today. We have been told that some of us have not grown up yet. Well, I grew too much because I had a lot of orange juice when I was a baby. It does not matter whether we are told that we have not grown up or are medieval; we have convictions and we are entitled to hold them as strongly as we can. When it comes to legislating for Northern Ireland, I trust that the Government will treat us in the same way as they treat the rest of the United Kingdom. If a Scottish Member got up and revealed the same record on a Bill as I have just done, there would be some row. The same applies to any English or Welsh Member. Why is Northern Ireland treated in this shoddy way on an important issue on which its people have expressed a definite opinion? I trust that that will not be repeated.
I am delighted to be able to follow that speech, although perhaps we shall now have to refer to Rev. Ian Paisley as the orange juice man. I have to tell him that I suspect that there are rather more than 288 homosexual couples living together in Northern Ireland. I suspect that they are very reluctant to admit to the fact, owing to some of the bigotry that they have had to face in Northern Ireland over the years.
I am also glad to have the opportunity to speak in the debate as I have probably married more people than anybody else in the Chamber, because I spent six years in the Church and performed weddings on most Saturdays. I congratulate the Government not only on the Bill as I hope it will end up, nor only on the Bill as they presented it in the House of Lords, but just as important, on the steady process whereby they have tried to achieve consensus on legislation to right wrongs that have existed for years and for centuries.
We have heard some excellent speeches this afternoon. Mr. Duncan is not in his seat, but many of us agree with Members who have already said that his was one of the finest speeches we have heard on the subject. Many people who have campaigned on the issue for many long years, in the Chamber and in the wider community, have already spoken: my hon. Friends the Members for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) and for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths, and my hon. Friend Mrs. Roche, who advanced the measure when she held ministerial office.
It has been good to have some converts over the years. The Lord rejoiceth in the one who changes more than the 99 who were with us in the first place, so it is good to have the hon. Members for Salisbury (Mr. Key) and for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) on our side.
There has been only one particularly difficult note—the one struck by Mr. Chope. I think in the final words of his speech he was deliberately offensive not only to those who support the Bill but, more important, to those in the country who feel that their rights will be established by it. It is a shame that the Tory party is still somewhat AC/DC on the issue, but I hope that we shall see further change in the direction that the hon. Member for Buckingham urged on his party earlier.
The points that the hon. Gentleman makes are fair. I readily acknowledge that I am very late to the issue. All that I ask him to recognise is that after discovering the error of my earlier ways, I have spent the last four and a half years on the course of discovery of the merits of sexual equality.
I am more than happy to put it on the record that the hon. Gentleman has been one of the most assiduous campaigners on the issue since I entered this place, and for some considerable time before. After confession there is always a period of penance, and I fear that the hon. Gentleman is still at that stage.
The Bill, when it has been changed back to its original form, will be about loving, same-sex couples, who want to make a commitment to one another and who accept not only the rights that civil partnership will give them, but its responsibilities. I know that each of the three parts of that sentence is difficult for some of the people who oppose the Bill. Some people believe that because love is ordained by God, it is impossible for same-sex couples to love one another. I defy them to meet some of the people I know, who have lived together for many years, in sickness and in health, and have provided one another, and sometimes children in their care, with the kind of love and support from which many other families could learn much. If they still said that same-sex couples could not love one another, they would be blind in their hearts.
There are also people who believe that same-sex couples who love one another cannot make a commitment to one another. That is a vital point; it is made by those who believe that the Bill will, somehow or other, undermine marriage. I simply do not see that point. I do not see how giving rights to one set of people would undermine the rights of others. Indeed, I have always believed as a Christian that the whole point of love is that it should be based on commitment. The Bill allows people to make a public statement of commitment to one another and stand by it. That must be something that not only those who have a liberal attitude to life but every Christian in the land can support.
The third part of the sentence that some people will find difficult to accept is that loving same-sex couples who want to make a commitment to one another will be prepared to accept rights and responsibilities. Let us face it, there will be same-sex couples who have lived together for many years but do not want to form civil partnerships because they bring with them a set of responsibilities. There will be those who will be troubled by the fact that they will lose some financial benefits; that they will not be able to claim all the benefits to which they have up to now been entitled as two individuals; that they will be treated as a couple. I suspect that they, just like those who intend to be married according to the rites of the Church of England, will not enter into civil partnerships lightly but after sober reflection. That is another strong point in favour of the Bill.
Of course there will be people who will think, "I may be in a relationship, but I can call time on it at the flick of a switch. If I enter into a civil partnership, we will have to follow a legal process in order to separate." Of course that will create further responsibilities for those who enter civil partnerships.
The Bill is also about rectifying a series of injustices. Many hon. Members have referred to the fact that partners who have been together for many years and looked after each other at home in sickness and in health find that when one partner goes into hospital they suddenly lose the right to have any say over what medical support is provided.
When I was curate in High Wycombe, I used to visit patients in the local hospital. It was not uncommon to meet people who had been prevented by the parents of their partner even from visiting the person whom they loved and had lived with for many years. This was at the time when HIV/AIDS was new and many people did not have much understanding of it. Many parents blamed the illness on their son's partner. I am glad to say that the world has moved on for many families, but still that injustice exists.
The injustice is compounded if there is a death. The bereaved partner is often excluded from the funeral arrangements. I have conducted countless funerals that the partner was not even allowed to attend, and many at which the partner was forced to sit right at the back and not take part, and no mention was made of the relationship. Sometimes the bereaved partners had to have separate ceremonies because the families took precedence over the partner. That was caused by bigotry in many cases, and it led to injustice that was allowed by the law.
As other hon. Members have mentioned, many bereaved partners are made homeless. They may be unable to inherit their own home without penalty, but that applies to only 5 per cent. of estates. Many find that they cannot carry on the tenancy that was in their partner's name. Similarly, survivors have had no rights to a partner's pension. That has been a significant issue for many lesbian couples. Two women living together may have child care responsibilities. One of them may not work throughout her economically active life and reach retirement age without having acquired any pensionable service of her own. Bearing in mind the fact that many women are paid considerably less than men, the issue of poverty and rectifying injustice is important. Similarly, same-sex couples are treated differently in law from married couples when it comes to providing evidence in court. We should right that injustice because it puts another strain on relationships that is not there for married couples.
Domestic violence laws apply differently to same-sex and married couples. That is another injustice that we should put right in the Bill. There was a time when it was presumed that, somehow or other, a same-sex couple could not have been violent to each other; but of course, that is a major issue, not only between two men, but between two women. We should ensure that that injustice is put right.
The greatest injustice of the lot is that people have no recognition of the fact that they are two people who live together, sharing their lives. The Bill will put right that injustice.
I want to say a few words about the Lords amendments—an issue which has been rehearsed at some length already this afternoon. I noted that, in the House of Lords, one of the obsessions of some Tory Members was with inheritance tax. I confess—this is one of the few partisan points that I will make—that having watched a lot of the Tory party conference last week, I was bewildered at how obsessed the Tory party is with inheritance. I am not sure whether that is because they all form part of the 5 per cent. whose estates might fall liable to inheritance tax, or because they are worried about dying off, given that they are so elderly. Either way, the inheritance tax issue is one of the largest red herrings—in fact, it is a red cod or a red tuna fish—in the middle of the Bill. I refer to how those amendments relate not to same-sex couples, but to carers, and to the speech by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton.
Let us be frank about this. Does the hon. Gentleman not appreciate the fact that two people who have shared their lives, not necessarily in a sexual union as in the Bill, may face problems when one partner dies, either with the tenancy or ownership of a house, because of inheritance tax, and that it is as well, separate from the Bill, to try to find a way to remedy that?
