'(1) Two siblings, both of whom are aged over thirty years, shall be eligible to register as civil partners provided that they have lived together for a continuous period of twelve years immediately prior to the date of registration.
(2) In this section "sibling" means a brother, sister, half-brother or half-sister.
(3) Chapter 2 of Part 2, Chapter 5 of Part 3 and Chapter 2 of Part 4 shall not apply to civil partnerships formed by virtue of this section.
(4) Section [Termination of civil partnerships other than same sex couples] shall apply to civil partnerships formed by virtue of this section.'.—[Mr. Leigh.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 2—Termination of civil partnerships other than same sex couples—
'(1) An application for a dissolution order may be made to the court by either civil partner.
(2) On an application for a dissolution order, if the court is satisfied that—
(a) the application is made in the correct form, and
(b) the other civil partner has been served with notice of the application,
it shall make a dissolution order.
(3) Provision may be made by order specifying the requirements as to form and service of the application for a dissolution order.
(4) No order may be made under subsection (3) unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing the order has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.'.
New clause 3—Categories of civil partners other than same sex couples (No.2)—
'(1) Two persons both of whom are aged over eighteen years shall be eligible to register as civil partners provided that they are in a relationship which meets the condition set out in subsection (2).
(2) The condition is that the relationship is one which is specified for the purposes of this section by Schedule [Meaning of specified relationship for the purposes of section [Categories of civil partners other than same sex couples (No. 2)]].
(3) The Secretary of State may by order amend Schedule [Meaning of specified relationship for the purposes of section [Categories of civil partners other than same sex couples (No. 2)]] by—
(a) adding a relationship,
(b) amending the description of a relationship, or
(c) omitting a relationship.
(4) No order may be made under this section without the consent of the Scottish Ministers and the Department of Finance and Personnel.
(5) The power to make an order under this section is exercisable by statutory instrument.
(6) An order which contains any provision (whether alone or with other provisions) amending Schedule [Meaning of specified relationship for the purposes of section [Categories of civil partners other than same sex couples (No. 2)]] by—
(a) amending the description of a relationship, or
(b) omitting a relationship, may not be made unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing the order is laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.
(7) A statutory instrument containing any other order under this section is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.
(9) Section [Termination of civil partnerships other than same sex couples] shall apply to civil partnerships formed by virtue of this section.'.
Amendment No. 1, in clause 1, page 1, line 4, after 'relationship', insert
'between two siblings who fall within the scope of section [Categories of civil partners other than same sex couples] or'.
Amendment No. 12, in page 1, line 4, after 'relationship', insert
'between two people who fall within the scope of section [Categories of civil partners other than same sex couples (No. 2)] or'.
Amendment No. 13, in page 1, line 4, leave out 'of the same sex'.
Amendment No. 17, in page 1, line 18, after 'death,', insert 'marriage,'.
Amendment No. 2, in clause 3, page 2, line 33, at beginning insert 'Subject to subsection (1A),'.
Amendment No. 14, in page 2, line 34, leave out paragraph (a).
Amendment No. 15, in page 2, line 35, at end insert 'or'.
Amendment No. 16, in page 2, line 36, leave out from '16' to end of line 37.
Amendment No. 3, in page 2, line 37, at end insert—
'(1A) Subsection 1(a) and (d) shall not apply in the case of two people who wish to register as civil partners under section [Categories of civil partners other than same sex couples].'.
Amendment No. 4, in clause 36, page 16, line 20, at end insert—
'( ) with respect to determining whether two people have lived together for the period of twelve years specified in section [Categories of civil partners other than same sex couples];'.
Amendment No. 5, in clause 86, page 39, line 33, at beginning insert 'Subject to subsection (1A)'.
Amendment No. 6, in page 39, line 41, at end insert—
'(1A) Subsection 1(a) and (b) shall not apply in the case of two people who wish to register as civil partners under section [Categories of civil partners other than same sex couples];'.
Amendment No. 7, in clause 126, page 65, line 10, at end insert—
'( ) Regulations may in particular make provision with respect to determining whether two people have lived together for the period of twelve years specified in section [Categories of civil partners other than same sex couples]'.
Amendment No. 8, in clause 138, page 69, line 25, at beginning insert 'Subject to subsection (1A),'.
Amendment No. 9, in page 69, line 31, at end insert—
'(1A) Subsection 1(a) and (d) shall not apply in the case of two people who wish to register as civil partners under section [Categories of civil partners other than same sex couples]'.
Amendment No. 10, in clause 159, page 77, line 19, at end insert—
'( ) Regulations may in particular make provision with respect to determining whether two people have lived together for the period of twelve years specified in section [Categories of civil partners other than same sex couples]'.
Amendment No. 19, in clause 212, page 103, line 1, leave out sub-paragraph (i).
Amendment No. 20, in page 104, line 6, leave out Clause 216.
New schedule 1.—Meaning of specified relationship for the purpose of section [Categories of civil partners other than same sex couples (No. 2)]
Amendment No. 18, in schedule 27, page 373, line 29, leave out paragraphs 40 and 41.
Broadly speaking, this Bill would give homosexual couples the same rights as those enjoyed by married couples. That is the principle of the Bill; although some of us oppose it, that is not what we are debating today. Whatever happens today, that principle will remain in place. Therefore, the new clause and associated amendments have not been tabled to wreck the Bill.
The new clause, if accepted, would leave the substance of the Bill intact. I, and those hon. Members who support me, am trying to ensure that the Bill does not create more injustices. We accept that many people believe that homosexual couples who live together for years often suffer great hardship, and we heard many stories to that effect on Second Reading. People in that situation cannot leave their houses or tenancies to each other, and they encounter all sorts of other problems.
An amendment tabled in the other place would have extended the same rights to others, such as siblings and other family members. Various objections were made to that proposal by the Minister and others. The Minister and her officials expended a huge amount of time convincing the House that the amendments were technically deficient. I believe, as do those hon. Members who share my views, that she could have made workable the amendments from the House of Lords if she had put the same amount of effort into doing so, but the Government's main objection to those amendments was that these amendments could be used to avoid inheritance tax, as they would allow people to pass property down through the generations.
Therefore, we have decided to adopt a moderate and sensible approach today. New clause 1 is very narrowly drawn, and the aim of this group of amendments is very simple. It would merely give to siblings the same rights granted by the Bill to homosexual couples. By "siblings" I mean a brother and sister, or two brothers or two sisters.
We have made the amendments very narrow indeed. It is not my job to foretell what will happen in another place, but I suspect that the issues raised today will be central to subsequent debates on this Bill.
On Second Reading, a principal objection to the relevant amendment that came to us from another place was that it would have required siblings to form a civil partnership. If one of the siblings later wanted to marry in what I still call the normal way—I am sure that that expression is politically incorrect these days—that partnership would have to be dissolved. It was therefore suggested that the Lords amendment was a nonsense for that reason. Will my hon. Friend assure me that the new clause and the associated amendments will not fall into the same trap?
We took that argument on board after Second Reading. If my right hon. Friend looks at new clause 2, she will see that it does not adopt the same approach as the Bill. The Government may not admit it, but homosexual couples undertake what amounts to a marriage. The Bill is very long because it replicates a great deal of ordinary marriage law.
The objection raised to the Lords amendment was that it would be absurd for family members to have to go through some sort of divorce. New clause 2 would create a far simpler procedure for dissolving civil partnerships between siblings. That would not be a divorce; it would be equivalent to the procedure adopted in the French civil solidarity pact, or PACS, system. The process would be a simple, paper-based way to dissolve a civil partnership.
The basis of my hon. Friend's argument is the essential unfairness of inheritance tax. I agree with him about that. Does he not think that we should all concentrate our efforts on abolishing inheritance tax, rather than on trying to create these artificial partnerships?
Yes, I do. This debate provides an opportunity for that. The Government have said already that the Bill will require various consequential amendments to the Finance Bill. If the Minister were to intervene and say that she had spoken to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and that he had told her that the forthcoming Finance Bill contained measures recognising that siblings who had lived together for a number of years suffered a gross injustice, we could all go home now.
Unfortunately, that has not happened. The Government have made no such commitment. I give credit to my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition, who has made it clear in a letter to constituents that the first Finance Bill under a new Conservative Government would take action on this matter.
From the look on his face, it seems that the hon. Gentleman has not received any letters on this subject. However, if the issue is so enormously important, why has the Conservative party never proposed an amendment similar to the one under discussion today in any Finance Bill Standing Committee over the years?
We must deal with the situation as we find it now. In our law, it has always been accepted that marriage is unique. Certain privileges are conferred by marriage, and that is recognised in all societies in all parts of the world. The very good reason for that is that marriage is the building block of society. That is what we believe, and the Government apparently believe it too.
With this Bill, the Government are saying something that has never been said before. They are creating a particular class of people—same-sex couples who live together—who will enjoy the same unique advantages conferred by marriage in respect of tenancy, inheritance tax and so on. We are therefore in a new situation.
Chris Bryant asked about letters. I have one here. The original was sent by a lady whose name and address I shall not reveal to the House, as she is an elderly spinster who wants to remain anonymous. The letter states:
"I live with my single brother and have done so since my mother died in . . . 1983. He had lived with her all his life. I retired from (work) to look after her as she was 85 and had cancer. She died within . . . months of my leaving. Stephen—" that is her brother, although Stephen is not his real name—
"really needed me to run the home . . . when my mother died I felt I should continue to live with him. I am now 79 and (Stephen) is 75."
That is a real case involving real people suffering real injustice.
The hon. Gentleman says that such people have always suffered an injustice, so we should give credit to the Government. We have heard many stories about men who may have lived together for 20, 30 or 40 years. Why cannot we give the same justice to the elderly spinster—this real person—whose letter I have just read out?
It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman has narrowed the new clause, and I suppose we have to be grateful for that, but has he worked out how much it would cost the Exchequer to give siblings the pension provisions in the Bill? He has just made a spending commitment for the Tory Front- Bench team by saying that they will abolish inheritance tax, and I assume that there would also be pretty large pension costs in spreading to siblings the Bill's provisions for civil partners.
Unfortunately, I am only a Back Bencher. I would love to give a commitment on behalf of the Conservative party to abolish all inheritance tax, but sadly I am not able to do that, and my right hon. and hon. Friends have not done so. The point of my amendments is to avoid the charge that we are trying to let people avoid paying inheritance tax. "Stephen" and the elderly spinster will not be able to pass their advantage down the generations, so inheritance tax will be paid pretty soon for that 75-year-old man and 79-year-old woman. I freely admit that I have not got the exact figures on what my proposals would cost the Treasury, but the Bill itself puts a cost on the Treasury and we have not had many figures from the Minister on that. It is an affordable cost because it is a matter of justice.
The hon. Lady seemed to imply that we are obsessed with inheritance tax, but we are not necessarily talking about inheritance tax. What will happen, for instance, if two sisters live together in a tenancy? They do not own the property, and if one of them dies the remaining sister, as well as suffering bereavement, will have what is called an assured tenancy. Under an assured tenancy, it is possible that her rent could rise or, in certain circumstances, that she could be evicted. She would not have a statutory tenancy, which is a far more secure thing. Under the Bill, a same-sex couple will have a statutory tenancy, and that is an obvious, glaring injustice to impose on siblings.
Will the hon. Gentleman tell me why he seems always to assume that only two siblings will be cohabiting? If it is so important to protect the rights of siblings who cohabit, why do his amendments not afford the same protection in situations where three, four or any number of siblings do so?
Usually, there are only two. Secondly, the Bill is about partnerships, and if we had tried to extend it further, we would be accused of trying to go way beyond what it is intended to do. Thirdly, if there are more than two siblings, the financial consequences when one dies are far less than they are when there are two siblings. It is more affordable and a less devastating circumstance. If there are a brother and a sister and one dies, the remaining brother or sister is faced with buying out half the property, and that may often not be affordable. I shall refer in a few moments to an opinion poll that shows that a very large percentage of the population—8 per cent., which is 3.7 million people—know someone who has lost their home as a result of paying inheritance tax.
If two people are sharing a house and one dies, the other would like to keep the house. If they have to register a civil partnership, though, they will pool all their assets, perhaps to the disadvantage of a third sibling, who effectively would be disinherited. My hon. Friend's measure would introduce into the traditional family some misery and stress, which would be rather undesirable in my view.
We had this argument on Second Reading. If my hon. Friend will forgive me for saying so, he should allow people to make that decision for themselves. There will be circumstances in which it is not advantageous for siblings to enter into a civil partnership. There may be circumstances in which it is not advantageous—perhaps for tax reasons; I do not know—for a same-sex couple to enter into a civil partnership. None of those arguments has been used against the substance of the Bill; they are used only against our amendments. If my hon. Friend will forgive me for saying so, such nit-picking objections are constantly raised against what is an attempt to correct a fundamental injustice. Given that the Bill will become law and that homosexual couples will have these rights, I cannot for the life of me understand why people are so violently and strongly opposed to extending the same rights to siblings.
Perhaps it is simply this; what we face here is a well-organised, vocal minority in society who are constantly pushing for more and more recognition of the kind that the Bill is supposed to give them. Siblings are not such a minority and are not so vocal. In a parliamentary context, we feel under constant pressure from a vocal minority but, perhaps sadly, under little or no pressure from the very group that my hon. Friend is trying to represent.
Perhaps 80,000 same-sex couples will benefit from this Bill, but there are many other ways of living together—not necessarily in a sexual relationship—and those people do not have a voice. They do not come to lobby the House. We have a right, surely, to think of those other minorities, because they, too, have a right to justice. That is all that we are trying to give them. We are not trying to wreck the Bill or take anything away from homosexual couples. We are simply trying to extend a sense of justice to other people.
