That the Bill be now read a second time.
My Lords, this is an extremely short Bill consisting of just two clauses, the second of which is concerned with the formalities that all legislation requires, but though small in size it would have large and wholly beneficial effects. It would inflict no hardship on anyone, while removing a palpable injustice suffered by a significant number of our fellow country men and women.
British society has been reshaped in our generation, assisted by the introduction of important new rights that have produced greater legal equality than ever before and released many individuals from scorn and outright discrimination because of the lifestyles that they choose to follow. My Bill would extend the benefits of some of these new rights, which surely ought to be spread as widely as possible in conformity with the spirit of our times. It would confer on thousands of men and women living together in secure and committed platonic relationships the legal status that they have hoped for so long to possess and which they deserve so thoroughly to acquire.
Throughout the country, sibling couples—brothers, sisters, sometimes one of each—have decided to spend their lives together in homes that they have created jointly until parted by death. Proper legal recognition should be given to them. Their circumstances will vary greatly. All, however, will develop the strongest platonic ties, stemming from natural family affection. Sometimes, the sense of being part of a family will become immensely powerful. It tends to be particularly marked where one of the siblings has a child and the other shares responsibility for bringing up the much-loved youngster. Two very dear friends of mine, Catherine and Virginia Utley, have done just that, and now the third member of their family, Olivia, who has inherited the long-established family talent for journalism, has joined them in making the case for the legal reforms embodied in my Bill. Indeed, my initiative owes much to their inspiring example.
The reforms that sibling couples need can be so easily accomplished thanks to the existence of the Civil Partnership Act 2004. Just six simple, straightforward additions to it provided for in my Bill would bring sibling couples the legal recognition that they require and deserve. The first and only substantive clause sets out those additions and specifies where they would be inserted into the 2004 Act. They include a clear definition of the sibling couples who would be entitled to register as civil partners. Both siblings would have to be aged over 30 and have lived together continuously for 12 years.
Why do committed platonic sibling couples need the legal rights they would gain by becoming civil partners? The cruellest aspect of the current state of affairs is the terrible situation that can arise when one member of the committed sibling couple dies. Their joint home, owned by them both and the repository of a lifestyle of shared experiences and memories, has an importance to them that goes beyond bricks and mortar. Yet the rise in the value of property in our time often means that a home that has been shared for decades must be sold when the first sibling dies to raise the inheritance tax on his or her share. Living with the knowledge that this could happen at any time can cause years of apprehension and anxiety that members of the committed, platonic family unit ought surely to be spared. Loss of the shared home creates huge additional misery when two siblings are parted by death.
This tragic state of affairs has been widely publicised and deplored, but nothing has yet been done to remedy it. The state continues to insist that the passing of property from one person to another free of tax must apply only to spouses and civil partners. Sibling couples, lacking the right to form civil partnerships, have been left to bear the combined distress and the loss of a shared home as best they can. The coalition Government’s tinkering with inheritance tax thresholds added to the injustice, for the measures did not apply to sibling couples.
This issue, grave though it is, is just one feature of the wider injustice to which sibling couples are subject, rather than the sole ground on which change is sought, as is sometimes mistakenly suggested. There are other serious difficulties faced by sibling couples, including restrictions on applying for joint council tenancies and the inability to transfer pension rights. The state ought to bestow support on sibling couples. Instead, it leaves them in severe difficulties.
Fourteen years ago, when the civil partnership legislation was going through Parliament, the force of these arguments was recognised in your Lordships’ House. An amendment was carried to include sibling couples, but it did not find favour in the Commons. Then and since, there has been a curious reluctance in the Commons to face up to the issue properly and decide what should be done about it, in part perhaps because successive Governments, including this one so far, have irresponsibly shied away from it. Action could perfectly well be taken in the Commons now through a Private Member’s Bill which is before it, designed to extend civil partnerships to men and women who want to be united but not through marriage, a point of view strengthened by a recent ruling of the Supreme Court. Yet despite the efforts of some Conservative MPs, an obvious opportunity to right a wrong through that Bill may well be lost. That makes my Bill all the more important.
Throughout the past, frustrating 14 years, recognition of the case for change has remained strong in your Lordships’ House. No one has reiterated it with more force and authority than the noble Baroness, Lady Deech. Sibling couples throughout the land will be heartened by her participation in this debate. It will be of great importance to them, too, to hear the noble Lord, Lord Alton, speaking up for them today.
Other noble Lords, learned in the law, also support this Bill. Both the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, an expert in the subject who took the well-known case of the elderly Burden sisters to the European Court of Human Rights, would be in the Chamber today if engagements had not detained them elsewhere. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have come here this morning to consider this significant little Bill.
The view has been expressed—it may well be heard in this debate—that since civil partnerships were introduced specifically for gay people by Mr Blair's Government, they should not be extended widely where no sexual element is involved in a relationship . There is a deep and understandable sense of attachment to them in a restricted form by some gay people. I yield to no one in my support for LGBT rights, as my record in this House shows. I would be gravely distressed if fellow gay men and women in the community at large should feel an overwhelming reluctance to see civil partnerships extended to others who can benefit so significantly from them, particularly since we now have equal marriage, which is for ever closed to sibling couples. We owe sibling couples, indeed other blood-related co-habitees, support in their quest for justice.
Is it not important to remember that the sexual expression of love has never been a defining characteristic of civil partnerships? Ordained priests in the Church of England are permitted to enter into them on the condition that they remain chaste. As the former Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, wrote recently,
“surely civil partnerships should be open to all those who live together permanently … They should not be based on the presumption of a sexual relationship”.
