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My Lords, the Government introduced this Bill as,
"a measure for social justice and equality".
The need to promote fairness in society is, I hope and I am sure, always uppermost in our minds when we work together on legislation in this House. Sadly, however, this Bill in meeting that objective for one group of people seriously militates against another group. This cannot be fair or just. By this Bill, a new situation is created whereby special rights are given to some but not to others who are in equal if not greater hardship.
Last June, your Lordships' House passed amendments to extend the benefits of the Bill to close family members who live together on a long-term basis. Of course it was right to vote for an attempt to remedy an injustice created by the Bill. The Bill has been returned to us without these amendments. Since June, many have mulled over the issues that were raised during those debates. This new amendment takes a new approach and I believe that this House should ask the other place to think again.
First and foremost, the amendment does not change the nature of the Civil Partnership Bill. What it does do is seek to establish a parallel, but a very much more limited scheme for family members. Probably most of those who have spoken on this issue during the parliamentary proceedings both in this House and in the other place accept that a case has been made for the extension of the rights to siblings. In principle, it is widely accepted that, for example, two sisters who have lived together on a long-term basis should enjoy similar rights afforded to civil partners under the Bill.
A recent opinion poll found that 80 per cent of the public would endorse this position. The principle has even been accepted by Stonewall, the gay rights group, but the argument has been—and I admit this straightforwardly—that this is not the right Bill. My concern is simple: we may never get the right Bill.
The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, sent me a letter in which she stated that there may be a time and place for a proper discussion and even future reform of family law. That is hardly a guarantee that the concerns of family members will be addressed in the near or even medium-term future.
I passionately believe that the issue is so important it should not be left to chance. To reiterate: the principle of this amendment is to right an injustice which needs to be addressed. The Government have proposed that Parliament should help some people who suffer hardship because they cannot marry while at the same time refusing to help others in equal or even sometimes greater hardship; namely, family members who also cannot marry. It is not in the tradition of this House that we willingly pass legislation which creates injustice. We really must think again.
There have been all sorts of half-hearted commitments to right this injustice. My amendment requires action and requires action now. But I would like to describe what this amendment seeks to achieve. In essence, it requires the Government to set up a parallel scheme for family members before this Bill is implemented. Under the Bill as it now stands, family members will have fewer legal rights and privileges than same-sex couples in a civil partnership. They will, therefore, have a lower legal status. In other words, to enforce my point, the Bill creates more injustice, not less.
Let me be specific. A civil partner will be able to inherit assets tax free from the estate of his or her former partner. In the long address which the Minister gave on Amendment No. 1, she said that inheritance tax could be paid in instalments over 10 years. She also said that inheritance tax affects only five in every 100 deaths in this country. That is a slightly out-of-date statistic. The problem is a simple one. Whereas the value of houses has increased by approximately 100 per cent over the past five years, the value of the inheritance tax allowance has increased only in single figures in percentage terms.
To say that inheritance tax can be paid in instalments over 10 years is a generous offer. However, most of the people to whom I refer in the amendment have no income. The only way in which they can pay the inheritance tax is by selling the home, the asset, which is what we want to avoid. We do not want people who have been in a caring, co-dependent, mutual relationship as family members to be booted out of their home on the death of one member, having to sell the asset to raise enough money to pay the inheritance tax and then to buy another home on a lower scale than that which they shared with the now dead partner. The civil partner will be able to inherit the assets tax free, but that is not so with family members.
Civil partners will be able to pass on lump sums to each other free of capital gains tax. This is not so with family members. Under the Bill, a member of a civil partnership can inherit a statutory tenancy if his or her partner dies. With family members, such as two sisters, if one sister dies the surviving sister has the right only to an assured tenancy, as the Minister said. But there will be cases where that could result in rent increases or even eviction. The Minister stated that the Government were currently considering all this, but nothing concrete has emerged. However, when the Civil Partnership Bill becomes law, the civil partners will have a concrete advantage.
The last of the four issues covered by Amendment No. 1A is fatal accident claims. In the case of fatal accidents, both civil partners and family members can sue for financial loss. If the accident is caused through the negligence of a third party, the civil partner can sue for bereavement damages of £10,000 but that course of action is not available to family members.
All those injustices would be remedied by my amendment, which addresses the four areas of inheritance tax, capital gains tax, housing and tenancies, and fatal accident claims. It does not cover pensions or benefit entitlements—I can see a look of relief coming over the face of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. The Minister will note that, unlike the previous amendments, social security and pensions legislation need not even be mentioned in our debate because they would not be affected.
I repeat that only the four areas that I have listed would be affected, and those are the ones that, rightly, I call "crisis areas". If those were addressed, it could make a huge difference to family members when facing the most traumatic and difficult time in their lives. The provision relating to those areas would not come into effect until after the death of a loved, caring and co-dependent family member.
My amendment would require the Secretary of State to certify, before the commencement order was made for the Civil Partnership Act, that a parallel scheme for family members had been introduced. There is absolutely no reason why the amendment should delay the commencement of the Bill. I am not—I repeat "not"—holding the Bill to ransom. Bearing in mind that Ministers said that it will take a year for the Civil Partnership Act to be implemented, in the interim, provided that there is a will, there seems to be no reason why a parallel scheme for family members should not be drawn up and introduced. Given the widespread support for the proposal to help close family members, the Government could bring forward a short Bill. Obviously the details would be up to them, but my amendment would ensure that that was done.
The range of family members covered in the amendment is narrower than in the amendment passed in your Lordships' House in June. It does not cover aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, grandparents or grandchildren.
The Minister spent up to five minutes dealing with the issue of carers. My amendment does not cover carers; it does not even mention them, although the people who would benefit would all be involved in a mutually caring, supportive co-dependency. The National Carers Strategy does not apply, and nor do any of the other issues to which the Minister referred—the Carers and Disabled Children Act and the vouchers and so on. That is a red herring that should be eliminated from our discussions.
There is nothing to prevent the Government bringing forward proposals to widen the amendment. However, in my view, the amendment before us deals with the most difficult cases of unfairness which are likely to arise as a direct result of the Bill.
The amendment does not offer an easy way through for family members. The requirement is that close family members must have lived together in a relationship of co-dependency for 12 years—not just months or even a small number of years, but 12 years. Co-dependent family relationships deserve protection and this proposal would give it, albeit limited to the four crisis areas that I have outlined. The Government would be required to devise the detailed proposals relating to only four areas, which would in no way mirror the complete catalogue of rights to be given to civil partners under the Bill.
The debates on my previous amendment led to the Government saying, in effect, that it was all too difficult. In view of the complexity of the pensions issue, I have some sympathy with that, although I remain convinced that, if the will had been there, the obstacles could have been overcome.
I am sure that the Minister, in her usual gracious manner—she knows that I have the utmost personal respect and affection for her—will concede that I have adopted a much easier approach, albeit, I admit, at the cost of continuing injustice to family members in some severe areas of hardship. The amendment gives the Government flexibility in introducing a parallel scheme. It is simple; it is caring; it removes some injustice; it does not affect the rights proposed for same-sex couples in the Civil Partnership Bill; and, above all, it makes the Bill fairer for ordinary family members. I commend it to the House and beg to move.
Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 1, at end insert "and do propose Amendments Nos. 1A and 1B in lieu of the words so left out of the Bill".—(Baroness O'Cathain.)