The hon. Gentleman seems to think that there is a very clever Venn diagram in the world that excludes all homosexuals from being siblings. They are not two separate communities; there may be many siblings who are homosexual and who may, indeed, want to enter into civil partnerships with the partner whom they love. The hon. Gentleman said that many of us wholeheartedly oppose the idea of doing anything for siblings where they suffer injustice. He may want to withdraw that remark, because many hon. Members have members of their families who are siblings who have lived together and who may have suffered injustices. We want to put those injustices right, but to do so in proper order, and this is not proper order. The hon. Gentleman said it is normal for there to be only two siblings, but the two cases in my own family involved three siblings living together—
The hon. Gentleman makes an obvious point. People can make their own arrangements, and there may well be all sorts of arrangements we do not know about. Homosexual siblings may live together with other people, but that does not affect what I am saying. We did not ask for the Bill; in fact, we oppose the principle of the Bill. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] So what? We have never made any secret of that, and we will vote against the Bill. We have a perfect right to do that in a free House of Commons. All we are saying is that although we did not ask for the Bill, the completely novel idea has been introduced that a particular group of people should be helped outside of marriage. If we are establishing the principle that one group of people should be helped outside marriage, we say that others should be helped as well.
There is a fundamental dishonesty about this debate. The Bill introduces homosexual marriage by any other name. The Government are determined, for political reasons, not to call it a homosexual marriage Bill because they do not want to alienate public opinion, but they are creating a homosexual marriage Bill.
That peg allows me to move on to the proposals of my hon. Friend Mr. Chope. He, too, has seen a logical flaw in the Bill. He wants to extend civil partnerships to heterosexual couples. He asks why a couple who are heterosexual should not have the same rights. I do not accept or support my hon. Friend's amendments because I believe that marriage is unique and holy and should be left alone. None the less, there is at least some logic in what he is saying. He is at least being completely open with the House. No doubt the Minister will ensure that his amendments are thrown out, but I cannot see the logic in that. However, it is possible that the Government will introduce at some later stage, if they remain in power, some variation of the French PACS system for all sorts of couples. At least there is some logic in my hon. Friend's amendment. There is no logic in the Bill at the moment.
This is a serious argument, but I suggest that my hon. Friend is wrong to say that the creation of civil partnerships is designed simply to provide financial relief for two homosexuals. The fundamental purpose is to assist two homosexuals who want some form of legal, continuing expression of their relationship. My hon. Friend may not agree with that, but it is a perfectly respectable objective.
Why are we not being honest about that? Why do we not say to the British people that the Bill will create homosexual marriage? The Government do not dare do so, because it would be too politically controversial. Instead, they are creating this ridiculous beast and, when we try to extend it to address injustice to other groups, we are told that it is special and nothing can be added to it. Why not? If one group of people are to enjoy those advantages outside of marriage, why cannot another group, such as those supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch?
I shall tell my hon. Friend why many of us resist his amendments. The Bill in its original form is not about tax relief: it is about the recognition of relationships—
My right hon. Friend chunters from a sedentary position to no obvious benefit or purpose. If the injustice is as fundamental as my hon. Friend claims, why did he not argue for remedying it a long time ago? Alternatively, why does he not argue that it be remedied in a Finance Bill? Instead, he dresses up his arguments in what many of us regard as a contortionist's logic.
It is not contortionist. We did not ask for this debate. We had a simple system in this country, as in most other countries historically, in which society believed that marriage is such a useful bedrock that it should have unique rights. The argument is not only about inheritance tax: it is about many other things. We fully accept that. The Government, heavily influenced by the homosexual lobby, want to introduce the same rights for homosexual couples. That is fair enough, but why not be honest about it? They are not being honest, so they have created something that gives us an opportunity to talk about other people in similar situations.
What does public opinion say? Communicate Research has asked some questions on the matter. It asked:
"The Government wants to extend the financial benefits of marriage to gay and lesbian couples in its Civil Partnership Bill. Some argue that it would be unfair and unjust not at the same time to make these benefits available to others who have lived together for a long period and become financially interdependent. Would you agree or disagree that were these benefits to be made available to gay and lesbian couples, they should be made available to two sisters who share a house for 12 years?"
Some 84 per cent. responded yes to that question. Interestingly, 79 per cent. of Conservative voters were in favour of my amendment, as were 86 per cent. of Labour voters and 91 per cent. of Liberal Democrat voters. The public are overwhelmingly in favour of what I am trying to do.
Other questions were asked, one of which will please my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe. People were asked about the case of a daughter who lives with her elderly mother for 12 years, and 91 per cent. agreed that she should have the rights that I suggest—90 per cent. of Conservative voters, 91 per cent. of Labour voters and 95 per cent. of Lib Dem voters. If we had stuck with the original House of Lords amendments, we would be even more popular. But of course we could not do that, because they had no hope of getting through this House. That is why we have had to draw these amendments very tightly.
There is no debate in the country. Some 90 per cent. of people agree with what I am trying to do. Why is it that the House of Commons alone believes that it has the moral right to stand against rectifying a fundamental injustice?
My hon. Friend places great store on opinion polls and public opinion. Did he also see the poll in The Times that showed that 75 per cent. of people backed the principle of gay couples having exactly the same rights as married couples? Should not that influence his judgment on how to vote today?
If my hon. Friend accepts my amendment, I shall think about accepting the Bill. I accept, for the sake of argument, that the majority of people accept the substance of the Bill. But an even larger majority— 91 per cent.—accept my amendments. Is my hon. Friend going to vote against them? He shrugs his shoulders.
I shall rise to that challenge. If those who were polled had been asked a secondary question to the effect that the amendments are impractical because many of the daughters caring for aged mothers may also want to get married, they would think again about supporting the amendments.
That is a very patrician point of view. My hon. Friend is very patrician in many of his attitudes. The truth is that we should respect people's fundamental good sense. As we are limiting the amendment to siblings in any event, there is no reason why it would be unworkable. Nobody has yet convinced me that there is any technical problem with inheritance tax that would make it unworkable.
Possibly. I put it to my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh that if the majority of those questioned were told that under the terms of the Bill the dissolution of a civil partnership between daughter and mother would require demonstration of an irretrievable breakdown between the two, the overwhelming likelihood is that they would reconsider their view.
We are not debating that case. I have already conceded that point. We are dealing only with siblings, and the amendments would not require them to argue that they have suffered an irretrievable breakdown in their relationship. We have tried to listen to the objections to our amendments and we have narrowed them down and down, but we still meet this immovable objection in principle to remedying the injustice for siblings. For the life of me, I cannot understand why.
I have listened with great interest to the hon. Gentleman's contribution so far. The Bill deals with many injustices suffered by same-sex couples. Could the hon. Gentleman identify the specific injustices suffered by same-sex couples that are also suffered by siblings and which the Bill should also address?
I do not understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make. He made a similar intervention on Second Reading and I have already tried to answer that point. I gave the specific example of assured and statutory tenancies, and inheritance tax is another obvious example. Another example might be if two sisters were living together and one was killed in a car crash because of the obvious negligence of another driver. The surviving sister would not be able to sue the driver for negligence. However, under the terms of the Bill, if a gay couple who had entered into a civil partnership were in the same situation, the bereaved partner could sue. We could go through the entire Bill and find similar examples. The hon. Gentleman is honest about believing in gay marriage and he knows that the Bill replicates the provisions of marriage and gives exactly the same rights to gay couples. That is why it is fundamentally dishonest.
For clarification, my hon. Friend is not suggesting that registered civil partnership between siblings should be compulsory. That would be a choice for those who may wish to take it. The Bill purports to put right injustices in a range of things such as benefits, pensions, inheritance and tenancy arrangements for same-sex couples or same-sex cohabitees, but the schedules show that these provisions will not do that; they are available only to selected types of couple. That is where the Bill fails.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention.
Before I sit down, I shall say one last thing: I will withdraw the motion if the Minister says that the new clause is totally inappropriate because the Bill will create gay marriages and it would be quite wrong to add such provisions to a marriage Bill. I would fully accept that. If she intervened now, we could all go home—we would have had an honest debate and the public could make up their minds—but she will not make that sort of intervention, will she? She will repeat, time and again, that this is not gay marriage. If it is not marriage and we are simply outside marriage, why are we giving certain benefits to only one group? Why do we not give them to other groups? That is the inescapable logic of what we are trying to do today, and it is why we believe that our cause is fully rooted in justice and that it will not go away.
It has been enjoyable watching those on the right wing of the Conservative party expressing concern about injustice, because it does not happen very often. I welcome their sudden attention to such details after 18 years in power, when they did not really spend much time considering these important issues. Perhaps even they, in their last redoubts, are beginning to recognise how our society has changed over the past 50 years.
I am just off to a meeting of the Home Affairs Committee, but listening to Mr. Leigh reminded me very much of the arguments used in 1967, when I was a Member and those who were very much opposed to legalising homosexuality put forward all kinds of arguments, including that it was a minority point of view. It was a minority point of view in 1967; the House of Commons gave a lead, as it did on divorce and abortion, and we were right to do so. We have heard just the same arguments as those used nearly 40 years ago.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely valuable point. Even though I was only six years old when those debates were raging and could not know how relevant that move to tolerance would be to my own life, I am nevertheless extremely grateful to those who were Members in 1967 for having the foresight and humanity to make progress in those important areas, ensuring that we moved into an era when there is more tolerance of people with a different sexual orientation. However, in the week when we heard about an horrific homophobic murder in London, we can be a bit too complacent about the progress that we have made to date.
The increase in homophobic attacks in London in the past year is a cause of worry, and it ought be a cause of concern for all hon. Members, including those Opposition Members who are in the last redoubt, fighting this change. They should be worried about that, and they should join those of us who wish for freedom from fear or violence on the streets of London for all people, regardless of their sexuality. I hope that they will join me in making that plea, but I do see them joining in very much at the moment.
There are real issues with siblings and people who share a home for a long time but who are not in a marriage, a sexual relationship or a soon-to-be civil partnership. It is right that some of those issues have been raised. When they are raised seriously, very many hon. Members are sympathetic to them, and that is also true of the Government.
If Mr. Leigh had read the report of the debates in the House of Lords when these issues were first raised, he should have noticed and at least had the grace to acknowledge in his speech the fact that Ministers expressed sympathy. They said that the Government were considering how to deal with some of the more obvious injustices for those who live together outside marriage and not in a sexual relationship. In fact, they announced that a review of such issues is going on. It is important that we await the outcome of that review so that we can find out how we can do justice for those who find themselves in those circumstances and can be disadvantaged if a sudden death has ruinous financial implications for those siblings who have shared their lives together.
It is invidious and divisive but totally predictable that the hon. Member for Gainsborough is trying to use this inappropriate legislative vehicle, first, to prove his so-called point about gay marriage and, secondly, to wreck the Bill.
Is the hon. Lady suggesting that, somehow, with all the thought that has gone into this 420-page Bill, it would have been impossible to sort out that central question and get it completely clear? It is absolutely ridiculous to say that the matter should go off to review. We know what is in the Bill.
I am not saying that the matters in the Bill should go off to review. I am saying that the hon. Member for Gainsborough might have at least had the grace to mention in his opening remarks on the new clause that the Government are looking in general at the issue and have said that they will come back with some suggestions to improve the disadvantages that have been pointed out as occurring to those people who live in the same household but are not married, or are in what is soon to be called a civil partnership.
Let me finish answering the previous point.
It is entirely appropriate for the Government to consider such things, but it is not appropriate that that should be somehow imported as an afterthought into a Bill that is designed to recognise the partnerships of same-sex couples.
I was referring to the earlier Lords amendments, which undoubtedly wrecked the Bill. [Interruption.] If hon. Members will give me a chance to expand the argument, I was about to explain why even such a narrow new clause—I do not deny that it is—is still massively disruptive to the Bill's intended approach to same-sex couples. The new clause is hasty, and it would be better to deal with the necessary consultation on some of the issues that Opposition Members have raised in the fullness of time, using different legislation.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough had no idea how much the pension provisions in the Bill for same-sex couples that match those for spouses would cost if extended to siblings. One of the first requirements of any legislation or a new clause that deals with costs of that potential magnitude is that it should be costed. The Government's analysis of the pensions provisions in the original clauses, which go wider, demonstrated that they would cost £2.5 billion if private and public pension costs were considered. Narrowing down those provisions to siblings would still leave a sizeable hole in the public finances, which, again, the hon. Member for Gainsborough and his followers have not costed. Given such circumstances, it is important to assess the costs properly before taking a fully informed decision on the principles that we are debating, rather than voting for a hastily assembled provision.
Surely the most conclusive argument that could be made against my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh would be to accept his challenge. He says that if the Bill is essentially about marriage for same-sex couples, his amendments are inappropriate. Why do the Government not simply recognise the fact that the Bill is indeed about marriage for same-sex couples, because on that basis, by his own concession, the amendments would fall?
The Bill is about civil partnerships for same-sex couples, which will recognise and respect a choice that people of a different sexuality from Conservative Members who have spoken have been denied. Thankfully, after many years, that choice will be granted to them. I do not think that it is reasonable to play politics with that.
My right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Hogg asked the hon. Lady to confirm that the Bill was about homosexual marriage because if it is, we all agree that the amendments are inappropriate. Her response to that was that the Bill was about civil partnerships. Will she tell me the difference between the arrangements for civil partnerships for same-sex couples and a civil marriage in this country?
It is no secret that the Bill is an attempt to put in place arrangements that are as close as reasonable to civil marriage, but not holy matrimony. All Front-Bench spokesmen and hon. Members who support the Bill have been quite open about that.
I favour the proposition that same-sex couples should be able to enter into a legal relationship if they wish. I do not want to do that, but I support the rights of others to do so. However, I do not understand why the hon. Lady and I cannot agree that that represents marriage—in substance, if not in name.
I have shared my views with the House, but it is important for us to talk about civil partnership and civil marriage because we should not offend or worry people who get married in a church, or appear that we, as a legislature, are stepping into areas on which the Churches have traditionally had their own rules. At the same time, I welcome the right hon. and learned Gentleman's support for civil partnerships for same-sex couples, because it is about time that the House legislated for such an important development.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough said that he thought that the Government would come forward at some point with a French-style approach on other arrangements for people sharing homesteads. However, it is interesting that he wants to insert such a provision in the Bill. He accepted that the Government are examining the issue, so instead of being a bit more patient, why does he want to use the matter to try to wreck the Bill? Why is he setting the needs of one set of people against the needs of another? Perhaps that is the right-wing Conservative way, but I do not think that it is attractive.
