HL Deb 10 May 2004 vol 661 cc1-60GC

(First Day)

Monday, 10 May 2004.

The Committee met at half past three of the clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Brougham and Vaux) in the Chair.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Brougham and Vaux)

Before I put the Question that the Title be postponed, I will remind your Lordships about two points of procedure: noble Lords will speak standing and the House has agreed that there will be no Divisions in Grand Committee. Unless, therefore, an amendment is likely to be agreed to, it should be withdrawn. If there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, the Committee will adjourn for 10 minutes.

Title postponed.

Clause 1 [Civil partnership]:

Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1 line 4, leave out "relationship" and insert "contract

The noble Lord said: Perhaps I may begin by expressing my appreciation to Ministers for having arranged a briefing meeting on what is undoubtedly an extremely complex and technical matter and for providing us with some briefing material. This has proved helpful.

As I mentioned at Second Reading, the view on this side of the Committee is that this should be a free vote issue. My right honourable friend Mr Michael Howard has made it clear that we will have a free vote on the issue both in this House and in another place. I was not clear—I do not believe the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, responded to the point at Second Reading—whether the same situation applied to the Government Benches; or, indeed, the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps that might be clarified.

I must apologies to some extent because many of our amendments are simply in the form of "leave out" this line or "leave out" this clause. After 33 years' experience of the procedure in another place, I rather hanker after the process where the stand part debate on a clause takes place automatically, whereas in your Lordships' House one has to ask to leave out the clause concerned. That does not imply necessarily that one disagrees with it; it is simply a means of seeking to establish the precise meaning and intention of a clause. So there is no automatic implication that the fact that we are seeking to leave something out means that we are against it; on the other hand, we may find at later stages that it means exactly that.

We need to proceed through a series of extremely complicated issues, many of which are concerned with social security and tax rather than other aspects of the Bill or its central purpose. It is not unusual to complain from the Opposition Benches that what ought to be on the face of the Bill is not there but in regulations and so on. With regard to a large amount of the content of this Bill, that is certainly not the case; there is a most extraordinary degree of detail. Indeed, it seems almost to recast the whole of existing legislation with regard to marriage into a form applicable to the Bill. On the other hand, as the committee on delegated legislation pointed out, the provisions with regard to social security are extremely wide and the provisions with regard to tax—an issue we shall come to on a later amendment—have previously not appeared.

As to the amendment, the opening paragraphs of Clause 1 states: A civil partnership is a relationship between two people of the same sex ("civil partners")", and so on. It seems to us that the word "relationship" is inappropriate for two conflicting reasons. First, it may be that a relationship already exists between two people and a civil partnership will not necessarily alter that fact, although it may of course follow after it. Secondly, the kind of relationship is not specified and could be one that is not a civil partnership. The clause as it stands states that, A civil partnership is a relationship", and it seems to us that the word "contract" would be more appropriate in the present circumstances, particularly given the complicated and legal specifications which appear in subsequent clauses. It is also unclear, for example, whether a civil partner is or is not a spouse, but that is another point that we may pursue later. The amendment seems to be entirely appropriate. I hope that the Government will accept it. I beg to move.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

I join the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, in thanking the Government for their helpful background briefing. Our party is committed to supporting the Bill. Except where personal conscience otherwise dictates, we shall express that support collectively in any Division.

I should apologise for my absence at Second Reading, but it was for a very agreeable reason. I had the honour of being elected, for some reason, as a fellow of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. As I shall speak only once for a few minutes today and as I was not at Second Reading, I shall make one or two other points. First. I am delighted that my Private Member's Bill has borne fruit in the form of the Government's admirable Bill. Secondly, I regret that Lord Williams of Mostyn is not alive and here today, because, as Robin Cook's memoirs show again and again, they were both particular supporters of the idea of civil partnership. Gareth Williams made that clear to me in a diplomatic way.

The Bill is well constructed and well drafted. I shall certainly act as a midwife to ensure its speedy enactment to protect one of the most vulnerable minorities in society. It is a pleasure to see the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, in charge of it, as, unlike me, she is a great expert on family law. However, I regret that the Bill does not protect opposite-sex couples who are unmarried in the way that it protects same-sex couples. Although I shall oppose other ways of trying to widen the Bill, I shall explain why that omission is regrettable.

In 1995, the Supreme Court of Canada had to consider whether there was unjustifiable discrimination in Canadian law between unmarried heterosexual couples and married couples. By a clear majority, significantly led by its two women members, Claire L'Heureux-Dubé and Beverley McLachlin, the Supreme Court decided that there was no justification for treating unmarried heterosexual couples less favourably in law than heterosexual married couples. Both of the leading majority judgments emphasised that women in particular tend to be the victims of not being able to persuade their partners to marry them and to give them the full protections that they would otherwise have. They explained in ways to which I do not wish to devote time today why they considered that there was a denial of equal protection.

It was the judgment in a case called Miron and Valliere v Trudel, where the court decided that there had been a breach of the charter of rights, that led the legislator in Canada to begin to reform the country's cohabitation law so as to make it possible for unmarried heterosexual couples to be protected in the same way that married heterosexual couples.

Although I well understand why the Government cannot possibly carry out those reforms in time to get this Bill through, I very much hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that the Government will put their weight behind law reform in that area and will not simply educate unmarried heterosexual couples about the fact that there is no such thing as common-law marriage protected in law. That seems to me to be a really pressing reform.

However, I do not think it right or sensible to use these proceedings to carry out general law reform. It seems to me that we need to confine reform to the mischief with which the Bill seeks to deal—that is, the mischief that homosexual couples cannot marry and are unprotected in a variety of ways, especially in relation to their property rights.

It is because the principles on which the Bill is based concern the loving, continuous and, it is hoped, permanent relationships between same-sex couples that I think the amendments that we shall consider later are misconceived when they seek to treat other relationships in the same way. I understand the arguments. If the Bill were conceived of simply as a property Bill, there would be a good deal to be said for widening it in that way. But, in my view, the Bill rightly concentrates on the continuing loving relationships which are analogous to those of heterosexual couples—especially those who marry. Therefore, I do not consider it sensible to support that widening, although no doubt there will be a debate on one part of it.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights, on which I serve, has not yet scrutinised the Minister's compatability statement to see whether it is entirely compatible, and I have no idea what I and my colleagues will, in due course, say about that. But—we shall see what my colleagues think—I should have thought that there was at least an argument for requiring the Government to justify the different treatment maintained between unmarried and married heterosexual couples and, for that matter, between gay, lesbian and heterosexual couples.

I turn briefly to the first amendment, introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. One answer to that amendment was given in the same Supreme Court case in Canada, where Justice L'Heuvreux-Dubé said the following. It is the only quotation to which I want to refer now but it is quite telling: In my view, the decision of whether or not to marry can, indeed, be one of the most personal decisions an individual will ever make over the course of his or her lifetime. It can be as fundamental, as momentous, and as personal as a choice regarding, for instance, one's citizenship or even one's religion. Although certain rights and obligations follow from each one of these three diverse choices, it does not render any of these choices justice to reduce them to a question of contract. I highly doubt, for instance, that people enter the institution of marriage because it strikes them as offering an attractive package of contractual rights and obligations. By the same token, people who make a conscious decision not to subscribe to the institution of marriage may very well be motivated by very personal beliefs which have nothing whatsoever to do with the contractual rights and obligations that incidentally attach to that status". In so far as Amendment No. 1 is designed to define a civil partnership as a contract rather than as a relationship involving a change of status, I know that that is not the intention behind the movers of the amendment, but I believe that turning them into contracts downgrades the loving, committed relationships of homosexual couples. It runs against the purpose of the Bill, which is to recognise and celebrate the validity of same-sex relationships.

Amendment No. 1 may be a paving amendment to achieve a wider change dealing with siblings and other home-sharers, enabling them to enter into a civil partnership, and other amendments seem to do that. For the reasons I have given we would not support that. Family law is based on bundles of rights and responsibilities, not on contractual obligations. In my view, a civil partnership is not to be treated as a contract. A contract analogy is unsuitable. I hope I have explained our general approach to the Bill and why we cannot support the amendment.

3.45 p.m

Lord Alli

There seems to me to be two ways to approach the Bill. The first is to downgrade the nature of civil partnerships to a series of contracts; and the second is to extend its eligibility beyond acceptable limits. The amendment deals with a downgrade. I am disappointed in the amendment, particularly given the Bill's warm welcome by the noble Baroness at the Dispatch Box at Second Reading. I equally was fulsome in my praise of the party opposite and the changes that have happened in the party that find us all in the same place.

The amendment concerns me because it takes away some of the shine from that speech. It is inevitably saying that a loving, committed relationship should be downgraded into a contract. It removes the validity that many of us are seeking in our relationships—the recognition that many gays and lesbians are looking for in terms of the state—to a mere contract.

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, said, I am reconciled to it because the central issue is, what is love?".—[Official Report, 22/4/04; col. 419.] I would argue that love is not found in a contract, but love is borne of a relationship I hope the noble Baroness will withdraw the amendment.

Lord Tebbit

Unless I am suffering with a lapse of memory, which is quite possible because my mind goes back to an event some 48 years ago, when my wife and I were married we entered into a contract. We did not think that debased the relationship, which has endured for the past 48 years. I should like to give my support to the amendment.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

Bearing in mind the tenor of the debate we have just had, it might be right if I take a little time to clarify why the Government chose to express the legislation in terms of a relationship as opposed to a contract, and indeed to take up a few of the questions asked. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, first in relation to the commitment of the Bill, that this is a government Bill. It has the whole-hearted support of the Government and it is expected that those who sit on our Benches will fully support it.

Perhaps I may just comment on the absence of Lord Williams of Mostyn. I warmly concur with the remarks made because it is a great tragedy for us that he is no longer with us. I know that this Bill would have given him more than a modicum of pleasure.

It is clear that the purpose of the amendment goes to the heart of what the Government seek to do in the Bill. As this is the first amendment, I should be grateful if I could take a little time to explain why we see this as so important. It is the intention of the Government, in bringing the Bill to the House, to allow same-sex couples to gain legal recognition of their relationship. Civil partnerships would be a new legal entity, and the Bill provides us the opportunity to set out clearly what we hope to achieve by it.

I accept straightaway that a marriage is a contract, as the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, said, but marriage is also an expression of a relationship. It has been acknowledged for many hundreds of years. What same-sex couples seek now is an acknowledgement of their relationship, not, as the noble Lord, Lord Alli, says, simply a recognition of a series of contracts. At Second Reading, we heard of many difficulties that same-sex couples can face. They face them because their long-term, mutually supportive relationships are, at the moment, invisible in law. They have chosen to share their lives together, emotionally and financially, separately from other family ties, but as same-sex couples are unable to marry. That is the acknowledgement that we have to make.

Of course, there are those who find such relationships to be anathema and believe that they should not exist. They may even go so far as to suggest that they are an abomination. However, we are talking about an acknowledgement of those relationships and the humanity inherent in them.

The formation of a civil partnership would be a very serious commitment for those who chose to enter into it. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, said at Second Reading that civil partnerships should come with a health warning. I respectfully agree. Registering as civil partners of each other would mean that the couple would accept onerous responsibilities that were not easily excused. We are not talking about an arrangement or relationship that should be entered into lightly. For example, the ending of civil partnerships could occur only by death, dissolution or annulment. In the case of dissolution, responsibilities do not end there; questions of financial support will often continue.

The rights and responsibilities are those set out in the Bill. There is no second option to legal recognition for same-sex couples; there is no "civil partnership-lite", with fewer duties and obligations for which people can opt. It is not a pick-and-mix affair. Couples who choose the relationship and its legal consequences are highly unlikely to do so unless they have good reason to believe that their lives would remain closely entwined.

Lord Tebbit

How does one annul a relationship? I thought that one could only annul a contract.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

One can annul the registration.

Lord Tebbit

No, the relationship.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

The relationship is what becomes registered. If one wishes to get out of the legal consequences that the state now seeks to imply by virtue of that registration, the first option is to annul it. In that instance, it should never have been formed in the first place due to a fundamental flaw, meaning that it was a nullity and was not capable of being recognised in law. For example, if someone is already married, fails to declare it and then enters into a civil partnership, the civil partnership never existed; it was a nullity. The other option is to dissolve the partnership, there being grounds set out for the basis of dissolution. Those are the two issues.

I see the noble Lord smiling, but I should say to him that the matter is not one of humour or mirth for those who wish not only to enter into the partnerships, but to have their relationships honoured.

Lord Tebbit

The noble Baroness knows that I was not laughing at that; she knows perfectly well that I was laughing at her efforts to get round the issue of whether one can annul a relationship or whether the relationship changes, when the partnership is entered into, into something that is a contract. I was laughing at her difficulties.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

I acknowledge the noble Lord's right to find amusing anything he pleases. I do not share that amusement, but there we are. In the Government's view, a civil partnership is a legal relationship which is formed when two people register their names as civil partners of each other. It is that simple but solemn procedure which brings a civil partnership into being. By taking the step of entering into that relationship the couple would gain rights and undertake responsibilities which are set down by the law, not chosen by agreement between them.

We do not see that relationship as being based on a contract. It is a fundamental part of a contract that you can put anything in that you like and have any limitations you like. You can cut it and turn it any way you wish. That is not what we propose here. For those who enter into this relationship and then have their agreement to so enter registered, there will be state-identified consequences which they cannot get out of. That is very clear, and that is the difference.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

I am grateful to the Minister. Does she agree—this might be helpful to the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit—that in the old days there was something called an action for breach of promise to marry, as in, "I've promised to marry you and I break the promise and you sue me for breach of contract"? That was a contract to marry. However, in a civil marriage the position is that the registration of the marriage is a registration of evidence of the relationship, not of a contract. The contract has been entered into by being registered but the registration is the act which is then annulled if the marriage breaks down. To the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, that may seem like a legal nicety but I wonder whether I am right in saying that that is approximately the position in family law, including marriage law.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

It is. The Government are fully committed to explaining to people who wish to enter into a civil partnership what it is they are signing up to. Indeed, there is an argument that says we should be much clearer right across the board on the implications for both opposite-sex and same sex-couples who wish to formalise their relationships.

Baroness O'Cathain

I thank the Minister for giving way. Having listened to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and, indeed, to the Minister, I am very confused. Surely, the contract can be drawn up in the same way as the legal registration will be drawn up and would be prescribed in the same way as the registration is prescribed. As regards the contract being cut whichever way one would like, if there are to be regulations for drawing up the registration, can there not be the same regulations for drawing up the contract? I do not understand how a contract and a legal registration differ as there can be a legal registration of a contract, or am I completely wrong? I should like clarification.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

We have been very clear that the whole point of this provision is for same sex couples to be able to register their relationship; that they are in this relationship and that they intend to be bound to each other. That happens at the point of registration. Once there is registration, the legal consequences of that registration are all those things which are contained in the Bill. The noble Baroness says it is a contract. We say that it is a recognition and registration of the reality of relationships.

The breach of the terms of the registration may be brought into question. Of course, there are issues as to the way in which one can get out of the relationship; that is, by annulment, dissolution of the registration, and so forth. However, the acknowledgement that this is a valid relationship is at the very core of what the Bill seeks to do. Failure to acknowledge that these relationships are valid is the cause of much pain and distress over the years as anything else. If we were simply to refer to this as a contract without acknowledging the inherent nature of the relationship which brought it into being, we would do a great disservice to all those who seek the acknowledgement.

