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Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, if the right reverend Prelate will clarify his questions, I shall endeavour to answer them. I am sure it is my fault, but I did not understand them exactly. In relation to pensions, can he explain exactly what is the problem with which he wants me to deal? Also, what is the mischief in Clause 30 that he is concerned about? If he can clarify those points I shall do my best to reply.

The Lord Bishop of Winchester: My Lords, in relation to the first of those points, it seemed to me that in Clause 26(3) there is a mention that the entitlements and accrued rights of a member of a pension scheme will be safeguarded. But I ask whether there will be costs after the relevant power is exercised.

In relation to the other clause, for reasons which I believe I understand from the Explanatory Notes, a particular note in the Bill was not present. But presumably there will be costs to be borne by someone if the actuarial basis of the scheme is radically changed.

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My third point concerns Clause 30, which is headed,

    "Power to make further provision relating to civil partners".

It seems to me that in general there are questions to be asked in fundamental matters of relationships and morality about Ministers of the Crown making by order, "such further provision". But I was particularly concerned by subsection (4)(b) and the question I asked was whether in fact it means that the Minister may only obtain representations from those whom he chooses to invite to make them.

12.7 p.m.

Baroness Rendell of Babergh: My Lords, I support the Bill with great enthusiasm. Like all in this House in favour of its measures, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for introducing it.

Civil partnership registration is recognised in whole or in part in 11 European countries, and the reforms the Bill seeks to make law here are long overdue.

In this House today we have heard and shall hear stories of distress and injustice. Although primarily practical, the Bill by its very nature is charged with powerful and conflicting emotions and areas of it require anecdotes of hardship to give it force. I shall give only two, both I think pertinent.

The first concerns a heterosexual partnership and happened more than 20 years ago. The male partner, John, whom I knew well, and his girlfriend, Anne, had been together for most of their adult lives. They had not married because they considered marriage immoral, as large numbers of people today still consider what was once called "living in sin", immoral. John suddenly became ill with a rapidly destructive terminal disease. His death was imminent and he realised that when he died, Anne, who earned far less than he, would be left in circumstances which were likely to make it impossible for her to remain in their house.

In spite of their principles, as a desperate measure he married Anne a few days before he died in order to secure for her the pension the private company which employed him would pay to a widow but not to a bereaved partner. Incidentally, that company is now among those which recognise the rights of partners. John considered what he had done dishonourable, but believed he had no choice. Therefore he had compromised his principles and, to put it strongly, cheated his employers because he and his partner of more than 20 years enjoyed no partnership rights.

The other story concerns a homosexual couple, Paul and James, who lived together for 30 years. Compromising principles hardly entered into the question for them since they could not have married even if they wanted to and could not even put their relationship on anything but an illicit level. That, to a greater or lesser extent, is true of all homosexual couples.

Paul died suddenly, aged 63. He had earned a large salary; James, a small one. They jointly owned their house but as its value far exceeds the exemption threshold of "242,000, James faces a large bill for

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inheritance tax which may mean the loss of his home and, possibly, their collection of first editions. Matters would be very different were he a surviving husband. James was not allowed to register Paul's death. Paul's family refused to allow him any say in funeral arrangements, recognising him only as Paul's servant which they told everyone he had been.

Prejudice within the family, critics may call a private matter, a question of personal taste and even principle. But the law exercises a strong influence over public opinion, if only gradually. The establishment of a regulated scheme of civil partnerships as well as righting a grave injustice would be far-reaching and do much to change the views of those who believe gay and lesbian people are, by their nature, promiscuous and incapable of sustained fidelity. Ironically, it is those same people who oppose any measures to change the status quo.

A law that gave to unmarried heterosexual and homosexual couples similar, if not identical, rights to those enjoyed by the married would demonstrate approval or, at least, tolerance of homosexuality and so-called common law situations—similar, but not the same, rights.

Eleven European countries now allow legal rights to lesbian and gay partners in varying degrees as to succession and/or tenancy. Sweden, the European Union country I know best, has since 1995 granted to homosexual couples registration of their partnership and succession of tenancy on death. After an initial rush to register, there has been a steady maintenance of figures and, in several years, a climb so that in the year 2000 a total of 892 couples had registered. But under Swedish law, the same rights as those of married couples have not been granted. Same-sex partners may not adopt children; women partners cannot receive artificial insemination.

No-one wishes to undermine marriage, which many believe to be an honourable estate instituted by God. And marriage is not proposed here. If it were, there would be no need for the registration of civil partnerships for heterosexual couples.

In today's Daily Telegraph, Mr. Oliver Letwin writes,

    "There is no need to create a separate category of registered civil partnerships for mixed-sex couples, because anyone seeking these rights can attain them by marrying."

