The position has been somewhat changed by the publication of government Amendments Nos. 18 and 21, which may provide a solution to the problem that we envisaged. However, I still wish to move Amendment No. 1 for the purpose of explaining what we are concerned about.
Civil marriage has been defined in the common law since 1866 as,
"the union of one man with one woman voluntarily entered into . . . to the exclusion of all others".
The present Bill contains no similar definition of what constitutes a relationship that is registerable as a civil partnership. This absence has led, in Committee and again in amendments tabled for the present stage, to suggestions that access to civil partnership should be widened beyond exclusively committed same-sex couples to a wider group of home sharers and close relatives. These amendments make it clear that a civil partnership involves a commitment akin to that entered into by marrying heterosexual couples, and is therefore not appropriate to be extended to the relationship of home sharers or close relatives, who—under the amendments tabled at this stage—are of different sexes.
At Grand Committee on
In the Bill, Clause 8(4)(a) states that the partners must make a written declaration that each,
"proposed civil partner believes that there is no impediment of kindred or affinity or other lawful hindrance to the formation of the civil partnership".
That parallels the relevant provision in the first half of the Marriage Act 1949, which states that each of the partners must make an oral declaration that,
"I do solemnly declare that I know not of any lawful impediment why I may not be joined in matrimony".
The only difference between the two provisions is that under the present Bill the declaration has to be in writing, whereas under the Marriage Act 1949 an oral declaration is required.
The problematic area for this Bill is that it does not have the second half of the Marriage Act provision, which contains the contracting words. That is where each partner says,
"I call upon these persons here present to witness that I take thee to be my lawful wedded wife", or husband. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, tried to remedy this by tabling an amendment that each of the proposed civil partners should state that the civil partnership is for life. We agree that that is the correct principle. But, in fact, there are no words in the Marriage Act that state that the commitment is for life. We have therefore tabled an amendment with words that more closely reflect the contracting words used in the Marriage Act. I beg to move.
My Lords, I do not question the motivation of the noble Lords, Lord Goodhart and Lord Lester of Herne Hill, in tabling this amendment. They have always had equality at the heart of all they have done. However, I have some concerns with Amendment No. 1, which may in practice have unintended consequences that would not be at all helpful. I have said throughout our debates that civil partnership should contain those rights and responsibilities that heterosexual couples can acquire through civil marriage. I am concerned that adding the concept of relationships being "mutually committed" creates an additional hurdle that heterosexuals do not have to clear. That is not fair. I thought that essentially we wanted parity with civil marriage but this amendment would introduce a new and additional test that clearly moves away from the position of equality.
My concern, in particular, is that the new provision could be called into play at a time when people are most vulnerable. For example, one could envisage a situation where a recently deceased person's will could be contested by an aggravated family member on the basis that the partnership had not been "mutually committed". That would be a mischief that could not arise in the case of a married heterosexual couple. I do not believe that the noble Lord would want that to happen. I do not.
I have no objection to the words being added by Amendment No. 9. Indeed, I think it is helpful, giving couples greater clarity about what they are committing themselves to. My question is whether it is required on the face of the Bill. I wonder whether this could be done through guidance. I understood from the Minister in Grand Committee that wording very similar to this would probably be adopted for the oral consent required. Will she clarify the position? If that will be the case, I think it should satisfy both the noble Lord and me on this point.
My Lords, I feel that one should not criticise anything that is done in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, in view of his very important pioneering work in this field but I have two comments to make. One is on the substance of the amendment and the other is on what the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has said.
First, in effect, the words "mutually committed" add nothing at all to the Bill. If people have applied for this relationship or contract, or whatever it is, it must surely be presumed that they are mutually committed. If they are mutually committed, to what are they mutually committed? What does "mutually" mean? This is simply adding confusing words to what is already a fairly confused situation.
I welcome the fact that "relationship" is not defined in the Bill. If a relationship were to be defined, which is what lies behind this amendment, one would be in very deep waters indeed. There is no reference to homosexuality in the definition in the Bill, and a very good thing too. People have a rather limited idea of any relationship where sex is involved. After all, there are relationships that can be loving, committed and celibate. If one attempts to define the nature of "relationship" by words of one kind or another, one will merely create a harvest of difficulties for the future.
With respect to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, my second point is that I do not think that it is helpful constantly to draw parallels between the facilities provided by the Bill and traditional Christian marriage, as some people do. The words that are quoted from the Prayer-Book are applicable only to a sacramental marriage. A sacramental marriage cannot be contracted by those who are of the same sex. Much of the opposition to the Bill comes from those who feel that it is an attack on Christian marriage or, indeed, on civil marriage, which has its roots in a Christian tradition. I therefore think that these references to the Prayer-Book and the attempt to find similar words are not helpful.
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, does he accept that the wording to which I referred was not from the Prayer-Book but from the Marriage Act? It applies to civil marriages. Of course, if one goes back far enough in history, the concept of civil marriages may derive from Christian marriage, but it is quite clear that for many decades past, if not centuries, it has applied to marriages between non-Christians as well as between Christians.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that intervention. As one would expect, he has put the point that I was making much more clearly, definitively, authoritatively and legally than I could. I am extremely grateful to him for explaining his remarks and for doing so in such a helpful and enlightening manner.
My Lords, I certainly support the principle behind this amendment to draw attention to the importance of commitment. It is clear from experience and all modern research that a stable committed family relationship is important for the upbringing of children. We are looking at a situation where same-sex couples are increasingly going to adopt children and perhaps have children by other means, as technology advances. I have been extremely concerned about the Bill. Unstable, uncommitted civil partnerships might enable same-sex couples to adopt children and leave them in a position of insecurity. I believe that the word "commitment" should be crafted into the Bill in some way.
My Lords, I support what the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, is seeking to do, even if the Minister says in her clarification that guidance will be introduced to include the words of commitment that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, is seeking and the word "committed" itself on the face of Bill. It has always seemed to me that the Bill has two functions and that that lies behind the passions that the debate arouses. One function is to rectify some civil disabilities that same-sex couples experience. The second is to recognise the moral seriousness of what the couples are undertaking, and have undertaken for many years and generations, in a culture where that is particularly important since commitment over a long period is extremely difficult to achieve in any area of life. It will not really do to say that all we are trying to do in the Bill is to rectify civil disabilities. If we simply confine ourselves to that, then I think that we shall not meet the needs of many of those whom the Bill is designed to assist.
I therefore think it preferable that the word "commitment" and some words of commitment be on the face of the Bill, because that is one of the things which people are looking to Parliament to provide for them. I think that it is a proper thing to look to a Parliament to do. I say that, of course, without derogating from the seriousness of the debate that goes on particularly in religious communities, and particularly in my own Church, about whether it is proper for people to enter into such commitments. The fact of the matter is that, in terms of the life of our community, many people do. I think that the amendments which the noble Lord is proposing do in fact confer an element of recognition that this Parliament should not withhold.
My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord St John of Fawsley, and my noble friend Lord Alli in saying that the Government clearly do not intend to question the intent behind Amendment No. 1. We have always made it clear that the need for the Bill arises from the fact that same-sex couples in supportive relationships cannot marry but deserve the opportunity of legal recognition. The rights and responsibilities that will accompany the relationship are clear evidence of that. I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, recognises that.
The inclusion of the words "mutually committed" in Clause 1 would, however, present problems in their practical implications for the Bill, as has already been outlined in this debate. We understand why the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, would seek to highlight the point. However, all same-sex couples will make their own decision about how they choose to live out their obligations to one another. If we included the words "mutually committed" in Clause 1, there would be a real question as to how it would be possible to set a common standard to define what the phrase means.
Perhaps I may give a couple of examples. First, although the Bill sets out eligibility provisions, that the parties are "mutually committed" is not one of them. However, the fact that they agree to support each other and to take on the many obligations in respect of each other that attach to their new status of civil partner speaks for itself and is evidence of the level of commitment that they are both agreeing to take on.
Secondly, the Bill already makes provision for the dissolution of a civil partnership on the evidence of unreasonable behaviour. The notion of being mutually committed is not used here and we would not wish it to be imposed as a test of any kind. Just as heterosexual couples choose to share their lives together and meet their responsibilities towards each other, civil partners will be expected to meet their rights and responsibilities. How they choose to do so really should be a matter for them.
I turn to Amendment No. 9. We have had a very useful and constructive debate on this issue on Second Reading, in Grand Committee and now at Report stage. It is clear that noble Lords are concerned that those who form a civil partnership should make a spoken statement to each other, or exchange words, during steps taken to form a civil partnership. Perhaps I may therefore explain why the Government have not included any spoken words in the registration procedure.
First and most importantly, in civil marriage, the point at which the marriage is formed is when the spoken vows are exchanged in the course of the marriage ceremony. Registration records the formation of the relationship which has already occurred. The structure of the Bill is somewhat different as it establishes a quite different procedure for the formation of civil partnership, and spoken words are not part of that registration process.
