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Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD):
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), who did a great deal while she was in government to promote and pursue this agenda. I agree with her remarks about the need for equality of access to goods and services, although she may accept, as I understood her to do on the "Today" programme this morning, that this Bill is not the
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appropriate place for that. I wish to place on record my admiration for the manner in which both the Minister and the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) conducted themselves. They both made comprehensive and compelling contributions. In particular, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton made what I consider to be the best speech that I have heard from the Conservative Front Bench since I entered Parliament. Before hon. Members rush to accuse me of damning him with faint praise, I assure him that my comments are sincerely and warmly intended as a compliment.
The Liberal Democrats are pleased to give the Bill a warm and unequivocal welcome. We see it as an opportunity to offer the same rights and opportunities to people in same-sex relationships as are currently offered to people in civil marriages of mixed sex. It is an opportunity to offer fair and equal treatment to all in our society today, regardless of their sexual orientation. For us, the question on this Bill is not so much how we can support it as how we could not do so.
As the first Scot to contribute, I wish to say that I thought that the intervention of the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) was remarkable. I was astonished to hear a member of the Scottish National party talk down the Scottish Parliament as he did. Indeed, he should be awareI am astonished that he does not seem to be aware of thisthat the Justice 2 Committee of the Scottish Parliament discussed the Bill at length and produced an excellent report. Many of the concerns were taken on board by the Scottish Executive, which responded positively, and were well on their way to being included in the Bill as amendments in another place before Baroness O'Cathain did her work. I am confident that we shall see them back in Committee.
Pete Wishart: I am staggered by what I understand the hon. Gentleman to be saying. I intervened earlier to say that the Scottish Parliament is fully competent to deal with this issue. It could have dealt with the specific points in Scots law that arise. It chose not to do so because of the fear of controversy; it was like passing the buck back down to Westminster. The Scottish Parliament could have dealt with the matter and it should have done so, and the legislation would have been better as a result.
Mr. Carmichael: Time will tell just how good or ill the legislation is. The hon. Gentleman ignores the fact that the Scottish Parliament has already considered the provisions in detail, so it is not a question of running scared. Whether he likes it or not, he must recognise that there is a clear confluence of interest on many aspects of the Bill that have UK-wide application and involve Scotland. For him to suggest that the matter is better undertaken with a piecemeal approach is verging on the absurd. [Interruption.] Does he wish to intervene again, or is he happy to chunter away from a sedentary position?
The Minister and the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton cited a number of examplesI am sure that many others will deal with such casesin which, after the death of a partner in a same-sex relationship, the surviving partner is frozen out of everything from the
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funeral arrangements to the disposal of the family home and other items of the deceased's estate. The treatment of the survivor in a range of other ways is discriminatory and wrong and the Bill provides the tool for ending that discrimination.
The Minister referred to the progress of legislation on equality that started with Roy Jenkins in the 1960s. She will also recognise that this Bill in particular is the result of a process that started two years ago with the private Member's Bill introduced in the other place by my noble and learned Friend Lord Lester. I wish to place on record my admiration and appreciation of the work that he has done to get this issue on to the political agenda. It is also to the credit of the Government, whom I have not been slow to criticise on occasion for being timid in tackling difficult and challenging political issues, that they are seeing this work to a conclusion. It would be churlishI try not to be churlish, Madam Deputy Speakernot to recognise the courage that the Minister and the Government have displayed.
The Liberal Democrats are, however, not uncritical of the Bill as it stands. The provisions that seek to create categories of civil partners other than same-sex couples, worthy though they may be, do not belong in this Bill, and they should be removed. When the Government table amendments in Committee to remove those provisions, the Minister will have the support of its Liberal Democrat members. On that issue, we are at one with the Government.
Notwithstanding the Minister's warm words, I fear that we will not achieve a similar consensus on the Bill's provisions on pension entitlement for surviving partners. It makes no sense to undertake an exercise such as this Bill to remedy injustice, unfairness and unequal treatment, only to enshrine injustice, unfairness and unequal treatment in the new law. The Bill will allow same-sex partners to accrue survivor's pensions in public sector schemes from the date of its enactment, which will probably be some time next year.
Chris Bryant: I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman's direction, but his last remark is entirely inaccurate because the Bill does not say anything of the sort. The Bill allows the Government to do what they want on pension provision for surviving partners, and given what we have heard this afternoon, I hope that the Government move in that direction. However, he is wrong to say that the Bill prevents the Government from providing pensions for surviving partners on the basis of parity with spouses.
Mr. Carmichael: If we examine the outcomes, they amount to much the same thing, and the hon. Gentleman is harsh in saying that I am wholly inaccurate. The matter may require further textual analysis, in which I will be happy to indulge in Committee. Given what the Minister said today and what Ministers said in the other place, however, my point is that the Government intend not to afford survivors of civil partnerships equal treatment on pensions.
I welcome that reply. I hope that I have not become cynical after three and a half years in
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this place, but I have seen other Ministers get through Second Reading debates in which a tricky issue is causing disquiet among Government Back Benchers by promising carefully to re-examine the matter. I am delighted that the Minister is prepared to look again, but I would be even more delighted if the Government made a concrete improvement to their position, and I hope that the reconsideration is not just a measure to get the Minister through today's debate.
