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Mr. Bercow: I have never previously viewed my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) as a moderniser, born-again or otherwise. He has presented himself in a new guise this afternoon, and I sought attentively to listen to and to take account of his arguments. I confess that, just as on Second Reading and in Standing Committee, I found those arguments unpersuasive.

Let me begin with my hon. Friend's amendment on extending the right of civil partnership to heterosexual couples. It is fair to observe, though I accept that it does not of itself undermine his argument, that there appears to be something of a split on this matter between different strands of the traditionalist view among Conservative Members. As I understand it, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) are against the extension of that right to heterosexual couples. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, who is against the Bill, would admit that that would not have been his original preference.
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What I tried unavailingly to elicit from my hon. Friend in Committee, and would try to extract from him now, is an explanation of what so far has not been explained—at any rate, not to me. How is it that, as my hon. Friend contends, civil partnership rights for gay couples undermine marriage, but civil partnership rights for heterosexual couples, for whom the option of marriage is available, do not? That strikes me as such an extraordinary argument that it requires explanation.

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

Mr. Bercow: I was about to be helpful to my hon. Friend, but if he wants to help himself, I am obliged to him.

Mr. Chope: If my hon. Friend has listened to my speech he will know that I have not once deployed the argument about undermining marriage; I should like to establish a different system other than marriage that people can opt into if they want to.

Mr. Bercow: This seems to be a moveable feast. I had thought that I was listening closely to my hon. Friend's remarks. I am not able to regurgitate the full contents of his speech on Second Reading or to remember verbatim what he said in Standing Committee, but I do recall, because the argument was advanced so forcefully and frequently, his view that the Bill, in conferring these rights on gay couples, would undermine marriage. It therefore seems reasonable to ask him how it is that conferring similar rights on heterosexual couples who, unlike gay couples, can marry, would not undermine marriage.

I have observed before that the late Enoch Powell, a man with whom I agreed on some things and disagreed on a great many others, often used to say that such and such a point was so blindingly obvious that only an extraordinarily clever person could fail to grasp it. This point is so blindingly obvious that I cannot understand why my hon. Friend cannot grasp it. I have put it to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) before.

Mr. McNamara: Will the hon. Gentleman rephrase his comments and refer to heterosexual couples who "may be" able to marry?

Mr. Bercow: Yes, I am prepared to amend my position. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. In most cases that the amendment would affect, the heterosexual couples could marry but I accept that there are some circumstances in which they could not. I am therefore grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying and improving my argument.

I said that I was prepared to go a stage further than simply objecting to the illogicality of the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. I am prepared to nail my colours to the mast. After reflection and on balance—I do not feel passionately strongly about the matter—I believe that extending civil partnership rights to heterosexual couples would probably undermine marriage. I say "probably" but I am not sure whether it would have that effect. I am simply sensitive to the possibility. That would be undesirable.
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As my hon. Friend said, several people who introduced Bills on civil partnership rights in the past suggested that they should apply to both categories of person. However, it is equally true that in many examples from around the world, the entitlement exists only for same-sex couples. I believe that it is better to stick with the Bill rather than take a risk that is probably greater than any benefit that it might confer.

I want to deal briefly with tax, which featured prominently in the exchanges between my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), and in exchanges between my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and several hon. Members. The Bill is not principally about tax. It potentially includes tax implications for future Finance Bills but it is not mainly about that. It is about recognising relationships. It was a weakness in the passionately and sincerely argued case of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough that he was unable to explain why, if the injustice against siblings was as fundamental as he claimed, he had not previously argued for it to be remedied through legislation.

My hon. Friend and others who share his view are perfectly free to argue for inheritance tax relief or, indeed, abolition, if they wish. For the avoidance of doubt and because I do not want to be outdone by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, I make it clear that, philosophically, I am sympathetic to the abolition of inheritance tax, but with two caveats. First, it should not be a top priority for Conservative Members given the limited public resources that might be available for tax relief.

Secondly, not only should it not be a top priority for Conservatives against other and better competing claims, but we must be realistic. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough talked about living in the real world and dealing with circumstances as they exist. We must acknowledge that, however much we dislike the fact, at the moment—hopefully not for much longer—there is a Labour Government, who have rather a large majority. If inheritance tax relief is not a high priority for some Conservatives, it is no priority for the Labour Government. We cannot realistically cavil at that. We are therefore left with dealing with the Bill as it is.

It seems wrong to superimpose on the architecture of civil partnership, which is aimed at and will benefit people who cannot marry, an arrangement exclusively for the benefit of siblings or heterosexual partners who could get married. The Bill is not about tax. If we want to propose a tax measure, let us do that in a tax Bill. It is a deeply regulatory approach—the adoption of a sledgehammer to crack a nut—for a Conservative Member to try to create an architecture of civil partnership for people who could marry and enjoy all the benefits of marriage when the Bill is a narrower
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measure, aimed at an identifiable group of people who suffer exclusively from one disadvantage: that because of their orientation, they cannot marry.

Mr. McNamara: Will the hon. Gentleman change "could" to "may be able" to get married?

Mr. Bercow: I thought that I had explained that I accepted the hon. Gentleman's central point that, although in most cases the people to whom I refer could get married, a proportion are not in a position to do so. Those who are keenly interested in the debate would not thank us for being excessively pedantic when we know the broad issues, underlying principles and legal, financial and other consequences of the Bill.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): Given that many of us have received forceful representations from heterosexual couples who want to avail themselves of the benefits of the new relationship, the Bill is a perfectly logical vehicle for trying to secure such an amendment. Telling people that they can get married is an argument that a clergyman might put to them, but not a politician. They do not want to get married. It is their choice not to get married. We are told that the measure is not a marriage Bill and we are therefore perfectly entitled to try to secure the sort of amendment that we propose.

Mr. Bercow: That does not work, because my hon. Friend believes that the Bill will damage marriage as an institution through creating civil partnership entitlements. [Interruption.] If he believes that marriage will be damaged by conferring civil partnership rights on gay couples, it is thoroughly illogical of him to suggest that marriage would not be undermined by giving the new rights to people who could avail themselves of the opportunity to get married in a way that gay couples could not. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend is champing at the bit.

Mr. Swayne: I have taken Ministers at their word. They say that it is not a marriage Bill and I accept that. I do not believe that the Bill damages marriage any more than I believe that extending the relationship to those who are not married will damage it. A growing proportion of our constituents are choosing to live in that way. If we ignore that reality, we shall undermine the stability of the social fabric. The arrangements should be extended to the growing proportion of our constituents who want and demand them.

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