For civil partnership, by contrast, it is the signing of the civil partnership document in an administrative procedure that marks the moment of the formation of the partnership and the change of status. We believe that that is simple, clear and all that is necessary. To add into that procedure a requirement for these spoken words would alter the emphasis of the procedure. In our view that is unnecessary and could introduce confusion about what was the vital step in the formation of the civil partnership.
Secondly, civil partners will have the option of exchanging spoken words with each other. Local authorities are able to offer the option of a ceremony which would very likely include spoken words, and couples will also be free to organise any religious blessing with any vows or other statements that they might wish to make to each other.
We have, however, listened very carefully to what noble Lords have said. While we still believe that it would be problematic to prescribe spoken words, we have tabled amendments to Clauses 14 and 25. Clause 14(2) provides that a,
"civil partnership schedule must contain such information as may be prescribed by regulations".
Clause 25(4)(b) provides that the Registrar General's licence,
"must contain such other information", in addition to that prescribed in Clause 25(4)(a),
"as may be prescribed by regulations".
The purpose of the amendments is to widen the scope of Clause 14(2) and Clause 25 so that regulations may make provision as to the content of a civil partnership document rather than just the information in it. That will allow for the inclusion in the civil partnership document of a form of words.
The Government will consider what is the most appropriate form of words to be printed on the civil partnership document as part of the implementation work to be taken forward after Royal Assent. I hope that that will satisfy the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and give voice to the comments made by my noble friend Lord Alli. I am hopeful that the amendments will meet the noble Lords' concerns. These proposals would not upset the structure of the registration procedures, as it would remain clear that the signing of the civil partnership document was the legally significant event.
I therefore ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment, confident in the knowledge that this issue has been properly taken on board and will be satisfactorily dealt with.
My Lords, I am grateful for the support that our amendments have received from the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester. I also understand the concerns, particularly about Amendment No. 1, that have been expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Alli and Lord St John of Fawsley. The Government's proposals in their Amendments Nos. 18 and 21 potentially go a long way towards meeting the problems that led us to table our two amendments in this group. In the circumstances, we will of course support government Amendments Nos. 18 and 21. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, this amendment arises from debates that we had in Committee where we sought to argue that the wording of the Bill as it stands is not satisfactory as regards same-sex couples entering into a partnership. I listened with great interest to the remarks made a moment ago by the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland. It seems to me that they were wholly inconsistent with her rejection of the arguments put forward in favour of this amendment in Committee. We argue that a civil partnership is a contract not a relationship. That issue gave rise on the one hand to highly emotional statements by the noble Lord, Lord Alli, and others and, on the other hand, to comments by others who considered that legislation was a matter of logic rather than emotion.
I believe that we were all influenced by the speech of my noble friend Lord Elton at Second Reading. He spoke of the importance of loving relationships. However, I fear that we cannot legislate for love. We need to set down very precisely that a civil partnership is a contract. Everything that the noble Baroness said about registration a moment ago seemed to imply the registration of a contract, not the registration of a relationship. Indeed, it is quite possible for there to be a relationship between same-sex couples which is neither a civil partnership nor a contract. Yet the Bill seems to assume that all civil partnerships constitute relationships. Of course, in one sense that is true, but there are also relationships that are not civil partnerships. That is why it seems to us more appropriate to insert the word "contract" than "relationship".
I shall not delay your Lordships much longer. However, in the course of our discussions in Committee the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, who I see is not present, raised several issues in the context of this amendment with regard to the legal situation in a number of cases in Canada. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, replied to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, in a response covering several pages. I do not think that either the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, or your Lordships would wish her to repeat several pages of commentary on the Canadian cases.
At the end of the day, this is quite a simple point. However, it is more than a drafting point. It is a matter about which we need to be clear and it is something that we ought to amend. I hope that on reflection the Government, particularly in the light of the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, a moment ago, will be prepared to accept the amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, I always feel a certain sadness at disappointing the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, but I shall disappoint him on this occasion.
As the noble Lord indicated, we had a very useful discussion in Grand Committee on Amendment No. 2. I listened very closely to what was said then and to what has now been said by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. First, I shall clarify what we mean when we use the word "relationship" and why we resist the word "contract".
When two people register as civil partners of each other, they form a civil partnership that is a new legal relationship established by this Bill to give the civil partners legal recognition of their life together as a couple. It is the civil partnership that is a new legal relationship between the people. I respectfully suggest that the noble Lord should not confuse the new relationship of civil partnership with any pre-existing personal relationship between a couple, although a loving and committed personal relationship would be the very reason that a couple might decide to form a civil partnership in the first place. The new legal relationship of civil partnership begins only when two people register as civil partners of each other.
The noble Lord wishes to describe civil partnership as a contract. However, civil partnership is not governed by the law of contract and there is no room for individual variation of the statutory rules governing eligibility, or governing formation or dissolution of a civil partnership, nor of those setting out its consequences.
The change of status from single person to civil partner affects a couple's relationship with each other. After the formation of their civil partnership they would have an entirely new legal relationship with each other. Forming a civil partnership also affects their status; in other words, their position as an individual in relation to everyone else. Each would now be a civil partner. This change of status is permanent in that on the ending of a civil partnership, civil partners do not revert to being single people. They will be marked by having been in a civil partnership in that they will be former civil partners or a surviving civil partner. Civil partnership is a new statutory relationship that provides same-sex couples with legal recognition of their life together as a couple.
It is very important for us to understand that what same-sex couples seek is an acknowledgement that their relationship is real, has legal significance and carries rights and responsibilities. It is not a commercial contract; it is something very different. With that explanation, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment. Nothing that I have just said contradicts what I said in support of the earlier amendment.
My Lords, your Lordships will reach their own conclusions. We have much expertise in this House but, so far as I know, we do not have a professor of logic, which is what we need in the context of what the noble Baroness has just said.
The noble Baroness mentioned legal recognition. However, the word "relationship" does not give that legal recognition—it is the registration that clearly forms a contract. The noble Baroness said that same-sex couples want legal confirmation of their new status. That is surely best put forward as a contract. They may have had a relationship for many years prior to this legislation, but it is not the same thing as confirming that in a legal and registratable form.
The noble Baroness said that she is always sad to turn down an amendment that I propose. That is entirely reciprocated; I am always sad when she is sad that she has turned down an amendment of mine. I shall withdraw the amendment but I am not at all sure that we should not sort this out and return to it at Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 3, I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 8, 10, 12, 22, 23, 40, 43, 66, 68, 69 and 70 which stand in my name and those of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester and the noble Lords, Lord Weatherill and Lord Maginnis.
I have received many letters from members of the public who share my concern, and, indeed, a great many letters and messages from noble Lords from all parts of the House who support what I seek to achieve.
This group of amendments would extend the benefits of the Bill to family members who have lived together on a long-term basis. Under my amendments, two sisters or any two close relations who have lived together for 12 years would be able to register a partnership and take advantage of the provisions of the Bill. These are benefits which are currently unique to married couples and under the Government's Bill will be extended only to one other group; namely, those in same-sex relationships.
If a daughter gives up her job to look after her elderly mother for 20 years, should she be denied the same rights, including the financial benefits, which the Bill gives to same-sex couples? If a niece goes to live with her disabled aunt and looks after her for 15 years, is her love and commitment for her close relation considered to be less important than that of a same-sex couple? The niece has to pay inheritance tax if she inherits her aunt's estate, but the survivor of a same-sex couple in a registered partnership would not. Is this situation fair and just? I think not.
In order to meet the demands of same-sex couples who want to be treated in exactly the same way as married couples, the Government are proposing inheritance tax exemption, pension rights, next of kin rights and the right to take key medical decisions for a partner. Those are all rights enjoyed by married couples. If they are to be extended, why should they not be extended to others in long-term caring and stable relationships?
All those rights could have been dealt with on an issue-by-issue basis rather than wrapped up in the Bill, which has proved a complete nightmare for the Government in terms of complexity. Even now, five government departments are dealing with it. There were 120 pages of government amendments added after the Bill had its first day in Grand Committee, and two days ago we had a further 150 government amendments. I have been a Member of this House for 13 years, and have never witnessed such a convoluted mess. Frankly, it makes nonsense of attempts to perform our scrutiny role. Is that really an efficient legislative process?
My contention is that the Bill will give rise to greater injustice than it claims to address. If it remains as it is, it will without doubt make the situation even more unjust. I emphasise the point about justice, as we are told that the Bill is not a gay marriage Bill but one about removing injustice. The Government insist that a civil partnership is not gay marriage. The name is clearly different, but anyone with any nous can see that the legal rights are the same. If the amendments are accepted, the House will be making it much clearer that the Bill is not a gay marriage Bill. If civil partnership were to become an arrangement open to close relations, the Government could have greater confidence in their assertion that the Bill was not a gay marriage Bill but only one to remove injustice.