There may be situations in which the hon. Gentleman is right, but the inheritance tax issue is a red herring when applied directly to the Bill, except in so far as it applies to same-sex partners, where we ought to rectify the problem now.
I believe that those who tabled the amendments in the Lords were seeking to wreck the Bill. That is not to say that everyone who voted for those amendments did so to wreck the Bill. They did so ill-advisedly because those amendments would not even rectify the injustice that they believed to exist. As the hon. Member for Buckingham has said, those amendments would not improve the situation of carers. In fact, it would make their situation far worse in many cases.
We have only to look at the bona fides or the track records of those who tabled the amendments in the Lords. Lord Tebbit's views on homosexuality are extremely well known. He aired them on the "Today" programme, when I heard one of the most bizarre things that I have heard in all my life: he said that one of the major causes of childhood obesity in this country was the Government's promotion of buggery. That was one of the most extraordinary leaps. It even put Mr. Johnson into deep shock. So we know Lord Tebbit's bona fides.
Baroness O'Cathain's views on homosexuality seem similar. She has taken up the mantle that was cast upon her, Elijah-like, by Baroness Young in opposing section 28. So we know exactly what her aim was; she declared it very openly in moving her amendments. Incidentally, I thought she was wrong to press them to a vote because that showed that they were not about simply airing the issues, but specifically about trying to wreck the Bill. Let us be honest: some people think that homosexuality is wrong and a sin.
I am somewhat saddened, incidentally, that several hon. Members have immediately left the Chamber after speaking in the debate, without listening to the rest of the debate. That is a rather surprising change in custom in the House.
The amendments tabled in the Lords are particularly maladroit. They would be of no use to carers. Clause 2(1) is particularly bizarre in its wording. When I started to read it, I almost expected it to end with the words, "and they must be accompanied by both their grandparents", because it seems to take the proverbial mickey out of the rest of the Bill. The curious thing is that that amendment was allowed to be tabled because it is wholly without the scope of the Bill. I am surprised, on a constitutional point, that it was allowed to be tabled.
There are a number of aspects of the Bill in addition to the wrecking Lords amendments that should be reformed. The Bill currently presumes that there will be no ceremony, but I agree with hon. Members who think that it would be entirely appropriate for the two people who sign a civil partnership to make a statement to the effect that they are not legally barred from entering a civil partnership and that they consent to doing so. Beyond that, they should be entitled to have whatever ceremony they wish, which would parallel the provisions in the Marriage Act 1949 and thus make sense.
Is my hon. Friend aware that changes are currently taking place to the registration of birth and deaths, but that consideration of marriage registration is being deferred so that note can be taken of the final state of the Bill? The type of ceremony to which he refers may well be considered.
My hon. Friend makes a good point that I was about to address.
It is also a mistake to prohibit a religious service of any kind at the signing of a civil partnership. The provision in the Bill is virtually identical to section 45(2) of the 1949 Act, which states that no religious service shall be used at the solemnisation of a civil marriage. However, that provision is wrong in itself because it means that many registrars refuse to allow couples who want to marry in a civil ceremony rather than a church to use any religious readings. Although many people would like readings such as 1 Corinthians 13 or something from Khalil Gibran, registrars refuse to allow such words to be used. I would like the provision to be removed from the Bill and section 45(2) of the 1949 Act to be similarly repealed.
The hon. Gentleman is arguing his point of view powerfully, but I am not sure that both sets of Front Benchers will welcome his remarks, because we were informed earlier that neither were in favour of gay marriages and that we were not considering a gay marriage Bill. However, the hon. Gentleman is eloquently arguing for exactly that, so people should realise that that would be the next step.
The hon. Gentleman is completely mistaken, and I hope that I do not have to repeat this too often. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton made a good proposition about parallel lines. I do not want same-sex relationships to ape marriage in any sense—several people have used the offensive phrase—because they are different. Although the two share similar elements, they do not have to be identical, so the legal provisions should be distinct.
I have much sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Does he agree that the nature of a real relationship might suggest that people will want it to be celebrated or blessed?
Indeed, and the hon. Gentleman prompts me to mention a third aspect of the Bill that I would like to change.
There are churches and individual clergy in the Church of England and the Church of Scotland who would be happy to provide a blessing. There are clergy in many of the churches who would be more than desirous of the opportunity to hold a blessing in their churches. It is thus curious that the Bill will prohibit any kind of religious service or ceremony from taking place in religious premises. The provision's drafting is rather odd because some churches meet in gyms or halls and thus would not be covered by the current wording, so that might need tidying up. However, such matters are not ones of enormous principle and they can be debated in Committee.
One remaining issue of principle is pensions. To put it simply, as others have already done, if Jean were to marry John next week, the full pensionable service of Jean since 1988 would be taken into consideration for his widower's pension if she should die. However, as things stand, if Jean and Janet were to form a civil partnership, the benefit would, according to Baroness Hollis, accrue only from the date of the Bill. I hope that the Government will manage over the next 10 days to offer surviving civil partners parity with widowers' pension arrangements. I hope that the Minister's words were tending in that direction and that they might tend even further in that direction by the end of the day or the end of next week.
I note, incidentally, that as far as I can see, the only people for whom the Bill guarantees parity are the surviving civil partners of a Speaker of the House of Commons or the Prime Minister. I am not sure whether we have any particular idea in mind as to who either of those people will be in the near future, but I thought that that provision was rather curious.
It seems that it is the hon. Gentleman's ambition to have a civil partner to whom he can grant a surviving pension, although it is not clear whether that would be as the Speaker or the Prime Minister.
Having borne those issues in mind, I wholeheartedly welcome the cross-party support. That is important. The issue is not acrimonious in the country and many people will benefit from it. However, I suspect that only a Labour Government would introduce such a measure—
The hon. Gentleman suggests that the Liberals might have introduced it, but that is stretching credulity too far because we would have to have a Liberal Democrat Government in the first place.
I am proud of the Labour Government's progressive record. To be honest, it is without peer in Europe. They abolished clause 28, introduced an equal age of consent and used the Parliament Act to enforce it. They legislated for joint adoption by gay couples, outlawed workforce discrimination and brought in a new category of homophobic hate crimes. The Government should be congratulated on that.
In the end, the Bill is about recognising a simple fact of life. It is not about setting up a new lifestyle, as Mr. Howarth claimed. It is not about persuading people to be gay or lesbian. It is not about proliferating homosexuality because, in truth, homosexuality is not something that we can proliferate. It is not something that we can be persuaded into. It is not an illness that we can catch. It is not a cancer that we can have excised. For roughly one in 10 people in this land it is simply a fact of life that they have to come to terms with. Now, at last—thank God—the law will recognise the fact of loving homosexual relationships. The whole of the UK will come to terms with a world in which two men or two women can love one another and make a commitment to one another, for richer and for poorer.
It is a great privilege to participate in the debate, which has been one of the most dignified and enlightening that I can remember. I am pleased to give my full support and backing to the Bill for the reasons that Chris Bryant summed up in his final sentence. He almost could have given up the first 23 minutes of his speech and just used that sentence in an extremely powerful and effective way.
I realise that that would have been entirely out of character.
The Bill is about fairness and justice. That is why it is so important. When I got married, like everyone else who has got married, I became eligible for certain rights and entitlements and, to go with that, certain responsibilities as well. So when one of us dies, the surviving spouse is entitled to inherent the family home and the family assets without being subject to inheritance tax. We can benefit from the other one's pension contributions, particularly in the circumstances of death. For those people who live in social housing, the tenancy would transfer automatically from one to the other without any question of whether that was right.
