HL Deb 22 April 2004 vol 660 cc387-433

11.37 a.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

As this House is aware, same-sex couples are unable to marry and cannot gain legal recognition of their relationships. The lack of legal recognition means that same-sex couples face many difficult issues as they seek to organise their lives together.

Two years ago, this House discussed a Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, to whom I pay tribute today—although I see that, for some unfortunate reason, he is not in his place. During a full and constructive debate, this House acknowledged the difficulties experienced by same-sex couples. We touched on areas as diverse as hospital visiting, intestacy and pension rights.

The Government made a commitment to explore how those inequalities could best be addressed, which, since that debate, we have endeavoured to do. The Government have undertaken a comprehensive review of the law and how it applies to same-sex couples. Over the past two years, considerable hard work has gone into that endeavour. We have considered the specific problems faced by same-sex couples as a result of the failure to give legal recognition to their relationships.

We found that problems can arise in a wider range of areas than might immediately first spring to mind. For example, where an accident causes the death of a person in a same-sex relationship, the other person in that relationship may find that he or she faces specific difficulties in obtaining access to the body, information about circumstances leading to or surrounding the death, or, indeed, compensation. Following a partner's death, they may find themselves unable to stay in the home they have shared with that partner for many years. Sometimes there have even been difficulties about attending events as intimate as funerals.

We have put together what we consider to be a measured and proportionate response to those problems. Civil partnership would allow those same-sex couples who wish to do so to gain legal recognition for their relationship. This legal recognition would be accompanied by a set of rights and responsibilities to reflect the commitment that the couple had made to each other.

In June 2003, we released our proposals for public consultation in England and Wales. Since then, separate consultation exercises have followed for Scotland and Northern Ireland. This consultation has been accompanied by informed and constructive debate in the public sphere over the question of recognition of same-sex couples.

We have, then, a Bill that is the product of two years' serious and intensive work by the Government and which has been shaped by consultation with stakeholders and the public at large, and informed by debate in this House and elsewhere. We are confident that the Bill places civil partnership firmly in the civil sphere of our national life. The strength of the Bill is that it offers a secular solution to the disadvantages which same-sex couples face in the way they are treated by our laws.

Perhaps I may turn to some of the issues that have been widely debated over the past two years. Noble Lords will recall that when the civil partnership Bill promoted by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, sought to include opposite-sex couples, there was a great deal of debate. The debate in this House focused heavily on that element of his Bill and many felt that this would undermine marriage. This Bill does not undermine or weaken the importance of marriage and we do not propose to open civil partnership to opposite-sex couples. Civil partnership is aimed at same-sex couples who cannot marry.

However, it is important for us to be clear that we continue to support marriage and recognise that it is the surest foundation for opposite-sex couples raising children. We also recognise, as did many in this House, that a number of people face difficulties on the breakdown of a relationship or upon the death of one partner when the couple are not married. Many of these difficulties come as a complete surprise to couples who believe in the myth of so-called "common-law marriage". The Department for Constitutional Affairs is currently doing work that will address this myth, pointing out the differences in rights and responsibilities between married and unmarried couples, and suggesting ways that unmarried couples can protect themselves if things go wrong.

Then there is the issue of other home-sharers. Some people have discussed the position of family members, siblings, and people who share homes. This is a quite separate issue from that which the Bill seeks to address. Family members, be they parent and child or siblings, have a legally recognised relationship to each other. These relationships, which already afford certain rights, are widely acknowledged and accepted in society. A same-sex couple who have shared a relationship over many years can still be treated as complete strangers by the law.

While home-sharers may be concerned about financial issues, the full range of issues faced by same-sex couples is something entirely different. This Bill seeks to address issues for one group of people, namely same-sex couples. It is not a cure-all for the financial problems of those outside marriage. Noble Lords may know that other distinguished minds in the Law Commission have long wrestled with this issue. Having looked at it in great detail, they have concluded that the solution in every case depended on the nature of the relationship. That is why this Bill is specifically designed to look simply at same-sex couple relationships. That is its clear purpose and that is its clear content.

Having set out the context of our proposals, I turn now to the provisions of the Bill itself. I intend, if I may, to outline these in some detail so that noble Lords have a clear understanding of the framework that we seek to put in place.

Part 1 defines a civil partnership and the time at which it is formed and when it ends. Eligible same-sex couples will be able to register as civil partners in England and Wales, in Scotland, or in Northern Ireland under the relevant part of the Bill. Provision will also be made by Order in Council for registration outside the United Kingdom at British consulates or by Armed Forces personnel serving overseas in circumstances similar to those where marriage can take place. In addition, same-sex relationships registered overseas that meet specific criteria would be treated as civil partnerships under our law. A civil partnership would come to an end only on the death of a partner, dissolution or annulment.

Part 2 sets out the procedures for forming or dissolving a civil partnership in England and Wales, and the rights and responsibilities that would flow from the relationship. Chapter 1 sets out the procedures for registering as civil partners and the eligibility criteria that must be met before two people may do so. Two people of the same sex would be able to register as civil partners of each other, provided that both were either over 18 years old, or over 16 with the necessary consent from, for example, a parent or guardian; that neither was in an existing civil partnership or marriage; and that they were not within the prohibited degrees of relationship. Schedule 1 gives details of these prohibited degrees, which include the relationships between siblings and those between parents and children. So forming a civil partnership would be a secular process and Chapter 1 gives details of this.

Having given notice to the registration authority of their intention to register, a same-sex couple would need to wait at least 15 days while the necessary checks were made on their eligibility. After this, at a time and in a place agreed between the couple and the local authority, the couple would sign the civil partnership document in the presence of a civil partnership registrar and two witnesses. In keeping with the secular nature of the process, registration could not take place in religious premises.

A ceremony would not form part of the statutory process. Responses to the England and Wales consultation suggested that while some same-sex couples would welcome a ceremony, others would not. The local authority would be free to offer the option of a ceremony in addition if it wished. Whether or not a ceremony were to take place would be a decision for the couple and the local authority concerned.

Chapter 2 contains provisions relating to dissolution, nullity and other proceedings. It is proposed that civil partnerships could be ended only by a formal, court-based process. This is in keeping with the serious nature of the responsibilities that civil partners would have towards each other. The person applying for a dissolution would need to provide evidence that the civil partnership had broken down irretrievably. The court would inquire as far as possible into the facts alleged by the applicant and any facts alleged by their partner. If the court was satisfied on the evidence that the civil partnership had broken down irretrievably, a dissolution order would be granted. Chapter 2 sets out the facts that have to be proved to show the irretrievable breakdown of a civil partnership. It also makes provision for annulment of void or voidable civil partnerships, and for the legal separation of civil partners.

Chapter 3 gives details of the property and financial arrangements applying to civil partnerships, while Chapter 4 concerns the position where two people have agreed to form a civil partnership.

There are already same-sex couples in the UK who are raising children together. Chapter 5 proposes a series of measures to ensure that the provisions relating to children will apply to the rights of children of these families in the same way as to children of a marriage.

Chapter 6 deals with miscellaneous issues including the making of false statements and the rights of civil partners in relation to housing and tenancies, family homes and domestic violence, and fatal accidents claims.

Part 3 deals with provisions relating to Scotland. Chapter 1 deals with formation and eligibility; Chapter 2 with registration; Chapter 3 with occupancy rights and tenancies; Chapter 4 with interdicts; Chapter 5 with dissolution, separation and nullity; and Chapter 6 with miscellaneous issues and interpretation.

There are some differences between the provisions for civil partnership outlined for Scotland and those for England and Wales. Most of these differences are minor and of a procedural nature and reflect the distinctive character of Scots law.

In accordance with the Sewel convention, the Scottish Executive has informed the Government that it intends to place a Motion before the Scottish Parliament, seeking its agreement that the provisions of the Bill may extend to Scotland in relation to devolved matters.

Part 4 of the Bill deals with provisions relating to Northern Ireland. As yet, these are incomplete. We intend to add further provisions by amendment. As is the case with Scotland, there will be some differences between the provisions for civil partnership for Northern Ireland and England and Wales. Most of these differences are minor and of a procedural nature, and reflect the distinct legal system in Northern Ireland.

Part 5 of the Bill is concerned with the treatment of relationships formed or dissolved abroad. Chapter 1 allows provision to be made by Order in Council for registration at British consulates, and in the case of Armed Forces personnel serving overseas, in circumstances similar to those where marriage can take place.

There is no common concept of same-sex registered partnership in other countries across the world. As regards relationships formed in other jurisdictions, Chapter 2 of the Bill therefore defines the overseas relationships which can be treated as a civil partnership in the United Kingdom, and the requirements which have to be met for this to take place. Chapter 3 concerns the jurisdiction of United Kingdom courts to hear applications for dissolution, annulment or separation, and also provides for the circumstances in which overseas dissolutions, and so on, can be recognised in the United Kingdom.

Part 6 of the Bill provides that references to certain familial relationships in legislation will be interpreted to include relationships arising through civil partnership. Parts 7 and 8 deal with a number of discrete areas of legislation which would need to be amended to reflect the existence of the new legal relationship of civil partner.

Clause 186 introduces Schedule 17 which amends child support, social security and tax credits legislation so as to enable same-sex partners to receive similar treatment to opposite-sex couples. This schedule also amends the provisions relating to the state pension system. Those state pension benefits equally available to husbands and wives will be extended to civil partners from commencement. Other state pension benefits will be extended to civil partners as the Government begin to equalise the state pension system from 2010.

Clause 187 provides a power to amend legislation relating to pensions, allowances or gratuities for the purpose of or in connection with making provisions with respect to pensions for surviving civil partners or other dependants of deceased civil partners. The intention is to use this power in relation to pension rights accrued after commencement of the Civil Partnership Bill.

Your Lordships should be aware that the Government will be tabling a number of amendments to the Bill during its passage through this House, in addition to those already mentioned in relation to Part 4 which deals with Northern Ireland. However, these are mostly minor amendments to other legislation, reflecting the introduction of civil partnership. Some additional provisions on dissolution will be moved by amendment, as well as the provisions on pension sharing on dissolution.

There will be some minor amendments to Part 5, covering recognition of partnerships entered into overseas. The inclusion of additional Northern Ireland provisions in Part 4 will have a knock-on impact on the need for amendments. The Government will also be moving some outstanding consequential provisions. I hope I will be able to write to your Lordships shortly setting out in further detail the intended amendments and their content.

I am very pleased to bring the Bill to the House. It is a Bill that signals clearly that same-sex couple relationships should be treated with fairness and dignity. Stable relationships are valuable both to the individuals in them and to the society that benefits from them. Whether people should look to the Government for a lead in their personal lives is perhaps a debate for another day. On this issue, however, there is a clear gap between our current legal provisions and our social reality and it is a gap that needs—

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness when she is coming to the end of her extremely interesting and informative speech. Owing to the extremely stringent provisions for the dissolution of these partnerships and for their annulment, could I ask her—because it might affect the attitude of noble Lords to the Bill—what proportion of committed homosexual couples is likely to take up the opportunity of a civil partnership? It seems to be a very important point. I am sorry that I am not able to speak in the debate and therefore cannot ask the question later.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we anticipate that it may be between 5 and 10 per cent. The important thing is that those people who have committed long-term relationships should have the choice to consolidate that relationship and have it formally recognised if they so choose. But I need to make it absolutely clear that there will be no obligation upon anyone to register their relationship. It is simply that the rights and responsibilities that flow from such registration will be available only to those who make that choice. The Bill is an opportunity to give parity of treatment to those who wish to have it.

When we debated this issue on the last occasion—when the Bill of the noble Lord. Lord Lester, was before us—there were many moving and sad stories of real inequality and distress for those who had been in very long relationships and were not able to honour the nature of that relationship in a way that many thought to be appropriate. We are seeking to give people an opportunity to recognise the stability of those relationships. Whether they take advantage of this opportunity will be a matter entirely for them. There will be those who choose to do so; others who choose not to do so. But what we will have removed is a barrier which would have made it impossible for those who wish to have proper recognition and stability to obtain it.

Noble Lords will want to scrutinise the Bill's drafting and seek explanations from the Government as to why we have pursued certain courses of action. However, I hope that we can agree that the Bill seeks to achieve legal recognition for same-sex couples, provision for both rights and obligations and support for committed and stable families, and represents a sensible and logical way forward. It will be a privilege and pleasure to work with the whole House on this much needed legislation. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Scotland of Asthal.)

11.58 a.m.

Baroness Wilcox

My Lords, like the leader of my party, Michael Howard, I generally support the principle of the Civil Partnership Bill, as I did when a similar Private Members' Bill was introduced to this House in 2002. However, this is a Bill which touches on matters of conscience and, as always in such circumstances in our party, there will be a free vote for these Benches.

