Civil Partnership Bill [Lords]

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The Chairman: I remind Members that there is a money resolution in connection with the Bill and that copies of it are available in the Room. I also remind Members that adequate notice of amendments should be given. As a general rule, my fellow Chairman and I do not intend to call starred amendments, including any starred amendments that may be reached during an afternoon sitting.

Clause 1

Civil partnership

Jacqui Smith: I beg to move amendment No. 1, in

    clause 1, page 1, line 4, leave out from 'relationship' to 'between' in line 5.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clause 2 stand part.

Schedule 1 be the first Schedule.

Government amendment No. 3.

Amendment No. 187, in clause 4, page 3, line 3, leave out 'or'.

Amendment No. 188, in clause 4, page 3, line 4, at end insert


    (da) they have not been living together in the same household for the period of six months ending with the date of the application for registration'.

Government amendments Nos. 4 and 5.

Amendment No. 208, in clause 36, page 16, leave out line 22 and insert 'at least 6 months.'.

Government amendments Nos. 6 to 11.

Jacqui Smith: We start our consideration this morning with the Government amendments that have been tabled to remove a series of amendments that were made in another place. The amendments that we seek to remove, which we discussed at some length on Second Reading, sought to extend the legal relationship of civil partnership to close family members who are over the age of 30 and have lived together for 12 years.

I greatly welcome the cross-party support that we have seen in the House for the Bill in the original form in which it was introduced early this year. I particularly appreciate the fact that the Government amendments that I will be speaking to have, in many cases, been supported, or even tabled, by Opposition Members. That is a real credit to the mature way in

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which we choose to understand issues of equality in the 21st century.

As I suggested on Second Reading, we received a clear endorsement of the purpose of the Bill—granting legal recognition to same-sex couples, ensuring that the many thousands of couples living together in long-term committed relationships will be able to ensure that those relationships are no longer invisible in the eyes of the law, with all the difficulties that that invisibility brings.

We heard a widespread agreement from Members across almost all parties that the Civil Partnership Bill is not the place to deal with the concerns of relatives, not because those concerns are not important, but because the Bill is not the appropriate legislative base on which to deal with them.

The Bill is the culmination of a long policy-development process that has, from day one, been concerned with the disadvantages faced by lesbian and gay couples, whose relationships are not legally recognised. The process started in Government in November 2001, when my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), my predecessor as a Minister with responsibility for equality, made clear the Government's concern about the difficulties that lesbian and gay couples face because of their inability to marry.

A major review of the policy and cost implications of a civil partnership scheme resulted in the June 2003 publication of a consultation paper outlining the Government's proposal for civil partnership as a framework for the legal recognition of same-sex couples. A commitment to introduce legislation was given in the Queen's Speech in 2003. In March 2004, we introduced the Bill in another place. So, without referring back to previous debates, it is fair to say that this is a process that has involved a considerable amount of consultation for a considerable period and that has—at every single point of that consultation—received approbation and support from the majority of those who have responded to consultations and debates in this House.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way early on in her remarks. At column 1138 of the Official Report of 29 March 2004, the Government said of the other groups to whom the Minister referred—she said that it was not appropriate to deal with their injustices in this Bill—that they had no plans for changes to the law in that field. Either now or when she responds to later debates, will the Minister be kind enough to tell the Committee the Government's thinking on when they might get round to those other groups, whose injustices are not being remedied with those that are being dealt with in the Bill?

9.30 am

Jacqui Smith: I will address precisely that point, because the hon. Gentleman's question is predicated on the view that any concerns that exist, for example with respect to relatives and carers, are based on exactly the problem that the Bill seeks to remedy. We argue that they are not. The issues around relatives and carers are not about a lack of legal recognition or

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relationship—they may be about other issues, but they are not about that, and that is what the Bill aims to rectify.

Mr. Duncan: I do not think that that is quite right. Although we are not discussing same-sex unions, we are discussing the consequences of people's interdependence if their relationship is not recognised. If there are two sisters, and one of them dies and the house has to be sold, the argument about those siblings is exactly the same as one of the main arguments advanced for recognising in law same-sex couples in a civil partnership. These are close and overlapping issues, and I remind the Minister that there was a pretty firm commitment in another place from Baroness Scotland that those people's problems would be addressed. The Minister rather avoided that on Second Reading. I should like to reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) has just said, and seek a commitment from her now that those people's problems will be addressed—as they could be in the next available Finance Bill.

Jacqui Smith: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on the suggestion that a primary concern of this legislation is to deal with a situation of inheritance tax, which I think is what he is talking about.

Mr. Duncan: Yes.

