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Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I certainly do not remember my using that phrase. I am sure I said that its object was to give legal protection. I do not think I said that it sought to ape or mimic marriage so that one could simply say that it was a complete copy. That is certainly not the intention.

Lord Elton: My Lords, I am marginally reassured by that statement although the effect of the Bill seems to me to be to seek to achieve parity of status between civil partnership and married partnership. That means we need to think for a moment about what marriage is about. In my view it is about two things: one is love and the other is children. The partnership we are asked to consider in this Bill extends both to homosexual and heterosexual couples. Therefore, there is a place in it for unmarried heterosexual couples with children. One thing your Lordships will want to look at closely in Committee is the extent to which the children of such a partnership are protected.

My view, and that of a great many noble Lords, is that the proper place for children is inside a marriage, not inside a partnership. Before I return to that, I point out that apart from simple faith and the understandable and right teachings of the Church and Scripture on marriage, marriage is politically important—it is a central institution that binds our society together. Marriage has certainly become less stable in recent years but any enterprise that is 60 per cent successful overall is not to be ignored. Research, as has already been said—the noble Earl, Lord Russell, is not here to contradict me—shows that children inside a stable marriage have strikingly better life chances than those who are outside a stable marriage.

The Bill's principal purpose relates to homosexual partnerships, as is evidenced by the acknowledged sponsorship of Stonewall, which the noble Lord, Lord Lester, mentioned. I was relieved when the noble Lord, Lord Alli, who made a powerful and moving speech, said that he was against any prospect of the homosexual adoption of children.

Lord Alli: My Lords, I did not say that. I said that Richard Littlejohn was against that and that I was hoping to educate him in the process. I am rather keen on the adoption of children within a homosexual relationship.

Lord Elton: My Lords, it is obviously important for me to make this speech—I am getting all my

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misapprehensions corrected as I go along. Although I still admire the noble Lord's speech, I feel very strongly that the adoption of children into homosexual partnerships is wrong. That should be stated in the Bill and not left to reassurances about the limitations on the Secretary of State's powers to make regulations under, I believe, Clause 30. That is of central importance.

I turn to the matter of love. That is what this life is about; it is about discovering what life is, what it is for and what creatures we are meant to be. I am certain that love is most rewardingly and most revealingly available to human beings inside a stable marriage. I make an analogy in this regard, which may be offensive to some of my colleagues. I see a stable relationship between adult homosexuals as being infinitely better and less damaging to them and to society than what we might call the carousel for those who are not in stable relationships. I hasten to add that that carousel is just as dangerous and damaging to heterosexuals. The sickness of our age is that we recognise the damage on one side of the line but not on the other.

Marriage is as much better than adultery as civil partnership will be than the casual liaisons that otherwise so often occupy homosexual relationships. I therefore sympathise with part of the Bill. Advantages should be given in this regard. After all, advantages are given by the state to married couples in order to strengthen society and to ensure the succession of children to maintain it. In passing, I ask noble Lords, when you have a moment, to study the demographic projections for the future and realise how important it is for our birth rate to go up if the younger of us are to be supported in any sort of comfortable retirement. But that is by the side. The Bill is not concerned with children.

The Bill could extend some encouragement to homosexual couples in order to encourage them to discover the possible profundity and strength of the love that one human being can have for another. That is demonstrated in the New Testament, but not in terms of such a bonding. The disciples of our Lord certainly loved one another, in the sense that we wish to promote. That is to say nothing of carnal relationships, which cannot be the subject of a debate in your Lordships' House, save to say that what survives of humanity is its spirit, not its body. It is to that end that we should promote circumstances in which people of all persuasions can discover the length, depth and breadth of love, and eventually of the love of God.

12.35 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for introducing this Bill. I wish him well with it.

I have myself introduced Private Members' Bills on similar issues in this House, also with the backing of Stonewall. I sought to outlaw discrimination in employment against people on the grounds of their sexual orientation. It is unfortunately the case that it

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is possible to discriminate against gays and lesbians in employment, and such employees have little legal redress.

My Bills were passed by this House but failed in the other place because governments were then opposed to the proposals. In both cases, government spokespersons expressed sympathy but would not support the Bills. In the first instance, it was a Conservative administration and in the second it was a Labour one. The Conservative government did not want more legislation and claimed that existing legislation was adequate. In the case of the Labour government, much to my surprise, opposition was on the grounds of cost. The cost argument arose from the fact that my Bill, if passed, would have provided pension entitlements for unmarried couples as for married couples. Of course it would have done. However, the Government then argued that the cost to public sector schemes would have been unacceptable.

This Bill would cover pension entitlements and very much more. It is right for it to do so. We recently debated the Homelessness Bill in this House. In Committee, I sought to introduce an amendment that would have protected the surviving partner in an unmarried partnership, who could be made homeless because a local authority would have the right to repossess if the partner holding the tenancy had died and it would have no obligation to offer alternative accommodation to the surviving partner. That would not be the case with a married couple. Again, the Government expressed sympathy with my objective but opposed the amendment on the grounds that the whole matter was currently being considered in depth and the Government did not want it dealt with in a piecemeal manner.

This Bill gives an opportunity for the issue to be dealt with in depth, and I hope that the Government will therefore agree to it. So far as pensions are concerned, it is surely inequitable that a surviving partner should be denied benefit that would automatically be available to a married partner. It is becoming increasingly common for large private sector schemes to make such provision. On previous occasions when I have raised this matter, I have been provided with briefing from my own union, MSF, which has been instrumental in negotiating many such arrangements with private sector schemes.

I do not understand the argument about additional costs. It is surely necessary, when actuaries make assessment of required funding, for them to work on the basis that every member may well have a partner—married or otherwise; that should make no difference. Furthermore, employees making the same contributions should have the same benefits. The Bill makes arrangements for schemes to have three years in which to make any necessary adjustments.

