HL Deb 25 January 2002 vol 630 cc1691-746

11.1 a.m.

Lord Lester. of Herne Hill

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill enables unmarried couples living in a mutually supportive relationship to make provision for their joint protection within a coherent legal framework.

It has been prepared in collaboration with Stonewall, especially its wise director, Angela Mason, to whom I pay tribute. It has been drafted by a former parliamentary counsel, Stephanie Grundy, whose skill and experience have made it possible to produce a measure dealing with an important and complex subject, cutting a path through the tangled thicket of undergrowth of family, property, social security and pensions law, on none of which I am an expert. I am also grateful to two able young lawyers in my political office, Jane Gordon and Angela Patrick, for their marvellous contribution over eight months' work.

The Bill has the support of the Law Society and of the Solicitors Family Law Association, as well as of the media, with the exception of today's Daily Telegraph. We have received many letters of support from noble Lords who cannot be present today, including the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon, who has asked me to mention his support, as well as from many members of the public.

I am grateful that so many noble Lords have attended on this Friday morning to speak or take part in the debate and I look forward eagerly to their contributions.

What is the pressing social need for legislation of this kind? English law gives full effect to the bond between couples if they are lawfully married, but not if they are unmarried. Whether people living together are of the same sex or of both sexes, the law treats them much less favourably than married couples, even if they have close and long-standing relationships. Cohabiting partners, unlike married ones, do not enjoy a standard set of legal rights and responsibilities. In several ways their legal position is either inferior or not recognised as a family status at all.

Gay and lesbian couples suffer especially from this ancient source of injustice. As Justice Ackermann recently noted, for a unanimous Constitutional Court of South Africa in the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality v. Minister of Home Affairs case, same sex partners are as capable as heterosexual spouses, of forming intimate, permanent, committed, monogamous, loyal and enduring relationships, of furnishing emotional and spiritual support; and of providing physical care, financial support and assistance in running the common household". Justice Ackermann also rightly observed that the message of the denial of equal rights to same sex as to opposite sex partners, is that gays and lesbians lack the inherent humanity to have their families … respected or protected. It serves in addition to perpetuate and reinforce existing prejudices and stereotypes". That is, unfortunately, the intolerant and narrow-minded message still conveyed by Section 28 of the Local Government Act when it refers to homosexuality as a "pretended family relationship". It is no more a pretended family relationship than is a caring, sharing and loving relationship between two heterosexuals who live together in a stable, long-term relationship.

The problems covered by the Bill stem from the lack of a proper legal framework recognising the status of unmarried cohabiting couples. English law lags far behind many European and Commonwealth countries in this respect; countries as diverse as France, Germany and the Netherlands, as well as the Nordic countries, and Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

While the position in England and Wales is largely stagnant, in Scotland, the Scottish Executive has adopted the Scottish Law Commission's 1992 proposals on reform of cohabitation law, and they are likely to be enacted in the near future. Furthermore. in Northern Ireland the Law Reform Advisory Committee has made important recommendations. including the automatic sharing of beneficial interests of the family home purchased or transferred after a cohabitation period of two years.

But in England and Wales, when it comes to important questions of inheritance, pensions, next-of-kin entitlements and social security, cohabitants cannot obtain full recognition of their relationship. To take one recent example, Anna Homsi was the long-term partner of an SAS member killed in Sierra Leone. Because they were not married, Anna was refused a war widow's pension by the Ministry of Defence, and although eventually she received an ex gratia payment, the government scheme continues to discriminate against unmarried couples.

Unmarried couples who cohabit face immense and distressing difficulties in securing legal recognition of their caring and enduring family lives. They do not enjoy full rights to communal property, or the right to be treated as next of kin by state agencies such as hospitals in the event of serious illness, or to make beneficial pension and life assurance arrangements. Unlike widows and widowers, they are not relieved from inheritance tax on the death of their partner. Gay people have notoriously experienced cruel treatment after their partners have died, especially if they died intestate, when members of the family of the deceased partner, refusing to accept the relationship, have taken over the home and the property which the partners have shared in common for many years. It is even uncertain whether cohabitation contracts are enforceable in English law.

Many pension schemes make no provision for survivor benefits for same-sex couples. The Fatal Accident Act 1976 does not allow same-sex partners to claim bereavement damages for the wrongful death of a partner. The Law Commission has recommended that this injustice should be removed. An opposite-sex partner cannot even register her partner's death or sign for his funeral.

On the other hand, there is the anomaly that, because their relationship is not recognised, same-sex couples do not have their means assessed as a couple for the purposes of income tax and social security.

English law has not remained entirely static. Legal rights and restrictions similar to those applicable to married couples have been extended to heterosexual couples in some contexts—for example, the right to accede to an assured tenancy; the right to claim financial provision against a deceased partner's estate; and the right to apply for the transfer of the family home on the breakdown of a relationship. But in other situations the law continues to ignore the cohabitation relationship, as is nearly always the case with gay couples.

Meanwhile, the pattern of family life has changed dramatically and continues to change. Marriages in Britain are now at their lowest level since 1917 and the divorce rate is the highest in the European Union. There has been a large increase in cohabitation in recent years and a quarter of all children are now born to cohabiting families. Yet this spread of cohabitation outside marriage has not yet been recognised through any coherent law reform.

The authors of a recent report by the authoritative National Centre for Social Research point out that only a quarter of those surveyed think married couples make better parents than unmarried ones. Two-thirds think that it is acceptable for a couple to live together without being married. Despite this, there is considerable support for marriage as an ideal, and among past cohabitants the majority go on to marry their partner.

The survey found that more than half wrongly believe that there is something called "common law marriage" which gives cohabiting couples the same rights as married ones. Common law marriages were in fact abolished in 1753 by Lord Hardwicke's narrowly restrictive Marriage Act, yet more than half of those surveyed think, mistakenly, that couples who live together have the same rights as married people.

English marriage law consists of a centuries-old accumulation of legislation and common law precedents reflecting traditional religious and social concepts from Lord Hardwicke's time and well before. For those who choose to marry, whether from religious conviction or otherwise, the institution of marriage will always remain and will always be fully protected. Indeed, a civil partnership may often lead to a full religious or civil marriage. But many heterosexual couples do not wish to organise their common life in this way, and same-sex couples, of course, cannot choose to do so.

Along with the increasing number of heterosexual couples choosing not to marry, or choosing to cohabit before they eventually do marry, there has been an increase in the number of homosexual men and women who wish to secure public and legal recognition of their partnerships. Their wish should surely be respected.

The time is over-ripe for legislation to create a legally recognised civil partnership system. The law needs to do more than to equalise the position between same-sex and opposite-sex couples because of the inadequate nature of the rights conferred on unmarried couples generally. The Bill seeks to achieve a law which gives full partnership rights and responsibilities to all mature adults, whether same sex or opposite sex, who wish to enter into a binding legal compact to organise their common life together.

Members of the other place have already voted to allow pension rights for their own unmarried partners. In the words of Angela Mason, If it's good enough for them, it's good enough for us". The Civil Service pension scheme, too, is relaxing its rules on dependants from October. According to a well-informed article in the Financial Times on 10th January by Jean Eaglesham and Robert Budden, the cost implications of extending pension benefits have not deterred the private sector.

The Bill creates a code which consenting unrelated adults can agree to adopt. It is a reform that works for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples who want to support and care for each other by entering into a civil partnership.

The National Centre's social attitudes survey found that, since 1989, views about the necessity of marriage preceding parenthood had changed across the board, even among the most traditional groups. There are distinctive age differences in opinion, reflecting differences between the old and more traditional generation and their replacement by the more liberal generations born after them—differences that reflect how people's views on these matters are shaped distinctively by the social climate in which they grew up. Not surprisingly, those over the age of 65 remain the most traditional in their outlook. We senior citizens are, of course, especially well represented in this House.

In the other place, it is noteworthy that Jane Griffiths, the Labour MP, was given leave on 24th October 2001 to bring in her Bill on the subject by 179 votes to 59. We hope that, despite the difference in age and generation, this Bill will have strong support in this, if I may respectfully say so, more elderly House too. The Bill reflects a core Liberal Democrat policy commitment, but we hope that it will have support from all parts of the House, as well as from the younger and democratically accountable other place.

I turn to the main provision of the Bill. I shall do so briefly, because we have provided detailed Explanatory Notes, which are available in the Printed Paper Office, together with an opinion by my colleague, David Pannick QC, explaining his view that the Bill is fully compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Part 1 deals with the formation of a civil partnership. It provides for the registration of a relationship between two individuals. It sets out the conditions that must be satisfied before the relationship can be registered and outlines the procedure to be followed to secure registration. Some details relating to the registration are to be kept on a record available for public inspection. Civil partnerships will be formed voluntarily by means of a simple procedure recorded by a registrar or other public official.

Part 2 deals with the effect of a civil partnership. It sets out the legal framework within which civil partnerships will function. It provides essential protection for partners in the face of adverse circumstances, such as ill health, domestic violence or death. It extends to civil partners the circumstances in which joint assessment is to be made for means-tested benefits. Their home will be communal property and shared equally in the absence of agreement by the partners to the contrary. Partnership agreements will be binding except in cases of financial or other hardship.

Part 3 deals with the ending of a civil partnership. The partnership will be able to be dissolved by mutual consent or by court order. Couples will be able to make their own arrangements for separation. Where they do not do so, a standard procedure will apply. The court will have the power to intervene to make appropriate orders in relation to the partners' property interests in the event of an application by either partner.