We support the principle of the Civil Partnership Bill as a measure which offers a solution to same-sex couples in committed relationships who have previously been discriminated against on issues such as inheritance, next-of-kin status and pension rights. However, we have concerns over some of the detail of the Bill, and will subject it to the proper scrutiny to ensure that it is effective in meeting its stated objectives.

The Bill as it stands does not deal with the circumstances of people living together platonically. Many of us know of circumstances in which people have made enormous sacrifices quietly and greatly contributed to society—for example, sons who have looked after ageing fathers, people with carers who have looked after them for many years, very often living in the same house. We believe that it is perfectly legitimate to raise this issue when discussing the principle of a Bill, the aim of which, after all, is to tackle practical issues of discrimination.

I have listened to the Minister's stern words on these other kinds of home-sharing relationships. I understand that there is a view that including such relationships dilutes the importance of other same-sex relationships. But, as my colleague, Alan Duncan, said—and he will be taking the Bill through another place for us—we want to press this because we think these people are unfairly disadvantaged. We want the Government to consider them afresh and further; and to extend the recognition of interdependency to another section.

The Bill has important implications for both taxation policy and social security benefits. But, given the rules which bind your Lordships' House on a Finance Bill, we would be unable to scrutinise such implications in detail on a separate Finance Bill as is proposed. Common sense surely dictates that when major changes to the law of this kind are proposed, the tax implications of the new arrangements should be considered in detail and clarified at the same time. How does the Minister propose to enable the House to do this?

Tax legislation on opposite-sex couples distinguishes very clearly between those who are married and those cohabiting. Gifts between spouses are exempt from capital gains tax, for example, and there is no inheritance tax on death for a surviving spouse. The way the Government propose to deal with such matters for civil partners—and, indeed, other people living together but unable to marry—is of great importance and relevance to the Bill.

But the Inland Revenue press release merely states that taxation will be included in the "first available Finance Bill". What on earth does that mean? Surely it cannot mean that the Government do not know or have not decided. Can the Minister—or, indeed, any one of the other four or five Ministers involved with the Bill—tell the House? Will it be the Finance Bill that was given its Second Reading in the Commons a few days ago which can still be amended, or will it be the next year's Finance Bill? It raises the interesting possibility that it might be for an incoming Conservative government to codify the tax aspects of this legislation. Is that what the Government intend?

It must be wrong for the decisions which surely must have been made to be kept secret from Parliament or delayed until next year. The Bill would then have to be debated and put on the statute book without the tax or financial implications being known. That cannot be right. It would be a gross disservice to couples affected by the Bill.

There are people who are waiting for this Bill to receive Royal Assent in order to register as civil partners. Are they, like the unfortunate small businessmen and women who incorporated at the invitation of the Chancellor, going to register as civil partners one year and discover the financial implications only afterwards? The obvious approach would be to use this year's Finance Bill, although I recognise that that may leave inadequate time for these issues, as well as those covered in this year's Budget proposals, to be properly debated.

Another approach might be for this very important subject matter to be run in the Commons as a separate Finance Bill from the one already introduced. Failing that, and in order to probe the Government's thinking early and in depth in the House, which has so much under-used financial expertise, we could table amendments in Committee to explore these issues. This would force clarification of the Government's thinking and allow detailed discussion of these financial considerations in the House. Subject to what the Minister may say in reply, I reserve the right to do that.

For the Conservative Party, the family remains the most immediate and important group within which people share responsibility for one another's well-being. But families are changing; not all conform to the traditional pattern. We continue to believe that the conventional marriage and family is the best environment in which to bring up children. But many couples choose not to marry and more and more same-sex couples want to take on the shared responsibility of a committed relationship.

It is in all our interests to encourage the voluntary acceptance of such shared responsibilities but in some instances the state actively discourages it. The Bill should help to change that and make some important reforms. Far from undermining marriage the Bill will, we hope, encourage the long-term commitment and mutual support that makes marriage such a benefit to our society.

As I have worked to familiarise myself with the Bill, I have become more and more convinced that civil partnerships should come with a health warning. They are not to be entered into frivolously and they are not for fun. As the Minister has reminded us, they contain rights and responsibilities. They are serious and constitute a legally binding agreement. Getting out of such an agreement will be expensive and painful. We encourage the Government to urge caution when promoting the Bill. Las Vegas is not where we are and not where we want to be.

These civil contracts will, I hope, be extended or adapted to bring mutual security and comfort to spinsters, bachelors, carers and other partnerships who are also disadvantaged by not being able to marry. To these groups, such contracts would bring financial security and peace of mind, particularly in old age. Too many of us live alone; too much of our tax legislation encourages it. Society will benefit greatly if more long-term partnerships are encouraged.

Civil partnerships, of course, differ from marriage. Marriage is a separate and special relationship which we should continue to celebrate and sustain. To recognise civil partnerships is not in any way to denigrate or downgrade marriage. As our leader in another place, Michael Howard, said: It is to recognise and respect the fact that many people want to live their lives in different ways. And it is not the job of the state to put barriers in their way". In the coming weeks, with the support of my distinguished colleagues, the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, we will work hard to make the very best of the Bill. We will table amendments encouraged by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, by Care and by the Solicitors Family Law Association. The devil, as always, is in the detail, but I hope that the Minister will feel encouraged that the Official Opposition support the Civil Partnership Bill. I and my leader in another place do so in principle. We wish it well on its passage through the House.

12.8 p.m.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the Bill. Of course, as with the Conservatives, there will be a conscience vote, but I think that I can predict with little doubt that the vast majority of members of my party—both in your Lordships' House and in the other place—will support the Bill.

As the Minister pointed out, the Bill builds on the Civil Partnerships Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill in 2002. I am speaking in his place today because he has an important commitment in the USA, which was fixed many months ago and which he cannot change. But he will be here for the subsequent stages of the Bill.

Views in the United Kingdom on homosexuality have changed enormously in our lifetimes. Fewer than 40 years ago sexual activity between consenting adult males was a criminal offence. That law was repealed in 1967, to his eternal credit, by Roy Jenkins. The great majority of people in this country as a whole—and, indeed, in your Lordships' House—now recognise that sexual orientation towards the same sex is not a crime, nor is it an illness; it is something that, in all probability, people are born with and cannot be changed.

But we have also moved on from just removing criminal penalties. We have made it illegal to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation, in employment or in the provision of goods and services. The time has now come to take another big step forward: to acknowledge that gay and lesbian people should have the same rights as heterosexuals to enter into a personal relationship recognised by law with the same consequences for taxation, succession to property and pension benefits as marriage. That is what the Bill does in general and why we support it.

I have a few comments on the principles behind the Bill. First, my noble friend Lord Lester's Bill allowed heterosexual couples as well as same-sex couples to enter into civil partnerships. This Bill is limited to same-sex partnerships. I believe that my noble friend's Bill was right on that matter. Some heterosexual couples—perhaps not many—are put off by the historical implications of the word "marriage" but would be willing to enter a legal relationship not described as marriage.

People in that group, even if they are only a few, would have benefited from the possibility of civil partnerships. But I recognise the strength of the argument that heterosexual couples have the alternative of marriage that same-sex couples do not. Therefore the answer may be to develop better legal rights between cohabitees; the current rights of cohabitees on the break-up of the cohabitation being plainly inadequate.

Secondly—this is my personal view and not necessarily that of my colleagues—the provisions for dissolution of civil partnerships are based too closely on existing divorce law. I recognise that that is a controversial view and that many members, both within and outside the gay and lesbian community, would not agree with me. I regret that Parts 1 and 2 of the Family Law Act 1996, which would have made the breakdown of marriage the sole ground for divorce without having to establish fault, were never implemented.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, described divorce as expensive and painful. That is all too true. Removing the need for proof of fault would have made it less expensive and less painful. That provision cannot be applied to marriage in this Bill, but the Bill should have followed the grounds for dissolution in the 1996 Act, which represents in my view an advance on the existing divorce law. Many of those who opposed the 1996 Act provisions did so on religious grounds and would not recognise civil partnerships as having an equivalent validity to begin with and would therefore be unlikely to object to making the dissolution of civil partnerships a simpler matter. I should be interested to know views on that issue both within and outside your Lordships' House.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, speaking on behalf of the Conservative Party, said that pension and tax benefits should be extended not only to those who have a sexual relationship but to members of family and friends living together for purposes of care and companionship and that they too should be covered by the Bill. I cannot agree with that view. There is a case for some form of tax relief and pension benefits for other relationships, but that is another issue and not the issue for the Bill. Tax and pension rights changes are consequential on the Civil Partnership Bill and are not its main purpose.

The purpose of the Bill is to give same-sex couples—who will normally, although, as in the case of marriage, not invariably, be people who are having or have had a long-term sexual relationship—the right to legal and public recognition of their status. That is the issue to which the Bill should be confined.

Financial issues are important to the Bill. Some aspects are either undefined or defective. The effect on tax law is uncertain because it has been left to a future Finance Act. I recognise that it is unlikely to be practicable to make changes in the current Finance Bill. The normal Treasury principle is that the tax law would not be changed until the Bill was enacted and not on the basis of provisions that were merely prospective. If the Government's intention is, as I assume, to treat civil partners in a similar way to spouses for tax purposes, it should be possible for them to make a statement now to that effect. That would clarify matters and help us.

I also hope that the Government will undertake—assuming that they are still in office—to include the necessary legislation in the Finance Act 2005. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to bring the Bill into force before the necessary tax changes have been enacted so that the right to enter into a civil partnership and the consequential tax changes will come into effect simultaneously. That means that even if the changes are in the 2005 Bill, the earliest date for commencement that I can imagine would be in October 2005. Any further delay would put the commencement off further, which would be deeply unfortunate.

Pension issues have given rise to some concern. I shall not go into great detail, because that is a matter for later stages, but I will point out the major issues. Contracted out pension schemes arc now required to make provision for the surviving spouse of a pensioner. The amount of benefit received by the surviving spouse is not dependent on the date of the marriage. But in the case of a civil partnership the survivor's benefit will be paid but based only on the period of pensionable service after the commencement of the Bill in the case of the defined benefits scheme and only on contributions made after the commencement of the Bill in a defined contributions scheme.

That means that if a male employee marries in a conventional marriage shortly after the Bill's commencement, his widow will receive the full spouse's pension provided for by existing pensions legislation. But if that male employee enters into a civil partnership on the same date, the surviving partner is likely to receive much less. We believe that that is unfair, especially as the pensions of married employees have effectively been subsidised by the unmarried in the past. Of course a significant proportion of those who are not married are gay or lesbian.

The main beneficiary of that provision will be the Government, because some 80 per cent of private sector schemes provide already for payment in some circumstances to a surviving unmarried partner of either sex and will have calculated their necessary pension funding on that basis; whereas only a tiny proportion of public service schemes provide similar benefits.

The second point we wish to raise on pensions is that we believe that there should be a general obligation extending to non-contracted out schemes and to non-protected rights under contracted out schemes to provide the same benefits for surviving civil partners as provided by the scheme for surviving spouses.

There remain some more limited issues, which we shall raise in Committee, but in principle, as I said in opening, we extend a warm welcome to the Bill. Your Lordships' House recently passed the Gender Recognition Bill, which affects perhaps some 5,000 people in the United Kingdom. The number of gay and lesbian people who will benefit from this Bill in the United Kingdom must run into hundreds of thousands, at least. This Bill will make life better for those people. It is a Bill that would have been unthinkable 40 or 50 years ago; now we believe that it is a Bill whose time has come.

12.20 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford

My Lords, I, too, very much welcome the Bill. More important than my personal view, however, is the fact that the Church of England, through its official pronouncements, has recognised that at the moment same-sex partnerships are treated very unfairly in a number of ways and that this Bill will rectify a range of injustices in relation to inheritance, pensions, hospital visiting rights and so on.

The official view of the Church of England on this issue can be taken from two sources. The first source is a motion of the General Synod, which voted, first, strongly to reaffirm that marriage is central to the stability and health of human society and warrants a unique place in the law of this country, and, secondly, to recognise that there are issues of hardship and vulnerability for people whose relationships are not based on marriage, which need to be addressed by the creation of new legal rights. That motion was passed by 248 to 27 votes.

The second source is the response of the Archbishop's Council to the Government's consultation document on civil partnership. While reiterating the central place of marriage and the need to enshrine its uniqueness in law, the response went on to say: We support the Government's wish to encourage long-term stable relationships as being more in the interests of society as a whole than a culture of transient or promiscuous relationships. Fair treatment for such relationships within a framework of legal rights and safeguards may well help to promote this objective. We also endorse the Government's intention to reinstate the rights of individuals within same-sex relationships in relation to such matters as protection from domestic violence, the registration of a death and inheritance matters, including tenancy succession. The law no longer reflects current social patterns and needs amendment to remedy injustice". There we can see very strong support from the official announcements of the Church of England to rectify a range of unfair anomalies.