Leaving aside all the arguments about gay marriage, I recognise that many support the Bill because they are concerned that the law deals too harshly with people in a long-term same-sex relationship. I understand that position clearly, but such problems are not unique to same-sex couples. They are commonplace in family relationships, too, yet such people are excluded from the legislation.
The Government have raised two principal arguments in favour of the Bill. The first is that it is a means of giving legal recognition to same-sex couples, and the second that it is necessary to address cases of hardship. Recognition and the issue of hardship cannot be separated. Legal recognition under the Bill means essentially the same legal rights and privileges that married couples hold. Civil partnerships give to same-sex couples the legal means to address the issues of hardship, which have been well rehearsed before the House. However, under the Bill, family members will be denied access to civil partnership. It follows that they will be denied the very remedies in cases of hardship that would have been available had they been a same-sex couple.
I contend that the Bill as drafted will lead to great injustice and discrimination against the family. I draw the attention of the House to the fact that, on
"support for families is at the core of this Government's policies".—[Hansard, 17/1/01; col. 1160.]
Let them prove that they believe it; that is all I ask.
The Bill sends out the message that long-term caring family relationships do not matter as much as same-sex relationships, irrespective of their duration. Ministers have argued that same-sex couples in long-term relationships—loving, committed, celibate and so on, as my noble friend Lord St John of Fawsley said—were discriminated against in law and suffered serious hardship. However, the cases of hardship of which we have heard in this House and in Grand Committee applying to same-sex couples also apply for the most part to family members who live together. Their position in terms of inheritance tax, joint assessment for income-related benefit and tenancy succession rights is essentially the same as for single-sex couples. The Bill provides legal remedy for same-sex couples, but not family members.
A son caring for his widowed father who has Alzheimer's disease has to pay tax on his inheritance, despite the fact that he has given up his job to care for his father and could well be regarded as unemployable as a result. That could mean being forced to sell the family house to pay the tax. Most of us will know of family members who share a house on a long-term basis—sons or daughters who live with their elderly parents, providing care and companionship; sisters who move in together after they are widowed and live out their old age together; nieces and nephews who give up well paid jobs to move in with aunts or uncles, to nurse them in long-term illnesses; and so on.
The Government say that the Bill is not the place to deal with relationships other than same-sex ones. Where then is the place for dealing with them? What prospect is there that the Government will introduce a Bill specifically to deal with the needs of two family members to live together? We have been given slight and vague promises, but we need more categorical statements about if, when and where. I suggest frankly that there is no realistic prospect of such a Bill. If we want to protect such people, we must amend this Bill today.
The amendment to Clause 1 is a paving amendment, which makes it clear that civil partnerships can be extended to any two people in accordance with the proposed new clause. Under that new clause, any two family members closely related to each other can enter into a civil partnership, the proviso being that in order to apply they must have lived together for a continuous period of 12 years, and both be at least 30 years of age. Proposed new Schedule A1 in Amendment No. 23 sets out the family relationships covered by my amendments. It is the standard list of close relationships of affinity and consanguinity, which is used in the Bill and in marriage law. It covers sibling, parental and grandparental relations, and aunts and uncles. Under my amendments, the two people do not have to be of the same sex, so may be of opposite sex.
The amendments to Clause 3 are consequential, and the amendment to Clause 35 permits the Secretary of State—I ask which Secretary of State; it is not clear as five of them are involved in the Bill—to lay down regulations requiring proof that there has been a 12-year period of living together. Under tax law, gifts given to an individual more than seven years before death are exempt from inheritance tax. Any family that merely wanted to avoid inheritance tax would not use my amendments to do so, because of the 12-year rule.
In Grand Committee, I tabled much broader amendments that sought to protect carers and friends who live together for a minimum of seven years. I underline the fact that the amendments today are even more tightly drawn and cover only those in close family relationships. It is those relationships where much of the real hardship arises. The 12-year period in my amendments makes it clear that the living arrangement must be a long-term one. It is a significant period, of course; 12 years is a long time, but putting forward that threshold test ensures that only the most sympathetic cases are covered. In practice, the beneficiaries will very often be older people who have lived together for many years. The 12-year home-sharing requirement also reduces the number of potential beneficiaries, which will greatly lessen the impact on the public purse.
The Government's Bill states that no member of a civil partnership can enter into a marriage or another civil partnership without dissolving their current partnership. That provision would also apply to my amendments. So, if two sisters entered into a civil partnership and one of them later wished to marry, she would be free to do so provided that the civil partnership was dissolved. The Bill's mechanism, already in place for dissolution of a civil partnership, would give to each party a legally regulated way of dividing the assets and property.
The Minister may say that the mechanisms for entering or exiting civil partnerships are inappropriate for, say, two sisters. If that is the objection then either the Government or I could table amendments at Third Reading to rectify that objection. But the principle at stake is whether a daughter who sacrifices many opportunities in her life to care for a parent deserves recognition. The question for today is whether two sisters who devote a lifetime of care to each other should be ignored by the Bill, with only same-sex relationships meriting the benefits that currently only apply to married couples.
It is true that close relations already have some legal rights in relation to each other—for example, hospital visiting rights or inheritance in the case of intestacy. Family members are currently broadly in the same position as same-sex couples regarding the succession of a tenancy. But it is important to remember that close relations are not exempt from inheritance tax and capital gains tax.
When the noble Lord, Lord Alli, spoke in support of a Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, inheritance tax was the first issue that he raised. He read from a letter written by the partner of Lord Montague of Oxford for whom the issue of inheritance tax was critical. The noble Lord, Lord Alli, told us that Lord Montague had to sell his possessions to pay the inheritance tax and said:
"Surely this cannot be right. It is unfair to make people sell their family homes".—[Hansard, 25/1/02; col. 1697.]
That is my point exactly.
The Bill provides that those people in same-sex relationships through taking out a civil partnership will be able to obtain many more rights than those in family relationships. A central part of the Government's case for the Bill is the unique difficulties that arise for those in committed long term relationships. They have the problems of inheritance tax, the questions of tenancy, obtaining a survivor's pension, and so on. Such difficulties may arise in same sex relationships, but they also arise in ordinary families. Ordinary families are no less deserving—again, let us remember this Government's commitment to the family. Ordinary families' difficulties are no less serious and their legal status should not be inferior.
Many noble Lords agree that it is unfair to discriminate so blatantly against family members. There are many noble Lords who strongly support the Bill, but who still wish to see it amended to benefit family members. My noble friend Lady Wilcox made that clear in her speech on
In summary, under the Bill same-sex couples in a civil partnership are given a higher status than family relationships. That is unfair and is certain to lead to blatant injustice against family members who all their lives have shown sacrificial love and commitment. It is right to correct this anomaly now. I beg to move.
My Lords, I applaud the stated purpose in bringing the Bill forward, which is to remove injustice in a variety of matters—tenancy, pensions, inheritance and other areas suffered by people who choose to live together.
However, in spite of what is often said, I have noted that it is not the Government's intention to introduce same-sex marriage in the Bill and that its scope is not restricted to couples in a sexual relationship. The Church received assurances in that regard from the Department of Trade and Industry—one of the five departments involved in this matter.
Whatever the source of individual phrases, whether it is the Book of Common Prayer or the Marriage Act, the public doctrine of marriage in this country, as I understand it, remains grounded in the Christian tradition. Any legislation must take account of that fact. If that is the case, could not the social justice and compassionate aspect of the Bill have been achievable through legislation that does not look so much like marriage? I do not blame people who are confused by the Government's intention. In the Bill the requirements of age, of prohibited degrees of relationship, of dissolution and nullity mirror those in matrimonial law. So which is it? Some clarification would be useful.
By focussing so much on same-sex couples not related to one another, whether in a sexual relationship or not, the Bill neglects provision for the significant number of close relatives who choose to live together for mutual support or to care for each other. If the Bill is about dealing with the difficulties faced by those in long-term relationships, then how can it be just to ignore the case of two sisters living together for support and protection? If we are addressing injustice, can we overlook the plight of the daughter who dedicates her life to caring for an elderly parent? What is the status of vulnerable adults who live with a parent or another relative?
In this day and age it is important to affirm the family and to support those who make sacrifices, sometimes almost beyond our ken, to care for members of their families. If the intention of the Bill is really to address unfairness—and I have heard that said so often—rather than introduce social engineering through the back door, the Minister, the Government and noble Lords will have no hesitation in considering the amendments with sympathy. They seem to be eminently sensible, modest in scope and practical. I hope that there will be much support for them in the House.
My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend Lady O'Cathain. This matter was discussed at some length in Grand Committee, but the characteristic of Grand Committees is that they may be grand in title, but seldom in the number of people that attend them. Today the House is almost unnaturally packed for a Thursday, but then this Bill is, after all, about sex and tax. That normally brings in a number of Members of your Lordships' House.