With all respect to the Christian Institute, which organises political lobbies, and to today's Daily Telegraph, the Bill is not a threat to marriage. The fact that for many people marriage is the best framework in which to raise children is no reason for the state to fail to protect those who choose to cohabit, or who have no choice. The Bill may well actually promote marriage, since many heterosexual couples who have been successful and happy in a civil partnership may decide in the light of their experience to move to a religious or civil marriage. That is a matter of personal choice. In any event, it is unjust to continue to penalise opposite sex couples for not choosing to marry— unjust to them and to their children. They need legal protection and encouragement to live together as stable and loving families.

Civil partnership provides the means of allowing couples who cannot or would not marry to base their common life on a firm legal foundation. The Bill enables men and women to come together to form a caring relationship of mutual support protected by law. It provides fair and appropriate remedies for different family situations. It may be criticised for not going further in its scope, but we have deliberately decided to introduce a measure conspicuous for its moderation.

The Bill does not attempt to tackle every problem in this area, but it tackles many of them. In a generally supportive article in The Times on Monday, the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, whom I am delighted to see in his place and for whose support I am very grateful, pointed out that the Bill does not provide for a civil partnership to be converted into a marriage. That would be an unnecessary complication. If a heterosexual couple wish to end a civil partnership in order to marry, there will be nothing to prevent them from doing so. The noble Lord also regarded it as a weakness that the Bill does not deal with matters affecting the interests of children arising from civil partnerships or their break-up. We have not dealt with this both to avoid unnecessary controversy and complexity, and because we believe that the interests of children are better dealt with by changes to children's and family law dealing with matters such as adoption and custody.

The noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, raised an important further point regarding extending the protections provided by the Bill to, as he terms them, "partnerships of care", which could involve parents and their children, brothers and sisters, brothers and brothers or whatever. I can deal with the issue in my reply if it is raised, but there are valid reasons why we have not included that category of persons within the context of the Bill. Nevertheless, we recognise that the point may require fuller consideration and we remain entirely open-minded on the subject. We are concerned partly to avoid abuse that may arise by going too wide in the scope of the Bill.

The Bill has remarkably widespread public support. It certainly has wider public support than I dreamt was possible when we first thought about it. To lead to much-needed law reform and the effective protection of human rights it needs the active support and skill of the Government and of civil servants. I am grateful to the Leader of the House and to Barbara Roche M P, the Minister of State responsible in the Cabinet Office, for having met us to discuss the Bill. We hope that the Bill will be a catalyst for a strongly positive response by the Government, so that we may secure, at long last, the equal protection of the law for unmarried couples. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Lester of Herne Hill.)

11.26 a.m.

Lord Alli

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, for introducing the Bill. I also thank him for the detailed Explanatory Notes, which I much enjoyed.

The Bill recognises above all that people who choose to cohabit, especially in long-term relationships, can find their world turned upside down when their partner dies or is incapacitated. The Bill is not about gay rights, although it affects the gay community. It is not about marriage, although it affects those who are unmarried. Most importantly, it is not about undermining marriage. It is about recognising that being part of a long-term relationship should enable individuals in that relationship to enjoy the security that they would have if they were married.

I believe—as I know do many others in the House—that this is a fair Bill. A Government such as ours, committed to fairness and justice, in my view have a moral obligation to give the Bill safe passage. I know that it is easy to get caught up in the workings of government and that it is difficult for Ministers, especially in this place, to navigate their way through the labyrinth of government departments, but I remind my noble and learned friend the Leader of the House and colleagues in government that we—not the Civil Service—decide what should and should not happen. In areas such as this we can prove that we are a radical government. Our deeds should speak louder than our words.

Let me give a couple of examples of the kind of misery and injustice that the current law inflicts and why we need to rectify it. Your Lordships may recall the late Lord Montague of Oxford, who, although he was only briefly in your Lordships' House, made an outstanding contribution to its work. He died in this Chamber. He had been in a relationship for 30 years with a very kind and distinguished gentleman. They shared both their lives and their home. I should like to read to your Lordships an extract from a letter sent to me by his partner. He said: On 5th November 1999 my partner, Lord Montague of Oxford, died in the Lords suddenly. We had a wonderful 30 years of truly loving happy relationship. Of course, there were some ups and downs like any 'married couple'. He worked very hard for the country throughout his adult life until the day he died. It was the most devastating day of my entire life and I will never forget it. I was then faced with the burden of paying inheritance tax. Like married couples we pay various taxes such as VAT and income tax. Of course this is correct, but when it comes to inheritance tax married couples are exempt and do not pay a penny when one of them dies. This is absolutely unfair to unmarried couples and I wish to support the changes of the law for unmarried couples who have genuine relationships. Please consider my experience and I would urge you to take action as soon as you can so that people who have genuine relationships will not suffer the same burden as I faced recently". So not only did Lord Montague's partner have to deal with the utter desolation to his life; he also lost his home and was forced to sell his possessions in order to pay the inheritance tax.

Surely this cannot be right. We have recognised this unfairness and we have put provisions in place to prevent husbands and wives suffering this very injustice. It is unfair to make people sell their family homes—and it is high time that people who are not married, or who cannot be married, are given the same protections.

I am sure that many gay men and gay women would want to register a civil partnership—not as a form of marriage, but as a form of security. It would provide them with the peace of mind that, when they die, they would leave at least some security for their partners. Such security cannot be over-stated.

Noble Lords may have read recently of the death of Sir Nigel Hawthorne, who was one of our greatest actors. He leaves behind a partner of nearly 20 years. Sir Nigel's long-term companion will now be deprived of many of the rights referred to. He will now have inheritance tax to pay on Sir Nigel's estate, and may be forced to sell many of their treasured possessions. That, too, cannot be right.

I ask the Government not to be afraid of public opinion, for I believe it is with us on this issue. Indeed, it was Richard Littlejohn, in the Sun, who expressed support for civil partnerships. Perhaps I may quote from his article in the Sun on 7th September 2001: You don't have to be Peter Tatchell to be in favour of ending discrimination against unmarried couples in certain areas. Nor do you have to support the full gay 'rights agenda' or believe that homosexual partnerships should be put on an equivalent footing to conventional marriage. I remain implacably opposed to adoption by gay couples, artificial insemination on the NHS for lesbians, the repeal of Clause 28 and the legalisation of open-air gay sex"— clearly I have a great deal of work to do before Richard becomes a new man!— But the law as it stands at the moment is blatantly unfair to homosexual couples in stable, long-term relationships in the areas of health, pensions and employment benefits"— matters that need to be re-examined. He continues: For instance, why should a homosexual be denied visiting rights when his partner is seriously ill in hospital? Why should a man who has lived in a council flat for donkey's years be evicted when his partner dies, simply because his name is not on the rent book? Why should a lesbian have to go to an industrial tribunal to get the same employment benefits as a married colleague?". I do not always find myself in agreement with Mr Littlejohn's opinions, but even he can see the benefits of civil partnerships; he can see the benefits of bringing stability to relationships—and stability is what our society needs.

I also seem to be able to find support from another, more surprising, quarter; namely, from the Conservative Party. Mr John Bercow, the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has stated: We have got to recognise that, in important respects, gays and lesbians in this country and unmarried heterosexuals suffer discrimination. In relation to gays, on hospital visiting rights, on decisions relating to hospital treatment, on the entitlement, or rather lack of it, of a gay partner to register his partner's death, gays suffer serious and, in my view, totally unacceptable discrimination. So in key respects the Conservative Party can be a champion of gay rights". I shall, of course, be passing his comments on to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, who is not in her place as she has been unwell. I should like to pass on my best wishes for her speedy recovery. I look forward to seeing her in her place soon.

This is not a controversial Bill. It is a compassionate Bill, and should be seen as such. It should demonstrate the goodness, understanding and tolerance in our society. I know that the Government have many vested interests that they must balance. I know that it is sometimes hard to stand up for the things that we all believe in; and that it is sometimes difficult to keep the country together when dealing with sensitive issues.

I ask the Government to think seriously about finding a way to get this Bill on the statute book. They have a rich tradition of protecting and expanding people's rights. I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House will give me the reassurance that they will continue to do so, and that they will give the Bill a safe passage.

11.34 a.m.

Baroness Wilcox

My Lords, this Private Member's Bill is very wide in scope—too wide—and the helpful, but very necessary, notes bear witness to that. I predict that, as it goes through its stages, including a Committee of the Whole House, it is likely to run out time. However, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, is a clever and patient man. He toiled long and hard for the Human Rights Act. Again, in this Bill he presents important issues of principle which have already aroused great interest in the media. Such a Bill, even if it falls, could become the precursor to later government legislation. Therefore, it is important to respond today, in your Lorships' House, where the Bill originates. The Bill, to quote the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, is about home-sharing and caring partnerships in which sex may or may not have played a part.

There are three important social issues. I begin with the question of heterosexual cohabiting couples who choose not to get married. The partners are not recognised as a unit. They have few protections and may be left in poverty as single parents. That is sad—and unnecessary, because the protections that such people seek are readily available to them. They have the option of a form of civil registration at a register office. To give heterosexuals who choose not to take on the responsibilities of marriage the privileges of those who do marry would not fulfil the aim of all legislation; namely, promoting the well-being of society.