As to inheritance, married couples may leave property to each other without incurring inheritance tax. Perhaps at one time that affected relatively few better-off people but the enormous increase in house prices, particularly in the South East, means that many more estates may become liable. A couple may have

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been living together for many years. It seems unfair that the remaining partner, who may have lived in the house for years and to whom the property has been left, should suddenly face a very high tax claim. Again, married couples are not affected in that way. It is often the case with homosexual couples that the family of the deceased partner, particularly if he died intestate, may seek to take possession of the property in which the surviving partner is still living. There have been examples of such conduct. Sadly, sometimes families can be very vindictive.

The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has attracted a considerable measure of support outside Parliament. The Times has drawn attention to the fact that society is changing. The number of those choosing to cohabit outside marriage has been gradually increasing. One in four children in Britain is born to cohabiting couples. The Times believes that this is unlikely to be a temporary trend.

Thankfully, society has become more tolerant of homosexuality. Many more gay men and lesbians have become confident enough to be more open about their sexuality and to live together as couples. That is surely to be welcomed. Society is a great deal more tolerant in such matters. Other newspapers have also run articles supportive of the Bill. The Government are being urged to be courageous—to modernise, in other words—and to legislate to give people who make such life choices the legal protection to which, as citizens, they have a right.

I do not accept the argument that the Bill would undermine marriage. People who want to get married will, of course, continue to do so. I myself, sadly, am a widow. I was happily married for more than 40 years. It is, of course, devastating to lose one's partner. But at least I did not face a large tax bill or the possibility that I would lose my home. Those are some of the injustices faced nowadays by unmarried couples and, in particular, homosexual couples. It is time to end those injustices, and the Bill provides a way of doing so. I hope that it will have a very great measure of support in your Lordships' House.

12.41 p.m.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, I have heard it suggested, although perhaps it was not to be taken too seriously, that we got it all wrong years ago. There never should have been a decree nisi of divorce or a decree absolute of divorce; there should have been a decree nisi of marriage and a decree absolute of marriage. The philosophy behind such a proposal was that marriage should be seen as being on a permanent basis and something to which people aspire, particularly with the considerable support given by the state in the guise of tax and other concessions.

It should be almost unfashionable, if not bordering upon the improper, for a decree nisi of marriage not to be turned into a decree absolute of marriage at an early stage. One can imagine the catty phrases that would be heard: "My dear, what is the reason why they have not obtained a decree absolute of marriage? What an

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extraordinary position. They have had a decree nisi, which they got for the asking, three or four years ago. There must be something odd about this relationship".

As I said, I do not believe that such a suggestion was to be taken seriously, but, of course, it would have stimulated what is so lacking nowadays: the staying power of couples. That is what we have lost. There are not long-lasting marriages. The tendency among married couples is to think that, once the children have become adult, they can separate. That, they believe, has no impact upon the children. That is nonsense. It can be devastating to children who believed that their parents lived in reasonable harmony and provided them with a stable and firm background suddenly to find that that no longer exists. I do not believe that society appreciates the extent to which a dissolution of marriage is a serious trauma for the children involved.

I came across a publication by chance—it is probably well known to your Lordships—called, The Cost of Family Breakdown, a report by Family Matters Institute for the Lords and Commons Family and Child Protection Group. It makes the following observations, which I consider to be sound:

    "The family is the building block of society, and marriage its foundation. However, over the past thirty or forty years, this foundation has been weakened. Fewer adults now enter into marriage, with an increasing number preferring cohabitation or single parenthood".

In its conclusions it goes on to say that that trend must be stopped:

    "Rather than sit on the fence, government must be prepared to discriminate positively in favour of marriage, and take more vigorous action to uphold marriage as an ideal".

This Government have been rather tepid in their attitude to marriage. Not long ago, they abolished the married person's allowance. I believe that that puts them in a unique position vis-a-vis European countries, which all have a marriage allowance.

On the other hand, in a 1998 White Paper called, Supporting Families, a consultation document, the then Home Secretary—I hope that it will not be suggested by the current one that I am being patronising—said:

    "First, the interests of children must be paramount. The Government's interest in family policy is primarily an interest in ensuring that the next generation gets the best possible start in life".

The next paragraph—that is, paragraph 8 on page 4—states:

    "Second, children need stability and security. Many lone parents and unmarried couples raise their children every bit as successfully as married parents. But"—

I stress this—

    "marriage is still the surest foundation for raising children and remains the choice of the majority of people in Britain. We want to strengthen the institution of marriage to help more marriages to succeed".

Without being disrespectful, I suggest that it is naive to a vast degree to suggest that the Bill will not have the effect of undermining marriage. One can imagine people in a cohabiting heterosexual relationship deciding that they will register their contract. That

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involves a fair amount of energy. They will be told by Stonewall and others how sensible that is. Therefore, they take the time and make the effort to register their contract. Having obtained all the protection of a marriage and achieved the great advantages that Stonewall will underline, what should suddenly stimulate them to say, "Well, let's get married"? Having gone through the process of securing registration, they will lean back and take that as the last word. Those who might have got married right from the beginning will say, "Well, if we are going to live together, let's get the position regulated". They will register their contract and then give marriage no further thought. That is a matter with which in his Bill, which is admirable in many respects, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has not come to grips at all.

In my view, the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester emphasised that particular point. I agree with him wholeheartedly. The effect of this Bill will undermine existing marriages; it will devalue marriage. It will take away from marriage its status as a protected institution, which is what it is. Marriage is protected because it is not an easy situation to go through without, from time to time, running into difficulties. It is protected because it provides a foundation of security and gives children confidence so that they can achieve their potential, which I believe is immensely important.