How does the hon. Lady think that the Bill will affect same-sex cohabiting platonic couples? For example, after the war, many women who lost their fiancées—they went to war, but did not come back—spent decades sharing homes. They may wish to avail themselves of all the legal benefits that the Bill will provide, but might not want to register civil partnerships because of the connotations that the debate is putting on them.
I suspect that people who wish to avoid such connotations will have to wait for the Government's review on people who are neither in an openly sexual relation nor eligible to get married, but who live together in shared houses. The House must work to recognise the way in which families and people live together, because that has changed over the years. It is time for us to examine the needs of people in various circumstances.
May I return to the argument about civil partnerships and marriage? Does my hon. Friend agree that many of our constituents see marriage in its religious context and think that marriage occurs between a man and a woman and that it should take place in a church? Although they would be sympathetic to a legal framework for same-sex couples, they would probably be deeply offended if the word "marriage" were used in that context. We must understand that many people of good will who have a serious opinion of the religious connotations of their marriage also accept that a legal framework is needed for same-sex couples.
My hon. Friend makes a good point in his usual delicate and clear manner. It is far better to make decisions about aspects of social change in a way that unites and brings together people in this country, rather than one that divides them. That is why I congratulate the Government on their approach.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that lesson in French legal history and I am sure that the House has noted his point. I mentioned his off-the-cuff remark because he said that he thought that the Government would recognise other relationships in due course, yet also argued that such a measure must be introduced immediately, although that would be to the detriment of the Bill. I do not know why he did that, but if he was arguing along the same lines as Lord Tebbit in the other place, we can all fathom his real reasons.
Even if Labour Members had a sudden conversion on the road to Damascus and accepted the amendments, I suspect that the hon. Member for Gainsborough would vote against the entire Bill on Third Reading. That puts the debate in its proper context—[Laughter.] The hon. Gentleman's laughter confirms my suspicion.
We should oppose the amendments for now, but we should not give the impression that we are not considering the situation of people who share houses, but do not want to be in a sexual relationship, to be civil partners or to get married. Everyone knows that we must do that, so I look forward to reading the results of the Government's review. I hope that there will be further reform so that the Government will deal in a future Bill with any injustices suffered by siblings who live together.
We are considering new amendments, but we have, regrettably, heard the same old arguments. The motivation behind the amendments is the same as that behind those moved by Baroness O'Cathain in the other place. Mr. Leigh gave the game away when he issued a final challenge to the Minister that if she would accept that the Bill was about gay marriage, he would withdraw his amendments. That betrayed the attitude that underpins both his arguments and amendments. He does not accept the fundamental premise of the Bill, which is that we should offer equal opportunities to people regardless of their sexual orientation, and that is why I shall not join him in the Lobby.
The hon. Gentleman is right. The amendments narrow the scope of those tabled by his noble Friends in the other place. He has gone to some pains to answer the more obvious objections to the ludicrous proposals on divorce. As a result, he has had to create a different regime of civil partnership, which reinforces the point that this is not the place to deal with cohabiting siblings or people in platonic relationships.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right. I apologise for that slip of the tongue.
The question of inheritance tax among siblings should be dealt with in a Finance Bill. There will be other opportunities to deal with assured tenancies. The hon. Member for Gainsborough has not satisfactorily addressed my objection that, if more than two siblings cohabit, his amendments would lead to obvious conflict and injustice. If the principles of equality of provision for siblings who cohabit is so important, it is also important for those who cohabit in family groups of three, four or however many, and not just those who cohabit in couples.
No. I have made it clear that this is not the place to deal with such issues. The Bill deals with the formalisation of relationships between same-sex couples.
But we are talking about same-sex couples. Why does the hon. Gentleman not admit that this is a gay marriage Bill and, as such, there is no place in it for any provision for siblings?
It is frankly obnoxious, and as a Christian I find it deeply repugnant, for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that the love of one sibling for another is the same as the love between couples in a same-sex sexual relationship. That is nonsensical.
Let me tell the hon. Gentleman why the Bill is not about gay marriage. As a Christian, I believe that marriage is something that is entered into by a man and a woman. That does not mean that I cannot accept that the rights and opportunities of those of a different sexual orientation should be protected in the same way. That is a fundamental premise. Frankly, I do not care if we call it marriage or not. The important thing is the outcome in terms of equality. That is why it is not about marriage and why the Government are right to call it civil partnership.
Is not the hon. Gentleman cavilling at a word? Marriage is the legal recognition of a continuing partnership. He and I would hope that it would be blessed by the Church, but that is not the necessary element. In reality, whether it is a same-sex legal relationship or inter-sex legal relationship, it is the same thing. The Bill provides for the legal recognition of that long-lasting partnership.
I agree, but it is not me who is cavilling at the word. The right hon. and learned Gentleman's hon. Friends are insisting that the Government say that this is a gay marriage Bill. Their objection seems to be to the title rather than the substance. I am saying that the substance is important, not what we call it.
"I lived with my sister for 15 years. When she died I had to sell our home to pay the inheritance tax. Why should I have less"—
I presume it means fewer—
"house-sharing rights than a gay couple?"
Obviously good grammar is not considered a particular Christian virtue by the Christian Institute. It has acted well outwith its remit in terms of charitable purposes. The Government should consider that, through the appropriate body.
Given that the approximate £20,000 cost of that full-page advertisement on page 31 of The Times by the Christian Institute would have sufficed to feed approximately 5,000 people in Sudan for up to a month, does the hon. Gentleman share my astonishment that a supposedly charitable institution should choose to deploy its resources in that way?
It is about tax benefits for charities. That is what concerns me, which is why the Government should look at the conduct of the Christian Institute.
It is clear that, broadly speaking, there are two points of view. On the one hand, there is a wholly legitimate view, which I disagree with, that homosexuality is abnormal and wrong, that marriage should only be constituted as holy matrimony, that it is unique and holy, and that anything that looks like support for homosexuality in any shape or form is anathema and abomination.
I ask the hon. Gentleman to rephrase what he just said. No one has said that homosexuality or homosexual leanings are, to use his picturesque term, an anathema and abomination. What we would say is that homosexual acts are wrongful.
Mr. Leigh accused some of us of nit-picking. The right hon. Lady has a great deal of nits to pick yet. Perhaps we should get the nit nurse in.
One view of homosexuality is that it is wrong and that the state should not do anything, in any shape or form, to support or encourage it or, as someone said on Second Reading, to proliferate it. There is another view, which is that homosexuality is simply a fact of life and that everyone, regardless of their sexuality—heterosexual or homosexual—should have the right to formalise their commitment and love for another person, one to another.
The Bill is not primarily about giving to another set of people a tax inheritance right that is currently available only to those who are married, as the amalgamation of the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Gainsborough suggests, thereby giving a special privilege to that set of people that is not available to anyone else. It is primarily about saying that it is not right that the state should never support those who want to make a legally binding and committed relationship secure through a legal commitment, one to another.
I accept that some people believe that that is a wrong route. I note that many people believe that holy matrimony is completely different from civil marriage. Indeed, when the Spanish state in 1870 tried to introduce civil marriage for the first time in that country—previously, all marriage had been holy matrimony—the Catholic bishops said that it was certain that the project of civil marriage was wrong because civil marriage would never for Catholics be anything other than an "immoral harlotry" or a "scandalous form of incest".
I know that there are those who still hold to the view that civil marriage is nothing to do with holy matrimony. In this country, of course, the relationship between holy matrimony and civil marriage has been rather confused because of the establishment of the Church and the fact that we have allowed clergy belonging to many different Churches to become registrars, and effectively to register civil marriage.
That is precisely the point that I wanted to make. Some people want to undermine the role of commitment in civil marriage, because they believe that only holy matrimony should apply in this country. Others, such as Mr. Chope, who has tabled amendments today, suggest that civil partnerships should be extended to all heterosexuals. I passionately believe that that is wrong, because it would undermine civil marriage and holy matrimony.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is difficult to see why the Church should not bless relationships between same-sex couples, if that is what they all want?
I wholeheartedly agree. Earlier, Miss Widdecombe suggested that I used colourful phrases in "abomination" and "anathema". "Anathema" comes from her own Church, and "abomination" comes from the Bible, which she reads assiduously, so it is hardly my colourful phraseology. Many people who belong to Churches, as well as Christians, including people polled by the Christian Institute—incidentally, its website address is the rather arrogant "www.christian.org.uk", as if there is only one way of being a Christian and one set of views on these issues—are either homosexuals themselves or accept that homosexuality has been a fact of life since the beginning of time. They believe that people should be able to celebrate that in the eyes of God and receive a church blessing. It is not for the state to legislate—it is for the Churches to decide whether they want to go down that route, and I suspect that, in the fullness of time, many of them may wish to do so.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough made three basic arguments. First, he argued that marriage is singular, unique and holy, which breaks apart the concept of civil marriage, let alone anything that is included in the Bill. His second argument was entirely fallacious, as Mr. Carmichael pointed out, because he contended that it is usually two siblings who live together. I have not received a single letter about the sibling issue on behalf of siblings in my constituency but, as I pointed out in an over-lengthy intervention, I have known two sets of siblings who have lived together for more than 12 years or for a large part of their lives. Three spinster second cousins of mine lived together in Aviemore for 70 years, and they made perfectly adequate provision for one another. One problem of the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Gainsborough—it is the only proposal that we are considering, and he cannot submit amendments that suggest that three, four and five siblings should be able to live together—is that three or four siblings would have to decide which two were going to form a civil partnership, which would be profoundly more disturbing for the family relationship than the present arrangements.
The hon. Gentleman is making a meal of the proposals. The provision was drafted in a certain way, and I am quite happy to extend it, either here or in the other place, to cover more than two siblings. We will do anything that he wants. It does not matter what we propose, the hon. Gentleman would still oppose it, as he knows perfectly well.
And the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that, whatever the Government's proposals, he would not accept them. He is disingenuous in the extreme but, more importantly, he is a far more experienced Member than I am, and knows that on Report we can only debate amendments that have been tabled, and must choose whether to accept or reject them. I am just trying to point out that his amendments do not even meet his own arguments, let alone any other arguments that might be made to support them.
The hon. Gentleman's amendments create one final problem. I do not know whether he read the verbiage tabled in Standing Committee, some of which we debated and some of which did not pass muster, but he has decided to change tack slightly today. Instead of a system in which civil partnerships between same-sex couples are extended to siblings—they would have to dismantle their relationships, which would take time, and legal procedures could ruin family links between two sisters or two brothers—he has invented a wholly new concept of a relationship that is easily formed and dismantled. His argument therefore falls at the first hurdle.
The casualness is in the forming of the relationship and the determination that it should be registered as a civil partnership. In the Bill, we are trying to allow homosexual couples, both male and female, to declare their commitment to one another and enter into something which, I accept, is remarkably similar to marriage in many regards. To use a phrase deployed by Mr. Duncan on Second Reading, we are proceeding along parallel lines. It is right and proper that they are close together but, equally, it is a property of parallel lines that they do not cross.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be arguing that the main purpose of the Bill is to recognise partnerships through civil registration. How does that affect same-sex cohabiting couples in a platonic relationship, such as two women who have shared a life together? They obviously do not have the sort of relationship that he is talking about, but they fall within the scope of the Bill. They cannot, however, avail themselves of civil registration.
I am glad to say that the secrets of our hearts are not known to everyone in the land. Many marriages in the land consecrated in church result in a remarkably platonic relationship. The couple, however, have decided that they want to declare their love for one another in public. The state should not try to ensure that those relationships are not platonic, as it is for individuals to make their own decision.
My hon. Friend rightly warns me not to do so.
In conclusion, the hon. Member for Gainsborough, in an effort to avert the arguments against his previous amendments by trying to make a relationship that is easily dissoluble in law, has established a new set of parallel lines that have nothing to do with the Bill, and should therefore be rejected by the House.
Before I speak to my amendments, I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh on the wording of new clause 1, which addresses concerns expressed on Second Reading and in Committee about the unintended consequences of the Bill, as amended in the other place. I challenge everyone who has used the anomalies in the original wording of the Bill as a smokescreen to confront the discrimination that, without my amendments or new clause 1, the Bill would embrace, as it would privilege same-sex partnerships over and above all other partnerships outside marriage. My hon. Friend's new clause extends the ability to access the privilege of legal partnership to siblings over 30 who have lived together for a continuous period of 12 years.
New clause 2 would replace the complicated legal structure of dissolution, nullity and separation with a much simpler system of termination similar to the approach that I argued for in Committee, which is reflected in new clause 3, which I tabled.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that his new clause would bring into the scope of the Bill couples of the opposite sex who are not married? Those of us who are extremely worried about the Bill because it undermines the uniqueness of marriage in favour of homosexual relationships must surely be vastly more worried by a proposal to extend its provisions to all and sundry.
I can understand that my right hon. Friend is worried about extending the Bill to all and sundry, as she puts it, but I hope that when she has listened to my argument in favour of new clause 3, she will accept its logic. In particular, she should bear in mind that the French civil solidarity pact is a registered relationship that is far inferior to marriage, and different from and looser than marriage. Nevertheless, whether partners are of the same sex or opposite sexes, they can enter into such a pact and thereby gain access to various state legal privileges. That arrangement has nothing to do with the law of God; it is purely a civil relationship. I commend it to the House in preference to the extraordinary arrangements set out in the Bill. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for looking satisfied with my explanation.
I commend to the House the argument for extending the provisions in the Bill much further. My amendments would not limit the legal privilege of being able to apply for civil partnership as new clause 1 seeks to do. That privilege would be open to any two people over 18 in a specified relationship as set out in new schedule 1. It would be open to two unmarried and unrelated people sharing a home in an asexual relationship; an unmarried parent sharing a home with an unmarried son or daughter; two unmarried siblings sharing a home; and two unmarried and unrelated people in a sexual relationship sharing a home.
New schedule 1 would have the bizarre effect of ensuring that inheritance tax is not chargeable in transfers between a parent and an unmarried child who registers, although it would be chargeable between a parent and a married child. That seems to turn values on their head.
My right hon. and learned Friend talks about turning values on their head, but in doing my research for this afternoon's debate, I happened to notice that he supported the Bill on civil partnerships introduced by Jane Griffiths in 2001. That Bill sought to give legality to civil partnerships covering both same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. I am disappointed that my right hon. and learned Friend seeks by implication to support the whole structure of inheritance tax. I would have hoped that he would, like me, be against inheritance tax and want to abolish it as soon as possible. I hope that we can agree about that.