Marriage involves a publicly declared commitment. It has an inter-generational role in linking former generations and future generations. It is the environment where shared values and support are best transmitted. Above all—little mentioned in the Bill—marriage has children at its very heart. If the marriage fails, they are the first and proper concern. In the proposed civil partnership, children are mentioned only in terms of property, non-molestation, inheritance and intervention orders.

Cohabiting couples can still gain the majority of benefits included in the Bill by instructing a solicitor or by going through the courts. They can, for example, set up a cohabitation arrangement; they can write a will. There are many other examples. It is time-consuming, it is not simple, and it is not easy. But nor is marriage. No, I do not support this part of the Bill and I urge the noble Lord, Lord Lester, to remove it lest the whole Bill founder on it.

Homosexual partnerships were movingly described by the noble Lord, Lord Alli. The proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, have the two underlying principles of freedom of association and equality under the law to support them. The Bill relates to a surprisingly small group of people in our society, but a group who suffer for their difference in many ways and who are asking to have recognised their provenly committed relationship.

I would argue that it is preferable for a homosexual lifestyle to be lived within the context of a single committed relationship and recognised as such. This is not "marriage", nor do I think it claims to be. God gave us that wonderful sacrament as the building-block for society; ordained for the procreation of children and nurturing them; as a remedy against sin; and for the mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have in the other, both in prosperity and in adversity.

However, for the safety and harmony of society, I believe that some legal protection should be sought to support those loving monogamous relationships and to protect them better in age and sickness and in death. It must be said, however, that as in the case of the first group I described, many of the Bill's proposed financial benefits can be obtained by instructing a solicitor or remembering to make a will.

The third group is perhaps the largest and is growing. We have an ageing population and many old people in need of care and support—widows, widowers, those who are divorced, spinsters and bachelors. Living together in company, they can maintain their independence from the state by sharing their resources and be a comfort and joy to each other. Those are good, caring relationships to be encouraged.

Sadly, the Bill gives only some of those partnerships legal status and protection from inheritance tax. There is a prohibition on family partnerships—"close relations of each other" are the words used—which seems at odds with care of the aged when so often it is just such a family member who is involved in relieving the state of a heavy burden and benefiting society as a whole. I urge the noble Lord, Lord Lester, to reconsider and to remove that prohibition from the Bill.

Much in the Bill is good. However, I ask myself whether we need the Bill. I am aware that the Government are in the process of a cross-departmental review of the implications of granting rights and benefits to cohabiting couples. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether consultation is under way and how soon the review will be completed. Would it he better for the House to wait and hear the Government's proposals? The objectives may all be possible within the general context of family law.

Is not the removal of inheritance tax part of the answer to many of the problems highlighted in the Bill? Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether the Government are already considering such a proposal. After all, the tax is divisive and expensive to collect. It is not worth the effort, and its removal would go a long way to providing one of the financial protections that the Bill tries so hard to achieve.

I wish the noble Lord, Lord Lester, good fortune in the long weeks ahead.

11.42 a.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I should like to join my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill in his tribute to Angela Mason. It is a matter of some pride to me that Angela Mason is a former pupil of mine. It illustrates very clearly that anything one may do for one's pupils is very, very far from adequately measured in the conclusion of their degrees. That is a mind that I observe continuing to grow and I take pleasure in it.

I should, of course, also like to pay tribute to my noble friend, not only for introducing this Bill but for a lifetime of service to the principle of nondiscrimination. I have a great deal of respect and some affection for Mr Oliver Letwin. But when Mr Letwin, in today's Daily Telegraph, described my noble friend as moralistic, I reflected that when I first met him, Mr Letwin had then reached the magnificent old age of nine. My noble friend, it is true, does not like unkindness and does not like intolerance, but if that makes us moralistic, I hope there are quite a few moralistic people in this Chamber. I have seen no other signs of it.

I remember a day nearly 40 years ago—indeed, it was so nearly 40 years ago that it may well be within 40 years before the Bill leaves this House—when my wife, as she has since become, and I were waiting for a bus in Oxford high street. We decided, after some thought, that we would prefer to go through a ceremony of marriage rather than live together as partners. I have not regretted that decision. However, her two sisters took the equivalent decision in exactly the opposite respect. When I look at those three couples, the independent variables, especially the medical ones, so dominate the mind that I am unable to say whether any or all or some of us took the decision right. One simply cannot isolate the necessary variables.

There are two things of which I am certain. The first is that they were private decisions that concerned only the six people directly involved in taking them. The second is that the decisions, as I have observed them over a generation, set up relationships that were exactly morally equivalent. When I heard the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, refer to cohabiting couples refusing to take on the responsibility, I simply did not recognise what I have observed within my own family circle. The remark made no sense to me.

The other thing that the example demonstrates is that it is not always an unmitigated evil to have to wait for a bus. That conversation with my wife broadened out into a conversation about the place of ceremony in modern life—which I think is the right context in which to discuss this particular issue. There has been a move away from ceremony. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, in matters of dress, is very well aware of that move. Personally, I happen to like ceremony. But I happen also to like choice and to dislike compulsion. So the principles are weighed against each other. I think that this Bill does that right. It allows people to choose the way of relating that fits their own conscience and their own conviction.

I think that that is right, and it is part of a growing trend. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 1986, 5 per cent of couples were cohabiting. In 1999, it was 15 per cent—a fairly rapid rate of growth. In the 1997 general election, when I spent a lot of time canvassing in the constituencies of Folkestone, Christchurch and Richmond—not, I think, the most bohemian parts of the British Isles—what I was finding on the doorsteps just about fitted that information. It is not a good idea to tell such a large body of our fellow citizens that we do not think they are respectable because, after all, they might return the compliment.

There are many more disadvantages facing cohabiting couples than we have had time to consider so far. One which is particularly topical at the moment is the right of being recognised as next of kin by a hospital—the right of being notified if the person one loves has an accident. It is perfectly reasonable to prefer to be visited in hospital by the person one loves and lives with than by a blood relative from whom one may be many years estranged. I remember one story my wife told me when she came back from the hairdresser. She had been told that she had been allocated someone who was not her usual hairdresser and that she should, "Treat him gently. His father is being buried at this moment. Because he happens to be homosexual, his brother has said he will set the dogs on him if he shows up anywhere near the funeral". If that is the sort of next of kin one has in blood, obviously one would prefer to be visited and have decisions taken by the person one loves. That is the sort of thing that this Bill would put right.

There are regularly problems in immigration law, and the Ministers on the Front Bench know that I have often bothered them with letters about that. I think that they and I would be quite relieved if I did not have to write them about the subject, and that there is no need for unnecessary work. There is, for example, the right to take responsibility for a funeral. Currently, many funerals are paid for out of public funds, from the social fund, when there is a gay partner who would be happy and willing to undertake the cost of providing a proper funeral the way it ought to be done.

The central argument on the other side has been so far an argument about children. It is a real issue. Exactly what does the evidence say? It says that cohabiting couples are more likely to part than couples who go through the ceremony of marriage. But two questions arise. First, what does that evidence prove? Secondly, are we, in fact, statistically comparing like with like?

I do not believe that anyone disputes that it is better to be brought up by two happy parents than by two unhappy parents. However, when one compares couples who have separated with the whole body of married couples who stay together, one is comparing a sample who are, by definition, unhappy, with a sample of the whole of married couples, of whom I believe that the majority are still happy.

That is not comparing like with like. What we really need to know—and I cannot see a research method of tackling this question—is whether, when a couple are unhappy, ht is better for them to stay together unhappy, or to separate.

Ideas have changed on that. Marriage used to be a prison. When this issue was first raised in Parliament in 1610 the Church took a much more generous line than the state as regards the provision of alimony for separated couples—usually in cases of domestic violence. The House of Commons said that that was to the great encouragement of wives to be disobedient and contemptuous against their husbands.

We have moved on a little since then. How far we ought to move on is a question on which I cannot see an adequate research method and I am, therefore, prepared to act on the hypothesis that the couple concerned are more likely to be good judges of their own interests than a state which does not know the particular circumstances. So I am not prepared to meddle too much in this. Furthermore, those statistics, I believe, need to be taken with a certain academic caution.

There are many other cases that I will not go into but I believe that we need to put the matter in context with some of the complaints that have been made about our present day society. People constantly complain, sometimes with some reason, that we are becoming too individualistic, too selfish, too atomistic. I do not think that can be changed by legislation. However, when we do have people who are eager and willing to take responsibility for each other's old age, willing to stay with each other when they are sick and they need a carer, willing to take on the troubles of clearing up their estate, it really does not make much sense to refuse them the legal means to do so.

After all, this is something in which they do no injury to others. God knows, we spend enough time in this House talking about matters where the state ought to provide and where it costs the state money to provide. If people want to save the state money by sharing occupational pension rights with each other, for example, that is something that I believe is in the. public interest.

If we prohibit that, I believe we are engaged in behaviour which, if we were a local authority, might put us at risk of being surcharged.

11.54 a.m.

The Lord Bishop of Winchester

My Lords, a case could be made for a different Bill with this Title. It would be designed to give to quite a small number of people, in quite long-term relationships, or after such relationships had been ended by death, a limited number of those rights and supports in law, the absence of which has, indeed, been found particularly distressing. We have reason to be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alli, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for giving good evidence of those distresses. I believe that such a Bill would be much shorter than the Bill before us. It would give those obligations and rights to people who had been a good deal longer than six months in partnerships which entail no exclusive mutual commitment.

