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House of Lords

Friday, 25th January 2002.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Bradford.

Business of the House: Debates, 28th January

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That Standing Order 40 (Arrangement of the Order Paper) be dispensed with on Monday next to allow the Motion standing in the name of the Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean to be taken before the European Communities (Amendment) Bill.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Civil Partnerships Bill [HL]

11.1 a.m.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill : My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill enables unmarried couples living in a mutually supportive relationship to make provision for their joint protection within a coherent legal framework.

It has been prepared in collaboration with Stonewall, especially its wise director, Angela Mason, to whom I pay tribute. It has been drafted by a former parliamentary counsel, Stephanie Grundy, whose skill and experience have made it possible to produce a measure dealing with an important and complex subject, cutting a path through the tangled thicket of undergrowth of family, property, social security and pensions law, on none of which I am an expert. I am also grateful to two able young lawyers in my political office, Jane Gordon and Angela Patrick, for their marvellous contribution over eight months' work.

The Bill has the support of the Law Society and of the Solicitors Family Law Association, as well as of the media, with the exception of today's Daily Telegraph. We have received many letters of support from noble Lords who cannot be present today, including the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon, who has asked me to mention his support, as well as from many members of the public.

I am grateful that so many noble Lords have attended on this Friday morning to speak or take part in the debate and I look forward eagerly to their contributions.

What is the pressing social need for legislation of this kind? English law gives full effect to the bond between couples if they are lawfully married, but not if they are unmarried. Whether people living together

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are of the same sex or of both sexes, the law treats them much less favourably than married couples, even if they have close and long-standing relationships. Cohabiting partners, unlike married ones, do not enjoy a standard set of legal rights and responsibilities. In several ways their legal position is either inferior or not recognised as a family status at all.

Gay and lesbian couples suffer especially from this ancient source of injustice. As Justice Ackermann recently noted, for a unanimous Constitutional Court of South Africa in the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality v. Minister of Home Affairs case, same sex partners are as capable as heterosexual spouses,

    "of forming intimate, permanent, committed, monogamous, loyal and enduring relationships, of furnishing emotional and spiritual support; and of providing physical care, financial support and assistance in running the common household".

Justice Ackermann also rightly observed that the message of the denial of equal rights to same sex as to opposite sex partners,

    "is that gays and lesbians lack the inherent humanity to have their families . . . respected or protected. It serves in addition to perpetuate and reinforce existing prejudices and stereotypes".

That is, unfortunately, the intolerant and narrow-minded message still conveyed by Section 28 of the Local Government Act when it refers to homosexuality as a "pretended family relationship". It is no more a pretended family relationship than is a caring, sharing and loving relationship between two heterosexuals who live together in a stable, long-term relationship.

The problems covered by the Bill stem from the lack of a proper legal framework recognising the status of unmarried cohabiting couples. English law lags far behind many European and Commonwealth countries in this respect; countries as diverse as France, Germany and the Netherlands, as well as the Nordic countries, and Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

While the position in England and Wales is largely stagnant, in Scotland, the Scottish Executive has adopted the Scottish Law Commission's 1992 proposals on reform of cohabitation law, and they are likely to be enacted in the near future. Furthermore, in Northern Ireland the Law Reform Advisory Committee has made important recommendations, including the automatic sharing of beneficial interests of the family home purchased or transferred after a cohabitation period of two years.

But in England and Wales, when it comes to important questions of inheritance, pensions, next-of-kin entitlements and social security, cohabitants cannot obtain full recognition of their relationship. To take one recent example, Anna Homsi was the long-term partner of an SAS member killed in Sierra Leone. Because they were not married, Anna was refused a war widow's pension by the Ministry of Defence, and although eventually she received an ex gratia payment, the government scheme continues to discriminate against unmarried couples.

Unmarried couples who cohabit face immense and distressing difficulties in securing legal recognition of their caring and enduring family lives. They do not

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enjoy full rights to communal property, or the right to be treated as next of kin by state agencies such as hospitals in the event of serious illness, or to make beneficial pension and life assurance arrangements. Unlike widows and widowers, they are not relieved from inheritance tax on the death of their partner. Gay people have notoriously experienced cruel treatment after their partners have died, especially if they died intestate, when members of the family of the deceased partner, refusing to accept the relationship, have taken over the home and the property which the partners have shared in common for many years. It is even uncertain whether cohabitation contracts are enforceable in English law.

