Orders of the Day — Civil Partnership Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:03 pm on 12th October 2004.

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Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 3:03 pm, 12th October 2004

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 21 June this year. When the Minister replies, will she explain how the Government's position may be reconciled with the decision in that case? There is an old saying that for a ha'p'orth of tar the ship was lost; how much good will are the Government prepared to lose before they change their mind?

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.