Orders of the Day — Civil Partnership Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:40 pm on 12th October 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham 4:40 pm, 12th October 2004

My hon. Friend is wrong—he is usually wrong on such matters and will probably continue to be wrong—but if he is prepared to exercise the modicum of self-restraint that he can muster in the circumstances, I will attend to his point in due course. Although he is entitled to his view—no one can deny him its possession or expression—I firmly and honestly believe that the Tory party must take a definitive, meaningful and forward-looking stance on the subject.

As a result of historical discrimination, it is undeniable that gay couples suffer grave injustices. Those injustices should be removed, which the Bill does by giving those who voluntarily opt for the status of civil partner a welter of rights and responsibilities that will be influential in the running of couples' lives. In that sense—I am pleased to make this point—the Bill is an excellent piece of social reform that will significantly improve the lives of a sizeable minority of our fellow citizens, and I warmly congratulate the Government on its introduction.

Such arrangements exist in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. Such arrangements exist in Hungary, Croatia, Canada, parts of the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Such arrangements exist in Brazil, Argentina and Israel.

I have mentioned more than a score of very different societies, all of which are nevertheless united by a common bond of humanity that for them decrees that such provision should be available. I believe that the time has come for Britain to follow suit. To those who say, as my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth just did and doubtless others might, that the effect of civil registration arrangements for gay couples will be to undermine marriage, my response is twofold. First, if we look at the two countries that have had civil partnership registration for the longest periods—Denmark and Norway, since 1989 and 1993 respectively—we see that more people are getting married in those countries than was the case before the advent of the legislation.

Secondly, we should reflect on the premise underlying that argument—that helping those who cannot marry means hurting those who can. That is a flawed premise. It is wrong to argue that all politics and legislation represent a zero sum game in which a gain to one individual or group necessarily entails a loss to another. Neither my enjoyment of marriage nor the status of the institution of marriage in our society as a whole depends in any way whatsoever on discriminating against, repressing or vilifying gays and lesbians: far from it. It is possible and, I would argue, desirable for the institution of marriage, on the one hand, and civil partnership, on the other, peacefully to co-exist in this country every bit as successfully as they manifestly do in the plethora of other countries to which I referred. It is simply not correct to argue that, if one introduces a new arrangement, it will somehow corrode the institution of marriage. There is no evidence to justify that thesis.

As I said at the outset, I strongly support the Bill in its original form. Equally, I strongly oppose the amendment that was successfully pressed in the other place by my noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain to extend civil partnership arrangements to close family relatives over the age of 18 who have lived together for 12 years. That amendment has been variously described by critics as absurd, a distortion, inappropriate, unworkable, a legislative mess and the worst possible outcome. I should like to focus on four of the many arguments against it.

First, my noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain explicitly argued in the other place that because, following the passage of the Bill, gay couples will enjoy the inheritance tax relief that currently applies to married couples transferring assets to each other, close family relatives should be granted a similar relief. I am prepared to concede that there is an argument for such a policy, but it is a different argument for a different Bill at a different time. The rationale of this Bill is not to deal with inheritance tax, nor is it principally about tax relief—its focus is relationship recognition. If my right hon. and hon. Friends want to argue the case for the reduction or abolition of inheritance tax, good luck to them—I happen to think that they have a powerful case—but inheritance tax relief was never originally a rationale for the introduction of the Bill, and it certainly should not be allowed to hijack it and become its defining or central feature now.

Secondly, my noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain and her supporters were keen to emphasise that they back marriage and wish to bolster the family, yet if one looks at the detail of the amendment, it is clear that it achieves neither of those objectives. Indeed, it is not even neutral. It is counter-productive. It is a force for undermining marriage and damaging the family. Angela Eagle, in a persuasive speech, gave the example of a woman living in a civil partnership with her mother. It is important to underline the significance of that example. If that young woman decides that she wants to get married, she must extricate herself from the civil partnership and then demonstrate that there has been an irretrievable breakdown of her relationship with her mother—and there is a possibility that she could wait for up to five years before her wish to marry would be fulfilled. What could be more anti-marriage than that?

Let us take the other predictable scenario that is almost certain to arise in the event that the amendment remains as clause 2 in the Bill. If, within a family civil partnership, there is a breakdown, and the dissolution process is set in train, there would have to be, quite properly, equitable financial provision for all the different parties involved. Certainly, in most cases, it is foreseeable that the family home would have to be sold. The prospect exists that an elderly relative would be evicted from the home in which he or she had long lived. What could be more anti-family than to do that?

Thirdly, my noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain and her supporters argue that they want to help carers. Of course, as right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber will acknowledge, very large numbers of carers are within the family, and yet if that is the principal motive force behind the amendment, how does she explain the fact that she failed to consult the principal representative organisation of carers, which has been championing their interests for 40 years, Carers UK? She did not consult the Law Society or the Solicitors Family Law Association either. Each and every one of those three organisations—I name only three at this stage—believes that there are potent objections to the amendment. All, on the basis of their accumulated wisdom and experience, contend that the amendment would require a massive reactionary rewriting of social security legislation, which would take us back to a pre-Beveridge period. It would take a very long time to undertake, and some of the consequences are uncertain, but of one thing we can be fairly sure: as a result of the rewriting of the law, benefit levels would be lower, and tax payments for all too many people, although they would not yet be aware of it, would be higher. That seems to me a thoroughly counter-productive consequence.