Catherine Utley is a former Senior Broadcast Journalist at BBC World Service News.
Tomorrow, Tim Loughton, will seek, through an amendment to his private members’ bill, to speed through legislation to allow mixed sex couples who disapprove of marriage to register as civil partners instead. (Gay couples already have the option of marriage or civil partnership; for straight couples, it’s marriage or nothing.)
If he succeeds, those like Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld – who took their case about this discrepancy to the Supreme Court – could be able, as soon as next year, to benefit from all the fiscal advantages and legal security so essential to cohabiting couples, without having to go through the ignominy, as they see it, of getting married – an institution which is laden with “patriarchal baggage”, and wholly unsuitable as an expression of their relationship. The Prime Minister has already announced the government intends to legislate to extend civil partnerships to such couples; the only discussion is over how urgently it will put this into practice.
Meanwhile, I have spent the last few days immersed in the stories of some of those devoted, long-term cohabiting partnerships who don’t make much noise about their troubles and whom the government is therefore happy to ignore. Not for them the luxury of deciding which legal framework best suits them; these partners have no possibility, nor apparently any prospect, of any rights or legal safeguards at all.
Beatrice, now 90, and her sister, Mary, have lived together since Mary was born 86 years ago. They wonder whether any marriage has lasted longer. The sisters jointly own their home, pool their pensions and split the bills. Their father died when Mary was 17 and they looked after their mother at home until she died, aged 100. Yet, because theirs is neither a sexual nor a romantic relationship, the state refuses to recognise its worth. If it did, it could offer Mary and Beatrice the right to be treated – as civil partners are already treated (along with married people) – as one legal entity for pension, tax and other purposes.
The denial of this recognition will be especially cruelly felt when either Beatrice or Mary dies – because whoever is left will have to bear, not only the grief of losing her lifelong companion, but the immediate loss of half the joint pension income, plus an inheritance tax bill on the deceased sister’s share of their bungalow. Mary and Beatrice have saved all their lives, but all they have managed to set aside for the old age care of the sister who is left alone will be swallowed up by the taxman on the death of her “other half”. Not knowing which will die first, each is as frightened as much for the other as herself.
Mary and Beatrice are among a large number of “sibling couples” who have written to the Conservative peer (and official historian of the Conservative Party), Alistair Lexden, since he took up their cause, most recently in a private members’ bill which had its second reading in the Lords in July.
His bill would extend eligibility for civil partnerships to long term, adult cohabiting siblings. He sees this as the first step towards addressing the wider problem of the lack of state support for all closely-related family members who pair up in adulthood, many thousands of them acting as informal carers for elderly relatives. It is a deeply Conservative cause, though one which the present government of the “party of the family”, sadly, has treated, to date, with cold-hearted disdain. As one who has lived with my sister for decades (we even brought up my child together, from her birth to adulthood) I have been privileged to work with Lord Lexden on his bill and involve myself with those he is trying to help.
The letters he has received reflect the wide range of difficulties faced by those long term cohabitants who, because they are barred by virtue of their blood ties from civil partnership, are denied all the rights that go with them. These include: sharing of income tax allowances, joint pension rights, freedom from complications with passing on rented tenancies and the postponement of inheritance tax until both partners have died. Without this last, many (my sister and I included) who bought their homes long before property prices went crazy, stand to lose them – with all their beloved associations – to inheritance tax on the first death.
A civil partnership, though it carries the same fiscal rights as marriage, is not a marriage, as Keidan and Steinfeld have successfully argued. For a start, it carries no legal expectation of a sexual relationship. Any two friends or acquaintances can form a civil partnership. There is then, no logical reason, Lord Lexden argues, why, now that same sex marriage is available, the vehicle of civil partnership should not be used to address the remaining glaring injustice, which is against family members. The thousands of social media users who screeched at Edward Leigh for “advocating unnatural sex” when he tweeted in support of sibling civil partnerships and those who called my sister and me “incestuous witches” when our own views on this were publicised, had not, I fancy, taken the trouble to grasp the argument.
They are not the only ones. Eighty-six years of committed cohabitation, caring for their mother, is not enough to convince Baroness Williams (the Equalities Minister in the Lords who has been charged with answering my letters) that Mary and Beatrice are as deserving of the same level of state support and recognition as any unmarried partnerships who have the option of legalising their union. Lady Williams does not address this. She merely points out that the relationship is different. My sister and me, or Mary and Beatrice or any of the cohabiting siblings who have written to Lord Lexden with their different tales of anxiety and difficulty, are not to be helped because, to quote the minister’s letter to me, they/we are not “in an intimate partner relationship which is one characterised by committed, mutual, exclusive, intimate love, however expressed”.
By all means change the name “civil partnership” if, because of its original purpose, it carries with it connotations of a physical relationship. Phase it out, if necessary, and replace it with some different system which is fair to all. Or separate the rights from the committed legal bond and grant the rights to family members without insisting on the legal bond. Use the Budget, for a start, to announce that you have finally understood what the Burden sisters argued at the European Court of Human Rights more than a decade ago: that long-term cohabiting family members should be treated as civil partners, at least for inheritance tax purposes, so that they are not made homeless on bereavement.
Please, though, whatever you do, do not call yourselves Conservatives if you believe that family bonds have no worth and that living together outside marriage is to be supported by the State only if there’s reason to believe that there’s sex involved.