Furthermore, it would set a longer period than 12 months before such partnerships could be terminated. It might also make it simpler than it seems to be at present and that, I believe, was a point made by I he noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. It might also make it simpler than it seems to be at present for people to gain or safeguard some of those rights by existing legal processes.

However, the Bill before us today enumerates all. or nearly all, of the civil obligations and rights resulting from marriage. It proposes to give them to those who have not made the public commitments to each other that are made in marriage and who will not make the same contribution—which is not to say that they will not make any contribution—to the society that gives those obligations and rights that married people make.

I take the Bill's basic premise to be that those living in partnerships short of marriage should have the same rights as those who are married. I believe that that premise is mistaken because it is not comparing like with like. Notwithstanding the assertion of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, (its proposer) and of the noble Lord, Lord Alli, it seems to me that the Bill is bound to have the effect of further undermining, in the eyes of present and future generations, the "institution" of marriage. To undermine marriage is, as the Chief Rabbi has pointed out, like destroying a precious ecosystem on which the security, the maturing, the well-being and the wholesomeness. not only of countless individuals but of our society, now and in the future depends.

I believe that the Bill tends to undermine marriage because it seems to give official backing to the belief already widely held—and often, I recognise, for understandable reasons—that life-long exclusive commitment is no longer really possible. Yet most people still want to marry and 60 per cent of marriages last "till death us do part".

Still more regrettable and damaging, the Bill seems to give official backing to the belief that lifelong exclusive commitment is simply not desirable and that this is a bond that human beings are better and happier without.

A good deal of press comment on the Bill has assumed that the law and government should not discriminate in favour of married people. Furthermore, they comment that this view alone justifies, even requires, a Bill like that before this House today. I believe I heard the noble Lord, Lord Lester, in his opening speech make just that point.

However, the contrary seems to me to be the case and not only because such discrimination has historically been our tradition in this country. It has been based, yes, in the conviction of the Christian faith that marriage is, a pattern that God has given in creation … so that the weakening of marriage has serious implications for the mutual belonging and care that is exercised within the community at large", based in the belief that marriage is "fundamental to human flourishing".

Again, the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, made those points well. However, there is also a large body of research evidence that confirms those insights, which are not only those, of course, of Christian faith—evidence, for instance, that marriage in general benefits the physical, psychological and emotional health and welfare of adults.

As regards children, the 1998 White Paper Supporting Families said: Marriage is the surest foundation for raising children". Yet almost uniquely today, in matters of that kind, those advocating reform of the law in the media, if not in your Lordships' House, seem to pay very little attention to research evidence.

In the face of evidence, now from research as well as from major faiths, of the unique value of marriage, it seems to me a straightforward issue of public health that marriage should be supported and promoted; not undermined. It seems to me too that, in our culture today, to try to find some position of value-free neutrality is to join those who, whether unintentionally or intentionally, would discredit and undermine marriage and married people.

I appreciate—and the point has been made clear this morning—that among those whom the Bill was designed to assist are people in same-sex partnerships who find the exclusive, heterosexual relationship of marriage not to be for them; and that it seems unjust and discriminatory that married people should be in receipt of privileges that are not open to them. As I suggested earlier, I would be prepared to see Parliament meet some of that constituency's more pressing concerns in a much shorter, simpler Bill that did not, as this Bill does, equate same-sex and other non-married relationships with marriage; and which did not therefore, in an age when more and more is said about choice rather than about orientation or necessity, in decisions about sexual behaviour, run the risk of encouraging some people at least into those kinds of relationship.

Before I make one final point, as I believe, of substance, I have three brief questions to put to the noble Lord, Lord Lester. Clause 26(3) defends the, entitlement. or accrued right, of any member of [a pension] scheme acquired before the power is exercised". But thereafter will not there be costs to such members? Are those costs proper and just? Who will bear the additional costs that, if I understand the Bill rightly, Clauses 27 and 28 will impose?

Secondly—this may be the point of the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, though I have not seen those newspapers today—does not the Bill severely and unfairly disadvantage those who live together, and in one way or another depend on each other, who are related? Or who are not related but are friends and who are not, and do not wish to be thought to be, in a sexual partnership? I have seen it suggested that people in those two categories are more numerous than those who today's Bill has in view. Are not there serious dangers for the future lurking in Clause 30? What is the meaning of Clause 30(4)(b)? Is it that the Minister may note only representations from those whom he chooses to invite to make them?

Lastly, it seems to me that this Bill encourages, by giving substantial rights and obligations to them, relationships that it recognises from the outset are in general not just not permanent, but not even long-term. A year after their inception they may be dissolved within a month if both parties request it. and within nine months at the request of only one party. Where is the logic of the state taking a formal interest in, and what is more expending substantial resources upon, relationships that are so clearly private rather than public? And what meaning does that leave to that fine phrase in Clause 30(4)(d), the gravity of the financial and emotional responsibilities of supporting and caring for the other partner that he is undertaking by entering into the civil partnership". I believe that the fundamental character of our human sexual, and wider personal, make-up is such that the majority of us thrive most in a permanent, committed and trustworthy relationship; and that by giving so very large a measure of encouragement to relationships most of which are and will continue to be short-term, this Bill is going to have the effect of damaging very many of those whom it seeks to assist.

So I ask your Lordships to vote against a Second Reading today, if we come to a vote. I ask the Government, who have said that they are considering these matters, to consider very carefully indeed the long-term wisdom of proceeding in the directions pointed by this Bill.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

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

The Lord Bishop of Winchester

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

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

My third point concerns Clause 30, which is headed, Power to make further provision relating to civil partners". It seems to me that in general there are questions to be asked in fundamental matters of relationships and morality about Ministers of the Crown making by order, "such further provision". But I was particularly concerned by subsection (4)(b) and the question I asked was whether in fact it means that the Minister may only obtain representations from those whom he chooses to invite to make them.

12.7 p.m.

Baroness Rendell of Babergh

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul died suddenly, aged 63. He had earned a large salary; James, a small one. They jointly owned their house but as its value far exceeds the exemption threshold of £242,000, James faces a large bill for inheritance tax which may mean the loss of his home and, possibly, their collection of first editions. Matters would be very different were he a surviving husband. James was not allowed to register Paul's death. Paul's family refused to allow him any say in funeral arrangements, recognising him only as Paul's servant which they told everyone he had been.

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

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

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

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

In today's Daily Telegraph, Mr. Oliver Letwin writes, There is no need to create a separate category of registered civil partnerships for mixed-sex couples, because anyone seeking these rights can attain them by marrying. That is an opinion echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. What Mr. Letwin fails to understand is that many mixed-sex partners are against marriage on principle. And when he adds: Our policies and our laws should reflect the world as it is, he is lacking in recognition of the dislike, held by people like the noble Earl, Lord Russell, of ceremonies, wherever they may be held and by whomsoever they may be conducted, which hind two people together in a union that, if it fails, must be dissolved by a court of law.

I know a couple who have lived together for more than 50 years. They have children, grandchildren and a great grandchild but have never married. They see marriage as a denial of strong socialist and atheistic principles. Those principles are not mine, but I respect the right of serious, well-informed people to hold them.

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

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

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

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

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

12.16 p.m.

Baroness Ludford

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

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

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

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

The excellent briefing from Stonewall opens with the remark, The traditional stereotype of homosexuals as lonely people forming, at best, casual relationships, is still prevalent. They could have added that that derogatory stereotype often extends "casual" to "promiscuous". It is a curious paradox that this stereotype coexists, unhappily, with the prejudice against a recognition by society of same-sex partnerships. There is a profound inconsistency between deploring the decline of commitment to long-term relationships—"the breakdown of society"—and refusing support to existing committed partnerships.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But let us not forget the partner in a cohabiting, heterosexual relationship. Many women in particular have learned with a rude shock when things go wrong that with a few exceptions they do not have legal or financial rights which more or less equate to marriage. As men on average still disgracefully earn a quarter more even than working women, the potential for an unmarried woman to find herself with no financial resources or without redress for abuse or violence is a big social problem. Even for those who frown on cohabitation it is simply unrealistic to deny its very widespread existence and to leave women in particular without protection. I am again indebted to The Times for its elegant phrasing. It states that the Bill, would extend the law's dominion over unprotected thousands". It is those kind of practical and moral considerations which have understandably inspired the encouraging remarks today of the Conservative Party Shadow Home Secretary in another place, Oliver Letwin, recognising the justice and the practical imperative of responding to the legal problems encountered by couples who cannot marry. It is disappointing that that is not translated into support by the Conservative Front Bench for this reasonable and thoughtful Bill. But it throws the spotlight on the way the Government are lagging even behind some Conservative thinking and they surely should reflect on that. It is a great shame that the Government have not agreed to give this Bill government time. Perhaps there is time for them to change their mind.

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

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

12.27 p.m.

Lord Elton

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

The right reverend Prelate spoke as if he expected a Division on the Question of whether the Bill be read a second time. I think he will be disappointed in that expectation and that your Lordships will certainly give the Bill a Second Reading. Therefore, it is a matter of some importance because even if it does not reach the statute book it will clearly be a stepping stone on the way to what eventually does, I suspect, get there.

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

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

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

Lord Elton

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

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

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

Lord Alli

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

Lord Elton

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

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

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

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

12.35 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for introducing this Bill. I wish him well with it.

I have myself introduced Private Members' Bills on similar issues in this House, also with the backing of Stonewall. I sought to outlaw discrimination in employment against people on the grounds of their sexual orientation. It is unfortunately the case that it is possible to discriminate against gays and lesbians in employment, and such employees have little legal redress.

