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Mr. Borrow: The case that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) raised in the House a few years ago was tragic, but does the hon. Gentleman think it likely that that couple would have registered their civil partnership, given that they never got round to marriage?

Mr. Chope: Such couples should be given the choice. New clause 3 would introduce a much simpler system of registration, akin to that that prevails in France. People would be able to enter that system of registration, knowing that it would commit them not to a lifetime, permanent relationship, but to a relationship for the time being, which would be completely different from marriage, but which would bring certain legal privileges provided by the state. That is the essence of the argument. I know that the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) believes only in marriage—on Second Reading, he courageously said that he wants to enter into a firm, lifetime, permanent partnership following the enactment of the legislation—but many other people in both same-sex and other-sex couples do not want to embrace long-term commitment.

Mr. Hogg: Is there not a public interest point? If my hon. Friend's new clause carried the day, people who did not intend to make a lifetime relationship could register a partnership, from which huge legal consequences concerning, for example, pensions would flow. Is it right that such an entitlement should be attached to a relationship that is not intended to be long lasting?

Mr. Chope: It is right, and the Solicitors Family Law Association thinks so too, which is why it proposed a new cohabitation law, separate and distinct from matrimonial law. That proposal was not introduced by casual people writing on the backs of envelopes; it was introduced by a body of some 5,000 solicitors, who are specialists in dealing with the breakdown of families, both married and unmarried.

The Solicitors Family Law Association sought to get Parliament to address how things have changed so radically over the years. In the late 1950s, which, like me, you may remember, Mr. Deputy Speaker, just 2 per cent. of women reported that they had lived with their first husband prior to marriage. By the 1960s, 25 per cent. of women had cohabited prior to marriage. By the mid-1990s, the figure had risen to 77 per cent., and it is probably even higher now. Social mores have changed, and Parliament must catch up. The proposal introduced by the Law Society and the hon. Member for Reading, East was designed to change the law to reflect the changing world.
 
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Charles Hendry : Choice is the essence of new clause 3. My hon. Friend is discussing a man and a woman, who can choose whether or not to get married in either a holy ceremony or a civil ceremony, and who know that benefits will accrue from that choice. However, the Bill is about people who do not have that choice because they are in a same-sex relationship, which is why new clause 3 is fundamentally inappropriate.

Mr. Chope: My hon. Friend has deployed those arguments before, but he fails to recognise that we should widen choice. People could opt into civil partnerships, but they would not have to do so and it would not be compulsory. New clause 3 would give people who want to register a cohabiting relationship short of marriage fresh and wider choice. Some 4 million people are already involved in such relationships.

I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) is active in campaigning for the Conservative case among young people. He will know that more than half of people in cohabiting relationships are aged between 20 and 35. If Parliament and, in particular, the Conservative party are to be relevant to people in that age group, there is a strong case for enabling—not forcing—those people to register their partnership, and thereby obtain access to legal privilege in same way as their counterparts in France. Why should we not do so? It would widen choice, freedom and responsibility.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because he is being generous with his time. May I postulate another case? What would happen if one of the parties wanted to get married or enter into a cohabitation arrangement and the other party did not? In that case, the "innocent" party would be unable to take advantage of either marriage or a cohabitation agreement. What rights would they have, and what rights would their children have?

Mr. Chope: Neither the hon. Gentleman nor anyone else involved in the debate has come up with a solution on unilateral marriage or unilateral partnerships, which the hon. Gentleman seems to be discussing. Perhaps he can come up with a formula that will find favour with the Administration. I am not discussing unilateral relationships or partnerships.

Mr. McNamara: I am not discussing unilateral relationships; I am discussing bilateral relationships in which one of the parties is not prepared to go the whole way, but the relationship has existed for 15 or 20 years—I know people in such circumstances. If the Bill grants people the right merely to register their interest, is it not unfair that a person who is unable to register such an interest because the other party is unwilling to do so should therefore suffer detriment?

Mr. Chope: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but the essence of the matter is agreement. Agreement is the basis for marriage, partnership or the French alternative, a civil solidarity pact.

