This is the story behind the amendment I am moving on Monday 29th during the passage of the Care Bill. It is the plight of two very elderly sisters who have lived together all their lives, unmarried, and who cared for their parents when they were alive. Now when one of them dies the survivor will have to pay a hefty inheritance tax on the value of their home, so large that she will have to sell it to raise the cash. And that may mean her having to go into residential care, and in any case, an unsettling move in her last years. If they were two women who were married or in a civil partnership, the tax would be deferred until the survivor died, so that she could stay on undisturbed. This is clearly discriminatory.
The sisters took their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, but they lost. The court said that the way they were treated was indeed discriminatory compared to married couples, but that Britain was entitled to draw a clear line between the way married people (& civil partners) were treated, and others, in pursuit of valuable social goals. This is how it was reported at the time.
That clear line has now blurred, because same sex couples will soon be able to marry, and they too will benefit from the inheritance tax relief. I got interested because two of my former pupils were the barristers representing the sisters; I have mentioned their plight a few times in parliamentary debates, and the sisters have written to me. The government has not been sympathetic so far.I tried to get a similar amendment passed during the debate on the Marriage (Same Sex) Bill, so that when the government reviews civil partnerships, as it is committed to do, it could also look at the legal situation of family members who have lived together for decades. I failed, as the government and the opposition were not willing to give any ground to amendments, no matter how innocuous, during the passage of that Bill. But the case for saying that sisters/brother/parents and children (who live in the same house and are elderly) are discriminated against, is now much stronger. For after the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex) Bill, they are the only people who cannot marry or form civil partnerships and thereby gain the tax relief on death that they deserve. Every other adult in the population can take advantage of marriage or civil partnership if they wish to, for all sorts of reasons, including tax, but family members, like the sisters, or a daughter who has cared all her life for an elderly parent in the same house, cannot.
My goal would cost the government nothing. Only about 3% of the population are affected by inheritance tax, so the number of family members living together who fall in this category is probably very small. I am not suggesting that they be relieved of inheritance tax altogether, simply that when one of the two dies, the tax be deferred until the death of the survivor. It is not appropriate for the Lords to suggest changes in tax law, so this amendment is presented as an inquiry. Indeed, there are other rights that may be relevant to the situation of the family members described above, e.g. occupation of the home, consent to medical interventions and so on. So I hope that the Lords will now accept this amendment and move to end the discrimination.
The title to this blog, by the way, comes from the song in the film White Christmas: “Sisters, sisters, There were never such devoted sisters” -http://www.stlyrics.com/songs/i/irvingberlin1953/sisterssisters665226.html and the lyrics are well worth reading . . .