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Mr. Speaker: The Chair has no power to force an hon. Member to appear before a Committee. I heard what the Secretary of State said and I also heard what the Chairman of the Select Committee said. It seemed to me that there was a mood of co-operation, so that should assist the right hon. Gentleman and everyone else.

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Relationships (Civil Registration)

5.53 pm

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East): I beg to move,

The terms "common law wife" or "common law husband" are frequently used to describe people who live together. There are various urban myths about what the terms mean and about what rights people have over one another or over one another's property after they have lived together for a period of time. The time could be six months or two years—it all depends on what one hears. However, in British law there is no such person as a common law wife or husband; no legal rights or responsibilities are earned by people who live together in a relationship.

Before Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act 1753, people's relationships could be recognised in several different ways, which attracted some legal and social consequences. One of the most widely known practices was jumping the broomstick. A couple jumped over a broom that was leant against their front door, thereby gaining certain legal rights and responsibilities. Divorce was certainly easier in those days because the relationship was undone by jumping back over the broom in the presence of witnesses. There is no indication of the means used to resolve arguments over the distribution of assets held in common, although probably there were no assets.

The 1753 Act resulted in relationships being recognised by law when a marriage ceremony took place in a church or chapel. Subsequent legislation widened the measure so that non-conformist ceremonies and those held in register offices were accepted.

What do I seek to do through the Bill? In July, my constituent, Rose Green, visited my advice surgery. She had lived with John Pendlebery for more than 12 years; they were engaged but they had never married—they never got around to it. They loved each other and saw no reason to change their situation. They expected to spend the rest of their lives together, but in September last year John Pendlebery died tragically and suddenly from a brain haemorrhage. That is when Rose found out that people who live together have no rights or responsibilities towards each other. She was not allowed to register John's death. She was not allowed to sign for his funeral. She even had to get his family's permission to make an entry in the book of remembrance.

Rose said:

That is why I seek leave to bring in the Bill, so that people like Rose and John who live together can have some rights and responsibilities towards each other.

I am grateful for the support that I have received from the Law Society in preparing the Bill. If anyone wants to read the philosophical underpinning for the changes to the law that I propose, they could do worse than look at the report published by the Law Society in September 1999: "Cohabitation proposals for reform of the law". It can be found at under family law.

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I have recently been contacted by the Solicitors Family Law Association which also proposes that there should be a new cohabitation law, separate and distinct from matrimonial law. Those proposals are based on the experience of the association's 5,000 members in dealing with the breakdown of families, both married and unmarried. They are members of the legal professions who work daily with people in the same situation as Rose and John, their children and families. Members of the association say that the existing law is unclear, uncertain and inadequate.

I am also pleased to have the support of the Thames Valley Police Federation. It is campaigning against inequality in the police pension scheme. If unmarried police officers die, their pension dies with them, whereas if they are married, an annual pension of one half of their final pension is payable to their spouse.

That inequality does not affect only a few people, as some have suggested. A recent survey showed that 52 per cent. of the 6,000 employees of Thames Valley police are unmarried; 40 per cent. of that number have said that they have no intention to marry. That means that 600 Thames Valley police officers, or 10 per cent. of that force's employees, would benefit from the Bill.

I also pay tribute to WPC Alison Brown of Thames Valley police. Alison has been in a stable relationship for more than a decade and, like all Thames Valley police officers, pays 11 per cent. of her salary into the scheme, yet should she die her partner would not be looked after. Alison has been leading a campaign for a change in the police pension scheme.

It is ironic that that situation is reflected throughout public sector pension schemes, while many private sector schemes recognise the rights of partners and allow people to nominate whoever they wish to receive benefits if they should die. Although I said that the situation for Thames Valley police is reflected throughout the public sector, that is not quite true. In July, hon. Members voted for our own scheme to allow pension benefits to be paid to unmarried partners. I supported that change and voted for it. It would be ironic if hon. Members opposed the Bill, thus denying others the rights we so recently gave ourselves. I ask hon. Members to consider how that might look outside the House.

Can we learn from the rest of the world? Is there anything similar elsewhere? In some parts of the world, people are considered to have a de facto marriage after they have lived together for a certain period. That is the case in most states in Australia. I considered that option, which would automatically cover all people who live together, but I rejected it. It is important that people choose to have rights and responsibilities towards each other and that they opt in.

If we look closer to home and to Europe, we see a different model of people who live together earning rights and responsibilities. People have to choose to opt in. The model is one of partnership registration, as I propose today. It already exists in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, France, Germany, Belgium and the Catalonia region of Spain. Denmark has had a scheme for registration of partnerships since 1989, with the other countries following on at intervals. Virtually all our near European neighbours have introduced the change and the sky has not fallen in.

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One concern about the Bill is the financial implication. It would amend social security legislation to place registered partners in the same position as spouses and unmarried heterosexual partners. At present, lesbian and gay partners are treated more generously under social security provision, and it seems likely that the savings to the Treasury that such a change would involve would offset any small costs arising from changes to inheritance tax and pensions.

I am also grateful for the support and help that I have had with the Bill from Stonewall and Angela Mason. Shortly after a piece appeared in my weekly newspaper, the Reading Chronicle, about Rose Green, the constituent I mentioned earlier, I was contacted by Ed and Tony who have been in a stable relationship for many years. Because he was a few years older than Tony, Ed was concerned about what would happen if he died first. I am grateful for the support that I have received from Ed and Tony in putting together the Bill, but they are not alone.

John is in a seven-year relationship. With his partner, he is buying a car, and the model comes with a year's free insurance, but that insurance applies only to what are described as "normal" couples. Therefore, John and his partner have to decide who can be insured for free—the other will have to pay.

Dick and Ben are in their 70s and have been together for 50 years. They have endured the general prejudice against the gay community, as well as some of the injustices that the Bill sets out to correct. They jointly own their home and most other assets, so they will face massive inheritance taxes that might make it impossible for the survivor to remain in their home.

Rachel has been with her partner for 21 years, and they are life partners. Rachel has just been diagnosed with cancer and, because she is the breadwinner, that has brought home to both partners the financial, legal and other concerns that they have. Rachel says that the NHS has improved in its recognition of same-sex partners, although she has also said that one is left feeling grateful rather than with the feeling that one has the right to be recognised.

Mark wrote to me to support the Bill. He said:

I have introduced the Bill for that reason.

An article that appeared in The Times on Wednesday 17 October said:

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