Therefore, I understand the desire of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, and, indeed, of those opposite to downgrade—I use the word adopted by my noble friend Lord Alli—the relationship to a contract. But the Government hold firmly to the view that that would not be appropriate, and we do not think that we can accept the amendment.

4 p.m

The Lord Bishop of Oxford

Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, that what he entered into 48 years ago would better be described as a "covenant"— For better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health". Those are like, let us say, pre-marital arrangements, which I am not keen on but they are more in the nature of a covenant. If I buy or sell my house or a piece of machinery, I would normally talk about that in terms of a contract and not a relationship. One might refer to it as a business relationship, but it is primarily a contract. If one used the word "relationship" at all, it would have to be qualified as, for example, a business relationship. It seems to me that the word "contract" is not appropriate for marriage because marriage is primarily a covenant.

Lord Tebbit

With the greatest respect to the right reverend Prelate, my recollection of my marriage is that it did not include anyone saying anything about a covenant. I am fairly sure that I recollect it being referred to within the church by the officiating minister as a contract into which my wife and I were entering. Indeed, in the Women & Equality Unit's Civil Partnerships document, I read about the creation of a new legal status. That legal status, which imposes obligations upon the parties to it and brings privilege to them in relation to others, is surely more like a contract than anything else. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, referred to my possible view that he was spouting legal nonsense. But it would not be the first time that legal nonsense had been spouted, would it?

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

I am not sure that one needs to prolong this debate much further, but I say to the noble Lord that there is a fundamental distinction between status and contract and between contract and status. The noble Lord recollects that his marriage was described as a "contract". However, for all I know, the priest may have been referring to a contract or a covenant with God in a religious form of marriage—I have no idea. But it is not legal nonsense; it is absolutely clear that, when one marries, one is changing one's status. A marriage contract may be made between the parties concerning how they are to share the loot and so on. As I said, in the old days, actions could be taken for breach of promise of marriage. However, in my view, the Minister is completely correct about the legal position. If anyone has any better view, I should be interested to hear it.

Lord Higgins

I am conscious of the fact that, after 40 years in Parliament in which I have mostly been preoccupied with finance Bills and social security legislation, I suddenly find myself thrown in at the deep end on highly emotional issues. Until now, I have been extraordinarily clever in avoiding those.

Perhaps that is why I saw this amendment as improving the legislation. I do not take the view that it downgrades the Bill; I take the view that, when one is legislating, it is important to be very precise. The reason one refers here to a "contract" rather than a "relationship" is that in huge chunks of the Bill—page after page after page—there are legal requirements and contract requirements which follow as a result of someone entering into a civil partnership.

At Second Reading, many of us were impressed by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, who referred to the importance of love. I certainly was very much influenced by it but, alas, one cannot legislate for love. That is why, I presume, no amendment has been tabled in respect of that issue. Therefore, to read as much into the word "relationship" as has been read into it is rather to exaggerate the situation.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, made various comments on this particular aspect. He seemed to imply that this was not only his maiden speech but also his swan song so far as the Bill is concerned. I hope that that is not so. The reality is that we shall be seriously in need of legal advice on many of these clauses. For example, on the point with which he seems extremely preoccupied—namely, the state of the law with regard to co-habitation—we shall be very much in need of advice. I hope, therefore, that he does not feel that his assistance would not be valued by us in our deliberations.

It is certainly not my intention to filibuster. We must give the Bill the due weight it requires—no more; no less—but, having said that, I am somewhat puzzled by the Minister's reply. She also seems to be reading into the word "relationship" far more than its natural meaning would imply. Loving relationships exist not only between couples of both sexes and couples of the same sex, but in many other human relationships as well. To suggest that love is somehow restricted to this or that particular category seems to be a mistake. However, again, I express a personal view.

We shall need to consider further the points that have been made, but my own feeling is that the amendment, if accepted, would improve the Bill rather than in any way downgrade it or undermine it. However, having said that, at this stage of the Bill, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness O'Cathain moved Amendment No. 2: Page 1, line 4, after "relationship" insert "between two people in the categories set out in section (Additional categories of civil partners) or

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 2, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 10, 15, 19, 35 and 36 which are grouped with it.

Under the Bill, same-sex couples are to be given all the legal rights of married couples. It is, therefore, I submit, a highly discriminatory Bill. A daughter who nurses her elderly mother for 10 years will not benefit from the Bill; neither will two sisters who have lived together all their lives; nor two pensioners who share a house; nor a carer who looks after a disabled person. The discrimination arises because the Bill creates a marriage-like state and provides that only same-sex couples may enter into it.

The focus of these amendments is solely to widen the pool of those who benefit from the right that the Bill creates. I shall seek to address the similarities with marriage in later amendments. We have all heard the cases cited by those who supported the Bill at Second Reading and we all have sympathy with them—some cases definitely elicited our sympathy—but the hardships that have been cited for those in homosexual relationships also arise in other kinds of relationships—for example, two sisters who live together, or friends in a platonic relationship who share a house on a long-term basis.

Let us suppose that two friends share a rented house for 20 years. If one dies, the other could be evicted; there is no right to inherit the tenancy. If the Bill becomes law, a homosexual couple could have next-of-kin rights to the tenancy, but not the two friends. I suggest that this is unjust.

Take another case of two sisters who live together after their respective husbands die. On the death of one, the other must pay inheritance tax. A niece moves into her uncle's house to nurse him because he suffers from a degenerative disease. She sells her house and gives up her career to look after him. She has no right to inherit the tenancy. She also has to pay inheritance tax.

Those who support the Bill have cited cases where estranged family members can suddenly be treated as next of kin, while the person closest to the victim is ignored—yet that situation is not unique to homosexual couples. Sadly, I have had an all-too-personal experience of it. Many people are estranged from their families, to varying degrees, for all sorts of reasons—religious reasons, cultural reasons, and misunderstandings. If one's only relative is a brother from whom one has been estranged for many years, one might not necessarily want him to make life-or-death decisions about one's medical care or, indeed, to inherit one's estate.

The issue of next-of-kin rights could have been dealt with in legislation that helps everyone, not only homosexual couples. The Government have chosen not to do that. They have chosen only to address those in a homosexual relationship. Only homosexual couples will escape the hammer blow of inheritance tax under this Bill.

At Second Reading, I made my outright opposition to inheritance tax itself very clear. I pointed out that someone who moves into a flat to care for a friend with a long-term illness may still face a swingeing inheritance tax bill, even if he or she lived in the same flat for 20 or 30 years. Two unmarried sisters who live their whole lives in the same family home would also be liable. The surviving sister may well lose the home as a result. If the legal rights of married couples are to be handed to others, there is surely a legitimate public debate to be had about who should receive the benefits.

The Bill addresses only those in a homosexual relationship, and completely ignores the needs of families, friends who care for each other and elderly people who spend their twilight years looking after each other. I have tabled amendments to cater for each of those categories. I accept that not every possible case is covered, but the purpose of the amendments is to provide a fair way to help those friends, relations and long-term house sharers who are in the same kinds of difficulties as those cited in support of the Bill.

If the Government reject my amendments, the message will be sent out that homosexual relationships are much more important than the platonic and caring relationships of long-term house sharers, be they pensioners, relations or disabled people and their carers. According to the recent census, there are up to 4.6 million house sharers in a non-sexual relationship, compared with only 80,000 homosexual couples who share a home. Those data were provided in recent Parliamentary Answers in the Commons Hansard on 24 March 2004 at col. 844W, and 31 March 2004 at col. 1411W. For many specific cases of hardship experienced by a same-sex couple—there are such cases; we have heard about them—there would be almost 60 times as many cases among house sharers in a non-sexual relationship. If the rights and benefits of marriage are to be extended because of cases of hardship, that must be done in a fair and consistent way.

Amendment No. 10 inserts a new clause after Clause 1, to extend civil partnerships to family members, disabled people and their carers, and pensioners. In each case, there is a requirement that the parties have lived together in the same house or flat for seven years. That ensures that we benefit only highly committed relationships that have endured over time. Unlike the rest of the Bill, which is wide open to tax avoidance, that requirement would prevent people using civil partnerships as a tax avoidance measure. If a father gives his property to his son, capital gains tax is avoided only if the father dies seven years after the gift has been made. The Inland Revenue believes that a seven-year period is a sensible precaution against tax avoidance and that is why I have followed this logic in my amendment.

Amendment No. 35 is consequential. It allows for regulations to assist in determining whether the applicants pass this residence test for a minimum of seven years living together.

I turn to the details of my new clause. The first category in paragraph (a) is close family relationships. The list of relationships simply mirrors the existing list in Schedule 1 to the Bill, which is the prohibited degrees. These are the very people who are expressly excluded from civil partnerships. The noble Lady, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, made the point strongly at Second Reading on 22 April, col. 413.

The category in paragraph (b) is disabled people and their carers. It is not uncommon for two friends to live together because one of them is disabled. In fact, the costs of having live-in carers at home is usually so exorbitant that few people who want to keep their loved ones at home can afford it. The able-bodied friend effectively becomes a full-time carer. This is one of the most selfless and loving relationships I can think of, yet the Bill does not recognise it. Under my amendment, if the carer and his or her friend live together for seven years, they can register and gain recognition for their friendship.

In both categories, my amendment requires the parties to be aged over 25. The seven-year qualifying period must relate to their adult lives. Any period of sharing a house while one of the parties is under the age of 18 does not count.

The third category in paragraph (c) relates to people over 70. The age of 70 is chosen in order to focus on those cases where the greatest hardship could arise. If two friends in their 70s have lived together in a relationship of mutual companionship for more than seven years, most people would think it unfair if they would be penalised by inheritance tax when one died, solely because they were not in a homosexual partnership.

My amendments do not require the parties to be of the same sex. Amendments Nos. 15 and 19 amend Clause 3 to make clear that the ban on opposite-sex partnerships and partnerships between relations does not apply to those who fall within the three categories I have outlined.

In conclusion, I express the hope that the Minister will not seek to oppose these amendments on merely technical grounds. I know that there will be other issues to address on what would happen to a civil partnership between two sisters if one wished to marry. The answer is that the partnership could be dissolved automatically on entering into a marriage or on expressing an intention to do so, but these are details. I hope that the Minister will recognise that there is a problem of fairness and be willing to consider ways of dealing with that problem. I beg to move.

4.15 p.m

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

I support the noble Baroness. Lady O'Cathain, in her amendment. We cannot vote on amendments in Grand Committee, but if she tabled her amendment again on Report, I would vote with her.

The Treasury is not keen on widening the scope of the Bill to include the categories of people listed in Amendment No. 10. As the law presently stands, where a wife inherits a life interest in her husband's estate no death duty or inheritance tax is payable—she gets the estate. However. when she later dies, the Treasury gets the tax. My goodness, it gets it—in spades.

Lord Tebbit

I certainly support my noble friend's amendments, although I have tabled some later amendments that would accomplish the same and a little more in a rather simpler, cleaner fashion. The basis of the amendment is surely what is recognised in the Women & Equality Unit publication issued by the DTI. To what the DTI has come since my day as Secretary of State, when we used to think that it was our business to support business and commerce in the British interest. Paragraph 2.6 of this curious document states: The creation of a new legal status that is open only to same-sex couples and not to opposite-sex couples would amount to a difference in treatment. However, the Government believes that this difference in treatment is justified because it would remedy an inequality that already exists between opposite-sex and same-sex couples". Two wrongs make a right, do they not? It is apparently a well established principle of legislation these days.

Let us consider, however, that the central argument of this Bill is that same-sex couples would be prohibited entering into marriage so there should be something for them. The Bill provides it. What about those who are still prohibited; for example, a mother and a daughter? Why should they not be able to register a partnership in order that they may benefit from the same tax concessions as would be granted in this case? There is no way in which the mother and daughter can achieve those advantages. Nor can brothers, nor sisters, nor father and son. Those are all expressly excluded. They are all brushed aside. They are a difference that does not matter, because the Bill remedies one inequality. By so doing, it creates an another enormous inequality. I absolutely support my noble friend Lady O'Cathain in seeking to improve the Bill by making sure we do not have a new category of people who suffer disadvantage—a disadvantage from which they cannot escape.

Lord Alli

I knew that all things were possible in this House, but there were parts of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, at which I was nodding my head in agreement. The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, raised two important issues. The first was cohabiting couples. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, raised it in his opening remarks. There is indeed much work that needs to be done to protect couples who find themselves in relationships and who believe that they have a degree of protection which they clearly do not. The second issue raised by the noble Baroness was, quite properly, that of inheritance tax. Huge hardship is suffered, particularly by mothers, daughters and sisters. One has to look only at property prices. There are huge issues surrounding inheritance tax at which the Government need to look seriously again.

However, while those are important issues, this is the wrong Bill. That is the essence of my problem with the amendments. It is a bit like taking a Bill designed to help the water companies and turning it into a Bill for other utilities by amending it in Committee or on Report.

All I am saying to the noble Lord and the noble Baroness is that what you are trying to do here is very difficult and I do not think it will work. I believe that we should ask the Government to consider these issues much more seriously—they would have many more friends in the House—and to take action on them but, I stress again, not in the Bill. This is not the place for these arguments.

Lord Goodhart

I make the same point as the noble Lord, Lord Alli. The purpose of the amendments in this group is to extend the Bill to cover relationships of an entirely different kind: those between a carer and the person who is cared for; those based on co-residence, such as that of a daughter who is looking after an elderly parent or two siblings or elderly friends who are living together for companionship and cheapness.

In our view, that has nothing to do with the purposes of the Bill. The central purpose of the Bill is to give public and legal recognition to the relationship between two gay or lesbian people. That relationship will be one of love and commitment and one which it is hoped will last for life.

Lord Tebbit

I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I thought that I had read the Bill thoroughly. Where does it say that those entering into a civil partnership must be homosexuals?

Lord Goodhart

It does not, any more than the laws of marriage require marriages to be between a heterosexual couple who intend to have sexual relations. However, I do not suppose that the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, disagrees that it is clearly the intention behind the Bill to provide a status for a legal recognition for homosexual couples. The essential point concerns the changes in provision that the Bill contains, for example to the law on inheritance tax and other kinds of tax, to pensions and to social security where a couple living in a civil partnership will suffer rather than benefit. All those changes are consequential on the creation of the new status and absolutely not the reason for it.

As the noble Lord, Lord Alli, said, there is clearly a case for changes to the tax and pension systems in relation to carers and co-residents but that is a matter for another Bill on another day. There are obvious defects in the amendment, which must have been seen by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain. What about trios? What about a daughter who is looking after both parents? After all, she cannot enter into a civil partnership with both of them, but it may be the wrong one who dies.

Baroness O'Cathain

I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I did not spell it out, but I did say that there are other areas to the amendment. Surely, if a daughter was looking after a mother and father, when the father died or the mother died, the estate would go straight to the other surviving spouse and it is only when the second spouse dies that the daughter would have to pay inheritance tax. There would be no inheritance tax payable.

Lord Goodhart

That is the sort of point which, frankly, discredits the whole idea behind this situation. It makes clear that this is merely what I would call a tax avoidance scheme. I suppose that one might call it a tax reduction scheme.

4.30 p.m.

Again, would the daughter looking after her mother wish to enter into a contract that she would then have to break in order to enter into a marriage with a man? The noble Baroness did say that in that case you could write into this Bill that the civil partnership would come to an end automatically when she married. That seems to me to make this whole idea of a civil partnership ridiculous.