Marriage also brings with it certain entitlements that are so self-evident that it is not possible to conceive of the position being otherwise. For example, in the event of one spouse being injured in an accident, the other is entitled to give their opinion on what should happen and what is the appropriate medical treatment; they are entitled to visit their spouse in hospital without anyone being able to say, "You shouldn't be here—you're not entitled." A spouse can act as an active next of kin: my wife and I have to fill in a form for our children at school saying who should be called in the event of an accident, and we name each other as next of kin. That, to me, is so self-evidently right that it is inconceivable that it could be done in any other way.
Civil partnerships do not yet exist legally. If a partner in a relationship that will be eligible for a civil partnership were to die in a traffic accident today, his or her partner would have no right to make decisions in respect of organ donation. A person who has clearly indicated their wishes might have those wishes totally disregarded, even though their partner wants to adhere to those wishes.
I agree entirely. That sort of anomaly is not just unfair but absolutely barbaric. People who have committed themselves to one another over many years in an established loving relationship should not be denied the opportunity to be involved in such fundamental decisions. I simply cannot understand why those rights that I as a married man take entirely for granted, as does every married person, should not be extended to same-sex couples who have demonstrated the same degree of commitment and endorsed it by entering into a legally binding arrangement.
To correct that position is not, as some have suggested, to give extra rights to same-sex couples; it is simply to give them the same rights as heterosexual married couples who have made the same legally binding commitments to one another. Particularly powerful to me is one of the phrases that has been uttered by the Minister today, which was also used by Lord Alli in the House of Lords debate:
"Same-sex couples . . . are . . . invisible in the eyes of the law". —[Official Report, House of Lords,
That is not right, it is not how the law should work and it is an issue that we should address.
The whole House is concerned that many people have become disengaged from politics and from Parliament. One of the reasons that has happened to such an extent is that people see Parliament as too remote—they see it as a place that does not understand and is not interested in how they live their lives, and is too often involved in legislation that harms their interests as individual citizens.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's observations on the disconnect between Parliament and public. Does he not think that an eloquent and worrying illustration of that trend was expressed in the recent Populace survey published in The Times, which showed, in contrast to some of the antediluvian attitudes that still prevail in this Chamber, that 75 per cent. of respondents aged between 18 and 30 said yes, of course gay couples should have exactly the same rights as heterosexual couples?
My hon. Friend makes an entirely appropriate comment and one that I was about to make when he intervened. Our hon. Friend Mr. Key said that there was a generational dimension to the debate. Young people in their 20s, 30s and 40s want this House to look like the society in which they live. They want it to be a place where racism, sexism and issues of sexuality have no part to play—a place where we simply get on and discuss the issues as grown-up individuals, rather than as people who are stuck in the past. An entire generation cannot understand a Parliament or parties that do not think in that way. Mrs. Roche said that in years to come people will read this debate and say, "I wish I'd been there." I disagree: I think that they will read it and say, "What was all that about?" They will not understand why on earth we had to have this debate. The world in which they live is understanding and accepting. To them, debates about whether such things are right or wrong belong to an era to which they do not relate.
I echo the hon. Lady's praise for Stonewall. The dignified way in which its members have conducted the debate, using quiet persuasion and showing great understanding, is one of the reasons it has moved forward as it has. We all owe Stonewall a great debt of gratitude.
Is my hon. Friend aware that Stonewall brought enormous pressure to bear on British Airways to disown our noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain, who is a director of BA? She may be forced out because of the views that she honourably and honestly expressed in another place. Does my hon. Friend think that that was a good thing for Stonewall to have done?
Shareholders will decide whether our noble Friend is the right person to hold a position on that board. My hon. Friend says that she may be forced out. It is entirely legitimate in a democracy to make people aware of the views and the comments that others have expressed.
I shall take head-on the suggestion that is made, especially in the media, that the Bill confers unfair advantages on same-sex couples or that it panders to the gay agenda. In my role as shadow Minister with responsibility for young people, I have met different youth groups throughout the country. Sometimes they have been working in inner cities, sometimes they have been involved in colleges and schools and sometimes they have been working with young gays and lesbians. The most shocking things that I have heard have been about the abuse that young people face.
I heard a young lad in Brighton describe how he was beaten up in the streets simply because he was out with his partner. He was not doing anything that anyone in the heterosexual community would find it difficult to do. He was beaten up merely because he was out with his partner. I heard from a young kid in Leeds who had suffered constant homophobic bullying in school. When he, as an individual, finally fought back he was the one who was excluded. That was abominable. He was the victim. Bullied children are always the victims and they need Members of this place to stand up for them.
As people grow up they might find that they face difficulties and discrimination merely because of their sexuality—something with which they are not able to deal. There are those who have to go through the trauma of telling their families and friends that they are gay or lesbian, as a result of which they are often thrown out of their homes.
In my old role as chairman of the all-party group on homelessness I heard of 16-year-olds who had been kicked out of their homes because their parents were not prepared to accept their sexuality. I cannot understand people facing abuse throughout their daily lives because of their sexuality. We are right to address these issues, and we must put a stop to them.
People who happen to be gay or lesbian and play a role in public life end up finding that they can be gratuitously insulted because of their sexuality. Brian Paddick is the Assistant Metropolitan Police Commissioner. He is a fine and outstanding police officer. I often feel that the media think that they can give him a kicking and criticise him because he is an openly gay policeman. Such attitudes belong to a bygone era, and the Bill is part of kicking them into history.
The hon. Gentleman is making an outstanding contribution to the debate.
We need to clarify what we are talking about. Some people listening to us might think, "What are a few insults? Everyone receives a few insults. If you are a bit fat, you get a few insults. If you are losing your hair, you get a few insults. Perhaps people should get a bit tougher about these things."
Will the hon. Gentleman join me in congratulating the organisers of the MOBO awards, who said this year that records that incite murder and violence against gay people are completely unacceptable? We have been congratulating Stonewall—and deservedly so. I never thought that I would say this publicly, but I think that we should congratulate Peter Tatchell on what he has done in exposing the reggae artists who peddle this violence and hate and on forcing MOBO to have a belated but welcome change of heart.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Had those lyrics referred to the same incitement of violence towards old people, black people or women, the police would have taken action; they would have intervened. I am pleased that the MOBO awards organisers decided to take action and to say that such lyrics were not acceptable.
I wish to look at some important contributions that the Bill will make. The issue of inheritance has been discussed, and I am grateful to Stonewall for providing examples that bring it to life. Chris is in his 60s and has been with his partner for 40 years. After his retirement, he was told that he had renal cancer. As if it were not enough to fight a virulent form of cancer, he found that in the event of his death his partner would be forced to sell the home that they had shared for 25 years to pay death duties and other taxes. It is utterly wrong that someone who is fighting a terrible illness should have additional worries about whether his partner of many years will be treated fairly.
Stonewall also told us about the next of kin issue and the way in which people are affected. When Andrew's partner died, for example, he was excluded from decisions, as his partner's parents had never accepted him as their son's partner; they removed personal effects, including photographs, and Andrew was denied access to them. They sold the flat in which the couple had lived, and Andrew had no right whatsoever under legislation to challenge their decision. That is barbaric, and it is not right in any society. If the Bill ends such practices, we should all be happy.