The Government, in paragraph 1.3 of their consultation document, said: It is a matter of public record that the Government has no plans to introduce same-sex marriage". Nevertheless, it is a concern to some in the Churches that the legislation enshrined in the Bill parallels that for marriage at almost every point. There is an ambiguity here that some find worrying, and there are fears that the Bill could undermine the institution of marriage and its special place in the law of this country.

I state those views because they are widely shared in Church circles, and the Government will need to address them. However, I do not myself share them. Properly understood, I believe that this Bill, which makes a place in law for committed partnerships, could strengthen rather than undermine the Christian understanding of marriage. I was very glad to hear the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, that in her view and the view of her party, in no way does the Bill denigrate or downgrade marriage.

I shall say briefly why, from a Christian point of view, I believe that to be the case. God's will is human flourishing. On a Christian understanding, that is most likely to come about in so far as we reflect the undeviating divine faithfulness towards us. So it is that the Church has always seen in the institution of marriage, the love of a husband and wife, a reflection of the totally committed, faithful love of God for humanity.

We know that, as a result of major social changes, the institution of marriage is under very great strain today. Society is characterised by short-term relationships and promiscuity. Clearly, the Church has failed to communicate its sublime vision of faithful loving human relationships as reflecting the divine love; or our conviction that that is what leads to human flourishing both for society and individuals. If the prime responsibility of the Church today is to communicate something of that vision, the possibility of fully committed, faithful same-sex relationships, or covenanted partnerships, will, I believe, strengthen rather than undermine what is at the heart of the Christian faith. as it is reflected in the marriage covenant.

In relation to that point, however, I have one or two questions to raise about the Bill. The first involves Clauses 2 and 6(1)(b), relating to England and Wales, and Clause 89. relating to Scotland. Those clauses would statutorily prevent registration taking place in any premises designed or mainly used for religious purposes or, in Scotland, regarded as a "place of reverence".

That is unsatisfactory for two reasons. First, it infringes the proper freedom of religious authorities to control such premises. As a matter of principle, it is for those authorities and not for the state to decide whether or not their premises should be available to be used for registration purposes—unless there is some overriding national interest, which is very difficult to identify on this issue. Secondly, the ban would deny some couples the possibility of a religious celebration in close proximity to a civil registration, which they may see as a commitment with a religious dimension. For example, they may want to have a civil registration in a church hall and then to move on afterwards to a religious ceremony in a church. Of course, that is not allowed in the Church of England and some other Christian denominations. But there may very well be religious bodies which would not only permit but welcome such a development, and it would be quite wrong to preclude them from having such a ceremony in proximity to a church hall, for example.

My other concern with the Bill is the fact that when the partnership is registered there is no indication of what it is that the couple are committing themselves to. There is no specified wording. There is also no definition of a "civil partnership" contained within the Bill. I link that with another concern that I have, not with this Bill as such, but with what seems to be the Government's proposal in relation to civil marriage—that it will be up to the couple themselves to decide what form of words is used at their civil ceremony. I refer to the Government's document, Civil Registration: Delivering vital change, paragraph 3.4.74 on page 40. I believe that in a civil marriage it is crucial that there is an agreed form of words, making it quite clear that the couple are committing themselves to one another for life, through all the ups and downs of human existence—as the prayer book puts it, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health". Similarly, I would like to see the registration of a civil partnership involving not only a written statement that such a partnership now exists, but some verbal understanding that this is a commitment of two human beings to one another through all the vicissitudes of human existence. I believe that that conforms to the deepest desires and longings of those people who do in fact commit themselves to one another in such a relationship, even though, until this Bill becomes law, there is no way in which their commitment to one another can be legally recognised.

In short, I believe that we need to ensure that in the law of this country, marriage itself is understood as it always has been in both its civil and religious form, as a commitment of two people to one another to the exclusion of all others, through all the ups and downs of human existence, for life. I would also like to see some reflection of that, in non-religious terms, in the understanding of what two people are committing themselves to when they enter into and register their civil partnership.

As I said, I very warmly welcome this Bill. There are some aspects of it, as I have indicated, that a number of Christians will be uneasy with. However, my own conviction is that, properly understood, this Bill could very well support and strengthen the institution of marriage in our society, rather than weaken it.

12.30 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on introducing this important Bill, which will have a profound effect on the lives of many same-sex couples who choose to enter into civil partnerships. It has been very encouraging that, so far, all the speakers have supported the principle of the Bill. I also believe that it is right that the Bill should start its progress in your Lordships' House, following the principles of equity and dignity that were enshrined in the Private Member's Bill promoted by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill; it is a great pity that he cannot be with us today.

There is no question that the law has failed to keep pace with changing social patterns in today's society. The Bill, by giving same-sex couples legal recognition for the first time, goes a long way in remedying many of the injustices that today's society imposes on them. But that legal recognition has taken 50 years to achieve. The timing of the Bill corresponds to the 50th anniversary of the setting up of the Wolfenden committee by the then Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe. Its report recommended the decriminalisation of homosexual behaviour in private between consenting adults. That was a milestone decision. It was put into legislation, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said, some 10 years later. During that time we saw the Lord Chamberlain's ban on plays with homosexual themes lifted, allowing representation in theatre and cinema. But, regrettably, reaction to these and other changes and the growing strength of the gay movement resulted in the introduction in 1988 of the iniquitous Section 28.

Since then, however, the age of consent has been reduced first to 18 and then equalised at 16, gay couples now have the right to adopt and Section 28 is no more. I make these points because it is important to understand that it has taken half a century for Britain to move from being a state that gaoled gay people to one that recognises that there can be love, respect and commitment in gay relationships.

The end of this month sees the fifth anniversary of the bombing of the "Admiral Duncan" pub. So while many of us celebrate this legislation, we must also be aware that there is a cultural battle to win and that homophobic bullying and abuse still takes place. This raises the question of the possible reluctance of some gay couples to be identified and to take the opportunity to enter into civil partnerships for fear of bullying and abuse. In supporting this legislation, I think that it is important that its provisions are available to all who choose to take advantage of them and that we put no barriers in their way.

The briefing from Christian Voice implies that this Bill is all about rights with little about responsibilities. Surely it a key responsibility of all couples, whether same-sex couples or opposite-sex couples, to care for each other and to provide reasonable maintenance for partners and for the children of the family. That is exactly what the Bill does. It is then surely right that with those responsibilities a partner should have the right to benefit from a dead partner's pension, to be recognised under inheritance and intestacy rules, to gain parental responsibility for each other's children, to have visiting rights in hospitals and to attend a partner's funeral.

The Bill addresses many of the inequalities that I have outlined but I have two specific queries. First, can the Minister confirm that the current benefits available to a bereaved spouse will also be available to a bereaved civil partner? The secondly question is about pensions, which has been raised by other noble Lords. There is clear discrimination in the Bill as it provides survivor pensions for same-sex partners in public sector schemes only from the date of their partnership registration. A married couple may be married for only a day but their entire careers are taken into account. I know that this and many other details will be discussed as the Bill progresses through Committee.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford were right to say that the Bill does not undermine marriage, although one must be aware of, and consider sympathetically, the different views that exist. But now for the first time same-sex couples have a way of acknowledging their relationships and establishing welcome stability in those relationships. I think the position is simply summed up in a quote I read in a Scottish newspaper that said: I don't think that right-minded people believe that Jim and Ken in No. 13, in a civil partnership, will undermine the marriage of June and Dave at No. 34", and that is absolutely right.

A further criticism of the Bill is that it does not include cohabiting heterosexual couples, as we heard. Unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, I think that that is right. I was pleased to see that that view is supported by the Solicitors' Family Law Association. I appreciate the Minister explaining why the Bill concentrates on same-sex couples only. But there must be concern that too many cohabiting couples believe that there is such a thing as common law marriage. I must plead ignorance because it is not that many years ago when I believed that there was such a thing. The British Social Attitudes survey in 2000 showed that 59 per cent of cohabitees mistakenly thought that there was some form of common law marriage that gave them rights similar to those enjoyed by husbands and wives. This misconception makes them extremely vulnerable when the relationship ends. This misconception has perpetuated in spite of common law marriage being abandoned in 1753.

I believe that there is an urgent need for reform and I was pleased to hear the Minister say that the Department of Constitutional Affairs is examining this issue. It would be helpful if, at some point during the course of the Bill, we could be told what progress has been made by the department in order to ensure that cohabiting couples have the necessary protections for their future.

There has been great concentration on the financial aspects of the Bill. They are important, but for me the Bill is about justice, equality, security and. most importantly, dignity: the dignity of two people who want a caring, sharing, long-term relationship. In our briefings many instances have been cited of where that dignity has not existed. I want to keep dignity as my theme and to mention one particular case, which is known to me personally and which typifies the indignity, heartbreak and humiliation that can be suffered. A gay couple in Yorkshire had been together for over 40 years and both partners were in their 70s. The union was never accepted by the family of the elder partner. On his admission to hospital with cancer, his lifelong partner was denied visiting rights and heard about his declining health and ultimate death from friends. The family refused his request to attend the funeral and the ultimate humiliation was being evicted from their joint home with no keepsakes and only his memories of their happy years together. I cannot think of any worse treatment of an old man who had devoted his life to his partner.

This legislation is too late for him but what happened to him will be prevented for others. I end with a quote from Lord Justice Ward who said in the Court of Appeal that: to distinguish between same-sex and opposite sex-couples proclaims … that society judges their relationship to be less worthy than the relationship between members of the opposite sex. The fundamental human dignity of the same-sex couple is severely and palpably affected by that distinction". This Bill removes that distinction and restores their dignity.

12.38 p.m.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, the public will struggle to understand how it is that the Government can say that they are opposed to same-sex marriage and at the same time bring forward this Bill. I realise that I am probably in a very small minority of noble Lords who are going to oppose the Bill. I have already spoken to the Minister and told her. She understands and we both understand each other's position.

The Government have stated many times, even in recent months when they knew that the Bill was about to be introduced, that they do not intend to legalise same-sex marriage. Indeed the Minister repeated that today. At Second Reading of the Gender Recognition Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, said so, and at Report he said so and in response to a Question on 11 February this year he also said so. At that time he said: The concept of same-sex marriage is a contradiction in terms, which is why our position is utterly clear: we are against it, and do not intend to promote it or allow it to take place".—[Official Report, 11/02/04; col. 1094–95.] This is clearly meant to be government policy. The Government's consultation document on civil partnerships said: It is a matter of public record that the Government has no plans to introduce same-sex marriage". So apparently we are all agreed. Only gay rights groups want gay marriage. The rest of us are opposed to it.

There is just one problem: despite what has been said already in this debate, I firmly believe that this Bill creates gay marriage. This is a gay marriage Bill. The Government may call it civil partnership but in reality it is a form of marriage for same-sex couples. Indeed, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford said that he would wish the same wording to be used introducing the relationship between same-sex people as is used in marriage.

A civil partnership can only take place between two people of the same sex who are not already married. It must be solemnised in front of a registrar in the presence of two witnesses, exactly like marriage. It will entitle the parties to all of the legal and welfare rights of a married couple. For example, civil partnerships will mean exemption from inheritance tax and capital gains tax. As my noble friend, Lady Wilcox says, the necessary changes will be made in the first available Finance Bill, which seems rather strange. A civil partnership can only be ended by a court order on the same grounds as divorce.

In the other place, the Government have admitted that they believe all the "significant rights and responsibilities" have been addressed to bring them into line with married couples—that is from House of Commons Hansard on 20 October 2003, cols. 491–492. The Explanatory Notes are even more telling—Paragraph 703 makes it clear: The procedures for civil partnership registration in England and Wales are modelled on the proposed procedures for civil marriages outlined in the public consultation document … published by the Office of National Statistics, and the procedures for dissolution, annulment and financial provision on dissolution are modelled on the arrangements for bringing a marriage to an end". The Government may deny this, but I am sure that the man in the street will see this as being a gay marriage. The Government's friends and the media generally seem to call it that. The Guardian on 30 June called civil partnership: legal marriage in all but name". The legal profession is under no illusions either. The leading law journal, the Lawyer, states: The extent of the proposals raises the question as to why the Government did not just extend the right to marry to same-sex couples. The answer must be that to do so would be too controversial. By effectively achieving the same result under a different name, the Government has so far managed to avoid a public backlash.". Even the Labour Party's own website regards this as a form of marriage. The party enthusiasts who run the site, boasting about the Bill, illustrated it with a photograph of the Bill covered with confetti.

