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Civil Partnership Bill [HL]

3.35 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, I beg to move that the Commons amendments be now considered.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

COMMONS AMENDMENTS

[The page and line references are to Bill 32, the Bill as first printed for the Commons]

COMMONS AMENDMENT

1 Clause 1, page 1, line 4, leave out from "relationship" to "between" in line 5

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 1.

We come before this House today to discuss a Bill that provides same-sex couples with legal recognition of their relationships. We have developed this policy over a period of three years in relation to a specific problem faced by same-sex couples. We have done so after much work in government, after consultation with experts and the public, and by bringing forward appropriate legislation that provides not just for important protections for civil partners but also for onerous responsibilities and heavy obligations.

During the scrutiny of the Bill in this House a series of amendments were passed on Report that brought within the provisions of the Bill close family relations. I have no wish to rehearse all the arguments we made at that stage. I am aware that many noble Lords voted the way they did for the best and most generous of motives in an attempt to improve the lot of relatives and carers. However, as I explained at Third Reading, the result would have been to rewrite the whole basis of social security, pensions and family law and render the Bill unworkable. The elected House removed those amendments and on that basis approved the Bill by a huge majority of more than 300 votes. It is important for this House to recognise that the Bill also has the support of all three party leaders. On this Bill we have consensus.

I am pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, appears to have accepted that certain of the amendments had unfortunate, almost absurd, consequences which I am absolutely confident she did not intend to flow. I am also sure that other noble Lords who participated in that debate, and who have contributed immeasurably to the development and understanding of our laws and legal system, did

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not intend some of the bizarre and absurd consequences either. That is why I believe that many did not fully appreciate that the consequence of what they were voting for when they passed these amendments in June was in effect to bring the Bill to an end. I know that for some the repercussions have not been easy, and I very much regret that. I hope that today we can continue our discussions about this Bill in the finest traditions of this House with temperance, with good humour and with humanity.

I believe that Martin Luther King said on 16 August 1967:


    "Where do we go from here?"

In preparing for this Bill I was struck by the following words of Martin Luther King:


    "Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love".

We in this House have the power to do something remarkable for people who have been without succour and support for a very long time.

The noble Baroness has put down further amendments that she seeks to propose in lieu. I do not wish to pre-empt that part of the debate. Therefore, I wish to address what I believe is the key concern of a number of noble Lords who voted for the noble Baroness's earlier amendments, which is the position of relatives and carers. There was a powerful sense that issues about which we needed to do more were unaddressed in relation to such people.

Throughout our earlier debates, we heard much about the position of, as an example, two elderly sisters who lived together. I share noble Lords' entirely justifiable desire to help such members of our society to live their life in the best possible way. Perhaps it might help were I to explain the considerable rights already enjoyed by relatives who care for other relatives or live with them for significant periods before the death of one or the other.

I shall take for my example two elderly sisters who own a property. They could arrange their affairs to be joint tenants, so that the survivor took the full title to the property absolutely on the death of the first person. If not, the surviving sister could be left the property absolutely by the other sister in her will. In that case, the surviving sister would enjoy a tax-free inheritance of £263,000. Where inheritance tax is an issue, the rules have already recognised in principle that people inheriting big, immovable assets such as a house can have difficulty meeting their tax bills up front. The provision exists for tax to be paid in instalments on generous terms, with an attractive rate of interest over as long as 10 years.

It is then already clear that, for close relatives, there are ways in which the current system mitigates the effects of inheritance tax. Tenants often already have specific rights for family members. For instance, if two sisters live together with one of them renting the property from the local authority, on the death of the tenant, her sister typically would not be made homeless and have to move out, provided that they had lived together for a year. That is because typical

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local authority tenancies have statutory provision for succession to the tenancy by a family member who has been living with the tenant for just 12 months.

In the private rented sector, under the Rent Act 1977, a family member who has resided with a tenant for two years before his death may succeed an assured tenancy. Family members of agricultural tenants also have special rights. By succession, they may become a protected occupier of a statutory tenancy under the Rent (Agriculture) Act 1976, where a protected occupier dies and the family member has resided with him for a specified period immediately preceding his death.

The relevant legislation provides other rights to relatives. For example, relatives may also join in the purchase where a tenant exercises the right to buy under the Housing Act 1985. More generally, family members of long leaseholders are able to acquire rights to a freehold or extended lease on the death of a tenant under the Leasehold Reform Act 1967.