It is nothing more than a tax reduction scheme. If tax reduction is desirable under the circumstances, it should be based on the fact of co-residence and not on the adoption, or entering into, of some special contract of this kind. Furthermore, the contract that the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, envisages, does not extend to the case of those who probably need it most—that is the unmarried, heterosexual couple who could, under this amendment, only claim on each other's death either if one was disabled and the other was caring for them, or if both were over the age of 70.

The defects of these amendments are so obvious that it is clear that the motive behind them is to undermine the whole scheme of civil partnerships, so that they will cease to hold any attraction of special legal recognition for homosexual couples and will simply become a vehicle for tax avoidance. In those circumstances, my noble friend and I have no hesitation whatever in offering no support to these amendments. We shall oppose them as strongly as we can.

Lord Higgins

There used to be a very popular undergraduate or sixth-form debate on, "the line must be drawn somewhere". That is essentially what this debate is about. I have a great deal of sympathy for the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lady O'Cathain, but I fear that I have problems with it. The problem with it is that it does not go far enough.

Also, I have considerable difficulty with Amendment No. 10, which seeks to specify a number of specific categories. I am not the least bit clear why the additional categories should include only two persons over the age of 70, rather than over 65. I am a little clearer why they must be over 25. In either case, it is not right to specify the categories in the way that has been suggested. There are other problems with it. I am not the least bit clear about why, under one of the categories, they should have had to live together in the same house. It would be rather odd if, for one reason or another, they happened to have moved house in the mean time. One can go through this list. I will not be tedious and do so. It seems to me that specifying categories in this way is not a sensible way of proceeding.

The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, in a sense put his finger on the exact point when he said that it does not say that this is a homosexual rights Bill, or whatever one might call it—it does not. That is why it is not the least bit clear why the line will be drawn where the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, would like to see it. If one is going to exclude the other categories that the noble Lords, Lord Alli, Lord Goodhart and Lord Lester, would like to exclude, at that point one must establish whether there is a sexual relationship. We shall come to this point on some of the other amendments.

It seems to me that once we are going down the road that this Bill takes us down, it will not be possible to draw the line where those noble Lords would like to draw it. That would mean that one would run into all the problems that one does, for example, with cohabitation and social security, of having people sitting outside front doors, saying, "Is there a sexual relationship going on in that house or not?". That is not a practical way of proceeding.

As I understand it—I may be sadly surprised and perhaps disappointed—the Government are not saying that categories such as the classic two spinsters living together will not be able to form civil partnerships. It seems to me that they will and that no one will know whether or not they have a sexual relationship. Therefore, in practical terms, the restrictive way in which the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and others are trying to operate is not a way in which it is possible to operate the Bill.

I believe that I have support on this view from the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. It is a question of what is practical. If you wish to go down this path, drawing the line where they want to is not practical. We shall come to this issue on later amendments.

It seems to me that if the tax privileges—and it is not clear what they are at the moment but, again, we shall find out on a later amendment—are to be extended to those forming a same-sex sexual relationship, they will inevitably apply to those in the kind of category, but not exclusively so, to which the noble Baroness referred in moving the amendment.

Perhaps I may also say in parenthesis that, so far as concerns the inheritance tax provisions, unless you get a serial civil partner going through a series of individuals, from the Treasury's point of view it will be a cash flow problem, not a loss of revenue. Be that as it may, there are very real problems. I hope that one will draw the line where I have suggested.

There will be other problems—which, again, we shall come to at later amendments—if you seek to go beyond that because we shall run into all the problems specified in the Bill about prohibited relationships. They include what I described, but had difficulty in pronouncing, on Second Reading as the "spinster sister" problem. At the stage when we debate it later, a different set of issues will arise.

So, while I have sympathy with my noble friend's amendment, I do not feel that I would wish to support it because it is too restrictive, rather than otherwise.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. As he said at Second Reading, he and I were once opponents in a place called Worthing in 1966, in which he beat me, arguing the Conservative interests against the Labour interests, so decisively that the votes did not need to be counted; they could have been weighed. I remember what a pleasure it was then to be defeated by such a fine and honourable opponent.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)

In Worthing?

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

In Worthing. I received the highest vote for Labour that it had ever had in Worthing until then. Now it is a Liberal Democrat place, I think.

Let me try to simplify this issue into concepts that at least I can understand. As I understand it, the starting point for the Government is this: gay and lesbian couples cannot marry; because they cannot marry we are going to allow them a relationship which will not be a gay marriage in the full sense—for all kinds of reasons, good or bad—and treat them, as far as we possibly can, as though they were heterosexual so far as the recognition in law of their relationship is concerned.

This does not mean that we will give them special benefits that married couples cannot have. Gay and lesbian couples will be subjected to the burdens as well as to the benefits that married couples now enjoy. For example, in social security, those who register will be worse off. We will not give them any special tax advantages. This is not to be a tax avoidance scheme and they will be taxed exactly the same as married couples. We will prohibit various individuals from entering into this relationship for the same reasons as they are prohibited from marrying as heterosexuals. By that, I basically mean the prohibitions against incest and matters of that kind.

It is true, as the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, and others have pointed out, that there is no reference to sexual love or the need for sexual relations in the Bill. That may be for a very good reason, which is that one does not want those who are to be registered to have a state official inquiring into their sexual relations, in the same way as no one asked my wife or me before we got married whether we intended to have sexual intercourse once we did marry. It would be entirely inappropriate on grounds of privacy so to do.

Lord Higgins

That raises precisely the point that I seek to make. If two spinsters live together, are we to understand from what the noble Lord says that they will get the tax concessions if they have sexual relations, but not if they do not?

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

Let me not get side-tracked. The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, said early on that the Bill was discriminatory. If the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, moves some of his amendments later, I will quite agree that there is a strong argument for saying that it discriminates between same-sex unmarried couples and homosexual couples who want to marry. That is because one can make a fair comparison between couples who wish to live together in a marital state. We shall later look at why there may be discrimination of that kind.

The idea of discrimination envisages a difference of treatment between people in comparable situations that is not justifiable. The noble Baroness says that hardship is the criterion, and if people live together and suffer hardship they should be put into the same position as gay and lesbian couples who suffer hardship. However, the fallacy is that the comparison to be made is between gay and lesbian couples and heterosexual married couples. The mischief with which the Bill is designed to deal is nothing to do, as the noble Lord, Lord Alli, said, with the wider issues, such as that in the example he gave of utilities and water companies. It is to remove that particular kind of discrimination.

My only concern, which is why I have great sympathy with the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, is whether, in removing that source of inequality we do not create another as regards other couples in other similar relationships. However, that is a much broader question. I hope that my comments have clarified matters rather than obscured them.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Lester, said. I also listened with great attention to what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, and the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, and noted the emphasis on rights. I never once heard "responsibilities". I want to say very clearly that those who enter into civil partnerships will have rights, but also onerous responsibilities in relation to their partner—responsibilities of care, support and providing succour. Those will be legal responsibilities.

The noble Baroness will probably not recall it, but there was a time when mothers and daughters were held to be responsible for each other's support. In terms of social security, in the 1930s, a household means test was applied that enabled a daughter to be held responsible for her father and for others who lived in that household. That caused a huge amount of dissent and fractured relationships, because siblings did not want to be responsible financially for each other or, indeed, their parents. One could argue whether that was a socially responsible attitude, but it was the reality.

4.45 p.m.

We are not trying to conflate the relationships between siblings and parents and others. As the noble Lord, Lord Lester, made clear, we are trying to right a wrong and to address the current mischief of there not being a capacity to recognise and acknowledge the reality of a relationship that exists between a couple of the same sex. It is not all about finance. It is about the acknowledgement of a relationship. It is not simply about the money in the pocket, just as marriage is not about pounds, shillings and pence. There are those who say that if it were, they would never enter that estate. Many choose not to enter the estate of marriage because they care more for the pocket than for the person. That is a choice that same-sex couples will now have the capacity to make—either to commit to each other or to commit to the pocket.

If one looks at how the Bill is constructed, it is clear that it addresses the homosexual couple. Civil partnership is so described in Clause 1(1): A civil partnership is a relationship between two people of the same sex". The grounds on which civil partnership is void specify those who fall within the bounds of consanguinity or other prohibited degrees of relationship. We are therefore excluding those who are blood relatives and those who have entered those relationships by way of adoption. That confines a person to having a same-sex relationship with someone to whom he or she is not directly related.

It is right to say that the Bill is silent on the nature of the sexual relationship that exists between the couple, save to require that they must be of the same sex. We have not replicated in the Bill the grounds of adultery. Those who have had the delight of dealing with adultery litigation will remember all those tests, such as whether penetration took place. The Bill will address none of those issues. There is no adultery in it.

However, there are provisions for unreasonable behaviour. Those who enter civil partnership will therefore have the capacity to tell of their reasonable expectation of what that relationship would entail. The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, was right to say that if two spinsters had a loving and long-term, platonic relationship and wished to enter a civil partnership, there would no way in which we could determine that they were not so entitled. The Bill is not about the sexual content of the marriage; it is about the quality of the relationship of two people of the same gender who enter a registered partnership. A clear distinction is made between a marriage and the estate that we are now offering to same-sex couples by way of registration. They are different. We have tried to make that absolutely clear. Civil partnership is not marriage, but it is a recognition of a relationship which has value.

Therefore, the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, would be well founded if the issue were merely one of tax avoidance or an opportunity to expunge a category of person's entitlement to pay inheritance tax. If that were the case, the noble Baroness's qualifications would perhaps be merited, but it is not. Therefore, the Government will not and cannot support any such amendment.

My noble friend Lord Alli was right to say that the nature of tax relief for those who live in new relationships has been an issue for many years. We have a much greater range of relationships today than we had in the past.

Let us not mistake ourselves. A wide category of provision is already made for siblings and for those who live together. The issues faced by same sex-couples are very different from that category. Perhaps I may give some examples. Siblings are recognised in the intestacy rules in a way that same-sex couples are not. Siblings already have succession rights in the case of secure and introductory tenancies if they resided with the tenant for 12 months preceding the tenant's death. In the case of Rent Act tenancies, siblings have succession rights if they resided with the tenant for two years preceding the tenant's death. Usually, there is a question over a close relation's ability to attend a funeral or to visit a sick person in hospital. Those are not issues which arise.

The position of carers and companions over 70 who share a home is different again. For example, should they really have joint financial responsibilities which could be set aside only after court proceedings for dissolution? We already have a difficulty persuading people that they wish to undertake the care of those in need. If they are to be financially and otherwise responsible for them as well, and have to bind themselves and be financially responsible for discharging their care, we may well find that fewer carers than there are at present will wish to enter into that estate.

Should a person in such a relationship have an automatic pre-emptive share of the estate if the person he or she lives with dies without making a will, particularly a paid carer? We know that some carers are very expensive indeed, particularly if they live in. Should they, therefore, automatically receive half the person's estate when they die?

As those questions show, the concerns of homesharers, whether as family, carers or companions, are a separate issue to the concerns of same-sex couples. The Law Commission's report on home sharers in 2002 supports that fact. That report concluded that no single solution was possible for all the different permutations of home sharer. The Law Commission considered that the solution to the specific issues raised would be best determined by reference to the nature of the relationship in each case. Thus, the solution to the needs of those in caring relationships may not be the same solution to the needs of siblings who live together. So, it is clear that their problems are different from those of same-sex couples who lack legal recognition of their relationship because they cannot now marry.

As I have said, civil partnership is an acknowledgement of the existence of committed same-sex relationships. I do not know whether the reason that those who find difficulty with that is simply because they do not want to acknowledge that these relationships have any special significance. Perhaps they do not want to acknowledge them as a reality or as existing at all. If that is the case, that is a sadness, but we might as well recognise that that is what they are trying to do.

The Bill is designed to meet the needs of such couples, not anyone else. It provides a framework which allows same- sex couples to organise their joint lives, which is especially important if they are raising children together. It does not provide the type of framework that would remedy the different kinds of problems faced by persons in other types of relationships. That was accepted by many noble Lords who spoke.

If we were even to trespass into some of the different permutations which the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, invites us to consider, we could enter a nest of intractable problems by trying to abstract different relationships which would thereby be bound up. That is not our intention. We are trying to do something relatively straightforward and fundamentally decent; that is, to treat people equally. We are acknowledging for the first time in law that homosexual relationships exist. They have existed for a couple of hundred years. We are now just allowing people to acknowledge them. They have probably existed longer, since time immemorial. I think there is a reference to them in relation to Sodom and Gomorra.

That is what we are faced with. I accept that there will be a lot of debate about how we meet these different needs. Families do not come in the same sizes any more. The grandparents are not looked after so intimately as they used to be within the home. There are not always two parents living with children. There is a plethora of differences, and that is something with which we will grapple, but not in this Bill.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford

In the light of what the Minister said in the earlier part of her response, I draw attention to a point that I made at Second Reading. At the moment, it is proposed that a couple simply register their partnership, but there are no prescribed words to indicate or define what it is that they are entering into.

In marriage, whether in church or in a registry office, the words are different, but nevertheless there are clear words. We know the familiar words of the marriage service—for better or worse; for richer or poorer; in sickness and in health. If there were some prescribed words, however simple—and not necessarily the same as those in the marriage service—indicating that this is a profound commitment of two people, it would get over the question of whether this is a sexual relationship that we are talking about. As the noble Lord, Lord Lester, said, you are not inquiring about that in marriage. This is a commitment of two people. That is the fundamental point about it, not necessarily that it is a sexual relationship as people understand that. It would also say something to the range of amendments proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain.

Let us take a daughter and a parent who accept mutual responsibilities for each other, who are committed to each other, and who may have financial rights that are not recognised at the moment. On the whole, they would not want to get up in public and make that kind of commitment. They already accept a range of commitments to one other, by the fact of their birth and their blood relationship. I will return to whether we should have some kind of prescribed words to indicate that this is a commitment, and that people are entering into a profound relationship.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

We on this side have strong sympathy with the Liberal Democrat side and with what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford has just said.

Lord Tebbit

This end, you mean.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

This end. Not the right end, but the progressive end of this Bench. We have strong sympathy with what has been said, and we will be supporting that approach when we come to it.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

I will make it clear, if I did not make it clear at Second Reading, that the words are something which, although not incorporated in the actual ceremony, can be incorporated in other procedures. For instance, there can be a separate blessing, if that is what the couple want. Local authorities can organise other ceremonies, but the words will be similar to the two facts that currently must be ascertained for civil marriage. First, the registrar must ascertain that the couple are able to marry, that there is no legal impediment to their marriage; and, secondly, that they come to register that marriage. In fact, those are the only two issues that must be clear for a civil marriage.

It has become the norm, in agreement with the registrar, to have a whole set of other words that can be agreed between the parties and one can have an infinite variety. It would be possible to have a procedure, separate from the civil procedure, which could encompass all of that. We are sticking clearly to the simplicity that currently must be proven for a nonreligious, secular marriage. This is a non-religious, secular procedure.

Lord Higgins


Baroness Scotland of Asthal

Registration of the relationship. As a result, it can be encompassed in that way. I need to make that clear. There is no impediment to that in this Bill.

Lord Tebbit

Am I correct in thinking that something else is required for a civil marriage—as for a religious marriage—and that is for consent to be given?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

I said: first, that there is no prohibition; and, basically, that they consent to the registration. They are agreeing to the registration. I said those two things.

Lord Tebbit

One is consent.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

I know the noble Lord loves to split hairs and I would hate to deprive him of an opportunity to do so.