Many pension schemes make no provision for survivor benefits for same-sex couples. The Fatal Accident Act 1976 does not allow same-sex partners to claim bereavement damages for the wrongful death of a partner. The Law Commission has recommended that this injustice should be removed. An opposite-sex partner cannot even register her partner's death or sign for his funeral.

On the other hand, there is the anomaly that, because their relationship is not recognised, same-sex couples do not have their means assessed as a couple for the purposes of income tax and social security.

English law has not remained entirely static. Legal rights and restrictions similar to those applicable to married couples have been extended to heterosexual couples in some contexts—for example, the right to accede to an assured tenancy; the right to claim financial provision against a deceased partner's estate; and the right to apply for the transfer of the family home on the breakdown of a relationship. But in other situations the law continues to ignore the cohabitation relationship, as is nearly always the case with gay couples.

Meanwhile, the pattern of family life has changed dramatically and continues to change. Marriages in Britain are now at their lowest level since 1917 and the divorce rate is the highest in the European Union. There has been a large increase in cohabitation in recent years and a quarter of all children are now born to cohabiting families. Yet this spread of cohabitation outside marriage has not yet been recognised through any coherent law reform.

The authors of a recent report by the authoritative National Centre for Social Research point out that only a quarter of those surveyed think married couples make better parents than unmarried ones. Two-thirds think that it is acceptable for a couple to live together without being married. Despite this, there is considerable support for marriage as an ideal, and among past cohabitants the majority go on to marry their partner.

The survey found that more than half wrongly believe that there is something called "common law marriage" which gives cohabiting couples the same rights as married ones. Common law marriages were in fact abolished in 1753 by Lord Hardwicke's narrowly

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restrictive Marriage Act, yet more than half of those surveyed think, mistakenly, that couples who live together have the same rights as married people.

English marriage law consists of a centuries-old accumulation of legislation and common law precedents reflecting traditional religious and social concepts from Lord Hardwicke's time and well before. For those who choose to marry, whether from religious conviction or otherwise, the institution of marriage will always remain and will always be fully protected. Indeed, a civil partnership may often lead to a full religious or civil marriage. But many heterosexual couples do not wish to organise their common life in this way, and same-sex couples, of course, cannot choose to do so.

Along with the increasing number of heterosexual couples choosing not to marry, or choosing to cohabit before they eventually do marry, there has been an increase in the number of homosexual men and women who wish to secure public and legal recognition of their partnerships. Their wish should surely be respected.

The time is over-ripe for legislation to create a legally recognised civil partnership system. The law needs to do more than to equalise the position between same-sex and opposite-sex couples because of the inadequate nature of the rights conferred on unmarried couples generally. The Bill seeks to achieve a law which gives full partnership rights and responsibilities to all mature adults, whether same sex or opposite sex, who wish to enter into a binding legal compact to organise their common life together.

Members of the other place have already voted to allow pension rights for their own unmarried partners. In the words of Angela Mason,

    "If it's good enough for them, it's good enough for us".

The Civil Service pension scheme, too, is relaxing its rules on dependants from October. According to a well-informed article in the Financial Times on 10th January by Jean Eaglesham and Robert Budden, the cost implications of extending pension benefits have not deterred the private sector.

The Bill creates a code which consenting unrelated adults can agree to adopt. It is a reform that works for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples who want to support and care for each other by entering into a civil partnership.

The National Centre's social attitudes survey found that, since 1989, views about the necessity of marriage preceding parenthood had changed across the board, even among the most traditional groups. There are distinctive age differences in opinion, reflecting differences between the old and more traditional generation and their replacement by the more liberal generations born after them—differences that reflect how people's views on these matters are shaped distinctively by the social climate in which they grew up. Not surprisingly, those over the age of 65 remain the most traditional in their outlook. We senior citizens are, of course, especially well represented in this House.

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In the other place, it is noteworthy that Jane Griffiths, the Labour MP, was given leave on 24th October 2001 to bring in her Bill on the subject by 179 votes to 59. We hope that, despite the difference in age and generation, this Bill will have strong support in this, if I may respectfully say so, more elderly House too. The Bill reflects a core Liberal Democrat policy commitment, but we hope that it will have support from all parts of the House, as well as from the younger and democratically accountable other place.

