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Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): It is difficult to summarise the debate from the point of view of the mediaeval wing of the Conservative party. We are accused of many things—of being homophobes and the rest of it—but I believe that we have a point of view that we are perfectly entitled to express. I must admit that I was surprised by the suggestion made by one of my hon. Friends in his closing remarks that the Conservative party as a whole was trying to turn away women, or people who are black or gay. Nothing is further from the truth. We are the party of all Britons. We want people to vote Conservative because they believe in freedom, the nation state, strong defence, deregulation or any of the other things that conservatism is about. We have as much right to speak up as anyone else.

Our present marriage laws discriminate against many people. Our existing law discriminates against gay people who wish to leave property to each other, but it also discriminates against sisters, uncles or nephews and many others who want to do the same. Yet it is not so much that the present law discriminates against those people as that it discriminates in favour of marriage. It is neutral about other relationships, but discriminates in favour of marriage because that is what has happened in every society and nation in history.

On the walls of every register office, it is stated that marriage is about a permanent union between a man and wife, to the exclusion of everyone else. All through history, societies have taken the view that that was necessary, and it was John Locke who said that marriage was mankind's first society.

Marriage is the building block of society. Over the centuries, Parliament has taken the view that we should discriminate in favour of marriage. We do not want to
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discriminate against anyone else—not sisters, brothers, uncles, nephews, stepsons or grandfathers, grandsons or gay people. We want to discriminate in favour of the building block that is marriage.

Mr. Bercow: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Leigh: No, as I have been told that I have very little time.

I have explained my concern about this Bill. We need a corpus of marriage law, and we have one. I have personal views about marriage. For many years, I have said that we must try to sustain it, just as I have argued against easier divorce laws, but that is a subject for another debate.

We must now create another corpus of law, either with this Bill or with a Finance Bill, to relieve the unfair burden placed on people who have lived together a long time and who want to leave pension rights or property to each other, or who want to visit each other in hospital or enjoy all the other benefits that have been mentioned today. Whatever such a Bill might be called—the Sharing of Long-Term Domicile Bill is one possibility—it would allow us to do what the Government want to do with this Bill.

The Government have tried to pull our heart strings on this matter. We have heard powerful stories about people called Chris or Rex, and about people who have been living together for 40 years who want to leave their property to each other but who cannot. We realise that that is unfair in the modern world. It is unfair that sisters who have lived together for many years in a non-sexual relationship should be placed in such difficulty and it is a problem that we must address.

I accept that the amendments passed by the House of Lords may be unworkable in their present form. I am trying to put my argument in an honest way but if the Government are serious about addressing anomalies that hit people who have been living together for a long time, they should use this Bill or the Finance Bill to introduce proposals that could work to help such people. The Bill as it stands does not provide that.

We are not homophobes or anything like that, but we are saying that this Bill does not do what the Government seem to want it to do. We must be honest about these matters. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) made an honest speech, in which he gave a powerful exposition of his point of view. There is no doubt that there are people in this House who believe that gay people should be allowed to go through a form of marriage. If they love each other and have made a commitment to each other, why should gay people be denied something called marriage when the rest of us are allowed it? However, a person would have to be utterly credulous to believe that, by enabling people to register a civil partnership at a register office and by providing that a long-term relationship can be ended only after it has suffered irredeemable breakdown—in other words, by replicating what is contained in our ordinary marriage laws—we are not creating a form of gay marriage.

Why cannot we be honest about it? It will come and the next step will be for the gay community to insist—rightly, in their view—that gay marriage be recognised, that it should be an offence to attack homosexuality and that it should be taught in schools on equal terms. That is the
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agenda. Let us not be mealy-mouthed about it. That is why the mediaeval wing of the Conservative party, as we have been described, is standing foursquare against the Bill and why we will vote against it tonight. We believe that by voting against the Bill, we send a powerful message that there are still people in this House who are prepared to stand up for traditional values because they believe passionately that such values are the building blocks of a just, fair and right society.

6.30 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Back to reform, now. This has been a fascinating and full debate. It has spoken for itself and will need only reasonably crisp and succinct winding-up speeches. Indeed, there is no time for more.

I shall draw on one or two speeches without, I hope, invidiousness, because they have all been of high quality. I was delighted by the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) from the Front Bench. He spoke with great fervour, a round appreciation of the issues and clarity of mind. It was a good start from our side. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) spoke with great authority and commitment to the cause of equality generally and to the elimination of discrimination. She will not be surprised to learn that I agree with many of her sentiments, although not all of them in detail. It is important that we make social progress in this area and that my colleagues recognise that such progress has been made.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) made a distinguished speech and I also commend the passion and articulacy of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). As he occasionally admits in public, I can claim to have had a hand in his conversion, but I cannot be responsible for the ongoing consequences in relation to his speech this evening.

The Conservative party will allow a free vote on the issue and I will support the Bill tonight. Those of my hon. Friends who do not share my view of the Bill and will not join us in the Lobby have made progress in the sense that they have admitted that gay people in relationships face problems. However, my hon. Friends argue that others face problems with their tax position and so on, as mentioned in the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) quoted John Locke. It may well be that marriage is the building block of society, but that does not mean that we cannot have civil partnerships as a secondary underpinning of society, for those who expect to require them. The two are not mutually exclusive and that is the fulcrum of the differences in this debate.