To allow even limited retrospection to 1988, the date when the equivalent provision was introduced for mixed-sex couples, would represent true equality of provision, and we shall introduce amendments to achieve that in Committee. That process will involve the insertion of a new clause, so the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) may have a point.
Quite apart from the inherent inequality of the Government's current position, surely it is wrong to penalise people who have done what the Government are always encouraging them to do by saving for their retirements. So why do the Government continue to resist? The argument is twofold and concerns cost and an aversion to retrospective provisions. Turning to the latter point first, I accept that it is undesirable to make retrospective provision in such matters, but it is not written in tablets of stone that it should not be done. If the choice is between retrospection and discrimination, surely retrospection should win the day.
The matter is not without precedent. In 1994, the Conservative Government changed the rules to allow female part-time workers who had been excluded from occupational pension schemes to obtain retrospective rights back to 1976, if they had paid the appropriate contributions. As far as parties to a civil partnership are concerned, the contributions will already have been paid, so we seek not an improvement in their position, but merely the removal of discrimination. In that case, employers bore the cost, whereas public sector pensions entail a cost to the Treasury.
What will the actual cost be? The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton referred to that point, and Stonewall has received actuarial advice that the cost would be between £6 million and £12 million per year over 15 years depending on the take-up of civil partnership or, to put it another way, between 0.01 and 0.02 per cent. of the pensionable payroll. Indeed, the Treasury might make a net saving, because parties to a civil partnership are entitled to equal treatment in relation to benefits and tax credits, which could amount to some £60 million per annum if the Government's position remains unchanged.
The question of survivor pension rights is the only substantive point of difference between the Government and Liberal Democrat Members, but it will not go away. Even if the Government refuse to concede the point here, they may be forced to concede it if the Bill is challenged in the courts. The Government will be aware of the decision in the House of Lords on the Godin-Mendoza case on 21 June this year. When the Minister replies, will she explain how the Government's position may be reconciled with the decision in that case? There is an old saying that for a ha'p'orth of tar the ship was lost; how much good will are the Government prepared to lose before they change their mind?
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I shall expand my earlier remarks on the application of the Bill to mixed-sex couples and, in particular, to the much cited cases of carers and spinster sisters living out their latter years together. In principle, I have some sympathy for the arguments in both those cases, but we have gone well beyond arguing broad principle and are dealing with a Bill, and a fairly substantial Bill at that. It is apparent to anyone who bothers to read the Bill that the Government have, with some care, sought to re-enact the provisions relating to civil marriage for mixed-sex couples, warts and all. They have sought to put same-sex couples in exactly the same position as people who are married in a civil ceremony.
If one considers the Bill as being about outcomes rather than about labels, one must ask what benefit a mixed-sex couple would accrue by entering a civil partnership rather than a civil marriage. I cannot see one. Like a civil marriage, a civil partnership requires a declaration to be made before a registrar and witnesses, the same degrees of relationship are forbidden and publication of the intention to enter into the partnership remains the same as for marriage.
Should a civil partnership fail and be shown to have broken down irretrievablythe only ground for divorce in a civil marriageit can be dissolved only by a court process, which addresses all the same issues as a divorce. So what is the difference for a mixed-sex couple? The only difference would be the acquisition of inferior pension rights for a surviving spouse in certain circumstances, but as I said, we have plans on that matter. In principle, I do not object to making the Bill available to mixed-sex couples, but in practice I can see no material benefit in doing so.
Turning to the Baroness O'Cathain provisions, I sympathise with the points that she raised in the other place but, as others said there, the Bill is not the place to address them. The argument concerns people who cohabit and who have a relationship based on lovealbeit that the love that exists between siblings is very different from that which exists between partners drawn from outwith the family. The law has always treated such relationships differently for strong social, genetic and scientific reasons, and to abandon that approach in this Bill would be dangerous to say the least.
In some parts of my constituency, a higher than average number of peopleeither siblings living together or a child caring for an elderly parentlive in that way. In my experience, those people mostly manage to regulate their affairs and do not create problems for themselves or others in their family. However, I suspect that many of them would be offended by the suggestion that their relationship was in some way comparable to that of a husband and wife or a same-sex couple in a long-term relationship.
One can imagine even greater difficulties being created by the Bill as it stands. The example cited is usually that of the adult's offspring who gives up his or her job to care for an elderly parent, but what about the same person who gives up a job to care for both elderly parents? He or she would be prohibited from entering into a civil partnership until one or other of the parents dies. That surely cannot be right.
Most of the perceived inequalities could be eliminated by changes to taxation and property law, but that is not what the Bill is about. There will be another Finance Bill next year whereby such changes can be effected.
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We need to pay attention to several other aspects of the Bill, and we shall do so in Committee. There are interesting debates to be had about the use of church buildings for the conduct of ceremonies and the recognition of civil partnerships in other jurisdictions. I look forward to hearing the Minister's explanation of the Government's position regarding the recognition of same-sex marriages constituted in Massachusetts. However, those are more issues of detail than of substantial principle, and they properly belong on the Committee Corridor, not on the Floor of the House.
For today, I am satisfied that the Bill is necessary and overdue. It is about ending discrimination and promoting equality, and we should all take pride in giving it the Second Reading that my colleagues and I will support tonight.
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