I turn to the main provision of the Bill. I shall do so briefly, because we have provided detailed Explanatory Notes, which are available in the Printed Paper Office, together with an opinion by my colleague, David Pannick QC, explaining his view that the Bill is fully compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Part 1 deals with the formation of a civil partnership. It provides for the registration of a relationship between two individuals. It sets out the conditions that must be satisfied before the relationship can be registered and outlines the procedure to be followed to secure registration. Some details relating to the registration are to be kept on a record available for public inspection. Civil partnerships will be formed voluntarily by means of a simple procedure recorded by a registrar or other public official.

Part 2 deals with the effect of a civil partnership. It sets out the legal framework within which civil partnerships will function. It provides essential protection for partners in the face of adverse circumstances, such as ill health, domestic violence or death. It extends to civil partners the circumstances in which joint assessment is to be made for means-tested benefits. Their home will be communal property and shared equally in the absence of agreement by the partners to the contrary. Partnership agreements will be binding except in cases of financial or other hardship.

Part 3 deals with the ending of a civil partnership. The partnership will be able to be dissolved by mutual consent or by court order. Couples will be able to make their own arrangements for separation. Where they do not do so, a standard procedure will apply. The court will have the power to intervene to make appropriate orders in relation to the partners' property interests in the event of an application by either partner.

With all respect to the Christian Institute, which organises political lobbies, and to today's Daily Telegraph, the Bill is not a threat to marriage. The fact that for many people marriage is the best framework in which to raise children is no reason for the state to fail to protect those who choose to cohabit, or who have no choice. The Bill may well actually promote marriage, since many heterosexual couples who have been successful and happy in a civil partnership may decide in the light of their experience to move to a religious or civil marriage. That is a matter of personal choice. In any event, it is unjust to continue to penalise opposite sex couples for not choosing to marry—

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unjust to them and to their children. They need legal protection and encouragement to live together as stable and loving families.

Civil partnership provides the means of allowing couples who cannot or would not marry to base their common life on a firm legal foundation. The Bill enables men and women to come together to form a caring relationship of mutual support protected by law. It provides fair and appropriate remedies for different family situations. It may be criticised for not going further in its scope, but we have deliberately decided to introduce a measure conspicuous for its moderation.

The Bill does not attempt to tackle every problem in this area, but it tackles many of them. In a generally supportive article in The Times on Monday, the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, whom I am delighted to see in his place and for whose support I am very grateful, pointed out that the Bill does not provide for a civil partnership to be converted into a marriage. That would be an unnecessary complication. If a heterosexual couple wish to end a civil partnership in order to marry, there will be nothing to prevent them from doing so. The noble Lord also regarded it as a weakness that the Bill does not deal with matters affecting the interests of children arising from civil partnerships or their break-up. We have not dealt with this both to avoid unnecessary controversy and complexity, and because we believe that the interests of children are better dealt with by changes to children's and family law dealing with matters such as adoption and custody.

The noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, raised an important further point regarding extending the protections provided by the Bill to, as he terms them, "partnerships of care", which could involve parents and their children, brothers and sisters, brothers and brothers or whatever. I can deal with the issue in my reply if it is raised, but there are valid reasons why we have not included that category of persons within the context of the Bill. Nevertheless, we recognise that the point may require fuller consideration and we remain entirely open-minded on the subject. We are concerned partly to avoid abuse that may arise by going too wide in the scope of the Bill.

The Bill has remarkably widespread public support. It certainly has wider public support than I dreamt was possible when we first thought about it. To lead to much-needed law reform and the effective protection of human rights it needs the active support and skill of the Government and of civil servants. I am grateful to the Leader of the House and to Barbara Roche MP, the Minister of State responsible in the Cabinet Office, for having met us to discuss the Bill. We hope that the Bill will be a catalyst for a strongly positive response by the Government, so that we may secure, at long last, the equal protection of the law for unmarried couples. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Lester of Herne Hill.)

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11.26 a.m.

Lord Alli: My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, for introducing the Bill. I also thank him for the detailed Explanatory Notes, which I much enjoyed.

The Bill recognises above all that people who choose to cohabit, especially in long-term relationships, can find their world turned upside down when their partner dies or is incapacitated. The Bill is not about gay rights, although it affects the gay community. It is not about marriage, although it affects those who are unmarried. Most importantly, it is not about undermining marriage. It is about recognising that being part of a long-term relationship should enable individuals in that relationship to enjoy the security that they would have if they were married.

