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Mr. Chope: Does my hon. Friend think it reasonable that the Committee will have only two days to discuss this detailed Bill, plus all the Government amendments?

Mr. Duncan: I thought for a moment my hon. Friend said two gays in Committee.

Chris Bryant: Take a roll-call.

Mr. Duncan: Indeed.

I am not aware of how many days are proposed for the Committee, but I am sure that that will be discussed by the usual channels. I am sure that the Committee stage will be extended appropriately if amendments are tabled so that the Bill can be properly discussed.

I shall deal first with the Bill as the Government introduced it in another place, before turning to the amendments passed there. The need for the Bill is obvious to anyone who has seen and felt some of the heart-rending injustices that can occur when a committed gay couple are denied the basic rights that a married heterosexual couple would take for granted. Despite sharing their lives together, too many of these people find that their mutual love and commitment count for absolutely nothing in the eyes of the law. As the Minister mentioned, practical matters such as pension rights and financial issues are on one side, but more serious still are cases—sadly, all too common—in which the partner of a terminally ill patient is denied the right to make key medical decisions, or even the right to visit the ill person. On death, the surviving partner can be crippled by inheritance tax and evicted from the home they have both shared for years.

To illustrate that I shall quote just one of the examples, which is vivid, contained in a briefing from Stonewall. It says:

I hope that those reasons alone are enough to convince hon. Members that the Bill is needed.

Rob Marris: Do the hon. Gentleman and his Front-Bench colleagues support, as I and many of my colleagues do, retrospective survivorship benefits on pension schemes for registered gay couples?

Mr. Duncan: We will consider that in Committee. I am not clear about the likely cost. If it is minimal, the
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public sector might give serious consideration to retrospectivity. Shifting actuarial calculations is much more difficult in personal and private schemes because other people in a similar scheme could be disadvantaged by the retrospectivity applied to same-sex couples. That needs to be discussed properly in Committee in a responsible way.

Gay men and women are a fact of life in our country, in our communities and in the House. There are some who wish it were not so, but it is. Gay couples live together in committed relationships across the land and are accepted as couples by their friends and families. The Bill's purpose is to say that continuing to use the law to penalise them cannot be justified. It is designed to recognise same-sex relationships while applying the same restrictions as marriage regarding consanguinity—the bloodline links—thereby excluding partnerships between son and father, daughter and mother, siblings and so on. It is also designed, as the Minister said—I share her view—to apply equally across the country, so as to leave no pockets of discrimination within our United Kingdom, and to avoid the absurdity of people rushing from Gretna Green or Belfast to avoid it.

Civil partnerships have already been introduced in different forms around the world. Denmark introduced the first registration scheme in 1989. Today, eight EU members have some form of civil partnership, as do Norway, Iceland, Canada, Australia and some states of the United States. All have recognised the need for such provisions and have legislated for them.

One argument, brought up by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), is that civil partnerships create gay marriage and thus damage and undermine the institution of marriage. Some may see it that way; the House may wish to see it otherwise. First, although there are of course many similarities between the two institutions, they remain distinct in several important respects. While marriage is an ancient institution with special religious significance, civil partnership is a secular legal arrangement. That difference is made clear in the drafting of the Bill. Registration is given effect by the signing of the register rather than by the verbal affirmation, and a religious service is specifically banned during the signing of the register; in both such important respects, civil partnership is very different from marriage.

Even taking into account the elements of the proposed partnerships that are similar to marriage, the argument that they will damage the institution of marriage still does not stack up. If we preach that the values inherent in marriage—love, mutual commitment and responsibility—strengthen and enrich society, how can we claim that the replication of such values for gay couples will cause damage? Imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery.

True, the two institutions are designed on similar lines, but they are designed on parallel lines; and parallel lines, as we all know, never meet. They are separate institutions for different groups of people. Gay men and lesbians are different precisely because of who they love, so the formal recognition of that love will itself create differences. One can therefore argue strongly that the Bill does not undermine or compete with marriage. After all, we are not exactly fishing in the same pool.
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Many practical issues will need to be dealt with as civil partnerships become accepted. For example, what does one call one's civil partner? It is a problem of modern manners that the term "partner" has many meanings these days: it can mean a business partner, a casual boyfriend, a girlfriend, or someone in a longer-term relationship. As developments take place, we may well find that we need to find new etiquette and new manners to enable us, in our changing civil society, to describe others in a form that makes people comfortable. I invite hon. Members to try to think of an appropriate word. As a prize, I offer a bottle of pink champagne. [Laughter.]

Mr. Leigh: I disagree with my hon. Friend. He supports the creation of an institution that is formalised in a register office, has all the attributes of marriage and can be terminated only by a form of divorce. Marriage does not need to be a Christian contract; it can be carried out in a register office, just like the proposed partnerships. Why will he not simply be honest and say that what we are creating is a form of gay marriage? He is entitled to that view, and he should be honest about it.

Mr. Duncan: The honesty emerges from a clear difference in respect for religious institutions. If we were forcing partnerships on a Church or religious institution, my hon. Friend would have a valid argument that they would conflict with what is now regarded primarily as a religious or religiously blessed institution. It is up to Churches, not up to Parliament, to decide what happens in future, but the clear distinction between a civil secular partnership and the institution of marriage will, in my view, be preserved. If my hon. Friend does not agree, he can vote against the Bill.

Chris Bryant : The hon. Gentleman is making a very good speech. In fact, the Bill prohibits Churches from taking such a step, despite the fact that many lesbian and gay Christians and ministers might want to do so.

Mr. Duncan: It is up to the Church. Yes, the Bill prohibits any sort of ceremony for the purpose of these partnerships in a religious institution. By the way, the Bill is flawed in that respect: it refers to any religious institution "so designed", but on Charing Cross road there is a gay club in an old church—a building designed as a religious institution. That might have to be dealt with in Committee. However, I repeat that it is for the Church to decide. That reinforces the point that I made in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough: the Bill establishes a clear distinction between secular civil partnership and the existing institution of marriage.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): I am following my hon. Friend's argument about parallel lines with great interest. If one accepts that that argument is correct, does it not follow that heterosexual couples who do not want to marry might feel that the terms of the Bill unreasonably exclude them from entering into a civil partnership?

Mr. Duncan: The answer is clearly no, because such couples have the option of marriage, in either a church
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or a register office, and under the law as it stands they can use other legal means to register their interdependency, so to apply civil partnerships to such couples would undermine marriage. That is why such a provision should not be made in the Bill.

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