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Commons Amendment

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 17th November 2004.

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Photo of Lord Lester of Herne Hill Lord Lester of Herne Hill Liberal Democrat 5:00 pm, 17th November 2004

My Lords, we welcome back the Bill in a much healthier state than when it left the House. I should like to record our thanks to the Ministers and their team who have worked so hard to make this reform a reality. I should also like to pay tribute to the late Lord Williams of Mostyn who did not live to see the fruition of a measure which he supported with great personal conviction. We miss him greatly.

In the other place, the previous amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, which the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, powerfully supported, was removed by a majority of five to one, with firm and welcome leadership from the Opposition Front Bench. We share some of the stated aims of the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, but not her means of achieving them, for reasons that have been repeated again and again throughout the House.

The new amendments are narrower than the original version, which was overwhelmingly rejected by all political parties in the Commons, but, if enacted, they would still be wrecking amendments, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, in particular, has so clearly explained. They are alien to the central purpose of the Bill and would make it impossible for the Bill to come into force.

The new amendments would prevent the Bill coming into force until a voluntary registration scheme, or schemes, had been established by the Secretary of State which would entitle only relatives over 30 years of age who had lived together for 12 years to be treated in the same way as same-sex civil partners as regards what the noble Baroness describes as "four crisis areas".

Last Tuesday, 9 November, the Times published an advertisement by the Christian Institute under the banner headline,

"I have lived with my sister for 15 years. When she died I had to sell our home to pay the inheritance tax. Why should I have less house-sharing rights than a gay couple?".

The advertisement carried a photograph of a sad lady with a wistful expression. But in the fine print it emerged that she was not a real person but what was described as,

"an image posed by model for illustrative purposes only".

I am sure it was none the worse for that. The Minister has explained very clearly the legal protection already given to sisters living together which is not available to homosexual couples.

A further answer to the question posed by the Christian Institute's advertisement, and a short answer to these amendments, is that two sisters living together are not in the same position as a married couple any more than they are in the same position as a same-sex couple who register their partnership under the Bill, if it becomes law. As we all know, a homosexual couple living together cannot marry because they are homosexual. Two sisters living together cannot marry, not because of their sexuality but because they are sisters, just as a father cannot marry his daughter even though they are of the opposite sex.

In other words, this is not a case of what is sauce for the goose being sauce for the gander. Those whom the Bill is designed to protect—same-sex couples who are willing to enter into a partnership with rights and responsibilities as if they were married—are not comparable to two sisters who have lived together for 12 years. So, when the amendments state that two sisters are to be treated no less favourably than two people who are civil partners—that is, a same-sex couple—they are making a false comparison; they are not treating like with like.

The Bill does not undermine marriage by treating registered homosexual couples in terms of their rights and obligations as if they were married couples. But it would indeed undermine marriage if two sisters, or perhaps more, were treated as if they were married to one another.

The noble Lord, Lord St John of Fawsley, is right to emphasise the need not to confuse civil partnership with marriage. I have always made it clear ever since my Private Member's Bill that I would not wish to do so. I am very glad that we have not followed the position taken, for example, by the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, which led to certain consequences, perhaps, in the presidential election in the United States.

The arguments about inheritance tax, capital gains tax and so on, and other family relationships and connections, are irrelevant to the central aim of the Bill, although not to the noble Baroness's other aims. The aim of the Bill, I repeat—it has been said again and again—is to give same-sex couples, who cannot marry and will not be able to marry, the protection of their relationship and the rights and responsibilities that will result from registration. It is a long-overdue measure of simple justice.

There is a legitimate case for extending some degree of relief from inheritance tax to family members or non-family carers who shared a home with the deceased, but that is a matter for a future Finance Bill, not for this Bill. The sole purpose of this Bill is to give legal recognition to same-sex unions. Relief from inheritance tax on property which passes to a surviving partner is a consequence and not a purpose of the Bill. Indeed, as has been said, the Bill does not provide relief from inheritance tax at all. The Government have said that that will have to be dealt with by the next Finance Bill.