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I believe that this will be seen as a watershed debate. The Civil Partnership Bill is to be welcomed. It is a redress to an injustice behind which, only a year or two ago, few would have expected Parliament to unite as we have. We have the noble Lord, Lord Lester, to thank for his original Bill, which led the Government to this point today.
I believe that this amendment marks an equally striking turning point. Before my noble friend Lady O'Cathain took it up, the cause of siblings and family carers was an outstanding cause. After the stand that she has taken, the eloquence with which she has spoken, the heart-rending cases that she has, over the weeks, brought to our attention, the strong support she won in this House at an earlier stage and the many letters that I and so many Peers have received, I do not think that any halfway decent government could ever again sweep aside the cry for justice from siblings and family carers faced with being hounded from their home by the taxman on the death of their nearest and dearest.
It is one of the glories of this House—and long may it stay that way—that a Member can find an injustice and put it before the country in a way that cannot be ignored. I think of the noble Lords, Lord Ashley of Stoke and Lord Morris of Manchester, with regard to disabled people. I think of the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, and the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, with regard to war pensions. I couple with them my noble friend and her campaign for siblings and close family carers. Her stand will, I am certain, equally come to be seen as a stand for justice.
My noble friend has suffered many personal attacks before and since the Committee stage in your Lordships' House, the stereotyping of her views—even threats to her livelihood. Those attacks demean those who made them. My noble friend's whole life shows her commitment to public service and her concern for others. She is a person of courage, a person of integrity. I hope that when the Minister replies, she will condemn any threat to any Member of this House on the basis of what he or she has done or said in this House. We must not permit the emergence of a new intolerance in this country.
In the summer, the Government reacted in a negative way to my noble friend's amendment. No one who was in the House that day will forget how foolish Ministers made themselves look. They picked up their ball and they stopped playing. But I hope we have moved on from that. Since then, many of those who have campaigned for an end to injustice for gay couples have come out in support of my noble friend's campaign. I was confident that they would, for those who have suffered injustice know that you do not end one injustice by creating another.
I hope that the Government have rethought their position. The House will listen very carefully to what the Minister says, for her response—every little word, every conditional clause—will have been discussed and agreed at the highest level. So I ask her: will the Government address the injustice felt by siblings and family carers—yes or no? If not, why not? If yes, how and when?
The group, as defined in my noble friend's amendment, is not large—family members over 30 who have lived together for 12 years or more as co-dependants. We all know some of them, and we know them to be among the most deserving and admirable members of our society. It is clear beyond doubt that the Government must act. Yet a quite extraordinary Home Office paper, circulated by the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, says that if siblings or family carers were given the chance of a registration scheme, then there would,
"be a potential for abuse, with one relative putting pressure on another, perhaps a vulnerable or financially dependent one, to register their relationship".
That does not begin to be a serious argument. If it were, it would be an argument against civil partnerships of any form. It wholly ignores the everyday pressures that flow from the incidence of inheritance tax and the natural wish to protect and pass on a family home and family possessions. My noble friend's scheme, so far from creating pressure, would relieve it.
The Government also say that it would be contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights to protect some family members in this way but not others. If true, that is as good an argument as I have ever heard against the European Convention on Human Rights. Surely the Government, with their phalanxes of human rights lawyers falling out of every cupboard, have the ingenuity to surmount that. But do they have the will, my Lords? Do they have the will?
The Home Office paper is a tissue of pretext not to do something. What the House asked for this summer was for something to be done for these deserving people. The paper says that there may be a time and a place for proper discussion and even future reform of family law. As my noble friend said, that hardly sounds a ringing commitment. I hope for rather more from the Minister today.
Let me make it clear on behalf of my party that we fully accept the powerful case my noble friend has made. But we do not think that this Bill is the right vehicle in which to achieve it. Indeed, I think it is unfortunate that my noble friend's amendment would make the commencement of the Civil Partnership Act dependent on the prior implementation of a scheme for siblings and carers. In my view, both causes should be advanced in parallel. For that reason, passionately as I agree with her on the cause, I will not be able to support my noble friend if she presses her amendment, as it would delay introduction of civil partnerships. But the cause she presses is wholly compelling, in my view, and we on this side will fight to make it a reality. That is why, when the next Finance Bill is presented to Parliament, my friends in another place will lay amendments to correct this injustice.
If the Government cannot accept the amendment, when we return to office, we will act to address this issue. Will the noble Baroness be able to give the House a similar assurance? If not, then surely she must explain why the Government are not prepared to act to help these people. Tens of thousands of men and women in every part of this country today will be waiting to know the reason why. When the time comes for another government to act, they will owe a deep debt of gratitude to this House and to my noble friend Lady O'Cathain.