Indeed, that would be very strange since they already exist without a sexual element.
I turn now to the position of the Government. The recent experience of my friend Catherine Utley is not, I think, untypical. For years she has been writing and commenting publicly on this issue. Towards the end of May, she wrote to Ms Penny Mordaunt in her capacity as Minister for Women and Equalities, asking her whether she accepted that cohabiting blood relations were unfairly treated and whether she was,
“open to ideas of ways in which the government might help”.
Not even the prospect of this debate, to which Catherine Utley referred, could stir the Minister’s office into action. In response to a reminder at the start of this month, she received the following email from the senior assistant to Ms Mordaunt’s special advisers:
this perky, informal person wrote—
“I have passed your letter onto our correspondence team here! I will keep you updated”.
Nothing more, of course, has been heard, even though the Minister is clearly not short-staffed. Perhaps my noble friend who will reply to this debate would feel disposed to have a word with Ms Mordaunt about the shortcomings of her not inconsiderable entourage.
I hope that the Home Office is not so inert. My noble friend Lady Williams and I had a little exchange three years ago. I asked the Government why they had no plans to extend civil partnerships to sibling couples. I was told:
“Civil partnerships are the equivalent of a marriage: a loving union”.—[Official Report, 9/9/2015; col. 1427.]
The only interpretation that can be put on this is that a loving union must in the Government’s view have a sexual element, but, I repeat, the existing law makes no such assumptions. Why should brotherly and sisterly love be disregarded?
I look forward to hearing the Government’s current position. Have they reflected that they represent the party of the family and that in today’s diverse society sibling couples need to be seen as family units? Exactly 30 years ago, Margaret Thatcher said that,
“the basic ties of the family … are at the heart of our society and are the very nursery of civic virtue. And it is on the family that we in government build our own policies”.
Those Tory principles surely underline the accuracy of the assessment of the current situation made by the former Attorney-General, Mr Dominic Grieve. He has stated:
“The basis for creating civil partnerships is the recognition by government of the value of close mutually supportive relationships outside of traditional marriage. As such the exclusion of cohabiting blood relations from the right to form one is discriminatory and a serious mistake that needs to be corrected”.
Not everything that Mr Dominic Grieve says and does earns the approval of your Lordships’ House, but I hope that on this matter there will be widespread support for him.
This is a mistake that my Bill would put right as regards sibling couples. It happens to coincide with a review of civil partnerships as a whole by the Government, following the recent judgment in the Supreme Court. That is a fortunate accident of timing. The review was discussed in the other place two days ago. It would be incomplete without the inclusion of my Bill. I therefore look to my noble friend the Minister to ensure that it will be carefully considered during the review. The central issue is this: why should all those whom the Government presume are in a sexual relationship, whether heterosexual or gay, enjoy legal recognition, and only those who live together in committed, secure, platonic relationships be denied it? Their inferior status must be ended. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to support the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, and his Bill to amend the Civil Partnership Act 2004 as it relates to sibling couples. Along with other Members of your Lordships’ House, the noble Lord has vigorously pursued this issue and I hope that when the Minister comes to reply she will be able to indicate that the Government will give this measure a fair wind. A few moments ago the noble Lord described this as “a little Bill”: it may be a little Bill, but it seeks to put right a great injustice. The noble Lord has cogently set out the provisions of the Bill and the injustice that it seeks to remedy.
I begin my own remarks by reminding the House of the sort of unassuming people who, because they do not join protest marches or organise campaign groups, are too often overlooked. Siblings caring for one another, or for other members of their extended family, are often such overlooked people. Kay Evans and her brother lived together for 30 years in their house in Blackheath, London, which they owned jointly. They are devoted to one another and have looked after one another all their lives. Her brother entered the Royal Air Force at 16, then retrained and worked until he was 76. They also looked after their mother in her final years. Kay nursed her brother through his final illness until he died, comforted by the belief that their joint savings would pay for her care in old age. In the event, the inheritance tax on his share of the property came to £95,000 and she had to choose between keeping the house, with all its memories and in the neighbourhood where she was surrounded by a network of support, or selling up to pay the bill. She tried to keep it, but ended up having to sell.
Or consider the story of two sisters, Pat and Cicely Meehan. Now in their 70s, they live together in the house in which they grew up, in Clapham. They are the perfect neighbours: good citizens are the lifeblood of strong communities. They visit the sick, shop for the elderly, look after people’s pets when the owners are away, are active in their local church, nursed their elderly relations and much more besides. When, many years ago, their next-door neighbour died young, leaving two small children and a father who had to work permanent night shifts, it was they who took the children in for him and brought them up. When one of the sisters dies, the bereaved survivor will not be able to keep the joint home going because property prices have increased so dramatically that the inheritance tax will now be far beyond anything they could possibly afford.
The journalist, Catherine Utley, who was referred to by the noble Lord, has done much to highlight stories such as those of Kay Evans and the Meehans. She lives with her sister, Virginia, in the next street to the Meehan sisters and she brought their story to my attention. The Utleys have lived together all their lives and in their current house for 23 years. Virginia stepped in when Catherine faced single parenthood and the two sisters provided a stable and happy home for the child from birth to adulthood. Their house, jointly owned, will also have to go when the first sister dies. The inheritance tax payable now would be more than the original, almost 100% mortgage, that they been paying off all their working lives. This outrageous injustice recalls the case of a disabled man who lived with his sister in the house they inherited from their parents. The sister pre-deceased him and he had to pay the tax on her share of the house. This meant no money was left for his care. He ended up in a state nursing home, entirely dependent on state benefits.
