With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Clause 2 stand part.
Schedule 1 be the first Schedule.
Government amendment No. 3.
Amendment No. 187, in clause 4, page 3, line 3, leave out 'or'.
Amendment No. 188, in clause 4, page 3, line 4, at end insert
(da) they have not been living together in the same household for the period of six months ending with the date of the application for registration'.
Government amendments Nos. 4 and 5.
Amendment No. 208, in clause 36, page 16, leave out line 22 and insert 'at least 6 months.'.
Government amendments Nos. 6 to 11.
We start our consideration this morning with the Government amendments that have been tabled to remove a series of amendments that were made in another place. The amendments that we seek to remove, which we discussed at some length on Second Reading, sought to extend the legal relationship of civil partnership to close family members who are over the age of 30 and have lived together for 12 years.
I greatly welcome the cross-party support that we have seen in the House for the Bill in the original form in which it was introduced early this year. I particularly appreciate the fact that the Government amendments that I will be speaking to have, in many cases, been supported, or even tabled, by Opposition Members. That is a real credit to the mature way in
which we choose to understand issues of equality in the 21st century.
As I suggested on Second Reading, we received a clear endorsement of the purpose of the Bill—granting legal recognition to same-sex couples, ensuring that the many thousands of couples living together in long-term committed relationships will be able to ensure that those relationships are no longer invisible in the eyes of the law, with all the difficulties that that invisibility brings.
We heard a widespread agreement from Members across almost all parties that the Civil Partnership Bill is not the place to deal with the concerns of relatives, not because those concerns are not important, but because the Bill is not the appropriate legislative base on which to deal with them.
The Bill is the culmination of a long policy-development process that has, from day one, been concerned with the disadvantages faced by lesbian and gay couples, whose relationships are not legally recognised. The process started in Government in November 2001, when my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), my predecessor as a Minister with responsibility for equality, made clear the Government's concern about the difficulties that lesbian and gay couples face because of their inability to marry.
A major review of the policy and cost implications of a civil partnership scheme resulted in the June 2003 publication of a consultation paper outlining the Government's proposal for civil partnership as a framework for the legal recognition of same-sex couples. A commitment to introduce legislation was given in the Queen's Speech in 2003. In March 2004, we introduced the Bill in another place. So, without referring back to previous debates, it is fair to say that this is a process that has involved a considerable amount of consultation for a considerable period and that has—at every single point of that consultation—received approbation and support from the majority of those who have responded to consultations and debates in this House.
I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way early on in her remarks. At column 1138 of the Official Report of 29 March 2004, the Government said of the other groups to whom the Minister referred—she said that it was not appropriate to deal with their injustices in this Bill—that they had no plans for changes to the law in that field. Either now or when she responds to later debates, will the Minister be kind enough to tell the Committee the Government's thinking on when they might get round to those other groups, whose injustices are not being remedied with those that are being dealt with in the Bill?
I will address precisely that point, because the hon. Gentleman's question is predicated on the view that any concerns that exist, for example with respect to relatives and carers, are based on exactly the problem that the Bill seeks to remedy. We argue that they are not. The issues around relatives and carers are not about a lack of legal recognition or
relationship—they may be about other issues, but they are not about that, and that is what the Bill aims to rectify.
I do not think that that is quite right. Although we are not discussing same-sex unions, we are discussing the consequences of people's interdependence if their relationship is not recognised. If there are two sisters, and one of them dies and the house has to be sold, the argument about those siblings is exactly the same as one of the main arguments advanced for recognising in law same-sex couples in a civil partnership. These are close and overlapping issues, and I remind the Minister that there was a pretty firm commitment in another place from Baroness Scotland that those people's problems would be addressed. The Minister rather avoided that on Second Reading. I should like to reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) has just said, and seek a commitment from her now that those people's problems will be addressed—as they could be in the next available Finance Bill.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on the suggestion that a primary concern of this legislation is to deal with a situation of inheritance tax, which I think is what he is talking about.
Let us be quite clear. This legislation has been introduced primarily not to deal with inheritance tax issues, but as an equality measure because of the discrepancies between the situation of opposite-sex partners with the option to marry and the situation of same-sex couples with no option to marry or have any legal recognition of their relationship. Stemming from that legal invisibility comes a range of practical issues, some of which are appropriate to deal with in this legislation. I do not think, however, that that is the pre-eminent reason for the Bill.
We can and, I have no doubt, will discuss inheritance tax provisions, but I do not believe that this legislation or future Finance Bills should necessarily have as a top priority the reduction of inheritance tax, which at the moment impacts on only 5 per cent. of estates where someone has died. Given inheritance tax levels, two sisters would have to be living in a house worth well over £500,000 to come into the inheritance tax situation that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and I do not think that that is a priority—[Interruption.] No, because if two sisters are living in the house, one of them already owns half the house. If the other one in dying leaves their half as an inheritance, for that to meet the £263,000 threshold for inheritance tax the house in total would have to be worth more than £500,000.
Does the Minister not recognise a possible situation in which one sister owns the house, the other sister comes to live with her, and the sister who owns the house dies? Then, the inheritance tax bill for a house worth £500,000 would be enormous—totally unaffordable.
Clearly, in that circumstance there would be an inheritance tax implication. The argument is whether or not the reform of inheritance tax is a
priority for this Bill or even for this Government in the next Finance Bill, and I argue that it is not. There is a difference between our parties on whether we should be focussing our tax reform on the top 5 per cent. of estates or on a different aspect. That is a political difference, but this Bill is not the place in which to solve that issue.
But, to extend that analogy, if a same-sex couple were living in a house in the situation that I described, there is a presumption that both parties have an equal share in the house. Indeed, the legislation will consolidate that position. The same is the case with cohabitees, but there is no presumption that two sisters who live together are equal owners of their house, notwithstanding the fact that they may have been living there together for many years.
The hon. Gentleman has precisely put his finger on the problem. Of course, two cohabitees living in a house would not be exempt from inheritance tax. The point of the Bill is to give an opportunity for recognition of same-sex relationships that is equivalent to the way in which opposite-sex couples are recognised through marriage.
Let me make it clear that throughout the entire policy development process, throughout the hours spent researching relevant legislation—some of it, incidentally, dating back well over four centuries—throughout the consultation with the public, trade unions, businesses and stakeholder groups, and in response to the thousands of letters, postcards and e-mails that we received, we have always worked on the principle that the Bill deals only with unrelated same-sex couples. Our policy aim has been to recognise and resolve the difficulties faced by lesbian and gay couples who cannot gain legal recognition of their relationship. We acknowledge the legal and financial insecurities that absence of recognition can bring and the injustice of being treated as second-class citizens with second-class relationships. The Bill has not been designed around the legal relationships of people who are related to each other, nor was it designed to address any problems that they may have.
Clause 1 of the original Bill made it clear at the outset that a civil partnership is a relationship between two people of the same sex. It was also made clear in the clause that dealt with eligibility for civil partnership, which established prohibited degrees of relationship, that the new legal relationship would not be available to closely related couples. The Government amendments to this Bill will remove the provisions inserted on Lords Report stage, which subvert the core principles of the Bill from the beginning of the process by enabling close family members to register as civil partners. The Government amendments will return the Bill to the basis on which it was introduced. They will delete the wording that the House of Lords introduced in clause 1, and delete clause 2, schedule 1 and related provisions in parts 2, 3 and 4.
As we discussed at some length on Second Reading, the Lords amendments would have serious consequences. It would be useful to spell out a few of them. My argument is not only that the Bill is not the appropriate place to deal with issues about family
members, but that insertion of the Lords amendments would, in effect, wreck the intention of the Bill. Therefore, the status quo certainly is not an option. To make the Bill work, we must remove the amendments that were inserted in another place. Let us look at some of their consequences and repercussions.
