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Miss Widdecombe: I, too, have been following my hon. Friend's parallel lines with great interest. Citing the religiosity of the institution, he makes a distinction between marriage and the proposed partnerships, but what is the distinction under the Bill between a civil marriage carried out in a register office and a civil partnership? Will he admit that there is none?
Mr. Duncan: No. I admit that there is not a massive difference, except in terms of the ceremony itself: in marriage, the verbal vow is the contract, whereas in a civil partnership it is the written signature. In that sense, there is a legal distinction. Although I want to stick religiouslyif I can put it that wayto the geometry of my parallel lines, I acknowledge that they appear to get ever so slightly closer together in that respect.
David Cairns: The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. Earlier, he read out a long list of countries that have civil partnerships, some of which have had them for years. Has his research revealed any shred of evidence that the existence of partnerships has in any way undermined heterosexual marriage?
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) (UUP): The hon. Gentleman said that consanguinity is applicable in civil partnerships as it is in marriage. Why, when the partnerships signify a secular relationship but the degree of prohibition comes from religious teaching?
Mr. Duncan: Because the proposed partnerships are a recognition of loving couples in stable relationships, not an endorsement of incestsomething that I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not want to see in any legislation. I shall address those points when I discuss the amendments made in another place.
Concern is frequently expressed that civil partnerships will undermine the family. Let us consider those arguments. Today's families come in many shapes and sizes and people face many challenges. Marriages break up, parents remarry and the structure of the family changes. Many families no longer fit perfectly into the traditional two-parents-and-2.4-children framework, but are extended families in which there has been remarriage and same-sex relationships. The latter are increasingly acknowledged and accepted, even by grandparents, who 25 years ago would have found such relationships abhorrent. No one suggests that the absence of traditional arrangements within those new family units has led to the absence of bonds of loyalty, commitment and support that hold families together. Despite the difficulties of modern life, those values have shown a reassuring durability.
Mr. Gerald Howarth:
I must challenge my hon. Friend on that point. All the Office for National Statistics
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surveys illustrate that children brought up in a married household do better than those brought up in a cohabiting household, let alone in a homosexual household. The question that my hon. Friend has to answerI am sure that he will do so elegantly, if not persuasivelyis, is he not setting up yet another alternative lifestyle, which young people will consider equally valid, and will not the nuclear family be destroyed?
Mr. Duncan: What the Bill does is recognise what already is, and it tries to introduce a measure of permanence and stability into those relationships. I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend that a mother and a father together in a happy marriage are the best forum in which to bring up children, but I disagree with his suggestion that the Bill undermines that in any way. I do not think that it does.
Pete Wishart: I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman's speech. May I contrast it with some of the clarion calls from Conservative Back Benchers, which confirm the view that theirs is very much the nasty party? What does he say in response to the illiberal and intolerant attitude that has been demonstrated by some of his hon. Friends?
Mr. Duncan: I say simply that the hon. Gentleman is wrong. We should dignify the House by accepting one another's differences in a proper way that puts arguments in an honest and direct context, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) does on so many issues, many of which I do not find myself in agreement with. There we are. Difference in the House, as a form of democracy, should be respected.
Let me follow on from what has been said. The fact that the bonds of relationships have endured is due in no small measure to the way in which our predecessors in the House have adapted the law to allow it to keep pace with social change. We have seen reforms of property rights, tax arrangements, divorce law and child care, which have all played their part. We have always accepted that ordered change is the best way to conserve those things that we value. The issues of child care and work-life balance are a growing item on the political agenda and are becoming increasingly important.
Measures such as those before us today are a way of protecting the family in changed times, not of damaging it. As I have said, gay couples are a fact of life. Rather than ignoring their existence, perhaps the House can now take a positive stance on their position in society.
I am sure that the issue of child care, which often causes strong feelings, will arise during the debate. It will be argued, rightly, that the best environment for bringing up a child is with two loving, married parents. However, that is not always possible, for a host of reasons, and children are now raised in many different circumstances. What is most important is that love is given to the child and that there is stability in his or her home life.
We had these debates at length two years ago during the passage of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which legalised joint adoption by gay couples. I openly admitthe Minister was the judge of thisthat even I
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was not entirely comfortable with the concept for a number of reasons. I was largely undecided. I had some qualms about whether it was the right way in which to proceed, but we passed the legislation. In many ways, that was a far more emotive issue than the one that we are discussing today. Having passed such measures into law, it makes even more sense now to approve civil partnerships. If we are concerned that children should be brought up by a stable, loving couple, these measures, when seen in conjunction with gay adoption, make a positive contribution to the family, rather than detract from it.
There is much in the Bill that I believe can be seen as deriving from the values in which Conservatives believe. It promotes responsibility and removes the intrusive hand of the state from people's personal relationships. As a whole, the Conservative party has always been welcoming of people from different backgrounds, and does not pigeonhole people from different backgrounds. It does not pigeonhole people into restrictive categories. I may be the first openly gay Conservative Member, but history will show that gay men and women have played leading roles in our party for many years, and I am pleased to say that many are among our candidates in winnable seats at the next election. So I do not accept that the Bill is in some way incompatible with conservatism. I personally welcome the measure, but it is up to my right hon. and hon. Friends to decide how they wish to vote.
I shall deal with the concerns that exist over the consideration of the Bill in another place and the amendments that were passed there. I begin from the basis that although the issues of discrimination and unfairness which the original Bill was aimed at tackling are, in my view, the most widespreadin many ways they are damaging and perniciousthey are sadly not the only ones that exist. Other groups are still disadvantaged, and the Bill as introduced does not, or did not, assist them.
It is profoundly unfair that carers and siblings who cohabit are disadvantaged on the death of one or other of them by being forced out of their home by their tenancy terms or by the burden of inheritance tax. So it was right for these issues to be raised in debate, and in doing so the plight of those who are disadvantaged in this way has been drawn to a wider audience. That is one of the purposes of our parliamentary system of scrutiny, and I am glad that the efforts and effective advocacy of colleagues in another place resulted in the Government promisingthey did so, and I remind the Minister of thisto take further action to address these issues.
"I shall certainly undertake . . . to give the House the more mature reflection of the Government in relation to how to respond to that issue".
"these issues have percolated to the top of the discussions on a number of occasions. They are issues with which the Government have grappled and they will wish to continue to do so."[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 May 2004; Vol. 661, c. GC31.]
As they have now had since May to grapple and to percolate, I look to the Government, as I think all Opposition Members do, to fulfil that undertaking. I
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seek a clear guarantee from the Minister of State of the Government's firm intent to bring forward measures to address these issues at an early opportunity.
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