The Bill is to some considerable extent a parody on marriage, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester implied, because in virtually every respect it makes civil partnership a mirror image of the state of marriage. Indeed, in the monumentally incompetent manner in which the Bill has been dealt with in this House, as observed by my noble friend Lady O'Cathain, the Government have now tabled amendments to the Civil Evidence Act 1968 that would accord to members of a civil partnership the same privileges in relation to their immunity from being compelled to give evidence against each other as those accorded to man and wife. There is virtually no advantage which accrues to marriage which is not being encompassed in the Bill.
It is also a rather cruel Bill because it would appear to be suffused with unfair discrimination. The Government know this full well. In June 2003, a consultation document was issued by the Women & Equality Unit of the Department of Trade and Industry. As a former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, I wonder what the Bill has to do with trade and industry. But never mind, it had to come from somewhere, I suppose, and presumably the Home Secretary did not want to do it—
My Lords, I would regard what the noble Baroness said as an excuse as much as an explanation. But at any rate, the document issued by the Women & Equality Unit of the DTI states at page 18, paragraph 2.6:
"The creation of a new legal status that is open only to same-sex couples and not to opposite-sex couples would amount to a difference in treatment. However, the Government believes that this difference in treatment is justified because it would remedy an inequality that already exists between opposite-sex and same-sex couples".
That is as may be, but, as my noble friend and the right reverend Prelate have pointed out, it creates new inequalities. I very much hope that if the Bill is enacted, at some stage or another two persons—for example, siblings—will go to the European Court and make a case that it is discriminatory and therefore in certain respects unlawful. It really would serve this Government right if such an action were to be successful.
There is of course more than one way in which the Bill might be corrected. My amendments come later, but they would simply remove the restriction to same-sex couples and open it to couples of any sex. The amendments which my noble friend Lady O'Cathain has tabled are, as one would expect of her, better drafted and perhaps more subtly worded.
However, as the Bill is presently drafted and as Ministers want it, it discriminates against family members who are listed in Part 1 of Schedule 1, and it discriminates by prohibiting the option of civil partnerships to persons of opposite sex. No adequate reason has been given for that. I believe that it is completely wrong. I believe that it is wrong when parents and children are excluded. I find it hard to see that the bonds by which they are united are weaker than those which may band homosexual couples, or indeed other couples of the same sex.
The financial and tax impact of the death of a parent who has been cared for by a son or daughter at the sacrifice of his or her own career and financial well-being is no less than that of the surviving member of a homosexual couple who may have made a similar commitment one to the other, but for perhaps a far shorter period. Daughters are made just as homeless when inheritance tax demands force the sale of their family home as those who would be members of civil partnerships under the provisions of the Bill.
If I interpreted rightly what the right reverend Prelate said, he alighted upon an aspect which had certainly not occurred to me; that is, the occasion when there is a relationship between a parent and a child who is particularly vulnerable. What happens then? The vulnerable child is left with an inheritance tax Bill which forces the sale of the home in which he or she has lived, and has been cared for by parents, throughout the whole of their natural life. Are these not matters which are of concern to us here and now?
Ministers in Grand Committee half hinted that at some stage there might be legislation which would deal with these acknowledged inequities. But why not now? The only argument which was offered in my hearing in Grand Committee was that it was not appropriate for them to be in the Bill—perhaps because it sprang from the women's equality unit, or whatever it is called. But, surely, we have the opportunity to put right those defects in the Bill and I profoundly hope that we will do so.
These amendments would do no damage whatever to those for whom the Bill was specifically drafted and I do not believe that those who feel that it was drafted for them and their particular lifestyles would feel it right to stand in the way of an amendment which put right another wrong.
My Lords, we had a lengthy debate on the matter in Grand Committee, even though only a few of us were there. The Bill, although admittedly rather long, is quite simple when one looks at its core purpose. It is to recognise and acknowledge the existence of same-sex couples and to allow them finally and publicly to register their partnerships.
I have great sympathy with the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, when she talks about siblings who share a home or a carer who looks after a disabled relative. Indeed, she will readily acknowledge that I have put the case several times—at Second Reading and in Grand Committee—and I have pushed the Government very hard to look at this issue. There is an injustice here and it needs to be dealt with, but this is not the Bill in which to do it. This Bill is about same-sex couples whose relationships are completely different from those of siblings.
Perhaps I may remind the House that the Law Commission in its report, Sharing Homes, stated:
"We have concluded that it is not possible to devise a statutory scheme for the determination of shares in a shared home which can operate fairly and evenly across all the diverse circumstances which are now to be encountered".
I fail to see how these amendments can, in a wholly inappropriate Bill, remedy something when the Law Commission could not do so.
The Solicitor Family Law Association states that it,
"opposes extending the scope of the Bill to cover a wider range of family relationships. Having heard cross-party support for the Bill at Second Reading, we are disappointed by the Committee Stage amendments seeking extension of the Bill to other relationships. Civil partnership is not a suitable arrangement for relieving carers and adult children of the burden of paying inheritance tax. Civil partnership will be more than a financial relationship—it is designed to provide a legal recognition for committed loving relationships between couples and, as such, it will work well within the family justice system".
Age Concern comments in much the same way, saying that it believes that it is in everyone's interests to allow couples to plan their future without fear of financial destitution. It welcomes the Civil Partnership Bill, as does Relate.
These are complex issues. They need to be considered seriously and not through ill conceived amendments on a different matter. When we put pressure on the Government, asking them to take the issue of carers seriously, my noble friend Lord Filkin said that he would shortly undertake a study on cohabitation and would urge action as soon as he could.
The noble Baroness's argument in Grand Committee was not only that she wanted to help carers but that she wanted to stop gay people having these sets of rights. As I said, I have supported calls for the issue of carers to be looked into. But I have to say to the noble Baroness, as I said to her in Grand Committee, that if an amendment looks like a wrecking amendment, feels like a wrecking amendment and looks as though it will wreck the Bill, she should not be surprised if some of us oppose it.
I hear noble Lords shout "no", but the noble Baroness's principal position, and that of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, on homosexuality is clear. They have never voted for legislation which encourages any kind of equalisation of rights for homosexuals. Indeed, on Radio 4 on
"We not only have an epidemic of obesity—we have a huge problem with AIDS, and the Government's attitude is to do everything it can to promote buggery, knowing that those two are somewhat intimately connected".
I find it far more difficult to accept these amendments when the Government have already given a commitment to look into these issues—issues which people like me and the noble Baroness care about. If this amendment, which is ill conceived, is agreed to, it will do nothing other than undermine the purpose of the Bill. This is not the Bill to deal with such issues.
I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment and if, after reflection, she cannot do so, I ask noble Lords to vote against it—not because they do not care about carers but because the amendment will undermine the Bill and the Government have already given a commitment in that respect. I say to the noble Baroness that I believe her amendment is a fig leaf to disguise her opposition to the Bill in total, and I hope that she will withdraw it.
My Lords, I certainly do not have the skill to approach the debate on this Bill with the clarity employed by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, but I rise to support wholeheartedly the points that she made.
Again, I am certainly not a master of euphemism and, hence, there are one or two things that I think I must say bluntly to your Lordships. The first is that it is virtually impossible for anyone to understand a Bill which appears to me to be brought to this House on the back of a demand by a very vocal minority of society and which is so flawed that the Government must come back again and again with page after page of amendments. That strikes me as a very good reason why the Bill should be taken away by the Government and, if it must come back, it should be brought back in a form that many of us can begin to understand. Looking at last month's election results, I wonder how the general public could vote for a party that brings forward a Bill that even Members of your Lordships' House cannot properly understand.
Secondly, to my mind, the Bill undermines the traditional family in two ways: it creates a form of gay marriage and it ignores family relationships in the way that it distributes benefits. I know that it will be denied that the Bill does, in fact, create a form of gay marriage. But I have just listened to the noble Lord, Lord Alli, who said that the problems that have been identified by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, are entirely different from the problems that are being tackled by the Bill. The Bill deals with couples who want to indulge—again, I apologise; euphemism is not a strength of mine—in a relationship which most likely involves unnatural sexual practices. That is the reality of the situation that we are addressing here today.
The amendments at least address the difficulties which the noble Lord, Lord Alli, wants to put on the long finger. He is saying, "No, because these people are not indulging in an unnatural sexual practice and because they are brothers, sisters, aunts or grandparents, they should not be included in a Bill which, ostensibly, is to do with benefits and equal treatment for people within society".
The amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, would add family members to the list of beneficiaries, and they are very straightforward. Doubtless the Government will raise some technical issues against them. Perhaps they will take the Stonewall line and say that they would overcomplicate family law. But we are engaging in a wholesale rewriting of family law. Laws which, for centuries, have guided what we hope to achieve in resolving tax and inheritance difficulties and so on relating to the family are being rewritten wholesale. We are already complicating family law with a Bill which is 400 pages long.