First, the Bill would require a fundamental change to the principles underlying the pensions and benefits system. For example, if a son were to form a civil partnership with his elderly mother, with whom he lived and for whom he cared, he could lose his entitlement to jobseeker's allowance because of his mother's ability to support him financially. A daughter would become liable for supporting a civil partner father. As my noble friend Baroness Scotland pointed out in another place and as I mentioned on Second Reading, that would represent a significant retrograde step in respect of social security arrangements within the family, in effect taking us back to the 1930s.
Secondly, many of the Bill's registration and dissolution procedures are, frankly, unworkable if applied to a new group of potential civil partners. For example, a daughter who formed a civil partnership with her mother but subsequently wished to marry would need to prove irretrievable breakdown of the relationship with her mother in order to dissolve their civil partnership. She could do that only by separation from the mother for whom she wished to care, or by proving her mother's unreasonable behaviour. Ironically, that could prove a serious disincentive to marriage and an obstacle to her caring for her mother. I suspect that those who supported the amendments in the House of Lords would keen for both those things to continue. The provisions would not even achieve the objectives that the Lords wanted to further. If the daughter sought a dissolution, she might also be entitled to claim a share of her mother's property, which might result in the mother losing her home if it had to be sold and the proceeds divided to make appropriate provision for her civil partner daughter.
The absurdities continue. A woman who formed a civil partnership with her grandfather would have her own father as a stepson. A grandson might be encouraged not to marry because the financial incentives of the survivor's pension and inheritance tax savings associated with being in a civil partnership with his grandmother would be more enticing. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland rightly pointed out, one can imagine the tearing apart of families as people try to decide which sisters or sons and daughters should enter into a civil partnership with their parents. The position would be untenable. These are not flights of fancy, but the real, practical results of these badly thought-out changes to the Bill.
As I suggested on Second Reading, the Government believe that the amendments would render the Bill incompatible with the European convention on human rights, because they would allow only some family members to form a civil partnership. If civil partnership were open to family members, it would become very difficult to justify distinctions between those family members who are allowed to register as
civil partners and those who are not. For those and other reasons, the Secretary of State has had to make a statement under section 19(l)(b) of the Human Rights Act 1998 that she is unable to state that the Bill as amended by those amendments would be compatible with convention rights.
Furthermore, the difficulties arise because the Bill has been carefully drafted throughout its two hundred or so clauses on the basis that it will be same-sex couples who form civil partnerships. The registration and dissolution provisions and all the other provisions are interwoven in the Bill on that basis and in no sensible way can they be applied to a wholly different category of people forming civil partnerships.
We are aware of the concerns, particularly of carers, but we do not believe that close family members need legal recognition as civil partners to make sense of their family arrangements. They are already related. The law does not treat them as strangers and in many ways already recognises their relationship. That is not the problem that needs to be solved. Some of those who supported the amendments suggested that they cover the concerns of those who care for other members of their family.
I recognise the concerns about carers, but it is interesting that those who support the rights of relatives who are carers do not support these amendments. It is worth yet again quoting Carers UK, which has promoted over 40 years the cause of people who care for others:
''Carers UK believes that there could be many pitfalls with the new amendments to the Bill . . . that could harm the welfare of both the older person and the carer. The changes could have a devastating impact on the income of the carer and the person for whom they care . . . There is a danger that, after some time, the carer and the older person may become locked in a caring situation . . . equally the carer may become locked into the caring situation, unable to choose about whether or not to continue.''
The Solicitors Family Law Association said:
''The Lords' amendments have resulted in an unworkable legislative mess''.
The TUC, Citizens Advice, the Law Society, Stonewall and many family law experts recognise the damage that these amendments could cause and support the Bill as it was originally drafted. I hope that I have made it clear that none of what I have said should be taken as showing a lack of concern for people who care for their relatives. In my previous ministerial incarnation in the Department of Health, I had responsibility for carers, so I know that this Government have been the first ever to recognise formally the contribution of carers by developing the national carers strategy.
The Government supported the private Member's Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) that became the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004 on receiving Royal Assent this July. It ensures that carers, should they wish, can take up opportunities that those without caring responsibilities take for granted, and that they receive information about assessments.
Changes to direct payment regulations and the introduction of short-term break voucher schemes
introduced in 2003 mean that carers have gained much more flexibility in how they can access short breaks from caring. Carers have told the Government that that is important in increasing their choices, options and control over their own lives. The carers grant was introduced by this Government in 1999, and it now stands at six times its amount on being introduced. It has provided an extra £325 million over the past five years for breaks and services for carers.
We have recognised the difficulties that some people face and the contribution to the community that their dedication can bring. It would be cold comfort to them to introduce legislation that makes a mockery of their needs by distorting the original purpose of this Bill. I have no doubt that many of those who supported the amendments in another place did so for the best of motives. I hope that I have made it clear that, sadly, in doing so, they have not achieved the objectives they set out to achieve, and they have created an unworkable Bill.
I hope that hon. Members will support the removal of the Lords amendments, enabling us to ensure that the Bill is restored to its original purpose and that it will again provide a reasonable and fair solution for same-sex couples by removing the disadvantages that they have faced in the past.
I am pleased to say that the amendment that we are debating was initially tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), for Wealden (Charles Hendry) and for Salisbury (Mr. Key). We are pleased that the Government have added their name to it, as we could have reliably predicted them to do.
As the Minister rightly says, the amendment is crucial to the shape of the whole Bill. If the amendment made in another place is not reversed, the Bill will take on a shape that many consider would make it totally unworkable, changing the very nature of the legislation. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the Leader of the Opposition, has said that he would support the reversal of the amendment made in another place, which is also my position.
It is very difficult to know what the genuine motives were behind the amendment introduced in another place, but its effect was to wreck the Bill. Quite simply put, those whom it purports to support will not benefit. As the Minister has said, and as we argued on Second Reading, carers do not want such provision. Instead of being assisted, they would face severe disadvantage as a result of its introduction, should they exercise the apparent right that it granted them. The inclusion of siblings would cause enormous difficulty. If one is intent on supporting the traditional family, one has to recognise that introducing civil partnerships to such a family would undermine it and not give it the strength that those who supported the amendment claim.
I should like to focus again on the lack of an assurance from the Minister of the sort that we initially heard in another place. We are in the business of removing unreasonable disadvantage. Although she is right to say that the Bill will
recognise loving unions in addition to removing disadvantage, it has shifted our focus to similar sorts of people who do face disadvantage. We have still not heard from her, however, an echo of the assurance that we received in another place that that disadvantage will be removed or at the very least considered. She seems to have resiled from the firmness of the comment made in another place. That is severely disappointing. Throughout this Committee process, on Report and Third Reading, and when the Bill goes back down the Corridor to another place, we will not let her escape from her omission.
By and large, however, we accept that the previous amendments should be reversed. Without that, we would be unable to consider all the other amendments that will give the Bill the shape that it needs, so my party will vote with the Government in reversing them.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cook. It is a delight to serve under you. I have done so several times, and I know that you are a robust and generous Chairman.
I have a simple point that the Minister did not include in her arguments for overturning the amendments made in the Lords. By establishing the principle that two siblings could live together in a civil partnership, those amendments allow a new and intriguing injustice in those cases where three siblings live together. In my experience, including in my family, for example, the only cases in which siblings have wanted to live together in that way have involved three of them. For example, three of my great aunts lived together in spinsterhood to the end of their days, making clever legal arrangements to ensure that they could live in the same home until they all died.
Of course, a situation in which three siblings live together is more complicated and can give rise to greater injustices, because the order in which the three die can materially affect their financial situation. However, the Bill as amended by the Lords does not meet the situation of three siblings, and I do not think that Lord Tebbit and Baroness O'Cathain would want to suggest that people should be able to form civil partnerships of three, because they would not want to establish the ménage à trois as a legal possibility in this country.