So let there be no mistake—this is a gay marriage Bill in all but name. I believe it undermines marriage, despite what the Minister said this morning—and I have the greatest respect for the noble Baroness. That matters because, as the Government state, marriage is, the surest foundation for raising children". Indeed, in paragraph 703 of the Explanatory Notes to the Bill, this is cited as the very reason why heterosexual cohabitees will not be able to enter into a civil partnership. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, also made that point. I believe that is the only thing in this whole argument that the Government have got right. Heterosexual couples can marry at any time, but they choose not to.

The fact that marriage is so important is sufficient reason to oppose this Bill. The Bill sends out the message that marriage—as the fundamental foundation for raising children—can be equated to a homosexual relationship. Marriage is profoundly undermined by this Bill.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester is sorry he cannot be with us today, but I discussed this Bill with him, and he pointed out that nowhere does it specifically define the nature of the commitment into which people are entering. At 11.30 today, I also received a copy of a statement from the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, in which it said: We accept that significant problems are faced by people in a range of relationships, including both same-sex couples (those affected by the Bill) and those in relationships that are not of a sexual nature, such as devoted brothers and sisters. However, we believe these problems which are essentially associated with finance and property matters could be remedied by legal changes other than the introduction of formal civil partnerships which, in the case of same-sex couples, is likely to be seen as a form of same-sex marriage with almost all the same rights as marriage itself. Although I may be alone in this House, I do not think I am alone outside.

Why do I say civil partnership is like marriage? It is because, exactly as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford said, registration takes place in front of two witnesses. They are required to wait 15 days, they have to be over 16 and—except in Scotland—they require parental consent if they are under 18.

Like marriage, those within the prohibited degrees of relationship by consanguinity or affinity are not able to enter. Like marriage, the relationship will have a legal status. No one in an existing marriage or civil partnership will be able to enter into a partnership until the previous relationship is legally dissolved. It is just a mirror image. Like marriage, during the existence of the legal relationship, the two partners will be treated jointly for income-related benefits and for state pensions, and they will be able to gain parental responsibility for each other's children. They will also be recognised for immigration purposes.

Like marriage, civil partnerships can only be ended by a court order, which is granted on the same grounds as most divorces: irretrievable breakdown. Like marriage, on dissolution, the courts will consider arrangements for property division, residence arrangements and contact arrangements with children. Like marriage, on the death of one partner, the other will have the rights to register the death and to claim a survivor pension, eligibility for bereavement benefits and for compensation for fatal accidents or criminal injuries. Also, they will have recognition under inheritance and intestacy rules to tenancy succession rights—real problems for many. The Bill may not use the word "marriage", but the Government have gone to great lengths to ensure that, in almost every other way, it is identical.

It is just wrong to create a parody of marriage for homosexual couples. It is unfair in other directions. Governments always have to decide what rights and privileges are given to non-married households. Clearly where there are children, the state has to intervene to protect their interests. However, when it comes to adult relationships the state has, until comparatively recently, privileged the status of marriage.

If we are to extend all the rights of married couples to others, what should be the criteria? Should they be extended only to those in homosexual relationships?

What of the millions of friends, relatives, brothers and sisters, daughters and mothers who share a house? This has already been referred to several times today. What of the disabled people who share a house with a friend who cares for them?

I have no doubt that there are cases where gay couples have experienced difficulties because their relationship is not recognised by law, and I have great sympathy. We have already heard of some cases. The advocates of this Bill say that it is needed to help people who are in genuine difficulties. But there are many such people in equally difficult, heart-wrenching situations who will not be helped by this Bill. In fact, these people will become increasingly marginalised because of it. We will have two categories of people who have the sort of rights I have mentioned: those who are married and those who are in civil partnerships as same-sex couples.

The theoretical examples are known to everybody: people who move into a flat to care for a friend with a long-term ill illness; a daughter giving up a well-paid job to care for a sick mother; or two sisters who never marry, living together all their lives in the home inherited from their parents. All of these people, when it comes to the death of one or other of them, will face a swingeing inheritance tax bill, which will in most cases lead to increasing dependency on the state by those people. These sorts of cases are appalling and something has to be done about them.

When it comes to inheritance tax, some of us feel the whole thing is wrong. It is outrageous to punish people for having the audacity to escape the reach of the taxman by dying. Every other tax has already been paid on the estate of that person: income tax, capital gains tax, VAT. Yet, if the value of their estate exceeds the inheritance tax threshold, they are taxed again on the same property simply because it was in their possession when they stopped breathing.

Inheritance tax merely punishes families and other beneficiaries, and does a great deal to hinder the continuation of family-owned businesses. It results in many people losing homes and property which have been in their family for years. My noble friend Lady Wilcox tangentially made the point about small and medium-sized businesses asked to incorporate, and subsequently hit by a swingeing tax bill. This will have exactly the same effect.

In addition, all governments of whatever persuasion have encouraged people to save. The savings ratio has long been regarded as an important measure of the underlying health of the economy. Investment in housing has been encouraged—rightly, as it gives a bulwark against dependency once the earnings period of individuals is ended. I have already referred to that and said that, if the Bill goes ahead without looking at the other people that I have mentioned, there will be greater dependency. Is that right? Is it fair? Is it just?

The Treasury records inheritance tax revenue for 2002–03 as £2.4 billion. That actually represents approximately 0.6 per cent of the total tax take. I could make all sorts of references to people who have done in-depth studies of the effects of inheritance tax, the tax yields and the cost but, in the interests of time, I shall not go through them. However, we must recognise that it is disproportionately heavy for some people. The obvious solution to all the problems caused by inheritance tax is to abolish it altogether. An inheritance tax abolition Bill would be much more popular and benefit many more people than the Civil Partnership Bill, and would prevent hardship for many more people.

If the Bill is to become law, it must be amended radically to benefit far more people. There are many non-sexual relationships where people depend on each other for companionship, as has already been dealt with, and share the costs of living, which has not. It is obviously cheaper for two to live together than separately. The Bill does nothing for such people, however. According to the 2001 census, fewer than 80,000 people live as part of a same-sex couple, whereas 4.6 million people live together in non-sexual co-dependent relationships—almost 60 times as many.

I hate taking issue with the Minister, but the government estimates, in an answer to my noble friend Lady Carnegy, who is no longer in her place, are that between 5 per cent and 10 per cent of homosexual couples would want to get involved in civil partnerships. According to footnote 3 on page 108 of the Explanatory Notes to the Bill, the figure is 3.3 per cent. That means that 96.7 per cent of homosexuals in the UK will not register a civil partnership, in the Government's own estimation. How can we justify spending all this parliamentary time on a Bill containing 196 clauses and 22 schedules, lasting 258 pages, which will take eight days in Grand Committee?

The Bill is hardly modest. We are fundamentally rewriting the entire basis of our family law, pension law and taxation law. The reason for doing so is not to benefit deserving people in situations that they cannot get out of, in many cases. If it were, house sharers not in a sexual relationship would be included. The Bill is not inclusive; it creates yet more fragmentation and discrimination. It is wrong.

The Bill opens a Pandora's box.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, just before we came into the Chamber, the noble Baroness reminded me that, even though I did not and would not agree with her, I should keep to nine minutes. She has taken 15 minutes, which is a long time over the ration.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, I apologise. I mentioned to the Minister before I came into the Chamber that I would obviously be in a very small minority and felt that I had to put the opposing case. I am sorry to have taken so much time.

Some might say that the Bill is only small and introduces only a small change. A rudder is only a small part of a ship but, like a rudder, the Bill will steer the direction of public policy into completely uncharted waters. I will return to those issues and many more in Grand Committee.

12.54 p.m.

Lord Alli

My Lords, I want to say how much I welcome the Bill. After I joined this House, the first major debate in which I participated was on 13 April 1999. I stood up at 10.29 p.m. to make my first major speech in the House. The subject was the equalisation of the age of consent. I shall let the Minister deal with her phone; I know that she wishes to undermine my arguments.

I sat through many speeches about gay men and women—noble Lords may recall some of them—referring to us as sick, abnormal, unnatural and ruined. I remember starting my speech. Bravely —some would say naively—I stood up and said that I was 34 and proud to be gay, and that I was gay when I was 24, 20, 19, 18, 17 and 16. Hooked around me, and I felt very vulnerable—but there was also a huge warmth in the House that night from colleagues all around it. I ended my speech by saying: In tonight's vote I should like your Lordships to speak out for me and millions like me, not because you agree or disagree", with who I am or, because you approve or disapprove", of what I do, but because if you do not protect me in this House you protect no one".—[Official Report, 13/4/99; col. 738.] We lost that vote, and I walked away from this Chamber feeling pretty wretched.

That was almost five years ago to the day. We have travelled such a long way since then. We have seen the equalisation of the age of consent, albeit with the use of the Parliament Act. We have seen anti-discrimination laws implemented in the workplace and in the military. We have seen same-sex couples given the opportunity to help children through adoption. Only a short time ago, we saw the repeal of Section 28. I am most proud that, since the equalisation of the age of consent, all those measures went through with your Lordships' consent and not with the use of the Parliament Act. I want to pay tribute to this House, because it has undergone a remarkable journey, and I believe that many young people will look at this place as being more relevant due to the steps that it has taken over the past few years.

There has also been a remarkable journey for the party in opposition. Michael Howard, only a few months ago in his "British dream" speech, said that he would support the Civil Partnership Bill and believed that it made important reforms. The noble Baroness on that party's Front Bench also told us that he talked about removing the barriers that the state puts up to stop civil partnerships. It is also remarkable when the Daily Telegraph, on 25 November last year in an editorial, said that, there is no good reason why a homosexual man or woman bereaved after a decade of faithful union should face the additional burden of selling a home to meet death duties when a partner dies". That point was amply illustrated by the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton. The editorial went on to give its unequivocal support for civil partnerships.

I cannot tell the House what the Bill will mean to many gay men and women, in terms of the relief that at last we might find some kind of recognition by the state, and therefore society as a whole, for our relationships. We will no longer have to think of our loved ones being turned out of the houses that they share with us. We will no longer have to suffer the indignity of seeing ourselves removed from hospitals, while relatives who have barely been on speaking terms with our partners make decisions over medical treatment. This is truly a good Bill.

I cannot say whether or not I will be a beneficiary of this Bill—after all, a boy does like to be asked.

Noble Lords


Lord Alli

My Lords, I have received no such proposal. However, I have been with my partner for 22 years. In fact, next month we celebrate 23 years together. This legislation might allow us to benefit from what straight couples tip and down the country can do. We can if we wish register our union, not because of the fiscal benefits, important as they may be, and not only because of the protections that we wish to give each other, but because we want our partnership recognised by the state and elevated above friendships or close acquaintances. We would do it because we loved each other and we wanted, as the right reverend Prelate stressed, a lifelong relationship. The Bill is about that, recognising the special different status of committed, loving same-sex relationships and giving them legal protection on that basis.

There will still be those who will oppose the Bill. They will talk about being sympathetic and, indeed, claim not to be homophobic. We know who they are—they have voted against every piece of legislation that I have listed. They will abuse two legitimate concerns to undermine the Bill. The first notion, of course, is that it will undermine marriage. In countries where there is gay marriage or civil partnership, there is certainly no evidence to suggest that it does that. In fact, there is evidence to suggest the reverse. More importantly—I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford—it seems illogical to argue that something that encourages stability in society should somehow undermine marriage.

The second argument to be deployed will be, "We're very pleased to give these rights to the gay community, but we should see a way of extending beyond the gay community to others—to sisters, to brothers or to a carer. Should they not be granted the same protection?" That is a seductive argument, but it is not an issue for this Bill. Those are legitimate questions for the Government, but this Bill is not the place for those arguments. They should be considered perhaps in the context of the family and domestic partnership Bill. So should issues relating to cohabiting couples, on which I know that the Government are currently working. I was pleased to hear from the Minister of the work that is being done in the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

I look forward to the Committee stage. I thank the Minister for the work that she has done on this Bill. I thank my colleagues in the Government who have produced a first-class Bill. Many in the gay community have waited literally a lifetime to see this Bill come forward and I hope that it will be enacted soon.

1.1 p.m.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, it gives me real pleasure to take part in this debate today and to support the Bill in principle. I begin by expressing my sadness that the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, was unable to be here today for very good reasons. I pay tribute to him, because he has championed civil partnerships. It is probably because of him in large part that we are where we are today.

The noble Lord gave us, by way of his Private Member's Bill in January 2002, the opportunity to consider in this House both the principle and the practicalities of civil partnerships. In order to avoid doubt, particularly outside your Lordships' House, I want to make it clear that I worked closely with colleagues in the shadow Cabinet at that time, including our leader, Michael Howard, to consider the Conservative Party view. Even then—two years ago—our view was very positive. While we did not want to see the institution of marriage undermined, I stated then, with the approval of the shadow Cabinet, that in the case of those who cannot marry, we should confront any form of discrimination that compromised mutual respect and commitment within a stable and loving relationship for no good reason. I am irritated that the media, in particular, and even some colleagues in another place, are treating this subject as a new idea, given that your Lordships considered it all that time ago. We clearly need to improve the PR of your Lordships' House.