Kate had a history of depression, and had been with her partner, Jo, for 10 years. Jo, however, found it virtually impossible to persuade the NHS to recognise her as Kate's next of kin and encountered homophobic reactions among some of Kate's relatives. In the end, she was forced to seek a power of attorney to get the rights to which she believed she was entitled.
We should all, therefore, welcome the fundamental changes that the Bill will bring about. I agree, however, with many of my colleagues and other Members that the amendments made in the Lords were a mistake, and should be reversed in Committee. I accept that people are anxious about the interests of interdependent relatives and other people who are living together, but the Bill is not the place to address those issues. I know that other Members wish to speak, so I shall conclude shortly, but the only people who will gain from the anomalies of such relationships are accountants, who will discover a new wheeze to prevent their rich clients from paying taxes. They will say, "We could advise you to move to the Bahamas or set up a family trust. However, we think you should encourage your 18-year-old son to live with his grandfather. When he is 30, he will inherit everything free of tax. The only problem, of course, is that if he dies soon afterwards and leaves the money to his stepson, who is also his father, a huge amount of tax will be payable." That will make a mockery of the system, so it should be swept away because it will not improve the lot of carers, whose position must be recognised and improved, or people who are in similar relationships for other reasons. The right place to address such concerns is a future Finance Bill, and I hope that the shadow Treasury team will introduce measures to achieve such changes.
Pensions are another concern. I am encouraged by the Minister's remarks that the Government will reconsider the issue, and I hope that in her winding-up speech she will say that the Government will introduce amendments to tackle the problem. If she does not, when the Bill goes into Committee, and if I am lucky enough to serve on it, I shall support measures that require equality provisions in public sector pensions to be made retrospective. That is entirely right and appropriate. If we say that we believe in equality only if it does not come with a price tag, that is not a genuine belief in equality. Equality sometimes has a cost attached to it, and we must recognise that and take it into account.
One of the reasons I am a Conservative is that I believe passionately in the rights of the individual, who should make decisions about their life and the way in which they want to live it. Governments should not become involved in such decisions unless they have a negative impact on other people. We should not be imposing a barrier to other people's happiness—and for what reason? Should we do so because people are living in a stable, loving relationship in which they have chosen to make a commitment for the rest of their lives as far as they can see? For heterosexuals, that arrangement is called marriage, but for same-sex couples, that option is not available. We must ensure through this Bill that such couples have the chance to have the same opportunities and rights.
We are dealing with an outdated restriction that is, at best, unfair and, in respect of next of kin, is barbaric and inhuman. I hope that we can take the issue of sexuality out of politics. I do not believe that there is such a thing as a gay vote. I think that parties can drive away the gay vote just as they can drive away the women's vote, the elderly vote or the black vote—my party has tried to do it quite effectively over the years—but there is no single issue that it can be said will win over the gay vote. However, addressing issues such as those in the Bill will ensure that those who are gay, lesbian or bisexual can look at issues in the round and vote for the party that they believe in because it is advocating the right policies on health, education and the economy, rather than make their choice because they think that sexuality continues to divide the parties.
One of the most important quotes from the memorable speech of my hon. Friend Mr. Duncan is his remark that the Government should intervene to stop people hurting each other, but not to stop people loving each other. Good people have been hurt for too long by the situation under the law as it currently exists. It is time that that was stopped, and this Bill is a chance to stop it.
It is a privilege to be called, even at this late hour, and to follow Charles Hendry, whose speech must have given great comfort to the Labour party with regard to the forthcoming election. I am sure that his remarks about driving away voters will be in the headlines.
Chris Bryant is not the only one in the House to have married people. Having done 25 years of parish work, I am possibly well ahead of him. He spoke of love, but we must bear it in mind that there are many types of love, so we must be careful about bandying that word around without thinking of its implications.
The other word that arises is "equality". I was fascinated by the fact that we are all carried away with the concept of equality. I could not help but think of the experience of a Presbyterian colleague of mine in a Samaritan hospital in Belfast, where one of his parishioners was in deep post-natal depression. Psychologists, psychiatrists and doctors were unable to do anything to help her. My colleague spent about 45 minutes with her trying to help. Finally, with a sense of despair, he said, "Well, we'll have a wee prayer before I go; these things come to all of us." At that, the woman started to laugh.
We are not equal. There are different issues, and one of the issues that we are debating is the fact that civil partnership is not merely civil partnership; it is giving recognition of something that some of us hold dear. I happen to be one of those—perhaps I am the only one in the House—who speaks having been put into the den of lions. A medical doctor and I had been invited to appear on the "Kelly" show in Belfast to deal with the question of homosexuality. We understood that two people on the panel would take the point of view of homosexuality, while the other two would take a different line. We thought that the audience would be a normal mixed audience, but it consisted completely of homosexual people. I had the privilege, for which I am thankful, of receiving letters of apology from members of that community, thanking me for the way in which I dealt with the programme and apologising for the way in which some people responded and acted.
When we talk about bigotry, we must remember that it is not one-sided. Even today, certain innuendos have been cast at some who may take a different line. It shows the kind of world in which we live—the real world—when an outside body tries to put pressure on a person who holds different views from it in order to remove that person from a directorship.
The hon. Member for Rhondda may have made one or two mistakes. There are different forms of theology, but I have never believed that penitence comes after repentance.
I watched the programme to which the hon. Gentleman referred. If we are ever to reach a settlement in Northern Ireland, it must be based on full equality and full justice. How can my political beliefs or those of the hon. Gentleman, however deeply and sincerely felt, prevent full equality and full justice for people because of their sexual orientation?
I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but we should bear it in mind that politics represents society. Rev. Ian Paisley made the point that 86 per cent. of people did not approve of the Bill before it was applied to Northern Ireland, but the Bill was suddenly extended to Northern Ireland on the ground of equality. For years, I pleaded for this House to pass legislation to give equal rights to disabled people in Northern Ireland, but it was regularly kicked into touch. If we deal with equality, we should do so across the board.
I am not convinced that the Bill will provide the rights mentioned by Charles Hendry. The financial issues could have been tackled differently, but Governments of both persuasions will always hesitate to introduce legislation that increases expense and makes them unpopular with taxpayers, and we must bear that issue in mind.
Mrs. Roche discussed goods and services and referred to Sandals. Have we reached the stage at which we introduce legislation that deals not with moral law, but with people's preferences, and that compels people to act in certain ways? If we go down that road, the legislation that we introduce will ultimately prove divisive. I have no time for homophobia, which is prevalent in all societies, but I am not convinced that the Bill will actually advance our response to young folk who hold such attitudes. Thankfully, many young people are beginning to react against the commercial side of sexuality, which is brainwashing our society.
The hon. Gentleman is sliding dangerously close to a view of homosexuality and young people from which I urge him to back off, because it will do his argument no good whatsoever. To return to his point about moral judgments, personal preferences and the law, does he accept that we legislate in a variety of other areas? If I ran a bed and breakfast and decided that I did not want to accommodate black people, it would be against the law, which we accept. Personal preferences and the law cross over, and we are here to make choices and pass legislation. We cannot stand back and say, "We should not get involved", because that is why we are here.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, which concerned a private boarding house.
We may discover that we are turning citizens into criminals and that we are putting people out of business and out of work, which may lead them to draw unemployment benefit.
The heart of the argument was expounded in Belfast by a representative of the homosexual community who said that in his opinion there is a difference between marriage, which is a sacrament, and civil partnership. There are those of us who believe that marriage is not a sacrament but an ordinance of God, and we wonder whether the state can continue to try to replicate the pattern that God has ordained.