Another point is that when those supporting the amendments made in the Lords do so simply on the basis of the inheritance issue, they fail to acknowledge the fact that only 5 per cent. of estates in this country have inheritance tax payable on them. We are therefore talking about only a very small number of people. Their issues perhaps need to be addressed, but here is not the place for that. The remedy for that injustice that the Lords have sought to introduce would actually create greater injustices, so I, along with the Minister and the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, hope that the Committee will remove the amendments that the Lords have made.
I shall back the Government amendments. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, with characteristic generosity, said that it was difficult to know what was in the mind of those who promoted the amendments in another place. I watched
that debate on the monitor in my office, and it was perfectly clear to anyone who looked at the expression on the faces of Baroness O'Cathain and Lord Tebbit exactly what their intention was. They intended to wreck the Bill, and it is clear from the subsequent analysis of the consequences of their amendments that they have so far succeeded in doing so. Today's Government amendments are necessary to restore it as a workable Bill that is fit for the originally intended purpose, and they therefore have my support.
The Minister spoke about the Bill's core principles. For me, they are equality, fairness and the ending of discrimination. With the Bill as it stands, those goals are clearly defeated. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has just spoken about the situation of three siblings, which is one of the clearest examples. There are other nonsenses as well. Take the situation in which both parents continue to live and are cared for. Presumably, the carer for the two parents will not be in a position to implement a civil partnership because the parents are still party to a marriage. Either the parents would have to divorce or the child would be in the position of having to wait for one of his or her parents to die.
The issue is not about inheritance tax; the place for dealing with inheritance tax is the Finance Bill. There already exist a myriad of different means by which the situation referred to by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) can be avoided. The insertion of survivorship destinations in dispositions and the creation of life insurance are two that spring most immediately to mind. The means already exist for any difficulties encountered in such situations to be avoided. To suggest that the retention of the O'Cathain amendments is necessary is nonsensical.
May I take it from the hon. Gentleman's remarks that he will join me and my hon. Friends in pressing the Government to remedy in the Commons at a later date the injustices not covered by the Bill?
The hon. Gentleman invites me to speculate on possible amendments to a possible future Finance Bill, which may or may not be brought forward. He will understand that I find the prospect and the invitation less than tempting.
That is a fair point, but with all due respect, it is different from the one made by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire. Some of the Conservatives are shedding a few crocodile tears with regard to carers and others, such as siblings living together. Many of the inheritance tax provisions about which they are now complaining so vigorously were introduced between 1979 and 1997. Conservative Members will have opportunities at future dates to remedy the problems that were partly created by their
own Government. Certainly I will give any future proposals in that regard a fair hearing.
However, that is not really what today's debate is about. It is not about inheritance tax. It is about something much more fundamental and much more important: fair treatment and offering the same opportunities to people who are homosexual, lesbian or transsexual that we offer to people in mixed-sex relationships. It is as simple as that.
I, too, welcome you on the occasion of your starting the chairmanship of this Committee, Mr. Cook. You have a reputation for firmness and fairness, and I feel sure that those qualities will be on display throughout our deliberations.
I am pleased to speak to the amendments, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton observed, I originally tabled with the support of my hon. Friends the Members for Salisbury and for Wealden, and also with his positive encouragement. I am delighted that the Government have sponsored the amendments, which, to be fair, very much reflect what they have been thinking all along. This is genuinely a cross-party move. It is an alliance of people of good will who recognise that the Bill should be passed in its original form and should not be either diluted or, worse still, wrecked as a consequence of wholly inappropriate amendments.
In speaking to the amendments, I should like to make it clear to the Committee and to those interested in our discussions that I have been influenced all along by the arguments advanced with skill and persistence by Stonewall. Stonewall was rightly complimented many times last week on Second Reading and in references to the amendments. I underline that it has superb examples of reasonable, decent and persistent campaigners. From the days of Angela Mason and Sacha Deshmukh to the days of Ben Summerskill and Alan Wardle, I have been greatly guided by its advice and encouragement. Its arguments against the amendments are every bit as powerful and persuasive as its arguments for the rest of the Bill.
The arguments have been fairly fully developed so I will recap only briefly. The point has been made that this is not a tax relief or inheritance tax reduction Bill. That is not what this Bill is about. That is what, in her amendment, the noble Baroness O'Cathain made clear she thought should be the essence of the Bill, but it is not the essence of the Bill. An argument about tax relief and the abolition of inheritance tax can be made. Philosophically, I am sympathetic to it, but it is a different argument for a different Bill at a different time. To try to superimpose that consideration or preference on the architecture of a Bill designed for a wholly different purpose is unwise and it has resulted in precisely the sorts of absurdities that the Minister has already identified.
As the Minister explained and others have underlined too, the perverse effect—in light of the philosophical motivation of the sponsors of the amendments—of the amendments would be to undermine the very institution of marriage that they
profess to support. The amendments would be a recipe for internecine strife within the family in circumstances in which a family civil partnership was dissolved, and that is a further reason why they should be rejected. To contemplate a return to the social security norms and practices of the 1930s, as would have to be done through the amendments, would be iniquitous.
Many examples have already been given of the consequences of the amendments. Families would incur reduced benefits and higher tax payments. I want to underline this point with some passion. The tragedy is that many of the people whom Baroness O'Cathain and my noble Friend the Lord Tebbit of Chingford pray in aid in support of the amendments will, at the time of our discussion today, be wholly unaware of just what damaging consequences would flow if the Bill took effect in its amended form. Those people might easily be lulled into the belief that the amendments would protect or advance their interests, when nothing could be further from the truth. It is important to underline that what may have been supported with good will by some, although certainly not by Lord Tebbit or Baroness O'Cathain, would damage the interests of those very vulnerable people who have been invoked in support of the amendments.
I am grateful. If my hon. Friend considers what our mutual friend Lord Tebbit was saying, would he accept that Lord Tebbit did not think that the amendments were the last word, but that he would have expected consequential amendments to flow from them, addressing some of the anomalies to which my hon. Friend draws attention?
I am afraid that I am not so sure about that and I will have to deal with some relish with the point that my hon. Friend has made. I am not personally acquainted with my noble Friend the Baroness O'Cathain. I have borne stoically and with fortitude over 41 years the burden of not having made her acquaintance. I am, however, very closely acquainted with my noble Friend the Lord Tebbit of Chingford, whom in many ways I continue to regard as a great man. I have put that on record many times, and it can always be dredged up from the internet and elsewhere, so let it not be said that I am resiling from my general admiration for my right hon. and noble Friend's achievements in government. He was a great figure, but he is a man with a great future behind him and a great past in front of him.
It is fair to make the point in relation to the amendments that I have one bit of private knowledge that is not available to my hon. Friend, and that is that on 25 March my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Tebbit of Chingford told me, in terms, that he thought that the effect of very cleverly conceived amendments of this kind would be to cause the Government no end of trouble, and that Gordon's sums would be thrown into disarray, providing the opportunity for a great deal of fun. We all know the ingeniousness and cheekiness of my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Tebbit of Chingford. When one is on his side, he is
magnificent to watch. We all enjoy his actions and egg him on, and he is better at it than anybody else.
I know that I retreat into pomposity from time to time, and I do not want to be pompous about this, but I want to make the point that on an issue of such seriousness it is neither admirable nor acceptable for someone to champion amendments on one basis when in fact what motivates them is another. The truth is that whatever may be said about my noble Friend the Baroness O'Cathain, my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Tebbit of Chingford is motivated by a desire to wreck the Bill, to force it out and to persuade the Government through a degree of parliamentary bullying to abandon it. He is entitled to try to do so, but those of us who profoundly disagree with him are entitled to highlight the fact that that is his purpose.