Then there is the famous case, referred to by the noble Lord, of the Burden sisters, Joyce and Sybil, who lived together all their lives and looked after a succession of elderly relatives in their Wiltshire home. After a long legal battle, in which they argued that they should be treated as civil partners for inheritance tax purposes, so that the bereaved sister could keep the house after the first death, they lost their case at the European Court of Human Rights. They had argued that when one of them died, the surviving sister would be liable to pay inheritance tax, and accordingly that the law was discriminatory. The court found that there had been no discrimination.
The outcome in that case stands in stark contrast to the case of Steinfeld and Keidan in which the United Kingdom Supreme Court unanimously declared that, to the extent that the Civil Partnership Act precludes a different-sex couple from entering a civil partnership, it is incompatible with Article 14 and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In response, the Government declared that the legislation would be,
“kept under review in light of the recent Supreme Court judgment”.
That is why the noble Lord is so right when he says that at least, as part of that review, this issue should be looked at as well, and why the Bill could be used as a way of remedying this injustice. How bizarre and unfair it would be if, once again, in promoting civil partnerships, the Government precluded siblings caring for one another in the new dispensation.
The argument of the judgment in the case of the Burden sisters was, of course, circular: they were not entitled to be treated as civil partners because they had not made a binding commitment to each other as civil partners do, and they were not able to make a binding commitment to each other because they were sisters. This is a classic Catch-22 situation and it is, as the noble Lord has said, deeply offensive to people who love and care for one another in the kinds of relationships he described. I think back to deeply loving siblings that I regularly met in my work as a city councillor or as a Member of the House of Commons, representing Liverpool communities at one level or another for some 25 years. Their platonic faithfulness to one another was every bit as strong as the strongest marriages; indeed, stronger than many.
As things stand, two people are not eligible to register as civil partners of one another if they are not of the same sex, or if either of them is already a civil partner or is lawfully married. Blood-related cohabitants remain the only group with no access to any legal safeguards at all, and it is time that Parliament legislated to remedy this.
The Bill is hardly a bolt out of the blue. During the passage of the 2004 legislation, family situations were considered at various stages and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, successfully moved an amendment in your Lordships’ House, that I supported, which would have extended the benefits of the Bill to family members who have lived together on a long-term basis. In another place, Sir Edward Leigh MP identified the reason for this continued failure to put right a searing injustice:
“Only the Treasury stands in the way of righting this injustice; it is about money”.—[Official Report, Commons, 2/2/18; col. 1097.]
The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, referred to the letter to Penny Mordaunt MP, the Minister for Women and Equalities, from Catherine Utley. I had not heard about the email correspondence that the noble Lord humorously referred to, but it is outrageous that Catharine Utley has not had a proper, considered reply from the Minister. I hope at least that, as a result of today’s debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, will assure us that a proper reply will be given. I was struck by the quotation that the noble Lord gave from the former Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve:
“As such the exclusion of cohabiting blood relations from the right to form one is discriminatory and a serious mistake that needs to be corrected”.
He is right. The Bill seeks to correct both that mistake and the injustice and discrimination that it represents. I strongly support it and I hope that it makes good progress through both Houses of Parliament.
My Lords, I need not detain your Lordships for too long. Certainly, I will not be tempted down the road of unanswered correspondence. I am sure that there are many Members of the House who could tell tales, as I could, of letters sent to government departments that have not been acknowledged. I believe that Whitehall is developing a progressive incapacity to answer something as traditional, civil and thought-out as a letter.
Perhaps I might praise my noble friend Lord Lexden. He, along with others, including the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, took up this cause many years ago, but today he expressed his absolutely compelling case with all the humanity, penetrating logic and clarity that have made him my admired and respected friend for half a lifetime. I hope that his voice will be heard and I am here to declare my support, along with those who have spoken and will speak.
Society today is increasingly atomised. We surely need to honour and sustain those affinities that bind it together—and none across the centuries, as my noble friend said, has been greater than the family. Great, if sometimes halting, advances have been made—rightly so—in respect of the rights of those born strangers who later come together and choose to form a relationship of marriage, or now of civil partnership. Their status is rightly acknowledged. Their rights are enshrined in the laws of welfare, taxation, tenancy succession and inheritance. But this is not true of the rights of those who have a lifelong affinity by reason of blood. They may be protected in part by the laws of intestacy—but those laws are blind as between Goneril, Regan and Cordelia.
The invisible role of familial partners—and not only siblings, for I would go further in time than my noble friend to embrace those across generations who elect to care for each other and who very often at the end of their life become not just partners but carers—is a remarkable and cohesive force in society. Love, as my noble friend said, is not expressed only in the conjugal act. The love of two family members who care for each other, who share their home and all their worldly goods, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, surely merits the recognition of society.
As a councillor for a generation or so in an area of exceptionally high land values, I came to know many people who were capital rich but income poor. I could tell many tales, but one of the most distressing cases was similar to those to which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred. It was that of sisters, former teachers, who had lived their lives in their parents’ home and, when the older one died, after many years of frailty during which she had been cared for by her sister, that sister, after more than 70 years in her home, found herself forced out and away from all her memories and familiarity by inheritance tax. I could do nothing about that profound injustice and I will not name those concerned, to spare the distress that has been suffered by the surviving sister. This should not happen.