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

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

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

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

As to inheritance, married couples may leave property to each other without incurring inheritance tax. Perhaps at one time that affected relatively few better-off people but the enormous increase in house prices, particularly in the South East, means that many more estates may become liable. A couple may have been living together for many years. It seems unfair that the remaining partner, who may have lived in the house for years and to whom the property has been left, should suddenly face a very high tax claim. Again, married couples are not affected in that way. I t is often the case with homosexual couples that the family of the deceased partner, particularly if he died intestate, may seek to take possession of the property in which the surviving partner is still living. There have been examples of such conduct. Sadly, sometimes families can be very vindictive.

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

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

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

12.41 p.m.

Lord Ackner

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

It should be almost unfashionable, if not bordering upon the improper, for a decree nisi of marriage not to be turned into a decree absolute of marriage at an early stage. One can imagine the catty phrases that would be heard: "My dear, what is the reason why they have not obtained a decree absolute of marriage? What an extraordinary position. They have had a decree nisi, which they got for the asking, three or four years ago. There must be something odd about this relationship".

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

I came across a publication by chance—it is probably well known to your Lordships—called, The Cost of Family Breakdown, a report by Family Matters Institute for the Lords and Commons Family and Child Protection Group. It makes the following observations, which I consider to be sound: The family is the building block of society, and marriage its foundation. However, over the past thirty or forty years, this foundation has been weakened. Fewer adults now enter into marriage, with an increasing number preferring cohabitation or single parenthood". In its conclusions it goes on to say that that trend must be stopped: Rather than sit on the fence, government must be prepared to discriminate positively in favour of marriage, and take more vigorous action to uphold marriage as an ideal". This Government have been rather tepid in their attitude to marriage. Not long ago, they abolished the married person's allowance. I believe that that puts them in a unique position vis-à-vis European countries, which all have a marriage allowance.

On the other hand, in a 1998 White Paper called, Supporting Families, a consultation document, the then Home Secretary—I hope that it will not be suggested by the current one that I am being patronising—said: First, the interests of children must be paramount. The Government's interest in family policy is primarily an interest in ensuring that the next generation gets the best possible start in life". The next paragraph—that is, paragraph 8 on page 4—states: Second, children need stability and security. Many lone parents and unmarried couples raise their children every bit as successfully as married parents. But"— I stress this— marriage is still the surest foundation for raising children and remains the choice of the majority of people in Britain. We want to strengthen the institution of marriage to help more marriages to succeed". Without being disrespectful, I suggest that it is naive to a vast degree to suggest that the Bill will not have the effect of undermining marriage. One can imagine people in a cohabiting heterosexual relationship deciding that they will register their contract. That involves a fair amount of energy. They will be told by Stonewall and others how sensible that is. Therefore, they take the time and make the effort to register their contract. Having obtained all the protection of a marriage and achieved the great advantages that Stonewall will underline, what should suddenly stimulate them to say, "Well, let's get married"? Having gone through the process of securing registration, they will lean back and take that as the last word. Those who might have got married right from the beginning will say, "Well, if we are going to live together, let's get the position regulated". They will register their contract and then give marriage no further thought. That is a matter with which in his Bill. which is admirable in many respects, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has not come to grips at all.

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

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

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

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

The Government could consider appropriate legislation to deal with the outstanding problems to which reference has been made. The hardship that is imposed is not so vast that one should run the risk of undermining and devaluing marriage to help a small percentage of the population.

12.54 p.m.

Lord Dholakia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I want to quote from a letter that was faxed to me by a couple who are on holiday in Australia. They wanted to ensure that their point of view is taken into account in this debate. This letter sums up much of what I want to say. It says: We both feel that it is important to say neither of us had any choice whatsoever in what we are. This is often fundamentally misunderstood. We have lived together in a stable loving relationship for approaching 32 years in our community. During that time we have served the community in a variety of ways not least my partner as head of sixth form and myself as deputy head and one time acting head of the school. Here we worked with both the development of staff and students from a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives. We earned respect and admiration from many. Our work and influence extended far beyond the immediate school community into the local and regional community". There is no evidence there of corrupting others, young or not-so-young. We also worked hard creating our home and garden which has now become very well known. This area, too, helped us to earn and hold the respect of many in the community". There is no evidence there that the community objects to this relationship. I quote further: We are both very grateful for the acceptance and tolerance we have found and the respect we have been given in the past and from people we now meet in our new business enterprise in the hospitality industry. What we find deeply troubling is the current status of our relationship with regard to certain aspect of law. In debating these issues we are not seeking 'marriage' but a recognition and acceptance of equal rights as are afforded to other long-term relationships. As the law stands, should one of us die we would face substantial inheritance tax liability at a time of maximum emotional anxiety. In addition it is conceivable that one of us would be denied access to the other if a serious medical emergency arose". That point has been made by a number of noble Lords. Further, as there are no pension benefits after death, the remaining partner's financial situation would be significantly weakened should one of us die". That matter was ably demonstrated by the noble Lord, Lord Alli, in his contribution.

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

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

1.2 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Guildford

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

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

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

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

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

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

If there is a need for appropriate secular or spiritual declarations these can and should be made. Let me share an experience from my own ministry. A priest of mine was approached by two men who wanted to make a declaration of their love and commitment to each other in front of friends and family. They did not know how to do so. I am profoundly happy that the ministry they received through seeing the vicar going on rounds around the shops and in the parish led them to ask what they should do. They did not want a gay wedding in church, they wanted a party, an occasion on which to exchange meaningful and deep-rooted hopes and dreams for their future together. The work done by my parish priest was extremely skilful and she enabled them to achieve what they wanted. I understand that the occasion went extremely well. It was not a marriage. It was not pension rights or any piece of paper that they wanted, it was ministry and dignity that they were seeking. The Church sought to offer them the former. All society should join with the Church—and in some quarters the Church must join with society—in ensuring the latter.

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

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

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

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

In reply to a Question asked in another place, the Government said that they cannot commit itself to making any changes in these areas before undertaking a comprehensive analysis of all the implications. The Government will now be examining the issues in detail".—[Official Report, House of Commons, 28/11/01; col. 903W.] I am in favour of the Government undertaking a comprehensive analysis. It would be a pity if those issues hung on a Bill that may run into the ground in the process of parliamentary scrutiny, rather than being addressed in the light of the public work of government. It is in the interests of all that such action should not only address the issues but uphold the unique nature of marriage for the good of all.

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

1 11 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

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

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

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

We should all be chary of being critical or dismissive of people who wish to live in a different way from that which we have chosen ourselves. I was married. I was married for a long time. I brought up my children as a married woman. I am proud to say that all three of them are excellent parents. I should be reluctant to let anyone suggest to me that my unmarried daughter, living in a stable relationship, is a less good parent than are my two married children, because that is not true. We must learn, as grandparents as well as parents to be tolerant of our relations and the way that they choose to live their lives.

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

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

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

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

1.18 p.m.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws

My Lords, I, too, wish to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, and to support this important Bill. 'The noble Lord has been an extraordinary champion of human rights and his tireless work has inspired whole generations of lawyers. His commitment to ending discrimination and intolerance in all its manifestations has been crucial to the development of law in this country. As someone who often travels for the British Council, I can tell the House that his name is a password in legal circles around the world. We are fortunate to have him as a Member of this House. The fact that it is the noble Lord, Lord Lester, who brings the Bill before the House, with, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, said, his record of sensible, well-considered reform which is invariably timely, should of itself be persuasive to many of your Lordships.

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

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

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

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

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

Another feature of our changing world that should be celebrated is the acceptance of homosexuality and the idea that gay men and lesbians can live openly, lovingly and confidently without shame or threat. The idea that people should face discrimination because of their race or sexuality is now anathema to most people. The joy that I feel that my children think that such discrimination is abhorrent is, I know, shared by many in the House.

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

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

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

1.27 p.m.

Lord Rennard

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

It is easy for Liberal Democrats to see why we should support that principle so strongly. Our core values are based on a belief in freedom. Our party membership cards say that, we exist to build a fair, free and open society—balancing liberty, equality and community and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity". Our constitution says that, we see ourselves as upholders of the values of individual and social justice, we reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon race, colour, religion, age, disability, sex or sexual orientation". However, one need not be a Liberal Democrat to believe in the measures proposed in the Bill, just someone who subscribes to the principles of human rights and equality before the law.

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: All human beings are horn.… equal in dignity and rights". That is the principle in the Bill. Sadly, however, the law in this country does not treat all people as equals in dignity and rights. Not all relationships are given equal respect and fair legal treatment. I respect, of course, religious beliefs about the concept of marriage. My wife and I were married by a Roman Catholic priest, assisted by my brother, who is an Anglican priest, and his wife, my sister-in-law, who is also now an Anglican priest. The service also required a civil registrar to be present for the marriage to be legal. Thus my wife and I were pretty sure that in every sense we were properly married.

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

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

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

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

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

The registration of a civil partnership is the best way to reduce the level of legal discrimination suffered and is the best way of saying that there should be mutual respect for couples who make a significant commitment to each other, but in different ways. Alternative means of redress have been suggested today, such as changes in the law or the abolition of inheritance tax—all detailed, cumbersome and expensive approaches involving lawyers. I do not believe that those are either fair or practical and they do not address the important issue of the quality of respect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.36 p.m.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obviously one group—we have heard this emphasised—likely to welcome the protection of being able to register a civil partnership, will be the same-sex, cohabiting gay or lesbian couple. In the words of the guidance on the Bill, it will, enable them to live together within a stable and coherent framework of rights and responsibilities". Surely such arrangements must be beneficial to society as a whole and help reinforce the decision, taken some time ago now, that, over a certain age, each individual's sexual preference is a matter for them.