I strongly object to the idea that, having spent three years getting the Bill in shape, we could risk losing it altogether. That would not cause my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch to cry into his soup, but it would greatly upset many people who are waiting for the beneficial effects of the legislation. If there were to be the radical rewriting of social security legislation that would be required and the major consultation that my noble Friend the Baroness O'Cathain completely failed to undertake in promoting her amendments, there is no doubt that a lot of time would be taken up and the Bill would almost certainly be lost. That would be wrong. It is also wrong that we should contemplate incurring a very large additional cost through extending the civil partnership registration entitlement to close family members. That does not seem to be a good way of incurring another £1 billion of public expenditure and £1.25 billion of expenditure in the private sector.
I do not want to detain the Committee at length, and I mean that sincerely. I shall comment finally on two of the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. Amendments Nos. 187 and 188, which are in this group, would impose a requirement on would-be civil partners to cohabit for six months as a condition of registration. My hon. Friend is absolutely entitled to table such an amendment, and he is absolutely entitled to his view that that should be a prerequisite, but equally, I am absolutely entitled to point out that it rather gives the game away again, as it shows that the sponsor of the amendments simply does not believe that there should be an equality. After all, heterosexual people who wish to get married—something that gay people do not have the right to do and that the Bill does not give them the right to do—do not have to cohabit for six months. Why is it that we keep having to establish special barriers?
I approach the issues of gay equality, the age of consent, the repeal of section 28 and the creation of civil partnership registration rights as a straight man. I happen to think that it is very important for people who are straight to see, recognise and espouse the arguments for equality. In debating the amendments, not just in Committee and on the Floor of the Chamber but in discussion with other people and in correspondence with those who write to me, I have found it upsetting that all too often people seem to be
looking for a way to move aside from the main issue, which is legal recognition and legal equality. What I do not like is the way that the amendments are designed to get rid of the Bill, or to make it wholly unworkable, or so to dilute it that no meaningful legal recognition of gay couples is provided. That is what the amendments would do—they would wreck the Bill or they would dilute it.
I hope to catch your eye later, Mr. Cook, so that I am able to expand on the debate about amendments Nos. 187 and 188. Does my hon. Friend accept that the ideas behind those amendments were put forward by Lord Lester of Herne Hill in his Bill? My hon. Friend may think that I am not interested in equality. Does he also think that Lord Lester is not interested in equality?
I am bound to say that, if memory of the debate on Lord Lester's Bill on 25 January 2002 in the other place serves me correctly, the noble Lord was motivated by a desire to create civil partnership rights for heterosexual couples. It is true that that was his view. I happen to disagree with him on that point. In fairness, though, Lord Lester has since made it clear that he thinks that this is a good Bill. To my knowledge, Lord Lester has at no stage argued in favour of these amendments. Indeed, he has argued passionately and persuasively against them.
I think that we should get on with the business of supporting the main Bill. I do not think that we should allow it to be undermined in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch favours. I think that I have made the case and I will let it rest at that.
On a point of order, Mr. Cook. I have been slightly thick about the groups that we are speaking to. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham has spoken to amendments Nos. 187 and 188 and done my work for me, I note that the group also includes amendment No. 13, which has the Minister's name attached to it, at least on the original Amendment Paper. She did not speak to it.
I seek first to address my amendments Nos. 187 and 188 and consequential amendment No. 208. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham and I have already started the debate.
The essence of my amendments would be to alter clause 4 so that, instead of the clause setting out the eligibility criteria and saying that those people would not be eligible in the categories set out, there would be an additional category stipulating that people would not be eligible to enter into a civil partnership unless they had been living together for at least six months. My hon. Friend seemed to think that that was born out of mischief making on my part.
I assure my hon. Friend that my view of the Bill has always been that there is one union that is and should be recognised above all others, and that is lawful marriage or holy matrimony. I may be alone in the Committee in holding that view, which is slightly different from those of my noble Friends Lord Tebbit and Baroness O'Cathain. Below marriage in the hierarchy of relationships, there can be a lot of other relationships that involve people making commitments to each other, sharing the same home and, perhaps, the same bed.
As a lawyer, I recognise that there is a strong case for having a subsidiary category of relationship that is recognised in law, so that we as legislators can intervene to give protection and, as far as possible, equality. Many members of the legal profession, particularly those who deal with family breakdown, support that view. That is why I6 am keen to have a Bill that is, more or less, based on the concepts that were first introduced into the House by the hon. Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) in her Relationships (Civil Registration) Bill, which, shortly afterwards, was followed by the Civil Partnerships Bill in the House of Lords, which was promoted by Lord Lester of Herne Hill. The latter Bill contained rather more detail than that of the hon. Member for Reading, East and clause 2(1), which referred to the conditions for a civil partnership, stated:
''The conditions for civil partnership are that—
(a) each of the partners is an eligible person within the meaning of subsection (2);
(b) at least one of the partners—
(i) is domiciled in England and Wales on the date of the application for registration of the civil partnership; or
(ii) has been habitually resident in England and Wales throughout the period of one year ending with that date;
(c) for the period of 6 months ending with the date of the application for registration of the civil partnership, the partners have lived in the same household (otherwise than merely by reason of one of them being the other's employee, tenant, lodger or boarder''.
The next condition is that the partners are not close relatives of each other.
There is merit in paragraph (c), which is replicated in my amendments Nos. 187 and 188. I would like the Bill to provide the opportunity for recognition to people who have lived together as partners in whatever relationship. Amendments Nos. 183 and 185 in the next group provide the scope for me to go into that in greater detail so I shall not replicate the arguments that I might adduce then. Suffice it say that when the Minister says that the Bill's gestation has always been associated with exclusively same-sex partnerships, that is disingenuous in the extreme. If it had been about same-sex partnerships all along, the Bill would have been called the same-sex partnership Bill, not the Civil Partnership Bill.
The debate in Parliament began officially when the hon. Member for Reading, East launched her ten-minute Bill and drew attention to the problems suffered by people in her constituency who were in partnerships other than marriage and the legal consequences that flowed from that. Lord Lester
then produced his Bill, the Civil Partnerships Bill, and the Government went away to consult on it. At no stage was anyone then thinking that the measure would be exclusively for the benefit of same-sex partners, but that is what we are faced with. In the popular mind, many people are probably saying that civil partners refers to partnerships outside a religious framework, such as the partnerships endorsed in law in France and other European countries. I do not think that people are thinking that we are giving special status to same-sex partnerships over and above all others. Yet that is what the Bill does.
I understand my hon. Friend's point, but, as I understand it, he is motivated principally by a desire not to extend civil partnership rights to cohabiting heterosexuals but to extend the provision to close family relatives. In that context, I wonder whether I might have some help from my hon. Friend. Can he tell me which of Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Croatia, Canada, Hungary, parts of the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina and Israel makes the provision that he apparently favours?
Frankly, I could not care less. My view is that we are the supreme legislature in this country and that in the past we in our legislation have given a lead to other countries throughout the world. In this Parliament, we should address a situation in the way that we think is in the best interests of the people of our country and in accordance with our traditions and our established Church. In the preamble to my hon. Friend's intervention, he said that I was interested only in establishing asexual partnerships. That is not true. I would like to see all partnerships, whether they be bisexual, multi-sexual or whatever—[Interruption.] Well, perhaps not multi-sexual, but certainly same-sex partnerships and common law marriages, as they are commonly understood—
Order. I have no wish to curtail debate, but we must maintain the discipline that we have already accepted. The hon. Gentleman is not in danger of straying but has actually strayed into the next group, and I ask him to fashion his approach somewhat differently.
Thank you, Mr. Cook. I certainly do not want to debate the next group now, because I want to keep that distinct.