Jacqui Smith: Let us be quite clear. This legislation has been introduced primarily not to deal with inheritance tax issues, but as an equality measure because of the discrepancies between the situation of opposite-sex partners with the option to marry and the situation of same-sex couples with no option to marry or have any legal recognition of their relationship. Stemming from that legal invisibility comes a range of practical issues, some of which are appropriate to deal with in this legislation. I do not think, however, that that is the pre-eminent reason for the Bill.

We can and, I have no doubt, will discuss inheritance tax provisions, but I do not believe that this legislation or future Finance Bills should necessarily have as a top priority the reduction of inheritance tax, which at the moment impacts on only 5 per cent. of estates where someone has died. Given inheritance tax levels, two sisters would have to be living in a house worth well over £500,000 to come into the inheritance tax situation that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and I do not think that that is a priority—[Interruption.] No, because if two sisters are living in the house, one of them already owns half the house. If the other one in dying leaves their half as an inheritance, for that to meet the £263,000 threshold for inheritance tax the house in total would have to be worth more than £500,000.

Mr. Chope: Does the Minister not recognise a possible situation in which one sister owns the house, the other sister comes to live with her, and the sister who owns the house dies? Then, the inheritance tax bill for a house worth £500,000 would be enormous—totally unaffordable.

Jacqui Smith: Clearly, in that circumstance there would be an inheritance tax implication. The argument is whether or not the reform of inheritance tax is a

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priority for this Bill or even for this Government in the next Finance Bill, and I argue that it is not. There is a difference between our parties on whether we should be focussing our tax reform on the top 5 per cent. of estates or on a different aspect. That is a political difference, but this Bill is not the place in which to solve that issue.

Mr. Chope: But, to extend that analogy, if a same-sex couple were living in a house in the situation that I described, there is a presumption that both parties have an equal share in the house. Indeed, the legislation will consolidate that position. The same is the case with cohabitees, but there is no presumption that two sisters who live together are equal owners of their house, notwithstanding the fact that they may have been living there together for many years.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman has precisely put his finger on the problem. Of course, two cohabitees living in a house would not be exempt from inheritance tax. The point of the Bill is to give an opportunity for recognition of same-sex relationships that is equivalent to the way in which opposite-sex couples are recognised through marriage.

Let me make it clear that throughout the entire policy development process, throughout the hours spent researching relevant legislation—some of it, incidentally, dating back well over four centuries—throughout the consultation with the public, trade unions, businesses and stakeholder groups, and in response to the thousands of letters, postcards and e-mails that we received, we have always worked on the principle that the Bill deals only with unrelated same-sex couples. Our policy aim has been to recognise and resolve the difficulties faced by lesbian and gay couples who cannot gain legal recognition of their relationship. We acknowledge the legal and financial insecurities that absence of recognition can bring and the injustice of being treated as second-class citizens with second-class relationships. The Bill has not been designed around the legal relationships of people who are related to each other, nor was it designed to address any problems that they may have.

Clause 1 of the original Bill made it clear at the outset that a civil partnership is a relationship between two people of the same sex. It was also made clear in the clause that dealt with eligibility for civil partnership, which established prohibited degrees of relationship, that the new legal relationship would not be available to closely related couples. The Government amendments to this Bill will remove the provisions inserted on Lords Report stage, which subvert the core principles of the Bill from the beginning of the process by enabling close family members to register as civil partners. The Government amendments will return the Bill to the basis on which it was introduced. They will delete the wording that the House of Lords introduced in clause 1, and delete clause 2, schedule 1 and related provisions in parts 2, 3 and 4.

As we discussed at some length on Second Reading, the Lords amendments would have serious consequences. It would be useful to spell out a few of them. My argument is not only that the Bill is not the appropriate place to deal with issues about family

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members, but that insertion of the Lords amendments would, in effect, wreck the intention of the Bill. Therefore, the status quo certainly is not an option. To make the Bill work, we must remove the amendments that were inserted in another place. Let us look at some of their consequences and repercussions.

First, the Bill would require a fundamental change to the principles underlying the pensions and benefits system. For example, if a son were to form a civil partnership with his elderly mother, with whom he lived and for whom he cared, he could lose his entitlement to jobseeker's allowance because of his mother's ability to support him financially. A daughter would become liable for supporting a civil partner father. As my noble friend Baroness Scotland pointed out in another place and as I mentioned on Second Reading, that would represent a significant retrograde step in respect of social security arrangements within the family, in effect taking us back to the 1930s.