That is an opinion echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. What Mr. Letwin fails to understand is that many mixed-sex partners are against marriage on principle. And when he adds:

    "Our policies and our laws should reflect the world as it is,"

he is lacking in recognition of the dislike, held by people like the noble Earl, Lord Russell, of ceremonies, wherever they may be held and by whomsoever they may be conducted, which bind two people together in a union that, if it fails, must be dissolved by a court of law.

I know a couple who have lived together for more than 50 years. They have children, grandchildren and a great grandchild but have never married. They see marriage as a denial of strong socialist and atheistic

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principles. Those principles are not mine, but I respect the right of serious, well-informed people to hold them.

Why registration? In certain parts of the world, heterosexual couples are considered married for legal purposes if they have cohabited for a certain period. Such recognition might be extended to homosexual couples. But in the circumstances of a still, sadly, prevailing climate of prejudice against homosexuals, it is desirable for those wishing to enjoy partnership rights to opt into a registration scheme, just as it would be expedient for heterosexual partners so to do.

Here, I must differ from my noble friend Lord Alli. I cannot agree that this Bill is not, to some extent, about gay rights. Registration indicates commitment and the declared assumption of rights and responsibilities. By giving recognised status to homosexual couples, it would have the effect of encouraging partners to come out of the closet and make a relationship, to which they have a perfect right, obvious and public. To establish one's partner as next-of-kin would be a great leap forward.

Cohabiting heterosexuals mostly no longer feel it necessary to save face or placate families by a pretence of being married or "just good friends." The British Social Attitudes Survey carried out last year found that 67 per cent of the public believed it was all right for couples to live together without intending to marry. And cohabiting heterosexuals are treated as married couples for the purposes of income support, housing benefit and other social security payments.

However, we still live in a climate where every homosexual couple I have ever known has felt a need for some degree of concealment of their relationship. That may mean no more than never alluding to the refurbishment of "our" bedroom or the hotel room they stayed in as "ours", except to their closest friends. The pretence that two men in a sexual relationship are just two bachelors sharing a home or two maiden ladies living together for companionship is far less common than it was, but is still with us. Years of prosecuting male homosexuals and the consequent fear of discovery that that gave rise to, although more than 30 years in the past, cast a long shadow, still hanging over many today. Often, the hardest thing for anyone in a same-sex relationship to do is to confront their parents and be open about their sexual orientation.

Opting into a partnership registration scheme might— I believe, will—go some way to changing this. Same-sex couples who wish to avail themselves of its benefits would be obliged to come out of the closet to register. This would be a step nearer to loving and faithful partners reaching open acknowledgement of their closeness in the same way as happily married couples do today.

12.16 p.m.

Baroness Ludford: My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the excellent speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell.

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I would like to thank my noble friend, Lord Lester, for the hard work that he has put into this Bill. His dedication to this cause springs out of his enormous experience and reputation as a human rights and equal opportunities lawyer. It is informed by great legal wisdom but also by his deep humanity.

This is a very moral Bill. It is about allowing people who are committed to each other to get public recognition and legal support for their partnership and to experience the rituals and rites of passage which affirm and reinforce their mutual love and the legal bolstering which delivers security. Nothing could strengthen society more than adding to the sum of its commitment, duty, devotion and stability.

I speak not just as an individual firmly in support of this Bill, but as a Liberal Democrat. Our party has adopted support for a civil partnership law as its formal policy. There is, of course, a strong strand of civil rights campaigning in my party which I strongly endorse. But we are also a party strongly influenced by a sense of morality. A high proportion of our members are religious. So I do not accept that to be in favour of a civil partnership law is somehow to weaken the moral basis of society. On the contrary, it reinforces it.

The excellent briefing from Stonewall opens with the remark,

    "The traditional stereotype of homosexuals as lonely people forming, at best, casual relationships, is still prevalent."

They could have added that that derogatory stereotype often extends "casual" to "promiscuous". It is a curious paradox that this stereotype coexists, unhappily, with the prejudice against a recognition by society of same-sex partnerships. There is a profound inconsistency between deploring the decline of commitment to long-term relationships—"the breakdown of society"—and refusing support to existing committed partnerships.

Many people were deeply moved by the personal stories that emerged from The Admiral Duncan pub bombing in Soho a few years ago, that hate-filled despicable act of violence. I refer to the fact that a gay partner could not be treated as next of kin to be consulted on medical treatment or was ineligible for criminal compensation and the stark contrast that was thrown up, because the victims included a heterosexual married couple as well as homosexual couples, between the legal treatment of those different sets of partners.

I have spoken so far of people who, being gay, are unable to marry. But of course the Bill provides an alternative to marriage for those opposite sex couples who could marry but choose not to. I can identify with the reasons why people might not want to marry. Marriage still carries some baggage of patriarchy and second-class status for women, as so scandalously represented in the past by the Married Women's Property Act, and the denial until so recently of independent taxation for married women. Marriage also has a strong religious overtone. The Times itself acknowledged that people might have personal or philosophical reasons for declining to marry.

