Orders of the Day — Civil Partnership Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:29 pm on 12th October 2004.

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Photo of Ann McKechin Ann McKechin Labour, Glasgow Maryhill 4:29 pm, 12th October 2004

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."

I agree.

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 25 May in the other place, Baroness Hollis, at column 506 of Hansard, referred to the pension provision for widowers that was altered in 1988 to provide survivor pensions. It was not a retrospective measure and she tried to use that as justification for not providing retrospective provisions for same-sex couples. However, she missed the point that the Bill seeks to create a fundamentally new status for a group of people within our society. The widowers in her example received a right additional to those to which they already were entitled by virtue of their married status. Accordingly, I suggest that the parallel that she attempted to draw is incorrect.

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 1 June by the Justice Committee of the Scottish Parliament—as Mr. Carmichael correctly stated, the Scottish Parliament has considered the provisions in a great deal of detail—the Law Society of Scotland expressed concerns about how to establish a partnership retrospectively for the purposes of pension provision. That is a valid point, but I think that the Law Society forgot that, in Scotland, we establish marriage not only by civil registration or religious ceremony, but by habit and repute. Given the experience of other European nations that already have similar legislation, we are not likely to see great numbers taking up such agreements and I believe that the anticipated cost to both state and private pension funds is minimal.

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 1 June that the Scottish Executive Minister for Justice identified that issue. I would be grateful if the Minister now present will confirm that the Government will seek to amend the legislation in Committee to provide full parity, as in the rules that apply in succession for married couples. Given the complexity of the law of succession in Scotland, of which many people are ignorant, the Minister will concur that it is important to make it clear to same-sex couples that simply entering into a civil partnership in Scotland does not necessarily mean that the survivor will automatically inherit an estate should their partner die intestate. Prior rights are, by definition, a very arbitrary form of determining rights. Given the rise in property values, they frequently fail to cover a significant number of estates each year.

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.