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

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

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

1.43 p.m.

Baroness Massey of Darwen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I turn to an issue raised by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. Where one partner is admitted to hospital, partners are often denied information, and visiting may be limited if the partner is seriously ill or dying. I am aware of a case where a dying patient was not allowed to nominate the partner as next of kin; where the patient's family denied the partner any right to be present in the last moments; and where he was not allowed to make any funeral arrangements or be present at the funeral. This is surely distressing and unjust. In that particular case, the partners had lived together for 20 years, and yet no counselling or support was offered to the surviving partner. as it is routinely to married partners.

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

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

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

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

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

1.50 p.m.

Lord Brightman

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

On 22nd February 1996, the then opposition spokesman said in relation to the Family Law Bill: It is common ground in your Lordships' House that we are anxious to support the family as an institution and to support marriage as an essential factor in that".—[Official Report, 22/2/96; col. 1153.] It may be of interest to the House to know whether the Government feel able to confirm that they are still anxious to support marriage as an "essential factor" in terms of the family. I owe the Minister an apology for not giving him notice of that quotation. To be honest, it occurred to me only some 10 or 15 minutes ago, and I managed to turn it up on my file.

1.51 p.m.

Lord Goodhart

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

We have moved a long way in the past 40 years. There is a well-known poem by Philip Larkin which contains the lines: Sexual intercourse began In nineteen sixty-three … Between the end of the Chatterley ban And the Beatles' first LP". I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, that these changes—although not an unmixed blessing—have on the whole been for the better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord Elton

My Lords, to put the record straight, I was speaking entirely for myself.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, I appreciate that, and I await with interest the official reply from the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. But there seems to be a current of opinion within the Conservative Party which takes the same view as that of the noble Lord, Lord Elton. It has become fairly apparent in articles in the press, comments in the broadcasting media and so on. It suggests that, somewhat surprisingly, while the party looks with favour on giving rights in the form of civil partnership rights to same-sex couples, it does not wish to do so for couples of the opposite sex. That view is perhaps somewhat inconsistent with the opposition to Section 28.

Lord Elton

My Lords, as I was corrected frequently on points that I misunderstood, perhaps I may tell the noble Lord that I said with some trepidation that constancy in a partnership is something to be encouraged. Therefore, with trepidation, I said that there were elements of the Bill that I would wish to support.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, I take that point on board. As I understand it. that is the motivation behind the noble Lord's support for civil partnership between lesbian and gay couples. The view was expressed that this is a second-class form of marriage; that it is open to heterosexual couples to get married and, therefore, they should not have the lesser alternative. I believe that this concern is wrong. A simpler and more private form of commitment such as that involved in a civil partnership could persuade a significant number of couples to take it up who would not be prepared to enter into a formal marriage.

I believe that most heterosexual couples still prefer marriage. Indeed, weddings are extremely popular these days. My own daughters started preparing their weddings at about the age of eight, many years before they met the men to whom they are now married. A wedding is a ceremony—even a register office wedding—conducted in person before either someone from the Church or someone with the powers of a registrar. In the case of a civil partnership, an application is sent to the Registrar General in the prescribed form, signed by each prospective partner, accompanied by the prescribed fee. I take issue slightly with my noble friend Lady Thomas of Walliswood in that that is not a ceremony and will therefore appeal to those who do not want a ceremony.

As the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, pointed out in an article in The Times the other day, there is a problem with caring relationships between close members of the same family, such as a child looking after an elderly parent, a sister looking after a brother or a sister and brother looking after each other in old age. There is undoubtedly a case for some provisions on taxation rights and other matters included in the Bill to be extended to caring couples. However, there are a number of problems involved. I do not think that it can be done simply by enabling them to enter into a civil partnership agreement. While I certainly support some change, I doubt that this Bill is the place for it.

The only unqualified objections to the Bill came from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford took a more supportive attitude to the Bill.

My noble friend Lord Lester has asked me to deal briefly with the question of pensions raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester, because I am more familiar with pension systems. The answer to the question about who pays for the pensions in occupational schemes is that it depends on whether the pension scheme is a defined contribution scheme or a final salary scheme. If it is a defined contribution scheme, there is a fixed pot of money on retirement that is used to buy a pension. Providing a pension for a surviving partner will reduce the amount of the pension payable to the pensioner. If it is a final salary scheme, the cost will effectively fall on the employer. However, most employers with final salary schemes already provide powers for a pensioner to nominate an unmarried partner to receive a surviving spouse's pension, so the cost is probably pretty much written into the scheme already.

The Bill is an important step forward. The wide welcome that it has received shows that it is an idea whose time has come. We must recognise that this may not be the Bill that ends up on the statute book. Many detailed issues will need to be debated and it will undoubtedly have to undergo a fairly lengthy Committee stage. We need debate and, like the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, I think that that debate would best be carried out in a Select Committee. I hope that a Select Committee will be set up to consider the issues in the Bill.

Whether or not there is time to get the Bill through both Houses, it is important to have all the remaining stages completed in this House so that, as well as a Select Committee, we can have a debate in your Lordships' House on the details, which will help to identify and iron out the problems. Our target must be to get a Bill on the statute book during this Parliament.

I join others who have paid tribute to my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill. He has a long and powerful record of work for human rights. Many years ago he worked on anti-discrimination legislation. He campaigned tirelessly for the Human Rights Act 1998. He and the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor were the two people who did most to bring that Act about. The Bill marks another service by my noble friend to the cause of the liberties and rights of the individual.

I wait with much interest to hear what the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, will say, although, as I have said, I have some idea of what we can expect. I wait with perhaps even greater interest to hear what the Leader of the House will tell us about the reaction of the Government. I have no doubt that he will express sympathy with the purposes of the Bill, but I hope that he will go much further and either indicate the Government's willingness to give the necessary time to get this Bill through Parliament or undertake to introduce government legislation before the end of the present Parliament.

2.5 p.m.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, for introducing the Bill, which affords us the opportunity to consider a number of important issues. I also pay tribute to the many thoughtful speeches made today. They did not all express the same view, but they were equally valuable and helpful to this important debate.

The Bill sets out a legal framework for recognising a civil partnership between two cohabiting individuals who wish to register their union formally and share benefits, rights and responsibilities. It gives us, the Conservative Party, an opportunity to restate our commitment to marriage—indeed, I prefer to say our celebration of marriage—and the special rights that come with that association. It is an association that continues, to a great extent, to work.

Not all married couples choose to raise a family, and the value of their marriage is no less important for that, but society particularly benefits from the fact that children brought up by married parents are more likely to have a stable background. There are many one-parent families, as well as cohabiting couples, who bring up children incredibly well, as many have said today, and who create homes as loving and as stable as those offered by married couples. However, the figures show that the commitment of marriage increases stability. As the Office for National Statistics says in a recent report: recent research has shown that children born to cohabiting couples are twice as likely to see their parents separate as children born within marriage". At this point I take issue—as I rarely do—with the noble Earl, Lord Russell. It is not about respect. Our respect is without question.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness. As she has raised my question, may I ask if she could answer mine? Does she think, a priori, as a matter of universal principle, that it is better for an unhappily married couple to stay together than to separate?

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, no, I do not think that it is better for a married couple who are unhappy to stay together. That is why we say not that marriage works, but that it works to a great extent.

In a world where politicians search, usually in vain, for social policies that confer unambiguous benefits, they should leave well alone when they encounter longstanding institutions that do precisely that. We must build on success, in which case we must do nothing to undermine the institution of marriage.

Consequently, we cannot support the Bill. It provides rights, such as the right to inheritance and to share life assurance and occupational pensions, that are already available to couples through marriage. There is no need to create a separate category of registered civil partnerships for mixed-sex couples because anyone seeking those rights can attain them by marrying. Providing a watered-down variant of marriage would serve only to undermine the institution and increase the risk of the state intruding into people's lives in order to discover whether the extent of their cohabitation justifies the rights that they would claim.

The Bill does, however, provide us with the opportunity to consider seriously the rights of those who are not able to marry—the couples who do not have that choice, particularly same-sex couples who have a long-term stable relationship. There is no doubt that those couples face a number of real problems in their daily lives, problems that need to be addressed in a sensitive, respectful and practical way. The Bill clearly seeks to overcome statutory discrimination against those who want to make the commitment to share within a coherent framework rights and responsibilities.

In addition to those economic rights and responsibilities within a union, the Bill specifically addresses issues that test the emotional strength and heart of a relationship, such as the right of action in respect of a fatal accident, the right to register the death of a partner and the provision for the health and welfare of a partner without capacity to act—issues whereby, if a couple are in a stable relationship and unable to marry, it must be right to allow them the dignity of acting on each other's behalf in the same way as a married couple. It must be right to confront any form of discrimination that compromises mutual respect and commitment within a stable and loving relationship for no good reason. I should add, in response to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, that I believe that that is right in principle no matter what the actual numbers may be.