I reiterate what my colleagues and I said then about marriage, because it is still right now. Many one-parent families, as well as cohabiting couples, bring up children incredibly well and create homes as loving and as stable as those offered by married couples. However, figures show that the commitment of marriage increases stability. As the Office for National Statistics has stated, recent research has shown that children born to cohabiting couples are twice as likely to see their parents separate as children born within marriage. Our support for marriage therefore stems not from dogma or religious values. Indeed, while many of us marry in religious ceremonies which combine a civic and spiritual bond, more than half of us choose to marry in register offices with no religious content in the ceremony. In any event, many would argue that politicians should not preach nor pry into the private reasons for entering a marriage. Simply put, our support for marriage stems from the increasingly available evidence that marriage has significant benefits for present and future generations.

However, the Bill provides us with the opportunity seriously to consider the rights of those who are not able to marry—those couples who do not have the choice; that is, 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 rights and responsibilities within a coherent framework.

In addition to those economic rights and responsibilities within a union, the Bill addresses issues that test the emotional strength and heart of a relationship. Those include the right of action in respect of a fatal accident; the right to register the death of a partner; and the provision for health and welfare of a partner without capacity to act. 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.

I agree with those noble Lords who said that the Bill will not undermine marriage. Indeed, considerable evidence from similar legislation in other countries shows that, far from undermining marriage, quite the opposite is the case. I remember that I raised that concern during the debate on the Private Member's Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, but he was able to provide us with considerable information on that evidence. More recent evidence from Denmark, Norway and other countries shows that that kind of framework can assist in supporting the institution of marriage.

One of my main concerns about this Bill and that of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, is their narrow remit. They confer rights and responsibilities only on same-sex couples. However, after much consideration of this important issue—most, if not all, noble Lords have referred to it today—I have concluded that it is a subject for another Bill. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alli, on that; it is a separate issue.

Many different kinds of relationship need similar support. I discussed them at some length yesterday with Ben Summerskill of Stonewall. Stonewall has stated, quite clearly, that it has, sympathy with people whose lives are entwined but who are not in a sexual relationship. This is particularly the case in relation to a shared home and inheritance tax". However, I agree with Stonewall when it states that, we strongly believe that the package of rights and responsibilities contained within the Bill, when taken as a whole, are unsuitable for people such as siblings or carers. Rules governing issues such as formation and dissolution together with the possibility of more than two people being involved (e.g. three siblings)"— how would one legislate for that situation through this Bill?— mean that the issue should be considered separately". I am pleased to learn that the Government are already looking at that issue. My noble friend Lady Wilcox expressed the Conservative Party view that we should look at those areas in this Bill. In that case, I look forward to considering any amendments that we put forward to confront that difficult problem, but it will be hard to convince me that it will work in the framework of this Bill.

On unmarried heterosexual couples, I have already said that we support the institution of marriage and that the Bill does not undermine it. However, unmarried heterosexual couples have the choice to marry. There is an important job to be done—I say it without wishing to be patronizing—in educating and informing the ever-growing number of heterosexual couples who choose not to marry and who think that they have "common law rights", but that is for another time. Indeed, the Minister referred to the myth of common law marriage. Many of those couples believe that they enjoy the same rights and responsibilities as those who are married just because they cohabit. That is particularly important when it comes to children of cohabiting couples. I know that this is a debate not for this Bill but for another day. However, I entirely agree with the Solicitors' Family Law Association when it states: We strongly believe that urgent reform is needed to the law on cohabitation to meet the needs of the growing numbers of unmarried couples who cannot, or do not want to … formalise their relationships by marriage and also to protect the partners in same-sex relationships who do not register a civil partnership". That latter point may be less of a priority because under the Bill there will be a choice for same-sex couples to enter a partnership.

In conclusion, in April 2000, I wrote a paper on family policy for discussion and debate among Conservative Party members throughout the United Kingdom. In that paper, I posed the questions: Should the family, for the purposes of family law, taxes and benefits, also include people, whether of the same gender or not, who choose to live together in a stable relationship and share in the home economy?". This might include, say, two sisters who choose to cohabit together with an elderly relative in their care or a couple in a homosexual relationship. One example I gave of a radical approach to these questions was the French institution, PACS; the Pacte Civil de Solidarité. This allows two people to register their union and then three years later to enjoy some of the legal benefits of marriage.

This system is not an alternative or an equivalent to marriage, it simply enables people who have relied on one another through life to share rights to their property and assets. Feedback from the paper I wrote across the United Kingdom found among those in the Conservative Party a genuine and widespread will further to consider these matters in a positive way.

So four years on, I am pleased that we are here having this Second Reading debate on the Bill in your Lordships' House. While its details require further consideration and debate, I am proud to support its principle. I agree with what the right reverent Prelate the Bishop of Oxford said about the need to support, in any which way we can, commitment and stability in a loving relationship.

The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said that 40 or 50 years ago such a Bill could not have been even thought of. Four years ago, when I wrote that paper about the possibility of rights and responsibilities for same-sex couples for the Conservative Party, I was incredibly nervous about this going out to the party at large. We have come a long way and I am very proud of that.

1.12 p.m.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, I do not welcome the Bill. I strongly sympathise with some of the comments made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Wilcox and Lady O'Cathain.

I should not have the objections I do to giving the rights which the Bill gives to same-sex partners if common decency had prevailed in giving some of those rights also to same-sex persons such as mother and daughter, or two sisters, or two brothers, or an aunt and niece and to opposite sex persons such as a brother and sister, or a father and daughter who set up house together and where, for example, great hardship may be caused when on the death of one the other has to pay death duties or inheritance tax, whatever it is now called.

Why should gays and lesbians be cushioned against those hardships and them not? The Government have gone out of their way in Schedule 1 to this long and complicated Bill to make absolutely certain that only same-sex couples who are outwith their list of prohibited degrees of kindred and affinity can benefit from it.

Perhaps the Government think there are more gay and lesbian votes for them in the next election than from those in the categories I have mentioned. And no doubt the Treasury is less than enthusiastic about postponing the receipt of any more inheritance tax or any other sort of tax. I think the Government are paying tribute to the great god of expediency, the god of governments, whose worship drove my father from the Conservative Benches on to the Cross Benches nearly hall a century ago.

This is a bad Bill and should be drastically amended along the lines I have suggested, if it is possible to do so. If it is not possible, which may be the case, the Government should lose no time in introducing legislation to effect the changes I have mentioned.

1.15 p.m.

Baroness Rendell of Babergh

My Lords, the long awaited Civil Partnership Bill will bring great happiness to those same-sex partners who have wondered if they will live long enough to obtain what they see as their right. Noble Lords will have received a large post-bag from such people and few letters they get will be more reasonable, more level-headed and, I think I may say, more moving.

Several opinions from gay people were quoted in this House when the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, introduced his Private Member's Bill on this same subject two years ago. Since then, I have received many letters from gay and lesbian people living in a committed same-sex relationship writing of their anxieties and their distress. When the Bill becomes law, these will be removed, as will those of all same-sex couples who register.

Under the Bill, members of public service pension schemes will be entitled to survivor benefits for registered same-sex partners in the same way as for a widow or widower. Same-sex partners will no longer pay inheritance tax on assets passed on after death. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has said, a man or woman in a partnership who is in a pension scheme will not be able to register his or her partnership until the Bill is enacted and their previous period of partnership will not count as part of their pensionable service. Is not the effectiveness of the Bill reduced by failing to backdate the entitlement to the beginning of the employment relationship or of the partnership relationship if later than the former? Is it not making for inequalities? A married person's pensionable service counts from the time of its commencement.

Same-sex partners will be able to act as each other's next of kin in a situation when one is seriously ill in hospital, having therefore the right to make resuscitation decisions, for instance, and when the time comes, register a partner's death. Are we to assume that once a same-sex couple have signed a document in front of a registrar and two witnesses, or some other form of public ceremony, their partnership will be officially recognised to such a degree that the hospital authorities will regard them as next of kin to each other? Will they have to produce for inspection their registration document?

A wife or husband is not required to produce their marriage licence, or in any other way prove they are next of kin in these circumstances. Will those in civil partnerships be treated in the same way? The term "next of kin" should be defined and given legal meaning. As things now stand, even after registration of a civil partnership, some devout hospital staff, on their Church's or faith's instructions, may feel obliged to disregard same-sex relationships, officially sanctioned or not.

And on this question, the fact must be recognised that a large number of gay and lesbian people are still reluctant to come out of the closet. In many areas of society and of the workplace, openly declaring one's sexual orientation is a risky business. Coming out with it may lead to verbal or even physical violence or to various hate crimes or, sometimes as bad, to becoming the butt of offensive jokes. This diffidence on the part of gay people has a particular relevance in the proposed form of civil registration. Public access to the registration may place some people at risk. Should not some measure be devised in which access to names can be kept confidential where those in the civil partnerships wish for privacy and confidentiality?

Conversely, the Bill makes no provision for those wishing to register a civil partnership having a ceremony corresponding to that of a civil marriage. In many respects, the Bill is providing something very close to a civil marriage, unwelcome though this may be to many people. One wonders if the distinction is not largely in the minds of those who drafted the Bill since the only differences seem to be that the term "spouse" is to be avoided, the concept of "bigamy" is being substituted for new "offences of perjury", and there are some pension discrepancies. Moreover, when the Bill is enacted, civil partners will not be able to be compelled to give evidence in court against each other—exactly as in marriage. The dissolution of a partnership is very like the dissolving of a marriage. Unlike the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, I see no harm in this, but I would like to have the matter clarified. There is a strong emphasis in the Bill that anything in the nature of a religious service should be avoided when registering. Several gay people have written to me pointing out that they would like their partnership to be recognised with more gravity and formality, and some of them asked for a religious service. Being gay does not turn someone into an atheist. Many homosexual and lesbian people are deeply religious, as we have seen in a number of instances lately, and would like to feel their commitment to each other was made in the sight of God as well as man.

The consultation paper, published in June 2003, accepts the argument from human rights that there must be some compelling reason to deny rights and duties to one form of partnership if they are awarded to another, but no adequate reason is put forward. United Kingdom law already accepts the marital status of couples from countries such as Sri Lanka and Canada, where the law supports same-sex marriage. It is surely difficult to accept some married couples and not others. Three European countries, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, have registered partnerships with similar rights and responsibilities to civil marriage, while three more, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, now have same-sex marriage. The United Kingdom will be obliged to accept these marriages to fulfil the requirements of freedom of movement within the EU. Can my noble friend the Minister tell the House in what fundamental sense proposed civil partnerships will differ from civil marriage, except in that one form was designed for heterosexuals and the other for same-sex couples?

In 1836, when the Marriage Act, which let in civil marriage was debated in another place, Members were more concerned by the idea of people wandering from parish to parish to be married, a real fear of banns being dispensed with and by "dissenters"—I quote—being removed from the necessity of being married by a Church of England clergyman, than by the prospect of weddings without the benefit of clergy. To us today, all this seems antediluvian and a cause for wonder, as the general fear of same-sex unions will seem to everyone in the future.

When it becomes law, this Bill will do more for gay and lesbian people than give their unions legal status. It will help to raise their profiles in a world of predominantly mixed-sex partnerships by setting them firmly in that world and drawing them in from the fringe. Unfortunately, mixed-sex couples living together feel discriminated against, in that no civil registration partnership provision is made for them. The answer they usually receive, regardless of the fact that they may be biased against marriage on principle, is that if they want the benefits awarded to same-sex couples there is nothing to stop them marrying. But what of sisters sharing a home, as many noble Lords have pointed out, or a brother and sister, or a disabled or elderly person with an unrelated carer? Usually, in our present-day world, such people are getting on in years but are none the less anxious, rather more so, for a change in the law to provide for them. We must hope for future legislation, and not too long deferred, to redress these inequalities.

1.23 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I support this Bill, because it is really a matter of liberty. I accept the arguments put forward by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford on the necessity for the Bill and its overarching Christian substance.

Part of the problem is that the Christian Church has been in the most appalling muddle over homosexuality ever since it was founded. The Old Testament says "do not eat lobster", "do not eat crab", and "stone adulterers to death". If we were to do so, I suspect it would have the same effect on the countryside as the Black Death. God spoke to Abraham, or so we assume, six hundred years after it is assumed to have happened. Abraham changed the spelling of his name, his wife could have children at the age of 99, and they could then go and inhabit the best piece of real estate on the Eastern Mediterranean littoral. Not unsurprisingly, Abraham said "Yippee. What's the catch?" God replied: "Chop off the end of your penis with a stone axe and those of all your 10,000 slaves as well". This is called the authority of the Old Testament.