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Much has, of course, changed in the past 20 years since my husband and I got married. We chose a registry office and a civil ceremony in order to enshrine an emphasis on a more modern and equal partnership than a Church wedding, for us, represented. Who knows if the civil partnership proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, had been available then whether we might not have chosen it. It would be good to have that choice.

The wisdom of the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, is not to try to stretch the institution of marriage. In other countries this has been done, notably in the Netherlands where gay people can marry in civil marriages in exactly the same way as heterosexual couples. But I believe that the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, to have this separate channel of civil registered partnership, is the right one here and now in the United Kingdom. I believe that there can therefore be a meeting of minds from different directions on keeping marriage as a ring-fenced institution co-existing with civil partnership. I really cannot see therefore how someone like Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail yesterday can claim that the real agenda of this Bill is

    "to destroy the institution of marriage",

as it deliberately and carefully steers clear of marriage.

There is also a profound muddle at the heart of Ms Phillips' thinking. She equates cohabitation with recognised legal partnership in blaming both for being the biggest threat to marriage. But civil partnerships would shift some relationships from the category of unrecognised and informal to legally recognised commitment, surely many more than would "downshift", if you like, from marriage to civil partnership. So the net result is a gain not a loss in socially beneficial and legally sanctioned long-term commitment.

The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, would regulate rights to joint communal property in the event of dissolution or death, the right to be treated as next of kin in emergencies and to make proper pension, health and life assurance arrangements. The Stonewall briefing gives some life story examples of the sheer injustice of discrimination in these areas. We all have friends or family in unrecognised relationships. I can think of two particular sets of friends in gay partnerships, one of which has lasted over 30 years. Why should they have to pay inheritance tax on the death of one of them when someone married for just one day would not have to do so?

But let us not forget the partner in a cohabiting, heterosexual relationship. Many women in particular have learned with a rude shock when things go wrong that with a few exceptions they do not have legal or financial rights which more or less equate to marriage. As men on average still disgracefully earn a quarter more even than working women, the potential for an unmarried woman to find herself with no financial resources or without redress for abuse or violence is a big social problem. Even for those who frown on cohabitation it is simply unrealistic to deny its very

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widespread existence and to leave women in particular without protection. I am again indebted to The Times for its elegant phrasing. It states that the Bill,

    "would extend the law's dominion over unprotected thousands".

It is those kind of practical and moral considerations which have understandably inspired the encouraging remarks today of the Conservative Party Shadow Home Secretary in another place, Oliver Letwin, recognising the justice and the practical imperative of responding to the legal problems encountered by couples who cannot marry. It is disappointing that that is not translated into support by the Conservative Front Bench for this reasonable and thoughtful Bill. But it throws the spotlight on the way the Government are lagging even behind some Conservative thinking and they surely should reflect on that. It is a great shame that the Government have not agreed to give this Bill government time. Perhaps there is time for them to change their mind.

A civil partnership law in the UK would bring us into line with an increasing European trend. As the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, noted, a majority of EU states now have such laws. I should hastily add that this is not a Brussels plot—family law is exclusively a national responsibility—although, of course, there are aspects of EU law such as immigration and free movement which will have to reflect such developments. As there is EU law outlawing discrimination in employment on grounds of sexual orientation which is about to be implemented in the United Kingdom, it is anomalous and hypocritical that employees of EU institutions, even if they have a recognised partnership in an EU state, cannot receive pension or household benefits for their partner as their married colleague might for a spouse. That has been confirmed in a judgment of the European Court of Justice. That needs reform and I hope that Commission vice-president Kinnock will press that in the Commission and that it will be taken up in other EU institutions.

In conclusion, whatever our varying views on marriage, homosexuality or cohabitation, we can surely unite in agreeing that more certainty, more protection and more encouragement to commitment and support for a partner are universally to be welcomed. The Bill is not about marriage which for many people, I acknowledge, remains the gold standard. Civil partnership does not threaten that but reinforces stability in society.

12.27 p.m.

Lord Elton: My Lords, I rise with diffidence to speak on a subject which arouses a good deal of feeling not always based on logic among all people who engage in its discussion. I am careful, therefore, to remember the prayer with which we began which sought help in laying aside all private interests, prejudices and private affections. I acknowledge that in this matter one is very much open to have certainly the latter two of those.

The right reverend Prelate spoke as if he expected a Division on the Question of whether the Bill be read a second time. I think he will be disappointed in that

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expectation and that your Lordships will certainly give the Bill a Second Reading. Therefore, it is a matter of some importance because even if it does not reach the statute book it will clearly be a stepping stone on the way to what eventually does, I suspect, get there.

Let us then be clear as to the object of the Bill which the noble Lord, Lord Lester, said was to provide the full rights and responsibilities of marriage to all civil partners. The noble Lord looks doubtful but if I am wrong in that I shall, of course, give way to him.

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