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Friday, 11 January, 2002, 08:40 GMT
'Gay marriage' bill launched
Gay couple
Gay couples currently have few rights under UK law
Gay partners and unmarried couples could get the same rights as those who are married, if a proposed new bill is passed by Parliament.

The proposal from a Liberal Democrat peer - which would also apply to unmarried heterosexual couples - could see two gay people getting legal recognition for their relationship.

Couples who are in long and enduring relationships should be able to have their relationships recognised

Lord Lester
Backed by gay rights group Stonewall, Lord Lester's bill proposes the establishment of "civil partnerships", provides for the registration of the partnership and sets out the ensuing legal consequences.

The bill, which also contains a provision for terminating such a partnership, was launched in the Lords on Thursday with a second reading debate set for 25 January.

Currently the rights enjoyed by married couples, such as the automatic right of inheritance in the event of a spouse dying intestate or the right of succession to certain tenancies and to pension funds, are denied to non-married couples.

'Not like marriage'

Lord Lester said: "Couples who are in long and enduring relationships should be able to have their relationships recognised."

The law in this country is unnecessarily cruel and discriminatory

Angela Mason, Stonewall executive director
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, Lord Lester said.

"Their property rights would be recognised - inheritance rights, pension rights and, if one of them dies, the right to get bereavement damages.

"Matters of that kind would be recognised for the first time," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Lord Lester said there was a popular misconception among people who co-habit that "common law" marriages were recognised in law, when this was not the case.

And new legislation was needed to bring Britain into line with most other democratic countries.

'Cruel and discriminatory'

Stonewall's executive director Angela Mason 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."

Practical issues

Ian Burford, who together with his partner of 38 years was the first man to sign London Mayor Ken Livingstone's partnership register for gay couples, gave his backing Lord Lester's bill.

Actor Ian Burford
Ian Burford: backs proposed new law
He said there were "practical issues at the end of one's life", in particular death duties, hospital visits and medical rights, which made a change in the law necessary.

"People who have committed themselves to each other should have the same legal rights (as married people)," he told the Today programme.

The London partnership register is a largely symbolic instrument with no legal force.

Marriage 'ideal'

Hugh McKinner, chairman of the National Family Campaign, said he saw Lord Lester's proposals as an undesirable "erosion of the differential between marriage and co-habitation."

Marriage was "an ideal" and had been proven as the best way of bringing up children, he added, and the law should be strengthened to encourage couples to stay together.

"I don't think the way to do that is to have, in effect, a marriage contract for co-habiting couples," he told the Today programme.

Lord Lester, Liberal Democrat peer
"Any couples who are in enduring relationships should have their relationships recognised"
Ian Burford, Actor
and Hugh McKinner, National Family Campaign
See also:

26 Apr 01 | Health
Gays 'have right to parenthood'
18 Sep 00 | Liberal Democrats
Lib Dems back gay legal rights
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