Lord Tebbit

It is not splitting hairs to distinguish between an impediment to a marriage and the giving or withholding of consent to the marriage. That is not hair-splitting.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

I said two things. I shall say it slowly because I know that sometimes it is difficult to absorb. The first is that there is no legal impediment—that is category number one. The second is that the couple consent to have their relationship registered. I hope that that is said with sufficient clarity for the noble Lord to accept it.

5 p.m

Baroness O'Cathain

I first thank everyone who has taken part in the debate. I particularly thank my supporters. This time there have been more on the ground than there were at Second Reading, which is rather nice.

Perhaps I may just go through the various points dealt with by the various speakers. The noble Lord, Lord Alli, said that I dealt with the unfairness to cohabiting couples. I did not: I did not mention cohabiting heterosexual couples at all.

Certainly, I mentioned the unfairness about inheritance tax. I shall come back to that. We are told this is a relationship Bill, a partnership Bill, not a tax avoidance or an inheritance tax Bill. Unless I am very mistaken, the original impetus for the Bill came out of the very sad, untimely and horrific death of Lord Montague in the House at a debate one Friday, as I recall. There was a big move after that because his companion of so many years was left in very difficult circumstances. If they had been an ordinary married couple, they would not have had the inheritance tax problem. There was great sympathy from people around the House for Lord Montague.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford

I think it was Lord Oxford.

Baroness O'Cathain

No, it was Lord Montague of Oxford.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

I am afraid that the noble Baroness is quite mistaken. The origin of this Bill was that at a conference my party passed a unanimous resolution advocating such a Bill. The reason it did so was because so many European and Commonwealth countries have passed similar legislation. It had nothing to do with any particular case of hardship of an earlier period because we were bringing our law up to date and in line with European and Commonwealth law.

Baroness O'Cathain

I apologise. Certainly, a lot of people to whom I have spoken about the Bill felt that that was the start. The situation elicited an enormous amount of support.

I return to the point: this is not a relationship Bill, it is seriously a tax Bill. The amendments I have tabled have dealt with that situation.

The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said—

Lord Alli

From a reading of the Bill, it is a relationship Bill. The noble Baroness is trying to make it a tax Bill, but it is currently a relationship Bill. The second point I make to her is that if it were a tax Bill we should not be discussing it.

Baroness O'Cathain

I thank the noble Lord. I was about to make the point that we should not be discussing it and that we should change the whole Bill to make it a relationship Bill and a recognition of loving relationships for same-sex couples, but not give them the benefit of inheritance tax. That would cause no problems at all.

I finally reach the point about siblings having some of the advantages that I did not admit that they had. They do, of course, but they do not have them all. This is really a tax reduction scheme to enormous excess.

My noble friend Lord Higgins said the line has to be drawn somewhere. He has a difficulty with Amendment No. 10 and the example with over 70s rather than over 65s. If I did not say it, I certainly intended to say that these are examples. The reason for using the age of 70 was that the greatest hardship seems to occur to people over the age of 70. Up to the age of 70 most people are capable of earning an income but a lot of people are not. I think that is where the problem arises.

I was chided for talking about the same house. My noble friend was slightly—if he does not mind my saying so—splitting hairs there. By sharing the same house I did not actually mean the same location in Surbiton and moving to Crawley, to Doncaster or whatever. It was actually within the same home; sharing a home. My noble friend says they all moved to Worthing—and they all voted Conservative.

Furthermore, the problem was described as not being a Treasury problem, that the only Treasury problem was a cash-flow problem. That is slightly naive because after the survivor receives the relief from the inheritance tax do you think that he or she will leave all that money to the Treasury when he or she dies? I really do not think that that is a cash-flow problem; it is actually a serious problem for the Treasury if the inheritance tax provisions are extended to cover all the people I have suggested they should. So I do not think we can be too naive about that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, said that I have laid great emphasis on rights and never on responsibilities. She said that the fact is that carers looking after disabled people certainly have responsibilities; younger sons or daughters looking after elderly parents certainly have responsibilities; and the sisters living together provide succour to each other. I took down those three levels of responsibilities. The noble Baroness said that in the Civil Partnership Bill would acknowledge that same-sex couples living together have those responsibilities. I maintain that all the people I suggested ought to have those responsibilities.

The point made about the 1930s—I do not remember them—where daughters were responsible for their parents. In fact there are still some of us, even though we were not around in the 1930s, who were brought up to accept that we always would have familial responsibilities. I can say that mine ended only three weeks ago. I felt deeply responsible for my parents and for my siblings until the death of my last sibling three weeks ago.

So, I do not think that it necessarily means that people do not feel they have responsibilities. A lot of people do feel they have responsibilities. Perhaps I may also say that when the responsibility has gone you typically feel, "Well, what is the purpose here?".

However, we have to recognise that there are of course fantastic loving and supportive relationships between same-sex couples. It is wonderful that you can have these sorts of relationships. We all want loving and supportive relationships. But, marriage is not on the basis of inheritance tax or tax relationships. This Bill, I fear, has far too much emphasis on that area. I wonder whether there is some way that we could equalise that. Of course the best option would be to do away with inheritance tax altogether. The second best option would be to include all the categories that I suggest. The third option would be to give no one other than married couples the benefit.

In the examples siblings can have rights over friends living together or carers looking after disabled people. They can have tenancy rights and intestacy rights. But they cannot have any inheritance rights or pension rights. I have mentioned four sets of rights. The Bill would give all four sets of rights to same-sex couples in civil partnerships. Siblings would have two of the rights but not all four. Many of the categories I have mentioned would have none of the four. So it is still a discriminatory Bill. It is unfair and unjust.

I fear that the Government have constructed a Bill that looks very much like civil marriage. We can strip out some of the elements that most closely resemble marriage. I shall try with later amendments to do so. But that should not stop us from trying to address the fundamental injustice which the Bill creates. It is not fair that only homosexual carers should be exempt from inheritance tax; that only homosexual pensioners should be able to obtain next-of-kin rights; and that family relationships should be excluded altogether.

What could be done would be to bring into the Bill an absolute requirement to say that those in long-term homosexual relationships—male or female—should have the sort of rights to counterbalance the appalling situations, which were raised I think by the noble Lord, Lord Alli, at Second Reading; for instance, a dying person having no access at the last rites and no say in medical treatment or in anything. Perhaps we ought to be doing something about that.

People say that the specified degrees of family relationships are too limited. I have simply duplicated the list of prohibited degrees in Schedule 1. These are the people who are specifically excluded from the Bill. Of course at a later stage I shall be very willing to think about broadening the list. But the primary purpose of the amendment at this stage is to draw out the Government's reasoning for excluding familial and platonic relationships.

Finally, I have chosen a seven-year qualifying period for relationships. Only those who make a decision as adults to live together are making the kind of commitment that I think merits recognition. An 18-year old who moves in with his or her disabled friend will be 25 by the time they have lived together for seven years. As for the elderly, it seems that targeting the over-70s addresses those instances in which the most difficult cases of hardship could arise.

I realise that I have very little support, either from my own party or from others. However, I shall have to withdraw these amendments because of the nature of Grand Committee, but I can promise everyone that I shall be back with them on Report and at Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Viscount Simon)

Amendment No. 3 not moved?

Lord Tebbit moved Amendment No. 3: Page 1, line 4, leave out "of the same sex

The noble Lord said: It most certainly is moved. I am accustomed to being discriminated against, but not that much. "Not yet moved" would be the appropriate expression.

I was unfortunately not able to be at Second Reading. I was away on holiday with my wife. Had I been present, I would have pointed out—what seems to have come as a slight shock to some—that this Bill does not provide for civil partnerships to be confined to homosexuals. Merely, that they are to be undertaken only between persons of the same sex.

If anyone believes that marriage has never been undertaken for financial reasons, they must be poorly experienced and very poorly read in great literature. And if anyone believes that civil partnerships will not be abused in the same way by some smart lads somewhere in the world—and there are a lot of awfully smart lads in this world—very eager to find a way to avoid taxation, then they will be in for a considerable shock.

The Bill raises some very curious issues. Any two men or women not subject to the consanguinity rules can enter into a civil partnership for whatever reasons. There is no requirement for them to be homosexual; to have a sexual relationship; or for them to have a loving relationship. The nature of the relationship is not specified in the Bill.

With marriage, certain specific undertakings are made and its purposes are clearly known. We therefore have a very curious situation. There is essentially a consanguinity rule in the Bill. I shall discuss it in a moment in the detail of the amendments. Why should brothers or sisters not be allowed to enter a civil partnership? We know why there is a consanguinity rule for heterosexual marriage. It is for the protection of potential offspring. That is the basis of it. In a marriage between persons of the same sex, there will clearly be no offspring, so why is that rule included? All it does is to prohibit siblings entering a civil partnership. Sooner or later, a pair of homosexual siblings may turn up in the courts, claiming that their rights have been abused and that they are not allowed to enter a civil partnership purely because they are related. They will claim that there is no good reason for it.

While I am on my feet, perhaps I may also plead guilty to an error of omission. I had intended to move an amendment to the first line of Clause 1 that would delete, of the same sex".

5.15 p.m

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

That is what the amendment states.

Lord Tebbit

I am terribly sorry. I thought that that amendment had been dropped.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

The noble Lord can drop it if he wishes.

Lord Tebbit

That is Amendment No. 3 of course. That is correct. That issue is at the heart of the Bill. Why should civil partnership be restricted to persons of the same sex? There is no particularly good reason why it should so be. Indeed, I have in this group the further amendment—

Lord Higgins

I think that that point came up at Second Reading. It was pointed out that if people of opposite sexes were allowed to become civil partners, it would to some extent undermine the principle of marriage.

Lord Tebbit

That would be a good argument if this Bill did not undermine the principle of marriage. My noble friend is straining at the gnat having swallowed the camel if he supports this Bill.

Lord Higgins

Not at all.

Lord Tebbit

He says "not at all", but that is so. By restricting civil partnership to same-sex couples, it is a fundamentally discriminatory piece of legislation. It is as simple as that. My Amendment No. 16 to Clause 3(1)(a), which requires that eligible persons should not be of the same sex, would be deleted. My Amendment No. 18 would amend Clause 3(1)(d) so that it would read, if, being of opposite sexes, they are within prohibited degrees of relationship". There could of course be children of such a union if that were allowed. One would have to introduce a consanguinity rule to keep things tidy.

I can see no logic at all in refusing homosexual brothers from entering a civil partnership open to other same-sex couples. The rules against consanguinity are there to safeguard against inbreeding and to protect potential children. There is no place for those to be in a same-sex relationship. I suspect that they are there in an effort to confine this legislation at the behest of the Treasury. If it is widened at all, the Treasury would see itself losing too much revenue. It is intended to prevent father and son, brother and brother, mother and daughter, or sister and sister—however dependent they may be, and however strong their relationships—from entering a partnership that would bring tax advantages.

As the noble Lord, Lord Alli, said, this Bill cannot actually provide for tax concessions because it is in this House, but it paves the way to give a tiny minority tax concessions that are not available to those who are equally deserving, but exist in greater numbers. This is a case where it is a disadvantage to be a member of a large group. The Treasury will not give tax concessions to members of large groups. This Bill is applicable only to a very small group. It will, in fact, only give advantage to a minority of a minority. After all, why do we exclude from the benefits of this Bill daughters who gave up their lives to care for their fathers, sons who care for their mothers, or indeed mothers who care for their sons? The Bill is shot through with illogicality and discrimination.

I have a feeling that somewhere down the line, this Bill will be challenged in the courts for discriminating on the grounds of sex. I look forward to seeing the Government wriggle when that comes. I beg to move.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

If this amendment is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment No. 4, due to pre-emption.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

The point that I wish to address is about discrimination between opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples.

The White Paper, as has already been said, explains in paragraph 1.4 that the Government have considered the position of opposite-sex couples, many of whom now choose—I emphasise choose—to cohabit instead of marry, and other people who live together in a closely supportive household environment. The Government believe that these situations are significantly different from those of same-sex couples who wish to formalise their relationships, but are currently unable to do so. The Government's argument for not providing benefits to unmarried, opposite-sex couples, is that they can choose to marry, whereas gay and lesbian partners cannot choose to marry.

If the Government's argument were, "We quite agree that the position of opposite-sex couples is anomalous and may need protecting, but it will take us a long time to work out the horrible details of law reform, and that justifies dealing with this mischief straightaway, and getting round to the wider mischief later", that seems to be possible grounds for justifying the difference in treatment. It may be that the Minister will reply to the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, on those lines. If she can indicate that the Government have it well in mind that something must be done on law reform in relation to what we will loosely call common-law marriages, that would be most welcome.

If Members of the Committee look at the tables helpfully included in the consultation paper, they will find that table 1 on page 15, and table 2 on page 16, show that many other countries are already protecting opposite-sex couples in the way that they also protect same-sex couples. That is particularly true outside the European member states. If noble Lords circle the word, "both" in table 2, they will see that many of those countries are protecting opposite-sex as well as same-sex couples. I am sympathetic to the argument, even though my Bill dealt with opposite-sex and same-sex couples, but the matter is very complicated and it will take a while to get around to acting on it.

I want to deal with the argument based on choice, as that is the only argument that the Government have put forward. They have not made an argument based on administrative or law-reform problems. The choice argument has been well dealt with in the Supreme Court of Canada case by two women justices. I emphasise that they were women; they looked at the matter very much as women in their two judgments. I very much hope that the Government will look at the judgments; I am sure that the Joint Committee on Human Rights will be asked to do so as well.

Justice Claire L'Heureux-Dubé made three points. She said: First, discrimination on the basis of marital status"— that is what we are talking about; it is not on the basis of sex— touches the essential dignity and worth of the individual in the same way as other recognized grounds of discrimination violative of fundamental human rights norms. Specifically, it touches the individual's freedom to live life with the mate of one's choice in the fashion of one's choice". Justice L'Heureux-Dubé's second point is that, marital status possesses characteristics often associated with recognized grounds of discrimination … Persons involved in an unmarried relationship constitute an historically disadvantaged group. There is ample evidence that unmarried partners have often suffered social disadvantage and prejudice". That is the common-law marriage problem. She said that, historically in Canada, the unmarried partner has been regarded as less worthy than the married partner. The disadvantages inflicted on the unmarried partner have ranged from social ostracism through denial of status and benefits". Then she talks about illegitimacy and says that it is no longer quite the problem that it was.

The third point that Justice L'Heureux-Dubé makes is that: A third characteristic sometimes associated with analogous grounds—distinctions founded on personal, immutable characteristics", in the sense that one cannot change one's colour or gender—is present in common-law marriages, albeit in attenuated form. That is an important point. She said: In theory, the individual is free to choose whether to marry or not to marry". That is the Government's argument. She continued: In practice, however, the reality may be otherwise. The sanction of the union by the state through civil marriage cannot always be obtained. The law; the reluctance of one's partner to marry: financial, religious or social constraints—these factors and others commonly function to prevent partners who otherwise operate as a family unit from formally marrying. In short, marital status often lies beyond the individual's effective control. In this respect, marital status is not unlike citizenship". I mention those points only because I wonder whether the Government are on safe ground in founding the whole of the justification for not doing what my Bill did—covering common-law marriage couples—on a matter of choice. The judgment says that, in the real world, many of those who would like to marry cannot do so because their partner will not marry or for other reasons. No doubt the Human Rights Joint Committee will need to go into those matters. The Government may in due course have to justify that difference of treatment under the Human Rights Act, if it ever comes to that.