This has been an interesting debate. I do not intend to disappoint my hon. Friends the Members for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), for Wealden (Charles Hendry) or for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan). I oppose the Bill in principle and feel just as passionately about that as those who have spoken in favour of it. I salute Mr. Borrow, who made a courageous speech with great dignity, and I respect him for his position. I hope that the House, which has overwhelmingly declared that it is in favour of the Bill, will nevertheless recognise that some of us have equally passionate beliefs on the other side of the argument. I am afraid that simply to throw epithets at us does the House no credit. Serious issues are involved and they deserve to be addressed.
Let me say at the outset that there is no question that any hon. Member would tolerate bullying of any description. The activities that my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden described are unacceptable to anybody, but they are nothing to do with the Bill. The fact that action has not been taken is regrettable, and those who have failed to do so should be upbraided.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could answer the question that I put to Miss Widdecombe: does the Bill contain parts that he can accept and parts that he cannot, or is he opposed to the whole concept? Many right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned specific injustices in the current situation. Which of those injustices would he be prepared to address?
I am opposed to the Bill in principle, because I am opposed to the creation of civil partnerships, but I shall turn later to some of the aspects that I readily understand.
So strong are my feelings about the principle of this matter that I have made common cause with Peter Tatchell, whose name has been mentioned. I supported Peter Tatchell when he was arrested by the Belgian authorities for rightly protesting against Mr. Mugabe when he visited Brussels. I have some wonderful letters from Peter Tatchell on file. The idea that people who are dealt with unfavourably by the police or bullied by their peers is acceptable is wrong and must be resisted with all the passion that we can muster.
Of course I readily accept that my hon. Friend is opposed to bullying of, or violence against, gays. He will recall, however, that he is on record as having said on
I shall assume that my hon. Friend thinks that I am extremely clever, as I know that he is a very generous man. I do not accept his point, and he is unfair in adducing those remarks to me. I cannot remember exactly what I said on
Hon. Members, including Front Benchers, are overwhelmingly in favour of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton is a veritable pocket battleship, and he made a very good speech. I did not agree with it, but I entirely respect his right to make it, and I am delighted that he did so in his personal capacity. If the chips were down and we were under fire, I would happily share a trench with my hon. Friend. I hope that he will take comfort from that.
If there is an overwhelming view in this Chamber, I do not believe the view outside to be the same. This is a highly controversial issue, and there are people outside who do not agree with civil partnerships. Furthermore, those people will be astonished that the Bill is being rammed through the House in the space of about 10 days. That is not the way to treat an issue of such major importance. Such people regard this Bill as gay marriage in all but name, and they simply think that that is wrong. They are our constituents, they are decent people—
If my right hon. and learned Friend does not mind, I will not, as I know that two of my hon. Friends still wish to participate in the debate.
These are decent people that I am talking about. They are not homophobes, bigots or any of the other epithets so readily thrown about. They are tolerant and generally neither inquire nor want to be told what other people do in the privacy of their own home. However, they recognise that our laws ought to have a moral basis. They also recognise that the law sends a moral signal, for good or ill.
The Government also believe that, which is part of their reason for pressing ahead with the measure. The plan to create civil partnerships was first announced in December 2002, when Mrs. Roche—I am sorry that she is not in her place at the moment, although she spoke earlier—who was then Minister for Social Exclusion, indicated that legal change was intended to force cultural change. She said:
"It would send a powerful message about the acceptability of same-sex relationships and about the unacceptability of the homophobia still far too prevalent in our society."
There is no room for middle ground in that statement: one either regards same-sex relationships as acceptable or one is homophobic.
People often say that one cannot use the law to force one's beliefs on other people, but clearly the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green does not accept that, and nor does her successor, the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality, who is in charge of civil partnerships and responsible for the Bill today. She issued a consultation paper in June last year. In her foreword, she announced that thousands of homosexual couples are
"living in exactly the same way as any other family".
Exactly the same way? That assertion is disputable.
Is it my hon. Friend's view that those who have religious objections to the Bill—the objections are primarily religious—are entitled to and should use the power of the House to impose those same religious views on people who may have no faith and who may not share those same religious views?
My view is that this is a Christian country and that all our laws are grounded in Christian tradition. As my hon. Friend Mr. Key said quite fairly, there is a difference of interpretation, and as time moves on, perhaps even more so. I am afraid, however, that I take the view that this is an overwhelmingly Christian country, that our laws must be founded on the Christian faith, and that it is right that bishops should sit in the other place. I support that.
There is no doubt that the Government are on a crusade. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence said in a debate on the armed forces that some measure was part of the Government's equality agenda. They want to force a cultural change on our society. To take lightly the deeply held convictions of so many people about the nature of marriage, and to try to force them to recant, is oppressive and dictatorial.
The issue is the nature of marriage, no matter what the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality may say. She has repeated the Government line, which is shared by my hon. Friends, that civil partnerships have nothing to do with marriage. I submit that that assertion has all the credibility of the Iraq dossier. It is gay marriage in all but name. Ministers cited the case in Brighton, where what has been called a "pink wedding list" is apparently being drawn up. Weddings are ceremonies that are associated with marriage—
My hon. Friend says from a sedentary position, "So what?", but the Government have asserted all along that civil partnerships are not gay marriage. I am sure that he fully accepts the concept of gay marriage, but the Government have said that this measure is completely different, although the Minister quoted with approval what was going on in Brighton. I shall not repeat the various clauses in the Bill that mirror exactly the provisions in relation to marriage, because we have discussed those at length.
All the newspapers call this gay marriage. I rarely quote The Guardian, but I shall at least quote what it said on
"The tabloids may go wild over 'gay marriages' and New Labour will no doubt shrink timidly from the phrase. But in truth, it will be a legal marriage in all but name."
Here in the Chamber, we must pretend that this has nothing to do with marriage in order to perpetrate a deceit on the public, but in fact, not everyone in the Labour party is on message. I gather that in March, the Labour website ran a picture of the Bill covered in confetti to illustrate the similarity to marriage.
It has been said frequently throughout the debate that the case for civil partnerships exists because the current law is unfair, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden and others have rightly drawn attention to people who found themselves in some difficulty and experienced injustice. I understand how they must feel, but as my noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain pointed out in the other place, there are other injustices as well. Her amendments were designed to draw to the public's and Parliament's attention the fact that the Bill sought to remedy one set of injustices without remedying another. It is no good certain of my hon. Friends and others who support the Bill saying, "Well, those are separate matters and we will deal with them later." These people feel that their injustice should have been dealt with. They wonder why homosexual couples should be treated favourably in this way, when the problems that they face have not been resolved.
Peers of all parties—despite the Labour party's efforts, I am told, to get their Members in the other place to vote against the amendment—took the view that if the Bill is meant to be about helping people living in co-dependent relationships, it should apply to two sisters and other family members who live together as adults for more than 12 years, as has been discussed. The noble Prelate the Bishop of Rochester said:
"If the intention of the Bill is really to address unfairness . . . rather than introduce social engineering through the back door, the Minister, the Government and noble Lords will have no hesitation in considering the amendments with sympathy."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 24 June 2004; Vol. 662, c. 1367.]
I suspect that it is less a case of the amendments being considered unworkable and more a case of their being unwanted. If the Government were serious about dealing with them, they would introduce proposals to ensure that the Bill was changed in such a way as to make the amendments workable.
