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Mrs. Roche: As a former Treasury Minister, I have the greatest respect for Treasury officials. I am sure that, when we see the detail of the legislation, the modelling will have been done and the measures will have been drafted to ensure that they help the children whom the policy is primarily designed to help. We know that the path that many children follow in the first 22 months of life is, through no fault of their own or of their parents, inextricably linked with unemployment and low achievement, and sometimes an inability to succeed in society. I therefore believe that the proposed legislation is of prime importance.
I wish to concentrate on a number of measures and indicate some areas in which I think that the Government need to move forward. I believe that we need to advance in a way that builds on the work that we have done already. I also believe strongly that the Government need to use much more of the language of equality and social inclusion. The notions of equality and social inclusion are not merely nice things that we do for other people, but are about the welfare and competitiveness of our country as a whole. If we have a country that does not include everybody because of a lack of social inclusion or equality, we will exclude people from the labour market, and we will exclude people who could make a significant contribution to our society.
I want now to concentrate on three measures outlined in the Gracious Speech. First, I welcome the registration of civil partnerships for same-sex couplesa proposal that I strongly advocated in government. It is now almost a year since I said that there were powerful reasons for civil registration. Many gay and lesbian couples have lived together for years as families and supported and looked after each other in sickness and in health, but have been affected at difficult moments of their lives, such as when a very valued partner has been unable to attend at the bedside in the event of a terminal illness or to have a say in funeral arrangements, when their relationship has ended because of death, simply because their partnership has not been recognised. Indeed, many same-sex couples who have built lives and purchased houses together see all that destroyed when inheritance tax comes into play, even though they have
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): The hon. Lady said that she was proud of the part that she has rightly taken in this process. When she was investigating the issue, did she consider what might happen when two sisters have lived together for a good many years? Does she anticipate that the legislation will also cover situations in which two sisters or brothers have lived together for a good part of their lives? Will the inheritance tax problem, which she rightly mentions, be recognised in respect of them as well?
Mrs. Roche: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point that hon. Members of all parties made in another place when the subject was debated there a little more than a year ago. I understand his comments. Not only the Government but other European Governments have considered the matter. Several European Governments and countries as well as states in the United States of America and in Canada have civil registration schemes, but I know of perhaps only one with something that would cover two sisters or brothers. People believed that such provision would be too complicated. The position is different from that of same-sex couples in a relationship in which they have dedicated their lives to each other in exactly the same way as heterosexual couples. There is an issue for the Law Society to consider in the case of two sisters or brothers, and it is one of property rights, but it is separate from the proposed legislation.
Mr. Bercow: The hon. Lady deserves credit for the groundwork that paved the way for introducing civil partnership registration legislation. Does she agree that, in introducing proposals to tackle the multiple discrimination from which gay couples undoubtedly and unjustifiably suffer, the issue and principle at stake is not political correctness but personal decency and equality before the law?
Mrs. Roche: I agree. I wrote an article that used a similar phrase. I thank the hon. Gentleman and I do not think that it will embarrass him if I say that he and I had several discussions about the matter. There is great sympathy for the proposals in all parties and I am grateful for the support of hon. Members who have contributed to today's announcement in the Gracious Speech.
I want to consider a related matter. Next month, the House and another place will incorporate in British law the European directive that will make it an offence to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation and religious belief in employment and vocational training. Many people are surprised that such provision is not already enshrined in law. The legislation will not extend to goods and services, which will not be protected. The directive does not oblige the Government to extend the law to goods and services but nothing prohibits them from doing that. As part of the striving towards social inclusion and equality, the law should be extended to goods and services.
I was recently looking at a brochure from Sandals Holidays, which advertises holidays in the Caribbeanand very nice they look too: very romantic for couples. Indeed, the brochure mentions holidays for couples. However, when I looked at the website and the small print in the agreement, I noted that same-sex couples were banned. They would not be able to book a holiday. That is disgraceful, but the law can do nothing about it. Here is a golden opportunity for the Government to show their mettle, and extend the directive to goods and services. I look forward to hearing their response.
I congratulate the Government on what they have done so far in regard to domestic violence. When I was 22 or 23, I had just qualified as a barrister. I apologise for mentioning what is probably the most unpopular group in society: perhaps only politicians and journalists are ranked lower.
As many Members will knowsome distinguished members of the legal profession are presentduring the first six months of apprenticeship, or pupillage, trainee barristers earn no money. Things may have changed slightly, as there are a few more bursaries now. During the second six months, they are allowed to earn some money. During my second six months I was allowed to earn some money, and did so mainly by representing women in domestic violence cases. Interestingly, chambers would send the most inexperienced, rawest barristers to represent women in such cases because they did not consider such cases important. The police did not take domestic violence seriously, nor did the courts, and, if we are absolutely honest, we must add that the House did not either.
My experience then made me determine that if I were ever lucky enough to be elected to Parliament, I would try to do something about the issue. Having been elected in 1992, I became a member of the Home Affairs Committee, and in the same year I persuaded it to produce a report on domestic violence. I think that the other Committee members wanted to produce a report on car boot sales, but, along with some others, I managed to win the day.
It is a particular pleasure for me to note that legislation will be presented to the Houseshortly, I hopebut there is no room for complacency. Although domestic violence is now recognised as the serious crime that it is, there are still areas that are patchy. For example, there is room for improvement in refuge provision, although it has already improved dramatically; and much work needs to be done in educating young people in particular. Girls and young
Mr. Bercow: As well as providing the vital legislative framework for the tackling of domestic violence, should we not continue to stress the contribution that volunteers can make? In that context, may I say how proud I am that my motherwho has never herself been a victim of domestic violencewill spend Christmas day helping battered women in a refuge?
Mrs. Roche: I agree absolutely, and I am happy to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman's mother, as well as volunteers up and down the country. Volunteering is a mark of our country, as is the number of people who volunteer in all sorts of ways, giving up their family time to assist others. That is tremendous.
I spent some time earlier this year going around refuges up and down the country, and I was astonished by the number of peoplemainly women, but some men as wellwho have dedicated their lives to the issue for 20 or 30 years. When one thinks what the burn-out rate must be, it is a genuine tribute to their courage, integrity and dedication that they go on. The legislation will be a tremendous fillip for those people, but I urge the GovernmentI plead with themnot to stop there, as there is still a great deal to do.
When we look at the figures, it is salutary to remind ourselves that, while I have been speaking and we have been debating the Gracious Speech, a great number of women across the country will have been victims of domestic violence. We must continue to redress that and to take it seriously.
Tuition fees and top-up fees will clearly be an issue of controversy and interest not only to the House and the other place, but to the country as a whole. Like many on this side and, I suspect, quite a few Members in all parts of the House, I was the first in my family to go to university. At the age of 18, I was the first person from my school, which had become a comprehensive, to go to Oxford university. I went up to Oxford and had three wonderful years.
I remember my first day at Oxford vividly. I grew up on a council estate in Hackney. My father was at work and we did not have a car, so, with my mother, I got the No. 6 bus for Paddington to get on the train to go to Oxford. Absolutely terrified, I had never been away from home before. I shall get into terrible trouble for this, but going from Hackney to Oxford took me the furthest north that I had ever been. As far as I was concerned, Oxford was the north. I have made up for that by representing a north London constituency.
I remember what I felt at 18, and I have to ask myself a question, which is where my difficulty with variable top-up fees arises: if my family and I had known that gaining a place at Oxford meant that I would incur at the