The Old Testament accepts Lot's polygamy. Jesus was completely silent upon homosexuality. St Paul could be classed as being hung up on it. The New Testament condones slavery. The moral authority for what has been accepted for 150 years or so all started, it appears, with the great papacies, in the 11th and 12th centuries, of Gregory VI, who started to establish the discipline and the centralising attitude of the papacy over most of western Europe. He classed sodomites in the same group as Jews, heretics and lepers.

The noble and much-loved late Lord Hailsham had a story of a French friend of his who said to him: On sait très bien ce qui est arrivé à Sodome, mais qu'est-ce qu'on a fait à Gomorrhe alors?", assuming that people knew what actually happened at Sodom. Well, they did not, as the Church could not make up its mind. Luther, of course, got in a terrible rage about sodomy, because he said it was all to do with celibate priests in Rome. Funnily enough, the Spanish Inquisition also burnt 150 sodomites without the benefit of strangulation as well as heretics, because it was classed as heresy. There was a wonderful Venetian journalist-editor who wrote a thundering Sun-like leader in a local newspaper in 1508, blaming the catastrophic defeat of the Venetians in some battle upon randy nuns and Venetian sodomites. So one can show that the attitude on homosexuality up until very recently was based on a series of slightly hysterical myths.

So what does this Bill really do? It arises partly because stable relationships are better than non-stable relationships, and should be encouraged, but mainly because, 10 or so years ago, the tax relationship between husband and wife changed, and now we have a desire for tax equality. I agree with my noble friend Lady O'Cathain that this Bill is concerned with death duties. There is a lovely thing in this Bill, which I had noted but had forgotten to mention. For some reason, the Biblical prohibition on close relationships is included in the Bill. Why? I cannot understand why. But I think I do. I think it is because I cannot register my son as my catamite and then hand on the whole of my property to him without death duties. When I first heard of the Bill, I thought "Yippee. That is a frightfully good idea". But one cannot do that. So it is the problem of death duties which makes it even more difficult to sustain.

I welcome this Bill because I think it is civilised, but as your Lordships can see, I find quite a lot which is amusing, ironical and open to mockery about the reasons why it has arisen, and the reasons why it is actually necessary.

1.29 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, in supporting the Bill, I draw to the attention of the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, the fact that Ezekiel says that the sin of Sodom and her daughters is that they, had pride of wealth and food in plenty, comfort and ease, and yet she never helped the poor and the wretched". It is not the sin that was often ascribed to them.

Now let thy servant depart in peace, since I see that at least one of the battles that I have fought is nearly won. I have been fighting for a provision such as this since the 1960s, when John Robinson, the former Bishop of Woolwich, and I were among the founders of the Sexual Law Reform Society.

Since then I have not given that cause the time that it deserves, but my support for the principle has never wavered, not least because I knew that it was important for "straights" to be signed up in the cause of justice. Not even the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, who is no longer in his place. and who once pilloried me in public life as representing the archetype of Lust in the seven deadly sins, has ever thought of me as gay, except in the old-fashioned sense.

First, I like the name of the Bill because, as a respecter of the English language no less than as an Anglican priest, I would find it intolerable to call the unions with which we are dealing "marriages". A marriage is a very different thing.

Secondly. I suspect that, unlike most of the Bills that come to your Lordships' House these days, this one needs little amendment. I certainly would resist the suggestions made by the Mayor of London among others that the Bill should be extended to all unmarried couples regardless of sexuality. The Bill is about giving civil rights to those who have entered long-term or permanent commitments to each other, not just those who are "having it off", if noble Lords will permit the phrase. Nor, I agree with the Government, is this the Bill to regulate non-sexual home-sharers. I agree entirely that that is necessary, and I hope that the Government will provide a Bill for it shortly, but this is not the place.

The one matter that needs amendment was mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. It is wrong to rule out premises used for religious services, or in Scotland "places of reverence"—I am fascinated by the difference in nomenclature—as premises for registration. On the contrary, it is important that reverence enters into the picture and that the religious authorities, not the state, decide what ceremonies they will or will not entertain. I am delighted to hear from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford that the Bench of Bishops will take up that point. If they do, they will certainly have my support.

It is pleasant for once to make a Second Reading speech in this House under this Government for which one can give three cheers rather than the usual one and a half, and my party and I do that wholeheartedly today.

1.32 p.m.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, in a debate on 17 March in your Lordships' House I drew attention to the injustice that current law imposes on same-sex couples. I pointed out that those injustices could be put right by a civil partnerships Bill and called for its early introduction. Here we are, six weeks later, at its Second Reading. It would be churlish of me not to thank the Minister and congratulate her on her quick response and good service.

In that debate I gave an example of the discrimination and injustice suffered by a same-sex couple and how the Bill would put that right—by solving the practical problems mentioned by other noble Lords. There is no need for me to repeat those issues, as they have been most eloquently dealt with by my noble friends, most of whom are at our party meeting, which is why they are not here. I agree with other noble Lords that recognising these issues and laying down the rights, responsibilities and procedures for couples who wish to share a home, share their lives and perhaps bring up children together, will make a difference to their lives. That is to be welcomed.

I wish to emphasise one point that has not been sufficiently recognised or debated: the contribution that the Bill makes to equality. Equality across a whole range of issues is important, not only for social reasons but also because we now know that economic prosperity goes together with equality and the social cohesion that it inspires. Indeed, I think that that view of economics unites many noble Lords on these Benches, which is perhaps why we are sitting on this side and not the other.

We used to be told that a strong economy meant inequality; we now know better. We know that one of the features of a successful company is that it recognises the need for equality. That absence of discrimination and the belief in equality enables companies to build up a first-class staff and to keep them. I am surprised that the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, with her experience of business. did not mention that when she spoke about the economy, although she did so briefly. She knows that good companies purposely create a diverse workforce to deal with the complex supply chain on which they depend and to match the diversity of their customers. Those companies encourage a better balance between gender, ethnicity, disability, age and sexual orientation in their workforce in order to deal better with their customers and suppliers. We now know that that leads to tangible benefits. That is why commitment to equality is so important to our economy.

The Bill is one more small contribution to the social cohesion through equality that is central to our country's well-being and to our economy. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind, and I wish the Bill every success.

1.36 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, one never can tell how soon one will have to speak. Some noble Lords' speeches last 15 minutes and others' for two. With the ink still wet on my notes, I shall start by saying that I am relieved to see the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough in his place. I shall leave it to him to address the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, who, I hope, will be back in his place when the right reverend Prelate comes to speak—in around seven and a half minutes.

There is a religious dimension to this discussion and the Bill. It is one that some of us find quite clear. I approach the Bill with less enthusiasm than its warmest supporters and less revulsion than its greatest opponents—revulsion is perhaps the wrong word. I am reconciled to it, because the central issue is what is love. That is what Christianity is about; it is what life is about; and it is what makes the world turn round. In this country we are handicapped by having only one word for love, and we package many different emotions into it—we love ice cream, we love our wives, we love our country and so on.

In particular, we fail to distinguish between two sorts of love. In the authorised version St Paul reminded us that, the spirit lusts against the flesh and the flesh against the spirit". Marriage embraces both; it is the paradigm that most of us consider when we look at the Bill, and to which I am sure many heterosexual couples genuinely aspire. I would not wish to obstruct the protection or encouragement of true love. It is wrong to assume that true love cannot exist between couples of the same sex and need not necessarily be expressed carnally by them. The state should not enter into that aspect of the relation between them. Those who favour love as the guiding principle of this world should try to provide an opportunity for the spirit to be active in a secure environment, not threatened by financial and social penalties, which are attracted at present to such relationships not recognised in law.

That is a cloudy way of saying that. Although I recognise the difficulties that many of my noble friends and co-religionists have with this legislation, its positive effects make it worth accepting the penalties, as we see it, of what it does negatively in its relationship to the rest of society.

Having said that, the Bill is surprising in many respects. To start with, the Children Bill, which deals with the circumstances of the entire population at one stage of their life, is 40 pages long. This Bill, as my noble friend Lady O'Cathain has demonstrated, affects 3.3 per cent of cohabiting heterosexual partnerships. If you apply national statistics to that, you get to a figure of about 5,200 people. I forget how many hundred pages the Bill is; I think it is 258 pages long. We seem to be taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut, until we look at the complexity of the matter. As my noble friend Lord Onslow, who is absent, said, the devil is in the detail.

Baroness Wilcox

My Lords, it was me.

Lord Elton

My Lords, it was my most distinguished noble friend on the Front Bench who said that. I do apologise entirely for making a confusion on which I believe it would be impossible for anyone else to venture.

There are also, in spite of the length of the Bill, some surprising omissions. I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, and others, that it is essential that some contracting words should be there. Merely to say, "we are in a partnership", and not to say what the partnership means, is ludicrous. We have a complete motor car and no engine, as far as I can see. That must be put in, I would have thought. I hope that it will be done by the Government but, if not, I am sure that many of us will be willing to make an attempt.

The question of the exclusion of heterosexual couples of different sorts is difficult. I started looking at that issue thinking that they should be included. Then you come to specific relationships where they cannot be. Someone mentioned three sisters. What about the daughter, faithfully giving up her life to her father, as I hope no daughter of mine will have to do? They are all safely married—but I would not want my daughter to sign a contract that she was going to have to be with me until I died, in the knowledge that some wonderful, dashing knight in shining armour might come along when she was 35. There are all sorts of practical objections to doing things that way. The right place to deal with it is in taxation law. There might actually be a lot to be said for a great deal more of this Bill being dealt with in that way. That is something that can be dealt with, no doubt, in Committee.

I am glad to see the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford back in his place, because he had a difficulty over the exclusion of places of religious worship, otherwise described in Scotland, for the ceremony, or celebration, of these contracts. I am sure that the exclusion is made in order to make a gesture in the direction of those who would not like this to be seen as being absolutely parallel with marriage. It does not pose the difficulty that the right reverend Prelate supposes. Only the church is excluded, so the ceremony can take place in the village hall, or the church hall, and the party can then progress to the church. Having been in one failed marriage, and now one extremely successful marriage, the blessing of a civil ceremony, which was all that was available to us at the time, is a wonderful and spiritual experience for those of the faith and should not be belittled. Therefore, I do not see any difficulty in that respect.

The one area in which I have considerable concern regarding the parallel with marriage—here I am on controversial ground—is adoption. It is wrong to present same-sex and heterosexual couples as absolutely on a level with each other for the adoption process. This is another area of legislation in which I have not taken part. and I realise that there are many considerations that I have not mentioned. Prima facie, that distinction ought to be maintained.

I am anxious, after the collapse of two of the preceding speeches, not to speak too briefly. I conclude where I started. It seems to me that those of us who look at this from the point of view of Christian believers must consider whether it advances the cause of love being protected in society. We must recognise that love comes in many sorts and that we do not distinguish them in our vocabulary. I recommend that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford reads my introduction, because what I have just said does not fully explain what I mean, and I do not want to speak any longer.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, does he accept that I did not "collapse", as he put it, and that I merely wrote a short speech. which is the kind of speech that, on the whole, your Lordships approve of?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I entirely approve. I accept what the noble Lord said, and he allows me to conclude on a more elegant note than I just did.

1.45 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Peterborough

My Lords, I am honoured to follow the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and I agree with many of the things that he said about love. I am sorry that I shall disappoint him and not take up cudgels with the noble Earl, Lord Onslow.

I too welcome what the Minister has called the measured response to a recognised need. It has, as she said, been shaped by consultation, including with the Church, and it offers a secular solution and does not seek to weaken the importance of marriage. That is an issue to which I shall return. I find it difficult, speaking at this point in the debate, to add much to the contributions made by many noble Lords, but particularly to that made by my friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. Your Lordships will know that significant groups in the Church have given the Bill a more negative reception than he did. Without necessarily agreeing with all that they say, I want to explain a little hit why I think that they have done so.

Both the Synod, in its discussion on cohabitation, and the Archbishops' Council, in responding to the Government's consultation paper, affirmed the central importance of marriage for the stability and health of human society, but accepted that there are issues of social justice that need to be addressed in the light of the changing patterns of relationship in our society. They argued that it should be done in a way that is consistent with our continuing desire to safeguard the special position of marriage. Since the publication of the Bill, some have argued that by accepting same-sex unions in legislation that mirrors to a great extent the legal protection given to marriage, thereby creating equality in law, will at least cause confusion about the essence of marriage, and would therefore not be consistent with the desire expressed by the council and by the Government.

