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Mr. Alan Duncan: Is it my hon. Friend's view that those who have religious objections to the Bill—the objections are primarily religious—are entitled to and should use the power of the House to impose those same religious views on people who may have no faith and who may not share those same religious views?

Mr. Howarth: My view is that this is a Christian country and that all our laws are grounded in Christian tradition. As my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) said quite fairly, there is a difference of interpretation, and as time moves on, perhaps even more so. I am afraid, however, that I take the view that this is an overwhelmingly Christian country, that our laws must be founded on the Christian faith, and that it is right that bishops should sit in the other place. I support that.

There is no doubt that the Government are on a crusade. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence said in a debate on the armed forces that some measure was part of the Government's equality agenda. They want to force a cultural change on our society. To take lightly the deeply held convictions of so many people about the nature of marriage, and to try to force them to recant, is oppressive and dictatorial.

The issue is the nature of marriage, no matter what the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality may say. She has repeated the Government line, which is shared by my hon. Friends, that civil partnerships have nothing to do with marriage. I submit that that assertion has all the credibility of the Iraq dossier. It is gay marriage in all but name. Ministers cited the case in Brighton, where what has been called a "pink wedding list" is apparently being drawn up. Weddings are ceremonies that are associated with marriage—

Mr. Bercow: So what?

Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend says from a sedentary position, "So what?", but the Government have asserted all along that civil partnerships are not gay marriage. I am sure that he fully accepts the concept of gay marriage, but the Government have said that this measure is completely different, although the Minister quoted with approval what was going on in Brighton. I shall not repeat the various clauses in the Bill that mirror exactly the provisions in relation to marriage, because we have discussed those at length.

All the newspapers call this gay marriage. I rarely quote The Guardian, but I shall at least quote what it said on 30 June 2003:
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Here in the Chamber, we must pretend that this has nothing to do with marriage in order to perpetrate a deceit on the public, but in fact, not everyone in the Labour party is on message. I gather that in March, the Labour website ran a picture of the Bill covered in confetti to illustrate the similarity to marriage.

It has been said frequently throughout the debate that the case for civil partnerships exists because the current law is unfair, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden and others have rightly drawn attention to people who found themselves in some difficulty and experienced injustice. I understand how they must feel, but as my noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain pointed out in the other place, there are other injustices as well. Her amendments were designed to draw to the public's and Parliament's attention the fact that the Bill sought to remedy one set of injustices without remedying another. It is no good certain of my hon. Friends and others who support the Bill saying, "Well, those are separate matters and we will deal with them later." These people feel that their injustice should have been dealt with. They wonder why homosexual couples should be treated favourably in this way, when the problems that they face have not been resolved.

Peers of all parties—despite the Labour party's efforts, I am told, to get their Members in the other place to vote against the amendment—took the view that if the Bill is meant to be about helping people living in co-dependent relationships, it should apply to two sisters and other family members who live together as adults for more than 12 years, as has been discussed. The noble Prelate the Bishop of Rochester said:

I suspect that it is less a case of the amendments being considered unworkable and more a case of their being unwanted. If the Government were serious about dealing with them, they would introduce proposals to ensure that the Bill was changed in such a way as to make the amendments workable.

Of course, certain of the difficulties that have been mentioned by Members from all parts of the House could be dealt with under existing law. For example, on inheriting tenancies, homosexual couples already have legal rights that other co-dependants do not. In 2003, the Court of Appeal held that two homosexuals should be treated as living together as husband and wife for the purpose of a statutory tenancy. The court gave the survivor a right to inherit his partner's flat.

I accept that genuine difficulties exist, and I should point out to the hon. Member for South Ribble that, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), I feel that there are issues that ought to be addressed. But I do not believe that this Bill is the means by which to do so. Setting up an alternative to marriage—or a parallel to it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton suggests—is not the answer.

Let us be in no doubt: we are legislating for what Baroness Scotland accepted in the other place is a tiny fraction—5 or 10 per cent.—of a small proportion of the
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population. I remind the House of an old adage that may seem harsh, but is not intended to be so: sad cases make bad law. To legislate on the basis of the cases mentioned, and to create a whole new raft of law, consisting of 383 pages—[Interruption.] I repeat: these are sad cases, involving people who are in difficulty. The expression that I use is familiar in legal circles, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin), who is a lawyer, will know.

Many of the problems in today's society arise from the dysfunctional nature of the family and the breakdown of family life. We desperately need to do all we can to support and sustain marriage. I am opposed to the Bill because it sends out a false signal, particularly to young people, that somehow a homosexual relationship is an equally valid lifestyle. We shall see all the books coming out to support schools in their personal and social education, which will encourage children to believe that. I do not share that view; it is not the right thing to do.

The Bill permits children, whom virtually all the authorities concede should be brought up in a natural household of a man and woman, to be brought up in another form of household. Finally, the Bill creates inequalities to which Parliament should not be party, so I shall oppose it.

6.20 pm

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): I should like to make two points briefly so that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) can also contribute to the debate. I intend to vote against the Bill and I shall briefly explain my two reasons for doing so.

First, the Bill is unfair. It purports to overcome inequality, but it introduces inequality where there was none before. It gives preference and advantages in law to homosexual couples over and above other same-sex couples, which is unjustifiable.

I listened to the opening speeches and noticed that the Minister repeatedly used the term "homosexual", so it is clear that the Bill's provisions are intended for homosexuals, though I cannot remember whether the precise terms "gay" or "lesbian" were used. I cannot claim to have read every page of the Bill, which is rather a weighty tome, but I saw no reference to homosexuality in it. It refers simply to "same-sex couples", so I am left wondering whether platonic same-sex couples are excluded.

The impression was created that two women who have been lifelong friends living in the same home and sharing a life together would not be subject to the Bill's provisions. I hope that the Minister will clarify that point, because she gave the impression that the Bill would exclusively benefit homosexual couples. If that is not the case, it puts a whole different slant on the matter. In any case, who apart from the two involved can possibly know the nature of a personal relationship? Some heterosexual opposite-sex marriages are platonic and two homosexual people can live together and share a home even though they are not involved in a personal relationship with one another. There are other variations on the theme. I therefore ask the Minister how eligibility for civil partnerships will be established, given that it is virtually impossible to know the real relationship between any two people.
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The civil partnership provisions, as presented by the Minister, are unfair. Unamended, the scheme will apply only to gays and lesbians, and other house sharers will be excluded. Would two elderly ladies living together for most of their lives have to affect to be homosexual in order to gain the advantages in law as described in the Bill? Would one of two sisters sharing a house over a long period incur inheritance tax when the other dies? Under the Bill, if a homosexual couple registered their partnership, even after a few months, one would inherit tax free if a partner died. That amounts to an injustice where there was none before.

I suggest that the Bill is unnecessary. Let us get back to its purpose. If it is to overcome injustices regarding tax benefits, pensions and so forth, I concede that it is right to deal with such injustices, but I am not persuaded that the Bill is the proper device for doing so. If the purpose is purely to overcome those injustices, civil partnerships per se are unnecessary. If it is to provide legal recognition for civil partnerships by creating a pseudo-marriage, that amounts to an entirely different purpose. The traditional family provides the basis for a stable society and the procreation of children. The Bill rests on the view that marriage and same-sex partnerships are equivalent or the same, but I do not believe that they are.

6.24 pm

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