John Hayward Posted: 1 May 2008
Keywords: Sex & Families,
'The gay rights group Stonewall today accused a group of Conservative backbenchers of trying to wreck the civil partnership bill by tabling an amendment giving siblings who live together the same rights as gay couples. Tory MPs Gerald Howarth, Christopher Chope and Edward Leigh say they want to make the bill fairer for "ordinary families" by restoring an amendment that was passed in the House of Lords but later dismissed by MPs.'
So read the news on 8 November 2004. The Conservative backbenchers claimed at the time that the bill would create injustices for siblings, carers and other people in non-sexual relationships, despite being designed to end discrimination against same-sex couples. The amendment was, of course, defeated. This week we have seen the outworking of the very injustice about which we were then warned, but to which our politicians chose to turn a blind eye.
The day before every Budget since 1976, Joyce and Sybil Burden have written to the Chancellor of the Exchequer pleading to be recognised under the tax rules as a cohabiting couple. The two sisters, now aged 90 and 82, have lived together all their lives and believe it would be unfair to require them to sell their home in order to pay inheritance tax when the first of them dies. Married couples have always been treated differently and, since the Civil Partnership Act was passed in 2004, so have same-sex couples in a civil partnership; but siblings, carers and other people in non-sexual relationships are still penalised following the death of those they live with.
The sisters resorted to taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights but have been told, "The absence of such a legally-binding agreement between the applicants (the Burdens) rendered their relationship of co-habitation, despite its long duration, fundamentally different to that of a married or civil partnership couple." As Joyce Burden has wryly observed in the past, "If we were lesbians we would have all the rights in the world. But we are sisters, and it seems we have no rights at all."
This case raises all the usual questions about the importance of the family in a healthy society and touches on the whole area of intimacy and sexual ethics that the Jubilee Centre has been working on. That we currently have the wrong balance between rights and responsibilities in this regard is perhaps best expressed by the blogger Archbishop Cranmer: "It is curious indeed that the state now recognises a cohabiting same-sex couple in a loving (eros) relationship, but not a same-sex cohabiting couple in a loving (storge) relationship. And so erotic love trumps familial love, and the unconditional (agape) love of God is tested further still."