Others, as my friend the right reverend Prelate has done today, argue that because this proposed partnership is clearly not a marriage, it need not affect the status of marriage in this country. Indeed, by promoting stability, faithfulness and commitment in all relationships, it is supportive of the many principles on which marriage is based.

The Synod's motion and the Archbishops' Council endorsed two of the three principles that the then Bishop of Guildford set out in his speech two years ago in your Lordships' House in debating the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Lester. First, he said: Marriage is a gift from God to the whole of creation … This gift is a benefit to all—married and single alike. Its blessings cascade down the generations". That is a view that has been endorsed by many Members of your Lordships' House today. The Government have made it clear that they do not see the introduction of civil partnerships as undermining marriage. In the consultation paper, they recognised, as others have, the distinctive place of marriage in law, and the need to preserve it. That commitment is honoured in a number of ways in the Bill; a distinctive procedure with no specific wording; a document signed before a civil partnership registrar; without religious, or indeed any, defined ceremony. The prohibition from religious premises is again distancing it from marriage. I would take a slightly different viewpoint from that taken by my friend the right reverend Prelate.

The second principle commended by the Bishop of Guildford was that, 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". He added: 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?".—[Official Report, 25/1/02; col. 1721.] In saying that, he moved us from issues of justice about which, I think, we are all agreed to matters of judgment. Many of the issues of hardship and vulnerability relating to those in non-married relationships arise because, in the past, legislators have exercised positive discrimination in favour of marriage. It is not necessarily the case that they discriminated against other relationships; they have discriminated in favour of marriage. I guess that our predecessors did so partly because they felt that they were supporting an institution—indeed, a pattern of relationship—that was beneficial to the flourishing of human beings and of society. In forming that view, they were undoubtedly influenced by a religious—indeed Christian—understanding of marriage. That still pertains, and it is good to see that, in their response to the Select Committee report on religious offences, which we will debate later, the Government state unequivocally: Religious values do indeed still play a significant part in shaping social values, perhaps increasingly so". Because I feel that the point has not been made, I shall give a little time to thinking about the positive discrimination in favour of marriage. I guess that our predecessors did that because they recognised the stark reality of the position of, say, a widow who, having devoted her life to the upbringing of a family, needed the protection of the law to enable her to remain in the family home without penalty and to benefit from her husband's pension after his death. Positive discrimination had a just purpose, but it also had a didactic purpose.

In the different circumstances of our present society, it is clearly right that protection should be extended to those in the range of equally devoted relationships in which each has contributed to the well-being of the other and their dependants. However, in the message that we give to society, it will remain a matter of judgment whether the extension of positive discrimination by creating a largely undefined or, perhaps, self-defined relationship will be beneficial to society, as well as to the individuals concerned. Some have therefore argued that the issues of justice will be better addressed in other ways—reference has already been made to the Roman Catholic bishops—because they feel that the covert message of the development is an equivalence between marriage and other relationships.

Although I fully share the desire to support marriage—the Government have made it clear that it is not their intention to create such equivalence, except in issues of discrimination—I believe that how the move will be seen in practice is another matter. We must face the question of whether the provision of civil partnerships will weaken the status of marriage or the commitment to it in our society, as others have indicated. As other noble Lords have said, the evidence from other European societies suggests that it will not. However, many hold the contrary view, and, on the admittedly unreliable evidence of my postbag, the protagonists of both viewpoints, many of them Christian, are equally vocal and clear about the veracity of their judgment.

Those who feel that the move will undermine the unique status of marriage acknowledge that law shapes people's understandings and behaviour. In their view, creating equality in law with marriage gives a signal to society that marriage and civil partnerships are equally important to the well-being of society. My brother bishop, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, has argued the contrary view, and I, personally, have some sympathy with it. However, if a bishop may admit to such a failing, I find myself to be slightly agnostic on the matter. Having listened carefully to both sides, I do not know which will prove in the event to be right. It remains a matter of difficult judgment. It deals with people's attitudes, which are always unpredictable. Where there is a degree of uncertainty, we should err on the side of caution, without denying the problems that genuinely exist. It is for that reason that I welcome the measured response that the Government have put before us.

My time is up, but I shall make two further comments. First, I sympathise with those, including many from the gay community, who have expressed concern that, in contrast to the general understanding of the purposes of marriage, the purposes of a civil partnership are not explained. That ambiguity about the nature and purpose of the relationship means that an emphasis on rights is not necessarily balanced with an equal emphasis on responsibilities. The commitment is not clear, and nor is the nature of the unreasonable behaviour that might lead to dissolution. Those matters need clarifying.

I agree with those, such as the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, who say that it will not address all cases of discrimination. I have some sympathy with the view of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and others that those matters should be dealt with in another way. Therefore, I give the Bill a cautious welcome, and I hope that some of the issues can be addressed in Committee.

1.56 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I speak in this excellent debate as a foot soldier promoted to second-in-command to support my noble friend Lord Goodhart, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill. I share the regret expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, that he is not standing here instead of me.

What a debate it has been: we had the young gladiator. the noble Lord, Lord Alli; the tried and tested foot soldiers in the battle for equality, the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Gould of Potternewton and Lady Rendell of Babergh; the wisdom of two Members speaking from the Bishops Benches; and the courage and valour in opposition of the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, and the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy. We also had the humanity displayed by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, is his opening sentences, and the little "l" liberalism of the noble Baronesses, Lady Buscombe and Lady Wilcox. We have had an astonishing display of what this House can produce when an important subject is before us. I am not sure that I can live up to what has gone before, but I shall do my best.

As a Liberal Democrat, I welcome the Bill. It reflects our policy, in part at least. As my noble friend Lord Goodhart said, we would have combined the provisions of the Bill with similar provisions for opposite-sex partners, as my noble friend did in his Bill of January 2002. I regret that, in the two years since then, the Government have not been able to introduce a Bill that benefits opposite-sex and same-sex partners. Can the Minister assure us that the Government still intend to work towards that objective and that the study being carried out by the Department for Constitutional Affairs means just that? Bearing in mind the comments made by the noble Baronesses, Lady O'Cathain and Wilcox, and by many others, do the Government intend to turn to the problems of people who live in platonic but nevertheless supportive relationships?

Despite some general reservations, however, I repeat my welcome for the Bill. It will provide a legal framework of basic rights and responsibilities for same-sex couples that will encourage those who wish to do so to live together in stable partnerships for their own benefit, that of their children and of society as a whole. Rather than deal with the Bill in general, I shall concentrate on a few points of dispute raised by lobbyists or during this debate.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford mentioned the worries shared by some Christians. Christian Voice, which says that it is trying to, look at the Civil Partnership Bill with the mind of God", criticises it on several grounds, particularly for harming children, undermining marriage, putting no responsibility on same-sex partners and intending civil partnership to be marriage in all but name. As someone who believes wholeheartedly in the secular state, with freedom of religious belief and observance, I do not subscribe to the view that a particular religious belief should determine how every citizen leads his life.

Same-sex couples can already legally adopt children and take parental responsibility for them. It is therefore for the benefit of the parents, the children and, ultimately, society as a whole, including married people, that the Bill encourages a stable and loving environment for child rearing within a same-sex couple. Nor do I believe that the Bill undermines marriage, although the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, made an impassioned defence of that view. There are two different things: namely. marriage or a partnership recognised by law. The intent of the Bill is to establish that difference.

My next comment may seem to be contrary or illogical in the light of my previous point. However, life is sometimes illogical. Interestingly, the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement wants Clause I amended to ensure that those wishing to be civil partners should declare that they, intend to live in mutual commitment for an indeterminate period". In other words; it wants to impose a duty on people who go forward for civil partnership.

In addition, the LGCM thinks that there should be a solemn declaration of mutual commitment between the parties in the procedure for civil partnership in Clause 8, because that commitment is the essence of the relationship. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford made reference to that, which was of great interest to all noble Lords on these Benches. I am sympathetic to that approach. I am also sympathetic to the suggestion from the LGCM that clauses which statutorily prevent registration of civil partnerships from taking place in premises mainly used for religious ceremonies should be struck from the Bill.

I do not favour the term "gay marriage". The normal definition of marriage simply cannot be massaged to cover same-sex relationships. I do not think that we are ready to redefine that ancient institution, however faulty it sometimes seems to be in practice. However, I do not think that the state should interfere with the authority of those people who govern churches and other religious premises. It may seem appropriate to some—whether or not to the Church of England—to bless civil partners immediately after the registrar has registered the civil partnership in the same building. I think that I am right to say that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford made a similar point.

Finally, there is the major problem of pensions. Clearly, the Bill is open to criticism on grounds of justice and equality. Surviving civil partners will stand to gain only from a deceased person's pension benefits that have accrued since the commencement of the Act that will emerge from the Bill. Those people will receive a smaller pension than surviving spouses. But UNISON says that, surviving partner pensions should be available to all partners who are financially interdependent irrespective of marital status, gender or sexual orientation". I take that very broad statement to be a sensible point of view.

The irony is that many private pension providers already rightly recognise equality between partners and spouses. After all, they pay the same contributions. It seems that it is the public sector that lags behind. In that respect, the Bill seems to be introducing or tolerating prejudice that is not in the spirit of human rights legislation. One cannot help but fear that cost arguments may have prevailed. I hope that the Minister can reassure us on those two points.

I hope that I have not introduced a carping tone into the debate. Like my noble friend Lord Goodhart, I want the Bill to succeed and to play a beneficial role in society. When all is said and done, it is a forward looking and brave Bill. With some modification, it may become better still. Thankful as I am that I shall not have to torture my brain with the legal nitty-gritty in which the Bill abounds, I nevertheless reaffirm my support for it both now and in future stages.

2.4 p.m.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, I wholeheartedly agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, on the extremely high standard of debate in terms of expertise—as always in your Lordships' House—and in terms of wisdom, if I may presume to use the word. In relation to these matters, that is certainly needed.

On listening to the debate almost 40 years after I first entered Parliament, inevitably, I have found myself reflecting on the quite extraordinary change that has taken place in public attitudes to such matters as homosexuality and so forth—indeed, not only outside, but also inside both Houses. By a strange coincidence, my major opponent in the first election that I fought in Worthing was a Mr Anthony Lester. Modesty forbids me to say the result. Indeed, it is sad that for very justified reasons he is unable to be here today. We shall certainly look forward to his contributions at later stages. Since the noble Lord has not followed the elected route, we must recognise the tremendous advantage to our constitution to have an upper House that is appointed.

A Noble Lord

Another debate!

Lord Higgins

Another debate. My Lords, soon after my election, Mr Humphrey Berkeley bravely introduced a Private Member's Bill that resulted in the criminal aspects previously imposed on homosexuals being removed. That was a very important stage in the progress of these matters. Certainly, the Bill being debated today is a major milestone concerning reform in this area.

Of course, these issues involve deeply held views, which is why, as my noble friend Lady Wilcox said, on this side of the House we are having a free vote. I am not entirely clear whether that is true for the other side. Perhaps the Minister could clarify whether that is so. Personally—this is a personal matter to a large extent—I support the Bill, in one way for the most simple of reasons: one must surely be more in favour of stable homosexual relationships than those that are not. I am glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Alli, indicating assent. In some ways, that is a very important aspect of the Bill.

Of course, we shall scrutinise the Bill very carefully at later stages. Alas, hitherto, for various reasons, we have not had an opportunity to discuss it with Ministers. I gather that a huge array of Ministers will appear at later stages. It may be more appropriate to have individual meetings with them on what will undoubtedly be highly technical matters.

Perhaps the main stream of argument that has tended to arise time and again today is whether the Bill will undermine the institution of marriage. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford took the view that that was not the case. My noble friend Lady O'Cathain took a very strong view the other way. Of course, both views are entirely legitimate. As has been pointed out already, there are varying views inside and outside the House. My view is that on balance it will probably support marriage rather than otherwise.

There has also been a considerable amount of discussion on whether the right to engage in a civil partnership should be extended to heterosexual couples. On listening to the debate, that seems to be the one thing that would undermine the institution of marriage. Therefore I agree strongly with the views expressed by the Government. I am reinforced in that view because it is also the opposite of that expressed by the Mayor of London.

I raise now a number of other points which are more in my normal field. Leaving on one side the issues I have just mentioned, I turn to the question of taxation and social security provisions. The Inland Revenue has issued a mysterious press release stating that the provisions relating to this Bill would be set out in the next available Finance Bill. We do not have the remotest idea what that means. It could refer to the Finance Bill which received its Second Reading a few days ago or it could mean the one that will be brought forward after the next Budget. I hope that the Minister can give us a clear answer here. However, it seems to me important that the provisions should be included in the Finance Bill now before the Commons because it will be quite absurd for us to have to debate the Bill without knowing the situation with regard to taxation. Alternatively, perhaps the suggestion made by my noble friend Lady Wilcox should be taken up and a separate Finance Bill introduced at the same time.

