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25 Mar 2009 : Column 309


Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

12.35 pm

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): I beg to move,

In the summer of 2006, I met a woman in Wakefield who was homeless. My constituent and her 14-year-old daughter were both sleeping on sofas in the living room of a friend’s one-bedroom flat. The woman’s long-term relationship had broken down. She had lived with her male partner for many years, brought up their child, and contributed to all household bills. However, when their relationship broke down, my constituent was entitled to nothing from her ex-partner. She moved out of the family home, to which she was unlikely to be entitled to a share unless she could prove to a court that there was a common intention of joint ownership, either by agreement or by financial contribution to the property. The courts could not consider what might be a fair outcome because she was not married. My constituent and her daughter were left destitute. She had discovered, in the hardest possible way, that there is no such thing as common law marriage. The burden of providing for her and her daughter fell on the state and the taxpayer.

I was delighted to discover at the time that the Law Commission had published a consultation paper on cohabitation in May 2006. It produced its final report in July 2007, which stated:

My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House told the House in October 2006 that legislation would be introduced in 2007 to give new legal rights to the 4 million people who live together. Those rights would also protect their 1.25 million dependent children—children who have no choice about their parents’ living arrangements, but suffer devastating hardship on the breakdown of their parents’ relationship. The old label for those children was illegitimate. Here and now, in the 21st century, they remain literally illegitimate—outside the law. In March 2009, here we are, still awaiting the Government’s proposals.

The case for reform was and remains clear. It is long overdue. In 2004, the General Synod of the Church of England passed a motion, which reaffirmed the centrality of marriage but also

There is an appetite for this Bill in both Houses, and the measure is largely based on the Law Commission’s 2007 report. The wise, noble and learned Lord Lester of Herne Hill introduced the Bill in the other place on 13 March. It is supported by Resolution, an association of 5,500 family lawyers. Before publishing it, there was a public consultation, with nearly 200 responses from: the Law Society of England and Wales; the family division of the High Court; the Family Law Bar
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Association; Families Need Fathers; Refuge, and many other solicitors, academics and individuals. Lord Lester has placed their responses in the Lords Library.

There is also an appetite for the Bill throughout the country. The 2008 British social attitudes survey stated that nearly nine out of 10 people think that a cohabiting partner should have some financial provision if the relationship has been long term and involves children.

Our society has a duty to protect children, whatever family circumstances they find themselves in, but the law as it stands leaves children in poverty when their cohabiting parents’ relationship ends. Today, one in three babies are born outside marriage, compared with just one in 20 in 1963, and 44 per cent. of all children in England and Wales are born to unmarried partners. The proportion of unmarried women who cohabited with a partner trebled between 1979 and 2002, but without a claim on the family home, the mother, who is usually the children’s main carer, becomes homeless. If we are serious about our pledge to end child poverty in this country in the next 10 years, the Bill will have a huge part to play.

However, we need to be clear. The Bill does not give cohabitants the same legal protections as marriage does. Marriage and civil partnership are special and offer specific protections and benefits. The Bill would create a legal framework that applies only on the breakdown of a cohabiting relationship. It may even remove the incentive to cohabit in order to avoid the financial costs of a divorce, which many people do now. The Bill would also allow couples to opt out of those protections to maintain their freedom of choice as individuals.

People meet, they fall in love and they move in together. They may decide not to get married for a variety of reasons. There may be the romantic ideal of true love, and who are we in this place to argue with that? There is the ideological objection to the institution of marriage. People may have left an unhappy marriage and be reluctant to embark on another marriage, whether happy or unhappy, or they may have witnessed their parents’ unhappy marriage and decided, for whatever reason, that marriage is not for them. People may feel too young or be too career minded, or they may be just trying things out with the other person. But they all have one thing in common: rare is the couple who consult a lawyer before they take the step of moving in together.

There is, I have discovered, what sociologists call “optimism bias”, whereby people believe that their love will last for ever—and in some cases, of course, it does. However, it is not surprising that people who are not lawyers should be ignorant of the law or that they may know the law, but allow inertia to creep in. However, the harsh reality is that men and women, whether gay or straight, who live together without a marriage or civil partnership can face devastating poverty and homelessness when their relationship ends.

The Bill would also provide protection for Muslim women who may be married in a religious ceremony abroad, live with their husband in this country for many years and, on the breakdown of the marriage, discover that they were never legally married in this country and that they have no rights whatever.

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In July 2007, the Ministry of Justice concluded in its research paper on its “Living together” campaign that

The Department also pressed for a more consistent message from the Government and policy makers on the non-existence of common-law marriage, saying:

The Department for Work and Pensions recognises cohabitation when establishing people’s benefit claims. It takes into account the duration of the relationship, the performance of household duties and the degree of mutual commitment. Yet when one partner dies, the cohabitant has no right to a bereavement grant, as they are not treated as the other’s next of kin. Currently, therefore, cohabitants have all the responsibilities but none of the rights that marriage bestows. Other Commonwealth countries, including Australia, New Zealand and Canada, give protections to cohabiting couples without detriment to marriage.

The law as it stands is unfair, uncertain and illogical. It penalises the vulnerable and, in particular, the children of cohabitants. The law does not recognise the choices that people make in the 21st century and it does not promote equality of outcomes for families. The Bill is long overdue, humane and compassionate. It promotes fairness social justice and equality before the law, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mary Creagh, Hilary Armstrong, Liz Blackman, Natascha Engel, Ms Sally Keeble, Fiona Mactaggart, Lynda Waltho, Mr. Andy Slaughter, Dr. Evan Harris, John Bercow and Mr. Gordon Marsden present the Bill.