Are homosexuals to be the only beneficiaries? Why must we go through this whole legislative process with our eyes closed to the plight of family members who could benefit and who deserve to benefit? We are talking about a very deserving group of people. The amendments state that they must be close relatives who have lived together for 12 years and they must be over 30 years of age, which means that they have lived together as adults. Living together as minors does not count.
One notable thing that strikes me about the Bill is that there is no residential requirement for homosexual couples to register a civil partnership. Because I do not understand the Bill with the clarity that others do, I ask whether any couple anywhere can form a civil partnership if it is to be financially beneficial. I would guess that that is not the case, but I do not understand why it is not if, in fact, there is no such residential requirement for homosexual couples.
The amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, require proof that the relationships that are to be rewarded are long-term, committed relationships. Many people have been able to call to mind an example of the kind of case about which we are concerned. We know about sons who live at home for all their adult life, looking after an ageing parent; we also know of brothers and sisters who have lived together for 30, 40 or 50 years and who, to be blunt, have left it too late to get married. When one says to such people who have lived together in normal, loving, family relationships that they could lose their home to pay inheritance tax, they are shocked. If one were to tell them that there is a Bill before Parliament that could help them, but instead helps only homosexual couples, they would be appalled. I am.
There are many problems with this Bill. I believe that these amendments make a bad Bill less bad and address a genuine injustice. I hope that noble Lords will support them.
My Lords, it is not my intention to speak for as long as the previous speaker. I shall move from the somewhat incendiary atmosphere of that speech back to the comparatively tranquil waters of the speeches of my noble friends Lady O'Cathain and Lord Tebbit. Straightaway, I ask my noble friend Lord Tebbit not to condemn the Grand Committee because it was sparsely attended. Surely, it is the quality of the Members who attend a Grand Committee and their dedication that is important.
My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for giving way and for the implied compliment, as I was one of those who attended. Almost throughout the Grand Committee it seemed odd to me that the number of members of the public exceeded that of the number of Peers present and on occasions the number of advisers exceeded the number of Peers present.
My Lords, whatever my noble friend may say and may regret, perhaps I can remind him that there were only 12 Apostles, which is slightly fewer than the number of Peers who attended Grand Committee sittings.
My Lords, that is the detail, but the principle is the same. In any case, my noble friend Lord Tebbit was, as he kindly informed me, a former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—an office that he held with such great distinction and seemingly interminable length—and he will know that St Franc"ois de Sale said that one soul was diocese enough for a bishop. So one member of a Grand Committee dedicated, informed and learned is quite sufficient.
I shall leave that peripheral point and say that I have much sympathy with the point raised by my noble friend Lady O'Cathain. Many cases of injustice arise within family relationships. I do not see why the matter should not be dealt with in this Bill. I believe that organisations such as Stonewall, which has written to most Members of this House, do not do a great service to their own cause by resisting the remedying of injustice to the family. It is likely to make the homosexual community more unpopular rather than less.
I know of a case in your Lordships' House, for example, involving siblings. For many years a Peer had lived happily with his brother and sister, but on the death of his brother, he and his sister were obliged to sell the family home, which they did not want to do, and move into other accommodation which was not as satisfactory. This is a problem that should concern us and be seen as such.
While I applaud the intention in the amendment, it seems to me that a half-baked drafted amendment—if one can have such a thing—does not remedy the injustice fully. It adds another injustice. Why should members of a family have to live together for 12 years and be over 30 before they can have such a right? Surely, that is another form of discrimination. Those are provisions that I believe would be much better removed.
On the point made by my noble friend Lady O'Cathain that there would be greater expense for the public purse in certain circumstances, I say so what? If one is remedying injustice, one should not confuse money and morals. They are very different matters. That used to be an argument used against the abolition of capital punishment: it is more expensive to keep people in prison than to execute them. We should abandon that.
Perhaps I can suggest to the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland of Asthal, a way out of this dilemma. Would it be possible for her to return with a form of words, different from that proposed in the amendment, with which the Government agree and which they believe would be acceptable to the House? That would be of service both to the general cause that she supports and to human rights and human compassion in general. Let her not fall into the same trap of confusing money and morals, in which my noble friend dipped her toes, because money and morals are totally different. They are not connected, as anyone who knows life in the City will have observed. Yes, I have gone too far. I withdraw that remark. They are not connected, as anyone who has observed certain sections of life in the City will know. I hope that the Minister will take this as a serious suggestion because clearly many people in the House feel deeply about it.
My Lords, we on these Benches object strongly to all the amendments in this group. The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, said that this is not a gay marriage Bill. We say that it is not a tax relief Bill either. There is a strongly arguable case for some kind of relief from inheritance tax for family members who have been carers to enable them to continue living in the house where they have carried out their caring duties. But that is a different argument and this is not the place or the time for that argument. This Bill is inappropriate for dealing with that issue.
Even the movers of the amendment do not suggest that it should be possible, at the same time, to combine a civil partnership and a marriage. Among other things, that means that tax relief would not extend to a married child caring for a parent, which is a very common situation. The country is, after all, full of grandparents. That would be so even if the child who was caring was separated but not divorced.
A daughter looking after elderly married parents could not enter into a civil partnership with either of them. She would have to wait until one of them died, by which time the other might not have the mental capacity to enter into one. It would also mean that if one member of a family civil partnership wished to enter into a marriage, he or she could not do so without going to the court to get an order dissolving the civil partnership. A dissolution order must show that the civil partnership has irretrievably broken down. That would not necessarily be the case—a daughter might well want to marry a man who is willing to move in with her and to help care for her parents. That shows that the Bill is wholly unsuitable because it shows up all sorts of unnecessary anomalies.
The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, could have proposed that a civil partnership within one of her categories could, unlike other civil partnerships, be dissolved whenever one party wishes, which would overcome that particular problem. But to do that would show that her proposal is something entirely different, not only in detail but in its whole nature, from a civil partnership as envisaged in the Bill.
The only people within the noble Baroness' list of people eligible to enter into the family civil partnership are those who would not be eligible to enter into the kind of civil partnership proposed in the Bill, because they would be within the prohibited degrees.
I fear that the amendment is being used as a stalking horse for those who are basically opposed to the whole purpose of the Bill. I believe that it would be better if some of those—I am not saying it is true of all of them—who support the Bill were to be more honest about their motives in backing these amendments. We object to the Bill being hijacked for an ulterior purpose that would defeat the objectives for which the Bill was drafted.
My Lords, I must make the position of these Benches clear. This is an issue on which there will be a party Whip, but there will be an exemption on the basis of conscience for those Members who do not feel able to support it.
My Lords, I support the amendments standing in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Alli. This is not a wrecking amendment. I think we have passed beyond that.
The House may think that mixed messages come from these Benches. I suppose that from time to time they do. I am glad to be singing in unison with my good friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester today. However, I should like to quote from the submission by the Archbishop's Council to the DTI of September 2003, the tone of which is neither one of antipathy nor of aggression. It stated:
"The hybrid nature of the present proposals is a recipe for confusion".
I have had an episodic engagement with this legislation. I am a new boy in the House. Certainly I, like many others—as has been alluded to—am confused. There is confusion in the general population.
The Archbishop's Council went on to submit:
"We accept that there are issues of social justice which need to be addressed in the light of changing patterns of relationship in our society".
I should also like to quote from a statement made by the Catholic bishops of England and Wales on
"We are strongly committed to upholding the unique status and meaning of marriage and its importance for the well-being of society. Whatever the intention of this proposed legislation there is a real danger that the deeply rooted understanding of marriage as a permanent and exclusive relationship between a woman and a man, and as the best context for raising children will be eroded."
We have tried to stop that erosion. If the Government's laudable aim is to right social injustices, is it not perverse that the considerable investment of time, energy and focus applied to this specific legislation at the same time creates greater injustices?
In the February 2004 session of the General Synod of the Church of England, a Motion was passed that emanated from York, which, among other things:
"strongly affirmed that marriage is central to the stability and health of human society and warrants a unique place in the law of this country", and:
"recognised there are issues of hardship and vulnerability for people whose relationships are not based on marriage, which need to be addressed by the creation of new legal rights".
That follows the spirit of the amendments in trying to broaden the legislation.
There are situations where family members do not have adequate protection—a matter rehearsed today—in terms of inheritance and property law. The Government should allocate a similar amount of Civil Service time and resources to the issues as has been invested in same-sex couples. Indeed, it could be argued that more people might benefit from such legislation than from the Civil Partnership Bill. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, previously acceded to that point.
It has been argued that for every case the Government can state will benefit from the Civil Partnership Bill almost 60 times as many cases will apply to people in ordinary families.
Some argue that it is perfectly legitimate to debate the defects in inheritance law, landlord and tenant law and so on, but that the proposed Bill remedies those problems only for a select group of people—those who become civil partners under the Bill. In other words, the new legislation is, to my layman's mind, partial, discriminatory and perverse if it stands unamended.