Like most noble Lords, I concede that there are features of homosexual relationships that leave them unprotected when they should be protected. I shall deal with that in a moment, but first we should consider the size and the nature of the problem. We should consider the mischief, a phrase that is often used.

Only 0.2 per cent of households consist of same-sex couples. We are seeking to deal with that tiny proportion in a highly radical manner. Apparently, 3.42 million people live in shared households—siblings, friends, two families living together providing care and companionship—and they receive none of the virtues so emphasised by the Bill.

I have already dealt with how the Bill seeks to remedy the position, but I hope that Stonewall—if it does not do so already—may provide its electorate with a booklet on self-help. It could explain that a great deal of property problems can be resolved by a visit to a solicitor; that wills should always be entered into; that the risk of intestacy should not be run; and that in the past inheritance tax has been of little relevance because of the size of the exemption, which is nearly "0.5 million, but with the crazy rises in house prices, it is now relevant. That may call for legislation. It could deal also with tenancy problems. Since the Housing Act of 1998, the surviving partner is entitled to succeed to a tenancy. Also, if personal pensions are taken out you can name the beneficiary, who can be a partner, and on immigration I understand that the Home Office accepts that a person has a right to bring his partner into the country.

The Government could consider appropriate legislation to deal with the outstanding problems to which reference has been made. The hardship that is

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imposed is not so vast that one should run the risk of undermining and devaluing marriage to help a small percentage of the population.

12.54 p.m.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I am delighted to support the Civil Partnerships Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Lester. My noble friend has a distinguished record on equality and human rights issues. Therefore, it is no surprise to many of his friends that he should promote this Bill. I also thank Angela Mason for her assistance in providing the briefing material.

As President of the Liberal Democrats, I emphasise that the Bill has the full support of my party. We have not been afraid to discuss this subject at our party conferences.

Promoting equality in this country has been a struggle. In the 1960s who would have imagined that this country would have three separate race relations Acts, supplemented by the further provision last year of placing a duty on public authorities to promote racial equality. Yet that is now a reality. I give credit to my noble friend Lord Lester for the way in which he has assisted in that task.

At that time who would have thought it necessary that equality on gender issues would require the Sex Discrimination Act? If we failed to achieve equality of outcomes, who would have thought that we would have to establish positive action measures to make that possible? There does not appear to be any political disagreement about the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill which is now going through your Lordships' House.

Equality is at the heart of our democratic process. Today's debate is not about Section 28, nor about the age of consent, nor about marriage. It is about accepting the reality that many gay couples live together in successful relationships. That is where equality matters. To deny them the same rights as those enjoyed by heterosexual couples is to strike at the very heart of our democratic values. It is our job to ensure that all our citizens, irrespective of their sexual orientation, are treated with fairness, respect, dignity and justice. There is no need to be squeamish about that.

We have heard the argument that the Bill threatens the institution of marriage. The Bill does nothing of the kind. Nor, as I said, does it have anything to do with Section 28 or the age of consent. To argue otherwise does less than justice to this Bill.

The starting point of my argument is that whether we like it or not some people will have a particular sexual orientation and they will choose to lead their lives in the way that they want. There is nothing unlawful about that. Do we not accept that heterosexual couples live together in a perfectly sound relationship? In turn, what is wrong with homosexual relationships?

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I want to quote from a letter that was faxed to me by a couple who are on holiday in Australia. They wanted to ensure that their point of view is taken into account in this debate. This letter sums up much of what I want to say. It says:

    "We both feel that it is important to say neither of us had any choice whatsoever in what we are. This is often fundamentally misunderstood. We have lived together in a stable loving relationship for approaching 32 years in our community. During that time we have served the community in a variety of ways not least my partner as head of sixth form and myself as deputy head and one time acting head of the school. Here we worked with both the development of staff and students from a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives. We earned respect and admiration from many. Our work and influence extended far beyond the immediate school community into the local and regional community".

There is no evidence there of corrupting others, young or not-so-young.

    "We also worked hard creating our home and garden which has now become very well known. This area, too, helped us to earn and hold the respect of many in the community".

There is no evidence there that the community objects to this relationship. I quote further:

    "We are both very grateful for the acceptance and tolerance we have found and the respect we have been given in the past and from people we now meet in our new business enterprise in the hospitality industry.

    What we find deeply troubling is the current status of our relationship with regard to certain aspect of law. In debating these issues we are not seeking 'marriage' but a recognition and acceptance of equal rights as are afforded to other long-term relationships.

    As the law stands, should one of us die we would face substantial inheritance tax liability at a time of maximum emotional anxiety. In addition it is conceivable that one of us would be denied access to the other if a serious medical emergency arose".

That point has been made by a number of noble Lords.

    "Further, as there are no pension benefits after death, the remaining partner's financial situation would be significantly weakened should one of us die".

That matter was ably demonstrated by the noble Lord, Lord Alli, in his contribution.

I need not spell out details which my noble friend Lord Lester has outlined. The Bill is about a framework for adults who care and want to make provision for each other's long-term support and protection and to take on rights and responsibilities in respect of each other. Of course it would cost money and we shall have to examine our procedures. But look at the benefits—a stable, decent, fair and caring society. We have moved far with regard to equality on race, gender, age and disability issues. Now we must take the next step forward.

The Leader of the House could further this argument by considering whether it would be appropriate for the Select Committee to look at the Bill. We need to appreciate at this stage what my noble friend Lord Lester is trying to do, which is to identify all the ingredients of what good citizenship is all about. We have no right to claims of equality, dignity, justice and fairness if we deny these ideals to our fellow citizens because many have no choice in what they are or how they prefer to lead their lives.