As soon as it is abolished, new clause 3 will no longer be the subject of any valid objection by my right hon. and learned Friend.
My hon. Friend mentioned the research that he had done in preparing for the debate. In doing that research, he will clearly have worked out how many millions of couples will benefit from the proposed package and identified its cost. Will he tell us what that cost is?
The arrangement would be open to about 4 million people. I am very disappointed by the implication of what my hon. Friend is suggesting. He seems to be saying that, if there is discrimination, there should be a limit on the price of eliminating it. I would have thought that, as a Conservative, he would be in favour of eliminating discrimination irrespective of the costs of so doing.
Will my hon. Friend help me through this maze with one very simple explanation? Under his new clause, what unique factors are still preserved by marriage?
The unique factors preserved by marriage are holy matrimony, permanence and all that goes with the fact that the relationship will be marriage.
I shall not do so at the moment, as I want to respond to the points made by my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe.
In France, marriage is a very strong institution. It has not been undermined one iota by the introduction into French law of the civil solidarity pact, to which I referred earlier. If one looks at new clause 2, which would effectively simplify the way in which one could enter into or break such a relationship, it becomes apparent that, far from being like marriage, this is a completely different and distinct legal relationship that is more like a contract and therefore totally unrelated to marriage. As it is distinct from marriage, it is much preferable to the complication in the Bill, which seeks to promote same-sex marriage in all but name.
I know that lots of hon. Members want to participate in the debate, but I think that it would be better to make a bit of progress before taking any more interventions.
New clause 3 and new schedule 1 would give millions of people access to the legal privilege provided by the Bill, which the Government intend to be available only to same-sex partners. By far the largest category of people who could benefit from the new clause is unmarried and unrelated people sharing a home in a sexual relationship—in other words, cohabitees. The 2001 census found that slightly more than 4 million people lived in cohabiting relationships in England and Wales, in contrast with 78,500 living in same-sex cohabiting relationships.
About five years ago, the Law Society published recommendations for reform of the law relating to cohabitants. Those proposals gave rise to the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Reading, East. I shall not repeat to the House the full list of the Law Society's recommendations, but I point out that a primary recommendation was:
"Any reform of the law should provide both heterosexual and homosexual cohabitants with increased protection, while not equating the remedies available with those available for married couples".
The Law Society also said:
"Cohabitants should have the right to apply for capital provision on separation. Applications should be determined having regard to the principle that fair account should be taken of any economic advantage derived by either party from contributions by the other, and of any economic disadvantages suffered by either party in the interests of the other party or of the family."
It went on to say:
"Cohabitation contracts should be explicitly recognised as being enforceable subject to safeguards designed to ensure that the contract is fair when it is entered into and any major changes of circumstances can be catered for during the lifetime of the contract . . . Cohabitants should be able to opt to take advantage of pension earmarking and, in future, sharing on separation . . . Changes should be made to the law on life assurance to provide that cohabitants have an insurable interest in the life of their partners and that a cohabitant should be able to take out a life insurance policy on his or her own life for the benefit of a partner."
It was against that background that
Why did people support the Relationships (Civil Registration) Bill? They did so largely because of some of the cases identified by the hon. Member for Reading, East in her speech. I shall not repeat the whole of that speech, but I want to refer to a particular case that is pertinent to what we are discussing. She told the House about her constituent, Rose Green:
"She had lived with John . . . for more than 12 years; they were engaged but they had never married—they never got around to it. They loved each other and saw no reason to change their situation. They expected to spend the rest of their lives together, but . . . last year John . . . died tragically and suddenly from a brain haemorrhage. That is when Rose found out that people who live together have no rights or responsibilities towards each other. She was not allowed to register John's death."
Hon. Members who are concerned about same-sex partnerships have made that point.
"She was not allowed to sign for his funeral. She even had to get his family's permission to make an entry in the book of remembrance."—[Hansard, 24 October 2001; Vol. 373, c. 321.]
The hon. Member for Reading, East introduced her Bill against that background, so that people such as Rose and John, who lived together, can have the same rights and responsibilities as others.
The case that my hon. Friend Jane Griffiths raised in the House a few years ago was tragic, but does the hon. Gentleman think it likely that that couple would have registered their civil partnership, given that they never got round to marriage?
Such couples should be given the choice. New clause 3 would introduce a much simpler system of registration, akin to that that prevails in France. People would be able to enter that system of registration, knowing that it would commit them not to a lifetime, permanent relationship, but to a relationship for the time being, which would be completely different from marriage, but which would bring certain legal privileges provided by the state. That is the essence of the argument. I know that Mr. Borrow believes only in marriage—on Second Reading, he courageously said that he wants to enter into a firm, lifetime, permanent partnership following the enactment of the legislation—but many other people in both same-sex and other-sex couples do not want to embrace long-term commitment.
Is there not a public interest point? If my hon. Friend's new clause carried the day, people who did not intend to make a lifetime relationship could register a partnership, from which huge legal consequences concerning, for example, pensions would flow. Is it right that such an entitlement should be attached to a relationship that is not intended to be long lasting?
It is right, and the Solicitors Family Law Association thinks so too, which is why it proposed a new cohabitation law, separate and distinct from matrimonial law. That proposal was not introduced by casual people writing on the backs of envelopes; it was introduced by a body of some 5,000 solicitors, who are specialists in dealing with the breakdown of families, both married and unmarried.
The Solicitors Family Law Association sought to get Parliament to address how things have changed so radically over the years. In the late 1950s, which, like me, you may remember, Mr. Deputy Speaker, just 2 per cent. of women reported that they had lived with their first husband prior to marriage. By the 1960s, 25 per cent. of women had cohabited prior to marriage. By the mid-1990s, the figure had risen to 77 per cent., and it is probably even higher now. Social mores have changed, and Parliament must catch up. The proposal introduced by the Law Society and the hon. Member for Reading, East was designed to change the law to reflect the changing world.
Choice is the essence of new clause 3. My hon. Friend is discussing a man and a woman, who can choose whether or not to get married in either a holy ceremony or a civil ceremony, and who know that benefits will accrue from that choice. However, the Bill is about people who do not have that choice because they are in a same-sex relationship, which is why new clause 3 is fundamentally inappropriate.
My hon. Friend has deployed those arguments before, but he fails to recognise that we should widen choice. People could opt into civil partnerships, but they would not have to do so and it would not be compulsory. New clause 3 would give people who want to register a cohabiting relationship short of marriage fresh and wider choice. Some 4 million people are already involved in such relationships.
I understand that my hon. Friend Charles Hendry is active in campaigning for the Conservative case among young people. He will know that more than half of people in cohabiting relationships are aged between 20 and 35. If Parliament and, in particular, the Conservative party are to be relevant to people in that age group, there is a strong case for enabling—not forcing—those people to register their partnership, and thereby obtain access to legal privilege in same way as their counterparts in France. Why should we not do so? It would widen choice, freedom and responsibility.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because he is being generous with his time. May I postulate another case? What would happen if one of the parties wanted to get married or enter into a cohabitation arrangement and the other party did not? In that case, the "innocent" party would be unable to take advantage of either marriage or a cohabitation agreement. What rights would they have, and what rights would their children have?
Neither the hon. Gentleman nor anyone else involved in the debate has come up with a solution on unilateral marriage or unilateral partnerships, which the hon. Gentleman seems to be discussing. Perhaps he can come up with a formula that will find favour with the Administration. I am not discussing unilateral relationships or partnerships.
I am not discussing unilateral relationships; I am discussing bilateral relationships in which one of the parties is not prepared to go the whole way, but the relationship has existed for 15 or 20 years—I know people in such circumstances. If the Bill grants people the right merely to register their interest, is it not unfair that a person who is unable to register such an interest because the other party is unwilling to do so should therefore suffer detriment?
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but the essence of the matter is agreement. Agreement is the basis for marriage, partnership or the French alternative, a civil solidarity pact.
If we are bringing ourselves up to date as a modernising Parliament, let us reflect the changing approach to children born outside marriage. Before my mother produced me, neighbours living close to our home in Kent counted out the months between when my parents got married and when I was born—the gap was 11 months, which was legitimate. In the past 20 years, however, the proportion of births registered outside marriage has risen from 10 per cent. to more than 40 per cent., and more than half of those births are registered by unmarried parents with the same address. For the sake of their children and themselves, such people may want to take advantage of the new registration system in my new clause.
The incomprehensible part of the hon. Gentleman's argument is why people who are so committed to each other that they are prepared to have children, but who have decided not to get married, should suddenly decide to form a civil partnership.
Such people may regard marriage as a permanent, lifetime commitment that they do not have the self-confidence to make. However, they may want to make a commitment which may last a lifetime, but which can be broken much more easily than marriage.
I will not give way again, because I am in danger of using far too much time in this time-limited debate. It is appropriate to remind hon. Members that the tight guillotine imposed by the Government prevented us from debating 118 clauses in Committee.
We were unable to debate a host of Government amendments and debated only six of the 29 schedules. In view of the limited amount of time that the Government have given us today, it would be over-indulgent for one hon. Member to take more than a fair share of it. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I am glad that that wins support from other hon. Members.
Let us remind ourselves of one particular group of people—those who are living together with a view to getting married. They may, for example, be waiting to get married at Christchurch priory, which is such a wonderful venue that it is sometimes necessary to book more than a year in advance in order to be able to do so. Why should those people be unable to register their relationship in a civil way so as to protect themselves in the event of one of them suffering an untimely death prior to the marriage? Hosts of people nowadays are separated or divorced and do not wish to enter into another marriage but would like to have the opportunity to register a relationship that is short of marriage.
Extraordinarily, in 2001–02, 57 per cent. of the population believed that there was something called common law marriage that gives cohabiting couples the same rights as married couples. That implies that those people would like to have such rights although they do not have them at the moment. The Government's response is to say, "Well, let's have a big education and propaganda campaign." My response, as a free marketeer, is to say, "Let's widen the choice—let's introduce a new partnership that people can opt into if they want to." That is exactly what has happened in the past. If we look in the history books, we see that the Marriage Act 1753 was introduced to deal with changing arrangements that Parliament thought should be reflected in changes to the law.
I want to refer to some of the other amendments that stand in my name. Amendments Nos. 12 and 13 would remove the restriction on civil partners having to be of the same sex. Amendments Nos. 17 and 18 would enable a partnership to be automatically terminated or dissolved by the subsequent marriage of one of the partners. That is a very important point that we debated briefly in Committee. One of the parties to a same-sex partnership may wish to enter into holy matrimony and should have the right to break the partnership in order to marry. That is not a new idea—it already happens in the jurisdiction of Portugal—and it is unconscionable that this House should legislate to prevent it from happening.
Amendments Nos. 14 and 16 would alter the rules on eligibility to reflect new clause 3 and new schedule 1. I want to say a few words about amendments Nos. 19 and 20, which would put recognition of all overseas civil partnerships on an equal footing. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham will agree with me about this. In France, cohabitees of the opposite sex or the same sex can enter into a civil solidarity pact, yet clauses 212 and 215 provide that partners in a French civil solidarity pact who are registered as such will have their partnership recognised in English law only if they are of the same sex. That would necessitate investigations into whether the partnership was between same-sex or opposite-sex couples. That is highly discriminatory. Why should we not be prepared to recognise foreign civil partnerships, whether of the same sex or the opposite sex? I beg to suggest that that is in fundamental breach of human rights and freedoms and should be addressed, if not by the Government's acceptance of my amendments, then by the other place.
At the moment, the Bill creates a legal minefield. It is discriminatory in nature. It is effectively a same-sex partnership Bill, but the Government do not have the guts to call it such. It therefore offers scope for the acceptance of the amendments, which would ensure that it is no longer a same-sex partnership Bill but a much wider partnership Bill.
I have never previously viewed my hon. Friend Mr. Chope as a moderniser, born-again or otherwise. He has presented himself in a new guise this afternoon, and I sought attentively to listen to and to take account of his arguments. I confess that, just as on Second Reading and in Standing Committee, I found those arguments unpersuasive.
Let me begin with my hon. Friend's amendment on extending the right of civil partnership to heterosexual couples. It is fair to observe, though I accept that it does not of itself undermine his argument, that there appears to be something of a split on this matter between different strands of the traditionalist view among Conservative Members. As I understand it, my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe and my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh are against the extension of that right to heterosexual couples. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, who is against the Bill, would admit that that would not have been his original preference.
What I tried unavailingly to elicit from my hon. Friend in Committee, and would try to extract from him now, is an explanation of what so far has not been explained—at any rate, not to me. How is it that, as my hon. Friend contends, civil partnership rights for gay couples undermine marriage, but civil partnership rights for heterosexual couples, for whom the option of marriage is available, do not? That strikes me as such an extraordinary argument that it requires explanation.
If my hon. Friend has listened to my speech he will know that I have not once deployed the argument about undermining marriage; I should like to establish a different system other than marriage that people can opt into if they want to.
This seems to be a moveable feast. I had thought that I was listening closely to my hon. Friend's remarks. I am not able to regurgitate the full contents of his speech on Second Reading or to remember verbatim what he said in Standing Committee, but I do recall, because the argument was advanced so forcefully and frequently, his view that the Bill, in conferring these rights on gay couples, would undermine marriage. It therefore seems reasonable to ask him how it is that conferring similar rights on heterosexual couples who, unlike gay couples, can marry, would not undermine marriage.
I have observed before that the late Enoch Powell, a man with whom I agreed on some things and disagreed on a great many others, often used to say that such and such a point was so blindingly obvious that only an extraordinarily clever person could fail to grasp it. This point is so blindingly obvious that I cannot understand why my hon. Friend cannot grasp it. I have put it to my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth before.
Yes, I am prepared to amend my position. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. In most cases that the amendment would affect, the heterosexual couples could marry but I accept that there are some circumstances in which they could not. I am therefore grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying and improving my argument.
I said that I was prepared to go a stage further than simply objecting to the illogicality of the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. I am prepared to nail my colours to the mast. After reflection and on balance—I do not feel passionately strongly about the matter—I believe that extending civil partnership rights to heterosexual couples would probably undermine marriage. I say "probably" but I am not sure whether it would have that effect. I am simply sensitive to the possibility. That would be undesirable.