Equally, we know of many people, daughters and sons, who care for elderly parents, who have lived with them for many years—often all their lives in the same house—who face the same insecurity. I think of a widow I see every day, who has moved into a tenancy to care for her mother but who feels insecure as to her succession rights when the head tenant dies. Security in this case is guaranteed—and rightly so—to civil partners. But elective familial relationships of this kind involve sacrifice, and often they close the door to other forms of affinity.
Pushing my noble friend’s case wider to intergenerational carers would perhaps complicate the matter. I have the honour of chairing your Lordships’ committee on intergenerational fairness and I would be interested to hear evidence in relation to that from people who have been affected. But to press that today would muddy the simple—and I think all of us who heard it would say, unanswerable—case that my noble friend made on equity for sibling couples.
A civil society should privilege that true affinity and partnership that spares it many burdens of costs and care that would otherwise fall on others. A civil society should honour the deep affinity of so many sibling couples who give us, just as they give each other, so much by their gift of lifelong love.
My Lords, ever since I first took an interest in the case of the Burden sisters some 10 years ago, in which two of the barristers were my former pupils, I have wondered why the financial and inheritance benefits of coupling up are confined to sexual relationships. The law is solicitous towards married couples, of the same or different sexes, and towards civil partners of the same sex—and, following the recent Supreme Court decision in Steinfeld and Keidan, it is highly likely that we will soon be legislating for civil partnerships for heterosexual couples, with the concomitant tax and financial breaks. In that case, the Supreme Court found that Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to family and private life, was breached, along with Article 14, which states:
“The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status”.
Sibling couples are the subject of Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden. If civil partnerships are to be extended to heterosexual couples by virtue of the non-discrimination clause of Article 14, the same must be true of sibling couples, who are being discriminated against in the enjoyment of their private and family life on the grounds of birth or other status. Even cohabiting couples, usually defined as living together as husband and wife, enjoy certain benefits that sibling couples do not.
It is of course true that the creation of marriages and civil partnerships does more than extend financial benefits; it acknowledges publicly the responsibility that each of the pair takes for the other. But, leaving aside the sexual relationship—which, incidentally, is assumed but does not have to exist—why should sibling couples who have lived together for decades, and are co-dependent, not get benefits too?
Heterosexual and same-sex couples have a variety of ways in which to seek public and formal recognition of their relationship—or they may choose to avoid it altogether by cohabiting without entering marriage or a civil partnership. Family members cannot get the benefits—albeit that they would be seeking public recognition of the relationship not as a sexual one but as one where each has decided to take on responsibility for the other.
Now that formal partnerships extend beyond the marriage of man and woman, there is no reason not to grant financial and inheritance benefits, along with parenting and medical and other benefits, to co-dependent family members. Life can be unfair to the single. Those who are fortunate enough to enjoy a formal partnership should not claim a monopoly on benefits that might appropriately benefit others’ different relationships.
The discussion today highlights a pressing social issue. A recent report by the Social Market Foundation estimates that there are more than 7 million carers, who sacrifice careers and freedom to look after family members. As society ages, and while no solution has yet been found to fund social care for the elderly, the number of carers will increase—and increase in importance.
Financial provision laws that apply to married couples and civil partners who dissolve their union have as their aim that disadvantages and unfairnesses arising from the care-giving within the couple-and-children relationship be compensated for. Some of those formal unions may have been very short-lived. But family carers may have struggled on for years without recognition and respite, and without employment policies that support working carers. They are saving the state a fortune in social care. Why should they not enjoy some tax breaks and financial support, especially if they stand to be evicted from their home when the cared-for person dies? Of course, rather than creating a new category of partnership, the Government might just choose in the forthcoming review to extend inheritance tax deferral to family couples, carers or not. That would go a long way to resolving the issues.
The case of the Burden sisters was one where substantial inheritance tax fell to be paid once one of them died, having lived together all their lives in the same house. It would have to be sold. The degree of commitment and stability in the case of the sisters resembles that of any formally partnered couple. We have heard of several examples this morning where they choose to live together, and that is their lifestyle and self-determination. The same may well be true of many daughters looking after elderly parents or other family members for decades; they are at risk of being evicted from the home on the death of the person they have cared for. There is no certainty that a claim by the carer under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act would succeed because the claimant has to show that they were being maintained by the deceased, not the other way round. The Government are fearful of losing tax on inheritance. They need not be because the effect of extending civil partnership benefits to family couples would be only a deferral of the tax until the death of the survivor, not a total loss.
The Burden sisters’ appeal was rejected by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights. The judgment was unsatisfactory, however, as it did not address the central question: why should the sisters be liable for inheritance tax on each death simply because the person they want to spend their life with is a sister, rather than a spouse or partner of the same sex? The Government did not dispute that the purpose of the inheritance tax exemption in the case of married people and civil partners is to make provision for the partner left behind, and there was no explanation of why that principle should not apply in the case of two sisters.
I hope the Government will support the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, and others speaking this morning. I hope they will show understanding of the unfair position that family members are in at present and take on the gist of his Bill. Being Friday, I cannot resist mentioning once again that the shadow of the noble lyricist Irving Berlin hangs over this Chamber. He wrote:
There were never such devoted sisters …
Lord help the mister who comes between me and my sister”.