I shall concentrate on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham about the basis of the Lords amendment that Members are seeking to overturn. That is the amendment about partnerships between family members. Why should not a long-standing relationship between two sisters, a brother and sister, a mother and daughter, or a grandmother and grandchild be registrable, and thereby attract privileges under the law compared with other relationships that are not registrable? That is what some of those who voted for that amendment in the House of Lords had in mind. I was very interested in what my hon. Friend said about the conversation that he had on—there is no vagueness about this—a precise day in March. I am not sure whether he told us at what
time it took place, but he gave the impression that Lord Tebbit was into mischief making rather than anything else. All I can say is that I think that my noble Friend has been driven by a deep commitment to principle in opposing the Bill. Had he been interested just in mischief making—although I know that he despises the Government as much as my hon. Friend and I—I do not think that he would have devoted so much time and effort to working to try to improve or change the legislation.
Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham was taken in by a touch of levity—an aside, a jocularity—from my noble Friend. As we both know, he is capable of many jocular asides. However, he has an underlying concern, which is shared by Baroness O'Cathain and the noble prelate the Lord Bishop of Winchester, who happens to be the diocesan bishop for part of my constituency—I am in the privileged position of having a constituency that is shared between the dioceses of Salisbury and Winchester—and who was also party to the amendment that the Committee is seeking to overturn today. I do not know whether my hon. Friend will wish to suggest that the noble bishop is naive or mischievous. I think that he is as concerned as I, and as many people in the Winchester diocese, that we are setting up one sort of privileged relationship for same-sex couples without doing anything to help those in other relationships that are outside marriage. The group of amendments focus on the very large range of relationships that are of an asexual nature and involve close family ties and partnerships.
The campaign against the Lords amendments is based on trying to ridicule them by saying that their consequences are such that the principle of them is wrong. I will accept, as would the promoters of the amendment in another place, that on detailed scrutiny some of their amendments, if accepted into law without further changes, would lead to absurdities. I do not think that the promoters would deny that, but why can we not have the opportunity to amend them? We must not dismiss lightly the spirit of what has been supported in the other place, as some Committee members and the Government are minded to do. They have an attitude of, ''Oh well, you can discount all that'' because this major piece of legislation was voted down in the House of Lords.
This legislation is not like the Hunting Bill. We are talking about legislation that, for the first time, will incorporate into English law a bar on a man and a woman, neither of whom has been previously married, being able to get married freely in church because they are already parties to a civil partnership that has not been broken. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton, speaking for the Front Bench, seems a bit surprised by that, and I suspect that lots of other people would be surprised. This is an absurdity that would arise from the Bill after the amendment is passed. If a man wishes to marry a woman and neither of them has been married before, the Bill implies that they will not be able to do so in church if one or other of them is already a partner in a civil partnership, but is involved a separation resulting in their no longer living with the other party to the civil partnership. If
that other person does not consent to a dissolution, during a period of less than five years those two people will not be free to marry in a church, or at all, under English law.
The implications of that are very serious and it shows that, far from the Bill having no impact on holy matrimony, it introduces a new bar to it. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton laughs about that but it is very serious. That is why people are concerned about the Bill, and why their lordships' amendments should be treated with respect and consideration.
For the hon. Gentleman to say that the Bill constitutes some sort of novel bar is frankly ridiculous. There is already a very obvious bar to people joining in holy matrimony, as he would have it, because they may already be married under the existing terms of the marriage Acts. Surely there is nothing novel about what is being suggested.
There is nothing wrong with what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting because he has either deliberately or unintentionally traduced what I said. I was saying that for the first time a bar will be introduced preventing people from entering into a marriage, neither of whom has been married before. That is essentially what will be done. The Government accept that we are not talking about a same-sex marriage Bill, but a same-sex partnership Bill—a relationship inferior to marriage.
The hon. Lady makes a fair point, but if she looked at some of the other amendments that I have tabled, she would see that I am as unhappy as she is at the way in which the Bill is framed to try to put the civil partnership almost on a par with marriage. If one looks at other jurisdictions, one can see that it is possible to break a civil partnership on demand if one or other of the partners wishes to break it.
The problem that I have identified—perhaps the hon. Lady shares my concern—is that I suspect that, even if one wants to promote civil partnership as a same-sex partnership, the way in which the Bill is drafted is likely to be a big deterrent to such partnerships, for reasons that we shall come on to. If the hon. Lady accepts that partnerships should be capable of being registered but then broken at the behest of one or other partner, the problem that I referred to would not apply.
The hon. Gentleman must not put his ideas into my words. I do not accept that civil partnerships should be easily entered into or easily broken. I think that they must be taken much more seriously than he is taking them.
I am certainly seeking to take these matters seriously. That is why I put forward
amendments, to be considered later in the Bill, that would reduce the period in which a couple had to live together as civil partners before they could break that partnership. That would enable a civil partnership that has ''broken down'' to be terminated effectively straight away, thereby enabling the people to enter into a different partnership, or—if they so wished—a marriage.
The reason that I am not enthusiastic about the Government's proposals to concentrate on same-sex partnerships to the exclusion of all others is that that was not the original intention. The biggest problem in this country is the whole range of relationships outside marriage and the problems that flow from the different ways in which those are dealt with according to law.
Although not perfect, the Lords amendments set a basis for considering the matter in a more constructive and, I think, sympathetic manner. So, I shall resist the attempts to remove the Lords amendments from the Bill and, in so doing, I shall accept that those amendments are not perfect and need further amendment. I shall continue to express the regret that, instead of entering into the constructive debate about which the Minister was talking at the beginning and seeking to make the consequential amendments to the Bill, the Government chose to have a fit of pique and say, ''Take it or leave it. The amendments are imperfect, so we're going to seek to overrule the lot.''
I support the Bill. I support the amendments that have been so ably moved this morning. I support the Bill even though I am aware that I have constituents—devout Muslims, Christians and Orthodox Jews—who believe that homosexual and lesbian relationships are a sin and that some people from the Caribbean are not necessarily as open-minded on the subject as they should be. I owe my constituents my judgment, exercised thoughtfully and in good faith. I do not necessarily owe them my vote.
People who are in a position to know explained to us the motivation of those that moved the amendments in another place. It is fair to say that many of the people who supported the amendments in the other place were concerned about issues to do with elderly siblings and so forth. I do not want to be dismissive of those concerns. However, I have no doubt that some of the people who are supporting the amendments are motivated, pure and simple, by hostility to further legal recognition of homosexuals and lesbians. I am not referring to the hon. Member for Christchurch in that context.
It behoves those people to come out of the closet—to coin a phrase—and have that debate, and not to hide behind a set of ill-drafted amendments that actually would create as many problems as solutions for the people whom they seek to help. If people are opposed to the underlying principles of the Bill, they should talk about that and not hide behind a set of amendments that are, as was explained this morning, palpably wrecking amendments.
As we did on Second Reading, we have had another useful and important discussion. With just one dissenting voice, there is a clear
consensus about the need to include the Government amendments and return the Bill to the form in which it was introduced. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton rightly made those arguments today, as he did on Second Reading.
The hon. Gentleman was a little harsh on me in respect of the position of couples or relationships that would fall outside the ambit of the Bill. I went to some lengths to spell out the concerns about those who care for elderly relatives, and the practical progress that the Government have already made in respect of supporting carers. I would not be going beyond my remit to say that I am absolutely clear that the Government will need to make and will make further progress on providing practical support for carers. Such an undertaking is easy to make.
However, I refused to be drawn into a discussion about the provisions on inheritance tax. The hon. Member for Buckingham rightly identified that such provisions are not included in the Bill, nor would it be appropriate for them to be included. The Government have made clear our intentions that inheritance tax provisions should follow the social provisions in this legislation, but it is right that that discussion takes place within the ambit of a Finance Bill—we have said the next available Finance Bill—when it will be possible for Opposition Members to raise all sorts of issues about inheritance tax. I simply attempted to say that, unless circumstances change, I would be sorry to miss the opportunity to hear the detailed discussions on the Finance Bill about the priorities for spending. I stated that massive reform and the extra cost of changing inheritance tax provisions, which impact on only the top 5 per cent. of estates, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda pointed out, was possibly not this Government's top priority, but that is an argument for a Finance Bill.