Of course, certain of the difficulties that have been mentioned by Members from all parts of the House could be dealt with under existing law. For example, on inheriting tenancies, homosexual couples already have legal rights that other co-dependants do not. In 2003, the Court of Appeal held that two homosexuals should be treated as living together as husband and wife for the purpose of a statutory tenancy. The court gave the survivor a right to inherit his partner's flat.
I accept that genuine difficulties exist, and I should point out to the hon. Member for South Ribble that, like my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe, I feel that there are issues that ought to be addressed. But I do not believe that this Bill is the means by which to do so. Setting up an alternative to marriage—or a parallel to it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton suggests—is not the answer.
Let us be in no doubt: we are legislating for what Baroness Scotland accepted in the other place is a tiny fraction—5 or 10 per cent.—of a small proportion of the population. I remind the House of an old adage that may seem harsh, but is not intended to be so: sad cases make bad law. To legislate on the basis of the cases mentioned, and to create a whole new raft of law, consisting of 383 pages—[Interruption.] I repeat: these are sad cases, involving people who are in difficulty. The expression that I use is familiar in legal circles, as Ann McKechin, who is a lawyer, will know.
Many of the problems in today's society arise from the dysfunctional nature of the family and the breakdown of family life. We desperately need to do all we can to support and sustain marriage. I am opposed to the Bill because it sends out a false signal, particularly to young people, that somehow a homosexual relationship is an equally valid lifestyle. We shall see all the books coming out to support schools in their personal and social education, which will encourage children to believe that. I do not share that view; it is not the right thing to do.
The Bill permits children, whom virtually all the authorities concede should be brought up in a natural household of a man and woman, to be brought up in another form of household. Finally, the Bill creates inequalities to which Parliament should not be party, so I shall oppose it.
I should like to make two points briefly so that my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh can also contribute to the debate. I intend to vote against the Bill and I shall briefly explain my two reasons for doing so.
First, the Bill is unfair. It purports to overcome inequality, but it introduces inequality where there was none before. It gives preference and advantages in law to homosexual couples over and above other same-sex couples, which is unjustifiable.
I listened to the opening speeches and noticed that the Minister repeatedly used the term "homosexual", so it is clear that the Bill's provisions are intended for homosexuals, though I cannot remember whether the precise terms "gay" or "lesbian" were used. I cannot claim to have read every page of the Bill, which is rather a weighty tome, but I saw no reference to homosexuality in it. It refers simply to "same-sex couples", so I am left wondering whether platonic same-sex couples are excluded.
The impression was created that two women who have been lifelong friends living in the same home and sharing a life together would not be subject to the Bill's provisions. I hope that the Minister will clarify that point, because she gave the impression that the Bill would exclusively benefit homosexual couples. If that is not the case, it puts a whole different slant on the matter. In any case, who apart from the two involved can possibly know the nature of a personal relationship? Some heterosexual opposite-sex marriages are platonic and two homosexual people can live together and share a home even though they are not involved in a personal relationship with one another. There are other variations on the theme. I therefore ask the Minister how eligibility for civil partnerships will be established, given that it is virtually impossible to know the real relationship between any two people.
The civil partnership provisions, as presented by the Minister, are unfair. Unamended, the scheme will apply only to gays and lesbians, and other house sharers will be excluded. Would two elderly ladies living together for most of their lives have to affect to be homosexual in order to gain the advantages in law as described in the Bill? Would one of two sisters sharing a house over a long period incur inheritance tax when the other dies? Under the Bill, if a homosexual couple registered their partnership, even after a few months, one would inherit tax free if a partner died. That amounts to an injustice where there was none before.
I suggest that the Bill is unnecessary. Let us get back to its purpose. If it is to overcome injustices regarding tax benefits, pensions and so forth, I concede that it is right to deal with such injustices, but I am not persuaded that the Bill is the proper device for doing so. If the purpose is purely to overcome those injustices, civil partnerships per se are unnecessary. If it is to provide legal recognition for civil partnerships by creating a pseudo-marriage, that amounts to an entirely different purpose. The traditional family provides the basis for a stable society and the procreation of children. The Bill rests on the view that marriage and same-sex partnerships are equivalent or the same, but I do not believe that they are.
It is difficult to summarise the debate from the point of view of the mediaeval wing of the Conservative party. We are accused of many things—of being homophobes and the rest of it—but I believe that we have a point of view that we are perfectly entitled to express. I must admit that I was surprised by the suggestion made by one of my hon. Friends in his closing remarks that the Conservative party as a whole was trying to turn away women, or people who are black or gay. Nothing is further from the truth. We are the party of all Britons. We want people to vote Conservative because they believe in freedom, the nation state, strong defence, deregulation or any of the other things that conservatism is about. We have as much right to speak up as anyone else.
Our present marriage laws discriminate against many people. Our existing law discriminates against gay people who wish to leave property to each other, but it also discriminates against sisters, uncles or nephews and many others who want to do the same. Yet it is not so much that the present law discriminates against those people as that it discriminates in favour of marriage. It is neutral about other relationships, but discriminates in favour of marriage because that is what has happened in every society and nation in history.
On the walls of every register office, it is stated that marriage is about a permanent union between a man and wife, to the exclusion of everyone else. All through history, societies have taken the view that that was necessary, and it was John Locke who said that marriage was mankind's first society.
Marriage is the building block of society. Over the centuries, Parliament has taken the view that we should discriminate in favour of marriage. We do not want to discriminate against anyone else—not sisters, brothers, uncles, nephews, stepsons or grandfathers, grandsons or gay people. We want to discriminate in favour of the building block that is marriage.
No, as I have been told that I have very little time.
I have explained my concern about this Bill. We need a corpus of marriage law, and we have one. I have personal views about marriage. For many years, I have said that we must try to sustain it, just as I have argued against easier divorce laws, but that is a subject for another debate.
We must now create another corpus of law, either with this Bill or with a Finance Bill, to relieve the unfair burden placed on people who have lived together a long time and who want to leave pension rights or property to each other, or who want to visit each other in hospital or enjoy all the other benefits that have been mentioned today. Whatever such a Bill might be called—the Sharing of Long-Term Domicile Bill is one possibility—it would allow us to do what the Government want to do with this Bill.
The Government have tried to pull our heart strings on this matter. We have heard powerful stories about people called Chris or Rex, and about people who have been living together for 40 years who want to leave their property to each other but who cannot. We realise that that is unfair in the modern world. It is unfair that sisters who have lived together for many years in a non-sexual relationship should be placed in such difficulty and it is a problem that we must address.
I accept that the amendments passed by the House of Lords may be unworkable in their present form. I am trying to put my argument in an honest way but if the Government are serious about addressing anomalies that hit people who have been living together for a long time, they should use this Bill or the Finance Bill to introduce proposals that could work to help such people. The Bill as it stands does not provide that.
We are not homophobes or anything like that, but we are saying that this Bill does not do what the Government seem to want it to do. We must be honest about these matters. Chris Bryant made an honest speech, in which he gave a powerful exposition of his point of view. There is no doubt that there are people in this House who believe that gay people should be allowed to go through a form of marriage. If they love each other and have made a commitment to each other, why should gay people be denied something called marriage when the rest of us are allowed it? However, a person would have to be utterly credulous to believe that, by enabling people to register a civil partnership at a register office and by providing that a long-term relationship can be ended only after it has suffered irredeemable breakdown—in other words, by replicating what is contained in our ordinary marriage laws—we are not creating a form of gay marriage.
