The current state of play is that the Law Commission published a consultation paper about cohabitation on 31 May. That consultation paper poses questions on how the law in this area might be reformed, and we look forward to the outcome of the consultation and will consider any recommendations made. We expect the final report in summer 2007.
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for her reply and congratulate her on her new position. Does she agree that the principle of equal rights for cohabiting couples is based on the principle of fairness? I have received an anonymous letter from a woman who has lived with a man for 17 years and has borne five of his children, but who now finds herself unable to leave him as he refuses to give her a share in the family home, which is in his name. She describes her position as that of a concubine. What steps is the Department taking to make people aware that there is no such thing as a common-law marriage, and that they need to protect their rights if they are embarking on cohabitation?
The Law Commission produced its paper at the request of the Lord Chancellor because of concern about the fact that there are now 2 million cohabiting couples in England and Wales and about 1.25 million children dependent on them. We must think about reducing the potential financial hardship suffered by cohabitants when there is a break-up.
Apparently, 56 per cent. of people who responded to a survey thought that there was such a thing as common-law marriage, and that cohabitants’ rights to property and finance were very similar to those of married people. That is not correct. We have engaged two charitable not-for-profit groups to try to make people aware of the limitations on the legal status of people who cohabit, but the important point is that the Law Commission, at our request, is considering responsibly—as is essential when so many individuals, including children, are involved—whether there should be some sort of safety net in the event of a break-up.
I welcome the Law Commission’s consultation paper. As a co-sponsor of the early-day motion on this subject tabled by the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), may I implore the hon. and learned Lady—whom I welcome to her responsibilities—to recognise the powerful case for a change in the law? Overwhelmingly, this is not about the distribution of largesse or about providing a rival to marriage, but about fairness, and, in many cases, about rescuing people from the destitution to which they would otherwise be consigned.
I entirely recognise that. Let me make what may be a partisan point, and say that it is women, usually, who are left high and dry after cohabitation, perhaps having dreamt that they did have some property rights, and they may indeed be thrown into destitution. It is important for us to examine the whole subject with a great deal of care. It involves sensitivities on numerous fronts, which is why it was appropriate for us to ask the Law Commission to consider it. We look forward to the results of the commission’s consultation, which will doubtless be followed by plenty of debate.