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Angela Eagle: It is not for me to interpret what the Government Front-Bench team want. I was careful in my choice of phrase—I said that such people would be effectively married. Whether one believes that that is homosexual marriage, as the right hon. Lady clearly does, or that it is a parallel state, which recognises—rightly, in my view—the legal rights and responsibilities for people who live in caring same-sex relationships, is irrelevant. Clearly, it is a completely inappropriate state to expect mothers and daughters, grandfathers and grandsons and other numbers of family members or carers who may be unrelated to the people for whom they are caring to resort to, in order to avoid some of the problems that currently occur with inheritance tax or property rights. When important disadvantages are associated with that, one needs to consider changing property rights or tax law to deal with the matter, rather than opting a whole load of people, who are sometimes closely related to each other, into what is either a marital state or something parallel to a marital state. I hope that she will agree that that would be completely unhelpful and absurd.

I want to spend a little time talking about pensions for surviving partners. I very much welcome the commitment that the Government gave earlier to taking another look at the problem of unequal access to occupational pension entitlements under the Bill as drafted. We welcome the fact that it grants equal access to state pension entitlements in what is a highly complex and technical set of provisions, but as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) rightly identified, as drafted it treats same-sex couples and married heterosexual couples unequally in respect of survivors' pension benefits under occupational pension schemes. Indeed, the same point is made in the fifteenth report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I recommend that everyone read. It deals with the issue extremely cogently.

That admirable report points out what would happen under the Bill as drafted. Let us compare the situation of a married couple, one of whom dies, and a couple who entered into a civil partnership, one of whom also dies. Even if both deceased people make exactly the same contributions to exactly the same occupational pension scheme and die on exactly the same day—for example, the day after the Bill is enacted—there will be completely different outcomes for the surviving spouse and for the surviving partner of the civil partnership couple. One will get 17 years of their partner's pension contributions, but the other will get nothing. For what is a small sum—as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland explained, the Government's figure is £9 million a year for 15 years before the provision fades away—we could put right an anomaly that will discriminate purely on the ground of
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sexual orientation if the Bill is passed in its current form, even though such people have made exactly the same contributions to the same pension scheme.

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be odd if someone like me, who has been paying into a public sector pension fund for nearly 30 years, did not have the same rights as a married heterosexual man, and if they did not receive any discount in respect of the amount that they had been forced to pay throughout that period?

Angela Eagle: My hon. Friend makes in a much shorter way precisely the point that I am labouring to make. Fixing this kink in the Bill as drafted is a question of equity rather than retrospectivity. Given that the contributions to these schemes have already been made, retrospectivity does not arise. What matters is ensuring that people in a similar state—civil partners or spouses—have access to the same benefits in the same way. So arguing about retrospectivity distracts us from the real issue, which is equity.

I am delighted that the Government have recognised that this is an issue. I hope that we will get a little more information in the winding-up speech on how they intend to proceed, but I certainly welcome their open-mindedness in taking another look at this problem. I hope that, if we can fix it appropriately, we can then concentrate on dealing with the wrecking amendments introduced in the Lords, and speed the passage of this extremely overdue but welcome legislation on to the statute book.

3.38 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): I believe that this Bill is wrong. If we pass it today, we will undermine the uniqueness of marriage, which is why I will oppose it at every stage. In a moving and interesting speech, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) paid tribute to those who have worked hard to bring the Bill about. I pay tribute to those who have worked hard and fearlessly for many decades, in an increasingly secular and sardonic society, to defend the institution of marriage, to defend traditional values, and to defend families.

I believe that what we are doing today is misconceived. I challenged the Minister, who responded with nearly 100 per cent. honesty, to say whether the Bill is really about homosexual marriage. I also challenged my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), who responded with a parallel lines analogy, but had to admit, under pressure, that those lines almost converged. He said that they did not quite cross, but I believe that, when it comes to civil marriage and the Bill, they do. That is what we have to address: do we think that homosexual marriage is right?

Everyone on this side of the House would cleave to the proposition that it is wrong of the Government to interfere in the exercise of free choice. The fact is that the Government do not interfere in the exercise of the free choice of homosexual individuals to form relationships—sometimes very committed ones—or to set up domestic arrangements together, which may then
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prove to be of very considerable or permanent duration. There is nothing in our law—or, increasingly, in the attitudes of society, which have been a bigger barrier in the past—to prevent that.

Mr. Borrow: I recognise the strong reasons why the right hon. Lady will oppose the Bill on Second Reading this evening, but the Bill is made up of many parts and provisions. I would be interested to know of which specific parts of the Bill that will assist same-sex couples the right hon. Lady approves and of which parts she disapproves.

Miss Widdecombe: I am coming on to that, if the hon. Gentleman will be patient. I am currently setting out the grounds of my opposition to the Bill.

Failing to pass the Bill will not stop, put any barrier in the way of, or make it illegal for two homosexual individuals—whether they be male or female—to set up a permanent relationship. If I thought that the law prevented that from happening, my attitude would be different, but it does not. The question before us is not whether we prevent that from happening, but whether we bless such arrangements with equivalent rights that have been wholly reserved for marriage in the past. That is the question that has to be answered today.

I accept that there are some unkindnesses and "inequalities"—to use the buzzword, though I noticed that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton has a concept of both equality and costless equality, which are apparently rather different—in the way people who have set up a homosexual relationship will be treated by comparison with those who have set up in a proper married state. People whose domestic arrangements and sharing and caring responsibilities place them outside marriage will also face similar unkindnesses and problems.

I happen to agree that the Bill is not the right place or context to rectify those problems. I do not impute wrecking motives to those who voted in a certain way, because they were making a point, saying that the inequalities are not confined to homosexual couples so that if we are concerned about them in the one context, we should also be concerned in the other. The Bill is not, as I said, the place to address that matter.

Equally, the Bill is not the right way to address those problems when applied to homosexuals. The essence of the Bill is that people sign a register, as they do when they marry, which automatically confers all the rights of marriage. If there are problems, such as being dispossessed of a home because of inheritance tax or tenancy arrangements, they should be dealt with separately and they should cover not just homosexual arrangements but others as well.

Chris Bryant : To do what the right hon. Lady suggests, one would have to decide beforehand which people would be affected. Would that not mean that some kind of civil partnership would have to be set up?

Miss Widdecombe: No. As the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) pointed out just now, it would be nonsensical to have a civil partnership between a mother and a daughter. I believe that we must look again at the categories of person who are disadvantaged
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by a given provision, and then deal with problems on their merits in appropriate legislation—for example, the Finance Bill.

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