Civil Partners: Siblings — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:37 pm on 9th September 2015.

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Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Conservative 3:37 pm, 9th September 2015

To ask Her Majesty’s Government why they have no plans to amend the Civil Partnership Act 2004 to enable siblings to register as civil partners.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, the Government have no plans to amend the Civil Partnership Act 2004 to enable siblings to register as civil partners. Civil partnerships are the equivalent of a marriage: a loving union. They were created to enable same-sex couples to obtain legal recognition of their relationship at a time when marriage was not possible for them.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Conservative

Is it not the case that in Britain today all other stable and loving couples are now able to formalise their relationships in legal terms—so vital for inheritance and its tax implications? If sibling couples are to be denied civil partnerships, how do the Government propose to address the injustice that will arise on the death of one of them, with the survivor having to sell the family home to pay inheritance tax, from which civil partners are exempt?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, the Government recognise the unique legal and financial commitment that married and same-sex couples enter into. Introducing a new tax relief would either impact on the provision of public services or place the burden of tax on the less well off.

Photo of Baroness Barker Baroness Barker Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Voluntary Sector)

My Lords, civil partnership legislation enables two people to become next of kin. Siblings already are next of kin. Does the Minister agree that what the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, proposes would be a wholly inappropriate application of the legislation?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

The noble Baroness makes a very valid point that the two relationships are in fact entirely different, and same-sex partners or married couples now have that protection in law which they previously did not have.

Photo of Lord Cashman Lord Cashman Labour

My Lords, does the Minister agree that commitment to a civil partnership is not about financial incentive but is an emotional commitment, as well as a celebration of that partnership in wider society?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

The noble Lord is absolutely right—it is a far deeper commitment than just that of finance.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative

Would my noble friend not agree that my noble friend Lord Lexden makes an important point? Two siblings who have looked after each other, or a daughter who has looked after a mother in a family home, find that they do not enjoy the same benefits in terms of liability for inheritance tax. Surely, as a Government who are committed to fairness in society, that is something that needs to be addressed urgently.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I go back to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that, previous to the Civil Partnership Act, same-sex couples did not have the rights that siblings have. The new inheritance tax laws are in fact extremely generous to siblings, with up to £1 million being passed tax free to siblings—and, indeed, children of an individual can also benefit to the tune of almost £500,000. Anyone who has an estate of over £500,000 or £1 million has well over the average estate in this country.

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Labour

Does the Minister not agree that there may well be a case for reviewing the case for reviewing inheritance tax status—I am open on that question—but would she not also agree that the other side of the civil partnership is financial responsibility in social security terms for life? That means that a mother might be better off than a son and might be financially responsible for the maintenance of that son, and, equally, a sister might be financially responsible for a brother if they were in a civil partnership. In other words, you cannot have the inheritance advantages but not also some of the downsides associated with social security.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

The noble Baroness is right in that, if there is to be a review of inheritance tax law, it is in an entirely different context to mixing it up with same-sex marriage and, indeed, civil partnerships. As for the social security aspects that children or siblings may wish to avail of, the law is actually very generous in that area, and an application can be made in terms of the caring role of either a carer or a child.

Photo of Viscount Ullswater Viscount Ullswater Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, would Her Majesty's Government reconsider their stance on civil partnerships for heterosexual couples? Apart from fairness and equality of treatment, many older people would wish to benefit from the financial security and the next-of-kin advantages that it offers without going through a marriage ceremony, which can very often upset their children.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, there was no appetite from Parliament to do that when the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act was considered. A review of the Civil Partnership Act was carried out in 2014, which included questions on abolishing the civil partnerships for same-sex marriage and opening up civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples. There were 10,000 respondents to that review, and fewer than one-third supported the abolition of civil partnerships, while three-quarters of them opposed opening up civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples.

Photo of The Bishop of Chester The Bishop of Chester Bishop

My Lords, can the Minister confirm what I think I heard her say—that the change in the inheritance arrangements for married people and civil partners, which will enable an exemption from inheritance tax, actually applies to siblings as well? That is not how I understood the changes to apply.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, perhaps I did not explain it properly, but there is an exemption of £325,000, which a spouse may pass on to their surviving partner when they die. That can then be passed down to their children or grandchildren, and there is an additional tax-free exemption of £175,000 on the main property, which can also be passed over in the same way.

Photo of Lord Tebbit Lord Tebbit Conservative

My Lords, do the words “slippery slope” come into my noble friend’s mind as she answers these questions?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, the words “society has changed” comes into my mind as we debate this. I have had many discussions with my children on it, and I reminded them that 200 years ago slavery was alive and well and living in this country, and 40 years ago, when I was a child, there were bed and breakfasts that said “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs”. We are now in the 21st century, society has moved on, and as an Irishwoman, I can tell noble Lords that no one was happier than me that Ireland had moved on.