Orders of the Day — Civil Partnership Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:09 pm on 12th October 2004.

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Photo of David Borrow David Borrow PPS (Dr Kim Howells, Minister of State), Department for Transport 4:09 pm, 12th October 2004

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.