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Mr. Alan Duncan: The fundamental premise being put forward by my right hon. Friend is that she wants to defend and protect traditional heterosexual marriage, and I think that all hon. Members agree with that. However, does she accept that homosexual love exists, as do permanent long-term homosexual relationships? Those relationships are of considerable value, even though they may be different. People who are gay are never going to enter into a heterosexual marriage, but does my right hon. Friend accept that their wish to be recognised as partners in no way competes with or undermines the heterosexual marriage that she wants to defend?

Miss Widdecombe: No, I do not accept that. I am usually in agreement with my hon. Friend, but perhaps not on this occasion. He says that homosexual love exists, and of course it does. As I said earlier—and I think that most Conservative Members will agree—it is inappropriate for Government to intervene in people's exercise of choice. People who want to enter such relationships should be able to do so because, after all, Almighty God gave us all free will. My question is whether we should deal with some of the anomalies that exist in homosexual relationships, and other caring arrangements, by means of a Bill on civil partnerships which, of necessity, precludes any arrangements other than homosexual partnerships. Alternatively, should we not look at each case individually and then decide whether to extend some of the provisions to certain groups in certain specified circumstances?

What is proposed, however, would restrict to one group only the rectification of the unkindnesses and injustices that I have mentioned. That would be achieved not by addressing the individual laws involved but by creating a register that exactly resembles the marriage register and by making the divorce provisions exactly the same as those that apply to civil marriage. As a result, the proposals would extend to another group a property that has always been unique to marriage.

There will be two views in this House about whether that is desirable, but we should have the basic honesty today to acknowledge what it is that we are doing. If we pass this Bill, we will send out of this House the message, which will be translated into law, that marriage is no longer unique. I want to keep it unique, but other hon. Members may not.

Mr. Carmichael rose—

Angela Eagle rose—

Miss Widdecombe: I hope that the hon. Gentleman and hon. Lady will forgive me, but I am under some time pressure—[Hon. Members: "There is no time limit on speeches."] The pressure does not arise from any time limit, as I am about to explain.

If we want to keep marriage unique we should vote against this Bill. That is not to say that I do not recognise that the law contains certain unkindnesses that could and should be addressed in other ways. However, when
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we address them we should not restrict our efforts to one group, and certainly no effort in that regard should take the form of this Bill.

Madam Deputy Speaker, may I apologise to the House for the fact that I will not be present for the wind-up speeches? In case anybody accuses me of wimping out, I sincerely hoped that I would be able to get back for the vote but I have an urgent and completely unavoidable engagement which, owing to circumstances beyond my control, is now imminent. I apologise for that: when I asked to speak in the debate, it was certainly not my intention to miss the vote. However, I wanted to be able to make a clear statement of the fact that I believe in the uniqueness of marriage. I am prepared to address injustices, but not through aping marriage.

3.49 pm

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East) (Lab): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate on this groundbreaking Bill. The Bill represents the partial completion of more than three years' work, because almost three years ago I was proud to move the Relationships (Civil Registration) Bill under the ten-minute rule. My Bill sought to allow all couples living together to register their relationship, but this Bill addresses the issue of same-sex couples. That is why I describe it as a partial completion. I will not rehearse the arguments about that now—others will do and have done so ably. However, I welcome wholeheartedly this Bill as a major step forward for the rights and responsibilities of an important section of our community.

It has been said that all people deserve to be treated with respect. That is right and that is what the Bill is about. As an aside, I may say how pleased I am to see gay and lesbian people as part of the mainstream of our society and no longer having to skulk, as they did 30 or 40 years ago, in little establishments that the rest of us were not even supposed to think about. I draw the House's attention to the first ever Pride festival in Reading last month. It was a delightful occasion and I invite all hon. Members to join us in future years.

When I introduced my Bill I received much support from Thames Valley police and, in particular, from WPC Alison Brown, who has been in a stable relationship for more than a decade and, like all Thames Valley police officers, pays 11 per cent. of her salary into her pension scheme. However, should she die, her partner would receive nothing. Alison has led a campaign for a change in the police pension scheme. In that respect, I am pleased to hear from Ministers today that the whole pensions issue will be reconsidered. I appreciate that the issue is complex and may be costly, but sometimes its costliness can be exaggerated. It should not be forgotten that gay and lesbian couples are not treated as households for the purpose of benefit entitlement. When I introduced my Bill I had letters from several people in same-sex partnerships who said that they were claiming benefit because they could. Their partners could afford all the household expenses, but my correspondents claimed housing benefit because they could. That is wrong. Benefits should be paid because they are needed, not because someone can claim them. That is the sort of anomaly that should disappear when the Bill becomes law, as I fervently hope it will.
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Can we learn from the rest of the world? Many countries in Europe and the developed world have partnership registration legislation and schemes, and other hon. Members have ably described them. Some countries have gone even further and allowed same-sex couples to marry. That has been a matter for some debate, especially in the United States, but also in Europe. Almost all our near neighbours have introduced some changes to allow same-sex couples some rights and, of course, some responsibilities and, as Chicken-licken might have said, the sky has not fallen in.

I was pleased that following the introduction of my Bill in 2001 much work was done in government. I was pleased to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) about some of that work and the commitment to addressing the issue shown by officials and Ministers. As I have said, lesbian and gay partners are at present treated more generously under social security provision than others. A system of civil registration would allow same-sex couples to be treated in the same way as other couples. If people are not working, for whatever reason, the benefits they receive should not be affected by whether they are gay or lesbian, or heterosexual.

I was grateful, too, for the help and support that I received from Stonewall when I was preparing my Bill. At the time, I was contacted by a couple in my constituency—Ed and Tony—who have been in a stable relationship for many years. Ed was some years older than Tony, so he was concerned about what would happen if he died first. I am grateful for the heartfelt support that I received from Ed and Tony and for the support that I know they give this Bill. They are not alone. I have been contacted by a number of people who told me about their circumstances.

John has been in a relationship for seven years and is buying a car with his partner. That is a normal thing to do—couples do that all the time. The model comes with a year's free insurance but, under the scheme, it applies only to what are described as "normal" couples, so John and his partner must decide which of them can be insured for free—the other will have to pay.

Dick and Ben are in their 70s and have been together for 50 years. Of course, they have endured the general prejudice against the gay community—if we can use that word—as well as some of the injustices and, as the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) said, unkindnesses that the Bill sets out to correct. I was interested that the right hon. Lady used that word; it is one that should be used in the House.

Dick and Ben jointly own their home and most of their other assets, but in the high-cost area that they, and I, inhabit they will face massive inheritance tax, which is likely to make it impossible for the survivor to remain in their home. I understand that, at present, inheritance tax is a shibboleth of the Conservative party and this is not the place to explore the complex issues surrounding it.

I received a letter from Mark in support of the Bill. He said:

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Those real life examples provide evidence that the change we want to make is so right and that the wrecking attempts in the other place are so wrong. I am proud to have played a part in getting the Bill to this point and I look forward to it becoming law.

3.57 pm

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