The noble Lord, Lord Lester, and I believe also the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, have said that this is not the Bill, not the time and not the place and that other categories will be dealt with in following legislation. In the mean time, I hope these amendments succeed in gaining the support of the House. Is the Minister prepared to give a categorical assurance that the Government will speedily follow up with legislation that benefits other categories of relationship?
My Lords, I had not intended to intervene in the debate—and I must apologise to my noble friend for missing the first moment or two of her speech. I do so because of the contributions from the noble Lords, Lord Alli and Lord Goodhart.
I warmly supported the Bill at an earlier stage for exactly the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Alli, supported it. I had great sympathy with his prime object in the Bill. I therefore was upset by his contribution and the suggestion that those who support the amendment were supporting a wrecking amendment. He made a great mistake in making that suggestion because I believe that many noble Lords have great sympathy with the part of the Bill which was his object, but who also believe that the case advanced by my noble friend deserves support.
I think I was even more shocked by the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. I find it strange that the Liberal Democrat Party should think that this is the kind of amendment that deserves a Whip to be imposed on its Members. I shall observe with interest how many members of his party support that Whip. Also, for him to suggest that those who support the amendment are supporting a stalking horse is deeply offensive and quite unworthy. Of course he had a legitimate point to make, a point about the practical difficulties of the amendment. Those arguments could legitimately have been advanced without casting aspersions on those who take a different view from him. I give way to the noble Lord.
My Lords, I rise simply to point out that I clearly did not say that all those who support the amendment were using it as a stalking horse. I did say—and I stand by this—that in my view, some of them are.
My Lords, I can only suggest to the noble Lord that he would have done his cause more justice if he had put greater emphasis on the worthiness of the cause advanced by my noble friend before moving on to the technical difficulties.
I have only one other point to make to those who say that the amendment is in the wrong Bill and the wrong place. If one looks back over the whole history of reform down the centuries, one discovers that one needs to pursue reform pretty relentlessly. It is the immediate response of a government who do not want something to say, "Well, at some time in the future, we will look at that and introduce legislation", but it may be many years before we see that legislation. If we really want legislation; if we want a government to move; we must carry an amendment such as this. If the Government then do not think that it can be amended satisfactorily later, they may be forced to come back with some serious proposals for legislation that will cover the point.
So I hope that my noble friends and noble Lords in all parts of the House will not be led astray by that argument, which was the case behind the stalking horse point made by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. I hope that the House will support my noble friend's amendment.
My Lords, as King Henry VIII said to each of his many wives, this will not take up much of your time. First, I support the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain. I was interested to hear the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Alli, in which he identified that the Bill is clearly a Bill to facilitate same-sex partnerships and that it indeed discriminates against ordinary family members, but said that he thought that that discrimination should continue on the Government's assurance that they will consider it at some time away in the future. It would be wrong to continue with that discrimination against ordinary family members. We should not be making a distinction like that in favour of same-sex relationships and at the same time discriminating against ordinary family members.
I am in the unusual position of being not only a Member of your Lordships' House but still being elected by universal franchise to a constituency in the United Kingdom—namely, Strangford in Northern Ireland—as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which, being suspended, will not have a say in the matter. I recently received a letter from a constituent in Killyleagh in County Down. That lady looked after a handicapped child for 14 years. She then went back to work. She then had to look after her mother for another 16 years. She then reached pension age and, instead of receiving a pension of £77.45 a week, she was reduced to £61.47 per week because she had failed to apply for attendance allowance while she cared for her handicapped child. She did so at her own time and expense; she applied for no grants or allowances. She was then discriminated against when she reached pension age.
Under the Bill, a person in a same-sex partnership would not be discriminated against. Ordinary people will lose out under the Bill if enacted. More than 90 per cent of the people of the United Kingdom will be discriminated against if the Bill becomes law. I am astounded that the Liberal Democrats, of all people, want to discriminate against 90 per cent of the people of the United Kingdom.
My Lords, I do not want to delay the House, but I should like to make one brief point that has not been made, which is that committed birth families are not an inert constituency. I am concerned that the Bill as drafted will be seen as the Government once again sidelining those birth families who are dedicated to caring for their children—who are, after all, the nation's children—and to the mutual care of the vulnerable in their family. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester drew attention to the sacrifices that many people in such positions make.
I draw the attention of Members on the Government Front Bench, who, sadly, are not listening, to the fact that there are about 15 or 16 million parents in this country who represent a significant vote. Many of those parents are getting fed up with the Government constantly sidelining them. The Bill could have been drafted—and still could be—to include many of those people. The noble Lord was right to say that the exact wording of the amendments may not be right. Let us put the amendments in place so that the Government can go away and have the opportunity to think again.
My Lords, I rise briefly to give my total support to the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain. I know that on occasions such as this, when anything relating to sexual matters is debated in this House, Northern Ireland Members who are former MPs but now represent their constituency in another way are put down as being to some extent homophobic. I have heard that said repeatedly. In fact, once when going through the Lobby when voting on a Bill such as this, I heard a Government Whip saying, "Here comes the Pope's brass band".
I do not see it that way. The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, has made an unanswerable case for including families. The Government repeatedly say that they want to bring about inclusiveness. The reason for the Bill is that they want to include that minority of the population whom they feel have been victims of discrimination. In so doing, they have excluded the vast majority of the normal population in Northern Ireland. As an Opposition Member said, if the Bill is passed as it stands, it will create antagonism against the homosexual community in Northern Ireland. By the way, I want to put on record that I resent how the homosexual community has hijacked that very good word, "gay". Why not call them homosexuals? Referring to them as gays lets them off a particular hook.
By her amendment, the noble Baroness has brought to the attention of the House the total exclusion of family people. She has received letters; I know of members of my own extended family who would like to be included with the family under the Bill, but they are not and they feel bitterly resentful about that. I can see no reason for excluding families. I do not go along with the line that, this year, next year, sometime or never, the Government will legislate to right that wrong. Now is the time to right that wrong. I heard the noble Lord, Lord Alli, and Members on the Liberal Benches, say that those who support the noble Baroness were supporting wrecking amendments. I do not see it that way at all. I do not believe that they are wrecking amendments.
My Lords, perhaps I may pick up my noble friend on one point. One thing that has been pretty amazing about the Bill is that the word homophobia has not been used at any point. In my recollection, no one during all the days in Grand Committee and all our debates in the House, has said that the noble Baroness, by putting forward a case for carers, was homophobic. What we disagree about essentially is whether this is the place to do it. It is a bad construction, which serves no one well. In my view, it undermines the Bill. Neither I nor anyone else has said that any of the motives behind such amendments are homophobic. I hope that my noble friend will at least accept that reassurance that the House has moved on.
My Lords, it is suspected that many people who claim to support this Bill are sotto voce opposed to it. It may not have been said within this House, but it has certainly been said in these corridors and further afield that anyone who is opposed to this Bill has homophobic tendencies.
I do not see where the Government would find any difficulty whatever in including the categories that have been so ably put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain. I have received hundreds of letters from all over Northern Ireland, many of them from people of a different religion than my own—for example, evangelical Protestants and Presbyterians. They certainly would not support the noble Baroness on other issues, because she has an Irish pronunciation of her name; but on this occasion there is a certain unanimity among all the people from Northern Ireland who have corresponded with me. Many of them do not like this Bill—I do not particularly like this Bill, and I have no hesitation in saying that. I do not put a tooth in it. Many people in Northern Ireland do not like this Bill. Putting aside my own—what some people would refer to as—prejudices, there is a great injustice and inequality being brought about by this Bill in the way that it totally excludes people in a family.
My Lords, I rise to support the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lady O'Cathain. I declare an interest as the vice-president of the Princess Royal's Trust for Carers. A good number of those who would be affected by these amendments are carers, who at present relieve the state of heavy responsibilities.
I can claim to have had some part in the development of family justice in this country over some time. Certainly, I would not wish to be a party to disrupting or damaging that general body of law. On the other hand, the situation of members of families who live together in a supportive family relationship over a period of 12 years and more should be recognised and acknowledged by this House. It is said that this is not the Bill in which to do it. I take exception to that, because this is a competent amendment. We know that the resources of five great government departments are behind this Bill, and I do not believe that they would have much difficulty in drafting the necessary amendments to give effect to the thrust of this principal amendment if it is passed. It is not right for us to let an opportunity pass to rectify an injustice in this area. We owe it to the people who give devoted sacrifice as carers in family situations to take this opportunity of a competent amendment to deal with that matter.
The noble Lord, Lord Alli, pointed out that the Law Commission had said how difficult it was to deal with the various situations of shared ownership. Of course, I am conscious of that fact. This is a modest amendment in that sense; it does not try to deal with everything. It deals only with a fairly small group, by comparison with the whole, of those who are disadvantaged; namely, those who are have lived together for 12 years and who are over 30 years of age. That will not encompass everyone, but it is a good start. Your Lordships should support these amendments and leave it for later stages of the Bill, if the Government wish, to seek to cater for the detail in a different way to these amendments. The five great departments involved are able to do that.