I am not arguing in favour of the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit—that the Government should somehow now accept common-law marriage—as that would simply be impractical. The change to the Bill would be so massive, in terms of law reform, that it would be beyond its scope and kill it altogether. However, I ask the Minister whether she can give a fair wind to the notion that we will not simply warn common-law marriage couples that there is no such thing in law and that they had better get married if they want to. We should do what Canada and many other countries have done, which is to reform cohabitation law. I do not believe that that will undermine marriage in this country any more than it has done in other jurisdictions, such as Canada.

Therefore, I support the spirit behind the part of the amendment which seeks to remove the difference of treatment. I fully understand that there are serious Treasury reasons why that would not be very welcome as it stands and, as I said, I recognise the practical problems. However, I believe that the difference of treatment cannot be justified on the simple argument that, in theory, a heterosexual couple can marry. It is a little like St Paul's terrible statement that it was better to marry than to burn. It seems to me that one should not be saying anything of that kind—a civil registration—should apply in this context.

5.30 p.m.

Baroness Rendell of Babergh

In connection with the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, I believe that the consanguinity rules originally had nothing at all to do with offspring but came into being because, in ancient times, the Roman Catholic Church believed that people who were already related would have their natural affections so increased by marriage as to exceed their love for God. I do not know whether that has any application to the Bill, but I think that it rather does away with the contention of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, that those rules came about in some way to prevent damaged offspring coming into being.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

We have had a fascinating debate and I am very glad to enter into the fray. However, I should deal directly with one of the noble Lord's assertions that a large group of people is being disadvantaged and that large groups are generally disadvantaged. Of course, the largest group who are already advantaged by similar, if not identical, measures to those which we now seek to offer to same-sex couples are those who already enjoy the estate of marriage, and that is an incredibly large group in our country. Therefore, it is not that we seek to disadvantage large groups in general.

Perhaps I may deal, first, with Amendments Nos. 3 and 16. I have already made it clear that the Bill would not be open to opposite-sex couples as they already have the opportunity to gain a legal status for their relationship through marriage—the matter already foreshadowed for me by the noble Lord, Lord Lester. It is true that, thereby, they are given a choice—either to choose to marry and have the advantages and disadvantages that may flow from that or not to marry.

I also accept what the noble Lord, Lord Lester, says—that is, for some, that choice is muted because there is a reluctance by one partner to marry the other. As the noble Lord rightly said earlier, often it is the male partner who chooses not to invest in the female partner the rights which, by the nature of the relationship, she probably deserves. One has to grapple with that issue, not least because there is a failure to understand the distinction which is still drawn today between those who have entered the estate of marriage and those who remain resolutely outside it. To that end, the efforts of the Department for Constitutional Affairs are currently focused on demystifying that division.

I also listened with great care to what was said about the need to consider cohabitation as an issue on its own, separate and apart from marriage and separate and apart from the issues with which we are dealing in the Bill. I shall certainly undertake—if not later in Grand Committee, then on Report—to give the House the more mature reflection of the Government in relation to how to respond to that issue. I think that I made clear both today and at Second Reading that these issues have percolated to the top of the discussions on a number of occasions. They are issues with which the Government have grappled and they will wish to continue to do so.

Lord Higgins

I am most grateful to the noble Baroness. We shall obviously have to deal later with the issue of cohabitation and the implications for the social security system and so on. Therefore, when the noble Baroness says that the Government will grapple with those matters, I presume she means that we will debate them in due course.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

We shall be debating them in due course in our deliberations on this Bill. However, what I mean, and have already said, is that I do not think that these issues can be dealt with adequately within the Bill because of their complexity and depth. We made very clear the regime that we are currently suggesting in relation to the tax consequences, and those are the issues that will be debated later. We tried to make it clear that those who enter into a civil partnership will be in a similar position to those who marry; and those who choose not to enter into a civil partnership will be in a similar position to opposite-sex couples who choose not to marry. I see that the noble Lord still looks mystified. I do not know whether I can help him further at a later stage.

Lord Higgins

I am not mystified; I am merely saying that I do not believe one can take a view on the Bill unless one knows what the Government's views are on the social security implications.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

We shall be dealing with the social security issues, as the noble Lord has defined them, in the amendments. I know that he and my noble friend Lady Hollis are looking forward with some relish to discussing those issues in depth.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

I am very encouraged by the fact that the noble Baroness says that the door is ajar to further thoughts by the Government. When the Joint Committee on Human Rights comes to consider the Bill, we shall have to consider whether or not the difference of treatment between heterosexual and homosexual couples is objectively justifiable. Of course, through our committee the Government will, as always, give a fuller explanation of their case, which we shall evaluate.

If there is any indication by the Government that they are open to long-term considerations of law reform in respect of cohabitation, personally I shall find that far more convincing than resting the whole case on what may be an illusory choice. Therefore, if the noble Baroness and her colleagues could think about whether the justification might be more broadly based than what is in the consultation paper, I do not think that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, need be troubled about this matter. I am not talking about social security, pensions or tax; I am talking about providing some basic legal protection for the basic rights of both sets of couples. I recognise that that cannot be achieved in the Bill. I hope that that is helpful.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

I shall certainly take fully into account what the noble Lord has said and, of course, as I have indicated, I shall try to give a fuller answer—if not later in Committee then on Report. Whether the answer will meet the noble Lord's satisfaction, I cannot say. I can say only that I shall aspire to have a fuller answer later.

As I believe I made clear, the Government recognise that some unmarried opposite-sex couples are under the mistaken impression that they have rights that they do not have. Some jurisdictions have adopted a deeming provision, which states that if a person lives with someone for x years, he or she is deemed to have assumed the rights. The indication is that the number of people who then marry is enhanced because they think that there is no point in not doing so in terms of avoiding responsibilities.

Those issues have been open to debate, and the misconceptions that currently abound in this regard have led to difficulties. For example, one partner may be left financially vulnerable after the breakdown of the relationship because the partners did not make any clear arrangements about ownership of property bought with joint funds.

There is also the issue of serial relationships. How many relationships does one remain responsible for in the long term, bearing in mind, in particular, the increasing tendency for people to have serial relationships instead of one long-term relationship? As I indicated, colleagues in the Department for Constitutional Affairs are currently working with two voluntary services—the Advice Services Alliance and One Plus One—on a public awareness campaign to tackle that myth. The campaign will aim to clarify the legal position of unmarried couples as it currently stands and will suggest ways that unmarried cohabitants can protect themselves if things go wrong with their relationship.

We debated at length the fact that the Bill is designed to meet a different problem—that of same-sex couples. After consultation with family lawyers, it is our understanding that civil partnerships would be unlikely to help opposite-sex couples where one member of the couple was unwilling to marry the other—not least because the rights and responsibilities in same-sex partnerships are similar, although not identical, to those entered into by married couples. Therefore, if people are unlikely to want to enter one, they are unlikely to want to enter a partnership. The noble Lord is right to identify the major problem—that of shouldering the financial responsibilities that flow from marriage. Many people do not want to do that and therefore they do not get married.

In addition, some opposite-sex couples have told us that they would wish to form a civil partnership because. for example, they already have a spouse who does not agree to a divorce or they fear losing a pension left to them by a deceased spouse. The Bill would not help those people either, and, in fact, similar duties and eligibility requirements would apply to civil partnerships as do to marriage. Civil partnerships would not therefore meet the needs of those couples. For those reasons, the Government do not believe that the new legal relationship of civil partnership is appropriate for opposite-sex couples.

I now turn to Amendment No. 64, which seeks to remove the requirement that the members of a couple must both be of the same sex at the time they entered into an overseas relationship in order to be treated as civil partners in the UK. I hope that I have explained the Government's position. This is reflected in Clause 156, which deals with the recognition of relationships formed overseas. We do not intend that overseas opposite-sex relationships should be recognised as civil partnerships. I hope that the noble Lord will feel comforted and able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Tebbit

The noble Baroness is hopeful that I will be comforted and feel able to withdraw the amendment. She knows that I have no choice and therefore she can be comforted on that issue. She is absolutely right that my proposal that civil partnerships should be open to opposite-sex couples would not, in fact, be the greatest thing on earth. If partners in an opposite-sex couple did not wish to enter into a civil marriage, it is unlikely that they would enter into a civil partnership. Although the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has a point in that respect, I think that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, said, it is not going to be the big issue.

I was surprised that the noble Baroness said that my amendments would unduly complicate the Bill. I believe that that was the general gist of what she said. In my view, they would bring admirable simplicity and clarity to the Bill, but I think that that is really what she fears most.

In the amendments, I am more concerned about those who do not have the choice of marriage than those who do. I refer to close family members, who have no opportunity to marry, whose commitment to each other is at least as great as that of any who would qualify under the Bill as drafted, and who would suffer similar disadvantage, hurt and discrimination as if they were not related in any way. I think that that group, which we typically describe as those in a parent and child relationship in old age, is most discriminated against. At present, they can perhaps shrug and say, "Well, that's the way the world is". However, with the enactment of this Bill, I think that they will see another very small group being given preferential treatment. The argument is that these people cannot enter into a marriage contract and therefore we give them a way of obtaining the benefits of it, yet we do nothing for parents, children or siblings who care for each other. Although I shall withdraw the amendment today, as I am required to do, as the noble Baroness may suspect I shall be back to argue the case again.

Of course I take the noble Baroness's point concerning Amendment No. 64, but I tabled it merely for the sake of consistency with the other amendments. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 4: Page 1, line 4, leave out "sex" and insert "gender

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 4 stands in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Wilcox. To a considerable extent we have probably already covered some of the ground on this issue, because of the answer which the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, gave in response to the earlier debate on the situation of same-sex couples who are not involved in a sexual relationship. None the less, while one would not want to go into the tedious business of looking up dictionary definitions, it seems to me that there is some implication that "sex" is an active situation and "gender" is a relatively passive one. I do not know whether that is true. However, as, in any case, "gender" seems to be a politically correct expression nowadays, is it not more appropriate that that should be the term used here rather than "sex", which appears in the Bill at present?

I believe that much debate took place on this matter during deliberations on other Bills, which happily I was not involved in, and perhaps that experience will enable the noble Baroness to give us a fairly brief answer. However, as it stands, I would prefer the wording proposed in the amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Tebbit

As my noble friend Lord Higgins said, he was not one of the campaigners on the earlier legislation concerning the words "sex" and "gender" and therefore he was not able to enjoy the debates that we had on the difference between the two. At the end, I came to the conclusion that the Government could not clearly define the difference between the two words, and they certainly did not like the definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary, where "sex" is essentially described as a physical concept whereas "gender" is a concept of the mind. "Sex" is what a biologist would call it; "gender" is what a sociologist would call it. I really do not like to see my noble friend putting himself in the sociologists' camp as against the biologists' camp, and therefore I do not have too much sympathy with him on this occasion. But I shall be fascinated to hear what the noble Baroness says.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

I hope that my response can be brief. There really are sound legal reasons for using the term "sex" in this Bill. Almost without exception, existing legislation refers to "sex" rather than "gender". There is one honourable exception, which I know the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, has firmly in his mind. It is the terminology traditionally used by legislation—for example, in the Sex Discrimination Act, although there are many others—to describe the characteristic of being male or female. It is also the approach taken in recent Bills—namely, the Housing Bill and the domestic violence Bill, with which we are currently dealing and which make provision for same-sex couples.

It has been pointed out that the Gender Recognition Bill, which was recently debated in this House, seems to be the one exception. The reason for that is relatively clear. In its report on the Bill, the Joint Committee on Human Rights noted that the law has always regarded the question of being male or female as one of sex and not gender. It was explained to the committee that the Gender Recognition Bill deals with issues arising from a person's gender identity, which concerns whether a person regards himself or herself as male or female. In that context, "gender" is the more appropriate term and it is the term preferred by individuals with gender dysphoria.

In this Bill, we are dealing with couples of different sex or the same sex and therefore we do not believe that "gender" is the appropriate term to use. On this occasion, we delight to be with the biologists and with the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, in that "sex" is the clearer term and it is one that fits more easily into other legislation and, therefore, into this Bill, too.

Lord Higgins

I am grateful for that educational lecture and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 5: Page 1, line 5, at end insert— ( ) which is subject to the Finance Act 2004

The noble Lord said: This is an extremely important amendment. It will be apparent to Members of the Committee that, in a way, this is a peg on which to hang an extremely important argument. Nowadays, the Government seem able to do almost anything— including abolishing the office of Lord Chancellor, or at least trying to do so—in press releases. In relation to this Bill, the Inland Revenue issued a press release under the heading: Civil Partnership Bill: child & working tax credits, child benefit & guardians' allowance".

In the final paragraph, ahead of the "Notes for Editors", the press release states: The Civil Partnership Bill is social policy legislation, so any tax consequences will be dealt with in the first available Finance Bill".

That seems to me to be a complete non sequitur. I do not believe that one follows from the other. In fact, one would have thought that, if it was social policy legislation, the tax consequences would be dealt with in this Bill.

Also, the expression, in the first available Finance Bill", is extraordinarily confusing and inappropriate. I am not in the least clear about it. and that is after years as a Treasury Minister and after decades as the chairman of the Treasury and Civil Service Committee in another place. I am not at all sure what those words mean. I presume that they mean the first Finance Bill in which it is possible for the Government to legislate on this subject. Of course, a Finance Bill is going through another place at present, and there is no reason at all why the opportunity should not be taken to spell out the financial provisions relating to this Bill.

In an earlier debate, the noble Lord, Lord Alli, pointed out that it would not be appropriate for us to deal with financial matters. But I find it difficult to recall any piece of legislation where the tax and social security implications are not more important. To introduce this Bill without any clear indication of the proposed legislation so far as concerns the financial consequences really is a "Hamlet without the prince" situation. Therefore, my first question to the noble Baroness is: will she give an undertaking that these matters will be dealt with in the Finance Act 2004? That was the purpose of the amendment.

Having said that, there is now a long tradition, which I started back in 1972, of publishing draft clauses to Finance Bills if they concern complicated issues. It seems to me absolutely clear that, so far as concerns the financial implications of this Bill, those draft clauses should be available. Therefore, my second question to the noble Baroness is: are those draft clauses available? Does the Treasury have those draft clauses? If so, it seems to me to be essential that the Committee should see them before agreeing to the general provisions of the Bill. Having said that, it seems appropriate that they should be published as a draft—as I say, that is a well-established Treasury procedure—otherwise we will have no idea what the provisions really are on a whole range of issues.

I think it is broadly clear from the press release what will be the changes in regard to the Tax Credits Act. We have debated time and again today the question of inheritance tax and we still have no idea of what will be the situation in regard to it. We have no idea to which groups it will extend if relief is indeed to be given. Perhaps the noble Baroness can tell us today—we will need more detail later—whether inheritance tax will apply to those covered by the Bill.

As I pointed out earlier, what is involved is really a cash flow problem rather than an actual loss of revenue. The department has published an estimate that the cost would be £1.3 billion if inheritance tax relief were given to those covered by the Bill. Is that £1.3 billion the interest on losing the cash flow during that period, or is it some estimate of the absolute cost? I find it difficult to believe that it is the absolute cost, but no doubt the noble Baroness can clarify the matter.

I have received various representations. For example, the Society of Conservative Lawyers points out that the situation with regard to fiscal matters as far as a married couple is concerned—and so also, I imagine, as far as concerns those covered by the Bill—is different in status from other legislation because it not only affects the two parties' obligations as between themselves, it also affects their relationship with the taxman.

