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Pete Wishart (North Tayside) (SNP): Does the Minister share my disappointment that the Scottish Parliament is not considering the Bill, despite the fact that it has the competence to do so? There are differences involving dissolution and registration in the Scots courts. Is it the case that the Scottish Parliament is afraid to deal with the issue and is thus happy to let the Government pass legislation on its behalf?

Jacqui Smith: I completely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. As we consider the Bill in more detail, I have no doubt that any hon. Member who so wishes will be able to examine the detail of how we are responding to the specific nature of Scots and Northern Irish law. However, both legislatively and for the people who will be affected, it makes sense to legislate through one Bill because of its complex legal implications.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab): Further to the point made by the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart), surely the situation illustrates the grown-up nature of the devolution settlement. The Scottish Parliament and Executive indicated well in advance their intention to pass a Sewel motion if the Bill was to their satisfaction. That allows Scottish Members, such the hon. Gentleman and me, to participate in the debate in the knowledge that the Bill will be applied in Scotland, although it might seem on the face of it that the debate relates to England and Wales. We should celebrate the situation as a success of devolution, rather than criticising it.

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend is right. The Labour party has a grown-up approach, and I hope that all parties will adopt that approach.

After going through the process, same-sex couples' relationships will no longer be invisible and their duties and obligations to each other as civil partners will be significant. They will have responsibilities during their relationship, during the dissolution of their relationship—should that be necessary—and on the death of a civil partner. The provisions span registration, dissolution, property and financial provisions, measures to protect the interests of children and amendments to intestacy rules. They will directly resolve many of the problems that same-sex couples face, including issues of housing and tenancy, domestic violence and fatal accident claims.

Parts 3 and 4 deal with provisions relating to Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively. Although there are differences between the provisions for civil partnership in parts 2, 3 and 4, most of the differences are procedural and reflect distinct legislative history and legal systems. As we have heard, the Scottish Parliament has debated a Sewel motion and agreed that Scottish provisions should be included in the Bill.

Part 6 ensures that references to certain familial relationships in legislation, such as step relations, can be read as including relationships that arise through a civil partnership. Parts 7 and 8 deal with several discrete
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areas of legislation that must be amended to reflect the existence of the new legal relationship of a civil partner. For example, schedule 24 will ensure that income-related benefits rules treat same-sex couples in the same way as opposite-sex couples. Child support rules will assess civil partners in the same way as married people, and civil partners will be entitled to most state pension benefits from the date of commencement of the Bill. The Bill also contains powers to require that pension benefits provided to married people are made available to civil partners from the date of the Bill's commencement, notwithstanding the commitment that I made earlier.

I must inform the House that the Government will move several amendments during the Bill's passage through this House. Most of them will be minor and I will write to hon. Members with detailed explanations of them. The great majority were tabled for consideration in the other place, but because of the impact on the Bill of the amendments passed on Report, which would fundamentally change the nature of civil partnerships, it was impossible for us to proceed with them.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): Will the Minister clarify the reference that she made earlier to survivor benefits? Is she saying categorically today that equal rights will be retrospectively applied for public sector pensions?

Jacqui Smith: I made a comment at the behest of my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle). She and other hon. Members have rightly emphasised the Bill's objectives on equality and the possible inequality that could arise with survivor benefits under pensions. I undertook to examine her representations and those of others in more detail.

The Bill has commanded widespread support and I would like to offer the House just two examples of that. A fortnight ago, I was able to visit the registration department of Brighton and Hove city council. It opened a pink wedding waiting list in July and people came from all over the country and queued around the block to express their personal wishes to register their relationships and support the Bill. I commend Brighton for that initiative.

Chris Bryant: I join the Minister in commending Brighton, but what will happen if a council such as Kent county council, a Conservative council that has reintroduced its version of clause 28, chooses not to co-operate?

Jacqui Smith: The Bill makes clear the process that registration authorities will need to put in place to ensure that civil partners have the opportunity to have that civil partnership recognised.

Support has also come from across the political spectrum. In November last year, a leader in The Daily Telegraph said:

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I do not often agree with The Daily Telegraph, but I do in this respect. The support recognises that the Bill offers a reasonable and principled solution to the disadvantages that same-sex couples face because they cannot gain legal recognition of their relationships. Amendments passed in another place do not weaken our resolve to see the end of that unfair treatment and exclusion.

The Bill sends a clear and unequivocal message that same-sex couples deserve recognition and respect. It is a crucial step on the road to a fair and inclusive society, and I look forward to the House restoring it to its original purpose. I commend it to the House.

2.21 pm

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): I thank the Minister for her opening remarks and explanation of the Bill. It is a pleasure for me to give it my personal support and to do so on behalf of my party from the Front Bench.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: I well recognise that my hon. Friend speaks in a personal capacity and from the Front Bench, but I take it that he is not speaking on behalf of the entire Conservative party.

Mr. Duncan: My hon. Friend should show a little patience. My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition has stated openly many times that he supports civil partnerships and will vote for their introduction. I am pleased to repeat and share that commitment. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) rightly and forcefully points out, Conservative Members have a free vote. The Bill is not whipped. It is up to my hon. Friends to vote as they choose, from the position of principle that they will undoubtedly argue, although I am confident that a large number will share my view that supporting the Bill provides a timely opportunity to show that the party understands the world in which we live and that, as my right hon. and learned Friend the leader of the party has said, we are a party for all Britain and for all Britons.

Miss Widdecombe: Will my hon. Friend clarify, in the same way as the Minister did—I have to say with some honesty—that the Bill is actually about homosexual marriage?

Mr. Duncan: I do not accept that, but I will try to clarify the situation. In anticipation of my right hon. Friend's assessment of the Bill, I intend to devote a lot of time to answering that question, which it is fair and reasonable to ask. I hope that I might even be able to allay her concerns to the extent that she might approach the Bill differently.

Miss Widdecombe: I do not think so.

Mr. Duncan: I live in hope.

The demand for the Bill is far greater than many people realise. One of the facts about people's attitudes to gay people in the modern world is that essentially they are relaxed—utterly unexercised—about the phenomenon until the time when which they detect intolerance, at which point they become deeply and
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profoundly indignant. That is the climate in which the Bill is sought, not just by those who benefit from it, but by those who see the benefits it confers on others. It has much wider support than from those who are directly affected by it.

In passing, perhaps the Minister will confirm in the wind-ups that there is no danger, as highlighted in the report in The Independent on Sunday, that the passage of the Bill is under threat from the compression of time as we reach the end of the Session. I do not think that that many amendments will be tabled in Committee.

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