The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton also prayed in aid comments of the Baroness Scotland, and that was continued by the hon. Member for Christchurch. Here, we were slightly confused by the coverage of the Government amendments, which are clearly about removing the provision that would open up civil partnership to family members. Some of the commitments that Baroness Scotland made in the other place related to other broader but important issues around cohabitation. I do not intend to broaden this debate, as we will come back to the protections and the action that might be necessary to deal with specific problems of cohabiting couples who are neither married nor want to or are able to enter into a civil partnership when we come to the next group of amendments.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda and the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) provided yet further examples of the absurdities that the provisions from the other place would bring into the legislation. The hon. Member for Buckingham also identified the effect and—helpfully for the information of the Committee—the intent of some of those who put forward the amendments in another place. If he ever no longer has the opportunity to make his contribution in this House, I have no doubt that he will make a massive contribution as an
impressionist, or perhaps as a looky-likey for senior members of the Conservative party. We all enjoyed his impressions this morning.
That argument was ably supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). She is right. The very least that this issue and this Committee deserve is honesty about our intentions, views and, in some cases, prejudices and how they inform our decisions. We should not try to mask particular amendments, conclusions or arguments with other arguments. Let us be honest about where people are coming from.
As the Minister is mentioning honesty and intentions, will she comment briefly on the women and equality unit's intention to remove ''marital status'' and insert ''civil status''? Some of the anxiety surrounding the Bill comes from those who perceive that the Government's attitude to marriage is lukewarm in some circumstances and that there is a watering down or a removal of reference to marriage from official data. If there were some sign from the Government that that is not their intention and they do not want to remove any recognition of marriage from official documentation, many people would be reassured.
I am happy to provide the hon. Gentleman with the reassurance that he wants. There is no intention and there has never been any intention to replace ''marriage'' or ''marital status'' with ''civil partnership''. That has never been the case, and I hope that in order to find out the Government's true intentions he will come to those who make the decisions as opposed to those who write about them. There is nothing in the intent or implementation of this legislation to undermine this Government's and my individual support for marriage. Marriage is not undermined by saying that it is right to find ways for those people who cannot enter into marriage to obtain the legal recognition, the respect, dignity and protection from discrimination that this Bill will bring. There is no administrative or principled reason why anything in the legislation or its implementation should undermine marriage.
Is my hon. Friend surprised that some people are worried about marital status when it is a robust and ongoing institution? It does not really need the mollycoddling that it is getting from some people who seem to think that it is all about to end. It is a long-standing and robust institution, which does not need to be put in cotton wool.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Given that I will be celebrating my 17th wedding anniversary this weekend, I can certainly vouch for the robustness of my marriage. Marriage is an incredibly important institution for this country and for individuals within this country. The idea that by recognising some of the benefits of marriage and making them available to others we somehow undermine marriage is completely bizarre. Nevertheless, I can give the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire the reassurance that he seeks.
I sit on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, and within that Department the
recording of data has changed so that just couples are referred to whereas it used to be married couples. There are examples within government. We are all interested in joined-up government, and it is important to the Minister's argument that she quotes what happens across Government on this matter. However, I shall come back to the Committee at a later date, if I may, with precisely the examples that I am talking about.
Of course I should be interested to hear precise examples, but we have not enacted the Bill yet; so whatever has happened, it cannot possibly be because of the Bill. However, I think that I have given the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that he wants.
The hon. Member for Christchurch suggested that the failure to work of the amendments introduced in the Lords should somehow be put right by the Government's introducing some consequential amendments. Let me make it quite clear that even were we to accept the policy intent—which the vast majority of Members in the Committee and the House do not—we would need not a few consequential amendments but a complete rewriting of the legislation, because the way in which the Bill is designed and drafted in all its provisions, from registration, through the provisions that impact on other legislation, to the dissolution provisions, is based on the premise that its purpose is to give legal recognition to people in same-sex relationships. Even were we willing and able to undertake that complete rewrite, it would be a strange Government who chose to rewrite legislation—as the hon. Member for Buckingham and others have pointed out—to fit a policy intention that is not supported by Carers UK, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux or the Solicitors Family Law Association. There is not even support for the intention, let alone for the extent of rewriting that would be necessary to bring that intention into existence.
The hon. Member for Christchurch then turned loosely to his amendments Nos. 187 and 188. Once again, we got into slight confusion with the issues around cohabitation rights more generally, which I do not intend to enter at this point. I simply reiterate, a point made eloquently by the hon. Member for Buckingham, that this legislation is about providing an equal opportunity for same-sex couples, who have been deprived of the ability to enter into the legal recognition of their relationship that already exists for opposite-sex couples in marriage. Stemming from that, and given that this is all about equality, it makes sense that we design civil partnerships so that they replicate the provisions of civil marriage where there is no objective reason for not replicating them. Most of us think that civil marriage provisions have worked reasonably well, so it makes sense to replicate them except where there is objective justification for difference. That is the basis of our position.
The effect of amendments Nos. 187 and 188 would be to add to the four eligibility requirements already set out in clause 4. They would require that couples
wishing to become each other's civil partner must live together for at least six months before giving notice of their proposed civil partnership. That does not fulfil the criteria of equivalence unless there is an objective reason for doing otherwise, and it is not necessary or fair. There is no similar requirement for opposite-sex couples, and there is the slight implication of an assumption that same-sex couples are somehow less able than opposite-sex couples to decide when they are ready to make a serious commitment to each other. Imposing such an eligibility requirement would disadvantage couples who for whatever reason chose not to, or were unable to, live together prior to forming their civil partnership. For example, a couple who have been living together for many months or years might temporarily live apart because one of them is relocated due to work. Is that really justification for denying them the ability to enter into a civil partnership? To set a six-month cohabitation period as a condition for the notice of registration would effectively deny them that possibility in those circumstances.
Forming a civil partnership will be a major life decision and not one to be taken lightly, because of the serious rights and responsibilities involved. We shall probably have further debate on the seriousness of civil partnership.
There is no justification for making the eligibility requirements more stringent or for treating same-sex couples wishing to form a civil partnership differently from opposite-sex couples wishing to marry. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Member for Christchurch will not press his amendments Nos. 187 and 188 and that the Committee will feel able to support the Government's amendments. The intention of our amendments is to return the Bill to its original form, which has at its heart the ability to ensure equality, respect and dignity for those many thousands of same-sex couples who need and deserve the opportunity to gain the legal recognition that the Bill will provide.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The Committee divided: Ayes 13, Noes 1.
On a point of order, Mr. Cook. Following the debate that has just taken place, the Bill is now in its previous form. Explanatory notes were produced in the other place which were of a very different tenor from those accompanying the Bill when it came to this House. In the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, there are all sorts of references and cross-references to the explanatory notes to the Bill as it was in the other place and it is impossible to follow that without having the
explanatory notes available. I am asking not for anything to be reprinted, but whether, in the light of the amendment being carried, the explanatory notes could be made available in the same form as they were in the House of Lords.
That is hardly a point of order for the Chair. It is a matter for the Government. If they see fit to reissue the explanatory notes, I am sure that they will do so. Note will have been taken of the hon. Gentleman's comment, but it is not a point of order for the Chair.
I hope that this will be a debate in which I do not stand alone. I know, from talking to constituents about the issues facing them, that a heck of a lot more of them are concerned about the inconsistencies and lack of privileges associated with cohabitees of opposite sexes than about people in same-sex relationships. For the purpose of the amendment and in the words so beloved of the Minister, all will be treated on an equal basis, so a civil partnership will be a relationship between two people in the categories set out, irrespective of their sex.
