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Mr. Leigh: Broadly speaking, this Bill would give homosexual couples the same rights as those enjoyed by married couples. That is the principle of the Bill; although some of us oppose it, that is not what we are debating today. Whatever happens today, that principle will remain in place. Therefore, the new clause and associated amendments have not been tabled to wreck the Bill.
The new clause, if accepted, would leave the substance of the Bill intact. I, and those hon. Members who support me, am trying to ensure that the Bill does not create more injustices. We accept that many people believe that homosexual couples who live together for years often suffer great hardship, and we heard many stories to that effect on Second Reading. People in that situation cannot leave their houses or tenancies to each other, and they encounter all sorts of other problems.
An amendment tabled in the other place would have extended the same rights to others, such as siblings and other family members. Various objections were made to that proposal by the Minister and others. The Minister and her officials expended a huge amount of time convincing the House that the amendments were technically deficient. I believe, as do those hon. Members who share my views, that she could have made workable the amendments from the House of Lords if she had put the same amount of effort into doing so, but the Government's main objection to those amendments was that these amendments could be used to avoid inheritance tax, as they would allow people to pass property down through the generations.
Therefore, we have decided to adopt a moderate and sensible approach today. New clause 1 is very narrowly drawn, and the aim of this group of amendments is very simple. It would merely give to siblings the same rights
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granted by the Bill to homosexual couples. By "siblings" I mean a brother and sister, or two brothers or two sisters.
We have made the amendments very narrow indeed. It is not my job to foretell what will happen in another place, but I suspect that the issues raised today will be central to subsequent debates on this Bill.
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): On Second Reading, a principal objection to the relevant amendment that came to us from another place was that it would have required siblings to form a civil partnership. If one of the siblings later wanted to marry in what I still call the normal wayI am sure that that expression is politically incorrect these daysthat partnership would have to be dissolved. It was therefore suggested that the Lords amendment was a nonsense for that reason. Will my hon. Friend assure me that the new clause and the associated amendments will not fall into the same trap?
Mr. Leigh: We took that argument on board after Second Reading. If my right hon. Friend looks at new clause 2, she will see that it does not adopt the same approach as the Bill. The Government may not admit it, but homosexual couples undertake what amounts to a marriage. The Bill is very long because it replicates a great deal of ordinary marriage law.
The objection raised to the Lords amendment was that it would be absurd for family members to have to go through some sort of divorce. New clause 2 would create a far simpler procedure for dissolving civil partnerships between siblings. That would not be a divorce; it would be equivalent to the procedure adopted in the French civil solidarity pact, or PACS, system. The process would be a simple, paper-based way to dissolve a civil partnership.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): The basis of my hon. Friend's argument is the essential unfairness of inheritance tax. I agree with him about that. Does he not think that we should all concentrate our efforts on abolishing inheritance tax, rather than on trying to create these artificial partnerships?
Mr. Leigh: Yes, I do. This debate provides an opportunity for that. The Government have said already that the Bill will require various consequential amendments to the Finance Bill. If the Minister were to intervene and say that she had spoken to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and that he had told her that the forthcoming Finance Bill contained measures recognising that siblings who had lived together for a number of years suffered a gross injustice, we could all go home now.
Unfortunately, that has not happened. The Government have made no such commitment. I give credit to my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition, who has made it clear in a letter to
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constituents that the first Finance Bill under a new Conservative Government would take action on this matter.
Chris Bryant: From the look on his face, it seems that the hon. Gentleman has not received any letters on this subject. However, if the issue is so enormously important, why has the Conservative party never proposed an amendment similar to the one under discussion today in any Finance Bill Standing Committee over the years?
Mr. Leigh: We must deal with the situation as we find it now. In our law, it has always been accepted that marriage is unique. Certain privileges are conferred by marriage, and that is recognised in all societies in all parts of the world. The very good reason for that is that marriage is the building block of society. That is what we believe, and the Government apparently believe it too.
With this Bill, the Government are saying something that has never been said before. They are creating a particular class of peoplesame-sex couples who live togetherwho will enjoy the same unique advantages conferred by marriage in respect of tenancy, inheritance tax and so on. We are therefore in a new situation.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) asked about letters. I have one here. The original was sent by a lady whose name and address I shall not reveal to the House, as she is an elderly spinster who wants to remain anonymous. The letter states:
"I live with my single brother and have done so since my mother died in . . . 1983. He had lived with her all his life. I retired from (work) to look after her as she was 85 and had cancer. She died within . . . months of my leaving. Stephen"
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