Moving on from the principal themes, we have various concerns which I shall touch on briefly. The Bill wishes, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, in the Explanatory Notes, to enable cohabiting couples to live together within a stable and coherent framework of rights and responsibilities". As I said, the Bill addresses some real practical problems requiring particular practical solutions—some of which may be legislative, others administrative, but all need to be sensitively and precisely targeted. In that context we should bear in mind that such problems are not confined to gay couples. Just as the benefits to society of marriage are clear, particularly when there are children, so is the virtue in other forms of relationship expressly excluded from the Bill.

In particular, why does the noble Lord, Lord Lester, exclude from eligible persons, in Clause 2(1)(d). "close relatives"? Why should close relatives—for example, two cohabiting sisters who may have pledged to care for each other—not register and thereby enjoy the same rights and responsibilities as others? Surely that exclusion is discriminatory in principle, particularly against the elderly. Is the noble Lord interested only in protecting the rights of couples in a sexual relationship? He may respond by saying that as two sisters they are perfectly capable of contracting to afford each other certain rights and responsibilities. However, the same can be said of those couples who are eligible under the Bill.

There are also questions of family law. In particular, what happens to the children of a couple who have registered their partnership when that partnership breaks down? Is the Bill specifically intended to exclude the interests of children other than in the context of the working families tax credit, property and non-molestation orders? Indeed, I feel some personal discomfort with a Bill that demands such a watershed in our thinking and our social attitudes but that does not pay more attention to children. Perhaps that is intentional, and perhaps it is right. However, it is hard to consider all the issues in a clear-cut manner since our lives and different lifestyles are so varied and often complex.

We are also concerned with regard to the cost implications of the Bill. That is an area that we would certainly want to explore further as the Bill addresses, quite rightly, a broad range of issues which carry financial consequences.

We understand that the Government are in the process of reviewing current financial implications relating to some of those issues and look forward to hearing what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, has to say in that regard.

We are also interested in those conditions that must be satisfied prior to the formation of a civil partnership. In particular, the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, has specified that the prospective partners must have lived together for a minimum period of six months before the relationship can be registered. Is it possible to demonstrate a stable relationship in that period of time?

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, for allowing me to intervene. Is it the policy of the Conservative Party to prohibit people from marrying when they have been in a relationship for less than six months? There is no such inhibition on marriage, so far as I am aware.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, I entirely accept that and no, it is not. However, we are talking about a new form of legislation here and that is why I am asking the questions. If the noble Lord will allow me to continue I believe that he will see that I might view that as a cynical approach, but that others may not. That is one of the many questions that we feel deserves more discussion, particularly as many commentators are saying that that is one of the problems with the Bill.

Could the civil registration partnership be viewed as a neat way of avoiding tax and enjoying benefits without sincere commitment?

In contrast, it is very rare to find a couple, where either party is prepared to enter a marriage, without a genuine hope that the marriage will last until they are parted by death. Would it not be sensible to respond to that arguably cynical view of civil partnerships by proposing a timeframe that would, in a practical sense, police the sincerity of the commitment to the partnership?

For example, two years ago I wrote a policy paper on the family which was debated across the United Kingdom by the voluntary side of the Conservative Party and which included the possibility of registering civil partnerships, including same-sex partners. Indeed, some commentators may be surprised to learn that it is not new ground for the Conservative Party and, indeed, the feedback from my paper confirmed a genuine and widespread will to consider those matters further.

In that paper I used the example of the then new French institution known as "Pacs", which stands for Pacte Civil de Solidarite. Pars allows two people to register their union and then, three years later, to enjoy the statutory rights afforded by that registration.

Did the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, consider this (and perhaps he did) as well as other examples where a form of civil partnership has already been introduced? For example, those registers introduced in Spain, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden. Iceland and/or Germany, will have been, to some extent, tried and tested.

Given that it is such a sensitive area that touches on a very broad range of issues, it must surely make sense to review, in some detail, the workings of civil partnerships by our European partners before we legislate here; after all, it does, albeit occasionally, pay to learn from experience.

In conclusion, our policies and our laws should reflect the world as it is and the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, in this Bill are timely and deserve a serious and considered response. However, we believe that there is more work to be done and we would very much welcome further in-depth discussion of all the issues.

2.19 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, ours is capable of being a great-hearted society and I derive that proposition from two sources. The first was the article by the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, in The Times, which was plainly deeply considered and carefully argued. The second, if I may say so without presumption, was the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford, who could not have been more positive in his approach.

The right reverend Prelate said that we live in a diverse and changing society. He is right. His illustration, with perfect timing, that two gay men needed help from the vicar—at which I could see metaphorical nods, until he teased the House by pointing out that the vicar was female—was a perfect illustration, perfectly made, of the fact that we are living in changing times. Indeed, we could not have held this debate five years ago because we have not heard the rampant voice of obscurantism from any speaker. Of course, many approach this matter from. a different basis.

Your Lordships are entitled to know the Government's position and I state it. plainly. I can confirm that the Government will look very carefully at the implications of setting up such a scheme of civil partnership registration, rights and responsibilities. The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, is right. Questions need to be answered. She is right in saying that we ought to see and benefit from the experience of our European partners—another first for the Conservative Party; question that is. not statement! Of course, the French being much more intellectual than we, call them "civil solidarity pacts", which is marvellously Gallic.

The noble Baroness is right on one aspect; it is a three-year term. However, it applies to heterosexual couples as well. I am sure that if the benefit of the experience of the French points in that direction, then the conversion of the Conservatives will continue— perhaps.

The work here is at a very early stage. It was rightly pointed out that my colleague in the Commons, Jane Griffiths, introduced her Bill in October last year. Of course, work is at an early stage, but we are getting on. The first meeting was held on 9th January this year, so there has not been real delay. Sixty officials attended from across the different Whitehall departments. That will be essential. All noble Lords who have dealt with these intricacies know that, whatever the principled approach may be, the working out in practice of a large number of questions, many of which have not been exhaustively explored, will take a lot of working through.

The Cabinet Office is now following up issues. I was grateful to have the meeting with my colleague. Barbara Roche, the lead Minister, with the noble Lord, Lord Lester—to whom I pay full tribute, as he knows—and with Angela Mason of Stonewall. We had a productive discussion. On the question of a committee, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, promised to write to me next week setting out his views and I promised to give an early response, whatever that may turn out to be.

I stress that the Government have a genuinely open mind. I cannot give any commitments at this stage, nor would your Lordships sensibly expect them, except that we shall approach this matter properly, seriously and thoroughly. The Bill has potential cost implications—the right reverend Prelate is right. There are complex inter-relating issues, not simply with regard to property, but also children and general social consequences. So we need to know in considerable detail what we are engaged on.

It may be that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, with his usual generosity, seized the appropriate moment to bring this debate to public attention, as he has undoubtedly succeeded in doing, but recognises that there are important consequential implications which we shall need to address. For instance, the example I paraphrase—I hope fairly—given by the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, was of two elderly retired sisters. The husband was a retired vicar. The three wanted to live together and make civil arrangements. That is a perfectly reasonable example to raise. Perhaps I may offer one or two others.

The noble Lord excludes anyone in a married relationship. But many people, though they do not live with their spouses, have a conscientious—it may be religious—objection to divorce. They may want to live in a completely companionable relationship—not a sexual relationship—with someone with whom they are comfortable, yet want to make arrangements of the kind the civil partnership offers. That is forbidden by the Bill.

Perhaps I may take another example, contrary to what the noble Baroness said, which came from the brutalist school; namely, if you are heterosexual and want the benefits, you can get married. Two schoolteachers, who have both been married but whose respective spouses are dead, want to live companionably in their old age. They want to share the expenses, the concerns, the worries and the comfort. They may both have a feeling that it would be disloyal to their former spouses to remarry. That is a perfectly legitimate view. It may not be shared by all of us but is capable of being honourably held by decent people. If that is so, should they—under the new brutalism—be excluded from benefits?

I stress that I ask these questions because I listened carefully to the debate. The more one looks at such questions, the more one realises that we must find answers. But I am not sure that the "one size fits all" is the way forward.

A good deal has been done but before I detail it, I must stress that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lester. This Bill is not about marriage. It is about a different relationship, not unknown in the rest of Europe, which by and large seems to have worked satisfactorily. We are talking about civil partnership registration. That is a contractual obligation which encapsulates rights and responsibilities and which, for many of our fellow citizens, is desired as a public recognition of what is essentially a personal and private commitment. That is what we are talking about. This has nothing to do with an attack on the institution of marriage.

My response to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, who always intervenes with effect and brevity, is to confirm that the Government recognise that marital partnerships remain the choice of many people who want to build stable relationships because they want to raise children and that that stability and that type of commitment are of critical importance to children, to families and to wider society. However, the two are not exclusive and in a diverse society, there is no reason why we should be stereotypical on every occasion.

We have made significant advances in dealing with same-sex and heterosexual partnerships. The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, was correct in her illustration about the bomb attack. Since then, as your Lordships know, in April 2001, the criminal injuries compensation scheme was extended to cover both same-sex and heterosexual partners.

On immigration, unmarried heterosexual and same-sex couples may be eligible for leave to remain in the United Kingdom, if they have lived together for two years or more.

The point was raised that private business does better than public service. That is incorrect. These things are changing very quickly. The new Civil Service pensions scheme will offer survivor benefits to unmarried partners, whether same-sex or heterosexual. That is a very important step forward.

Your Lordships will contradict me if necessary, but I do not think that civilisation as we knew it has crumbled. That will come when the Government reform your Lordships' House—that was a parenthesis which no-one heard.