Perhaps I am being overly optimistic, but I assume that the clauses related to this Bill are in draft form. If neither of the alternatives I have proposed are acceptable to the Government, then before we consider the Bill in detail they certainly ought to publish the clauses which they are going to put forward in draft form.

I refer briefly to an important point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough on the extent to which there are incentives to marriage in our fiscal and social security system, and the extent to which they will be duplicated in this Bill. Again, there probably is a case for giving an incentive to stable relationships, whether they be heterosexual or those formed under a civil partnership.

To some extent this Bill opens a Pandora's box. It brings out some of the anomalies in our taxation and social security systems which have lain dormant for many years. Perhaps we agree with Walpole that we should let sleeping dogs lie, but alas this Bill will give some of those anomalies a hefty kick and the dogs will suddenly start to bark.

Perhaps I may cite one example. The history of married women's pensions goes back to Beveridge. As my noble friend Lord Onslow pointed out, the tax system has been changing over time, along with the social environment. However, the reality is that under the present system a woman receives a widow's pension—I am sorry, I should have said a wife's pension—on the basis of her husband's contributions. At the time of Beveridge that was generally the situation because few women were likely to make contributions in their own right. However, in effect, they get that wife's pension for free in that they pay the same amount in contributions as a single person. So there is a discrimination here against the single person.

Once one starts to bring into the system a new group of people, should one perpetuate the anomaly? I do not think that there are many votes in going in the opposite direction and saying that women will not receive a wife's pension unless they pay more for it—and I do not propose that—but there are difficulties in deciding where to draw the line. There are a number of other examples related not only to tax and social security matters, but also in regard to divorce law—on which I am totally inexpert—and a number of other areas.

I return to a point that has been implicit in a number of the speeches in our debate. The Bill will establish a provision for a civil partnership. I have had difficulty in persuading anyone to provide me with a definition of the difference between sex and gender, which is confusing. The trouble is that the Bill implies, to some extent, that these civil partners will have a sexual relationship. However, other speeches have suggested the opposite; namely, that the Bill does not do so.

A noble Lord

It is up to them.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, while that may be the case, the problem is that the Government will not know. It is not at all clear why a same-sex couple in a sexual relationship entering into a civil partnership should enjoy the tax and other benefits which a same-sex couple entering into a civil partnership which does not have a sexual relationship would not have. This brings me immediately to the point that arose in an earlier discussion about the problem of people who are living together, but not necessarily in a sexual relationship. Should they be entitled to enter into a civil partnership and enjoy the benefits which result from that?

I think that the situation has been complicated by a number of noble Lords. As an economist by training, it is always helpful to employ a certain amount of technical jargon, so I shall refer to the difficulty arising here as the "spinster problem", concerning two elderly spinsters living together.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving me an opportunity to intervene briefly. I am sad to say that there are many married couples who are not in a sexual relationship. Surely that is relevant.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, I apologise for not being in the Chamber when my noble friend made her speech, although I realise that she is concerned about this point. It is one that is quite true. We shall run into a terrible minefield about whether there can be annulment either for a married or a same-sex couple. I shall not pursue that line for the moment, but I take the point made by my noble friend.

I return to the spinster problem. Why should it be the case that two spinsters who have lived together for many years should not enter into a civil partnership and, as a result, enjoy the various benefits that would accrue to a same-sex couple with a sexual relationship?

There may be an even greater problem. Again, I shall resort to the kind of jargon which may be useful in Committee by referring to the "sister spinster problem". One must then tackle the whole problem of family relationships, which are not the same for same-sex couples as they are for couples comprising both sexes. We shall run into problems. There seems to be a very strong argument for covering the spinster problem, although I have to say that I am more doubtful about the sister spinster problem. I apologise for speaking in such a technical fashion. If one lets economists contribute to debates of this nature, one must expect that kind of thing to happen.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, has been either nodding or shaking her head throughout my remarks. I have made a careful note of when she does one and when the other. I turn, therefore, to the whole issue of cohabitation. That will be an extraordinary mess. It is not such a difficulty in terms of taxation, but it is a substantial problem in the area of social security. One knows only too well all the issues thrown up by couples living together, whether they may be cohabiting and engaged in benefit fraud, and the extent to which the Government are responsible for deciding whether they are engaged in such fraud and so forth. We must ask whether those considerations are to be extended to same-sex couples. I look forward to hearing at a later stage what the noble Baroness has to say about that. However, the whole cohabitation aspect of this matter will present considerable problems.

The reality is that some of these issues are even more complicated in that it may be that some engaged in civil partnerships will find that instead of gaining various benefits they actually lose them. That again is a whole area of concern. So to suppose that this is a simple Bill, even at 258 pages, is not the case. We will have to spend a lot of time on it. The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, in her opening remarks said that an enormous amount of hard work had been done over the past two years. That is clearly the case. Alas, I feel that an enormous amount of hard work is ahead of your Lordships.

I hope that in Committee, and so on, we will have the help and advice from the right reverend Prelates and others on a number of points which I have not referred to. I hope that we can ensure that the Bill and also the provisions with regard to taxation in particular—which do not appear in the Bill— can be adequately decided and that we will recognise when we look back some time in the future that the Bill is a milestone. It is an excellent idea for the Bill to start in your Lordships' House and I hope that it will be said that your Lordships did a good job.

2.21 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I reply with a considerable sense of pride because we truly have had a splendid and well informed debate. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, that I am particularly pleased that when we come to the issues of state benefit and pensions I will have the encyclopaedic knowledge of my noble friend Lady Hollis, who will have the privilege and pleasure of duelling, as she always does, with the noble Lord opposite. In due course I will say a little about that.

The reason why I say that I rise with pleasure is the nature of the debate that we have had. There has been a great deal of humanity on all sides and from all those who have spoken. There has been sympathy, even in difference. The two voices who have spoken against the Bill—the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, and the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun—spoke with moderation and precision.

It is right that my noble friends Lord Alli and Lady Gould remind us that we have come a very long way. It was particularly telling that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, mentioned Wolfendon of 50 years ago, because that journey has been long, painful and difficult, but it has demonstrated something which the noble Lord, Lord Elton, exemplified; namely, that we sought to concentrate on what love truly means in terms of dignity, parity of treatment, fairness and justice. That is what the Bill primarily seeks to address.

The Government introduced the Civil Partnership Bill for reasons of social justice and equality. The Bill would be worth doing if there were 800, 8,000 or 80,000 people living in same-sex relationships in this country. The figure of 39,761 same-sex couples, identified by the Office for National Statistics in the 2001 census data, is likely to be a minimum estimate. There may be same-sex couples who, for a variety of reasons, were not identified. Details of our take-up assumptions were published in the regulatory impact assessment: we anticipated that by 2010 there will be between 11,000 and 22,000 people in civil partnerships.

As part of the policy development process we will continually monitor that evidence from a number of sources. We have accumulated evidence from comparable systems in other jurisdictions: Sweden had the Registered Partnership Act in June 1994; Norway had the Act on Registered Partnerships in April 1993; Denmark had the Act on Registered Partnerships 1989; and the Netherlands had the Registered Partnership Act 1997. Using that evidence, the take-up figure is based on assumptions that the proportion of the lesbian and gay population who will be in civil partnerships by 2050 will be 5 per cent. which is under the low scenario, or 10 per cent. which is under the high scenario, of the proportion of the heterosexual population who are married. It is for that reason that I said in my opening remarks that the figure would be between 5 and 10 per cent. The figure of 3.5 per cent is perhaps an unduly conservative one.

I should also make clear that the intention in relation to social security and tax credits legislation is that in general same-sex couples in civil partnerships will be treated in a similar way as married couples. Same-sex couples who are not in civil partnerships but who are living together as if they were civil partners are treated in the same way as opposite-sex, unmarried couples who are living together as husband and wife. That is the way in which we propose that those issues will be dealt with.

The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, was right in his assumption that Her Majesty's Treasury tends not to foreshadow that which may become law and deals with matters once they are law. The noble Lord was right in his surmise that it is likely that this legislation, if passed, will not come into operation until October 2005, therefore there is plenty of time for there to be another Finance Bill other than that which is currently going through Parliament in which these provisions could appear. But that is a matter which we will have to debate and I am confident that that debate will be an extensive one.

I should also make clear that in accordance with the usual system in contracted-out schemes, members will accrue rights to survivor benefits for a civil partner from the date of implementation of the civil partnership proposals. Improvements to public service schemes and contracting-out regimes are made for future service only. As noble Lords will remember, when new benefits were introduced for members of pension schemes, they were normally introduced prospectively—for example the guaranteed minimum pensions were extended to widowers from 1988, whereas widows were entitled from 1978—so retrospection would add significant liabilities to those schemes which do not already pay survivor benefits to unmarried couples. Public sector schemes would have to shoulder most of that burden. But I absolutely understand from the comments made by a number of your Lordships in this debate that that will be an issue that we will wish to address with some care.

In relation to the comments on the reason why we have not included others in this scheme, I very much appreciate the understanding shown by a number of noble Lords, not least the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, that these relationships are very different. I think that it was the noble Lord, Lord Elton, who dealt with the issue of what would happen if you entered into a contract with a member of your family and that person subsequently wished to marry, and indeed what would happen if there were more than one sibling who entered into a contract, and how you would then disaggregate those relationships. Those issues are certainly not for this Bill.

It is right, as I mentioned, that the Department for Constitutional Affairs is looking at what more could be done about the myth of common-law marriages and making sure that people understand the risks that they face and the choices they make when they choose not to enter marriage or in some other way regularise the nature of their relationships. Noble Lords will also know that, if one does not wish to enter into marriage, there are many legal steps one can take to better secure one's financial and long-term arrangements, which are also available for us all.

I warmly welcome the comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, many of which were echoed with great sympathy by his fellow right reverend Prelate, although the emphasis was different. We believe that what was said by the Synod is very much carried through in the Bill. There is division—that was evident on the Bishops' Benches—but the Government have sought to walk a path between the areas of disagreement, one of proportionality, fairness and balance. We hope that we have created sufficient comfort for those who disagree on some of these issues to make it possible, as the debate has demonstrated, for us all to walk together, even though our steps may be at a slightly different pace. We believe that that is certainly worth doing.

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, raised the question of adoption. He may not recall, but we dealt with many of the issues in the Adoption and Children Act 2002. Anyone who wishes to adopt must first be assessed and approved by the Adoption Agency. One of the key considerations in assessing people's suitability to adopt is their ability to provide a loving family environment in which to raise a child through childhood and beyond. So, when assessing a couple's suitability to be adoptive parents, whether they are unmarried, married or civil partners, the assessment will consider the stability and the enduring nature of the relationship.

In England and Wales, once the relevant provisions of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 come into force in September 2005, unmarried couples—whether same sex or opposite sex—will be able to make a joint adoption application. The Bill will regularise the position of children who are part of such relationships to take advantage of the same rights as other children and other couples. I hope the noble Lord will find that these provisions accord with his aspirations as opposed to not doing so.

I should have reassured the House that when the proposed tax changes come in they will be implemented at the same time. We anticipate that that will about a year after Royal Assent. Of course, we do not know the precise date when the Bill will finish its passage through this House and the other place.

Let me reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, that her reticence about standing as a foot soldier is quite unmerited. We have seen her for a long time as being one of the Liberal Democrats' major-generals.

I, too, regret that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, is not in his place. He, together with many noble Lords who have spoken, would have been very warmed by the nature and extent of the debate. My noble friend Lady Rendell asked a question very similar to the one posed by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain. I hope I have made plain that the Law Commission's report on home sharers in 2002 concluded that, because of the disparity and diversity of the relationships that are present.. there is no simple solution that covers all. I hope I have made it clear that that work needs to continue.

My noble friends Lady Gould and Lord Alli raised the question of the work that needs to be done in regard to co-habitees. I hope that I have said enough to reassure the House that this issue will continue to excite our attention.

The Bill will undoubtedly demand a high degree of scrutiny. It is right that I should tell your Lordships that there will be a whole phalanx of Ministers helping to carry through the Bill. I make it plain immediately that we will be very happy to hold separate meetings in relation to specific areas of the Bill that particularly excite the attention of noble Lords.

The Bill has been carefully crafted. We hope, as the debate has demonstrated, that many of the issues with which noble Lords are concerned have been covered. However, I warmly welcome the historical excitement that the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, brought to the debate. In the absence of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, it is rare indeed that we should have the whole Bible as well as a 15th-century quote rolled up in one. For that, we thank the noble Earl, who brought such colour and flavour to the debate.

I commend the Bill to your Lordships. There is work for us to do but one is warmed by the direction in which we appear to be going. It seems to be one upon which we are all embarked.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Grand Committee.