I believe—as I know do many others in the House—that this is a fair Bill. A Government such as ours, committed to fairness and justice, in my view have a moral obligation to give the Bill safe passage. I know that it is easy to get caught up in the workings of government and that it is difficult for Ministers, especially in this place, to navigate their way through the labyrinth of government departments, but I remind my noble and learned friend the Leader of the House and colleagues in government that we—not the Civil Service—decide what should and should not happen. In areas such as this we can prove that we are a radical government. Our deeds should speak louder than our words.

Let me give a couple of examples of the kind of misery and injustice that the current law inflicts and why we need to rectify it. Your Lordships may recall the late Lord Montague of Oxford, who, although he was only briefly in your Lordships' House, made an outstanding contribution to its work. He died in this Chamber. He had been in a relationship for 30 years with a very kind and distinguished gentleman. They shared both their lives and their home. I should like to read to your Lordships an extract from a letter sent to me by his partner. He said:

    "On 5th November 1999 my partner, Lord Montague of Oxford, died in the Lords suddenly. We had a wonderful 30 years of truly loving happy relationship. Of course, there were some ups and downs like any 'married couple'. He worked very hard for the country throughout his adult life until the day he died. It was the most devastating day of my entire life and I will never forget it.

    I was then faced with the burden of paying inheritance tax.

    Like married couples we pay various taxes such as VAT and income tax. Of course this is correct, but when it comes to inheritance tax married couples are exempt and do not pay a penny when one of them dies. This is absolutely unfair to unmarried couples and I wish to support the changes of the law for unmarried couples who have genuine relationships.

    Please consider my experience and I would urge you to take action as soon as you can so that people who have genuine relationships will not suffer the same burden as I faced recently".

So not only did Lord Montague's partner have to deal with the utter desolation to his life; he also lost his home and was forced to sell his possessions in order to pay the inheritance tax.

Surely this cannot be right. We have recognised this unfairness and we have put provisions in place to prevent husbands and wives suffering this very

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injustice. It is unfair to make people sell their family homes—and it is high time that people who are not married, or who cannot be married, are given the same protections.

I am sure that many gay men and gay women would want to register a civil partnership—not as a form of marriage, but as a form of security. It would provide them with the peace of mind that, when they die, they would leave at least some security for their partners. Such security cannot be over-stated.

Noble Lords may have read recently of the death of Sir Nigel Hawthorne, who was one of our greatest actors. He leaves behind a partner of nearly 20 years. Sir Nigel's long-term companion will now be deprived of many of the rights referred to. He will now have inheritance tax to pay on Sir Nigel's estate, and may be forced to sell many of their treasured possessions. That, too, cannot be right.

I ask the Government not to be afraid of public opinion, for I believe it is with us on this issue. Indeed, it was Richard Littlejohn, in the Sun, who expressed support for civil partnerships. Perhaps I may quote from his article in the Sun on 7th September 2001:

    "You don't have to be Peter Tatchell to be in favour of ending discrimination against unmarried couples in certain areas. Nor do you have to support the full gay 'rights agenda' or believe that homosexual partnerships should be put on an equivalent footing to conventional marriage.

    I remain implacably opposed to adoption by gay couples, artificial insemination on the NHS for lesbians, the repeal of Clause 28 and the legalisation of open-air gay sex"—

clearly I have a great deal of work to do before Richard becomes a new man!—

    "But the law as it stands at the moment is blatantly unfair to homosexual couples in stable, long-term relationships in the areas of health, pensions and employment benefits"—

matters that need to be re-examined. He continues:

    "For instance, why should a homosexual be denied visiting rights when his partner is seriously ill in hospital? Why should a man who has lived in a council flat for donkey's years be evicted when his partner dies, simply because his name is not on the rent book? Why should a lesbian have to go to an industrial tribunal to get the same employment benefits as a married colleague?".

I do not always find myself in agreement with Mr Littlejohn's opinions, but even he can see the benefits of civil partnerships; he can see the benefits of bringing stability to relationships—and stability is what our society needs.

