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Mr. Bercow: I am interested in my hon. Friend's comments. He referred to the growing proportion of our constituents who want and demand the arrangements. Let us be clear. I do not know how many representations, written or otherwise, hon. Members have received about the Bill. I have received a substantial number from gay couples who feel that they are not only invisible, as the Government often say, but almost non-existent in the eyes of the law. In the past 12 months since the Bill was mentioned in the Queen's Speech, I have not received a single letter from a constituent in a heterosexual relationship demanding that the Bill be extended for his or her benefit. I have not received one such representation.
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My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) is entirely correct to say that cohabitation is growing, and that more and more people voluntarily choose that arrangement for their life. It is not, however, correct to say that there is a great clamour to extend the Bill in this way. It is a combination of that fact and my genuine concern that these measures could undermine the institution of marriage—which my hon. Friend and I, in our different ways, both cherish—that causes me to oppose the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch.

The argument against extending these rights to siblings has been eloquently developed by a number of my colleagues. I have sought, in my humble fashion—or as near to humble as I am able to muster—to develop the arguments against the amendments, both on Second Reading and in Committee. I do not feel it necessary to dilate now. I should simply like to make two other points.

First, there is a cost issue involved, and I do not think that it is good enough for my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough and for Christchurch simply to brush aside the cost considerations. Many of us genuinely disagree with my hon. Friends on the issue of principle, but, given that there are all sorts of arguments that colleagues have rightly used in pressing their case, it is reasonable for us, whether we agree with the principle or not—I do not—to say, "What about the cost implications?" I have always regarded my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch as a very model of fiscal probity. If, in fact, I were now to discover that he was the spendthrift of Christchurch, it would be perfectly reasonable for me to factor that into the equation and to use it as a criticism of his argument.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: I am sorry, but I cannot quite remember exactly how much the Bill will cost, in terms of public money, if it goes through without these amendments. I am sure that my hon. Friend, with his fantastic, encyclopaedic knowledge, will be able to remind us of the figure.

Mr. Bercow: Off the top of my head, I cannot. I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) chuntering to some other hon. Friends about this a few minutes ago. I know that he was, perfectly reasonably, considering saving that rather juicy intervention for the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle). The hon. Lady managed to escape my hon. Friend's intervention, however, so I have been subjected to it instead. My honest answer is that, on this occasion, my hon. Friend has checkmated me. I do not know exactly, but, if I remember rightly, the figure is in the tens of millions. The Government have very fairly explained in the regulatory impact assessment what the cost of the Bill will be, and it is a relatively small cost. I happen to believe that it is a justifiable cost, and I do not think it right that we should substantially extend that cost, at a time of limited resources, by seeking to inject these provisions into a Bill to which they are not suited.

Finally, I want to deal with the question of whether this is about marriage. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) made the point extremely effectively on Second Reading about civil partnership developing along parallel lines to marriage.
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The Deputy Minister for Women and Equality, the right hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith) stressed very openly—on Second Reading, I think, and certainly in Committee—that the Government's objective was to try to ensure that the provisions in the Bill corresponded as closely as possible to the procedures and entitlements of civil marriage, although not of holy matrimony. The question of whether a civil partnership is a marriage or not is therefore largely irrelevant.

We are seeking to provide to people who cannot marry arrangements that do not disadvantage them. That is why I am inclined to say that the arrangements in the Bill for civil registration for gay couples are analogous to, but not the same as or indistinguishable from, civil marriage. That seems to be a perfectly respectable position.

The Bill, in its original form, was a good Bill. It will command widespread support, and I do not think that it should be interfered with in the way that some Members want. In rejecting the amendments that my hon. Friends the Members for Aldershot and for Christchurch have perfectly honourably tabled, and to which they are speaking, I want to leave them with this simple thought; we cannot have it both ways when addressing the issue of civil partnership and the rights of gay people—[Interruption.] Let me try to develop a point that is important to me. Members cannot complain that gay partnerships are inherently transitory and unstable, and yet, when the opportunity for civil registration comes along—giving people the chance to declare their commitment, with the welter of rights and responsibilities that flow from that commitment—say that those people should not have that right to declare their commitment.

