Orders of the Day — Civil Partnership Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:21 pm on 12th October 2004.

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Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey 3:21 pm, 12th October 2004

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, 10 May 2004; Vol. 661, c. GC54.]

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.