Secondly, many of the Bill's registration and dissolution procedures are, frankly, unworkable if applied to a new group of potential civil partners. For example, a daughter who formed a civil partnership with her mother but subsequently wished to marry would need to prove irretrievable breakdown of the relationship with her mother in order to dissolve their civil partnership. She could do that only by separation from the mother for whom she wished to care, or by proving her mother's unreasonable behaviour. Ironically, that could prove a serious disincentive to marriage and an obstacle to her caring for her mother. I suspect that those who supported the amendments in the House of Lords would keen for both those things to continue. The provisions would not even achieve the objectives that the Lords wanted to further. If the daughter sought a dissolution, she might also be entitled to claim a share of her mother's property, which might result in the mother losing her home if it had to be sold and the proceeds divided to make appropriate provision for her civil partner daughter.

The absurdities continue. A woman who formed a civil partnership with her grandfather would have her own father as a stepson. A grandson might be encouraged not to marry because the financial incentives of the survivor's pension and inheritance tax savings associated with being in a civil partnership with his grandmother would be more enticing. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland rightly pointed out, one can imagine the tearing apart of families as people try to decide which sisters or sons and daughters should enter into a civil partnership with their parents. The position would be untenable. These are not flights of fancy, but the real, practical results of these badly thought-out changes to the Bill.

As I suggested on Second Reading, the Government believe that the amendments would render the Bill incompatible with the European convention on human rights, because they would allow only some family members to form a civil partnership. If civil partnership were open to family members, it would become very difficult to justify distinctions between those family members who are allowed to register as

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civil partners and those who are not. For those and other reasons, the Secretary of State has had to make a statement under section 19(l)(b) of the Human Rights Act 1998 that she is unable to state that the Bill as amended by those amendments would be compatible with convention rights.

Furthermore, the difficulties arise because the Bill has been carefully drafted throughout its two hundred or so clauses on the basis that it will be same-sex couples who form civil partnerships. The registration and dissolution provisions and all the other provisions are interwoven in the Bill on that basis and in no sensible way can they be applied to a wholly different category of people forming civil partnerships.

We are aware of the concerns, particularly of carers, but we do not believe that close family members need legal recognition as civil partners to make sense of their family arrangements. They are already related. The law does not treat them as strangers and in many ways already recognises their relationship. That is not the problem that needs to be solved. Some of those who supported the amendments suggested that they cover the concerns of those who care for other members of their family.

I recognise the concerns about carers, but it is interesting that those who support the rights of relatives who are carers do not support these amendments. It is worth yet again quoting Carers UK, which has promoted over 40 years the cause of people who care for others:

    ''Carers UK believes that there could be many pitfalls with the new amendments to the Bill . . . that could harm the welfare of both the older person and the carer. The changes could have a devastating impact on the income of the carer and the person for whom they care . . . There is a danger that, after some time, the carer and the older person may become locked in a caring situation . . . equally the carer may become locked into the caring situation, unable to choose about whether or not to continue.''

The Solicitors Family Law Association said:

    ''The Lords' amendments have resulted in an unworkable legislative mess''.

The TUC, Citizens Advice, the Law Society, Stonewall and many family law experts recognise the damage that these amendments could cause and support the Bill as it was originally drafted. I hope that I have made it clear that none of what I have said should be taken as showing a lack of concern for people who care for their relatives. In my previous ministerial incarnation in the Department of Health, I had responsibility for carers, so I know that this Government have been the first ever to recognise formally the contribution of carers by developing the national carers strategy.

9.45 am

The Government supported the private Member's Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) that became the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004 on receiving Royal Assent this July. It ensures that carers, should they wish, can take up opportunities that those without caring responsibilities take for granted, and that they receive information about assessments.

Changes to direct payment regulations and the introduction of short-term break voucher schemes

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introduced in 2003 mean that carers have gained much more flexibility in how they can access short breaks from caring. Carers have told the Government that that is important in increasing their choices, options and control over their own lives. The carers grant was introduced by this Government in 1999, and it now stands at six times its amount on being introduced. It has provided an extra £325 million over the past five years for breaks and services for carers.

We have recognised the difficulties that some people face and the contribution to the community that their dedication can bring. It would be cold comfort to them to introduce legislation that makes a mockery of their needs by distorting the original purpose of this Bill. I have no doubt that many of those who supported the amendments in another place did so for the best of motives. I hope that I have made it clear that, sadly, in doing so, they have not achieved the objectives they set out to achieve, and they have created an unworkable Bill.

I hope that hon. Members will support the removal of the Lords amendments, enabling us to ensure that the Bill is restored to its original purpose and that it will again provide a reasonable and fair solution for same-sex couples by removing the disadvantages that they have faced in the past.

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