I also seem to be able to find support from another, more surprising, quarter; namely, from the Conservative Party. Mr John Bercow, the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has stated:

    "We have got to recognise that, in important respects, gays and lesbians in this country and unmarried heterosexuals suffer discrimination. In relation to gays, on hospital visiting rights, on decisions relating to hospital treatment, on the entitlement, or rather lack of it, of a gay partner to register his partner's death, gays suffer serious and, in my view, totally unacceptable discrimination. So in key respects the Conservative Party can be a champion of gay rights".

I shall, of course, be passing his comments on to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, who is not in her place as she has been unwell. I should like to pass on my best wishes for her speedy recovery. I look forward to seeing her in her place soon.

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This is not a controversial Bill. It is a compassionate Bill, and should be seen as such. It should demonstrate the goodness, understanding and tolerance in our society. I know that the Government have many vested interests that they must balance. I know that it is sometimes hard to stand up for the things that we all believe in; and that it is sometimes difficult to keep the country together when dealing with sensitive issues.

I ask the Government to think seriously about finding a way to get this Bill on the statute book. They have a rich tradition of protecting and expanding people's rights. I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House will give me the reassurance that they will continue to do so, and that they will give the Bill a safe passage.

11.34 a.m.

Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, this Private Member's Bill is very wide in scope—too wide—and the helpful, but very necessary, notes bear witness to that. I predict that, as it goes through its stages, including a Committee of the Whole House, it is likely to run out time. However, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, is a clever and patient man. He toiled long and hard for the Human Rights Act. Again, in this Bill he presents important issues of principle which have already aroused great interest in the media. Such a Bill, even if it falls, could become the precursor to later government legislation. Therefore, it is important to respond today, in your Lorships' House, where the Bill originates. The Bill, to quote the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, is about home-sharing and caring partnerships in which sex may or may not have played a part.

There are three important social issues. I begin with the question of heterosexual cohabiting couples who choose not to get married. The partners are not recognised as a unit. They have few protections and may be left in poverty as single parents. That is sad—and unnecessary, because the protections that such people seek are readily available to them. They have the option of a form of civil registration at a register office. To give heterosexuals who choose not to take on the responsibilities of marriage the privileges of those who do marry would not fulfil the aim of all legislation; namely, promoting the well-being of society.

Marriage involves a publicly declared commitment. It has an inter-generational role in linking former generations and future generations. It is the environment where shared values and support are best transmitted. Above all—little mentioned in the Bill—marriage has children at its very heart. If the marriage fails, they are the first and proper concern. In the proposed civil partnership, children are mentioned only in terms of property, non-molestation, inheritance and intervention orders.

Cohabiting couples can still gain the majority of benefits included in the Bill by instructing a solicitor or by going through the courts. They can, for example, set up a cohabitation arrangement; they can write a will. There are many other examples. It is time-consuming,

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it is not simple, and it is not easy. But nor is marriage. No, I do not support this part of the Bill and I urge the noble Lord, Lord Lester, to remove it lest the whole Bill founder on it.

Homosexual partnerships were movingly described by the noble Lord, Lord Alli. The proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, have the two underlying principles of freedom of association and equality under the law to support them. The Bill relates to a surprisingly small group of people in our society, but a group who suffer for their difference in many ways and who are asking to have recognised their provenly committed relationship.

I would argue that it is preferable for a homosexual lifestyle to be lived within the context of a single committed relationship and recognised as such. This is not "marriage", nor do I think it claims to be. God gave us that wonderful sacrament as the building-block for society; ordained for the procreation of children and nurturing them; as a remedy against sin; and for the mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have in the other, both in prosperity and in adversity.

However, for the safety and harmony of society, I believe that some legal protection should be sought to support those loving monogamous relationships and to protect them better in age and sickness and in death. It must be said, however, that as in the case of the first group I described, many of the Bill's proposed financial benefits can be obtained by instructing a solicitor or remembering to make a will.

The third group is perhaps the largest and is growing. We have an ageing population and many old people in need of care and support—widows, widowers, those who are divorced, spinsters and bachelors. Living together in company, they can maintain their independence from the state by sharing their resources and be a comfort and joy to each other. Those are good, caring relationships to be encouraged.

Sadly, the Bill gives only some of those partnerships legal status and protection from inheritance tax. There is a prohibition on family partnerships—"close relations of each other" are the words used—which seems at odds with care of the aged when so often it is just such a family member who is involved in relieving the state of a heavy burden and benefiting society as a whole. I urge the noble Lord, Lord Lester, to reconsider and to remove that prohibition from the Bill.

