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Commons Amendment

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 17th November 2004.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Labour 4:00 pm, 17th November 2004

My Lords, this Bill is very much required. I hope that the House will accept the form in which it has come back to us from the Commons and reject the amendments moved by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain.

The Bill is important because it deals with many of the issues which currently present problems for same-sex couples. At present, no mechanism is open to them for giving their relationships legal recognition or status. Those difficulties may relate to the rights of the next of kin, visiting rights in hospitals, key medical decisions or inheritance or pension issues. Anyone who knows of gay couples in secure, permanent relationships will know of the insecurity, trauma and distress that can be caused because currently no legal recognition is given to their relationship. I have no doubt that if the Bill is passed as it left the other place, it will provide stability to partnerships based on permanent and loving relationships.

I listened very carefully to the speech of the noble Baroness. No one who heard that speech could doubt her sincerity in moving the amendment and no one could doubt the concerns that she has. That is not in question. But I believe that, if we were to pass the amendment, we would, in effect, make the Bill unworkable.

The noble Baroness seeks to develop a parallel scheme for family members on the basis of what is contained in the current Bill, albeit with certain restrictions, as she described. Her amendment follows others which were discussed seriously in the other place and which I believe would have had largely the same effect. Not surprisingly, the Commons rejected those amendments by very large votes. They rejected them for very practical reasons, having been of the view that the Bill was not the right vehicle in which the matters raised by the noble Baroness should be considered. The Government and my noble friend have responded sympathetically this afternoon and have said that they will consider some of the issues raised in these debates.

I turn to the practical reasons why we should reject the amendment. It is a fact that siblings and other family members already have legal recognition by virtue of being related. They do not need legal recognition in the way that same-sex couples do. The amendment is concerned with inheritance and capital gains tax, but what would be the cost? Today, the House of Lords is asked to take a decision which would commit the expenditure of billions of pounds. Today, in relation to inheritance tax my noble friend talked of a figure of £2.8 billion. If that figure is correct, it is a huge amount of government expenditure for the House suddenly to decide to commit. We do not have time to study the figures, and we have not had a chance to scrutinise them.

The noble Baroness has not explained to any satisfaction why her amendment confines the matter to two people. Today, she came to the House with a figure of 12 years, but what is the justification for that figure? Why should the people involved have to be aged over 30? I have five children. What would happen if three of them shared a home, and two of them wanted to enter into partnership and one did not? Those practical difficulties need to be fully explored before your Lordships can decide whether this is a wise course of action.

The amendment concerns practical, difficult and complicated matters of family law. Surely we should not alter the law without careful examination and parliamentary scrutiny of the highest order. Can we seriously commit ourselves to the amendments proposed by the noble Baroness and stop the rest of the Bill being enacted without giving those matters such careful attention?

I doubt very much whether the Bill is the right vehicle to deal with the very legitimate questions raised by the noble Baroness. It is expressly designed to deal with same-sex couples; it has been thoroughly debated and examined on that basis. Why should single-sex couples in stable relationships have to wait for a long time before the legislation can be passed? If the amendment is passed this afternoon, I doubt whether the Bill will ever come into force because of the legal, practical and financial difficulties involved.

A further and conclusive reason why we should reject the amendments is that the Government have clearly accepted that some of the questions posed by the noble Baroness deserve careful consideration. My noble friend Lady Scotland, in her careful introductory speech, has already spoken of the current rights of relatives and carers. I accept that the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, does not suggest that we should talk about carers today, although they have been a subject of discussion in previous debates. My noble friend has already talked about what has been achieved and has said—I noted it very carefully—that we will continue to look at these other issues.

This is a revising Chamber, and the Government have said that they are prepared to look at some of those matters. In the best House of Lords tradition, should we not accept that as a sensible way forward? Surely, on the basis that the issues have been raised and the Government have said that they are prepared to look at them, we could pass this Bill without amendment, bring comfort and security to many same-sex couples, and bring to the statute book a Bill that, I believe, commends itself, and ought to commend itself to Members of the House.