My Lords, I know that it is true, as my colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell said, that this is a subject about which ferociously mixed messages might come from all sides of the House and indeed from these Benches. I want to make a much smaller point. I hope that in her response the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, will explain why she has narrowed the scope of the amendments compared with those that she proposed in Grand Committee. It is important that she should offer that explanation, because when I heard her move them in Committee—I say that I was there on one occasion simply to show that it was not always the quality that was present—I felt that she had a case. It should be possible to devise a means whereby people could register a caring relationship and receive some relief. I was not wholly persuaded that this was the Bill in which to do it, but it seemed to me that she had a case.
I find it difficult to accept the notion—and I speak out of a long theological tradition here—that one should have to register in order to have the privileges that come from being a family member. It seems to me that I am a member of the family of which I am a member not from any choice, registration, or covenant, but by virtue of a given relationship that I have. In the amendment as she has now drawn it, there is the confusion of two different objectives; one to support the family, and I wholly support that, and the other to support and honour caring relationships, and I wholly support that. If you are going to do the second, it seems to me that a far wider group of people should be included, as in the initial Committee amendments. If you are going to support the family, it should precisely not be necessary for people to register partnerships in order to achieve the benefits of family membership.
In his speech, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, listed the other injustices that would arise if you drew the boundaries in the way in which these amendments do. That needs to be taken seriously. I say all this to try to look at this amendment, at this late stage in the Bill, in a detailed and rational way, and not simply to engage in the fundamental debate, which of course goes on all the time under the surface.
My Lords, we on these Conservative Benches, Her Majesty's Official Opposition, have a free vote. Let me be clear that I shall support the amendment proposed by my noble friend and I hope that as many Peers as possible from all sides of the House shall do so.
We had an impassioned debate on this subject in Committee. It is a Bill that responds to a demand for justice from couples who cannot marry because they are same-sex couples, but who wish to affirm their commitment to each other on a lifelong basis. I have made clear at every stage that I respect and support that, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Alli, will be able to confirm. I have no doubt that this House will hear the call for justice from those people. The fact that this massive Bill has proceeded so quickly is evidence of that.
However, the call for justice is not, as we have heard, confined to gay couples. Of course it is heart-rending and wrong that the survivor of such a couple should find the roof torn from over their head by inheritance tax after death. That issue was raised with passion and conviction by the noble Lord, Lord Alli, and others in this House after the tragic death of Lord Montague of Oxford.
I agree with that. But I cannot understand why many of those who support this Bill want to deny the same call for justice—that same right to affirm life-long love and commitment—to other couples who have lived long together but, like some same-sex gay couples, cannot marry. I cannot understand that. To my mind, that risks turning this Bill from a Bill that is designed to bring justice and dignity to those who cannot marry to a Bill designed to help a subset of those people who happen to be gay.
It is wrong for gay people, who have suffered for too long from discrimination, to secure for themselves what this Bill gives and to resist it for others, who are equally loving, equally committed and equally debarred from the ability to marry. Why is it right, as it is in my view, for a gay couple to be able to affirm a civil partnership and to secure the privileges and responsibilities that will flow from that in the next finance Bill, and for a sister and a sister who have shared a life together not to be able to do so?
I do not and will not understand that. It grieves me that those who have fought so long and nobly for this Bill turn their backs on the cry for justice from others who are equally deserving. Bluntly, that is what all those who oppose the noble Baroness's amendment will be doing. In Grand Committee, the noble Baroness moved a similar amendment that I supported. But, with the strange Grand Committee procedure, which I think is being greatly overused in this House, there was no opportunity for us to vote.
However, disappointingly, there was opposition from supporters of the Bill, as if the cause of the people that this amendment champions was in opposition to the cause of those that the Bill champions. There is no such conflict—direct or implied. The call for justice represents two sides of the same coin.
I found the attitude of the Liberal Democrats in Committee, as set out by the noble Lords, Lord Goodhart and Lord Lester of Herne Hill, depressingly flinty hearted. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said that we were wasting our time and that we were trying to turn this Bill into a tax avoidance Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, said that it was,
"humbug . . . to point to other disadvantaged groups".—[Official Report, 12/6/04; GC 119.]
Those words deserve to be sent to every family carer in this country as the official view of the Liberal Democrat Party. If the noble Baroness divides the House, I should rather be in her lobby fighting for family carers and for siblings than in that of the noble Lords, Lord Goodhart and Lord Lester, who articulate the "Bah Humbug" attitude of the Liberal Democrats to those deserving people.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I have not been able to be here for the whole debate, but I have heard everything that she has just said and some of what she said earlier. As she knows, in my Private Member's Bill, which I think was one of the origins of this Bill, I attempted to deal with heterosexual couples as well as homosexual couples.
I was then persuaded by the Government that this was not the right Bill in which to achieve that important reform. But the notion that somehow we are guilty of double-standards is, frankly, quite ludicrous. I would like the noble Baroness to reflect on what she has just said.
My Lords, I was there of course. I did hear the proposition that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, made in his Bill. I did hear that he wanted it for heterosexuals and I know that he has spoken to the Government about how this will proceed. But I do not remember him at any time dealing with carers; neither does it alter the fact that I quoted him correctly. In Committee, he said that it was,
"humbug . . . to point to other disadvantaged groups".—[Official Report, 12/5/04; GC 119.]
One of the few objections to the amendments that were moved at an earlier stage was that they were cast too wide; that, by chance, they could benefit young people in their 20s who had not yet married, but who may, as it were, hedge their bets on tax by registering a partnership with a parent who might then die relatively young.
As my noble friend Lady O'Cathain, has told us, the amendments that she has put forward today are much more narrowly drawn. They cover only people who cannot marry, are over the age of 30—thus excluding the kind of opportunistic case that I have described—and who have lived together for a period of 12 years. Twelve years is a high hurdle: surely, that is proof of a lasting commitment when, sadly, many a marriage nowadays is dissolved far faster than that.
I repeat that these people are debarred from marrying each other just as surely as gay couples. They include the best of our country; namely, sons who have lived for years caring for an aged father, daughters who have done likewise, and unmarried sisters who have shared the same home for, in some cases, 60 or so years. To ask for justice for them is not to wreck the Bill. To recognise what they have given, give and will give is not to wreck the Bill. To confer the right to this status on them does not undermine marriage or the validity of civil partnerships for gay couples.
It is to make a worthwhile Bill an even better Bill. Those who support the Bill and who see it as a great step forward should surely be ready to go one short step further for those family carers and sharers who suffer the same disadvantages and are denied the same privileges and responsibilities as gay couples. Those who want to defend marriage should not see this as undermining in any way the status of marriage. Surely, this is ground on which the advocates of both sides of the argument could come together and proclaim their common humanity.
Frankly, it is a cop-out to say, as some have, "Yes, we agree it is a good case, but it is for another Bill". We have waited a long time for this Bill. The time and the opportunity are now. It may not recur for years. The chance is here—not in another Bill this year, next year, sometime, never—now to do justice to a group of people who are slightly but not so very much wider than those who are covered by the present Bill. To do so would be in the best traditions of this House, which, in recent times, has shown itself time and again to be a force for decency, fairness and natural justice. If the noble Baroness asks the opinion of this House, I shall support her amendment.
My Lords, this has been an unusual debate for this House because, perhaps I may say, it has lacked the temperance that I have come to expect. In responding, I hope that I shall be able to answer many of the issues raised by noble Lords. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, that there is sympathy and understanding in relation to the difficulties that are faced by carers, by siblings and by others. But, contrary to what has been said, this is not a tax Bill, an inheritance Bill or a sex Bill.
The Bill recognises and acknowledges the reality of same-sex partnerships. It has been described in really quite trenchant terms. The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, called it "a nightmare", "a convoluted mess" and "a Bill that discriminates against families". The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, went further. He said that it had been prepared in a "monumentally incompetent manner", that it was a "cruel Bill", "an unfair discriminatory Bill" and a Bill that "created difference in treatment and inequality". Those comments are taken very seriously by the Government. I say to those who made them that I wholeheartedly disagree.
This is not a cruel Bill or a discriminatory Bill. It is a Bill that has been long awaited by those who have sought recognition for their relationships. Of course, I hear what noble Lords opposite say about how long it has taken for this Bill to come to the House. I say gently that of course noble Lords opposite were in power for some 18 years: we heard nothing about the rights, the responsibilities and the inequity with which we now seek to deal.
It is this Government who have sought to address that issue. We seek to address it with fairness, with humanity and with compassion. But we need to be clear because many noble Lords seek to suggest, in effect, that in this Bill we rewrite the whole of the legislation virtually in relation to social security and financial support on which those in our country have come to be reliant. Some £90 billion is expended by the Government on social security and financial support. We need to be clear that in civil partnerships, couples will be mutually responsible for each other. We have talked at length about rights, but we have not, I think, underlined sufficiently the responsibilities.