Various bodies have expressed considerable concern. For example, the Tax Law Review Committee of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which is a highly reputable body, states: Despite the introduction of independent income taxation in 1990, the tax system is neither neutral or consistent with respect to marital status". It continues: For some purposes it matters critically whether two people of opposite sex are married or not. For other purposes it is critical to know of a married couple whether they are 'living together' or not. For yet other purposes it is critical to know of an unmarried couple whether they are 'living together as husband and wife"'.

That very distinguished committee concluded, that the treatment of marriage overall in the tax system is confused".

It is going to be more confused if we do not get the legislation right in the Bill; and even more confused if we have no idea what the Government intend to do.

I was very worried by a statement made earlier by the noble Baroness in the context of tax and social security, which suggested they are still trying to work out the right approach. Perhaps she could tell us whether there are outstanding issues relating to the Treasury which a whole range of other government departments have not yet managed to resolve.

The Tax Law Review Committee, which is a non-party body, also expressed concern about the situation with regard to income tax and, in particular, tax credits, which, it points out, graft elements of the social security system into the income tax system. It is a key principle of social security law that "couples living together as husband and wife" are to be treated in exactly the same way as if they were married. But this is quite alien to tax law. Are we going to introduce that particular provision in relation to not only married couples, but to those covered by the Bill, and perpetuate the fact that the social security side of the issue—the tax credit system—is alien to tax law?

6 p.m.

I have already covered the question of the likely costs of the inheritance tax situation—at least to the extent of saying that we do not know the answer and look forward to seeing what is the position. There are further complications with regard to the extension of the surviving spouse exemption, and we are still not clear whether under the Bill one or other of the partners will be described legally as the "spouse", a word which turns up in a number of places in tax law. The Minister seems to indicate dissent, suggesting that one or other of the partners—I am not sure which one—will not be described as the "spouse" so far as concerns tax law.

These are not simple issues. We need to be clear about what the Government propose before we agree to the Bill going forward. Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Alli, and others have pointed out, the basic principle of the Bill relates to the disadvantages that same-sex couples are said to have suffered as a result of not having a fixed, stable relationship. Nevertheless, the whole of the tax and social security aspect is extremely important and we cannot allow the Bill to go through without knowing what on earth the Government have in mind. I beg to move.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

The amendment seeks to insert a cross-reference in the Civil Partnership Bill to an Act that is not yet law but is currently proceeding through Parliament as the Finance Bill. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, will agree that it is very unusual to attempt to amend a Bill before it has reached the statute book on the basis of another Bill which also has not reached the statute book and is subject to debate. It has never been done before, and I hope that the noble Lord will be only a little disappointed when I tell him that it is not going to be done on this occasion either.

The Finance Bill includes no references to civil partners at the moment. That is not surprising because we are debating the matter now and, as I explained at Second Reading, Her Majesty's Treasury tends not to foreshadow that which may become law, choosing instead to deal with matters only once they are law. One can see the sense in that because we do not know what the Bill will look like in the final analysis. If it looks like a Bill which would delight the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, it will not look anything like the Bill as currently drafted. It is therefore impossible to say what will or will not be included—for instance, whether it will refer only to same-sex couples; whether it will refer to opposite sex couples and whether or not it will cross the bounds of consanguinity. Such issues would make a nonsense of the Finance Bill currently passing through Parliament.

We have to look at the certainties, and I can certainly be clear about the Government's intentions. It is not correct to say that the Government's intentions regarding the fiscal consequences of the Civil Partnership Bill are not crystal clear, because we believe that they are. The Government have already announced that for all tax purposes the intention is to treat civil partners in the same way that married couples are treated. Nothing can be clearer than that.

The Government have gone further, however, and clarified the tax consequences of the Civil Partnership Bill, which will be addressed and debated at the appropriate time in the first available Finance Bill. One knows that Finance Bills come round as regularly as good buses: if you miss the first one, you are assured that another one is coming right behind. The first bus might have left without the Bill, but the next one will be there in good time. So to insert a cross-reference in this year's Finance Bill would anticipate the outcome of the Civil Partnership Bill, something we need to avoid.

In addition, it is likely that the Civil Partnership Bill we are currently debating will not come into force until about a year after Royal Assent. So there will be plenty of time for another Finance Bill to include provisions dealing with the tax consequences of the Civil Partnership Bill. I hope that the noble Lord will accept that that is as comprehensive an answer as I am able to give at this stage.

Lord Higgins

Quite the contrary. I am now not the least bit clear that if the Bill passes through Parliament and receives Royal Assent, as intended, which will be the next available Finance Bill to incorporate the tax provisions. It seems clear from what the noble Baroness said that it will not be the one now going through the House—although it is quite possible this Bill will be in fairly clear shape before then—but I can understand that. In which case, the statement in the press release that it will be in the next available Finance Bill is simply wrong.

The alternative is to say that it will be in the first Finance Bill after this Bill receives Royal Assent. That seemed at first to be what the noble Baroness was saying. But she then qualified it by saying that the Bill was not coming into operation until somewhat later and another Finance Bill will be coming along. That also is not the next available Finance Bill. So presumably the Government are saying—and ought to say—that the provisions relating to the Bill that require fiscal legislation will be in the first Finance Bill after it receives Royal Assent. Is or is not that what the Minister is saying?

The noble Baroness has totally failed to answer some of the important questions I raised. We need to know what the Government have in mind and whether, indeed, they know what they have in mind. The Minister seemed to imply earlier that they did not. We need to see some draft clauses. It is not unusual for the Treasury to produce draft clauses for debate, and it would enable the Committee and the House at subsequent stages of the Bill to have a precise, informed view.

It is not, with respect, adequate to say, "We will do exactly the same as with married couples". This is not simple legislation, and it will require detailed scrutiny in another place in due course. We need to know precisely what the Government have in mind before we agree to the Bill. We might be letting ourselves in for something quite unforeseen, and noble Lords could be asked to vote for it without knowing exactly what the Government have in mind. This is not a satisfactory situation. I again pose the question: do these draft clauses exist, or are we to understand that the Government are going ahead without producing any draft clauses in order to clear their minds in advance of putting forward the Bill? I hope the noble Baroness can answer these specific questions.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

I can certainly tell the noble Lord that I do not have, and have not had, sight of any draft clause; neither would I expect to. I hoped that I had been crystal clear. There are direct fiscal consequences which currently exist as a result of entering the state of marriage. They include inheritance tax; fiscal arrangements; the benefits one gets from additional allowances; and the disadvantages involved in being treated as a couple as opposed to single individuals. The Committee will know that in various financial categories some consequences are beneficial and some are not.

It is on that basis that I agreed with the statement made by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, that the Bill comes with a health warning. Those who believe it is all benefit and no responsibility are wrong. Just as with those who enter the state of marriage, there are rights, responsibilities and fiscal consequences. We propose that those who register as civil partners should have a similar distinction and the same rights, responsibilities and fiscal consequences as married couples. Those who choose not to register their relationships will have the same advantages and disadvantages as those who have chosen not to join with a partner in a recognised relationship. That is the way it will be divided.

I know that the noble Lord has had many debates—not least with my noble friend Lady Hollis—as to whether the current fiscal arrangements in relation to married couples should be changed because of anomalies and so on. However, we do not seek to resolve those difficulties through the Bill. There will be no difference between the tax relationship for those entering a partnership. They will not be spouses, because it will not be a marriage. The rules will relate to "civil partners" or "spouses", not simply to "spouses". There is no way in which civil partners could ever be described as "spouses" because they would not be in marriages.

Lord Goodhart

I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to confirm that the timetable runs something like this: that the clauses cannot be put into a Finance Bill until after the Civil Partnership Bill has received Royal Assent; and that the Civil Partnership Act, as it will then be, cannot be brought into force until the tax changes are made. Therefore, while this rules out any possibility of bringing the Bill into force in 2004, or the tax year 2004–05, it should be possible to bring it into force half-way through the tax year 2005–06. Can the noble Baroness confirm that when the Finance Act 2005 is passed—assuming, of course, that the present Government are responsible for that Act— the provisions will be drafted in such a way that, if the Civil Partnership Bill is brought into force in, say, October 2005, it will then be possible for one partner to transfer assets to the other partner and claim the capital gains tax exemption for any transfers made after the date of the civil partnership registration but before the end of the tax year 2005–06?

While I am not quite as sure as the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, that it is essential to see the clauses in advance if we are told sufficiently about what they will achieve, nevertheless it would certainly be advantageous to see them in advance and before the Finance Bill 2005 is published.

6.15 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

I think the noble Lord has it about right. I hope that I have put it clearly. All the tax changes will be made by the time of implementation. We anticipate that the Act will take about a year to implement after Royal Assent. I am sure that the usual practice in relation to a finance Bill will be followed and that there will be opportunities to debate it.

Lord Higgins

I shall try for a third time. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has put forward a reasonable scenario, but if the press release means anything at all, and if it does not refer to the finance Bill now going through the House, it must surely mean the first finance Bill after this Bill receives Royal Assent. Is that the case?

The noble Baroness also said that the expression "spouse" will not be used in relation to the Bill, but she said that the provisions in the finance Bill will mirror exactly, as I understand it, the provisions which already exist on the statute book in relation to marriage.

I reinforce what the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said: there is ample precedent for draft clauses being published, not only in advance of another piece of legislation receiving Royal Assent but years before that. When I first introduced draft legislation on value added tax, it was published a full year before so that bodies such as the one to which I have referred, the tax committee of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, and so forth, could look at it and point out to the Government what changes were necessary.

It is extraordinary if the Treasury has not yet drafted these clauses. The matter needs careful scrutiny because one knows only too well from finance Acts that very often something emerges in the course of discussion, either on draft legislation or actual legislation, where problems arise which had not been foreseen. I hope very much that the Minister will be able to clear up those extra one or two points. Will it be in the first finance Bill after this Bill receives Royal Assent? If not, what on earth does the press release mean?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

I have said on four occasions— there is no other way I can say it although I am happy to repeat it—that all the tax changes will be made by the time of implementation, which we think will be about a year after Royal Assent. Those matters will go into the most convenient Bill. So it will be Royal Assent; implementation after one year and then a finance Bill. I cannot put it any clearer than that. The noble Lord can ask me 1,000 times and I will give him the same answer.

Lord Higgins

I feel bound to say that that is a highly unsatisfactory answer. No doubt we shall raise the issue again on Report in anticipation of a better answer. I hope that the noble Baroness will consult with Treasury Ministers in advance of that. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Wilcox moved Amendment No. 6: Page 1, line 7, leave out sub-paragraphs (i) to (iv).

The noble Baroness said: This is the first occasion on which I have spoken in Grand Committee on the Civil Partnership Bill. I thank my noble friend Lord Higgins for opening the batting so well for me. I also take the opportunity as others have done before me to thank the Minister for the helpful meeting she arranged in my absence for my noble friend Lord Higgins and other colleagues. When I returned from my break they were able to brief me on the meeting. This will be the first time I have taken a Bill through the House for this side and I am happy to be supported by people as experienced as my noble friends Lord Higgins and Lord Henley, who also has yet to speak.

Part 1 is a helpful introduction to the Civil Partnership Bill. It has the effect of easing us into the slightly daunting 195 clauses which lie beyond Clause 1. That clause sets out the categories into which the provisions regarding civil partnerships are divided namely, England and Wales, Scotland. Northern Ireland and outside the UK. My amendment seeks to leave out this division of provisions for countries.

Clearly it is not my intention to leave these categories out of the Bill completely. At this stage this is a probing amendment but, in tabling it, my noble friend Lord Higgins and I are asking the Government why it is necessary to have different provisions for each of the categories outlined in Clause 1, and exactly how different are they. Is it the case that only the language used is different—for example, to cover the different legal systems in Scotland and Northern Ireland—or are there substantial differences of which we should be made aware? If that is the case, can the Minister explain why that should be?

In a Bill of this size it is not always easy to spot the differences between provisions, especially as we on these Benches do not have the luxury of an army of excellent civil servants and legal advisers at our disposal. As I said at Second Reading, the devil in a Bill such as this is always in the detail and I am taking this opportunity to ask the Government exactly what is meant by these provisions. I look forward to receiving clarification. I beg to move.

Baroness Crawley

This is also my first speaking occasion in Grand Committee. I hope to give my noble friend Lady Scotland a breather.

As I see it, the purpose of the amendment is to remove the different registration procedures in the devolved administrations. It would also appear to remove the ability of same-sex couples to register as civil partners at British Consulates, or for Armed Forces personnel to register.

Under Clause 1, two people who are eligible to do so would be able to register as the civil partner of each other in either England or Wales, in Scotland or in Northern Ireland under the relevant part of the Bill. This ensures a coherent system across the United Kingdom while respecting the different legal jurisdictions in the different parts of the United Kingdom. I hope that answers one of the noble Baroness's questions. We are seeking a coherent system across the United Kingdom.

In addition, under provisions to be made by Order in Council, eligible same-sex couples would be able to form a civil partnership outside the United Kingdom in certain circumstances similar to those where marriage is available. This facility would be available at British consulates and for Armed Forces personnel serving abroad.

If noble Lords are seeking to reduce a civil partnership to a contract, it may be that they do not accept that the formation of the new legal relationship of civil partnership should take place when same-sex couples register as the civil partners of each other in accordance with the procedures set out in the Bill. However, I hope that point was explained in the debate on an earlier amendment. The Government see civil partnership as a new form of legal relationship, which is brought into being by partners registering.

The laws and practices of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are different in many areas of family law, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, said. They each have their own statutory provisions. There are also different practices in registration procedures in the devolved regions when important life events are recorded. By acknowledging these different procedures the Bill seeks to respect the distinct legal systems and practices and to accommodate the diversity and character of the devolved administrations. The sub-paragraphs are an essential part of the description of how a civil partnership is formed and are linked to the parts of the Bill containing the registration procedures. For the reasons I have explained, we are not able to agree with the amendment and I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw it.

Baroness Wilcox

I am grateful to the noble Baroness. The clarification she has provided is very helpful. I shall read it carefully. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness O'Cathain moved Amendment No. 7: Page 1, line 9, leave out sub-paragraph (iii).

The noble Baroness said: The principle behind the amendment is to remove reference to Northern Ireland from the Bill. It is not intended to undermine the amendment of my noble friend Lady Wilcox, which was a probing amendment. This is something quite different.

Let us be under no misapprehension: there is no way that the Civil Partnership Bill would ever get through the Northern Ireland Assembly. In Northern Ireland, the level of objection to gay marriage would be overwhelming. I think the majority of people in Britain would oppose the Bill if they knew what it was about; in Northern Ireland the opposition would be almost universal—and yet the Bill seeks to impose civil partnerships on the Province.

We all know that Northern Ireland has a very different religious and political culture. Family life is very strong in the Province and divorce rates are much lower than on the "mainland", a term I use advisedly because it is how the people of Northern Ireland refer to England, Scotland and Wales when they are speaking of Great Britain. On the mainland, many of the hard cases amongst platonic relationships arise as a result of family breakdown. There is much less of that in Northern Ireland. As a matter of fact, there are very few homosexuals. A recent census found that there were only 288 same-sex couple households in the whole of the Province. The reference for that is the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Online-Census 2001. As if we did not know for other reasons, this simply shows that the situation is very different there.

Above all, we cannot be seen to be riding roughshod over the wishes of the electorate of Northern Ireland. It would be a constitutional outrage for the Bill to impose civil partnerships upon them.