Much in the Bill is good. However, I ask myself whether we need the Bill. I am aware that the Government are in the process of a cross-departmental review of the implications of granting rights and benefits to cohabiting couples. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether consultation is under way and how soon the review will be completed. Would it be better for the House to wait and hear the Government's proposals? The objectives may all be possible within the general context of family law.

Is not the removal of inheritance tax part of the answer to many of the problems highlighted in the Bill? Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether the

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Government are already considering such a proposal. After all, the tax is divisive and expensive to collect. It is not worth the effort, and its removal would go a long way to providing one of the financial protections that the Bill tries so hard to achieve.

I wish the noble Lord, Lord Lester, good fortune in the long weeks ahead.

11.42 a.m.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I should like to join my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill in his tribute to Angela Mason. It is a matter of some pride to me that Angela Mason is a former pupil of mine. It illustrates very clearly that anything one may do for one's pupils is very, very far from adequately measured in the conclusion of their degrees. That is a mind that I observe continuing to grow and I take pleasure in it.

I should, of course, also like to pay tribute to my noble friend, not only for introducing this Bill but for a lifetime of service to the principle of non-discrimination. I have a great deal of respect and some affection for Mr Oliver Letwin. But when Mr Letwin, in today's Daily Telegraph, described my noble friend as moralistic, I reflected that when I first met him, Mr Letwin had then reached the magnificent old age of nine. My noble friend, it is true, does not like unkindness and does not like intolerance, but if that makes us moralistic, I hope there are quite a few moralistic people in this Chamber. I have seen no other signs of it.

I remember a day nearly 40 years ago—indeed, it was so nearly 40 years ago that it may well be within 40 years before the Bill leaves this House—when my wife, as she has since become, and I were waiting for a bus in Oxford high street. We decided, after some thought, that we would prefer to go through a ceremony of marriage rather than live together as partners. I have not regretted that decision. However, her two sisters took the equivalent decision in exactly the opposite respect. When I look at those three couples, the independent variables, especially the medical ones, so dominate the mind that I am unable to say whether any or all or some of us took the decision right. One simply cannot isolate the necessary variables.

There are two things of which I am certain. The first is that they were private decisions that concerned only the six people directly involved in taking them. The second is that the decisions, as I have observed them over a generation, set up relationships that were exactly morally equivalent. When I heard the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, refer to cohabiting couples refusing to take on the responsibility, I simply did not recognise what I have observed within my own family circle. The remark made no sense to me.

The other thing that the example demonstrates is that it is not always an unmitigated evil to have to wait for a bus. That conversation with my wife broadened out into a conversation about the place of ceremony in modern life—which I think is the right context in which to discuss this particular issue. There has been a

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move away from ceremony. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, in matters of dress, is very well aware of that move. Personally, I happen to like ceremony. But I happen also to like choice and to dislike compulsion. So the principles are weighed against each other. I think that this Bill does that right. It allows people to choose the way of relating that fits their own conscience and their own conviction.

I think that that is right, and it is part of a growing trend. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 1986, 5 per cent of couples were cohabiting. In 1999, it was 15 per cent—a fairly rapid rate of growth. In the 1997 general election, when I spent a lot of time canvassing in the constituencies of Folkestone, Christchurch and Richmond—not, I think, the most bohemian parts of the British Isles—what I was finding on the doorsteps just about fitted that information. It is not a good idea to tell such a large body of our fellow citizens that we do not think they are respectable because, after all, they might return the compliment.

There are many more disadvantages facing cohabiting couples than we have had time to consider so far. One which is particularly topical at the moment is the right of being recognised as next of kin by a hospital—the right of being notified if the person one loves has an accident. It is perfectly reasonable to prefer to be visited in hospital by the person one loves and lives with than by a blood relative from whom one may be many years estranged. I remember one story my wife told me when she came back from the hairdresser. She had been told that she had been allocated someone who was not her usual hairdresser and that she should, "Treat him gently. His father is being buried at this moment. Because he happens to be homosexual, his brother has said he will set the dogs on him if he shows up anywhere near the funeral". If that is the sort of next of kin one has in blood, obviously one would prefer to be visited and have decisions taken by the person one loves. That is the sort of thing that this Bill would put right.