As my hon. Friend said, several people who introduced Bills on civil partnership rights in the past suggested that they should apply to both categories of person. However, it is equally true that in many examples from around the world, the entitlement exists only for same-sex couples. I believe that it is better to stick with the Bill rather than take a risk that is probably greater than any benefit that it might confer.
I want to deal briefly with tax, which featured prominently in the exchanges between my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Hogg, and in exchanges between my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and several hon. Members. The Bill is not principally about tax. It potentially includes tax implications for future Finance Bills but it is not mainly about that. It is about recognising relationships. It was a weakness in the passionately and sincerely argued case of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough that he was unable to explain why, if the injustice against siblings was as fundamental as he claimed, he had not previously argued for it to be remedied through legislation.
My hon. Friend and others who share his view are perfectly free to argue for inheritance tax relief or, indeed, abolition, if they wish. For the avoidance of doubt and because I do not want to be outdone by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, I make it clear that, philosophically, I am sympathetic to the abolition of inheritance tax, but with two caveats. First, it should not be a top priority for Conservative Members given the limited public resources that might be available for tax relief.
Secondly, not only should it not be a top priority for Conservatives against other and better competing claims, but we must be realistic. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough talked about living in the real world and dealing with circumstances as they exist. We must acknowledge that, however much we dislike the fact, at the moment—hopefully not for much longer—there is a Labour Government, who have rather a large majority. If inheritance tax relief is not a high priority for some Conservatives, it is no priority for the Labour Government. We cannot realistically cavil at that. We are therefore left with dealing with the Bill as it is.
It seems wrong to superimpose on the architecture of civil partnership, which is aimed at and will benefit people who cannot marry, an arrangement exclusively for the benefit of siblings or heterosexual partners who could get married. The Bill is not about tax. If we want to propose a tax measure, let us do that in a tax Bill. It is a deeply regulatory approach—the adoption of a sledgehammer to crack a nut—for a Conservative Member to try to create an architecture of civil partnership for people who could marry and enjoy all the benefits of marriage when the Bill is a narrower measure, aimed at an identifiable group of people who suffer exclusively from one disadvantage: that because of their orientation, they cannot marry.
I thought that I had explained that I accepted the hon. Gentleman's central point that, although in most cases the people to whom I refer could get married, a proportion are not in a position to do so. Those who are keenly interested in the debate would not thank us for being excessively pedantic when we know the broad issues, underlying principles and legal, financial and other consequences of the Bill.
Given that many of us have received forceful representations from heterosexual couples who want to avail themselves of the benefits of the new relationship, the Bill is a perfectly logical vehicle for trying to secure such an amendment. Telling people that they can get married is an argument that a clergyman might put to them, but not a politician. They do not want to get married. It is their choice not to get married. We are told that the measure is not a marriage Bill and we are therefore perfectly entitled to try to secure the sort of amendment that we propose.
That does not work, because my hon. Friend believes that the Bill will damage marriage as an institution through creating civil partnership entitlements. [Interruption.] If he believes that marriage will be damaged by conferring civil partnership rights on gay couples, it is thoroughly illogical of him to suggest that marriage would not be undermined by giving the new rights to people who could avail themselves of the opportunity to get married in a way that gay couples could not. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend is champing at the bit.
I have taken Ministers at their word. They say that it is not a marriage Bill and I accept that. I do not believe that the Bill damages marriage any more than I believe that extending the relationship to those who are not married will damage it. A growing proportion of our constituents are choosing to live in that way. If we ignore that reality, we shall undermine the stability of the social fabric. The arrangements should be extended to the growing proportion of our constituents who want and demand them.
I am interested in my hon. Friend's comments. He referred to the growing proportion of our constituents who want and demand the arrangements. Let us be clear. I do not know how many representations, written or otherwise, hon. Members have received about the Bill. I have received a substantial number from gay couples who feel that they are not only invisible, as the Government often say, but almost non-existent in the eyes of the law. In the past 12 months since the Bill was mentioned in the Queen's Speech, I have not received a single letter from a constituent in a heterosexual relationship demanding that the Bill be extended for his or her benefit. I have not received one such representation.
My hon. Friend Mr. Swayne is entirely correct to say that cohabitation is growing, and that more and more people voluntarily choose that arrangement for their life. It is not, however, correct to say that there is a great clamour to extend the Bill in this way. It is a combination of that fact and my genuine concern that these measures could undermine the institution of marriage—which my hon. Friend and I, in our different ways, both cherish—that causes me to oppose the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch.
The argument against extending these rights to siblings has been eloquently developed by a number of my colleagues. I have sought, in my humble fashion—or as near to humble as I am able to muster—to develop the arguments against the amendments, both on Second Reading and in Committee. I do not feel it necessary to dilate now. I should simply like to make two other points.
First, there is a cost issue involved, and I do not think that it is good enough for my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough and for Christchurch simply to brush aside the cost considerations. Many of us genuinely disagree with my hon. Friends on the issue of principle, but, given that there are all sorts of arguments that colleagues have rightly used in pressing their case, it is reasonable for us, whether we agree with the principle or not—I do not—to say, "What about the cost implications?" I have always regarded my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch as a very model of fiscal probity. If, in fact, I were now to discover that he was the spendthrift of Christchurch, it would be perfectly reasonable for me to factor that into the equation and to use it as a criticism of his argument.
I am sorry, but I cannot quite remember exactly how much the Bill will cost, in terms of public money, if it goes through without these amendments. I am sure that my hon. Friend, with his fantastic, encyclopaedic knowledge, will be able to remind us of the figure.
Off the top of my head, I cannot. I heard my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth chuntering to some other hon. Friends about this a few minutes ago. I know that he was, perfectly reasonably, considering saving that rather juicy intervention for Angela Eagle. The hon. Lady managed to escape my hon. Friend's intervention, however, so I have been subjected to it instead. My honest answer is that, on this occasion, my hon. Friend has checkmated me. I do not know exactly, but, if I remember rightly, the figure is in the tens of millions. The Government have very fairly explained in the regulatory impact assessment what the cost of the Bill will be, and it is a relatively small cost. I happen to believe that it is a justifiable cost, and I do not think it right that we should substantially extend that cost, at a time of limited resources, by seeking to inject these provisions into a Bill to which they are not suited.
Finally, I want to deal with the question of whether this is about marriage. My hon. Friend Mr. Duncan made the point extremely effectively on Second Reading about civil partnership developing along parallel lines to marriage. The Deputy Minister for Women and Equality, Jacqui Smith stressed very openly—on Second Reading, I think, and certainly in Committee—that the Government's objective was to try to ensure that the provisions in the Bill corresponded as closely as possible to the procedures and entitlements of civil marriage, although not of holy matrimony. The question of whether a civil partnership is a marriage or not is therefore largely irrelevant.
We are seeking to provide to people who cannot marry arrangements that do not disadvantage them. That is why I am inclined to say that the arrangements in the Bill for civil registration for gay couples are analogous to, but not the same as or indistinguishable from, civil marriage. That seems to be a perfectly respectable position.
The Bill, in its original form, was a good Bill. It will command widespread support, and I do not think that it should be interfered with in the way that some Members want. In rejecting the amendments that my hon. Friends the Members for Aldershot and for Christchurch have perfectly honourably tabled, and to which they are speaking, I want to leave them with this simple thought; we cannot have it both ways when addressing the issue of civil partnership and the rights of gay people—[Interruption.] Let me try to develop a point that is important to me. Members cannot complain that gay partnerships are inherently transitory and unstable, and yet, when the opportunity for civil registration comes along—giving people the chance to declare their commitment, with the welter of rights and responsibilities that flow from that commitment—say that those people should not have that right to declare their commitment.
This is an opportunity to give substance, body and rigour to a new arrangement. I would like to suggest to my right hon. and hon. Friends that that arrangement is philosophically defensible from several different perspectives. I am perfectly prepared to accept that an argument can be made for the arrangement that is fully conversant with socialist principles. Similarly, I accept that Mr. Carmichael can make an argument for civil partnership and ground it in Liberal philosophy. I know that some of my right hon. and hon. Friends disagree with me, but I passionately believe that the principles of civil partnership for gay couples are eminently defensible in and can be expressed as part of Conservative philosophy. If we took a sensible and forward-looking approach, there would be nothing to stop a commitment to civil partnership rights in a Conservative manifesto.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition sensibly allowed us a free vote on the Bill instead of stopping Conservatives voting for it. I was inspired when in February this year, in a speech to Policy Exchange, my right hon. and learned Friend said that he himself would vote for this Bill. I was even more encouraged when he made it clear that although he recognised some of the grievances that siblings and others might have, he judged that the amendments in the other place, which are favoured by some of my hon. Friends in this place, were not appropriate to the architecture of this Bill. As usual—although, I admit, not as always—I am strongly in agreement with my right hon. and learned Friend.
I know that some of my right hon. and hon. Friends may still wish to speak, and I do not want to stand in their way, but it might be helpful, at this stage of our interesting exchange, for me to comment on this group of amendments.
I find myself addressing the amendments with a sort of haunting inevitability—those of us who have followed the Bill through all its legislative stages so far will know what I mean, and may share my profound sense of déjà vu—because we have debated amendments of a similar or identical nature at every stage of the Bill. At every stage, in my opinion, the arguments against them have been overwhelming. None the less, for the benefit of Members who have not heard all our proceedings, it may be useful for me to rehearse the arguments once again, and to assist those who have to some extent been misled by assertions made in newspaper stories and advertisements that appeared in our press today. Perhaps I can say, "Here we go again," and some Members may be able to join in at the chorus. [Laughter.]
We are told that the motivation for tabling the amendments, as we were told in another place when amendments were tabled there, is to address the grievances of elderly siblings or carers who share a house and are stung by inheritance tax when the person with whom they live dies. It is indeed profoundly unfair that people who cohabit in this way are disadvantaged on the death of the other, by being forced out of their home or subjected to crippling inheritance tax so late in life. It is absolutely right to raise those issues, and in doing so the plight of those who are disadvantaged in this way was drawn to the attention of a wider audience. We have made an issue out of a concern that was not widely known about previously, but which genuinely exists. That has resulted in the Government's promising to take further action to address those issues, and we intend to hold them to that.
"I shall certainly undertake . . . to give the House the more mature reflection of the Government in relation to how to respond to that issue . . . these issues have percolated to the top of the discussions on a number of occasions. They are issues with which the Government have grappled and they will . . . continue to do so."—[Official Report, House of Lords,
But we continued to press for the result of that grappling to be made clear, and we will continue to do so. In Committee, the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality herself said:
"We are aware of the concerns, particularly of carers, but we do not believe that close family members need legal recognition as civil partners to make sense of their family arrangements. They are already related."—[Official Report, Standing Committee D,
That is quite so. And as my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said in a letter to colleagues, and to others who have written to him, to which reference has been made this afternoon:
"If two sisters were to register their partnership, they would have to pool all their assets. If, later on, one of them wanted to get married, the only way they would be able to terminate this partnership would be through complicated legal proceedings"
—that is, through dissolution.
I admit that in the new clause my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh makes the dissolution easier, but that does two things. It dilutes the quality and extent of the commitment that civil partnerships are designed to entail, and it introduces a separate regime for, in some respects, similar sets of people. It therefore introduces a new scale of discrimination that did not previously exist. Rather than addressing a problem of discrimination, the new clause compounds it.
As others have said today, the complications do not end there. What if three of more siblings shared a house? What if two did and one did not? How would they decide which two would form a civil partnership, and what the effects would be? What if someone in a civil partnership with an elderly relative wanted to marry, and wanted to move in the prospective spouse to share the burden of caring? In such circumstances, they would be barred from marrying until the civil partnership had been dissolved in court. If, as would apply under another amendment, dissolution were automatic, that too would dilute the nature of the commitment intended in a civil partnership.
The partners would face the prospect of embarking on a complex legal process to prove irretrievable breakdown. That might be more difficult in the case of a mother than in that of a mother-in-law, but in any event it would be required. Alternatively, they would be accused of living in sin under the roof of the family home—or they would have to live in sin under the roof of the family home, and what would the Christian Institute say about that?
I think that most Members with no prejudices in either direction will have understood some of the arguments, including those of my hon. Friend. The fact is, however, that a significant proportion of marriages involve such problems, and they are not an argument against a Marriage Act. What we are doing is extending some rights to some people outside marriage—those who cannot marry.
The question that occurs to some of us is, "Why must we exclude people who might properly receive the benefits that follow from civil partnership?" Nothing that has been said on either side of the House strikes me as conclusive. I feel that it is taking the argument too far to cite the difficulties of dissolution when the same difficulties do not prevent us from getting married.
The answer to that is that there are concerns to be addressed, but this is not the place in which to address them.
The new clauses and amendments wreck the Bill by creating partnerships within an existing family which, in their confused and contradictory interrelationship, are utterly unworkable. My right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Hogg gave a very good example when he cited the complications to the inheritance tax regime. The new clauses and amendments are an ingenious disruption masquerading as a genuine attempt to help people whom they would not, in fact, help. The associations that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough wishes to protect—as do I—could, as he admitted, be included in a Finance Bill. They are not addressed by this Bill, for a very simple reason that no one has mentioned today.
The Bill cannot come into practical effect until there is an accompanying Finance Bill to implement all the measures. That is the place for all the arguments that have been deployed by my hon. Friends today. They do not fit in this particular piece of primary legislation.
No. I argued for that on Second Reading. I would have liked the financial measures to coincide with Royal Assent for the Bill, but because this Bill did not exist, I was told that it was not possible to include such measures in the Finance Bill. If my interpretation is wrong, I am sure that the Minister will clarify the matter.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not.
Other groups have also recognised that this is not the right way to address these issues, and they have said so on many occasions. As we have been told three or four times in this Chamber and in Committee, the Carers National Association, which purportedly would benefit from the new clauses and amendments being moved by my right hon. and hon. Friends, has stated its opposition to such provisions. It says:
"We foresee many potential negative impacts on the cared for person and the carer with the amendments to the Bill . . . The changes could have a devastating impact on the income of the carer and the person for whom they care".