My Lords, having heard the many eloquent speeches this morning, I feel that I can only offer my support so I will keep my contribution very short. It seems to me that money, or a lack of it, and inequality are always the drivers for change. Over recent years, legislation on civil partnerships has resulted in a significant tax advantage which, as the House heard at the time of the passing of the civil partnerships Bill, brought much joy to those who profited from it.
However, there is one disadvantaged group who have never been able to benefit from that legislation: siblings who have shared for most or all of their lives the home that they jointly own. There may not be many in this group but they are not only disadvantaged; they are a discriminated-against minority who should not be forgotten. I have long thought it wrong that two heterosexual siblings, whether brothers or sisters, who have lived together for many or all their years should end their lives in the fear that the survivor would have to sell the house to pay the inheritance tax demanded, so leaving him or her homeless. As I say, this tax does not have to be paid by same-sex couples until the survivor dies. It is cruel and unacceptable that this relief is not available for heterosexual siblings. Surely this is an anomaly and an inequality, which should be corrected.
I support the Bill wholeheartedly and congratulate my noble friend on his tenacity. I wish him every success with it and I hope that your Lordships will give it a safe passage through this House.
My Lords, it was 14 years ago last month that the Lords passed an amendment to the Civil Partnership Bill, which was then going through Parliament, to extend its scope so that adult family members who lived together permanently could come within it. I supported the amendment at that time but it was of course overturned in the Commons. Looking back, I have all the paper from that time—there was loads of it—and the bit which has stayed with me most of all from the speech which I made at the end, which I have highlighted in yellow, is when I said to the Committee:
“I will not go away”.—[Official Report, 12/5/04; col. GC 117.]
I told them that I would return one day to see this provision through. I hope that this is the day when it will happen. I am only too delighted to be standing here to say not very much except, “Gosh, we’re on the road again”.
Since then the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and others have reminded the House from time to time of this unresolved issue, which perpetuates injustice to blood-related cohabitants. The rights which they are denied include inheritance tax exemptions, the rights to inherit a tenancy and pension rights. In the most distressing cases, as we have heard this morning, the bereaved survivor of a long-term platonic partnership is forced to sell the joint home to meet an inheritance tax bill. This has happened so many times. Many of us today could look back, as I could, to examples such as the two sisters who ran our local post office. When one of them died, the other lost not only the person she loved so much but the house that she had, and the business as well.
This Private Member’s Bill would extend civil partnerships, as we have heard, to sibling couples aged over 30 who have lived together continuously for 12 years. The issue and the injustice that it creates goes much wider, but my noble friend Lord Lexden’s Bill would help draw attention to it at a time when the future of civil partnerships is under consideration, with a formal review of them a strong likelihood.
I did not win on 12 May 2004 but protecting people from legal vulnerability became important to me following that failure. I could see how many times it was happening to people who really did not understand the law or their rights. They could not turn to what we are, I hope, going to achieve from today onwards in protecting people from legal vulnerability. Gosh, what a change those 14 years have made. What a wonderful thing it has done for gay people, who have been able to find a lovely way to be together in life. I remember being here when the original Bill went through. There were two people sitting watching who had been briefing me; they had been together for 37 years. I was the first person to stand at their wedding, when we all cried, including the poor dear lady who was trying to pull it all together that day. She could not work out which words she was supposed to use, so she put some music on to cheer us up, threw the paper down and did it her way. I will always remember that.
I will be delighted if we are able to go forward with my noble friend’s Bill. I can only believe that it is to the good and for the good. I hope that our Minister will today be able to give us a little of the reply that we have not managed to get thus far.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Wilcox has, Sinatra-like, done it her way. I sincerely hope that her plea will be heeded.
I am delighted to support my noble friend Lord Lexden on this small but important Bill, but please do not think that this is merely one good turn returning another. I much appreciated his injunction to your Lordships to accept my invitation to Lincoln—when the trains are running—but I stand to support his Bill because I have believed in this from the moment that the Civil Partnership Bill was introduced in another place. In fact, I spoke on that occasion and I felt so strongly that I withheld my support from the Bill because I felt that it was not honouring all those whom it should honour. I felt that because I had had the good fortune to represent a Staffordshire seat in the other place—by that time, I had represented it for some 34 or 35 years—and I had come across so many examples of sisters widowed early in life because their husbands had suffered in the mines. I also had a couple of sisters who ran a village post office in one of the 30-something villages in my constituency and brothers who had come together, honoured each other and been brothers in every possible sense, yet these people and many others were being discriminated against. We failed 14 years ago as my noble friend Lady Wilcox has just said, but we have the opportunity to put things right.
The recent judgment, to which my noble friend Lord Lexden referred in his magnificent speech, and to which others referred should put this at the top of the domestic agenda again. It would be only fitting for this House, which passed that amendment 14 years ago, to take the lead and say to another place, “Here is a small, modest measure which does harm to no one”—and of how many laws can that be said?—“but which can give enormous peace of mind to many people”, often quiet, unobtrusive leaders in their own little communities, as in my constituency in Staffordshire. I hope that the Minister will reply positively, indicate that the Government accept the logic of the case made in every speech in your Lordships’ House this morning and give this Bill a fair passage. At the moment the law has got it wrong. In the immortal words of Mr Bumble, the law is an ass. Let us put it right this morning.
My Lords, I shall follow my noble friend in the gap and will not detain noble Lords for very long. I support my noble friend Lord Lexden on this, but I shall speak about one thing: money. I do not think this is anything to do with the Home Office. My noble friend on the Front Bench should not be answering this debate. It should be answered by a Treasury Minister because this is all about inheritance tax and the loss that the Treasury perceives that it is going to take if it were to change the legislation on this subject.