I know that the matter has caused concern, as several noble Lords have raised it on a number of occasions. I remind them that the Law Commission's recent review of tenure recommended that there be a single type of tenancy for all social housing with considerable security of tenure. It proposed that succession rights be available to spouses, cohabiting couples, other members of the family and carers. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is considering those recommendations and will respond to the Law Commission following publication of its draft Bill, which is expected early next year. There are also provisions in relation to fatal accident claims and dependency.

I assure noble Lords that the position about which people have been concerned already offers considerable protection. Since 1997, the approach of the Government to the needs of relatives who care for one another has been a process of careful deliberation followed by measured action. I truly believe that we can be proud of that record. It is on the basis of it that I ask noble Lords to let us continue to deal with other similar issues in the most appropriate manner.

3.45 p.m.

Many of the improvements have arisen from the National Carers Strategy launched by the Government in 1999. The strategy was groundbreaking in that it was the first ever attempt to recognise formally the contributions and concerns of carers. We developed the strategy carefully after consultation with carers and the organisations that represent them. As issues arose out of that consultation, we took action to meet those concerns in a tempered and sensible way. For example, we have listened to the difficulties that carers and relatives can face in organising breaks away from their caring responsibilities, but at the same time having peace of mind that the people for whom they care will be well looked after. In order to improve support, we introduced the carers' grant, which supports councils in providing breaks and services for carers. That grant has increased annually, providing more than £325 million over the past five years.

17 Nov 2004 : Column 1452

In 2000, we passed the Carers and Disabled Children Act to deal with the concern that, whoever they care for, carers all need the opportunity to make informed choices about the extent of their caring role, to maintain their own health and well-being and have sufficient freedom to maintain relationships. We have built on that with the short-term voucher scheme. In 2004, we progressed our valuable work further by supporting the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act, which ensures carers are able to take up opportunities which those without caring responsibilities take for granted. The current Mental Capacity Bill ensures that those making decisions in the best interests of a person should, wherever possible, take into account the views of,


    "anyone engaged in caring for the person or interested in his welfare".

That would include carers and relatives.

All those are sensible, measured improvements in the lives of those who care for others. They are targeted at the most needy. It is, after all, important to remember that not all relatives who live together will necessarily care for one another, so it is important that we target our measures at those who most need to benefit from any improvements. Indeed, the Government recently consulted Carers UK, which represents the needs of carers, whether they be relatives or not.

Through that organisation's extensive surveys, carers have made it clear that issues such as capital gains tax and fatal accident compensation are not among their priorities. Their prime concerns include breaks for carers, services for disabled people, better financial support for carers while they are caring, the option for flexible working and the direct payments system. All those are issues that the Government have sought to address over recent years. I assure noble Lords that we will continue to look carefully at all those issues as they arise. We see no reason why progress should not continue to be made in that way. The Government are clear that we wish to build on those successes.

Some noble Lords may say that that does not deal with the central issue, which is inheritance tax. However, the Government, as was the case for the previous administration, have other priorities than the abolition of inheritance tax. Inheritance tax affects only five in every 100 deaths in this country, but abolishing it would deprive the Exchequer of approximately £2.8 billion in 2004–05. Where would that shortfall be made up? Do noble Lords who propose the change advocate higher income tax or VAT, or would they cut the public services that help carers and relatives? The detail does not bear out the issues of concern. Where relatives live together as a long-term household, the inheritance tax provision of which they can take advantage amounts to £526,000. That is worth an awful lot, even at today's prices.

It does not make any sense to create civil partnerships or voluntary registration schemes to tackle the concerns of relatives in caring situations. Indeed, we know of the strong concerns that carers' organisations themselves have about the arbitrary creation of a new legal status. This new legal status of civil partner has been specifically

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designed to meet the needs of same-sex couples. The solution to their problems has been determined by the particular nature of their relationship.

The solution to the problems faced by other groups of people should equally be determined by the particular nature of their relationship. Noble Lords will appreciate that a whole plethora of different relationships can exist. In each case, the nature of that relationship will influence the nature of the solution. We say that one size does not fit all and I think we demonstrated that at Third Reading.

The Law Commission issued a report in 2002 on home-sharers and concluded that it is far better to look at these issues on a case-by-case basis, determined in each and every case by the nature of the relationship. The Government respectfully agree.

The Law Commission, the Law Society, the Solicitors Family Law Association, Carers UK, Citizens Advice, Age Concern and the trade unions all accept that this Bill is not the vehicle to make progress for relatives or carers. Holding this Bill to ransom to hasten that progress, will, however, benefit no one. Although we sympathise and understand the concerns of those who urge inclusion, we invite your Lordships to accept the amendment made by the other place and to allow this Bill to go forward unamended.

Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 1.—(Baroness Scotland of Asthal.)


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