So all the apparently good motives supposedly contained in the Bill stand to have a "devastating" effect on the people whom they pretend to assist. That is not the kind of purpose that we in this House properly serve.
But there are many other anomalies—
But if it can almost never work and it would not introduce a system that has parity of effect across the sector that my hon. Friend is trying to help, even more anomalies would be introduced than the ones I have listed, thereby making matters even more complicated. As a result, there would be carers who need help but who cannot benefit from the status of the law, and those who can. A myriad complications and discriminations would render many a carer far worse off than equivalent carers who would be equally deserving.
My hon. Friend must not be too generous with my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh, because although, as he just said, the arrangement would be voluntary, it would be chronic if we in this House deliberately—or even inadvertently—misled people into thinking that they were going to get a benefit that in fact would prove not at all workable.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Although the new clauses and amendments have the potential to help some people, in my view they would wreck the Bill and introduce no end of problems; moreover, they would be only symbolic in their effect and cause many more problems than they address.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his typical generosity. He has repeated the assertion, made by Angela Eagle, that the new clause would wreck the Bill. However, it is very narrowly defined and if passed, in its simplicity and clarity—even given the problems that he foresees—it nevertheless would not wreck the Bill's central purpose, which he appears to support.
I remember a little homily that Lord Lawson offered when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. When once urged to simplify the taxation system, he said that the problem is that as soon as one tries to do so, one invariably makes it more complicated. Those responsible for this supposedly simple group of new clauses and amendments could benefit from listening to that homily. These measures would not make things simpler; they are straightforward, but with potentially devastating and complicated implications.
Many other anomalies and absurd unintended consequences arising from trying to shoehorn these measures into the Bill would also make it utterly unworkable. What is needed are measures to offer inheritance tax deferral to anyone who finds themselves in the situation described emotively in this morning's Christian Institute advertisement. The place for securing inheritance tax deferral is—we say it again—in a Finance Bill, not a Civil Partnership Bill, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough essentially admitted earlier. We do indeed have the opportunity to include such an amendment to the Finance Bill that will be required to accompany the Bill before us. Indeed, that is the approach endorsed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition, who supported the action that we took in Committee to reverse amendments made in another place. I make no apology for repeating what he said in a letter to colleagues and to those who wrote to him:
"I therefore think it better to return the Bill to its original form and fight vigorously for provisions to be included in a Finance Bill which would remedy the unfair disadvantages which affect them. This is what we shall do our best to achieve in the House of Commons during the passage of the next Finance Bill."
That will be a glorious moment, because there is nothing that I would enjoy more than to be able to work in harmony, unity and unison with all my right hon. and hon. Friends in the manner best suited to dealing with the problem.
Will my hon. Friend let us know whether the commitment given by our right hon. and learned Friend extends to people who are cohabiting? Surely it is important for them to be included in it.
In my personal opinion, rather than an official party position, I hope not, and for the very reason that my hon. Friend Mr. Chope of all people should most understand—that it would undermine the institution of marriage. I believe that provisions should not be placed in a finance Bill to deal with that category of people.
When the hon. Gentleman forms his broad coalition to fight for inheritance tax reform, does he expect the Christian Institute to argue that cohabiting couples should receive the relief and not just married couples?
The hon. Gentleman hits on the absurd contradiction contained in any argument for that position. It is certainly my view—we have been consistent in it throughout the Bill's passage—that we should not do anything to undermine the institution of marriage, and setting up a system of competing civil partnerships alongside heterosexual marriage would do exactly that. When it comes to setting up such arrangements for same-sex couples, I have argued that we are not exactly fishing in the same pool.
Both my party leader and I believe that amending a Finance Bill to allow inheritance tax deferral on certain terms is a sensible approach, and I hope that my hon. Friends will support it. I am sure that they will, when the moment comes. During the passage of the Bill, this important issue has been brought to wider attention; the Government have made some commitments to dealing with it, though not as firmly as we would like; and the leader of the Conservative party has committed us to fight for such a measure as a matter of policy. As far as I am concerned, that is not a bad result all round, though I would like to see it brought to a conclusion.
This afternoon's debate has focused heavily on the financial aspects such as inheritance tax, the transfer of housing rights and pension rights, but does my hon. Friend accept that a large part of the Bill deals with very different issues that uniquely affect same-sex couples and do not apply to siblings? I am thinking, for example, of the rights of next of kin, visiting rights in hospitals, the right to take decisions about a deceased partner and what subsequently happens to the estate and so forth. We should be focusing on those issues, but some of the other amendments have highlighted the fact that the Bill is not the most appropriate vehicle to deal with all of them.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend, and I am happy openly to reassert that the fundamental assumption of the Bill is that a partnership is based on a permanent and loving relationship. As such, it is different in respect of the affection between a sister and brother or two sisters and two brothers, and it is also different because the arrangements apply to a different group of people from those in the established traditional institution of marriage.
Before my hon. Friend moves on, will he deal with the point that was forcefully made earlier—that cohabiting couples deserve the same protection as those who are married? My hon. Friend's answer is that they can get married, but they may not want to get married. It seems to me that telling those people that they should get married is to preach at them and to fly in the face of reality.
My hon. Friend is going through logical contortions here. It is not preaching at people. It is perhaps others who preach by saying that, because they are cohabiting, they should get married. I am not saying that and neither are most hon. Members. What we are saying is that, given that those people have the option of marriage and can quite readily secure all the rights that are currently given to same-sex couples in the Bill, they should not also be afforded the right to civil partnership. After all, they may be less inclined to enter into a civil partnership just to secure those rights than they would be to enter into marriage. As has been noted time and again, if there existed a parallel and equivalent institution—civil partnership—that was an alternative to heterosexual marriage, that would be in competition with marriage and would undermine it. It is strange that my hon. Friend Mr. Swayne and I appear to be on opposite sides of this argument, when one might expect him to agree with me that we should do everything possible to protect the traditional institution of marriage.
It has been established that the amendment would not undermine the purpose of the Bill, but I want to propose to my hon. Friend the example of people who may live together between the ages of, say, 60 to 100. Such people might be an elderly surviving orphan and a housekeeper, for example. If they are of the same sex, they may enter into a civil partnership, but they cannot do so if they are not of the same sex. Why is the partnership available to people of the same sex who want to live together in a loving but non-sexual relationship, but not to people of different sexes?
I am not sure that I quite understand what my hon. Friend means. Two people living together have the option of marriage, and it is possible that the Finance Bill will contain a provision to defer inheritance tax, thus overcoming the main problem that we are trying to address.
I shall explain why I was rather disappointed when I saw these amendments appear again, and when I saw this morning's media coverage and advertisements. After all the debates that we have had on this issue, no one with any interest in it can be left in any doubt about the effect that the amendments would have. The Bill would be undermined, and I argue that the amendments would wreck it.
I have explained that about a million times. In wrecking the Bill, the amendments would do no one any good—least of all those whom the amendments are claimed to help.
Let us examine the Christian Institute advertisement. It states that 84 per cent. of people say yes to the assertion that if gay couples—and there is an insinuation in that that I do not particularly like, but I shall take it at face value—are to get new house-sharing rights, then so should two sisters who have lived together for 12 years or more. I agree that such people should be assisted, as the advertisement asks. In fact, I do not understand why only 84 per cent. of people were reported to agree with that proposition: why is it not 100 per cent?
As I have just said, we support the provision of inheritance tax measures to ensure that such couples are treated more fairly. However, this Bill is not the appropriate vehicle for that. That is a separate issue and it deserves separate attention in the Finance Bill.
We cannot choose to deal with one set of injustices in preference to another. Respect is not a zero-sum game, and neither is love. We do not weaken one loving relationship by affording recognition to another. [Interruption.] What is wrong and defensive in the argument advanced by the Christian Institute and others is the apparent suggestion that advancing the rights of what it calls ordinary families requires the condemnation of gay couples and the denial of rights to them. We are getting into a rather undesirable and potentially unpleasant situation when our debates as legislators begin to be swayed by moral lobbying and advertisements from religious pressure groups. Of course, they may choose to condemn homosexuality on the basis of their religious beliefs. We can either agree or disagree with that, but they do not have the right to insist that those beliefs be written into the laws of this country.
The potential effects of that approach are obvious. Once we translate our prejudices from the realm of private belief —
My hon. Friend is at risk of going down a really dangerous avenue if he is suggesting that the Christian Institute is not entitled to express what is a mainstream Christian point of view. It may not be universally held, but it is certainly in the mainstream. His approach is all the more dangerous because our laws are intended to be based on a Christian moral code.
I heed your words, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not want to take up too much time for fear of stopping other hon. Members speaking.
The amendments would damage the Bill. They would introduce contradictions and complications that would broadly make it unworkable. They would not, in fact, help the people they purport to help. There are other routes by which improvements in someone's plight can properly be remedied. The route for remedying those difficulties is a Finance Bill, not this Bill. It is up to hon. Members to choose how they will vote, but on that basis I urge them to reject the new clauses and amendments.
I apologise to the House. Because of business of the House, I was unfortunately unable to be present on Second Reading. Because of business of the House, I also came to this debate only when my hon. Friend Chris Bryant was speaking.
I want to take up a point made by Mr. Duncan. He said that people were wrong to try to put into legislation what they felt were their correct beliefs. Yet that is what this Bill does. I am neither for nor against that in this particular matter, but it is what is happening now. He considerably weakened his case by saying that people should not be able, in whatever way, to put into legislation what they believe in. Whether they are old clause IV socialists like me or more like Mr. Leigh, who would privatise everything in sight, people are entitled—so long as their constituents know where they stand—to put forward their opinions and seek to change legislation.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda is no longer in his place. He said that there were two extremes in this debate—those who regard homosexuality as an abomination, and those who think it is part and parcel of life and we should get on with that. I suggest that there is a third group—people who may or not find homosexual relationships acceptable but who believe that the law has no part to play in the matter. I well remember—I think I am the only hon. Member present who did so—voting in favour of Leo Abse's Bill. When I had a more elevated status than I do now, as Opposition defence spokesman, I moved amendments to military discipline legislation that would have resulted in homosexual conduct by members of the armed forces ceasing to be a criminal offence. I remember the serried ranks of the Conservative party voting against them, but when my own party came to power and was reminded of the undertaking that we had given, the Government ran away from it until the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg forced them to act.
On this matter, then, I think that I am in a position to say that I have a record of seeking not to criminalise people, but I can also say that I do not believe that the creation of a new type of civil relationship for one group alone—a group distinguished from others only by sexual relationship—should discriminate against other people. That, I think, is of the utmost importance.
We are saying that two people who have a sexual relationship, a commitment and a loving relationship, but who are of the same sex, should have advantages, through registering, over other people who have non-sexual loving relationships and who cannot register or gain any sort of advantage under the Bill. This Bill may not be about marriage—and I regard marriage as the union between a man and a woman—but it will create special relationships with special privileges that are not available to others in our society. Therefore, we must question it.
I raised with the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton the issue of the Finance Act 2004. I apologise to him because the Joint Committee on Human Rights in fact drew attention to the fact that confining the benefit of exemption from paragraph 10 of schedule 5 to the parties to a lawful marriage excludes from the scope of the exemption homosexual couples who live together as de facto spouses but are legally unable to marry; heterosexual unmarried couples who live together as de facto spouses; and people sharing a home on the basis of a long-term family relationship that is not a sexual relationship. We drew that to the attention of the House under articles 1 and 8 of protocol 1 of the European convention on human rights. Therefore, the House and the Government were aware of the particular problem that had been created in relation to this matter. Many hon. Members have said that this issue should be dealt with by a Finance Bill. If that is the case, the whole Bill should be dealt with by a Finance Bill. We could then deal with the relationships that I have just mentioned and achieve a degree of equity between them. The Bill will create an unequal situation.
I intervened in the speech by Mr. Bercow on several occasions to ask him to change "could" to "may" to draw attention to the fact that there are heterosexual relationships in which the parties may not wish to marry for a variety of philosophical reasons that mean that they do not personally feel able to enter into the institution of marriage. I also cited the case of a couple with children, one of whom would dearly love to get married, but the other sees no need to do so. The innocent party—the one who wants to get married or even to enter into a legal relationship—will not benefit because of the attitude of the other. That is wrong. We seek to legislate for equity, and a person in a heterosexual relationship should be able to have the rights in the Bill.
I acknowledge and respect my hon. Friend's long track record on this matter, which he outlined earlier. However, in the example that he has just cited, the couple would be in the position of a same-sex couple who choose not to register their partnership. The implication of what he says is that every same-sex couple should have those rights, but they should have those rights only if they choose to register their partnerships. Not every gay couple will choose to do so, but the fundamental point is that at present same-sex couples have no choice under the law. The couple that my hon. Friend gave as an example have made a philosophical decision and they could change their minds, but the gay couple cannot change their minds because the law discriminates against them as it stands.
I take that point, but we seek to legislate equitably for all the sorts of relationships that may exist. One can imagine a situation in which one member of a gay couple would like to register the partnership but the other refuses to do so, for whatever philosophical reason. The innocent party—the one who wishes to register—would suffer.
We are taking a piecemeal approach and dealing with one example of an inequitable and unjust situation. By just picking one example, we are not looking at the gamut of relationships that can exist. We are not talking about the registration of a loving relationship. If that were to happen, that would be fine—no problem. What we are really talking about are fiscal, inheritance and property rights and how with deal with those matters in certain relationships.
The hardship that is often cited relates to the difficulties associated with the relationship between the principal actor in "Yes Minister" and his partner. The same relationship also exists between siblings—brothers and sisters or two daughters—and the only difference is one of sexuality, not of love or companionship. It is not a question of sharing or owning property, which is what the Bill really deals with. If it were merely a question of people registering a relationship, there would be no problem. The other things that follow from the Bill will create inequity in respect of other people's relationships.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the most crucial aspect of the Bill for most same-sex couples is not tax, nor even inheritance, but the invisibility issue? If the relationship is recognised, the partners are recognised as next of kin. That is the crucial thing for most same-sex couples, and that is what the Bill will give to most of them if they decide to register. Tax, pensions and inheritance mean nothing to many same-sex couples without wealth or high incomes. The key thing is being recognised as a couple and as next of kin, with all the implications—
I have no objection to the next-of-kin relationship. People are entitled to choose whom they want to represent them one way or the other. That is not the problem. The problem relates to the other things that will follow from the Bill. For that reason, I shall vote for the new clause.