I have three points to make specifically and I shall then make some more general comments in conclusion. All three points draw on my previous experience of the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which addressed many of the same issues. That Act has not been mentioned today, but if the Bill were not passed it would lead to an invidious situation for persons affected by that Act. I have a constituent who has been married for several years but has undergone gender reassignation. That person may now apply for a gender recognition certificate, but if they do so their marriage is automatically voided. However,
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they wish to continue the loving relationship that they have had for many years. It would be intolerable not to afford them the opportunity to take out the parallel of a civil partnership to recognise that new position. Indeed, they have lobbied me on that point and have kept in touch with me throughout the passage of the Bill.

We touched on my second point when we discussed gender recognition, and it is also relevant to the Bill, so I hope that the Committee will consider it. It is important to be certain that the Bill is sufficiently alert to developing issues of private international law, especially relating to jurisdiction. As has been said in several quarters, a large number of European and other states have adopted legislation on civil partnerships that is similar to the Bill. Persons in civil partnerships will come to the UK and may establish businesses or work in this country, so it is extremely important that their rights are recognised and to some extent anticipated by our law and that we do not find ourselves in the European Court for non-compliance on the ground of discrimination. I advise Ministers to keep that point firmly in mind.

A third issue that I hope will be probed in Committee is the need to iron out any remaining disparities between civil partnerships and marriage. The two are distinct, but it is perfectly proper that they be parallel and as near identical as possible in terms of what they convey. To my more sceptical friends, I say that I feel strongly that the Bill is about conveying rights and although there may be certain privileges, or consequences in terms of benefits, that flow from those rights, they are secondary to the main purpose. I think that Ministers are aware that if their objective is to secure those rights through a parallel process, they should make clear tonight and in Committee how those rights will be pursued. That consideration applies not only to the points that have been made in many places about occupational pensions, where I have sympathy, but is also true in respect of the financial implementation of those rights. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell the House something about the first convenient or available Finance Bill and the timetable to bring in the validation of those rights.

Those three points have not always featured in debate. What has inevitably featured extensively is the tranche of amendments moved by my noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain, which cause real difficulty for the Bill, so I shall have no problem if the Government want to remove them in Committee. The difficulty is partly practical. For example, what would be the situation of three sibling sisters living together? Could they conclude a simultaneous civil partnership with each other, or if not, which of them would be excluded and on what grounds? The mind boggles.

It is also important to remember that whereas rights can be extended to groups through the civil partnership—indeed, it is part of the essence of the case against civil partnership put by some who have briefed us that it affects only a small number of people—by the same token, if the whole complex of family relationships and carers is included, the cost of any action taken would probably escalate by one or two orders of magnitude. We should be dealing not with a small amelioration of unfairness, or the ironing out that I described, but with an almost unsustainable financial consequence.
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It is of course entirely right, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition has indicated in correspondence and as we have said during the debate, that we should look at action to remedy or improve the position of carers and family members through a Finance Bill. That is the right place to argue the point, having regard to the costs and resources available and the precedents for it. Such provision should not be used to obstruct or get in the way of the thrust of the Bill's equality legislation for civil partnerships.

I have some personal comments, which in a sense drive my support for the Bill. The nation, Parliament and society more generally have been on a rather long journey—as have I—and the Bill represents one of the final steps. Alongside the parallel evolution of discrimination and equality law—I have already indicated my sympathy with that broad approach and my continuing interest in it—I would describe what has happened since the Wolfenden report in 1959 through the 1960s and on through the 40 years to today as the conversion of our legal approach from the old prescriptive and even literally penal ways that we practised to an approach based on respect for the individual and the choices that he or she wishes to make.

Perhaps, taking the debate away from the Bill, the single most interesting and encouraging event in recent weeks has been the combined resistance of European Union countries to Turkey's proposed penalisation of adultery, which goes absolutely in the opposite direction and is not acceptable according to modern standards. Slowly but surely in western Europe and more widely in the western world, both among professed Christians and those of other faiths and no faith, we have come to cast off an approach based over the centuries on prescribing what people should do in their private lives and instead we have moved towards providing an acceptable institutional framework to enable individuals to pursue their lives by their own lights and to pursue their own relationships.

There remain entrenched—we have heard them today—overt and, perhaps more interesting, covert beliefs and habits that are hostile to gay relationships. Yet, and I say this as someone who has had 35 years in Christian marriage and has children and grandchildren—I celebrate that—I hope that I can recognise now the validity of the wish of my friends and the friends of my children who happen to be gay to enshrine their loving and faithful relationship in law. That is what the Bill is about. Simply, the time has come for all of us, but for my party as well, to learn to stop frustrating and even demonising individuals and instead to give them the space and encouragement to make their own life choices. That is the basis of my approach as a Conservative and of my support for this legislation tonight.

6.42 pm

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