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Cohabitation Bill

Volume 492: debated on Thursday 14 May 2009

3. If she will make an assessment of the merits of the provisions in the Cohabitation Bill [Lords]. (275277)

I am happy to do so, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this to my attention. The intention behind the Bill is to provide financial obligations to support children on the breakdown of cohabiting relationships. The Government have considered the financial recommendations of the Law Commission’s 2007 report and are considering further what the best approach is for England and Wales.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. She will be aware that there are more than 2 million cohabiting couples in the UK, and in 2006 a fifth of all children were born to people in a cohabiting relationship. Does she agree that the part of the Bill that states that on the breakdown of a cohabiting relationship, a judge should be able to decide what is a fair outcome and allocate support to the ex-partner for up to three years in order to seek child care and enable that person to get back into work, provides useful measures? The Government could use them to ensure that we prevent women and their children—it is usually women—from falling into homelessness and poverty when a cohabiting relationship breaks down.

My hon. Friend is again asking me to assess the merits of the Bill’s provisions, and I have said that I will do so; I will certainly have a look. The Law Commission proposals were about addressing hardship. There is legislation in Scotland—the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006—which looks more at compensating parties for losses incurred as a result of cohabitation. There are many different approaches to trying to deal with this problem. The Government are considering the matter but have not yet come to a final decision on the best way forward for England and Wales. I am, however, happy to discuss this matter further with my hon. Friend.

As you will know, Mr. Speaker, common law in Scotland has always recognised a man and woman living together as having a common-law marriage. Will the Minister look carefully at the Scottish situation to see what we in England and Wales can learn from it?

Indeed, we will. One reason why we have not yet come to a final conclusion in assessing the different approaches to what we accept is an important issue is that the Scottish legislation came into force in 2006 and there is ongoing research on its impact; it will be useful to have some of the research’s conclusions before coming to a final decision on the best way forward. The hon. Lady is right to raise the issue of the myths associated with what is often known as common-law marriage, which, of course, does not carry any rights at all beyond the ordinary property rights and rights within law. While we are coming to a conclusion about whether legislation is appropriate in this respect, it is important that we continue to provide advice to cohabiting couples—there are 2.3 million such couples in the UK—about what the current rights are, and, perhaps more importantly, are not.