It has become a characteristic of these debates that, despite the fact that there are passionately held views on both sides of the argument, we have nevertheless endeavoured to discuss matters in as relatively amicable a fashion as we can possibly command, given the depth of our feelings.
I support new clause 1, moved by my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh and to which my hon. Friend Sir Teddy Taylor and I are party. I make no bones about that. I have made it absolutely clear that I wholly oppose the Bill. It is a profound mistake. Its consequences have been as yet unfathomed by many of those who support it, but fathomed only too clearly by some of those who support it very enthusiastically, and great damage will be done to our country in consequence.
I have set out my reasons in earlier debates, so I will not rehearse them tonight, but I wish that those who support the Bill and oppose new clause 1 would understand that we are not in the business of wrecking the Bill with the new clause. Would that we could by the new clause wreck the Bill. Sadly, we will not be able to do so. To impute to us the motive that we are using the new clause to wreck the Bill is unfair. [Interruption.] I oppose the Bill, but the new clause is not a mechanism for wrecking it.
My hon. Friend is much better versed in such matters than I am. I know that you, with your wisdom, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will have heard the submission that my hon. Friend made. I am sure that he was right.
Our motivation is the fact that the Bill is transparently unfair. Angela Eagle rejected Conservative Members' concerns for justice. [Interruption.] Yes, she did. She used the word "injustice" and said that we were not interested in justice during our 18 years in government. Let me remind her that we got rid of the closed shop, we gave people trapped in council houses the right to own their own homes and we relieved people of the tax burden. Those are examples of our concern for justice, which is manifested today in our support for new clause 1. We thus feel that we have every moral right to claim that the motivation behind new clause 1 is a sense of justice because we believe that the Bill is unfair. My hon. Friend Mr. Duncan said that it was profoundly unfair—I have not even used the word "profoundly"—that siblings were suffering to such an extent.
Let me remind the House of the situation about which we are talking. According to the 2001 census, more than 4.6 million people who live in the same house as another person do not consider themselves to be part of a couple. A number, although not all, of those will be close family members. Many will be siblings of the type set out in the excellent and admirable Christian Institute advertisement in The Times today. I submit that the situation contrasts unfavourably with the Bill's purpose.
The census estimates that some 80,000 people in this country live in same-sex couples. Baroness Scotland said in the other place that it was likely that 5 to 10 per cent. of eligible people would take up the benefits and privileges set out in the Bill.
That means that perhaps only 8,000 people in this country will take up the great panoply of the several hundred pages of new law that will be enacted. I entirely accept that the Bill sets out responsibilities, as Chris Bryant says, but it will also create privileges that will be denied to siblings. New clause 1 would confer such privileges. It is grossly unfair that siblings will not be included under the Bill.
I listened to all the arguments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton. He spoke from the Front Bench, but not, I hasten to remind the House, on behalf of the official Opposition—compelling though he was, we have a free vote on the issue. I do not understand why hon. Members proclaim the fact that the Bill will right an injustice and make fair a situation that is currently unfair when they are aware that other examples of unfairness exist. Their only answer to that is, "Wait until the Finance Bill." That is not an adequate response. It sits ill with a Government who profess that they are concerned about human rights and righting an injustice when they deny a pension to the widows of those who married servicemen after they had left military service and who have resisted time and again amendments made in the other place to correct that. It sits ill in their mouths to claim that they are motivated by righting an injustice when there are other manifest unfairnesses. Post-retirement marriages are one example of that, but clearly so too are siblings, as addressed in new clause 1.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is generous as only a churchwarden can be.
Just because there are different injustices does not mean that they all have to be dealt with in one Bill. Injustices in British society affect coal miners, but they should not be inserted in the Bill. There are injustices suffered by disabled people, but they should not be inserted either. The problem is that the amendments do not fit in the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Perhaps I should table an amendment to that effect.
I reject the argument that the Bill is not the place to deal with the problem. The hon. Gentleman rests on the argument that, because there is an injustice about which he feels strongly, all other injustices should be set on one side until that is sorted out. We believe that our limited new clause sits fairly in the Bill and would not wreck it, and my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough made a powerful case to support that. I am afraid to say that I have not heard an argument to suggest that the new clause would wreck it. I accept that there are complexities, but it would not wreck it.
I do not have the same view of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Chope and cannot support him on that. It is more far-reaching. However, the House should think carefully about how it will be perceived outside if we reject new clause 1, which is a modest measure to assist a particular group of people who may well exceed the number whom it is estimated will take advantage of the panoply of new law that the Bill creates. People will fail to understand why the Government rejected the opportunity to correct deficiencies in the amendments made in the other place by narrowing the definition and why they insisted that one group should benefit from the new rights without encompassing that other group. We should bear it in mind that 84 per cent. of the public who responded to the opinion poll took the view that those people also deserve consideration.
Whatever my hon. Friend may think about the fundamental injustice that his new clause would correct, given that the siblings amendment would by common consent require a radical rewriting of social security legislation, how is it, if he feels so strongly about that, that he and others who think like him did not think it right or prudent to consult the Law Society or the Solicitors Family Law Association about the amendment?
The submissions that I receive from the Law Society are so politically correct that they are not worth reading. They are not written by normal lawyers, but seem to be written by a particular group, probably from the Matrix chambers.
That is quite possible. I have long since given up studying submissions from the Law Society. My hon. Friend, however, points out that some people believe that the proposal is not the appropriate way to deal with the problem, which is fair enough. Others, however, believe that it is appropriate, and we are entitled to assert that view and to try to persuade the public that they should not listen to the Law Society but to the Christian Institute and us.
Many points that I wanted to make have already been covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and other hon. Members. The House must think carefully before passing legislation and deliberately forswearing the opportunity to deal with another group of people, possibly a larger one than the group to whom the Bill applies, by excluding them altogether. Finally, whatever the Minister says, the public believe that the Bill is about gay marriage in everything but name. I received a letter from the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration about a constituent who wishes to have someone of the same sex admitted to this country so that he can live with him. He told me that the application is being considered and that documentary evidence has been requested to show
"that he and his partner have been living together in a relationship akin to marriage for two years."
That is what the Home Office said.
Thank you for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for which, as ever, I am truly grateful. It is only fair, however, to point out that Members who oppose new clause 1 do so because it mucks up their plan for a straightforward gay marriage Bill. That is why they do not want it, and the country will judge them accordingly.
I wish to make only two brief points, as most matters have already been covered in other speeches, including those by my hon. Friend Mr. Bercow and for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), both of whom I agree with.
In the course of our debate, many injustices have been highlighted, including arrangements that affect siblings and others such as inheritance tax, the right to statutory tenancies and perhaps the right to pensions. Mr. Borrow mentioned the position of next of kin and so on. Clearly, there are a number of injustices, which my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh highlighted, and the House is grateful to him for doing so. I agree, however, with the view powerfully expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton, who said that those injustices are essentially distinct from the Bill's underlying theme, and should be addressed in other appropriate legislation. Speaking for myself, I would like to abolish or substantially ameliorate inheritance tax, which is wrong in principle for a number of reasons. I do not, however, want to create special exemptions from the burdens of that tax, as that, too, would be wrong in principle. The injustices identified by the House need to be addressed in another measure or measures.
I now want to pursue my second theme in answer to a challenge made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough.I hope that you will forgive me for doing so, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I do not want to make a Second Reading speech. When you were not in the Chair, my hon. Friend said in terms that, if it was conceded that this was a "gay marriage Bill", he would not press his amendments. He went on to say that he would concede that his amendments were inappropriate in the context of such a Bill. I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, do not want me to go into a lot of depth about this matter.
No; I do not want to be called to order. I have had my exchanges before with you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I want to pursue my argument within the rules of order.
The question is whether what we are doing in this Bill is in substance to create a gay marriage Bill. I believe that that is probably the case, and let me hasten to say that I do not disapprove of that.
I do not think that my father would have done, as a matter of fact. He became more compassionate in his old age—something that I would commend to other hon. Members as well.
If one asks oneself what marriage is, one sees that it is the recognition by law of a relationship of a continuing kind. Historically, such relationships have been held between men and women, and marriage has been attended by divine service. Of course, that was changed, and we now have civil marriage. I must ask myself what the sensible distinction is in fact and substance between a civil marriage between a man and a women and a legal partnership of the kind contemplated in the Bill. I do not think that there is any significant difference between a civil marriage between a man and a woman and a legal partnership as created by the Bill.
The purpose of the Bill is not to attach to the relationship the financial and other benefits to which my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough referred; it is rather to accord to a couple of homosexuals the right to denote their relationship with legal status. They want to do that, and I do not want to withhold from them that ability. As a matter of fact, I also think that the Church would be right to bless such relationships. [Interruption.] I can hear my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe expressing her disagreement. She and I have often disagreed on this point, but I think that in a liberal, compassionate world, the Church should be willing to act in that way.
I am following what my right hon. and learned Friend is saying, but I think that he is taking us into extremely dangerous territory. Does he not agree that there is something fundamentally insidious about introducing a Bill for a purpose that is not achieved under that Bill, but which, one realises on reflection, is an artifice? Basically, that is what this whole process is about.
With respect to my hon. Friend, I think that he is wrong about this matter. The primary purpose is to accord a relationship within the law and before the law to a long-lasting partnership between people of the same sex. If people of the same sex want to designate their relationship as having that status, they should be able to do so, and the Bill achieves that. It may be—I can understand this view—that he does not want that to be permitted, but that is a difference of principle. I do want it to be permitted, and I ask myself whether the Bill is effective in achieving that, and I feel that it is.
Incidentally, I feel that I owe an apology to my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack. I was a bit churlish with him in respect of his sedentary intervention about my father, and I hope that he will forgive me. If my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough is right when he says that his amendments are inappropriate in the context of a Bill that he described as being about "gay marriage"—I say that it is about partnerships recognised by law—new clause 1 should not stand. In substance, this is a gay marriage Bill, and, in substance, I am in favour of it and am prepared so to designate it.
I am grateful for my right hon. and learned Friend's gracious apology, which I accept. My right hon. and learned Friend is being totally honest. He supports gay marriage, which is a perfectly defensible point of view, but the Bill purports not to enact gay marriage.
My hon. Friend is right. I criticise Government Front Benchers, because those of us who have examined the Bill and the consequences that it attaches to such relationships find it impossible to make a serious distinction between civil marriage— I emphasise "civil"—and civil partnership. It would be more honest if the Government were to say that the Bill concerns civil marriage between same-sex couples. However—this is the one remark that I shall make that will be wholly popular with Conservative Members—the Government are not honest.
I want to speak for only a few minutes. I am pleased to follow Mr. Hogg and agree with most of his contribution.
We must remember why the Bill was introduced in the first place: it recognises same-sex relationships and implements an infrastructure of rights and responsibilities for same-sex couples. It is not about property and taxation, which have formed the primary subjects for debate this afternoon. We are discussing the recognition of same-sex relationships, and the heart of the Bill concerns a lifelong commitment made by two individuals.
I recognise that the amendments in this group are in order because Mr. Speaker accepted them, but they seek to broaden the number of people affected by the Bill by including, with the exception of heterosexual couples who are not married, people in other sorts of partnerships who do not necessarily make a lifelong commitment to each other, whether they are members of the same family or people in platonic relationships.
New clause 3 seeks to extend the provisions of the Bill to heterosexual couples who cohabit. Such couples may or may not want to make a lifelong commitment, but I assume that the fact that they have not got married means that they are not yet ready to make such a commitment. Although the arguments about tax and inheritance may have some merit, the amendments to widen the scope of the Bill do not fit neatly and appropriately with the rest of the legislation. Such matters should be examined and dealt with separately because they do not fit the Bill's core, which concerns two people of the same sex making a lifelong public commitment to each other. That is the heart of the Bill; the various clauses simply deal with rights and responsibilities.
Much of this afternoon's debate has understandably focused on whether the registration of a civil partnership is the same as marriage, which is a point raised by my hon. Friend Mr. Chope.
To my mind, we have missed one of the key points. Although the Bill gives rights and confers responsibilities on those who are prepared to enter into civil partnerships, those benefits and rights are not workable without some form of legal registration. We are discussing the transference of property rights and pensions to obtain inheritance tax benefits, and, in the last few days of their life, someone could say, "This is my partner. I would be grateful if the whole of my estate is handed over to them." The only way in which legal changes of such magnitude can be made to work properly is if there is a legal framework that involves people making a legal commitment by saying that the relationship is long-term and having a structure whereby the framework can be broken up if the relationship goes wrong.
The Bill addresses a very clear injustice—the fact that people are invisible in the eyes of the law if they are living in a same-sex relationship. It is time to correct that injustice. That does not mean, however, that it is appropriate to use the Bill as a vehicle for correcting equally valid but disconnected injustices. That can be done on other occasions, and I hope that it will.
Much of the debate has focused purely on financial matters, yet, as Mr. Borrow said, the Bill deals with many other injustices. I have mentioned the rights of the next of kin and the inability of people in a relationship to visit their partners in hospital or to make decisions about what happens to their belongings and joint home in the event of the death of one of them. Those issues do not relate to siblings or to people in relationships of other kinds; that is why the Bill should focus primarily on such matters.
My hon. Friend Mr. Howarth suggested that only small numbers of people may benefit from the Bill. That in itself is no reason for saying that it is not right to act. He and I would campaign together on the rights of Gurkhas or the pension rights of surviving partners of members of the armed forces. The fact that those issues affect only very small numbers of people does not in any way negate the importance of dealing with them, and the Bill must be seen in the same light. I happen to believe that the figure cited for the number of partners who will benefit significantly underestimates the total. In any event, there is a clear injustice and we are right to address it.
I want to say a few words about new clause 3. The more I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch the more concerned I became. His reply to my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe left us in no doubt that he believes that this will fundamentally undermine marriage. I was also concerned when he started to use the term "holy matrimony". Many of us got married in register offices instead of churches. I, for one, feel every bit as married as anybody who got married in a church. I have a wife, whom I call my wife, we have shared domestic arrangements, and I have a very wonderful mother-in-law.