There are regularly problems in immigration law, and the Ministers on the Front Bench know that I have often bothered them with letters about that. I think that they and I would be quite relieved if I did not have to write them about the subject, and that there is no need for unnecessary work. There is, for example, the right to take responsibility for a funeral. Currently, many funerals are paid for out of public funds, from the social fund, when there is a gay partner who would be happy and willing to undertake the cost of providing a proper funeral the way it ought to be done.

The central argument on the other side has been so far an argument about children. It is a real issue. Exactly what does the evidence say? It says that cohabiting couples are more likely to part than couples who go through the ceremony of marriage. But two questions arise. First, what does that evidence prove? Secondly, are we, in fact, statistically comparing like with like?

I do not believe that anyone disputes that it is better to be brought up by two happy parents than by two unhappy parents. However, when one compares

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couples who have separated with the whole body of married couples who stay together, one is comparing a sample who are, by definition, unhappy, with a sample of the whole of married couples, of whom I believe that the majority are still happy.

That is not comparing like with like. What we really need to know—and I cannot see a research method of tackling this question—is whether, when a couple are unhappy, it is better for them to stay together unhappy, or to separate.

Ideas have changed on that. Marriage used to be a prison. When this issue was first raised in Parliament in 1610 the Church took a much more generous line than the state as regards the provision of alimony for separated couples—usually in cases of domestic violence. The House of Commons said that that was to the great encouragement of wives to be disobedient and contemptuous against their husbands.

We have moved on a little since then. How far we ought to move on is a question on which I cannot see an adequate research method and I am, therefore, prepared to act on the hypothesis that the couple concerned are more likely to be good judges of their own interests than a state which does not know the particular circumstances. So I am not prepared to meddle too much in this. Furthermore, those statistics, I believe, need to be taken with a certain academic caution.

There are many other cases that I will not go into but I believe that we need to put the matter in context with some of the complaints that have been made about our present day society. People constantly complain, sometimes with some reason, that we are becoming too individualistic, too selfish, too atomistic. I do not think that can be changed by legislation. However, when we do have people who are eager and willing to take responsibility for each other's old age, willing to stay with each other when they are sick and they need a carer, willing to take on the troubles of clearing up their estate, it really does not make much sense to refuse them the legal means to do so.

After all, this is something in which they do no injury to others. God knows, we spend enough time in this House talking about matters where the state ought to provide and where it costs the state money to provide. If people want to save the state money by sharing occupational pension rights with each other, for example, that is something that I believe is in the public interest.

If we prohibit that, I believe we are engaged in behaviour which, if we were a local authority, might put us at risk of being surcharged.

11.54 a.m.

The Lord Bishop of Winchester: My Lords, a case could be made for a different Bill with this Title. It would be designed to give to quite a small number of people, in quite long-term relationships, or after such relationships had been ended by death, a limited number of those rights and supports in law, the

25 Jan 2002 : Column 1704

absence of which has, indeed, been found particularly distressing. We have reason to be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alli, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for giving good evidence of those distresses. I believe that such a Bill would be much shorter than the Bill before us. It would give those obligations and rights to people who had been a good deal longer than six months in partnerships which entail no exclusive mutual commitment.

Furthermore, it would set a longer period than 12 months before such partnerships could be terminated. It might also make it simpler than it seems to be at present and that, I believe, was a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. It might also make it simpler than it seems to be at present for people to gain or safeguard some of those rights by existing legal processes.

However, the Bill before us today enumerates all, or nearly all, of the civil obligations and rights resulting from marriage. It proposes to give them to those who have not made the public commitments to each other that are made in marriage and who will not make the same contribution—which is not to say that they will not make any contribution—to the society that gives those obligations and rights that married people make.

I take the Bill's basic premise to be that those living in partnerships short of marriage should have the same rights as those who are married. I believe that that premise is mistaken because it is not comparing like with like. Notwithstanding the assertion of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, (its proposer) and of the noble Lord, Lord Alli, it seems to me that the Bill is bound to have the effect of further undermining, in the eyes of present and future generations, the "institution" of marriage. To undermine marriage is, as the Chief Rabbi has pointed out, like destroying a precious ecosystem on which the security, the maturing, the well-being and the wholesomeness, not only of countless individuals but of our society, now and in the future depends.

I believe that the Bill tends to undermine marriage because it seems to give official backing to the belief already widely held—and often, I recognise, for understandable reasons—that life-long exclusive commitment is no longer really possible. Yet most people still want to marry and 60 per cent of marriages last "till death us do part".

