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Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP):
At the beginning of the debate, the Minister agreed with me when I said that 86 per cent. of the people in Northern Ireland who responded opposed what is planned with this Bill. I shall direct my remarks to Northern Ireland, as this Bill will apply there.
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Any part of the UK that is affected by legislation coming from this House should be given fair play. However, this Bill was printed on 30 March, only 25 days after the end of the consultation process. The wording of its provisions in respect of Northern Ireland were very incomplete and shabby. Then, the Government did an amazing thing on 11 May. They attempted to fix all the provisions that they had got wrong in the original Bill by tabling 52 new clauses and six new schedules. Those 120 pages of amendments must be a record for such an important Bill.
The day after the amendments were published, the Bill went before the House of Lords. All the amendments were passed with virtually no scrutiny. So the final say, as far as Northern Ireland was concerned, was without consultation, because the amendments were tabled after the original Bill was published.
The census of 2001 found only 288 same-sex couple households in the whole of Northern Ireland. The Government say that only 5 per cent. of same-sex couples will commit to civil partnerships. Well, 5 per cent. of 288 is 14, so 14 couples in Northern Ireland will have the opportunity provided by the Bill, even though a majority of people who have a view on the matter across the political and religious divide oppose it. Their voices were not heard or taken into account. The basis of family law in Northern Ireland is to be changed for the sake of 14 homosexual couples.
More than 80 per cent. of the adult population in Northern Ireland are married or single, never having been married. The divorce rate in Northern Ireland is much lower than in England and Wales. The Government say that the Bill will remedy hardships in Northern Ireland. According to the census, there are 330 times more house sharers in Northern Ireland than people living as homosexual couples. However, those house sharers will not have their burdens eased or lifted by the Bill. The Government should come clean and tell us when they will legislate so that everybody who takes on responsibilities in their homes will be treated the same legally. It is essential that we have a response to that from the Government tonight.
My views on this matter are clear. I believe in the divine sanctity of marriage. I believe that marriage is a solemn and holy thing. A country that does not uphold the institution of marriage strikes at its own heart. The home is the building block of society. If we do not have good, moral and righteous homes, the nation will suffer. We must realise that.
Many comments have been passed today. We have been told that some of us have not grown up yet. Well, I grew too much because I had a lot of orange juice when I was a baby. It does not matter whether we are told that we have not grown up or are medieval; we have convictions and we are entitled to hold them as strongly as we can. When it comes to legislating for Northern Ireland, I trust that the Government will treat us in the same way as they treat the rest of the United Kingdom. If a Scottish Member got up and revealed the same record on a Bill as I have just done, there would be some row. The same applies to any English or Welsh Member. Why is Northern Ireland treated in this shoddy way on an important issue on which its people have expressed a definite opinion? I trust that that will not be repeated.
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Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I am delighted to be able to follow that speech, although perhaps we shall now have to refer to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) as the orange juice man. I have to tell him that I suspect that there are rather more than 288 homosexual couples living together in Northern Ireland. I suspect that they are very reluctant to admit to the fact, owing to some of the bigotry that they have had to face in Northern Ireland over the years.
I am also glad to have the opportunity to speak in the debate as I have probably married more people than anybody else in the Chamber, because I spent six years in the Church and performed weddings on most Saturdays. I congratulate the Government not only on the Bill as I hope it will end up, nor only on the Bill as they presented it in the House of Lords, but just as important, on the steady process whereby they have tried to achieve consensus on legislation to right wrongs that have existed for years and for centuries.
We have heard some excellent speeches this afternoon. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) is not in his seat, but many of us agree with Members who have already said that his was one of the finest speeches we have heard on the subject. Many people who have campaigned on the issue for many long years, in the Chamber and in the wider community, have already spoken: my hon. Friends the Members for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) and for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), who advanced the measure when she held ministerial office.
It has been good to have some converts over the years. The Lord rejoiceth in the one who changes more than the 99 who were with us in the first place, so it is good to have the hon. Members for Salisbury (Mr. Key) and for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) on our side.
There has been only one particularly difficult notethe one struck by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope). I think in the final words of his speech he was deliberately offensive not only to those who support the Bill but, more important, to those in the country who feel that their rights will be established by it. It is a shame that the Tory party is still somewhat AC/DC on the issue, but I hope that we shall see further change in the direction that the hon. Member for Buckingham urged on his party earlier.
Mr. Bercow: The points that the hon. Gentleman makes are fair. I readily acknowledge that I am very late to the issue. All that I ask him to recognise is that after discovering the error of my earlier ways, I have spent the last four and a half years on the course of discovery of the merits of sexual equality.