I would like the Minister to undertake to write to me calculating the amount of money that is saved by daughters and sisters looking after their siblings and their parents, living in their homes and not putting that burden on the taxpayer. We always hear one side of the profit-and-loss account from the Treasury—what it will cost it in terms of loss of inheritance tax—but we never hear the other side of that calculation. This is all about money; it is nothing about humanity. If we are going to talk about money and are to make a balanced judgment, let us hear both sides of the equation because we should consider this as a Treasury matter, not one for the Home Office.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure this morning to put on record my admiration for the noble Lord, Lord Lexden. I do not know him particularly well, but over the years I have watched the many things that he has done, particularly within his own political party, to secure greater equality for LGBT people. I admire much that he has done. It will surprise nobody, least of all him, that today I profoundly disagree with him, but I hope we will continue in future to be allies on other matters.
I disagree with him today because I believe that this proposal has a fundamental and dangerous flaw. I accept that, back in 2004, the people who proposed extending civil partnerships in this way did so to wreck the then Civil Partnership Bill, and they very nearly succeeded. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, very nearly succeeded in doing so. I also accept that today that is not the motivation of the noble Lord, Lord Lexden. None the less, I believe that the path he has chosen to pursue is wrong. In 2004, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, took her lead from the Christian Institute, one of the first organisations to import into this country a rather brutal form of evangelical Christianity from the United States. I think noble Lords will find it worth reading the documents which the institute produced at that time to see the fundamental underlying motivation for the proposal.
It is wrong to equate the relationship between siblings and family members with relationships between adults which are entered into voluntarily as loving relationships. It is simply wrong. Consanguinity is not something that we can ignore in this matter because it has a profound effect upon relationships. I shall pick up one point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden. He talked about equalising the relationship of siblings with people who have particular lifestyles they have chosen. Being gay is not a lifestyle and, for some of us, it is not a choice. We are who we are and our relationships as gay people are fundamentally different from the relationships that we have with our siblings. The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, and many other noble Lords made the point that the purpose of the Bill is to end discrimination or to support siblings—although I noticed how many of your Lordships talked about daughters, and I will come back to that in a moment—supporting their family. The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, is not, I think, proposing that children should enter into civil partnerships with their parents. However, if one accepted the basis of his proposal, one could argue that perhaps they should. I think that that is fundamentally wrong. It conflates two entirely different relationships and complicates them.
Let us get on to the complications. The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, has not talked about one particularly important matter: a civil partnership can be dissolved. You cannot dissolve your relationship with your family in the same way. You can become estranged, you can have the most horrible and distant relationship, you can fall out over property, but you will remain in that family. That is why I think the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, was wrong, as was the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, to say that this is a wholly beneficial measure which inflicts no harm on anyone. Imagine yourself in the position of a woman in a family with an overbearing, dominant brother or father and a significant property. Noble Lords have spoken this morning about couples they know. The couple who come to my mind—there were originally three siblings but one of them died; I do not know what we would do in a case where there were more than two siblings, but that is another matter to consider—lived on a farm. They were devoted to each other. They were members of my father’s church and wonderful people. If this proposal had been in place and one of those siblings had wished not to remain on that farm but to go away, imagine the pressure that there would have been on that woman. That is the dark side of this that no one has spoken about: the potential for abuse that it opens up. It is why I have maintained in all the discussions we have had that the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, is wrong. I can see that carers would come under enormous pressure to enter into a civil partnership. Incidentally, as I have said to her before, I think it is really interesting that no carers’ organisation has ever asked for this and, as far as I know, they do not support it. They support carers having much greater support than they do now but not being tied into a legal obligation such as this. I could not disagree more fundamentally with the noble Baroness. I do not for one moment question her motivation but I disagree with her entirely.
The Bill is fundamentally flawed. The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, talked about the “curious reluctance” of another place to consider this matter. I think it is a wholly understandable decision not to pursue something that is fundamentally flawed and potentially dangerous.
On a point of order, why would there be more duress on two family members to enter a civil partnership than on any other two people? Of course if there is duress, it is vitiated. Any contract or marriage or civil partnership that you enter into not of your own free will is invalidated. A civil partnership can be ended just like that, even if two people are family members. Given that there is a dissolution procedure, that would apply. There is an academic output, which I do not know if the noble Baroness has seen, that suggests that the pressure for civil partnerships, which is not just about money, between family members is a way of denying the sexuality of gay partnerships. Some 14 years have gone by and I think that argument is simply not tenable.
Yet again I disagree fundamentally with the noble Baroness; I think that is exactly what it is about. I also say to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, that I am not guilty, and I do not know anyone else within the LGBT community who is, of wanting to keep civil partnerships as the preserve of our community. I support the extension of civil partnerships to heterosexual couples, although that debate is for another day, but extending it to people who as adults come together of their own volition, with no baggage and no pressure, is completely different. The noble Baroness dismisses some of the great tensions of family life in her submission.
