10.20 am July 20th 2018
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
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.