In June 2003, the Government published a consultation paper announcing plans to introduce civil partnerships in England and Wales. In that paper, the Government stated that, no decision has yet been taken as to whether a parallel civil partnership registration scheme might be introduced in Northern Ireland".

On 19 December 2003, five months later, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Ian Pearson, launched a consultation on civil partnerships in the Province. The closing date for submissions was 5 March 2004.

One would hope that a two-month consultation from 19 December to 5 March would elicit a good number of responses from members of the public and interested parties. One would also hope that the Government would take adequate time to consider such responses. However, on 30 March, only 25 days after the consultation closed and before any report had been produced, this Bill was printed. It came complete with at least 49 clauses and three schedules applying civil partnerships—in full—to the Province.

The England and Wales consultation closed on 30 September 2003. Six months passed before the Bill was published, yet consideration of the opinions of members of the public in Northern Ireland apparently took only days.

In answer to a Written Question, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said: All responses have been examined carefully and the points made, both points of principle and detailed comments, have been properly taken into account".—[Official Report, Commons, 27/4/04; col. 918W.] Such detailed consideration simply cannot be possible in such a timeframe. Will the Minister tell the Committee what was said in the responses to the consultation and how many were made? The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State promised a report on the consultation in early May. I know that today is 10 May, but when is early May? When is it likely to happen?

As we all know, the Northern Ireland Assembly is, sadly, currently suspended. The Government are therefore exercising all its functions. Could it be that the Government are trying to get gay marriage on the statute book in Northern Ireland before the Assembly reconvenes because they know that the Assembly would not support it? The opinions of those in Northern Ireland are being bypassed, and it is clear that we should not extend civil partnerships to Northern Ireland in this Bill. The Government should let the elected Assembly debate the merits of civil partnerships in due course. I beg to move.

6.30 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

Perhaps I may give a number of minor corrections? The England and Wales consultation closed on 30 December 2003. I hope that it will give the noble Baroness pleasure to learn that the consultation paper has been published today and that we hope to be able shortly to get copies to all those who have participated in the Bill. We will put copies in the Library immediately. I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to take advantage of that today.

I say to the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, that I understand entirely why she says that there is a difference in terms of Northern Ireland. We need to be clear that the effect of this amendment would be to prevent the formation of civil partnerships in Northern Ireland and that it would therefore be the one part of the United Kingdom where parity of treatment did not prevail. When the Government consulted on this issue in Northern Ireland, we made clear our views that considerations of fairness and social justice applied just as much to same-sex couples in Northern Ireland as elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

I hear what the noble Baroness said about the numbers of homosexual couples or individuals who have chosen to declare themselves. If one were to have asked a similar question in England, Wales, or Scotland a few years ago, one might have found similar low numbers of homosexual couples apparently resident in England, Wales and Scotland. We know that that would have not been the correct case. Simply because of the prejudice and disadvantage, many fear to disclose their sexual orientation.

The consultation in Northern Ireland generated a considerable response. The majority of responses from individuals were opposed to the introduction of civil partnerships but, on the other hand, most groups or organisations who responded—including the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission:—were supportive for the reasons set out in the consultation paper. I understand that the analysis of the responses, which has just been published, will inform noble Lords and others of the detail of that.

The Government have considered carefully the responses received, both the numerical balance and the arguments made. Ultimately, we have decided that the reasons why this proposal was put forward in the first place still hold good. We remain convinced of the strong equality and social justice imperatives behind this proposal. No matter what size the population, we have come to the conclusion that fairness and social justice are demanded by each individual and group of individuals, no matter what their size or number.

There are also strong practical and administrative reasons for ensuring that comparable schemes would be established in each of the three jurisdictions, to ensure that a comprehensive package of rights and responsibilities would be available to civil partners wherever the civil partnership was formed. There are issues of inequality and social justice that affect everyone across the United Kingdom. Our preference is for co-ordinated schemes benefiting everyone in a comprehensive way.

I hope that Members of the Committee would agree that it would be invidious if some of the rights and responsibilities attaching to civil partnership were removed from some couples on the basis that they had, for whatever reason, moved from England and Wales or Scotland to Northern Ireland. If there were no civil partnership in Northern Ireland, same-sex couples from Northern Ireland would have to travel to England, Wales or Scotland to register as civil partners of each other. That would present obvious disadvantages to those on lower incomes and with disabilities.

Furthermore, civil partners returning to Northern Ireland would be subject only to the rights and responsibilities falling within the reserved or excepted field, such as immigration rights. Rights and responsibilities in transferred areas such as inheritance and intestacy would not be extended to them. I hope that Members of the Committee agree that that would be grossly unfair.

A theme that has run very strongly in Northern Ireland is the desire to have parity of treatment and equal rights and responsibilities. We think that an exception should not be made in the area, and I ask the noble Baroness not only to withdraw the amendment, as she must today, but to consider that it would be right not to bring it back on Report.

Lord Goodhart

I shall speak very briefly on the amendment. I concur entirely with what the Minister said. I will not comment in detail on what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, because I would find it difficult to do so without my language becoming unparliamentary.

Lord Higgins

I listened carefully to what the Minister said. I was not entirely clear to which document she referred that had only just been published. Is it the response to the consultation, or the consultation document itself? I was also rather puzzled by what she said about the situation if, supposing the provisions did not come into force in Northern Ireland, an individual came to the UK and then returned to Northern Ireland. Would he or she not be in the same position as someone who otherwise has an overseas civil partnership? I am not clear on that, but it is a difficult area and I am not at all familiar with the law on it.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

The report to which I referred is the report that analyses the responses made to the Northern Ireland consultation. We have been waiting for it for a little while, so I am very pleased that I am able to say that it has been published. It will be put in the Library, but I thought that, as a matter of courtesy, the Members who have participated in this Committee might like to receive a copy directly. Therefore, we have undertaken to send a copy to each of them.

In terms of support, I referred to the ability of those whose country of residence is Northern Ireland to take advantage of the fiscal and other opportunities that the Bill gives. Members of the Committee will know that, within England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, there is an arrangement in relation to how benefits are paid and what one can draw and not draw. That is relatively easily done when the system is well co-ordinated. It would be difficult if a recognised civil partnership system in England, Wales and Scotland, operating in the context of those three separate administrations, enabled a person to claim benefits and advantages as a full partner, but if those benefits were not made available to him or her when residing in Northern Ireland. For example, if someone were to leave Northern Ireland in order to enter into a registered partnership in England, Wales or Scotland and then go back to Northern Ireland, where there would not be a similar recognition of that status, the benefits that would attach to partnership would not attach in Northern Ireland. That would not be fair or just.

Baroness O'Cathain

I thank the Minister for always being gracious and kind and for respecting other people's views. I am sorry that some other people do not ever seem to think that I am prepared to have a view, which is probably not fair.

The Minister has had a considerable benefit in responding to the amendment. She has seen the document. I am operating in the dark. Have there been any revisions, or are any revisions planned, to the sections of the Bill that deal with Northern Ireland following the consultation?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

A policy decision has in effect been made as a result of the consultation on whether to exempt Northern Ireland. The policy decision is that all British citizens have to be treated equally in this way. For reasons of social justice, we simply did not feel that it was possible or proper to exclude Northern Ireland from an opportunity that we were giving to the rest of the United Kingdom. The noble Baroness will know the particular sensitivities that flow both ways about difference of treatment and the sensitivity that surrounds our response. We have taken the decision, for reasons of equality and social justice, that we could not, in all conscience, maintain a distinction.

We understand the sentiments that the noble Baroness has expressed. We understand why she said that the situation in Northern Ireland is different from that which prevails in England, Wales or Scotland, but it is right to remind your Lordships that there is 83 per support for the Bill in England and Wales right across the board. Eighty four per cent of individuals supported it and 74 per cent of organisations. Only 17 per cent did not support it or did not express an opinion. There is whole-hearted support for what the Government are doing right across the board in England, Scotland and Wales. We understand that Northern Ireland may fall into a different category, but, as a policy consideration, we have come to the conclusion that it would not be fair, just or proper to treat those who want a same-sex relationship in Northern Ireland differently from those who want that relationship in England, Wales or Scotland. This is, after all, still a United Kingdom.

Baroness O'Cathain

I thank the Minister for that answer, but the problem is that Northern Ireland is very different. The very fact that she considered exempting Northern Ireland from the Bill indicates that the Government are very aware of the difference.

I wonder where the Northern Ireland Assembly fits into all of this. Although the Minister said that the Northern Irish people should not be deprived of the opportunity, I am quite convinced that it would not be regarded as an opportunity in Northern Ireland. This looks as though again it is the mainland riding roughshod over Northern Ireland—a sensitive issue at a sensitive time when the Assembly is suspended. And there is the importance of dealing with Northern Ireland with kid gloves—I have railed against that on occasions, too—but we have bent over backwards in order to try to defuse trouble. I fear that this is yet another of those situations.

The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, said that above all there is a desire to have parity of treatment. It is the desire of us in Westminster to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland have parity of treatment, irrespective of whether they want it or not. After all, the Bill is a fundamental rewriting of family law. For example, we have never sought to impose English divorce law on Northern Ireland. It has its own laws which reflect differences in culture and the strong religious faith. Why must we insist that they accept English—Westminster and London—ideas about how to deal with homosexual partnerships?

I am sorry if this offends the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, but homosexual practice is much less acceptable in Northern Ireland. That is a fact. One can say that that is narrow-minded, bigoted, unfair, uncaring and all of those things, but that is a fact. We must not impose English civil partnership legislation, particularly while the Assembly is suspended. I know there is nothing I can do about this now—anyway, I probably have absolutely no support—but in withdrawing the amendment I give the Minister notice that I shall return to it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6.45 p.m.

Baroness Wilcox moved Amendment No. 8: Page 1, line 16, leave out subsection (2).

The noble Baroness said: This is a small point and I shall not hold the Committee up for long with a long explanation as to why we have tabled the amendment. Clause 1 is an introduction to the whole idea of civil partnerships. It is a summary—an overview. Subsection (2) states that all civil partnerships, no matter where they are formed—England, Wales or Scotland—can be void under the Act in the ways stated. Our amendment would leave out subsection (2).

We do recognise the ways in which a civil partnership can be declared void, but we have tabled this amendment as a drafting point. It seems to me that in a generally well-drafted and articulate Bill, subsection (2) of Clause 1 is somewhat out of place. It does not really even seem to make sense until you have read it several times—and I say that as a founder of the Plain English Campaign. Can the Minister confirm that this is the drafting which will appear in the Act? Or might she take the amendment, as it is intended, and ask the draftsmen very kindly to have another look at subsection (2) with a view to making it more understandable for all of those who will, in years to come, be using the Act? I beg to move.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

I apologise if the noble Baroness found the provision difficult. It was hoped that the meaning of subsection (2) was relatively clear, but I accept immediately that clarity to a lawyer seems always to be so opaque to those who are not burdened with constant interpretation—or so it has come to appear to me since I joined this House.

The amendment would remove from the Bill the idea that a civil partnership can be void. I do not believe that that is what the noble Baroness intends—she is worried only about the wording. It was hoped that in the way in which the subsection is constructed—I shall certainly go back to the draftsmen—it would be crystal clear that we are introducing three ways in which you can get out of a civil partnership. They are on death, or on dissolution or on annulment.

If the registration is void for a specific reason—for example, if two people enter into a registration of a partnership and at the time of that entry one of them is still married, or within the bounds of consanguinity, and should not have entered into the partnership—that would not be a voidable partnership. It would be void ab initio—it would have been void right from the beginning. It would be null. If we look at the basis on which we are setting out the procedure to get out of these registration partnerships, it would usually take two years to bring it to an end, whereas if it were void from the beginning the partners would be entitled to want to set it aside.

Therefore, the wording is hoped to be short and succinct in paragraph 2, because subsection (1) is subject to the provisions of this Bill, under or by virtue of which a civil partnership is void. Subsequently, we go on to deal with the provisions that would make a partnership void. Paragraph 3—if your Lordships look at it—sets out the same basis; death, dissolution, or annulment. In the later sections we clarify each of those.

If the intent of the noble Baroness is not to remove the ability to invalidate a registration and express it as being void, we can look again. I fear that I will be told that the drafting is as precise and as succinct as we can make it, and that if you look at the rest of the Bill, it becomes explicable. I do not know whether that helps the noble Baroness. I am happy to explain as we go along what will make it void, voidable, or subject to dissolution, and the consequences that flow from that. I regret to tell your Lordships that for a family lawyer, I am afraid that these phrases would be all too familiar.

Baroness Wilcox

I am grateful to the noble Baroness. For the lawyers, it is all perfectly clear. However, if we draft everything for lawyers, only they will ever have access to anything. I am not sure that that is right. The National Consumer Council will "tut, tut, tut". I have no choice at this stage but to withdraw the amendment. I am grateful to the Minister for having said that she will go back to her team and ask them not to exclude the man on the Clapham omnibus.

I remember when I was chairman of the National Consumer Council, and we did some work on access to justice. Out of that flowed a lot of awfully good work. Now that the Minister has explained it to me—absolutely wonderful. However, if I had to pay her to explain it to me, it would have cost me a great deal of money. For the moment, I will withdraw the amendment, but I am grateful that she will go back to check whether it can be made a bit clearer. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Wilcox moved Amendment No. 9: Page 1, line 18, leave out ", dissolution or annulment" and insert "or dissolution

The noble Baroness said: I rise to speak to Amendment No. 9, and with the leave of the Committee, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 47 and 48. We touched on the first amendment and the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, had a discussion. The Minister did go some way to explaining the position. If noble Lords would be patient, I would prefer to read out exactly what I have written down. I am not sure that I understood what she was saying, or how much it answered my question.

It is a probing group of amendments. We are still in the introductory stages of the Bill, and I wanted to raise the point about the ending of a civil partnership early on, to be clear in my own mind what exactly this entails.

Amendment No. 9 relates to Clause 1(3), which states: A civil partnership ends only on death, dissolution or annulment". My amendment would leave out one of the processes of bringing a civil partnership to an end; namely, annulment. It is annulment with which our amendments are concerned. Amendment No. 47 would leave out the paragraph in Clause 36 which allows the court to make an order which annuls a civil partnership. Amendment No. 48 would leave out the subsection in that clause which deals with the time when a civil partnership will cease to exist due to nullity.

Clause 48 deals with the grounds on which a civil partnership will be held to be void. Annulment for civil partnerships seems a rather puzzling idea to me. For example, it is a commonly held belief that a marriage will be annulled when it has not been consummated. I cannot believe that that is to be the case for civil partnerships. It does not seem likely and, from reading the Bill, it would seem that some procedural irregularity would need to occur in order for it to happen. However, I felt that we needed to make the point that it seemed unlikely that such an irregularity would occur, given the very detailed process through which two prospective civil partners have to go before achieving civil partnership status. Is it really necessary to have the two separate categories of dissolution and annulment? I beg to move.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

I certainly now understand why the noble Baroness tabled these probing amendments. I say to her straightaway that it is not only lack of consummation that can bring a nullity order; there can be all sorts of additional examples, such as a person marrying under the age of 16 or masquerading as a different gender. There are all sorts of issues that would mean that, right from the beginning, the relationship—whether a marriage or a partnership—could not have been valid in law. That is why the provisions on nullity remain.