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1.2 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Guildford: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for the work that he has done on this Bill and to Stonewall for its excellent briefing document, its balance and care in stressing the importance marriage plays in our common life. Whether we are gay or straight, whatever is done to address the injustices of same sex and cohabiting couples we must not undermine the central place of marriage and its essential role and normative place in our society and family life today.

I want to start with three principles which follow from the role that I share with my friend and brother the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester. First, marriage is a gift from God to the whole of creation—not a gift to Christians, but, as every Muslim, Hindu and civil wedding demonstrates daily, a gift to all people of any faith and none. This gift is a benefit to all—married and single alike. Its blessings cascade down the generations as every parent and grandparent here will testify.

Secondly, where there is clear and persistent injustice and discrimination in our land those who legislate have a duty to seek ways and means of ending such unjust discrimination for the benefit of all.

The third principle is connected with the second and is that of proportionality. How do we, in seeking to offer a good to a few, not end up undermining the greatest strength for the many?

In writing to us Stonewall hopes that the Bill is fair and practical. That is the test to which our debate must attend. The work we do must ensure that any solution is fair, practical and, I add, proportionate to the problem.

I have no great concerns with a civil registration of partnerships, per se. It is in what might follow therefrom that the thorns and thistles grow up. The great strength is the recognition of the need for public declaration and acknowledgement of relationships based on love and friendship and the sustaining force that has for good, rather than the shallow or abusive relationships based on power, expediency or pecuniary gain. I was very interested to hear the moving remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, in that respect. Public recognition provides public protection. It also ensures that those who possess rights accept the duties that always go with them. Neither society nor the Church however is under any illusion that marriage is, for the vast majority of our people, the highest and greatest good to which they aspire, whether as cohabiting couples or even as teenagers, as a recent survey has shown.

If there is a need for appropriate secular or spiritual declarations these can and should be made. Let me share an experience from my own ministry. A priest of mine was approached by two men who wanted to make a declaration of their love and commitment to each other in front of friends and family. They did not know how to do so. I am profoundly happy that the ministry they received through seeing the vicar going on rounds around the shops and in the parish led them to ask what they should do. They did not want a gay

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wedding in church, they wanted a party, an occasion on which to exchange meaningful and deep-rooted hopes and dreams for their future together. The work done by my parish priest was extremely skilful and she enabled them to achieve what they wanted. I understand that the occasion went extremely well. It was not a marriage. It was not pension rights or any piece of paper that they wanted, it was ministry and dignity that they were seeking. The Church sought to offer them the former. All society should join with the Church—and in some quarters the Church must join with society—in ensuring the latter.

In the Stonewall statistics it is clear that the vast majority of those who cohabit initially move on to marry. They do so not for tax reasons—which is a sign and a symbol of the sacrifice marriage entails on the individual and the benefits that accrue for society through it—they do so because of the special grace and depth which marriage affords to those called to it. For most people who are cohabitating it is intentionally a staging post en route to marriage. If people choose consciously not to take on the responsibilities of marriage it is important that we do not pre-empt them by giving them the privileges anyway. The responsibilities of marriage are very extensive and deep. They are life-long commitments. While it is quite proper that we have a provision for divorce, that in no way is intended to compromise the life-long character of this relationship. Married couples' responsibilities to each other include the meeting of the conjugal rights of marriage. Indeed, difficult though it is, it is possible in law to declare a marriage null and void if these and other rights are not met.

My concern is for gay and lesbian people who are, both by the nature of their relationship and the nature of marriage, unable to avail themselves of their understandable needs for financial and other personal arrangements that are non-discriminatory.

Again, using the statistics provided by Stonewall, I observe that in the Nordic and Scandinavian countries which have registration of civil partnership—Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Iceland—two things are apparent; namely, after the first year when pent-up demand is met there are decreasing numbers seeking the benefits of civil registration, and, even if one aggregates three years of registered partnerships in Scandinavia, the number of people who chose this benefit is around one in 18,000 of the population.

Have we used all the means available to us to right wrongs? For example, with regard to pensions, which may be a particularly sore point, why have some parts of the private sector made non-discriminatory provision, while the public sector has taken no such action? Ought not the Government to put that right? Some remedies surely do not require Acts of Parliament.

In reply to a Question asked in another place, the Government said that they

    "cannot commit itself to making any changes in these areas before undertaking a comprehensive analysis of all the implications. The Government will now be examining the issues in detail".—[Official Report, House of Commons, 28/11/01; col. 903W.]

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I am in favour of the Government undertaking a comprehensive analysis. It would be a pity if those issues hung on a Bill that may run into the ground in the process of parliamentary scrutiny, rather than being addressed in the light of the public work of government. It is in the interests of all that such action should not only address the issues but uphold the unique nature of marriage for the good of all.

We live in a diverse and changing society. We should not be afraid of that. In meeting different needs, we must, however, take great care to preserve all those things that we have found to preserve the common good.

1.11 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend's Bill. I do so because it is a rational and compassionate response to the discrimination currently suffered by same-sex and heterosexual couples in stable and loving relationships. By the same token, the Bill does not encourage unstable, temporary or casual relationships in any shape or form.

Coming late in your Lordships' debate, I have, in effect, thrown away my speech. I want only to follow up something that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford said about the statistics for registration in other countries made available to us in the brief. I agree with his conclusion that there was a surge, as it were, of pent-up demand in all those countries that then died off to a regular, small level of applications. But it is interesting that in France, where heterosexual couples can also register—as would be the case in England, if the Bill were passed—during the first three years of operation about 41 per cent of all registrations were made by heterosexual couples. That suggests that where there is an opportunity to register relationships, it is used by others who feel the need to register their relationships and have them acknowledged in the same way as homosexual relationships.

