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Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend and other Labour Members have certainly worked very hard to raise that issue. Given that, as I have said, the Bill is about equality, I can undertake, as she asks, to look in considerable detail at the way in which we are able to provide, as we are in the vast majority of provisions in the Bill, equality in relation to survivor benefits under pension schemes, difficult though some of the issues may be.
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con):
The Minister has several times used the word "equality". Will she be very specific? Is the equality that
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she seeks that whereby a homosexual relationship based on commitment is treated in future in exactly the same way as marriage in law?
Jacqui Smith: If the right hon. Lady looks at the Bill, she will see that, in the vast majority of cases, it is the Government's intention that those people who enter into a civil partnership will receive the same rights and take on the same responsibilities as those that we expect of those who enter into civil marriage.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): It would surely be much fairer to Members on both sides of House if the Government came clean and announced that they support gay marriage. Why will they not do so?
Jacqui Smith: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman heard me make the important point that civil partnerships under the Bill mirror in many ways the requirements, rights and responsibilities that run alongside civil marriage. I recognise that hon. Members on both sides of the House understand and feel very strongly about specific religious connotations of marriage. The Government are taking a secular approach to resolve the specific problems of same-sex couples. As others have said, that is the appropriate and modern way for the 21st century.
I wish to move on to the amendmentsfrankly, they are wrecking amendmentspassed in another place. Our belief, which is supported by many hon. Members on both sides of the House, is that certain amendments passed in another place render the Bill unworkable. Those amendments would allow close relatives over the age of 30 who have lived together continuously for 12 years to form civil partnerships. Of course, we recognise that there are genuine concerns about the position of carers. That is why the Government introduced the first ever national carers strategy and ensured that the carers grant that we introduced to provide vitally needed breaks is six times higher this year than it was in 1999, and it is why we supported the private Member's Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), but this Bill is entirely the wrong place to deal with those concerns. Parents, children and siblings already have legally recognised relationships to one another that are widely acknowledged and accepted in society.
The Opposition amendments passed in another place would also lead to myriad legal absurdities. A woman who formed a civil partnership with her grandfather would have her own mother as her stepdaughter. A grandfather could leave a survivor's pension to a civil-partner grandson. That turns pension provision on its head and could cost the taxpayer £1 billion a year and the private sector some £1.25 billion a year.
Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that those amendments can fairly be described as wrecking amendments, designed to prevent the Bill from becoming effective, and that they were tabled in that form by people who are afraid to come out and express their real motive, which is to oppose equality?
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. As I have said, those amendments fail to recognise the
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principles on which the Bill is based and they will lead to some of the legal absurdities that I have outlined. I hope that all hon. Members will be honest about their real views, their real motivations and their real objectives in what they propose.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Is the Minister seriously telling the House that three bishops who voted for the amendments so ably moved by my noble Friends in the other place were engaged in a wrecking process? If so, they and their parishioners ought to be told that.
Jacqui Smith: I was saying precisely that the effect of those amendments would be to wreck the Bill. Those who voted for them, whatever their motives, need to be aware that that would be the effect of the amendments. I was going through the legal absurdities. For example, a son in a civil partnership with his elderly mother could lose entitlement to jobseeker's allowance, based on his mother's ability to support him financially. That would take our social security system back to the 1930s. Even more bizarrely, if he then wanted to marry someone else, he would have to live separately from his mother for at least two years, or he would have to prove her unreasonable behaviour. For those reasons and many others, the amendments stand condemned by the TUC, citizens advice bureaux, the Solicitors Family Law Association, the Law Society, Stonewall and many others, but, worst of all, they stand condemned by the very people whom they purport to helpcarers. Carers UK believes that the amendments may even harm the position of carers and create new problems for them.
Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): The Minister is being very generous with her time in giving way. Will she confirm that one of the issues for carers is that they will lose their entitlement to benefit if they register such a relationship because joint incomes will be taken into account? Some of those whom the Bill is directly designed to help would lose the most.
Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman points out yet another difficulty with trying to impose an ill-thought-out wrecking process on a Bill that was intended to deal with another problem. He is absolutely right.
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): My right hon. Friend refers to the European convention on human rights. As I understand itperhaps she will correct me if I am wrongheterosexual couples can take advantage of the Bill only if they are aged 30 and have been in a relationship for 12 years. If so, does that not breach the European convention on human rights, as it is discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation?
Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend is right. That is precisely one of the reasons that make the Bill in the amended form incompatible with the convention. For all those reasons and many more, we will seek to reverse those amendments and restore the Bill to its original purpose.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab):
Is not the truth of the matter that those who tabled those amendments in the
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other Chamber did so because they do not believe that homosexuals are equal to heterosexuals, and that, unfortunately, that includes many of the bishops?
I acknowledge concerns expressed by hon. Members and those in another place about the vulnerable position of unmarried opposite-sex couples, many of whom are under the misapprehension that they enjoy more rights than they actually do. That is the very reason why the Department for Constitutional Affairs is running a campaign to inform cohabitants of the significant differences between their rights and responsibilities and those of married couples. We agree that there are aspects on which all couples who live together need protection, especially those with children. That is not a matter for the Bill, but the Government are mindful of the issue, which is why we recently asked the Law Commission to carry out a project on cohabitation for inclusion in its ninth programme of law reform.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): The Minister will be aware that page 12 of the report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights referred to the undertaking that the Government have given, but said that it did not go far enough and asked for more information. What information have the Government provided in response to paragraph 26 of the report?
Jacqui Smith: I have replied at length to the specific issues raised by the Joint Committee and I am sure that it will have ample opportunity to consider my responses. The Bill will provide the same opportunity for same-sex couples to gain legal recognition of their relationship as currently exists for opposite-sex couples through the route of marriage. That does not mean that all same-sex couples will choose to enter into that arrangement, just as not all opposite-sex couples choose to marry. However, same-sex couples currently have no route of legal recognition, so the Bill will put that right.
I shall now turn to the detail of the Bill. Part 1 defines civil partnership and makes the point at which a civil partnership is formed and ends clear. It makes it clear that a civil partnership may be formed in the UK, or overseas under UK law, and that same-sex relationships that are registered under the law of another country may be treated as civil partnerships under UK law. Part 5 provides a way of identifying those overseas relationships that can be treated as civil partnerships, and deals with the jurisdiction of UK courts in overseas cases and the recognition of orders made by courts abroad.
Part 2 sets out the procedure for forming and terminating a civil partnership in England and Wales and some of the rights and responsibilities that will flow from that relationship. The rights and responsibilities are serious, so entering a civil partnership will represent a major commitment. The registration process will be delivered by the local registration service, and there will be a formal, court-based process for dissolution if a civil partnership breaks down. That process would involve both rights and responsibilities for the civil partners involved. The provisions will ensure that civil
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partnerships are entered into seriously, that they cannot be exited lightly and that the rights and responsibilities that same-sex couples are given support them in their lives together.
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