Why cannot we be honest about it? It will come and the next step will be for the gay community to insist—rightly, in their view—that gay marriage be recognised, that it should be an offence to attack homosexuality and that it should be taught in schools on equal terms. That is the agenda. Let us not be mealy-mouthed about it. That is why the mediaeval wing of the Conservative party, as we have been described, is standing foursquare against the Bill and why we will vote against it tonight. We believe that by voting against the Bill, we send a powerful message that there are still people in this House who are prepared to stand up for traditional values because they believe passionately that such values are the building blocks of a just, fair and right society.
Back to reform, now. This has been a fascinating and full debate. It has spoken for itself and will need only reasonably crisp and succinct winding-up speeches. Indeed, there is no time for more.
I shall draw on one or two speeches without, I hope, invidiousness, because they have all been of high quality. I was delighted by the speech of my hon. Friend Mr. Duncan from the Front Bench. He spoke with great fervour, a round appreciation of the issues and clarity of mind. It was a good start from our side. Mrs. Roche spoke with great authority and commitment to the cause of equality generally and to the elimination of discrimination. She will not be surprised to learn that I agree with many of her sentiments, although not all of them in detail. It is important that we make social progress in this area and that my colleagues recognise that such progress has been made.
My hon. Friend Charles Hendry made a distinguished speech and I also commend the passion and articulacy of my hon. Friend Mr. Bercow. As he occasionally admits in public, I can claim to have had a hand in his conversion, but I cannot be responsible for the ongoing consequences in relation to his speech this evening.
The Conservative party will allow a free vote on the issue and I will support the Bill tonight. Those of my hon. Friends who do not share my view of the Bill and will not join us in the Lobby have made progress in the sense that they have admitted that gay people in relationships face problems. However, my hon. Friends argue that others face problems with their tax position and so on, as mentioned in the debate.
My hon. Friend Mr. Leigh quoted John Locke. It may well be that marriage is the building block of society, but that does not mean that we cannot have civil partnerships as a secondary underpinning of society, for those who expect to require them. The two are not mutually exclusive and that is the fulcrum of the differences in this debate.
I have three points to make specifically and I shall then make some more general comments in conclusion. All three points draw on my previous experience of the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which addressed many of the same issues. That Act has not been mentioned today, but if the Bill were not passed it would lead to an invidious situation for persons affected by that Act. I have a constituent who has been married for several years but has undergone gender reassignation. That person may now apply for a gender recognition certificate, but if they do so their marriage is automatically voided. However, they wish to continue the loving relationship that they have had for many years. It would be intolerable not to afford them the opportunity to take out the parallel of a civil partnership to recognise that new position. Indeed, they have lobbied me on that point and have kept in touch with me throughout the passage of the Bill.
We touched on my second point when we discussed gender recognition, and it is also relevant to the Bill, so I hope that the Committee will consider it. It is important to be certain that the Bill is sufficiently alert to developing issues of private international law, especially relating to jurisdiction. As has been said in several quarters, a large number of European and other states have adopted legislation on civil partnerships that is similar to the Bill. Persons in civil partnerships will come to the UK and may establish businesses or work in this country, so it is extremely important that their rights are recognised and to some extent anticipated by our law and that we do not find ourselves in the European Court for non-compliance on the ground of discrimination. I advise Ministers to keep that point firmly in mind.
A third issue that I hope will be probed in Committee is the need to iron out any remaining disparities between civil partnerships and marriage. The two are distinct, but it is perfectly proper that they be parallel and as near identical as possible in terms of what they convey. To my more sceptical friends, I say that I feel strongly that the Bill is about conveying rights and although there may be certain privileges, or consequences in terms of benefits, that flow from those rights, they are secondary to the main purpose. I think that Ministers are aware that if their objective is to secure those rights through a parallel process, they should make clear tonight and in Committee how those rights will be pursued. That consideration applies not only to the points that have been made in many places about occupational pensions, where I have sympathy, but is also true in respect of the financial implementation of those rights. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell the House something about the first convenient or available Finance Bill and the timetable to bring in the validation of those rights.
Those three points have not always featured in debate. What has inevitably featured extensively is the tranche of amendments moved by my noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain, which cause real difficulty for the Bill, so I shall have no problem if the Government want to remove them in Committee. The difficulty is partly practical. For example, what would be the situation of three sibling sisters living together? Could they conclude a simultaneous civil partnership with each other, or if not, which of them would be excluded and on what grounds? The mind boggles.
It is also important to remember that whereas rights can be extended to groups through the civil partnership—indeed, it is part of the essence of the case against civil partnership put by some who have briefed us that it affects only a small number of people—by the same token, if the whole complex of family relationships and carers is included, the cost of any action taken would probably escalate by one or two orders of magnitude. We should be dealing not with a small amelioration of unfairness, or the ironing out that I described, but with an almost unsustainable financial consequence.
It is of course entirely right, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition has indicated in correspondence and as we have said during the debate, that we should look at action to remedy or improve the position of carers and family members through a Finance Bill. That is the right place to argue the point, having regard to the costs and resources available and the precedents for it. Such provision should not be used to obstruct or get in the way of the thrust of the Bill's equality legislation for civil partnerships.
I have some personal comments, which in a sense drive my support for the Bill. The nation, Parliament and society more generally have been on a rather long journey—as have I—and the Bill represents one of the final steps. Alongside the parallel evolution of discrimination and equality law—I have already indicated my sympathy with that broad approach and my continuing interest in it—I would describe what has happened since the Wolfenden report in 1959 through the 1960s and on through the 40 years to today as the conversion of our legal approach from the old prescriptive and even literally penal ways that we practised to an approach based on respect for the individual and the choices that he or she wishes to make.
Perhaps, taking the debate away from the Bill, the single most interesting and encouraging event in recent weeks has been the combined resistance of European Union countries to Turkey's proposed penalisation of adultery, which goes absolutely in the opposite direction and is not acceptable according to modern standards. Slowly but surely in western Europe and more widely in the western world, both among professed Christians and those of other faiths and no faith, we have come to cast off an approach based over the centuries on prescribing what people should do in their private lives and instead we have moved towards providing an acceptable institutional framework to enable individuals to pursue their lives by their own lights and to pursue their own relationships.
There remain entrenched—we have heard them today—overt and, perhaps more interesting, covert beliefs and habits that are hostile to gay relationships. Yet, and I say this as someone who has had 35 years in Christian marriage and has children and grandchildren—I celebrate that—I hope that I can recognise now the validity of the wish of my friends and the friends of my children who happen to be gay to enshrine their loving and faithful relationship in law. That is what the Bill is about. Simply, the time has come for all of us, but for my party as well, to learn to stop frustrating and even demonising individuals and instead to give them the space and encouragement to make their own life choices. That is the basis of my approach as a Conservative and of my support for this legislation tonight.
I congratulate Mr. Boswell on an emotional winding-up statement and one that clearly identifies the journey that he has made in accepting the situation that we are discussing tonight. We have had a valuable debate. Seldom in this House over my short period in it have I heard such a thoughtful and thought-provoking debate. I say that in all sincerity to those people who perhaps do not accept the point of view that the Government are putting forward this evening.
I make it clear from the outset that we are not here to denigrate or undermine anybody's deeply held religious beliefs. We are here to discuss a secular arrangement for a commitment that two people make. I hope that we will gain, if not universal support, then significant support for that in this House. I am particularly pleased with the overall support for the principle of the Bill and the recognition of the inherent value and humanity of committed same-sex relationships.
Throughout today we have heard some outstanding speeches, and I want to comment on one or two of them. My hon. Friend Mr. Borrow made a brave contribution to the debate today. It is very difficult to describe in the Chamber of the House of Commons in the full glow of publicity our own personal living circumstances, but he did so with great dignity. He also highlighted the fact that we are not talking about anonymous beings; we are talking about real people with whom we live and work.