I am more than happy to put it on the record that the hon. Gentleman has been one of the most assiduous campaigners on the issue since I entered this place, and for some considerable time before. After confession there is always a period of penance, and I fear that the hon. Gentleman is still at that stage.
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The Bill, when it has been changed back to its original form, will be about loving, same-sex couples, who want to make a commitment to one another and who accept not only the rights that civil partnership will give them, but its responsibilities. I know that each of the three parts of that sentence is difficult for some of the people who oppose the Bill. Some people believe that because love is ordained by God, it is impossible for same-sex couples to love one another. I defy them to meet some of the people I know, who have lived together for many years, in sickness and in health, and have provided one another, and sometimes children in their care, with the kind of love and support from which many other families could learn much. If they still said that same-sex couples could not love one another, they would be blind in their hearts.
There are also people who believe that same-sex couples who love one another cannot make a commitment to one another. That is a vital point; it is made by those who believe that the Bill will, somehow or other, undermine marriage. I simply do not see that point. I do not see how giving rights to one set of people would undermine the rights of others. Indeed, I have always believed as a Christian that the whole point of love is that it should be based on commitment. The Bill allows people to make a public statement of commitment to one another and stand by it. That must be something that not only those who have a liberal attitude to life but every Christian in the land can support.
The third part of the sentence that some people will find difficult to accept is that loving same-sex couples who want to make a commitment to one another will be prepared to accept rights and responsibilities. Let us face it, there will be same-sex couples who have lived together for many years but do not want to form civil partnerships because they bring with them a set of responsibilities. There will be those who will be troubled by the fact that they will lose some financial benefits; that they will not be able to claim all the benefits to which they have up to now been entitled as two individuals; that they will be treated as a couple. I suspect that they, just like those who intend to be married according to the rites of the Church of England, will not enter into civil partnerships lightly but after sober reflection. That is another strong point in favour of the Bill.
Of course there will be people who will think, "I may be in a relationship, but I can call time on it at the flick of a switch. If I enter into a civil partnership, we will have to follow a legal process in order to separate." Of course that will create further responsibilities for those who enter civil partnerships.
The Bill is also about rectifying a series of injustices. Many hon. Members have referred to the fact that partners who have been together for many years and looked after each other at home in sickness and in health find that when one partner goes into hospital they suddenly lose the right to have any say over what medical support is provided.
When I was curate in High Wycombe, I used to visit patients in the local hospital. It was not uncommon to meet people who had been prevented by the parents of their partner even from visiting the person whom they
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loved and had lived with for many years. This was at the time when HIV/AIDS was new and many people did not have much understanding of it. Many parents blamed the illness on their son's partner. I am glad to say that the world has moved on for many families, but still that injustice exists.
The injustice is compounded if there is a death. The bereaved partner is often excluded from the funeral arrangements. I have conducted countless funerals that the partner was not even allowed to attend, and many at which the partner was forced to sit right at the back and not take part, and no mention was made of the relationship. Sometimes the bereaved partners had to have separate ceremonies because the families took precedence over the partner. That was caused by bigotry in many cases, and it led to injustice that was allowed by the law.
As other hon. Members have mentioned, many bereaved partners are made homeless. They may be unable to inherit their own home without penalty, but that applies to only 5 per cent. of estates. Many find that they cannot carry on the tenancy that was in their partner's name. Similarly, survivors have had no rights to a partner's pension. That has been a significant issue for many lesbian couples. Two women living together may have child care responsibilities. One of them may not work throughout her economically active life and reach retirement age without having acquired any pensionable service of her own. Bearing in mind the fact that many women are paid considerably less than men, the issue of poverty and rectifying injustice is important. Similarly, same-sex couples are treated differently in law from married couples when it comes to providing evidence in court. We should right that injustice because it puts another strain on relationships that is not there for married couples.
Domestic violence laws apply differently to same-sex and married couples. That is another injustice that we should put right in the Bill. There was a time when it was presumed that, somehow or other, a same-sex couple could not have been violent to each other; but of course, that is a major issue, not only between two men, but between two women. We should ensure that that injustice is put right.
I want to say a few words about the Lords amendmentsan issue which has been rehearsed at some length already this afternoon. I noted that, in the House of Lords, one of the obsessions of some Tory Members was with inheritance tax. I confessthis is one of the few partisan points that I will makethat having watched a lot of the Tory party conference last week, I was bewildered at how obsessed the Tory party is with inheritance. I am not sure whether that is because they all form part of the 5 per cent. whose estates might fall liable to inheritance tax, or because they are worried about dying off, given that they are so elderly. Either way, the inheritance tax issue is one of the largest red herringsin fact, it is a red cod or a red tuna fishin the
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middle of the Bill. I refer to how those amendments relate not to same-sex couples, but to carers, and to the speech by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton.
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