As one goes through life, one begins to realise that we may try to be successful in many things and not always succeed. It is difficult to choose a person in youth with whom one proposes to spend the rest of one's life. Life is long, and not everyone succeeds in that endeavour. In the same way, one may make the same commitment outside marriage, and that may not succeed either. I am not at all sure that it is whether or not one is married that determines success. It has to do with people's changing attitudes—the way that their character and aspirations develop over time and the way that their attitude to life develops as they grow older and experience more of it.

We should all be chary of being critical or dismissive of people who wish to live in a different way from that which we have chosen ourselves. I was married. I was married for a long time. I brought up my children as a married woman. I am proud to say that all three of them are excellent parents. I should be reluctant to let anyone suggest to me that my unmarried daughter, living in a stable relationship, is a less good parent than

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are my two married children, because that is not true. We must learn, as grandparents as well as parents, to be tolerant of our relations and the way that they choose to live their lives.

At the core of the Bill is a profound truth about human nature. My noble friend Lord Russell spoke earlier about the importance of ceremony. One thing that the Bill offers those who do not wish or are unable to enter into the state of marriage is a ceremony. We are told that marriage is the best background for the rearing of children, because it tends to endure longer. Of course, not everybody wants or is able to have children, so that argument is not always relevant. But the marriage ceremony itself, whether civil or religious, may be part of the cement that holds couples together. When people go through the marriage ceremony, they make a public declaration, which should be respected by other people—unfortunately, it is often not respected these days, but that is nevertheless the intention—of an intention to be faithful, to bring up their children in a good way, and so on.

Conversely, the absence of such a ceremony may contribute to the greater instability of cohabiting couples. I am not talking about casual relationships that come and go in six months, a year or two years. I am talking about serious, dedicated human relationships based on love and respect for another person. Perhaps those who wish to make a success of a long-term relationship—whether within or without marriage—need the celebration, support and acknowledgement that a public pledge of mutual commitment can bring with it.

Perhaps be it is that opportunity for celebration and support, leading to a public acknowledgement in every sense—by the legal process, by pension companies and by a whole range of institutions—that a new family and a legal entity have been created that the public registration of partnerships, whether same-sex or heterosexual, can bring.

My noble friend Lord Lester is renowned not only for his devotion to human rights but for his persistence and his great skill and judgment in selecting topics for that persistence whose time is coming. I hope that his Bill is successful. The time is right for it. I hope that the Government will give it a fair wind and, if it is unsuccessful, will take it up and make it part of government policy.

1.18 p.m.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: My Lords, I, too, wish to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, and to support this important Bill. The noble Lord has been an extraordinary champion of human rights and his tireless work has inspired whole generations of lawyers. His commitment to ending discrimination and intolerance in all its manifestations has been crucial to the development of law in this country. As someone who often travels for the British Council, I can tell the House that his name is a password in legal circles around the world. We are fortunate to have him as a Member of this House. The fact that it is the noble Lord, Lord Lester, who brings

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the Bill before the House, with, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, said, his record of sensible, well-considered reform which is invariably timely, should of itself be persuasive to many of your Lordships.

As other noble Lords have said, the pattern of family life has changed, as have social mores. I happen to believe that the greater part of that change has been to the good. First, we have seen a huge alteration in the status of women. That has been an important factor not in landing death blows on marriage, but in causing a re-examination of the institution of marriage.

Although marriage is, of course, to those who have religious belief, a sacrament and something that is very much at the heart of British culture, we should recognise that marriage has played a social role too. Socially, marriage was largely a way of regulating sexual activity, legitimising children and of protecting property rights. It was premised traditionally on a male breadwinner and a female home-maker and child raiser. A great deal of that has changed.

The late 20th century brought huge shifts of a positive kind. For too long, there had been sexual double standards and a blind eye turned to male sexual activity, while it was made clear that women were not to be sexually active. There was hypocrisy and pretence that sexual activity did not occur outside marriage. There was a horrible taboo that attached to children who were born outside marriage, which meant that men and women often entered into marriage because they felt obliged to do so, rather than out of any personal commitment to each other. The taboo of illegitimacy made for a great deal of pain and suffering in the lives of many. It led to the adoption of children and the grief that could often follow from that for the mother who parted with her offspring.

The great thing is that we have seen an end to all that and all those double standards. Men and women live differently. They continue to choose to be in relationships because, for most of us, having a successful, fulfilling relationship is the most important thing in our lives. Men and women are choosing to do so sometimes with the opposite sex and sometimes with their own sex, but the desire for stability and the yearning for permanence are still there.

This attempt to bring the law into step with shifting social mores is to the good and has wide support. Men and women have been renegotiating their relationships and have done so in a spirit of mutuality. That is something of great beneficence. People are finding different ways of making commitments. For some, it is about setting up home together; for others, the fact of choosing to have children together is their form of commitment. I have many friends who established relationships in the 1970s who have now been together for over 30 years. They are bringing up children who are well adjusted young people, and their relationships are an example to us all.

Another feature of our changing world that should be celebrated is the acceptance of homosexuality and the idea that gay men and lesbians can live openly,

25 Jan 2002 : Column 1726

lovingly and confidently without shame or threat. The idea that people should face discrimination because of their race or sexuality is now anathema to most people. The joy that I feel that my children think that such discrimination is abhorrent is, I know, shared by many in the House.

People will continue to marry. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford said that, for many, living together is a staging post towards marriage, and that, for others, the fact of their commitment to each other is enough. However, many will continue to marry because people like the idea of making a public declaration. They like the idea that they are saying publicly what their intentions and aspirations are. People believe in rites of passage. The concerns that have been expressed that this is, in some way, an attack on marriage are not supported by what we have all seen as manifestations of human intention.

