Orders of the Day — Civil Partnership Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:21 pm on 12th October 2004.

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Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Shadow Secretary of State for International Development 2:21 pm, 12th October 2004

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.

As the Minister has said, the Carers Association has stated its opposition to the changes made in the other place, stating:

"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.