Civil Partnership Act 2004 (Amendment) (Sibling Couples) Bill [HL] Debate

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Department: Department for International Development

Civil Partnership Act 2004 (Amendment) (Sibling Couples) Bill [HL]

Baroness Williams of Trafford Excerpts
2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Friday 20th July 2018

(5 years, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Civil Partnership Act 2004 (Amendment) (Sibling Couples) Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con)
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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.

Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool
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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?

Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait Baroness Williams of Trafford
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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.