It is important that the law be in step with social mores and that the law is just. At the moment, we have injustice and discrimination. Many of the couples of whom I spoke—heterosexual and homosexual—face the extraordinary business that if one of them dies, the other is likely to have to pay inheritance tax in a way that other couples do not. One couple of whom I am very fond and whose relationship is inspiring had actually taken out an insurance policy to deal with that situation. It is ridiculous that people should have to do such a thing in order to protect their family.

We are now in the 21st century. I hope that the Government will embrace the Bill. I suggest to the House that a good way forward would be to establish a committee to take evidence, so that we could see whether there was wide support for the Bill and examine the evidence with some care. My ultimate hope is that the Government will embrace the Bill and help it on its journey into law, where it belongs.

1.27 p.m.

Lord Rennard: My Lords, from the speeches made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester and by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, it seems clear that some people regard the core principles of the Bill as very complicated. I do not regard the basic principle as at all complicated. The principle is simple: this is an issue of human rights and equality before the law.

It is easy for Liberal Democrats to see why we should support that principle so strongly. Our core values are based on a belief in freedom. Our party membership cards say that,

    "we exist to build a fair, free and open society—balancing liberty, equality and community and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity".

Our constitution says that,

    "we see ourselves as upholders of the values of individual and social justice, we reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon race, colour, religion, age, disability, sex or sexual orientation".

However, one need not be a Liberal Democrat to believe in the measures proposed in the Bill, just someone who subscribes to the principles of human rights and equality before the law.

25 Jan 2002 : Column 1727

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:

    "All human beings are born . . . equal in dignity and rights".

That is the principle in the Bill. Sadly, however, the law in this country does not treat all people as equals in dignity and rights. Not all relationships are given equal respect and fair legal treatment. I respect, of course, religious beliefs about the concept of marriage. My wife and I were married by a Roman Catholic priest, assisted by my brother, who is an Anglican priest, and his wife, my sister-in-law, who is also now an Anglican priest. The service also required a civil registrar to be present for the marriage to be legal. Thus my wife and I were pretty sure that in every sense we were properly married.

But while respecting the religious concept of marriage, I note also that there are many differences of opinion within religions and denominations about who should be able to get married. There are debates within the Churches about people who have been divorced, and about the rights of those who have chosen a civil ceremony or no ceremony at all. All that is clear to me is that we should have religious tolerance in this country and that religions should be tolerant of different ways of life and of all human rights.

So the Bill is not about forcing people with a religious disposition to accept that people who do not share their religion are married in a religious way. But it is about saying that their relationship has a right to be respected, and for partners to be able to enjoy some of the legal protections that cannot come to them from a religious marriage if they are of the same sex or if they are committed to each other, but unwilling to undergo the present civil ceremony.

Today we have learned about many aspects of unfair discrimination against couples who are not married under the present law. We heard most eloquently and movingly from the noble Lord, Lord Alli, about the terribly unfair discrimination suffered by the partner of the late Lord Montague of Oxford. I believe that the tide of opinion in this country is turning against the acceptance of such discrimination.

As my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill pointed out earlier, last October Jane Griffiths introduced a Bill in another place to provide for civil registration between two people who are cohabiting and for registration to afford certain legal rights. That principle was supported by 179 votes to 59.

I am pleased to note that today the Conservative Shadow Home Secretary, Mr Oliver Letwin, has said that something must be done to address the legal discrimination against, for example, gay couples who cannot legally marry. This morning he cited issues such as those of medical consent, property rights and inheritance. But, sadly, both he and others appear to have failed to address the fundamental issue of respect.

The registration of a civil partnership is the best way to reduce the level of legal discrimination suffered and is the best way of saying that there should be mutual respect for couples who make a significant commitment to each other, but in different ways. Alternative means of redress have been suggested

25 Jan 2002 : Column 1728

today, such as changes in the law or the abolition of inheritance tax—all detailed, cumbersome and expensive approaches involving lawyers. I do not believe that those are either fair or practical and they do not address the important issue of the quality of respect.

We need the Bill because it cannot be right that people who have made a very significant commitment to each other, and perhaps have lived as partners for many years, find that a parent or relative can become responsible for key medical decisions about them when that is not their will and would not be the case if they were married. But such powers could not possibly be granted on an ad hoc basis—hence the need to register civil partnerships.

Many people die intestate or with wills that do not reflect their current intentions. Unmarried partners must have some rights in this respect if they have registered a civil partnership. There are many areas of financial discrimination relating to inheritance tax and pensions, for example. Those should be put right so that unmarried but properly registered partnerships are not discriminated against.

The benefits, however, are not all one way. A cohabiting gay couple, for example, may receive greater social security benefits than a heterosexual couple, who would be treated as "man and wife" for social security purposes. That is not right either. So a gay couple who enjoy the benefits that I have just outlined in relation to civil partnerships should be treated in the same way for social security purposes as a man and a woman living together.

The Bill marks a significant step forward to make our society more tolerant, one that respects the different ways in which people may choose to live together. It does not in any way diminish the rights of those of us who have chosen to marry. I believe that it would not lessen respect for marriage, but that it would enhance respect for all relationships based on genuine commitment—and that must be good for the stability of society.

Until the 18th century, a marriage was still legally recognised when a man and a woman jumped over a broomstick that was leant against their front door. It took time for legal recognition to be based on a marriage ceremony conducted in a church or chapel. It took longer for non-Conformist ceremonies and those held in registry offices to be accepted. Now they are accepted in many places, including the London Eye, situated a few hundred yards from where we sit.