In order to accelerate matters slightly, will my hon. Friend advance a cogent argument to explain how including opposite-sex couples in the Bill would not undermine the institution of marriage, which he wants to protect?
The institution of marriage does not need to be protected—it is there. Many people are concerned about entering a formal marriage because of the long-term commitment that it would imply. I cannot speak for people in that situation. I note that some people who are highly placed in the Government are in that position, and even have children. I cannot answer for them. I believe that only one relationship—holy matrimony—should be treated on a special basis. All other relationships should be treated on an inferior basis.
My hon. Friend has set a precedent. He has baffled me in a way that I have never been baffled before. Could he explain the logic of his argument? On Second Reading, many of the people who took the same view of the Bill as he does argued that, unless it was radically amended, it would gravely undermine marriage, presumably because all the gay people who could otherwise be lured, persuaded, coaxed and cajoled into getting married would now have the competitive alternative in the marketplace of civil partnership, and that that was thoroughly undesirable. My hon. Friend, however, thinks that people who are heterosexual and who might otherwise conceivably at some point in their life decide to marry will in no way be discouraged from doing so by the
creation of the competitive alternative of civil partnership. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand me if I say that the logic of his position is not immediately obvious.
It may not be obvious to my hon. Friend, who does his own case a disservice by being facetious and tongue-in-cheek about what happens to people who are living together, whether they be the same or different sexes.
This is not a party political issue. The hon. Member for Reading, East introduced a ten-minute Bill, the Relationships (Civil Registration) Bill, in the House. I do not know whether my hon. Friend supported it. In that Bill, she sought to ensure that there was a system for civil registration of two people who are cohabiting, irrespective of whether they are cohabiting as same-sex or opposite-sex partners. En passant, my hon. Friend suggested that people who enter into a same-sex partnership cannot subsequently enter an opposite-sex partnership, and vice versa. He will know from his own experience, looking at colleagues in this place and at constituents outside, that people do change their sexual preferences. I know people who have married, divorced and then entered a same-sex partnership, and I know people who were in a same-sex partnership and now are happily married.
Any suggestion that people's genes are fixed in one particular way from the moment of conception is wrong. The expression ''bisexual''—I am never quite sure what it means—is now a commonplace in the language. It suggests that people can change their sexual proclivities at different stages of their life. That is a fact of life. We in the Committee would be wrong if we allowed ourselves to think that all those proclivities were set at one stage and could never be changed. That is why there is everything to be said for treating all partnerships outside marriage on an equal footing.
I do not think that we want to get on to the issue of proclivities at this stage, but I want to take the hon. Gentleman back to what he said about the institution of holy matrimony. It is entirely his view that that is the only partnership that really matters. Surely the logic of that view is that he should be arguing for the abolition of civil marriage between heterosexuals and all that goes with it.
I do not understand the logic of that point, and I am certainly not arguing in favour of abolishing civil marriage. The situation at the moment, in my understanding of the law, is that civil marriage prevails over holy matrimony. To go back to the example that I gave in a previous debate, although the Church of England would not recognise a same-sex partnership or even a civil partnership registered under this Bill were it to become law, if a member of such a partnership came to the Church of England and said that he or she wished to enter holy matrimony, so far as the Church was concerned, they could lawfully do so because there would be no Church bar to it. However, by reason of the position in civil marriage law in this country, it would not be possible for them to enter into a lawful marriage.
Surely if a married heterosexual couple have a civil marriage, and one of them decides behind the other's back to go off and approach the Church to have holy matrimony with someone else, there is an equal bar. The Church would quite rightly say, ''Well actually, you're already married so we will not marry you.'' What is the difference?
In so far as I can follow the hon. Lady's argument, the difference is that the Church does not recognise a same-sex partnership as a bar to marriage and, as I understand it, is not going to.
What the Church does not recognise, because it does not yet exist, is a formalised, registered same-sex partnership. That is the difference.
As one who has studied a little bit of canon law and who I suspect knows a little more about it than the hon. Gentleman, I am certain that if a priest of the Church of England or the Church in Wales, a minister of the Church of Scotland or, for that matter, a Roman Catholic priest—all these act as registrars for the purposes of civil marriage, which is part of holy matrimony in this land, somewhat differently from what applies in other countries in Europe—were approached by someone who said during their marriage preparation sessions that they had been in a civil partnership for the past few years, that minister of religion would be wise to suggest to the person that they might think twice about their sexual orientation before entering into marriage.
I do not dissent from anything that the hon. Gentleman says, but though he purported to be about to give us expert advice, I am not sure that that went as far as I wished. Certainly during marriage preparation, advice would be given, and I hope that if the Bill progresses there will be a requirement that similar advice should be given to people prior to entering a civil partnership. However, my point is that if people enter a civil partnership that breaks down—it might do so, as I said earlier, because someone discovers their real sexuality and falls for a person of the opposite sex whom they wish to marry—they can at the moment lawfully marry in a church if neither has been married before. However, if this Bill were enacted, they could not do that under our law if the partnership still subsisted.
I want to turn to the issue of proclivities. It may be the hon. Gentleman's experience that there are many people in this land who start their lives as homosexuals, enter into relationships with another man or woman and subsequently discover their true sexual orientation and want to get married. The evidence of people whom I know and of modern life is that it the situation precisely the other way around. There are many people in this land who, for all sorts of reasons of prejudice, have got married and have subsequently learned—they might even have known it at the moment they made their vows in church—that they were homosexual and have had to repent at great leisure after being forced into that situation. He is doing himself and his
argument no favours by trying to hide the prejudice that lies underneath what he says.
There is no prejudice at all. I accept, as I think the hon. Gentleman accepts, that there are people in both categories. There are people who enter into marriage thinking that they are heterosexual and who find out later that they are probably not, and there are people who enter into same-sex relationships who then discover that they are heterosexual after all. If he thinks that there are none in the latter category, I am amazed.
I think that it is invidious to name individual constituents or others in the Committee, but if the hon. Gentleman is asserting that there is no one in this country who has entered into a same-sex relationship and subsequently found that they have a heterosexual proclivity, I am sure that the newspaper columns will be full of examples after our exchange is publicised, and he, with a bit of humility, will be able to learn something from them.
I want to be absolutely clear about where my hon. Friend is coming from. Does he unequivocally confirm that a same-sex relationship, based on love and commitment, perhaps in perpetuity, is a valid and acceptable relationship?
I do not think it is acceptable as a matter of Christian doctrine, I am afraid. I cannot help that; it is a matter of belief. My hon. Friend will accept that that is so. I do not believe that such a relationship is a valid one under the laws of God, but other people may have different interpretations. A big debate is going on in the Church at the moment—it is reported even in today's papers—about the status of homosexual relationships in the Church. The answer to his question depends on one's religious beliefs.
When people talked on Second Reading about comparing the religious position with the civil position, they said, ''This is a Bill dealing with civil partnerships; it does not affect what happens in Church.'' The example I have given shows how it can affect what happens in Church, because it will create a bar to marriage where somebody enters into a civil partnership that is not dissolved within the five-year period.
Surely it is for Churches themselves to decide how they will let the legislation affect their doctrines and practices.
Obviously, they will have to take those decisions, but if my reading is correct, it will not be lawful for the Church of England, for example, to arrange a marriage ceremony for someone who was previously involved in a civil partnership that has not been lawfully dissolved. The Minister has said that that is correct. If so, the Bill introduces a new bar on lawful church marriage.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that a civil partnership is a voluntary agreement that people enter into freely as consenting adults and that they are fully aware of the consequences, as they would be if they were a heterosexual couple entering into a marriage that
includes not only rights, but responsibilities? Accordingly, I think that his argument is utterly spurious.