Mary Creagh accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 3 July and to be printed (Bill 81).

25 Mar 2009 : Column 312

Opposition Day

[9th Allotted Day]

Iraq War Inquiry

Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that in both debates, I have selected the amendments in the name of the Prime Minister.

12.45 pm

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): I beg to move,

This is the third time in this Parliament that I have proposed this motion—or something very similar to it—and it is the fourth time that the House has debated the need for a full-scale and wide-ranging inquiry into the origins and conduct of the war in Iraq. It will come as no surprise to anyone that with the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq now imminent and the political and security situation in that country substantially improved in recent times, we are once again returning to this issue a year to the day since we last did so and six years this week since the start of the conflict.

Although it is therefore now a familiar topic for the House, the content of our debate today may be somewhat different from that in previous years, for we are now approaching a new situation in which Government arguments against an inquiry, which have grown steadily thinner as these debates have gone by, have now all but evaporated. In previous years, we made the argument that an inquiry should be commenced irrespective of the circumstances prevailing at the time, but now even those circumstances no longer provide the excuse for not commencing it.

This is not to say that we have been wasting our breath entirely in previous debates, for in each debate the common ground in the House has grown larger as the arguments against an inquiry have been diminished by the passage of time. It is now common ground, I think, that the events surrounding the Iraq war have been so important in shaping world affairs in recent years, made such an impact on the lives of millions, involved our armed forces in such effort and sacrifice, been so fraught with accusations of mistakes made and planning inadequately done and become so relevant to what is happening elsewhere in Afghanistan or to what might happen in other places in the future that it would be inconceivable to turn our minds for ever against inquiring into those events and trying to learn from them.

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Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): The right hon. Gentleman refers to the passage of time. He will, of course, be aware that the passage of time since March 2003 is equivalent to or greater than that of world war two.

Mr. Hague: That is absolutely right, and it is a point that I have made in at least one of the previous debates, and the hon. Gentleman may have made it, too. Yes, it is now six years since the start of the conflict, which is longer than the duration of the entire second world war.

Faced with enormity of these issues and the extent of public expectation that an inquiry will be held, the Government have long since given up the argument that no inquiry may be necessary at all, although it was their starting point in 2006, when this series of debates began—a debate that was launched by the nationalist parties. At that time, the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), who was Foreign Secretary, was very careful not to commit the Government to an inquiry at all, saying that

She also said:

True enough, that careful stonewalling was breached within minutes of the end of that debate by the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), who was Secretary of State for Defence. He went out to St. Stephen’s entrance and said:

Government sources then said that he had made a “slip of the tongue”. However, it was not many months—16 May 2007—before the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), showing early on in the Labour party’s deputy leadership election the skill that she is now employing in the leadership manoeuvring, said:

By the time that we returned to the issue on the Floor of the House in June 2007, ministerial resistance to the idea that an inquiry might be necessary had totally collapsed.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend, like me, deprecate the evidence prayed in aid in the Government amendment that it would be improper to have an inquiry while our troops are in the field, given that historical precedent shows that, for example, in 1940 the Norway campaign was the subject of a full parliamentary debate in the House, and indeed precipitated the downfall of the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain?

Mr. Hague: Yes, my hon. Friend makes one important analogy, which is very attractive to us as it involves the downfall of a Prime Minister. Come to think of it, that idea is probably quite attractive to the Foreign Secretary. There are closer analogies, which I will come to in a moment.

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I was going back two years to June 2007 and the Government’s arguments of that time. Their claim that four separate inquiries had already taken place, therefore obviating the need for any further inquiry, met ridicule in this Chamber and outside it, given that one of those was the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr. David Kelly, another was the Butler report on the use of intelligence and the other two were deliberations by Select Committees, at least one of which had complained loudly that it had little access to information and no co-operation from the Government.

When Ministers were brought back to the Dispatch Box that June, they had themselves occupied a new defensive position, now insisting that there would of course be an inquiry at the appropriate time, but that to commence it there and then would, in the words of the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Derby, South, send a message of “disunity” and possibly

the much wider

That was a bogus argument, but it was a new bogus argument and therefore quite interesting on those grounds. The idea that a militiaman in a Baghdad suburb would be emboldened by the news that the British Government were trying to learn from mistakes—when he could already have read about adverse opinion polls, huge demonstrations and serious divisions among western nations at the UN Security Council as plentiful examples of disunity—did not constitute a serious argument.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Did my right hon. Friend note that, at the beginning of the debate, there were only eight Labour MPs present not on the Front Bench, including the Parliamentary Private Secretary? Does that show that Labour MPs are ashamed of their Government’s position? Does the absence of the Leader of the House show that she is ashamed of the position and wishes that the Government would change it?

Mr. Hague: I do not think that those on the Government Benches now take enormous pride in the Government’s position. Indeed, the variants on this motion that I have tabled in recent years were defeated only by quite narrow majorities, given the balance of parties in the House. I am sure that a huge number of Labour Members want an inquiry to commence, and commence now, as I shall come to argue.

To be fair to the then Foreign Secretary, in 2007, she made the further and more substantial argument that

Many of us in the House have never agreed with that line of argument. Those of us who talk regularly to members of our armed forces, as I do at Catterick garrison in my constituency, have formed a clear view that most of them would welcome an inquiry at any time, since they, above all, are the people who have had to wrestle with the consequences of mistakes that have been made and are extremely interested in ensuring that such mistakes are not repeated. Their morale would be raised, rather than lowered, by knowing that an appropriate inquiry was going on.

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