Recognising same sex relationships and giving them the same legal standing as that for heterosexual relationships that also wish to enter into a registered civil partnership is long overdue in this country. It is already legal in countries such as France, Germany and Hungary, as well as in a number of states in the USA, in Australia and in Canada. Civilisation has not collapsed in those countries. The measures for civil partnerships have been shown to be fair and practicable—the key test set by both Stonewall and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford.

25 Jan 2002 : Column 1729

The future of this House is currently in question. If we are to show the value of a second Chamber, then let us show that it can be a force for good, for progress and for a tolerant society based on mutual respect.

1.36 p.m.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I support the Bill for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the considerable respect I have formed over many years for the forward looking yet infinitely well balanced judgment of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, which he brings to his distinguished work in the human rights field.

But the main reason I support the Bill is that it seeks to create a reasonable, inclusive framework for today's society to live in—a very different society from the one which existed when, like myself, perhaps the majority of noble Lords present in the Chamber today entered the adult world. Then we married or we stayed single. Divorce was difficult. Most people who married did so in church. A second marriage, unless through the death of a previous spouse, was a registry office affair, whether one wanted that or not.

It was a simpler world, certainly, than is today's, but it too had drawbacks. As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, pointed out, many people were trapped into unhappy marriages, not necessarily always of benefit to their children. And the role of women, unmarried women in particular—noble Lords will remember how that awful word "spinster" did not quite equate with the word "bachelor"—who lacked today's career opportunities, was thus still decidedly second class.

A number of statistics cited in the debate have informed us that in today's world the number of marriages has halved since 1970, divorces have doubled and the variety of individual lifestyles—same sex, heterosexual, sexual and platonic—seems infinite.

All that is set against a background where working life has changed dramatically as well. Few people today are in jobs for life. Flexibility to accommodate employees' other responsibilities—increasingly borne by both sexes, I should say—often concerning children from more than one relationship, is growing. Career and job changes and necessary up-skilling have become routine and, equally important, women are now very much seen as an increasingly accepted and valued part of competitive employment success.

Add to that scene a longer potentially active working and leisure life for both sexes and a shrinking younger workforce to underpin state pension benefits—I fear that the encouraging words of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, will not change that; alas the numbers will be smaller than they have been in the past—then the proposals embodied in the Bill will seem even more eminently reasonable, encouraging as they do people to make mutual financial as well as emotional support arrangements, not least for their extending old age. There are advantages for the taxpayer, too—the bottom line—with less need for the surviving partner to rely, if left unprovided for, on the state.

25 Jan 2002 : Column 1730

Let me be clear. My preference for men and women wishing to enter into a life-long relationship—particularly where children are involved or hoped for—remains marriage; and, because I am a Christian, for Christian marriage. Of course there will be those who say that accepting the Bill—a number have said this already—will further undermine the institution of marriage. I do not accept that view. When society has changed to the extent that it has, it is unwise not to reflect this fact in the legal and financial arrangements made to recognise the way people actually live.

Obviously one group—we have heard this emphasised—likely to welcome the protection of being able to register a civil partnership, will be the same-sex, cohabiting gay or lesbian couple. In the words of the guidance on the Bill, it will,

    "enable them to live together within a stable and coherent framework of rights and responsibilities".

Surely such arrangements must be beneficial to society as a whole and help reinforce the decision, taken some time ago now, that, over a certain age, each individual's sexual preference is a matter for them.

But, as an article in The Times by the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, pointed out, there are other groups which can also benefit. The number of young men and women who marry may have halved since the 1970s but, as has been mentioned, the number of heterosexual couples who live together in the full sense of the word I find worrying. I would like to think that the possibility of a registered civil partnership for such couples would be—I hope the Bill will ensure that it could be—a first step towards commitment to a full marriage. But, in any event, should a disaster occur or the relationship break up, it would at least provide some security for both the adults and any children involved.

The noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, also mentions a third group, which I hope can be included, of those—whether family relations or friends—who decide to pool resources, share their lives and live together in the same house or flat. The possibility of formally registering such an arrangement would surely help to avoid complications when the partnership ends, through death or for any other reason.

The Government rightly put emphasis—a high priority, indeed—on building an inclusive society and valuing diversity in all its many forms. With the rich variety of cultures, faiths and accepted patterns of sexual behaviour that exists in the UK today, the more we can share and value the same institutions and not disadvantage people because of their chosen lifestyles, the more likely we are to create the kind of mutually supportive and tolerant community we all wish to see.

1.43 p.m.

Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, this must be the slot that everyone dreads. What the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, called the "tangled thicket" has been well attacked; and the labyrinth of the noble Lord, Lord Alli, has been flagged up, if one can flag up a labyrinth.

25 Jan 2002 : Column 1731

I, too, wish to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, for his support for human rights and civil liberties. He is to be congratulated on his courage and ambition in introducing the Bill and on raising awareness of the importance of civil partnerships in a variety of ways, including in the media.

Many points have been raised already and many moving cases described. I do not wish to repeat what others have said and I shall therefore be very brief. However, I want to return to two issues raised in the Bill which have been referred to earlier. One issue is the implications for healthcare and the other relates to children.

The focus of the Bill is on new rights for unmarried heterosexual couples and same-sex couples who wish to formalise the relationship. They do not have to, of course—and it is likely that many will not—but, as a matter of principle and justice, the option should be there, not as a form of second class marriage but as a civil framework for rights and responsibilities. The Bill is surely not destroying anything. It is creating more options.

Love can exist outside marriage. People who choose to live in a relationship without marrying have a right to the same respect as others who choose to marry. It has always seemed to me that it is the quality of relationships which is important rather than formalities. Some marriages are desperately unhappy; some are wonderful. Perhaps decisions at bus stops are to be recommended.