I certainly will.
Those are all benefits that marriage brings; they cannot be linked solely to holy matrimony.
I was particularly concerned when my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch said that people will opt for this sort of relationship when they are looking for a shorter-term, rather than a longer-term, commitment. That is bizarre. I tried to imagine the scene—two people are in a restaurant, and the man is about to make a proposal. In the candlelight, he gets down on one knee and says, "Darling, we've been together for a very long time now, we've got children and it's working very well—I want to ask you to become my short-term civil partner." In other words: "I love you very much—not enough to say that I want to be with you for ever, but I would like to be with you for several years. We don't have to go to all the expense of getting married, but there is an alternative arrangement—we can have a civil partnership with all the same benefits. You can have the pension and inherit the house in the event of my death." I am not sure whether she would be deeply flattered by that proposal. Had I said that to my wife when I proposed to her, I suspect that she might have walked out of the restaurant. My hon. Friend has not drawn an apt distinction.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the most romantic people on earth are the French? Yet they have a civil partnership arrangement that is similar to the one that I described. They can either enter into that or get married.
I believe that my wife, given the choice between a short-term civil partnership with a romantic Frenchman and a long-term loving marriage with me, would have made the same decision. My proposal was made in a French restaurant, so perhaps one can get the best of both worlds.
Earlier, I asked about the cost of the amendment. My hon. Friend has tabled a completely uncosted amendment. He talks about the number of people who may benefit from it but asks us to vote for something when we have no idea how many billions it would cost. Although he makes the valid point that one either believes in equality—and accepts that there is an accompanying cost that must be taken into account—or one does not, tabling an amendment, which is described as serious, without being able to tell us how much it would cost, is unfortunate. However, my fundamental objection remains that the amendment undermines the principle of marriage.
As other hon. Members have said, there are other ways of dealing with that. I would dearly love inheritance tax to be abolished. [Interruption.] As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald rightly says, that would also benefit homosexual couples. However, it is a separate issue, which can be resolved by a Finance Bill. It does not need to be addressed in the Bill.
We have had a good debate. My hon. Friends have made excellent contributions but, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has commented, it has been our pleasure to sit and watch a tableau of—
That would be a rather cruel way to characterise it. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that a range of views was expressed.
I should not have bothered.
I want to focus attention on the practical effects of the amendments, which would make changes that, as several hon. Members pointed out, would alter the Bill's nature and character. They would introduce a series of discrepancies in the provisions, which would make it unworkable.
The amendments that Mr. Leigh tabled would allow siblings to form civil partnerships. The amendments that Mr. Chope tabled would allow unmarried parents and children and unmarried siblings to form such partnerships, as long as they shared a home. He would also extend such provision to cohabiting couples.
On Second Reading, the Bill received a majority of 377 votes on the basis that earlier amendments, which had the effect of including close family relatives, would be removed. In Committee, we voted 13 to one to remove the amendments. The argument for limiting civil partnership to unrelated same sex couples is clear and compelling and has been rehearsed on many occasions on the Floor of the House and in Committee. Furthermore, the hon. Member for Gainsborough said on Second Reading that the amendments that the House of Lords had passed might be unworkable as they stood. I am happy to agree with him about that. Given that, I find it difficult to accept his reasoning for tabling amendments to reinstate new categories of civil partnerships for siblings. They are no more workable. Indeed, they give rise to new anomalies.
I do not want to spend an inordinate amount of time reiterating all the detailed arguments about the issue but I want to re-emphasise the clear aim of the Bill. We introduced it with a specific purpose, which is to provide legal recognition for unrelated same-sex couples who do not currently have the option, which is available to opposite-sex couples, to marry. We seek to create a parallel but different legal relationship that mirrors as fully as possible the rights and responsibilities enjoyed by those who can marry, and that uses civil marriage as a template for the processes, rights and responsibilities that go with civil partnership. We are doing this for reasons of equality and social justice.
Would the Minister be good enough to address the question of where the essential difference lies between a civil partnership involving a different-sex couple and a civil partnership involving a same-sex couple? In substance and reality, they are the same, are they not?
As I have just pointed out, we have used civil marriage as the template for creating a completely new legal relationship, that of the civil partnership. We had some discussion about this in Committee, and our view was that, unless there was an objective justification for a difference in the approaches taken to civil marriage and civil partnership, no difference should exist. There are very few areas in which any difference does exist. The whole point, however, is that civil partnership is not civil marriage, for a variety of reasons, such as the traditions and history—religious and otherwise—that accompany marriage. It is not marriage, but it is, in many ways—dare I say it?—akin to marriage. We make no apology for that.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, when social reform is needed that might be difficult for some people, the best way forward is not to set one group's rights against those of another so that those groups have a fight, but to proceed in a way that both groups can support? Does she agree also that having civil partnerships rather than challenging people's deeply held views, particularly about religious marriage, is the right way forward in these circumstances?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In fact, Mr. Howarth let the cat out of the bag when he said that his reason for wanting to call this new relationship a gay marriage was precisely to provoke protest out in the country. We have identified a particular issue, and we want a 21st century legal process to resolve the difficulties involved. That is what we are delivering in the Bill.
While that is not a criterion in the Bill, I have said clearly on Second Reading—and I intend to say again later—that the particular difficulty identified here involves the thousands of gay and lesbian couples who live together and share their lives, yet have no way of gaining legal recognition for their relationship. I am quite happy to say that, and I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is somehow a difficult motive to have.
Civil partnership has not been designed as a legal relationship for people who are related to each other.
I really would welcome it if the right hon. Lady were honest with the House—[Interruption.] The fact is that she is indulging in sophistry. Will she please tell the House what the difference is between a civil partnership, as she defines it, and a gay marriage, as defined by my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth?
I resent the hon. Gentleman's comments. I have been absolutely open about what the Government intend to do with this new legal relationship. I have been open about the extent to which it replicates the provisions of civil marriage, where there is no objective justification for it not to do so. But it is not marriage. It is a new legal relationship for same-sex couples so that they can have the legal recognition that they cannot currently get.
When this Bill becomes law, does my right hon. Friend believe that any Member, whether Labour or Conservative, will argue in four, five or eight years' time that it should be changed again? As in the case of previous reforms, however controversial, once such a measure becomes law or is widely accepted, there seems to be no wish to change it again.
My hon. Friend is right. Clearly, that is because we have identified an injustice for thousands of couples who are sharing their lives and who cannot at the moment find a legal way to have that relationship recognised, and, with that, have the range of rights and responsibilities that go with civil partnerships. That is the justification for this legislation. It is not designed, however, to address the problems for those people who are related to each other. That has been accepted not only by large numbers of Members of the House but by organisations that lobby on behalf of the interests of those people, the Law Society, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, the Solicitors Family Law Association, the trade union movement, equality groups, carers groups and the leaders of all three main parties in the House.
These and similar amendments have come in various different guises throughout proceedings on the Bill. At one point, in another place, they were ostensibly concerned with protecting carers. Once Carers UK indicated clearly that not only would they not support carers but positively damage caring relationships in many places, people backed off from that justification. Today, we have heard a new justification; the argument about inheritance tax. That is a reasonable debate, but at a cost of £2.8 billion a year to abolish inheritance tax, hon. Members are right that that would not be one of my top priorities. Nevertheless, they can raise that during consideration of the Finance Bill.
Neither is it the case that the Government have not recognised that there are particular issues not only for opposite-sex cohabiting couples but for others. The argument remains, however, that this is not the right Bill to address those problems. It is not only the Government who believe that. The Law Commission concluded in its report on home sharers in 2002 that one solution was not possible for all the different permutations of home sharers. It stated:
"It is not possible . . . to devise a statutory scheme for the ascertainment and quantification of beneficial interests in the shared home which can operate fairly and evenly across the diversity of domestic circumstances which are now to be encountered."
The Law Commission recognised that there was not one simple way to approach the matter, as do the Government, and the Bill addresses a particular issue.
I will move on to the detail of the amendments and take the House on a short tour of the new absurdities that hon. Members have created in relation to their amendments. First, with respect to the arguments about siblings and other family members, to which the amendment of Mr. Chope extends, of course, siblings and other family members already have legal recognition of their relationships by virtue of the fact that they are related. They do not need legal recognition in the same way that same-sex couples do. Siblings, for example, are already recognised in law, whereas the law often treats the relationships between same-sex couples as invisible. That is the basis of many of the issues that they face, as was rightly identified by Charles Hendry.
Secondly, as several hon. Members have mentioned, there is what we could call the Chekhov problem; the three sisters problem. There may be three sisters who live together—
With uncle Vanya—[Laughter.] They may wish to benefit from some of these rights and responsibilities. How are they to decide who forms a civil partnership? What impact would that decision have on internal family decisions and relationships? I do not believe that it could be positive.
Thirdly—perhaps we should call this the uncle Vanya question—is it only siblings, parents and children who live together in caring relationships? What about a niece who cares for an aunt or a grandson who cares for a grandfather? Why should only siblings, parents and children be singled out for the dubious honour of forming a legal relationship that does not in any case meet the needs of their joint lives?
Fourthly, as several Members have pointed out, the financial repercussions of the new clauses and amendments render the Bill nonsensical. I am thinking of the effect on both the pension and the benefit provisions.
The fifth point relates to the introduction of new dissolution procedures for the new categories of civil partnership favoured by the hon. Members for Christchurch and for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). Under the procedure favoured by the hon. Member for Gainsborough, a dissolution order would be granted without discussion following an application to the court by one of the civil partners. The hon. Gentleman has been quite honest. He has created that new procedure to overcome a problem that we identified on Second Reading; the ridiculousness of expecting two sisters, or a mother and son, to go through a divorce-like process. Nevertheless, a process whereby dissolution is almost immediate involves its own myriad absurdities.
Were family members to form civil partnerships under the hon. Gentleman's provisions, a decision to end such a partnership could be made by one of them in the space of a few moments. There would be little time in which to think the decision through. There would be cursory notice to be given to the other party, and minimal support for the partner left behind. Leaving a family member—a civil partner—with few protections is as daft as forcing a daughter to undergo a divorce-style procedure with her mother.
Regardless of how the hon. Gentlemen may seek to include family members, their proposals create legal nonsense after legal nonsense. Let me make this as clear as I can. Family members should not be dealt with in this Bill, and torturing the Bill to make provision for them will not change the fundamental absurdity of including them.
The hon. Member for Christchurch believes that we should extend the Bill to opposite-sex cohabiting couples. We had some discussion about that on Second Reading and in Committee. The hon. Gentleman's proposals would allow both opposite-sex and same-sex couples to form civil partnerships whether or not they were related in the prohibited degrees, and would also apply to overseas relationships.
It has been made clear at several stages, both here and in the other place, that the Bill is designed to deal with disadvantages experienced by same-sex couples who cannot marry. Opposite-sex couples have no need of civil partnership, because they can marry. Some Members asked, "What if they do not want or feel able to take on the responsibilities of marriage?" The point has rightly been made that many of the provisions relating to civil partnership are very similar to those relating to civil marriage. I fail to see why someone who was unwilling to take on the responsibilities of civil marriage would want to take on the equivalent responsibilities of civil partnership.
Either we have the rights and responsibilities, the legal registration process and the dissolution—which people may well reject—or we set up what can only be described as my hon. Friend Angela Eagle described it, "marriage-lite". If anything were likely to undermine the brand of marriage more—if I may employ the free-marketeer language used by the hon. Member for Christchurch—it would be his proposal for the lightweight, easy-in, easy-out relationship that he appears to favour.
There are serious issues for cohabiting couples. That is why the Government are undertaking not just to advise and educate people about their legal status if they are not married, but to consider how we can ensure that the legal rights currently applying to, for instance, the protection of children in the Children Bill can be better utilised for cohabiting couples than they are now. Also, we will ask the Law Commission to review the law in this area. There is a whole range of ways in which we can and will address these issues.
The new clauses and amendments seek to change yet again the Bill's fundamental principles. We reject them, because we have a clear view as to what a civil partnership is and whom it is for. Its purpose is to enable legal recognition, respect and dignity for thousands of gay and lesbian couples in this country. A charitable interpretation of the amendments is that they are misguided. They would not improve the position for carers and other family members; arguably, they would damage those relationships, and they cannot address issues of concern to cohabiting opposite sex couples. A less charitable but perhaps more realistic assessment is that, in all their permutations, these are wrecking amendments, supported by those who cannot and will not accept the value of stable gay and lesbian relationships. Whether misguided or mischievous, they are wrong and I hope that the House will reject them.
To sum up briefly, I am afraid that the Minister has failed the test that I set her. I gave her a fair offer. I said to her early on in this debate that if she accepted that this was a gay marriage Bill, I would withdraw my amendments. She has told us in her summing up that the Government are using civil marriage as a template for civil partnership. What on earth does that mean? It is pure sophistry, and there is one reason—and one reason only—why the Government are not being honest with this House and with the people. They do not want to affront religious sentiment by creating something called a gay marriage Bill.
The Bill will become law—we know that—but the fact is that the new clause is not a wrecking amendment, because it would not affect the Bill's substance. I shall tell the Minister what the new clause and this debate have achieved. We now know, because Baroness Scotland told us in another place, that perhaps as few as 5,000 couples—perhaps even just 5,000 people—will benefit from the Bill. Yet we also know that there are 4.5 million people living in relationships who will not be affected by it. The fact is that the Government are creating for homosexual couples a unique state of affairs. Historically, this House has said that the rights of marriage should exist only for marriage because it is a fundamental building block of society. This Government, in a dishonest way, are picking out only one section of the community and giving them unique rights outside marriage.
We have raised a banner in this debate for those 4.5 million people. Both Labour and Conservative Front Benchers attacked our new clauses and amendments on technical and other grounds; both alluded to the difficulties that would arise in respect of dissolution, even though such principles work perfectly well in France, as my hon. Friend Mr. Chope made clear, through the PACS system. But there is one difference between the positions of the two Front Benches. A Conservative Government, through a Finance Bill, would right this injustice, which is something that we should be proud of. So although this banner will go down to defeat today, in the long term we are going to win the debate.