The hon. Lady is entitled to her opinion. I accept that civil partnership is a voluntary arrangement. Under the terms of the Bill as drafted, however, the consequence of the arrangement breaking down—we all know of examples of relationships breaking down, whether they are same-sex or heterosexual—is that, if one of the parties is not prepared to accept a formal dissolution of the relationship, the other party may have to wait five years before they can get the partnership dissolved. How can that situation be in the public interest?
For a little clarification of the hon. Gentleman's intention, may I ask whether he would also argue that someone who has entered into a civil marriage should be free to go to a church and marry somebody else? That is the analogy. Currently, someone who enters into a civil marriage cannot be married to someone else in a church.
We are not comparing like with like. I know that the hon. Lady wishes to put civil marriage on a par with same-sex marriage, although she said earlier during the passage of the Bill that that is not the Government's intention. If it is the Government's intention to set up same-sex marriages, let us be open about it, and I shall oppose it as vigorously as I am trying to oppose the proposal before us. The Government have said, however, that they have no proposals to set up same-sex marriages. The example that the hon. Lady gave concerning civil marriage relates to a lawful marriage. Once one is lawfully married, one cannot be lawfully remarried because of the rules against remarriage.
I am saying that, although a same-sex partnership is not equivalent in law to marriage as far as the Government are concerned, the fact that it will effectively be so under the Bill creates a new bar to marriage for those who have not been previously married, are heterosexual and wish to get married in a church.
The hon. Gentleman is referring to holy matrimony, which he understands to mean a marriage that is contracted in a church by a registrar who is a priest in the Church of England, the Church in Wales, the Church of Scotland or the Roman Catholic Church or by those registrars that are allowed to other Churches—they are not, as yet, allowed much to other religions in this country—under the Marriage Act 1949.
The logic of the hon. Gentleman's argument is that, if the Bill is passed, those people should no longer be allowed to be registrars. Therefore, there would be no civil marriage in a church anymore. It seems to me that that would far more undermine the status of holy matrimony in this country, because people would be more likely to have only a civil marriage and not a religiously ordained one.
The hon. Gentleman has not been following my argument. I do not recognise any of what he said as having a bearing on what I said. This is in danger of becoming a dialogue of the deaf.
Let me give one more example of what we are talking about. In the weekend press, there was an example of somebody who entered into a bigamous relationship under Islamic law. That is accepted under Islamic law in this country, but it is obviously not accepted under our statutory law. I am saying that, as a result of the Bill being passed, we will have the same conflict. What would be a marriage under holy matrimony and recognised as such by the Church of England could not be recognised under the law of the land because of the bar to marriage created by the Bill.
I am sorry to intervene again, but the hon. Gentleman clearly does not understand. That is precisely the point that I made; it shows why the state decides who, other than registrars provided by the state, should be registrars—namely Churches that have already accepted the principles inherent in the law of the land. If the Church of England decided that it was going to allow people who were already in a civil partnership to get married in church, I think that the state would take the view that the Church of England should not proceed as an established Church. It is pretty unlikely that the Church of England will go down that route.
I agree that it is very unlikely that the Church of England will go down that route, but why should it be forced into that dilemma by Parliament? Why should we prevent people in this country from entering into holy matrimony under the laws of our established Church? That is what the hon. Gentleman and I disagree about, but that would be the consequence.
I am trying to get my head around the logic. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that Churches should be able to marry people in a religious ceremony and confer upon them all the rights of responsibilities of holy matrimony while retaining a situation where one or other of those individuals is still part of an active civil partnership? In that case, that individual will have a civil partner who is the next of the kin and a partner through holy matrimony who is the next of kin. They will have two people who will inherit their estate if there is no will and two lots of pension and tax arrangements. Is that the logic of his position, or am I just terribly confused?
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is confused at all. My concern is that some people are seeking to legislate to prevent people from being able to enter into holy matrimony in the circumstances that we have described. It is most unlikely that the established Church would allow people to marry in the circumstances that I have described, but why should people not be allowed to enter into holy matrimony when neither of them has been married before? Is it really the role of this House of Commons to prevent that from happening?
Very simply, it is a pretty good idea that people make an emotional, long-standing commitment to only one person at a time. If the hon. Gentleman really thinks that holy matrimony is a
magic wand that will wipe away somebody's sexuality, he is profoundly deluded.
I may be deluded about a lot of things, but I am not deluded about that. If people enter into long-standing relationships and contracts, and if those agreements are of the sort that can be broken, they can be put right. People break contracts.
That point brings me to the amendments. If one considers what happens in other countries that have civil partnership, it is very distinct from civil marriage because it can be not only entered into relatively easily and quickly—admittedly, it is a contract—but broken very quickly. In France, for example—and I quote France not only because my surname, Chope, is a French name—
It is a very large glass of beer.
In France, under Le Pacte Civil de Solidarité in 1999, a legal status is established for cohabitants, whether heterosexual or homosexual:
''A cohabitant may apply to his local municipal magistrate for a contract of civil union to be registered in the Register of Civil Unions. Once registered the partners enjoy virtually the same tax, social security, property and inheritance rights and obligations as married couples. However, homosexual partners are not allowed to adopt children.
To dissolve the PACS, the both partners notify the authorities and the union is dissolved immediately. If the split is not mutual, the departing cohabitant simply has to have the bailiff serve the appropriate letter on his ex-partner and on the authorities the union is dissolved in three months.''
That is a wholly different type of relationship, status and contract from what is contemplated in the Bill. In common with my amendments, all parties to a civil partnership, whether heterosexual or same-sex, are treated on an equal footing. During the course of my remarks, I should like to develop an argument about discrimination, which is an issue that concerns me and which went through much of the debate in the other place.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights produced a useful report to help the Committee with its consideration of the Bill. Perhaps it would be possible for all members of the Committee to receive before our next sitting a copy of the Minister's response to the Joint Committee's considerations. I tabled a question asking that the copy of her response be placed in the Library, and the Secretary of State responded by saying that she was still considering the matter. I hope that the Minister will accept that her response to the Joint Committee should be placed in the Library or made available to every member of the Committee.
In that case, I can give a commitment that I will make the letter available to the Committee.
That is helpful. It means that when we next assemble, everyone will have the benefit of the Government's view as expressed in the response to the Joint Committee's pertinent points on discrimination. Without my amendments, the human rights implications of the Bill will be severe indeed.
I have taken time to read the hon. Gentleman's amendments. Three of them are before the Committee at the moment. The first two seek to extend the provisions to mixed-sex couples. The third seeks to change the reference to civil partnerships in the Bill's title to same-sex partnerships. Will he explain his logic?
Perhaps I was too pessimistic. I tabled the last amendment, which I believe the hon. Gentleman will accept should have been considered at the very end of the Committee's proceedings, in the expectation that by then the Government would have had their way, the Bill would be a same-sex partnership Bill, and that it would be better described as such on the basis that that is what it would be. The rules of procedure meant that I had to table my amendments in advance, but if I win the vote on this part of the Bill, I shall obviously be happy not to press my amendment on the Bill's title. I hope that clarifies the situation for him.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights is concerned about the Bill. It says that
''when the Bill comes into force, exemption from inheritance tax will be available to a surviving spouse''.
Mr. Duncan rose in his place and claimed to move,
That the Question be now put.
I am surprised that my hon. Friend does not wish to hear my argument developed. The Joint Committee said that
''when the Bill comes into force, exemption from inheritance tax will be available to a surviving spouse and a surviving civil partner, but not to the surviving partner of an unmarried heterosexual couple, even though they may have lived together as though husband and wife for the whole of their adult lives''.
It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned till Thursday 21 October at ten minutes past Nine o'clock.