Amendment No. 9 would remove the statement that a civil partnership may be annulled. Amendment No. 47 to Clause 36 would remove the power of the court to make a nullity order, and Amendment No. 48 to Clause 36 would remove the description of the effect of a nullity order in cases where a civil partnership is voidable. It is quite important to retain those provisions because of the Bill's complexity. We thought it necessary to emphasise how serious the relationships were; they cannot be entered into lightly and they cannot be dissolved or removed lightly.

Clause 36(3) provides that a nullity order made in respect of a civil partnership which is voidable annuls the civil partnership only for any period after the order is made final. The civil partnership is to be treated as though it had existed up to that date. Clause 48 sets out the grounds on which a civil partnership would be void, and therefore invalid, under the law of England and Wales, and Clause 49 sets out the grounds on which a civil partnership would be voidable.

I should make clear the difference between "void" and "voidability". Something void never had any value from the beginning—it could not have happened. Something voidable can be declared not to be void at the instance of one person. Those concepts have sat in our law for a very long time. One is void from the beginning—what we would call void ab initio—and was never valid; the other can be challenged and found not to be valid and therefore voidable.

The provisions provide that a civil partnership would be void where the fundamental eligibility requirements were not met. The examples that I have given apply. Other examples would be where the couple were not of the same sex, where one of them already had a civil partner, or where a serious procedural breach had occurred, such as where the due notice of proposed civil partnership had not been given. The problems would be where some fundamental breach had been made.

The civil partnership will also be void if certain formal requirements are not complied with. These are the failure to provide the required notice, the civil partnership document not being duly issued or having expired, the place of registration not being the place specified in the notice and the civil partnership document, or a civil partnership registrar not being present at the registration.

In addition, the civil partnership of a person under the age of 18 will be void if the civil partnership document was void by reason of its issue having been forbidden by a person whose consent is required for the child to form a civil partnership. So, if your 16 year-old asks, "Can I enter into this partnership?" and you say "No", and then by some strategy they manage to get themselves before the registrar and enter into it, it is void and will not be recognised.

It is important that civil partnerships should be void where there are severe irregularities. An example of that is where one of the civil partners is already registered as a civil partner of another person or is already married. In such a case, it would be wrong to require the other civil partner to apply for an order for dissolution as the civil partnership was never validly in existence. There is a clear difference between a civil partnership that was in existence and subsequently broke down, for which dissolution is appropriate, and a civil partnership that never legally existed.

Removing the provisions for voiding a civil partnership would have very serious repercussions for the whole Bill. It would require a civil partnership, formed in breach of the key eligibility criteria and registration requirements, to be treated as if it were valid. We do not think that that can possibly be right.

Civil partnership is a serious and significant legal relationship. There are some conditions on eligibility and procedure that the state regards as essential to prevent abuse. Where one of those is breached the consequence should be that the civil partnership is void.

7.15 p.m.

I hope that I have said enough to explain why a nullity order provides protection for civil partners and matches the protection available to married people where there are major legal irregularities. To remove the provisions for nullity would significantly and unnecessarily reduce the protection available to civil partners introducing a difference between them and spouses for which we can see no real justification. With that explanation, I hope that the noble Baroness will be enlightened a little.

Baroness Wilcox

That was a full and informative reply to the questions which I raised. I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness for the clarification she has provided on the point, which is most helpful. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 10 not moved.]

Clause 2 [Formation of civil partnership by registration]:

Baroness O'Cathain moved Amendment No. 11: Page 2, line 10, leave out paragraphs (a) and (b) and insert "in the presence of a commissioner for oaths as witness and of each other, after the written consent of the civil partnership registrar has been obtained

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 11 is grouped with Amendments Nos. 12 to 14 and Clause 6 stand part. The purpose of the amendments is to replace the register office ceremony.

At Second Reading I pointed out the many similarities between civil partnership and marriage. If this Bill is not gay marriage, which is what the Government claim, I cannot see any logical reason for the Bill to imitate the civil marriage ceremony. I cannot see why the Government would be attached to this method of formation. Presumably, they cannot object to a different but equally secure mode of registering civil partnerships.

The registration ceremony is one of the obvious ways in which civil partnership imitates civil marriage. The parties must sign the register at the register office in the presence of two witnesses and the registrar. That is identical to civil marriage. Any person sitting outside a register office for a few hours would see heterosexual and homosexual couples coming and going. He would know that they had stood before the registrar with their witnesses; he would know that they had all signed the register and he would see them coming out wreathed in smiles. He would conclude, not unreasonably, that the heterosexual and homosexual couples alike were married.

Many married people will be deeply offended that the civil marriage ceremony is to be adopted in the formation of civil partnerships. I have had a large postbag to that effect. Many people feel that marriage is marriage and civil partnerships are civil partnerships and ne'er the twain should be mixed up. As I said at Second Reading, it is wrong to create a parody of marriage for homosexuals, particularly as the Government maintain that this civil partnership is not a marriage.

There is an additional argument. I have argued, along with others, that civil partnership should be open to a much wider range of people. I dealt with this in my first group of amendments. In order to open up civil partnership to those in non-sexual relationships or relationships not necessarily of the same sex, we must remove the similarities with marriage. It is obvious that two sisters would feel uncomfortable going through a kind of marriage ceremony in order to get legal recognition for their co-dependent relationship. Two friends would not want to have to stand before a registrar to obtain the benefits contained in the Bill.

My amendments simply replace the register office event in Clause 3. Instead, the couples involved would require formalities comparable to those necessary to obtain an enduring power of attorney. Those formalities would still be adequate to tackle fraud. Written consent would need to be obtained from the registrar in advance. That would provide the opportunity to verify the application.

The parties would then need to sign the civil partnership document and have it witnessed by a commissioner for oaths. That is an exercise with which people who have been involved in legal proceedings may be familiar. The next step would be to post the completed form to the registrar. Only when the couple receive notification that the document is registered is the partnership formed. These are sensible amendments. I hope that the Minister will be willing to give consideration to them. I beg to move.

Baroness Crawley

The purpose of these amendments is to alter the role of the civil partnership registrar and the registration service in the formation of civil partnerships.

The amendments are at odds with the approach to civil partnership registration taken by the Bill. They replace the role of civil partnership registrars in the statutory steps of formation with commissioners for oaths, who will merely witness the signature of a document signed by the couple. The role of the civil partnership registrar would be reduced to providing a written consent for a couple to sign a civil partnership document in front of a commissioner for oaths and to countersigning the civil partnership document once the couple and the commissioner for oaths had signed it.

In the Government's view, civil partnership is a legal relationship, which is formed when two people register as civil partners of each other. It is that simple but solemn procedure which brings the civil partnership into being. By taking the step of forming a civil partnership the couple will gain rights and undertake the responsibilities to which we referred in our earlier discussions, which are set out by law and are not chosen by agreement between them. We do not see this relationship as based on a contract. Accordingly, it is not appropriate for the formation of a civil partnership to take place with only a commissioner for oaths as a witness.

The amendments may assume that a civil partnership registrar does little more than witness the signing of the civil partnership document. This is not the case. It is likely that civil partnership registrars will be designated from existing registration staff and they are therefore likely to have considerable experience in dealing with couples at such a significant time in their lives. They will also be in a position to give the signing of the civil partnership document the same degree of solemnity, significance and importance that is associated with other significant life events, such as civil marriage.

In this way, they will contribute to the cultural and social change expected with the introduction of the civil partnership. They will have the knowledge and training to be able to check on the day whether the couple still meet the eligibility requirements for registering as civil partners of each other. And there may be up to 12 months between the giving of notice of a proposed civil partnership and the signing of the civil partnership document. They will have the experience, as registrars, to be able to deal with any issues which may have arisen during that period in relation to eligibility. I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

In response to the wider clause stand part debate, Clause 6 sets out several provisions relating to the place at which two people may register as civil partners of each other. I use this opportunity to stress that civil partnership is a registration that is a purely secular process. The couple registering as civil partners of each other will have to take the statutory steps set out in the Bill. Their partnership is formed when they sign the civil partnership document in the presence of a civil partnership registrar and witnesses. It is not appropriate to have this secular registration process take place in religious premises, as has been suggested.

For registration of a civil partnership under the standard procedure, the venue chosen by the proposed civil partners must be agreed with the registration authority in which it is located. Once agreed, it must be specified in the notice of civil partnership. If it has not been agreed, the notice will be void.

In that way, the registration authority will maintain full control over the exact place of registration. This will help to ensure that the health and safety of its officers is not threatened by attending potentially dangerous places. The place must also be open to any person wishing to attend the registration, and therefore it must be public. That will enable objections to the proposed civil partnership to be raised by any person wishing to do so. I beg to move that Clause 6 stand part of the Bill.

Lord Higgins

I believe that the noble Baroness is in error in saying that because there are subsequent amendments to Clause 6. It is true that the clause stand part question is grouped with this set of amendments, but I believe that she needs to wait a little before moving that Clause 6 shall stand part.

Baroness Crawley

I apologise for my naivety in moving a debate which we have not yet had. I thought that perhaps Members of the Committee had just given up and wanted to go home. Can I therefore move the amendment?

Baroness O'Cathain

You cannot move anything!

Baroness Crawley

Thank you for telling me.

Lord Tebbit

I hope that the noble Baroness will not feel too upset about what just happened because she may have noticed that earlier today I failed to speak to an amendment that I had tabled and managed to speak to an amendment not then in the grouping. It happens to all of us, particularly in this awful stuffy room on an afternoon like this.

The Minister's speech was quite remarkable. Never did I think that our old friend health and safety would be brought into the Bill. Health and safety is now the reason that there is almost nothing you can do. I think that sooner or later our children will conceive that a little creature—"elf and safety"—comes out of the woods to prohibit things. It was quite the most remarkable reason for putting down my noble friend's amendment that I have ever heard.

It seems to me that what she said was eminently sensible. Indeed, as she spoke, it occurred to me that the Bill might have been better if the Government had bundled the provisions for civil marriage into civil partnership and abolished civil marriage because the distinctions between the two have almost completely faded away and people may conclude that there will now be only one genuine article of marriage—that is, one which is properly conducted within a church. That might not be a bad thing. They might just as well have bundled civil marriage into civil partnership and said, "Heave it all in; no difference. It is not a contract or anything like that, just an arrangement for loving couples, so here we go". If the Government are not going to go as far as that—I fancy that they would be slightly embarrassed to do so—they should give careful consideration to the amendment proposed by my noble friend.

Baroness O'Cathain

I thank the Minister, who gave us a little levity. As my noble friend said, the atmosphere in this room is ghastly. I have discovered that there is more than one person with a blinding headache. Although this is "off the record", I hope that for the next session of Grand Committee something can be done about the air in this room. One has only to go out for two seconds to realise just how appalling it is. I have the most terrible headache. However, I thank the noble Baroness, who is full of life—I do not know how; the rest of us are dying on our feet.

The Minister opened her rebuttal of my amendments by saying that they would alter the role of civil partnership. Of course they would. Why else would I table the amendments? She said that they are at odds with the Bill. Of course they are, otherwise I would not have moved them. Then the whole argument rested on the fact that there is a registrar who has a job to do. I shall not bring up the "elf and safety", but the Minister said that the registrar is experienced in all these issues. I draw the attention of the Grand Committee to the fact that the registrar is experienced in the registration of civil marriages, not in the registration of civil partnerships. The problem is that, the closer we get to the nuts and bolts of this in Grand Committee, the more we realise that the two phrases, "civil partnerships" and "civil marriages" are utterly interchangeable.

So, what is wrong with the registrar having to have a new set of rules to deal with civil partnerships along the lines contained in my amendment? The noble Baroness says that it is a legal relationship and therefore it has to have a simple but solemn procedure. Indeed, it is also important that the rights and responsibilities involved in it should be undertaken seriously. That is precisely what happens with an enduring power of attorney, to which I referred.

The Minister said that it is also important—this made me smile— that the witnesses and not just the registrar should be there looking at the signing and the solemnity. as in a civil marriage. That came right from the mouth of the noble Baroness. But do we not realise that many civil marriages have witnesses who are literally taken in from the street? They are asked to, "come and witness our civil marriage". Many celebrities, or so-called celebrities, have done that. I know of two couples who decided that they were going to get married. They did not want their friends to know exactly when they were to be married. They went to the registry office and pulled in two guys from the street as witnesses. I do not think that the witnesses of civil marriages are aware of their solemn duty and responsibility. It is not exactly like godparents at a baptism.

I did not get the point about eligibility; that the eligibility requirements can be checked on the day. I wonder whether they can be. The noble Baroness put in another complication. One could make one's intention known about the civil partnership and have up to 12 months to regularise or formalise the contract. For those reasons, I was not desperately convinced.

I cannot see why the statutory steps that I suggested in the amendment could not be taken as statutory steps for a civil partnership. The Government say that these are the rules. All I am asking with these amendments is: why are they the rules? And are not the rules also in the situation where we are in Grand Committee subject to input from people holding different views who can tease out whether the rules are valid or could be changed and whether it would be better if they were changed and made stronger or whatever. Surely. that is the purpose of debate. I know that I can do nothing else about it, but I shall return to the matter on Report and probably at Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 12 to 14 not moved.]

On Question, Whether Clause 2 shall stand part of the Bill?

Baroness Wilcox

The Question whether Clause 2 shall stand part of the Bill stands in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Higgins. This is a simple question. It seeks clarification on the clause in the Bill that deals with the registration and formalities of civil partnerships.

We tabled the question after the point was raised at Second Reading. Although the Bill is large and detailed, it is not very clear on the formalities of a civil partnership. Therefore, will the Minister explain to the Committee exactly what the form is for civil partnerships? When in the process of becoming civil partners may the participants call themselves such? What will be the final act of becoming civil partners? In addition to the signing of a document, what will the registration process involve? I look forward to hearing an outline of how exactly the process will work in practice.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

Clause 2 describes the point at which two people are to be regarded as having registered as civil partners to each other. It sets out who is to be present at the registration, who is to sign the civil partnership document and it states the administrative procedure to be completed after the registration. It has an important link back to Clause 1. I can see perplexed looks.

Lord Alli

I just wondered whether we are on Clause 2 stand part.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal


Lord Alli

Are other noble Lords talking to that?

Baroness Wilcox

I am talking to the Question whether Clause 2 shall stand part of the Bill, which stands in my name. We do not want it to stand part because we are trying to question the procedure.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

Clause 2 has an important link back to Clause 1, which provides that a civil partnership is formed between two people when they register as civil partners to each other. So, in accordance with Clause 2, the couples are to be regarded as having registered as civil partners once each has signed the civil partnership document at the invitation of, and in the presence of, the civil registration registrar and two witnesses.

The civil partnership registrar and the two witnesses must then sign the civil partnership document in the presence of each other and the civil partners. After the signing is complete, the registration authority in whose area the signing takes place must ensure that the civil partnership registration and any other information prescribed by regulations is recorded in the register.

In order to reflect the secular status of the civil partnership, the clause also provides that no religious service is to be used while the civil partnership registrar is officiating at the signing of the civil partnership document. For that reason, Clause 2 complements, and is integral to, the aims of Clause 1. I hope that the noble Baroness does not press her opposition to the clause.

Clause 2 agreed to.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

I am entirely in your Lordships' hands, but I notice that it is 7.26 p.m. I think this is a convenient moment for the Committee to adjourn until Wednesday at 3.30 p.m.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld)

The Committee stands adjourned until Wednesday 12 May at 3.30 p.m.

The Committee adjourned at twenty-six minutes past seven o'clock.