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Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): I welcome this groundbreaking Bill, which has been introduced by a Labour Government, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), who had a great deal to do with its early stages. Although she was unable to be around for its production, she has every right to very proud of the work that she put in.
This is a complex and comprehensive Billexhaustive, even, as I thought when I looked at some of its details the other nightand it has been three years in the preparation. It covers all the bases in terms of giving, as closely as possible, with the proviso of a few little kinks that I shall mention, equality of legal recognition to same-sex partners, who until now have not had their partnerships, however long-standing or loving, recognised in law at all. It is a time of celebration for many of us and of considerable personal interest for some of us.
For many years, same-sex couples have had to live not only with bigotry and ignorance, but with being legally invisible. We have heard some moving comments about the awful situations that that has created for them in times of great personal hardship. It is a great moment for celebration that the Governmentand at least some Conservative Members, notably those on the Front Benchrealise that now is the time to put that injustice right and to grant legal recognition to same-sex partnerships. That gives them rights and responsibilities in terms of expressing their own partnerships with each other and having those partnerships recognised in law over a range of issues, including equitable treatment for life assurance; almost equal pension benefits, with, I hope, even more movement during the passage of the Bill; next of kin rights; rights to death registration; intestacy recognition; and gains in respect of recognising partnerships for capital gains tax and inheritance tax purposes. Those measures will avoid distressing tales of the kind that we have heard during the long consultation period and the response from many members of our society to the Government's comprehensive and long-awaited proposals.
As is only right in these circumstances, there should be responsibilities toofor example, a duty to provide maintenance for a partner in a civil partnership and any children who happen to be involved in the family.
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Today we are celebrating the validity of same-sex partnerships. If the Bill becomes law, as I hope that it will at the end of this Session, and is enacted about a year from now, people will finally be able to celebrate their partnerships in that way.
The Bill does not represent an unusual obsession of the Labour Governmentit is in the mainstream of change that is taking place world wide. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) mentioned some of the international comparisons in his excellent speech. In western Europe alone, 13 other countriesDenmark, Norway, Sweden, Spain, Iceland, France, Germany, Portugal, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Finland, Belgium and Luxembourghave already introduced forms of registered partnerships or have such proposals in the pipeline. Areas of the world with similar plans include Hungary, Croatia, Canada, various states of the USA, and parts of Australia. New Zealand will consider a civil union Bill later this year. The Bill is in the mainstream of legal reform throughout advanced societies.
We have seen today a welcome change in the attitude of Conservative Front Benchers. However, there is still a Janus-faced side to the Conservatives that perhaps explains the free vote. They have a schizophrenic attitude; one need only read the debates in the House of Lords to understand how that manifests itself. I wish Conservative Members who are fighting the good fight well and hope that they continue to make progress. Some of the comments that were made in the House of Lords give some measure of the distance still to go in order to persuade Conservative Back Benchers that they should share the welcome views expressed by their Front-Bench colleagues. Baroness O'Cathain said that the Bill creates
"a parody of marriage for homosexuals".[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 May 2004; Vol. 661, c. GC54.]
That echoes the awful and hurtful phrase, "pretend family relationships", which so damaged many same-sex couples during the era of section 28. Many Conservatives in the Lords are associated with the spoiling and wrecking amendments that have effectively torpedoed the Bill unless we can reverse them.
A great deal of work is required to persuade some Conservative Members that they should show respect to people who may not be of an orientation of which they approve but nevertheless have the same human rights as they have. I hope that the time of oozing hostility and distaste is passing, but there is still a fight to be had, and I wish those on the right side of the Conservative party well.
The extraordinary thing about the Bill's passage through the House of Lords was that it was used as an opportunity to drive a coach and horses through inheritance tax. It was used to argue that liabilities to inheritance tax or property rights somehow ought to be minimised through the Bill. The amendments that were passed, which, thankfully, the Conservative Front Bench will oppose, and which, I hope, will be overturned today, would cost £2.8 billion annually in forgone tax
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liabilities. I cannot think of anything less respectful than trying to turn something so important into a tax loophole.
Angela Eagle: Official Government figures suggest that the amount is £2.8 billion, as the hon. Gentleman will see if he reads the House of Lords debates, as those figures were used by the Minister in the other place. That is quite a lot of money, and it is annual.
Mr. Howarth: The fact is that inheritance tax raises £2.6 billion a year in total. The hon. Lady cannot seriously suggest that the changes proposed by my noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain would result in an even greater forgoing of tax by the Treasury than the total amount currently claimed by inheritance tax.
Angela Eagle: No, but inheritance tax is only part of the tax loopholes created by the vote to incorporate new clause 2 and schedule 1 in the Bill. The figure represents the cost of the whole effect of the provisions that we are considering. Although the hon. Gentleman is obsessed with inheritance tax, other loopholes are created by what the Lords did to the Bill.
We have all been brought up to respect the level of debate in the Lords, assisted by all the extremely expert people whom we are told are always in there. But this debate, I believe, is one of the most shameful that have been held in the House of Lords. It has had a ridiculous effect on the Bill. I shall quote a few of the people whom it purports to help. The Solicitors Family Law Association called the amendments an "unworkable mess" and an "absurdity". Lord Alli saidrightly, I thinkthat they were
"spoiling amendments designed to make the Bill unworkable."
"We do not believe that people who care for their elderly parents would want to be in a situation where they would be prevented from marrying . . . and be jointly assessed for welfare benefits with their parents".
"The changes would have a devastating impact on the income of the carer and the person for whom they care."
"it is inappropriate simply to include them"
"within the categories of those who can register a civil partnership. Registration will not solve their problems and may even worsen their position."
Many who have spoken in the debate so far have referred to the absurd effects of the amendments. I will give another example: a daughter entering into a civil partnership with her elderly mother to avoid inheritance tax would be effectively married to her own mother, and if she met a man whom she wished to marry, she would have to go to law to prove that her relationship with her mother had irretrievably broken down. She might also be legally liable to support her mother financially in any subsequent settlement. Clearly, that is ridiculous and
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inappropriate, and I am a glad that Front Benchers of all the major parties have said that they will be in the Lobby to expunge those amendments from the Bill.
Miss Widdecombe: The hon. Lady has just used an interesting term. She said that if a daughter and mother entered into a civil partnership, the daughter would be married to the mother. Therefore, she is saying that the Bill is about homosexual marriage. It is about one person in a civil partnership being married to the other.
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