The question of succession arises. The Law Reform (Succession) Act 1995 states that a heterosexual unmarried partner can apply for succession rights; a same-sex partner cannot. Significant questions are raised about whether or not we deal with our fellow citizens fairly and justly. If there is significant injustice, it does not just tell itself on those who are the objects of injustice, but is an attack on the quality of our society and its stability and continuance.

The Law Commission is working on tenancy succession for same-sex partners. We expect the consultation document to be published early this year and it is hoped by the commission that there will be a final report and draft Bill by 2003. The Law Commission is also working on the property rights of home-sharers. Again, that work is continuing.

There is work being done. There is a degree of recognition. I take the theme and purpose of the noble Lord's Bill to be that these are piecemeal changes, not necessarily coherent, though just and necessary for the moment.

What the noble Lord wishes, I believe, is to remodel the availability of a wider spectrum of recognised relationships which may be available to those of our fellow citizens who feel disadvantaged, excluded and unjustly treated.

I hope that I have given as full a response as the House feels is reasonable and that I have given as positive a response as I am able to do at this time.

2.30 p.m.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, this has been an excellent debate. Movers of Bills always say that but on this occasion it happens to be really true. It has been a wise and compassionate debate and one full of common sense and good humour without the rampant obscurantism that the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House referred to a few moments ago.

I am extremely grateful to everyone who has not only spoken in the debate in their various ways but has also stayed and listened to it even when they have not spoken at a time long past most people's lunch hour. Their stamina indicates that you do not have to be under the age of 30 to be able to live and work in the way that we do, and on a Friday too. I am extraordinarily grateful to everyone. I am also grateful—I wish that my mother were here—for some of the flattering, personal remarks that were made about me. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, described me as clever and patient. Patient I am not and I wish I did not have to try to be. I would rather be wise than clever. I like to think that the Bill is wiser than it is clever. However, I am grateful for the noble Baroness's comments.

Even though social attitude surveys show that on these issues the most obscurantist, conservative or restrictive section of the population comprises those over the age of 65, we have not, it seems to me, shown in this debate on any side of the House that we are incapacitated by our age from understanding the realities of modern life and the need for the law if not to keep pace with the realities of modern life—that may be too much to expect—at least to catch up without there being too much shortfall.

I shall be brief for obvious reasons. I wish to deal with some of the few questions that have been raised in the debate and first comment generally that few practical questions have been raised suggesting that a framework of this kind is impractical and would not tackle the anomalies and injustices that we referred to at the beginning of the debate. Those who have expressed reservations or objections to the Bill have done so either on moral grounds derived from their faith and their beliefs or have raised some fairly narrow but important questions. I see that some noble Lords have a briefing from the Christian Institute which I received only this morning which contains what I would describe as rampant obscurantism in part. I am surprised that it has the currency that it does. For example, I believe that it compares my Bill with bolshevism, Soviet communism and jacobinism, or perhaps pre-jacobinism from the age of the French Revolution. I wish that the organisers had sent the briefing to me as well as to others. They have explained that they did not do so—

Earl Russell

My Lords, I think that my noble friend should congratulate himself on his versatility.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I shall come to that a little later. I take head-on the argument that has come up again and again and came up in the Christian Institute briefing. Your Lordships have already dealt with it so I do not need to say much. I refer to the argument that the measure will somehow undermine the institution of marriage. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, to whom I owe a great deal in my career, as he knows, as it was he who sponsored me many years ago to become a Queen's Counsel on the basis of one appearance before him as I recall, accused me of being naĩve in thinking that my Bill would not undermine marriage. I hope that he will not mind my saying that the naivety is on his part. If he really thinks that the problems involving the lack of proper respect for and use of marriage would be exacerbated by my Bill, I say, with great respect, that he is not in touch with the reasons why the institution of marriage has not been as successful as people such as myself—I have been very happy in my marriage for more than 30 years—would have hoped. The Bill is not designed to undermine marriage—everyone agrees with that—and I do not believe that it would have that effect. I have tried to explain that, on the contrary, if we encourage stable heterosexual relationships that are protected by law, we protect not only the partners but their children, in the hope, which I share—I speak as one who prefers marriage to any other civil partnership— that people will move to marriage.

I do not understand the argument that suggests that one needs to bribe people or persecute them in order to maintain the institution of marriage. That has not been said explicitly but in a way it is the implication of some of the arguments. I do not believe that the arguments that led Lord Hardwicke in I 753–250 years ago, in the age of George II—to forbid or deny protection to common law marriage represent the official policy of the Conservative Party or of the Church of England.

While I am on the subject of the Conservative Party, I have to say that I have too much respect for the intelligence and values of the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, and of the shadow Home Secretary, Mr Oliver Letwin MP, to believe that they can be comfortable with the new-fangled policy that their party has just adopted in light of my Bill. When I worked at the Home Office with my old boss, my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, he once gave me a piece of advice that I should like to pass on. He said, "When you are thinking about issues of policy, the worst thing you can do is to dig a trench and then be flushed out of it and have to dig another trench Before long you are on the run and you have had it. My advice to you is, 'Always dig a trench that is defensible and then fight and hold that position'''. I simply do not think that it is defensible for the Conservative Party to say, "We are changing our position about gay relationships but we will not apply the same protection to heterosexual unmarried couples because we need to prop up the institution of marriage, which we respect so much". It may be logically possible to defend that position but the public will find it impossible in practice to understand why heterosexual couples should be treated less favourably in terms of some of the basic protections. I very much hope that the Conservative Party will continue to develop its policy in the way that I am sure most people hope it will.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester asked me three questions in particular. The first question was about pensions and, in my cowardly way, I asked my noble friend Lord Goodhart to answer it. I hope that the right reverend Prelate is satisfied with that.

The second question was about whether the Bill would severely disadvantage family relationships not in sexual partnerships. My Bill in no way depends on there being a sexual relationship for the civil partnership to be able to operate. I hope that that is clear. It is true that we have been cautious in excluding close members of the family from the civil partnership; several noble Lords criticised that or questioned whether it should really be so. We did it partly because we were concerned that people might think that we were promoting, for example, incestuous relationships and partly because of the problem of multiple partners—if there are many brothers and sisters, how does one pick out who will be the civil partner? How will one stop them from squabbling with one another and how will one stop abuse? Those matters deserve further thought. I am entirely open minded about the way in which one would tackle them; maybe the Bill needs to go further.

The other question I was asked was whether we were giving too much delegated power to Ministers under Clause 30. The answer was given by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in its report published today. It said that it had no problems which it wished to draw to the attention of the House.

As I listened to the advocacy of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, and of the Leader of the House, I was reminded that, when I was a boy, my father said, "Never become a barrister. You would be hopeless because you will be impossible in front of juries". My father was absolutely right. As I listened to the noble Baroness, who, although she is much younger than I am, is my role model in so many things, I realised that I cannot improve on her advocacy. Without offending the rest of the House, her speech will remain in my mind as the most eloquent explanation of the values underlying the Bill.

We seek to avoid unnecessary bureaucratic intrusion into relationships. We do not want relationships to have to be looked into by the state. We seek to promote personal choice, freedom of association and equality of treatment. But we also seek to promote stable, enduring and loving relationships in which there are duties as well as responsibilities. We leave aside altogether the question of children, not because it is not vital but because it has to be tackled in the context of children's legislation. There must be a dove-tailing between that legislation and this Bill.

Then, the question is: where do we go from here, other than to lunch? I believe that the answer must be to take further evidence, to reflect further and to look at experience overseas as well. We have looked at the French experience and, indeed, that of all the other European countries to which the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, referred; and it would be relatively easy to marshal evidence upon it. One of the most interesting pieces of evidence is that of the Dutch. In the Netherlands, so far from the civil partnership scheme undermining marriage, if one looks at the website of the Dutch Government, one finds that, in spite of the existence of civil partnerships, people are opting enthusiastically for marriage. I would not promote the Bill if I considered it to be the enemy rather than the good friend of the institution of marriage.

Therefore, I suggest to your Lordships that, as several noble Lords have indicated, one sensible way forward might be to call upon the resources of this House. If your Lordships give the Bill a Second Reading, as I hope they will, the gathering of evidence would then take place under the authority of this House. That could go side by side with the work done by the Government so that the Government could be assisted in partnership with ourselves in gathering evidence and devising what is sensible.

The Telegraph described me today as "moralistic". That is not a word that I would use for myself. I believe that I am a pragmatist by instinct. But I am sufficiently pragmatic to understand that the Bill will not be a catalyst for change without the active support of the Government, following the grain of public opinion.

Lastly, as my noble friend Lord Goodhart referred to Philip Larkin, I want to mention another poet. At the end of the curious document, Counterfeit Marriage, produced by the Christian Institute, are the words: It is difficult to think how Shakespeare would write a sonnet about a civil partnership". I always thought to the contrary, that in the age of Queen Elizabeth I the Bard was writing his beautiful sonnets about civil partnerships, both homosexual and heterosexual civil partnerships. I shall probably get it wrong, but there is a sonnet that begins with the following lines, Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment. Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds or bends with the remover to remove. Oh no it is an ever-fixed mark", and so on. I am reasonably confident, although I am no scholar, that that sonnet could have been as well expressed of homosexual lovers or heterosexual lovers, married or unmarried, and at a time when I doubt that marriage was the institution that it is today.

I have spoken for longer than I intended, and I am grateful to your Lordships for your patience. I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at fifteen minutes before three o'clock.