I believe the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, is right that the Bill is trying to deal with a matter that should be dealt with by the Treasury because it is about fiscal matters. I would warmly support anyone who wished to find some way of addressing those issues of inheritance tax. However, you do not solve an injustice by putting in place something that is equally unjust and open to great abuse. I genuinely believe that this is a wrong and dangerous move. I hope that, just as 14 years ago, we in this House and people in another place will see this for the great mistake that it is and stop it.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, for her submission today because it summarises my own thoughts on this matter. I too begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for his incredibly hard work on behalf of the LGBT community, not only in this country but globally. I know he has fought against all kinds of discrimination, and he has led the charge over the criminalisation of homosexuality in Commonwealth countries. I consider him very much a friend, and we work together on these issues. On this matter, though, I fundamentally disagree with him. I think he and many noble Lords today have identified a problem. I hope the Minister will be able to address that problem but not through the solution offered up by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden. Clearly there is a problem, particularly for siblings who have shared a home together and then suffer a detriment, partly because of rising property prices and partly because of the length of time that they may have been living together.
However, I come back to the point—the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, put this extremely well—that this cannot also be a mechanism for simply driving a coach and horses through tax legislation. If there is an issue to be addressed then, as the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, said, it should be a matter for the Treasury to look into and come up with proper evidence-based solutions to an identified problem. That is what lawmaking should be about. I do not want to see a situation where—and perhaps I am taking his name in vain—the Duke of Westminster might enter into a civil partnership. For what purpose? Perhaps he would do so with a member of his family. After all, many members of the aristocracy live in their parents’ homes for many years, far longer than the 12 years that is identified in the Bill. When we have seen Britain’s heritage being under threat, we have looked at that in terms of how we protect it and address the laws of inheritance that way. We did not come up with a solution that talked about civil partnerships.
Many noble Lords have referenced songs, but what came to my mind when I was sitting here was Salt-N-Pepa: “Let’s talk about sex, baby”. For many years, my identity was—and it still is in many circumstances—invisible. There are still many places in this country where I cannot walk down the road hand in hand with my husband. Many heterosexual couples can, but we cannot because we will still suffer abuse. When the Civil Partnership Act was going through this House, my partner and I were planning a ceremony. The amendment that has been talked about today caused our ceremony to be delayed by a year. We could not get married on my 50th birthday; instead, 12 months later we got married on my 51st birthday. So I know that people have genuine concerns, but let us not pretend that the concerns about sibling partners were a genuine reason to delay the Civil Partnership Act in 2004. That Act was significant progress on the road towards equality for LGBT people. We finally got full equality with the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, which again was something that we in this House worked together on across the parties. However, when that Bill was going through, many people in this House made arguments about why gay couples should not be able to get married. That is why I have got quite emotional today.
I want the problem of siblings whose homes they have built together to be properly addressed. I want the Minister to take that away and say, “Let’s properly gather the evidence”. I am sorry that Penny Mordaunt did not respond properly, because there is an issue there about taxation. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, said, this is not about making marriage between brothers and sisters. That is not what people are really proposing, is it? Let me make it clear that civil partnership was on the road to equal marriage and equality; it was addressing the issue of identity and ensuring that I did not remain invisible as a loving couple—a romantic, loving couple—which many people still in this country deny us. I hope that this debate has ensured that we identify the problem, seek a solution, but do not undermine those hard fought-for rights that we have so proudly established in this House.
My Lords, first, I thank my noble friend Lord Lexden for securing this Second Reading debate. I join with other noble Lords in commending him for all the work that he has done over the years in promoting equality in society. I have listened with care to my noble friend’s impassioned argument around the financial and inheritance difficulties faced by siblings who live together, and the ensuing debate has had a very similar theme. It is very obvious that it is a matter of incredible importance to my noble friend and noble Lords who have spoken, but it is also about financial matters, as all noble Lords have pointed out in different ways.
In answer to my noble friend Lord Hamilton about this being a Treasury matter and the savings to the Treasury that might ensue, my noble friend probably will not be surprised that I do not have the figures for the revenue savings that might ensue from siblings being able to enter into civil partnerships. I utterly take his point about it being a Treasury matter.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and I shall try to keep it very brief. When she replies to the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, will she provide the figures to the whole House by putting that information in the Library? Will she also add to it from the Treasury what the deferred costs would be by putting off the inheritance duties that will come into the Treasury in due course? Will that calculation also be included in those figures, so we can see the whole picture when we come to consider this in Committee?
I can certainly request them—and, if we have them, of course I will provide them. If we have figures on deferred costs, of course I shall provide them to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others.
Civil partnerships were introduced in 2004 to allow same-sex couples to formalise their relationships at a time when same-sex marriage was not available to them. This enabled same-sex couples to have their intimate couple relationship—as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, so articulately pointed out—recognised by society and the law, with the various benefits and responsibilities that that entails. Since then, the Government are proud to have introduced same-sex marriage, creating equality of opportunity between same and opposite-sex intimate couples in accessing marriage.
My noble friend’s Bill seeks to amend the Civil Partnership Act 2004, by altering the definition of who may enter a civil partnership, and thus the nature of civil partnerships themselves. This Bill would make it possible for qualified pairs of siblings to enter a civil partnership with one another—and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, pointed out, what happens about any other subsequent children in that family or home? It would also give them exemption from the clauses within the existing Civil Partnership Act, which explicitly bar them from being able to enter a civil partnership, notably the forbidden degree of relationship criteria, and whether they are the same or opposite sex to one another.
This morning we have heard a number of poignant stories, mainly around financial or inheritance tax problems, and those involved certainly deserve our sympathy. However, I must make it clear from the outset that the Government have significant reservations about this Bill. My noble friend talked at length about the financial hardships facing siblings who live together upon one of their deaths, and I utterly sympathise with those affected. However, these have all been matters relating to finance and, in some circumstances, to inheritance tax. By attempting to extend civil partnerships to sibling couples, this Bill seeks the wrong remedy to the issue at hand. Quite simply, this Bill is not the appropriate vehicle for addressing the grievances expressed this morning.