This is an opportunity to give substance, body and rigour to a new arrangement. I would like to suggest to my right hon. and hon. Friends that that arrangement is philosophically defensible from several different perspectives. I am perfectly prepared to accept that an argument can be made for the arrangement that is fully conversant with socialist principles. Similarly, I accept that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) can make an argument for civil partnership and ground it in Liberal philosophy. I know that some of my right hon. and hon. Friends disagree with me, but I passionately believe that the principles of civil partnership for gay couples are eminently defensible in and can be expressed as part of Conservative philosophy. If we took a sensible and forward-looking approach, there would be nothing to stop a commitment to civil partnership rights in a Conservative manifesto.

3.30 pm

My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition sensibly allowed us a free vote on the Bill instead of stopping Conservatives voting for it. I was inspired when in February this year, in a speech to Policy Exchange, my right hon. and learned Friend said that he himself would vote for this Bill. I was even more encouraged when he made it clear that although he recognised some of the grievances that siblings and others might have, he judged that the amendments in the other place, which are favoured by some of my hon. Friends in this place, were not appropriate to the
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architecture of this Bill. As usual—although, I admit, not as always—I am strongly in agreement with my right hon. and learned Friend.

Mr. Alan Duncan: I know that some of my right hon. and hon. Friends may still wish to speak, and I do not want to stand in their way, but it might be helpful, at this stage of our interesting exchange, for me to comment on this group of amendments.

I find myself addressing the amendments with a sort of haunting inevitability—those of us who have followed the Bill through all its legislative stages so far will know what I mean, and may share my profound sense of déjà vu—because we have debated amendments of a similar or identical nature at every stage of the Bill. At every stage, in my opinion, the arguments against them have been overwhelming. None the less, for the benefit of Members who have not heard all our proceedings, it may be useful for me to rehearse the arguments once again, and to assist those who have to some extent been misled by assertions made in newspaper stories and advertisements that appeared in our press today. Perhaps I can say, "Here we go again," and some Members may be able to join in at the chorus. [Laughter.]

We are told that the motivation for tabling the amendments, as we were told in another place when amendments were tabled there, is to address the grievances of elderly siblings or carers who share a house and are stung by inheritance tax when the person with whom they live dies. It is indeed profoundly unfair that people who cohabit in this way are disadvantaged on the death of the other, by being forced out of their home or subjected to crippling inheritance tax so late in life. It is absolutely right to raise those issues, and in doing so the plight of those who are disadvantaged in this way was drawn to the attention of a wider audience. We have made an issue out of a concern that was not widely known about previously, but which genuinely exists. That has resulted in the Government's promising to take further action to address those issues, and we intend to hold them to that.

Let me remind the House that the Minister of State in the Home Office, Baroness Scotland, said in Grand Committee in another place:

But we continued to press for the result of that grappling to be made clear, and we will continue to do so. In Committee, the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality herself said:

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That is quite so. And as my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said in a letter to colleagues, and to others who have written to him, to which reference has been made this afternoon:

—that is, through dissolution.

I admit that in the new clause my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) makes the dissolution easier, but that does two things. It dilutes the quality and extent of the commitment that civil partnerships are designed to entail, and it introduces a separate regime for, in some respects, similar sets of people. It therefore introduces a new scale of discrimination that did not previously exist. Rather than addressing a problem of discrimination, the new clause compounds it.

As others have said today, the complications do not end there. What if three of more siblings shared a house? What if two did and one did not? How would they decide which two would form a civil partnership, and what the effects would be? What if someone in a civil partnership with an elderly relative wanted to marry, and wanted to move in the prospective spouse to share the burden of caring? In such circumstances, they would be barred from marrying until the civil partnership had been dissolved in court. If, as would apply under another amendment, dissolution were automatic, that too would dilute the nature of the commitment intended in a civil partnership.

The partners would face the prospect of embarking on a complex legal process to prove irretrievable breakdown. That might be more difficult in the case of a mother than in that of a mother-in-law, but in any event it would be required. Alternatively, they would be accused of living in sin under the roof of the family home—or they would have to live in sin under the roof of the family home, and what would the Christian Institute say about that?

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