Many couples may regard a civil partnership as a means of committing themselves to each other without a marriage ceremony. This is not undermining marriage; it is different choice. That commitment may or may not include a sexual relationship. As has been said, some people live together for mutual support and convenience without sex being involved. They, too, deserve rights.

I have been married to the same person for more than 30 years. That was my—or, rather, our—choice. Those who do not make that choice but who, nevertheless, live in committed relationships, deserve recognition. They are not second class citizens; they are making a different kind of commitment.

As to health, there is good anecdotal evidence that there are problems in health systems facing unmarried couples because of the lack of recognition of their relationships. That is particularly invidious in same-sex relationships. Over the past 10 years, the Royal College of Nursing has been collecting evidence about these problems through workshops and interviews. It has revealed that same-sex partners are often excluded from decisions about the health and well-being of their partner.

I turn to an issue raised by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. Where one partner is admitted to hospital, partners are often denied information, and visiting may be limited if the partner is seriously ill or dying. I am aware of a case where a dying patient was not allowed to nominate the partner as next of kin; where the patient's family denied the partner any right to be

25 Jan 2002 : Column 1732

present in the last moments; and where he was not allowed to make any funeral arrangements or be present at the funeral. This is surely distressing and unjust. In that particular case, the partners had lived together for 20 years, and yet no counselling or support was offered to the surviving partner, as it is routinely to married partners.

If a patient is detained under the Mental Health Act, their same-sex partner has had to have lived with them for five years before they are recognised as the nearest relative. It is six months for an unmarried heterosexual couple. Such anomalies must be addressed.

With regard to children, the implications of the Bill will apply largely, of course, to heterosexual couples. As has been said, one child in four is born to cohabiting couples who are not married. But, of course, there are children involved in some same-sex relationships. At the moment, if one partner of an unmarried couple dies or leaves, the other may be left in poverty. That, too, is unjust and may deny any child the comfort and stability that he or she deserves.

The Bill does mention children, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, said, in relation to property, non-molestation, inheritance and intervention orders. I assume that other legislation relating to children, such as the Children Act and the Adoption and Children Bill, will also dovetail with this Bill to provide adequate rights for children, whatever the status of their parents. In the Children Act, these rights are described as "paramount".

Perhaps it could be made clear that this protection for children will be easily evident, or at least cross-referenced, in this Bill. I am simply asking for information. I do not know how much it is necessary to repeat legislation across Acts for it to be well understood and implemented unequivocally. The Homelessness Bill recently ran into some difficulty on the issue of homeless parents and children being separated, and the Children Act was not helpful. A government amendment to that Bill has, thankfully, addressed the problem. I would appreciate clarification on this issue, either today or later, from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams.

I welcome the Bill. It would eradicate a number of inequalities. Once again, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lester, on bringing it forward. I hope that it will receive support from all sides of the House.

1.50 p.m.

Lord Brightman: My Lords, I feel much ashamed of myself for asking your Lordships' permission to speak during the gap for a second time this week.

On 22nd February 1996, the then opposition spokesman said in relation to the Family Law Bill:

    "It is common ground in your Lordships' House that we are anxious to support the family as an institution and to support marriage as an essential factor in that".—[Official Report, 22/2/96; col. 1153.]

It may be of interest to the House to know whether the Government feel able to confirm that they are still anxious to support marriage as an "essential factor" in terms of the family.

25 Jan 2002 : Column 1733

I owe the Minister an apology for not giving him notice of that quotation. To be honest, it occurred to me only some 10 or 15 minutes ago, and I managed to turn it up on my file.

1.51 p.m.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I strongly welcome the Bill. As my noble friend Lord Dholakia said, it represents what has been the policy of my party for some years.

We have moved a long way in the past 40 years. There is a well-known poem by Philip Larkin which contains the lines:

    "Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty-three . . .

Between the end of the Chatterley ban

And the Beatles' first LP".

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, that these changes—although not an unmixed blessing—have on the whole been for the better.

It is extraordinary to think that, until 35 years ago, sexual relations between consenting adult males were illegal. It is impossible to imagine that the clock could be turned back on that particular piece of law. I believe that we should feel a sense of shame for the way in which our ancestors, and even some of us in our earlier days, treated those who were homosexual.

We now recognise that it is time to take a further step. We know that, among gay people and lesbian people, there are loving relationships of long standing which are based on the shared lives of two men or two women. I imagine that all of us know of examples. I certainly do. My wife had an uncle to whom she was devoted—a man who did great service to the public, both in the United Kingdom and in the international community—who had a male partner. My wife's uncle died some years ago, but we still treat his partner as a member of the family. I believe that such relationships should be recognised in law.

It is a matter of great encouragement that my noble friend's Bill has received a wide welcome in the press and among the public—excluding the hard Right press of the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. It has been supported by all those who have spoken from these Benches, by speakers on the Labour Benches, and by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, from the Cross Benches.

Civil partnership would give important rights in the fields of property, taxation, pensions and so on to homosexual couples who have no method of achieving these under the present law. But civil partnership is also potentially valuable for heterosexual couples. Now, men and women who live together without being married attract no stigma. This happens to a wide extent among young people who have not yet settled down to what they hope will be a partnership for life. There are few of us who would not tolerate a child of our own living with someone before marriage. Again, this has been a great change.

25 Jan 2002 : Column 1734

However, there is an important shift between merely living together and having children. Having children requires a commitment from both parents, not necessarily in the form of marriage. Marriage is undoubtedly a sign of commitment; indeed, it is the strongest we now have. But it is not the only possible one. There is no doubt that, for some people, formal marriage carries a degree of baggage—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, my noble friend Lady Ludford, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. Formal marriage carries a baggage which puts some people off.

I am somewhat surprised by the reaction of the Conservative Party as expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, among others, and also—

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