If we are bringing ourselves up to date as a modernising Parliament, let us reflect the changing approach to children born outside marriage. Before my
 
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mother produced me, neighbours living close to our home in Kent counted out the months between when my parents got married and when I was born—the gap was 11 months, which was legitimate. In the past 20 years, however, the proportion of births registered outside marriage has risen from 10 per cent. to more than 40 per cent., and more than half of those births are registered by unmarried parents with the same address. For the sake of their children and themselves, such people may want to take advantage of the new registration system in my new clause.

Chris Bryant: The incomprehensible part of the hon. Gentleman's argument is why people who are so committed to each other that they are prepared to have children, but who have decided not to get married, should suddenly decide to form a civil partnership.

Mr. Chope: Such people may regard marriage as a permanent, lifetime commitment that they do not have the self-confidence to make. However, they may want to make a commitment which may last a lifetime, but which can be broken much more easily than marriage.

Chris Bryant: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Chope: I will not give way again, because I am in danger of using far too much time in this time-limited debate. It is appropriate to remind hon. Members that the tight guillotine imposed by the Government prevented us from debating 118 clauses in Committee.

We were unable to debate a host of Government amendments and debated only six of the 29 schedules. In view of the limited amount of time that the Government have given us today, it would be over-indulgent for one hon. Member to take more than a fair share of it. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I am glad that that wins support from other hon. Members.

Let us remind ourselves of one particular group of people—those who are living together with a view to getting married. They may, for example, be waiting to get married at Christchurch priory, which is such a wonderful venue that it is sometimes necessary to book more than a year in advance in order to be able to do so. Why should those people be unable to register their relationship in a civil way so as to protect themselves in the event of one of them suffering an untimely death prior to the marriage? Hosts of people nowadays are separated or divorced and do not wish to enter into another marriage but would like to have the opportunity to register a relationship that is short of marriage.

Extraordinarily, in 2001–02, 57 per cent. of the population believed that there was something called common law marriage that gives cohabiting couples the same rights as married couples. That implies that those people would like to have such rights although they do not have them at the moment. The Government's response is to say, "Well, let's have a big education and propaganda campaign." My response, as a free marketeer, is to say, "Let's widen the choice—let's introduce a new partnership that people can opt into if they want to." That is exactly what has happened in the past. If we look in the history books, we see that the Marriage Act 1753 was introduced to deal with changing arrangements that Parliament thought should be reflected in changes to the law.
 
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I want to refer to some of the other amendments that stand in my name. Amendments Nos. 12 and 13 would remove the restriction on civil partners having to be of the same sex. Amendments Nos. 17 and 18 would enable a partnership to be automatically terminated or dissolved by the subsequent marriage of one of the partners. That is a very important point that we debated briefly in Committee. One of the parties to a same-sex partnership may wish to enter into holy matrimony and should have the right to break the partnership in order to marry. That is not a new idea—it already happens in the jurisdiction of Portugal—and it is unconscionable that this House should legislate to prevent it from happening.

Amendments Nos. 14 and 16 would alter the rules on eligibility to reflect new clause 3 and new schedule 1. I want to say a few words about amendments Nos. 19 and 20, which would put recognition of all overseas civil partnerships on an equal footing. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham will agree with me about this. In France, cohabitees of the opposite sex or the same sex can enter into a civil solidarity pact, yet clauses 212 and 215 provide that partners in a French civil solidarity pact who are registered as such will have their partnership recognised in English law only if they are of the same sex. That would necessitate investigations into whether the partnership was between same-sex or opposite-sex couples. That is highly discriminatory. Why should we not be prepared to recognise foreign civil partnerships, whether of the same sex or the opposite sex? I beg to suggest that that is in fundamental breach of human rights and freedoms and should be addressed, if not by the Government's acceptance of my amendments, then by the other place.

At the moment, the Bill creates a legal minefield. It is discriminatory in nature. It is effectively a same-sex partnership Bill, but the Government do not have the guts to call it such. It therefore offers scope for the acceptance of the amendments, which would ensure that it is no longer a same-sex partnership Bill but a much wider partnership Bill.

3.15 pm


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