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    First Published: Before August 2002
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Pressure on the government to change the law giving equal rights to gay and unmarried couples has been significantly increased after leading Tories backed reform. On Friday Conservative peers decided not to force a vote on Liberal Democrat proposals to create a civil partnership.
The shadow home secretary, Oliver Letwin, said: "We don't want to create a pale imitation of marriage, but we do recognise that there are real grievances for homosexual couples."

Lord Lester's Bill is very similar to the Partnership Bill introduced by Reading MP Jane Griffiths Commons last Autumn. Her Private Member's Bill was passed by the Commons, but the government said that an immediate change in the law was unlikely because of their Parliamentary priorities. This new bill in the Lords is part of a concerted campaign to get the issue pushed up the government's agenda. Now reform has the backing of the Tories. In the Lords, Lady Buscombe, a prominent Conservative moderniser, said: "It must be right to confront any form of discrimination which compromises mutual respect and commitment within a stable and loving relationship for no good reason." Gay Labour peer Lord Ali challenged the government to prove its radicalism by taking up the bill. "The government has a moral obligation to give the bill safe passage,"

Lord Lester's plans which are backed by Stonewall would mean that umarried gay or straight couples who register would be legally able to:

be next of kin
arrange their property jointly
make provisions in the area of mental health, social welfare and social security
benefit from their partner's pension scheme
register their partner's death
inherit their partner's property even if no wills had been made
claim exemption from paying inheritance tax on their property

Campaign group Stonewall say that a successful debate on Friday was vital to persuade the government that the pressure for change is building. Already as a result of the two Partnership Bills and the success of Ken Livingstone's London Partnership Register the government have asked ministers and their departments to report on what changes will be required, if and when gay and umarried couples are given equal rights.

Liberal Democrat Lord Lester said: "Couples who are in long and enduring relationships should be able to have their relationships recognised." Although the "civil partnership register" he is proposing was not "exactly like marriage", it would give co-habitees many of the rights currently enjoyed by married couples. Angela Mason of Stonewall said "There is a very strong moral and practical case for changing the law to recognise same-sex partnerships. The law in this country is unnecessarily cruel and discriminatory. This Bill is not about gay marriage. It is about allowing couples in mutually caring relationships to provide for and protect each other."

THE GRIFFITH'S BILL

Jane Griffith's Relationships (Civil Registration) Bill which was passed by the Commons in October 2001 with a majority of 120, marked a real change in attitudes towards the discrimination suffered by gay couples. It was backed by the Law Society who are also pressing for a change in legislation. Mark Harper of the Society's Family Law Committee said, "Someone who has lived with their partner for 10 or 20 years, why shouldn't they be able to claim for maintenance or a share of property? And also why can't they claim on the death of their partner as that is when more rights are needed."

Angela Mason, Executive Director of Stonewall, said they supported the proposals too. " This is really a case of the law catching up with the realities of peoples' lives. This Bill is not proposing gay marriage, but it will stop much of the discrimination against same-sex couples discrimination which is often very distressing and certainly unfair."

Though MPs backed the Bill, the implicit recognition of same-sex marriages was expected to cause more controversy. Another Labour MP Stuart Bell of Middlesbrough signalled the kind of opposition which is likely surface.

"Couples who have a civil registration will in reality have all the rights of a married couple," he said, "The Bill proposed ... would bring about a major redefinition of what is involved in marriage". The MP called for a referendum if same-sex marriages were to become official government policy.

Though the Griffith's Bill was always unlikely to become law, the fact that it successfully passed a first Parliamentary hurdle, made it much easier for campaigners to argue that legislation to end this discrimination had to be introduced at the earliest opportunity.

First London Registrations
London Partnership Register Set Up
First Gay Weddings in Holland

 

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