Those who will enjoy the benefits of a civil partnership will enjoy the rights confirmed as a result of the new creation of that relationship in terms of inheritance provision. But they will also have to accept the responsibilities for social security and financial support. These amendments would require the tearing up of all social security law since Beveridge. No pensioner would get an income-related benefit such as pension credit from the state if their civil partner son could support them. No brother could get an income-related disability benefit if his civil partner sister could support him. No unemployed adult son could get jobseeker's allowance if his civil partner mother could support him, and no son could fail to pay child support if his mother could meet the Bill. I could go on.
All such benefits would belong not to the individual but to the relationship, which in social security terms would put the clock back to the 1930s. I know that that is not the intention of the noble Baroness. So that is in part why we say, "not this Bill".
The noble Baroness has voiced many issues in relation to those who care. But we must also recognise that these provisions would apply to all families and all estates. The reality of that is that the greatest estates in this country could be passed from father to son or son to sister without there ever being payment of inheritance tax. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, has made it very clear that she would like to see the abolition of all inheritance tax so that no estate would ever be burdened with it. I understand that position and I understand, in tabling these amendments, that that is what she desires. But I say to her, "not in this Bill". It would mark a serious departure from the way in which this country has traditionally looked at inheritance tax and capital gains. This is not a tax Bill.
I hope that I have made it clear that in no way do I wish to denigrate the important relationships that some people have with family members with whom they share a home. Family relationships are of course valuable and society recognises them as such. Parents, children, siblings, aunts, grandparents and nephews all have relationships with each other that are already legally recognised. In Grand Committee I mentioned some of the rights that family members already enjoy such as, for example, recognition in intestacy laws, tenancy succession rights and a general acceptance of the right to visit relatives or attend their funerals.
While there has been discussion of needs and rights, as I said earlier, not enough has been said about the financial responsibilities that are explicit in the Bill. I cite again the example I mentioned earlier of the duty to maintain a civil partner and any child of the family. Moreover, I respectfully point out that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester was right to remind us that family relationships are not usually those of choice, but ones which come about as a result of birth. They can be either a joyous advantage or a somewhat dubious burden, but they are incapable of being thrown off.
A very different relationship, and one to which we seek to give acknowledgement, is a relationship of choice between two adults who wish to commit their lives together.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness. I think that she may be inadvertently confusing the House a little. Would she confirm that this Bill of itself contains no provisions whatever about tax? In whatever form it is enacted, it will be for the Government and the Treasury to decide what they should do about tax. If the amendments tabled by my noble friend were accepted, they could decide not to extend the rights of married couples regarding inheritance tax to anyone else. It is up to them how far they go, not up to my noble friend.
My Lords, I do not accept that as right because we have been absolutely clear about the basis on which we have brought these provisions before this House. We have outlined the consequences which we reasonably expect will flow from the formation and registration of such relationships, and it is on that basis that we have had our debate.
I have accepted the statements made by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, that she too seeks to have those issues addressed. She seeks exemption from inheritance tax for those for whom she is pursuing this advantage and, indeed, she would advocate the abolition of all inheritance tax. That is the true basis on which this House is debating these issues.
My Lords, I am very sorry to do this because I do not want to delay the House any longer. However, at this point I must say to the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, that I am very upset at the way she keeps on saying that I am advocating the abolition of inheritance tax. I certainly do not like inheritance tax, but in no way is this a wrecking amendment and in no way is it an amendment to abolition inheritance tax. This amendment seeks solely to right injustice.
I have said time and again that the Government are righting injustice in this Bill—to same-sex couples. I have not mentioned the words "homosexual" or "homophobia" at all; I refer to same-sex couples. By creating the right to right that injustice, the Government are causing another major injustice. That is it, full square. My amendments say nothing else. I really do not want to be told two or three times that this is a move solely to abolish inheritance tax. I do not like the tax, but there are lots of things that I do not like. However, I am not bringing them into this Bill, and that is a fact.
My Lords, of course I hear what the noble Baroness says and I do not seek to suggest that she is doing anything that she is not entitled to do. But in relation to each of the groups to which she has referred, the consequence would be that they would not be subject to inheritance tax by virtue of their being excluded.
The amendments would allow people in specified family relationships to register as civil partners of each other once they have shared a home for a minimum of 12 years. Since Grand Committee the period of years of continuous home sharing has increased from seven years to 12 years, and it may prove to be very difficult to verify that such a requirement had been met.
But what about a family of three sisters, or two spinster sisters who are joined by their widowed sister? I cannot see how these amendments would help them, and the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, setting out the differences in relation to those relationships were sound. The noble Baroness has said that this Bill is highly discriminatory, but how would three sisters living together choose which two of them would form a civil partnership?
I have not heard a great deal about the need for the relatives who come within the noble Baroness's additional categories of civil partnerships to be given special legal recognition for their relationship together as a couple. But this is an important part of what civil partnership offers to the same-sex couples for whom it is designed. Yet we have heard much debate on the financial implications of the Bill, and in particular on their need for exemptions. I am under no illusion about the consequences that would flow. We have already discussed at length our concerns in this regard. The amendment could lead to a sequence of family members forming civil partnerships with other family members in order to continue the situation.
As I said in Grand Committee, the Law Commission's report on home sharers in 2002 concluded that no single solution was possible for all the different permutations of home sharers. My noble friend Lord Alli was quite right to allude to this because it is a difficult and problematic issue. The needs of closely related family members who live together are very different from those of same-sex couples, who lack legal recognition of their relationship together as a couple because they cannot marry.
I recognise the concerns about what some have suggested is the devaluing of marriage and that there is not a significant difference. We have made it clear again and again that we see a very significant difference between the consequences, import and nature of marriage and the civil partnerships that we are now contemplating.
The argument could be made that this kind of arrangement makes the prospect of marriage more difficult for people. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, set out the difficulties involved in ending a partnership when a sibling or another person wishes to enter into a marriage. If a mother and daughter entered into a civil partnership, the daughter caring for her mother would have to go through a court-based dissolution procedure in order to marry.
I heard what the noble Lord, Lord St John of Fawsley, said in relation to bringing forward a different amendment to cure the flaws inherent in the amendment of the noble Baroness. However, we do not believe it would be possible to do that within the Bill. I have looked at the detail of what is proposed. I am unconvinced not only of the practicalities of these proposals, even as revised since Grand Committee; but, also, I am firmly unconvinced that the Bill is the right place for them.
I find it highly unlikely that noble Lords would wish to open marriage to people in close family relationships—I am dealing of course with the issue in terms of heterosexual couples—and, in the same way, it is not appropriate to make civil partnerships available to them either. We believe that opening up such a formal legal relationship to family members could lead to questions about the nature of the family unit, blurring the integrity of laws prohibiting sexual relationships within the family.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I apologise that I had to be somewhere else earlier today.
I was surprised to hear the noble Baroness mention marriage. It seems to me that, throughout the passage of the Bill so far, the Government have taken pains to say that the proposed civil partnership is not an analogy with marriage. It has nothing in it about permanence nor about exclusivity and so, on both grounds, it seems to me that the Government are right to say that.
However, it is curious that all this is being done in respect of a partnership which is quite specifically undefined. It seems to me that the last thing it can be right for the Minister to do is to draw parallels with marriage at this stage.
My Lords, let me deal with the two issues raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester in relation to permanence and exclusivity.
It is clear from the very nature of the relationships recognised in the Bill that the provisions relate to long-term partnerships. The dissolution provisions, the nullity provisions, and so on, make it clear that we are dealing with long-term relationships. As to exclusivity, it is clear from the provisions that a person can enter into only one civil partnership at any given time. He or she is not entitled to have more than one relationship while in the civil partnership. So, in relation to permanence and exclusivity, I disagree with the right reverend Prelate.
If the civil partnership is to be available to those within the bounds of consanguinity, the whole nature of the family and the family relationship will change significantly. The rights and responsibilities which are given to a civil partner are very different indeed from the rights and responsibilities which would be given to a family member. It is in that sense that I made my comments about the way in which these matters are put together.
A civil partnership is not a financial deal or a matter of tax avoidance; it is a new legal relationship which gives legal recognition to same-sex couples who have found the person they wish to share their lives with, separate from any family ties. It is the purpose of the Bill to give that legal recognition to same-sex couples in their life together as a couple. That is a fundamental part and purpose of the Bill before us.
It is a partnership that cannot be described as a commercial contract or simply an arrangement of convenience. Those who enter into these partnerships will have to take the rights and responsibilities extremely seriously because they are quite onerous. I ask the noble Baroness not to press the amendment.
My Lords, I thank everyone who has taken part in this very good debate. I have no intention of spending any more time on it. I shall write to all noble Lords who have made comments and asked me questions after I have read Hansard. I beg leave to test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, I beg to move that consideration on Report be now adjourned. In moving the Motion, I suggest that the Report stage begin again not before 3.10 p.m.