At this juncture, I apologise to noble Lords who have mentioned the correspondence from Catherine Utley. There was a bit of uncertainty about which department should reply but, after my noble friend alerted my office to Catherine Utley’s letter, we have tracked it down, I have a copy of it here, and we will respond to it as soon as possible after the debate. I apologise for the unanswered correspondence.
Most noble Lords have referred this morning to inheritance tax. My noble friend Lord Lexden asked about amending laws on inheritance tax. As we know, the tax gives a number of advantages to married couples and civil partners over and above cohabiting couples or others, because it reflects the unique legal commitment that married couples and civil partners enter into. There are no plans to change the inheritance tax rules in this regard. Any extension of the treatment for married couples or civil partners would be a matter for the Treasury. Currently, I can give some figures. Less than 4%—so that is a very small percentage of estates—have an inheritance tax liability. That is because inheritance tax is payable only on an estate that exceeds the level of the nil rate band, which is currently £325,000. Of course, the residence nil rate band, if that is also appropriate, is £125,000. That can be claimed against the value only of an individual’s home, and only when that value is transferred to their direct descendants. The threshold for inheritance tax is £325,000; a 40% tax rate applies to property after this, but it does not apply to spouses or civil partners. In the current 2018-19 tax year everyone is allowed to leave an estate valued at up to £325,000 plus the new main residence band of £125,000, giving a total allowance of £450,000. So a person’s inheritance tax allowance rises by the proportion of their deceased spouse or civil partner’s allowance that is unused, meaning that a surviving spouse or civil partner can currently move up to £900,000 tax free. That is probably at the heart of what we are talking about today. I hope that that explains the inheritance tax provision at this point in time.
To go back to civil partnerships, they are far more than a legal contract for providing financial and other benefits to two people. They are a significant instrument, allowing same-sex couples to have their intimate partner relationship recognised by society and the law. This is especially pertinent as they were introduced at a time when marriage was not yet available to same-sex couples, a situation which we have now rectified.
I briefly acknowledge, as noble Lords have mentioned it, the recent judgment in the Supreme Court, which ruled that the fact that opposite-sex couples are unable to form a civil partnership, whereas same-sex couples can choose to enter either a civil partnership or a marriage, is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The Government are of course fully aware of this judgment and are giving it careful consideration to make the right decision about the future of civil partnerships. However, that is a very different issue to that of extending civil partnerships to sibling couples. The Supreme Court’s ruling relates to same and opposite-sex intimate partner relationships, which is a different type of relationship to that of siblings or other familial relationships, however stable and committed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, pointed out. It is clear that an exclusive, intimate and loving relationship between two people holds a unique and special place in society. Marriage and civil partnership were created for such exclusive, intimate, loving relationships.
My noble friend Lord Lexden, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, referred to the case of Sybil and Joyce Burden, two sisters who took a case to the European Court of Human Rights in 2008 to seek the right to enter a civil partnership with one another. The court ruled against the claimants, arguing that there was a clear distinction between intimate couple relationships and sibling and other types of familial relationships. The official report of the court stated that,
“the relationship between siblings was of a different nature to that between married couples and homosexual civil partners under the United Kingdom’s Civil Partnership Act. One of the defining characteristics of a marriage or Civil Partnership … union was that it was forbidden to close family members. The fact that the applicants had chosen to live together all their adult lives did not alter that essential difference between the two types of relationship”.
The Bill seeks to redefine the very nature of what a civil partnership is and who is, or is not, eligible to enter one. As the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, pointed out, it also raises the question of why, were it to be extended beyond the intimate couple relationship, it should be extended only to siblings and not to other long-standing relationships such as disabled parent and caring son or daughter, or even to more than two people. The noble Baroness also touched upon the difficulties of dissolution and the tricky problems of coercion that are sometimes found in families.
I have listened with care to the views of noble Lords this morning, and while I recognise the difficulties faced by the individuals which have been raised, I remain unconvinced that this Bill’s approach to altering civil partnership is the solution. The Government recognise and support committed, intimate partners who seek to have their relationship formalised legally and in the eyes of society.
My Lords, sibling couples throughout our country will have been heartened and encouraged by most of this moving debate this morning. It was on their behalf that I brought the Bill before Parliament. For too long their interests have been neglected and ignored, and it will mean much to them to know that there is a strong view in your Lordships’ House that the injustices they suffer should be corrected. I thank all those who voiced their strong support for this short but important Bill.
To the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, with whom I work closely on LGBT matters, as they mentioned, I simply say this. In 2004, a hugely important reform was enacted. Its passage through this House and the reaction to it 14 years ago may have left them deeply dissatisfied. We have moved on. I see no reason why important legislation which served one purpose in 2004 should not now be used to honour and recognise other important, stable, committed relationships. That is the heart of the matter. A review is taking place. The essential immediate point must be to ensure that the review encompasses the Bill, and I look to the Minister to assist in that process.
This is not the first time in recent weeks I have found myself not completely at one with the Home Office. The Minister will recall another outstanding matter that needs to be very immediately addressed, touching the shortcomings of Operation Conifer. We are not at one, but this morning this House has expressed an extremely strong view. I look forward to further constructive discussions about the issues with which the Bill is associated and I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.