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The Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, I know that it is true, as my colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell said, that this is a subject about which ferociously mixed messages might come from all sides of the House and indeed from these Benches. I want to make a much smaller point. I hope that in her response the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, will explain why she has narrowed the scope of the amendments compared with those that she proposed in Grand Committee. It is important that she should offer that explanation, because when I heard her move them in CommitteeI say that I was there on one occasion simply to show that it was not always the quality that was presentI felt that she had a case. It should be possible to devise a means whereby people could register a caring relationship and receive
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some relief. I was not wholly persuaded that this was the Bill in which to do it, but it seemed to me that she had a case.
I find it difficult to accept the notionand I speak out of a long theological tradition herethat one should have to register in order to have the privileges that come from being a family member. It seems to me that I am a member of the family of which I am a member not from any choice, registration, or covenant, but by virtue of a given relationship that I have. In the amendment as she has now drawn it, there is the confusion of two different objectives; one to support the family, and I wholly support that, and the other to support and honour caring relationships, and I wholly support that. If you are going to do the second, it seems to me that a far wider group of people should be included, as in the initial Committee amendments. If you are going to support the family, it should precisely not be necessary for people to register partnerships in order to achieve the benefits of family membership.
In his speech, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, listed the other injustices that would arise if you drew the boundaries in the way in which these amendments do. That needs to be taken seriously. I say all this to try to look at this amendment, at this late stage in the Bill, in a detailed and rational way, and not simply to engage in the fundamental debate, which of course goes on all the time under the surface.
Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, we on these Conservative Benches, Her Majesty's Official Opposition, have a free vote. Let me be clear that I shall support the amendment proposed by my noble friend and I hope that as many Peers as possible from all sides of the House shall do so.
We had an impassioned debate on this subject in Committee. It is a Bill that responds to a demand for justice from couples who cannot marry because they are same-sex couples, but who wish to affirm their commitment to each other on a lifelong basis. I have made clear at every stage that I respect and support that, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Alli, will be able to confirm. I have no doubt that this House will hear the call for justice from those people. The fact that this massive Bill has proceeded so quickly is evidence of that.
However, the call for justice is not, as we have heard, confined to gay couples. Of course it is heart-rending and wrong that the survivor of such a couple should find the roof torn from over their head by inheritance tax after death. That issue was raised with passion and conviction by the noble Lord, Lord Alli, and others in this House after the tragic death of Lord Montague of Oxford.
I agree with that. But I cannot understand why many of those who support this Bill want to deny the same call for justicethat same right to affirm life-long love and commitmentto other couples who have lived long together but, like some same-sex gay
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couples, cannot marry. I cannot understand that. To my mind, that risks turning this Bill from a Bill that is designed to bring justice and dignity to those who cannot marry to a Bill designed to help a subset of those people who happen to be gay.
It is wrong for gay people, who have suffered for too long from discrimination, to secure for themselves what this Bill gives and to resist it for others, who are equally loving, equally committed and equally debarred from the ability to marry. Why is it right, as it is in my view, for a gay couple to be able to affirm a civil partnership and to secure the privileges and responsibilities that will flow from that in the next finance Bill, and for a sister and a sister who have shared a life together not to be able to do so?
I do not and will not understand that. It grieves me that those who have fought so long and nobly for this Bill turn their backs on the cry for justice from others who are equally deserving. Bluntly, that is what all those who oppose the noble Baroness's amendment will be doing. In Grand Committee, the noble Baroness moved a similar amendment that I supported. But, with the strange Grand Committee procedure, which I think is being greatly overused in this House, there was no opportunity for us to vote.
However, disappointingly, there was opposition from supporters of the Bill, as if the cause of the people that this amendment champions was in opposition to the cause of those that the Bill champions. There is no such conflictdirect or implied. The call for justice represents two sides of the same coin.
I found the attitude of the Liberal Democrats in Committee, as set out by the noble Lords, Lord Goodhart and Lord Lester of Herne Hill, depressingly flinty hearted. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said that we were wasting our time and that we were trying to turn this Bill into a tax avoidance Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, said that it was,
Those words deserve to be sent to every family carer in this country as the official view of the Liberal Democrat Party. If the noble Baroness divides the House, I should rather be in her lobby fighting for family carers and for siblings than in that of the noble Lords, Lord Goodhart and Lord Lester, who articulate the "Bah Humbug" attitude of the Liberal Democrats to those deserving people.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I have not been able to be here for the whole debate, but I have heard everything that she has just said and some of what she said earlier. As she knows, in my Private Member's Bill, which I think was one of the origins of this Bill, I attempted to deal with heterosexual couples as well as homosexual couples.
I was then persuaded by the Government that this was not the right Bill in which to achieve that important reform. But the notion that somehow we are
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guilty of double-standards is, frankly, quite ludicrous. I would like the noble Baroness to reflect on what she has just said.
Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, I was there of course. I did hear the proposition that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, made in his Bill. I did hear that he wanted it for heterosexuals and I know that he has spoken to the Government about how this will proceed. But I do not remember him at any time dealing with carers; neither does it alter the fact that I quoted him correctly. In Committee, he said that it was,
One of the few objections to the amendments that were moved at an earlier stage was that they were cast too wide; that, by chance, they could benefit young people in their 20s who had not yet married, but who may, as it were, hedge their bets on tax by registering a partnership with a parent who might then die relatively young.
As my noble friend Lady O'Cathain, has told us, the amendments that she has put forward today are much more narrowly drawn. They cover only people who cannot marry, are over the age of 30thus excluding the kind of opportunistic case that I have describedand who have lived together for a period of 12 years. Twelve years is a high hurdle: surely, that is proof of a lasting commitment when, sadly, many a marriage nowadays is dissolved far faster than that.
I repeat that these people are debarred from marrying each other just as surely as gay couples. They include the best of our country; namely, sons who have lived for years caring for an aged father, daughters who have done likewise, and unmarried sisters who have shared the same home for, in some cases, 60 or so years. To ask for justice for them is not to wreck the Bill. To recognise what they have given, give and will give is not to wreck the Bill. To confer the right to this status on them does not undermine marriage or the validity of civil partnerships for gay couples.
It is to make a worthwhile Bill an even better Bill. Those who support the Bill and who see it as a great step forward should surely be ready to go one short step further for those family carers and sharers who suffer the same disadvantages and are denied the same privileges and responsibilities as gay couples. Those who want to defend marriage should not see this as undermining in any way the status of marriage. Surely, this is ground on which the advocates of both sides of the argument could come together and proclaim their common humanity.
Frankly, it is a cop-out to say, as some have, "Yes, we agree it is a good case, but it is for another Bill". We have waited a long time for this Bill. The time and the opportunity are now. It may not recur for years. The chance is herenot in another Bill this year, next year, sometime, nevernow to do justice to a group of people who are slightly but not so very much wider than those who are covered by the present Bill. To do
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so would be in the best traditions of this House, which, in recent times, has shown itself time and again to be a force for decency, fairness and natural justice. If the noble Baroness asks the opinion of this House, I shall support her amendment.
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