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Question put and agreed to.
Mr. Frank Field accordingly presented a Bill to establish civil welcoming ceremonies, responsibility to children agreements and coming of age ceremonies; to make provision as to their conduct; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 15 October, and to be printed [Bill 160].
[Relevant document: The Fifteenth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Session 200304, on the Civil Partnership Bill, HC 885.]
The Bill represents a historic step on what has been a long journey to respect and dignity for lesbians and gay men in Britain. It is a natural progression in our vision to build an inclusive society. As such, it builds on reforms that began back in 1967 with Leo Abse's private Member's Bill, backed by the then Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins. The Government's commitment to equality has been strong and unequivocal. We have equalised the age of consent, outlawed discrimination in the workplace on the ground of sexual orientation, secured protection from homophobic hate crimes and supported the abolition of section 28.
In creating a new legal relationship for same-sex couples, this Bill is a sign of the Government's commitment to social justice and equality. It is also a recognition of the realities of modern Britain. Across this country today thousands of same-sex couples have made the decision to share their lives, their home, their finances and the care of their children or of older relatives. They may have loved and cared for each other for many years, yet their relationship is invisible in the eyes of the law. The Bill sends a clear message about the importance of stable and committed same-sex relationships.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Will the Minister recommend to the Treasury that carers, those being cared for and family members living together in their own family units should have the benefit of inheritance tax relief and capital gains tax relief?
Jacqui Smith: No, I will not. It is rather unfortunate that some Opposition Members have chosen to use an important equality Bill to pursue their campaign about inheritance tax. I will come back to some of the amendments that have been made in the Lords.
The Bill sends a clear message about the importance of stable and committed same-sex relationships. It marks a major step in helping such couples gain greater social acceptance of their partnership and overcome the distressing consequences for many people of their legal invisibility.
During consultation we heard and were moved by the personal stories of difficulties faced by same-sex couples precisely because they lacked a way of obtaining legal recognition of their relationship. They included terminally ill people and their partners who had to face not just the heartbreak of death and separation but the added trauma of being unable to leave a shared home or pension benefits. One man who had been involved in a major car accident was shocked to find that it was not his partner but his parents who were consulted about his
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medical treatment, that his partner might have faced difficulties registering his death and that although they had shared their lives he and his partner had no way of safeguarding their shared interests. Fortunately, in that instance, the parents were supportive through a difficult time, but that is not always the case.
Another man, on the death of his partner, found himself excluded from funeral arrangements and thrown out of his home by relatives of his partner who had had no contact with him for many years. Another person had to buy the couple's joint possessions from the parents of his deceased partner. A woman was kept away from her partner's funeral. These are the inhumane consequences of the invisibility of same-sex relationships.
Jacqui Smith: I do not believe that some of the issues that I have identified do apply. There is a particular significance to a partnership between two people who have chosen to share their home and their life, to love each other and to care for each other. I will deal with the issue of other types of carers, which I take seriously, later, but to conflate the two is to do justice neither to the same-sex couples whom the Bill seeks to serve nor to carers in the sort of relationships that the hon. Lady describes.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The Minister describes a loving couple who have lived together for many years, sharing their house, their lives, their food. Do her arguments apply to the elderly sisters in my constituency who have lived together for 40 years and care for each other and love each other in a very real way as much as they do to lesbian couples?
Jacqui Smith: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was listening carefully when I identified the specific problem for same-sex couplesthe legal invisibility of their relationship. Of course there are issues about sisters living together, but their relationship is not invisibleit is already recognised by society, and often by the law.
The Bill would allow same-sex couples security in life, peace of mind in the event of a partner's death and fair treatment should their relationship break down. It provides the opportunity to enter into a legal relationship in which rights are balanced with responsibilities and the couple's commitment is recognised in lawgiving solutions to the practical problems that too many people faceand makes an important statement about this country's support for stable, long-term committed relationships. These are the marks of a civilised and humane society. They are the principles that we set out to fulfil with this Bill, yet others have sought to wreck the principles on which the Bill is founded.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD):
Before the Minister goes into more detail, may I ask her about
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Northern Ireland? I understand that this is a reserved matter so, conventionally, what happens there will be determined here. The Liberal Democrats are keen to see the legislation implemented in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister give an assurance that that is the Government's intention?
Jacqui Smith: I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. It is the Government's intention that, under this Bill, not least given some of the issues that I have identified, the new legal ability to gain recognition for one's relationship will operate across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): The Minister will be aware that in all political parties in Northern Ireland there is opposition to this Bill. She will also be aware that in the consultation 86 per cent. of the answers were no. Why is the Bill not going to be left until the Assembly is up and running again so that the people of Northern Ireland can make the decision themselves? [Interruption.]
Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman is right about the responses to the consultation, although I can report to the House that, as of today, we have received nearly 400 letters of support for the Bill from Northern Ireland, and there were 462 responses to the original consultation. The hon. Gentleman is wrong, therefore, to suggest that there is no support for the Bill in Northern Ireland. Given the universality of some of the issues that I have described, it makes sense to legislate, as we propose with the Bill, for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): I welcome this groundbreaking Bill, but one issuesurvivor benefits in occupational pensionshas worried a lot of people. Will my right hon. Friend take another look at the Bill, because it will create an inequality of treatment between same-sex couples and married heterosexual couples in relation to survivor benefits under occupational pension schemes? Will she see whether she can iron out that manifest discrimination?
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