I also congratulate Mr. Duncan on his personal support for the Bill and on relaying the Leader of the Opposition's support. We divide on political grounds in many debates in the House, but I was absolutely delighted to hear about both his own support and that of the Leader of the Opposition. I wish to deal with a couple of points that the hon. Gentleman made and perhaps to give him some reassurance. On the compression of time, there is not a major difficulty. We intend to get the Bill through Parliament; it is a flagship Bill, and we certainly hope that we will have maximum support for it. On the design of premises, we will have a further opportunity to discuss that issue in Committee. I hope that that gives some comfort to him.
I wish to pick up on the comments made by the hon. Members for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) and for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley). Although I obviously do not wish to challenge their theological approach—that is not the purpose of my contribution—I hope that hon. Members will agree that very strong equality and social justice imperatives drive the introduction of civil partnerships and that they apply equally to Northern Ireland as to the rest of the United Kingdom. It would be invidious to treat same-sex couples in Northern Ireland differently from same-sex couples in the rest of the United Kingdom even, with the greatest respect to the hon. Member for North Antrim, if there were only 14 of those couples in Northern Ireland.
I also wish to highlight the comments made by my hon. Friend Mrs. Roche. I congratulate her on her work as a Minister in highlighting the issue when she was in government. She made a telling contribution, and she also highlighted the fact that, in a mature society, we should be able to discuss such issues and to recognise that it is important that, regardless of our background or sexual orientation, we are entitled to equality of treatment and fairness.
I am sorry in some respects to highlight the contribution made by Mr. Chope because, frankly, it brought a rather sour note to the debate. I can only say that it appeared to be a speech of single transferable family values.
We have heard about other countries throughout the debate. Mr. Bercow certainly identified, in a free-ranging and eloquent speech which brought seriousness to the debate, the range of countries that now adopt a position similar to the one that we speaking about this evening. One of his comments was particularly apposite: we cannot help those who cannot marry by somehow hurting those who can. That comment was very appropriate.
Mr. Key also made a thoughtful speech, and I want to use it as a hook to congratulate him and Sandra Gidley, my hon. Friend Kali Mountford, Adam Price and my right hon. Friend Chris Smith, who collectively, in a cross-party way, sent letters to all hon. Members to say that they should support this important social legislation. I congratulate the hon. Member for Salisbury and other colleagues on that initiative.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend Jane Griffiths, who is in her place, recognised when she introduced her civil partnerships Bill three years ago that she was ploughing a furrow that would end up here this evening on
My hon. Friend Chris Bryant asked about religious ceremonies. I appreciate that he is an expert on such matters, although he has not been so for quite such a lengthy time as the hon. Member for Belfast, South. My hon. Friend asked whether ceremonies should be involved in civil partnerships. I think that it is fair to say that same-sex couples could have a ceremony in addition to the registration process if they wished, but that would not be a legal requirement. The Government are clear about the route down which we wish to go. The confirmation of the civil partnership will be the signing of the partnership schedule.
My hon. Friend Ann McKechin raised one or two issues relating to Scotland on which I hope that I can reassure her. She asked whether the Government will allow the Bill to grant the legal rights of succession that exist in common law for spouses. We will move amendments in Committee to provide legal rights of succession to civil partners, and we probably would have been able to do that in the House of Lords if we had not been so rudely interrupted. She asked whether the Executive plan to review the law on succession in the light of the Bill, but as she will appreciate that is purely a matter for the Scottish Executive.
I highlight to my hon. Friend and Mr. Carmichael the fact that it was disappointing that the only contribution to the debate from a representative of the Scottish National party, Pete Wishart, was to chunter on about whether the House should be legislating in such a way. It is important to appreciate that some things are better done collectively across the United Kingdom's legislatures. When there is such complexity surrounding reserved and devolved matters, it is vital, as my hon. Friend said, for the Scottish Parliament to have the maturity to realise the importance of giving its powers back to Westminster in this specific case. I reassure Scottish Members—this might well interest other hon. Members—that I met representatives of the Scottish Parliament Justice 1 Committee and explained to them the procedures and the way in which we would implement the Bill.
Miss Widdecombe said at the outset that she thought the Bill was wrong, so I doubt whether anything that any hon. Member could say would change her mind. With the greatest humility, however, I must tell her that she is not the only person in the House who wishes to defend the institution of marriage. Many of us want to defend that institution, and after 32 years of marriage, rather like the hon. Member for Salisbury, I think that I could defend the institution in most instances. The right hon. Lady should not assume that people who oppose the Bill are the only ones who are willing to defend the institution of marriage.
I shall deal with several general issues before I conclude my speech. As we have heard from examples cited today, the amendments made in the other place frankly left us in a faintly surreal situation. Although I would not impugn the reputation of all those who supported the amendments, the Bill was hijacked for reasons that are generally recognised to be outwith its scope. Many examples have been cited this evening about situations involving divorce or dissolving a civil partnership with a parent. Rather like the hon. Member for Daventry, I would have had grave difficulties with the situation in my family. I have three sisters and do not know whether we could agree about which would enter a civil partnership. When my parents were alive, I doubt that they would have been able to choose between the four of us regarding a civil partnership—my father would have had to divorce my mother first in any case.
We have clearly highlighted the fact that same-sex couples are invisible in legal terms. That is a good phrase, which has permeated the debate. It describes the situation exactly. We all know gay people who are living together in relationships, but in legal terms they do not exist. The Bill goes an enormous way to deal with that invisibility. With the greatest of respect to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, just because we want to give legal rights to people in that position, that does not mean that we are undermining the institution of marriage. We cannot defend the institution by perpetrating disadvantage and unfairness.
Pensions have been of great interest and were raised by various hon. Members on both sides of the House. My right hon. Friend the Minister mentioned survivor pensions in public service schemes. There has been a significant discussion on that throughout the lead-up to the Bill. I am pleased to report that the Government will follow the approach that we have taken in the tax system. As for tax purposes, for survivor pensions in public service schemes, registered same-sex couples will be treated in the same way as married couples. The change will be achieved by means of regulations, which will be introduced following Royal Assent. There is no need to amend the Bill.
The regulations will provide equality, as they will allow registered same-sex partners to accrue survivor pensions in public service schemes from 1988. That replicates the position for child and working tax credits, child benefit and guardian's allowance, which will be amended so that the rights and responsibilities of opposite-sex couples are replicated for same-sex couples. We have made it clear that we will use the first available Finance Bill to ensure that registered same-sex couples will be treated the same as married couples for tax purposes.
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. There has been a great deal of activity and campaigning on the issue for genuine reasons, which is why the Government responded as they did. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland was cynical about that, but hoped that at the end of the day we would reconsider our position. I do not think that even he anticipated it would be at the end of this day.
We are looking forward to debating some of the issues further in Committee. I am sorry that I have not been able to address everything raised. At the start of the debate, my right hon. Friend the Minister referred to some of the personal stories of same-sex couples. We heard similar stories throughout the day. The people who will be affected by the Bill are not anonymous. They are ordinary people, going about their everyday lives. They are our friends, members of our families, neighbours and people with whom we pray in church or meet in a supermarket. They are from all airts and pairts of the United Kingdom. Some have shared their lives for decades, awaiting the opportunity to gain recognition for their relationship. In all sincerity, I hope that the House knows that it is now time to offer them dignity, justice and the right to be treated fairly. I commend the Bill to the House.