Still more regrettable and damaging, the Bill seems to give official backing to the belief that lifelong exclusive commitment is simply not desirable and that this is a bond that human beings are better and happier without.

A good deal of press comment on the Bill has assumed that the law and government should not discriminate in favour of married people. Furthermore, they comment that this view alone justifies, even requires, a Bill like that before this House today. I believe I heard the noble Lord, Lord Lester, in his opening speech make just that point.

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However, the contrary seems to me to be the case and not only because such discrimination has historically been our tradition in this country. It has been based, yes, in the conviction of the Christian faith that marriage is,

    "a pattern that God has given in creation . . . so that the weakening of marriage has serious implications for the mutual belonging and care that is exercised within the community at large",

based in the belief that marriage is "fundamental to human flourishing".

Again, the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, made those points well. However, there is also a large body of research evidence that confirms those insights, which are not only those, of course, of Christian faith—evidence, for instance, that marriage in general benefits the physical, psychological and emotional health and welfare of adults.

As regards children, the 1998 White Paper Supporting Families said:

    "Marriage is the surest foundation for raising children".

Yet almost uniquely today, in matters of that kind, those advocating reform of the law in the media, if not in your Lordships' House, seem to pay very little attention to research evidence.

In the face of evidence, now from research as well as from major faiths, of the unique value of marriage, it seems to me a straightforward issue of public health that marriage should be supported and promoted; not undermined. It seems to me too that, in our culture today, to try to find some position of value- free neutrality is to join those who, whether unintentionally or intentionally, would discredit and undermine marriage and married people.

I appreciate—and the point has been made clear this morning—that among those whom the Bill was designed to assist are people in same-sex partnerships who find the exclusive, heterosexual relationship of marriage not to be for them; and that it seems unjust and discriminatory that married people should be in receipt of privileges that are not open to them. As I suggested earlier, I would be prepared to see Parliament meet some of that constituency's more pressing concerns in a much shorter, simpler Bill that did not, as this Bill does, equate same-sex and other non-married relationships with marriage; and which did not therefore, in an age when more and more is said about choice rather than about orientation or necessity, in decisions about sexual behaviour, run the risk of encouraging some people at least into those kinds of relationship.

Before I make one final point, as I believe, of substance, I have three brief questions to put to the noble Lord, Lord Lester. Clause 26(3) defends the,

    "entitlement, or accrued right, of any member of [a pension] scheme acquired before the power is exercised".

But thereafter will not there be costs to such members? Are those costs proper and just? Who will bear the additional costs that, if I understand the Bill rightly, Clauses 27 and 28 will impose?

25 Jan 2002 : Column 1706

Secondly—this may be the point of the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, though I have not seen those newspapers today—does not the Bill severely and unfairly disadvantage those who live together, and in one way or another depend on each other, who are related? Or who are not related but are friends and who are not, and do not wish to be thought to be, in a sexual partnership? I have seen it suggested that people in those two categories are more numerous than those who today's Bill has in view. Are not there serious dangers for the future lurking in Clause 30? What is the meaning of Clause 30(4)(b)? Is it that the Minister may note only representations from those whom he chooses to invite to make them?

Lastly, it seems to me that this Bill encourages, by giving substantial rights and obligations to them, relationships that it recognises from the outset are in general not just not permanent, but not even long-term. A year after their inception they may be dissolved within a month if both parties request it, and within nine months at the request of only one party. Where is the logic of the state taking a formal interest in, and what is more expending substantial resources upon, relationships that are so clearly private rather than public? And what meaning does that leave to that fine phrase in Clause 30(4)(d),

    "the gravity of the financial and emotional responsibilities of supporting and caring for the other partner that he is undertaking by entering into the civil partnership".

I believe that the fundamental character of our human sexual, and wider personal, make-up is such that the majority of us thrive most in a permanent, committed and trustworthy relationship; and that by giving so very large a measure of encouragement to relationships most of which are and will continue to be short-term, this Bill is going to have the effect of damaging very many of those whom it seeks to assist.

So I ask your Lordships to vote against a Second Reading today, if we come to a vote. I ask the Government, who have said that they are considering these matters, to consider very carefully indeed the long-term wisdom of proceeding in the directions pointed by this Bill.

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