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Friday, 25 January, 2002, 16:10 GMT
Tories relax stance on gay rights
Gay couple
The Lib Dems support rights for unmarried couples
The Conservative Party has signalled a change in its approach to gay issues by calling for homosexual partners to be given some of the legal rights held by married couples.

The shift, part of the ongoing Tory drive to rehabilitate itself with the electorate, was praised by former party vice-chairman Steven Norris as a welcome step forward after the tone set during the Hague years.

Shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin said the Conservatives believe in marriage on practical grounds because it protects children but gay couples who could not marry had real grievances.

I believe that as soon as marriage is equated with other arrangements, such as cohabitation, it is downgraded

Lady Young

He wants issues to be addressed such as the right to be consulted if one partner needed a life-threatening operation, as well as rights to inherit assets or the tenancy of homes.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Letwin said: "Those of us who are heterosexual have the choice to marry and Conservatives believe that people should exercise that choice if they want any of the rights and benefits.

"But homosexuals can't marry. We don't want to create a pale imitation of marriage, but we do recognise that there are real grievances."

The shadow home secretary said the Conservatives did not want to see gay weddings, nor did they favour other similar types of ceremonies.

Politicians should not pontificate on morality, argued Mr Letwin, who said his proposals were for practical, not moral reasons.

'Relaxed and sensible'

Under William Hague's Tory leadership, the party strongly opposed government attempts to abolish Section 28.

Mr Norris was pleased the party was now moving to a more "relaxed and sensible" approach to homosexuality, especially if it tapped what he believes is potential support among gay voters.

But he warned: "I fear altering the tone is not enough. Unless the Tories drop Section 28 they will not be taken seriously."

Asked whether he could imagine someone like Baroness Young would be likely to leave a Conservative party more tolerant of homosexuality Mr Norris said it might be a price worth paying.

Oliver Letwin
Letwin: Politicians should not moralise

He said it would be "a price I would hate to pay".

But he suggested that Lady Young - a leading opponent of dropping Section 28 which bans the "promotion" of homosexuality by local authorities - would be left with few political options, "if she believes that it is unsupportable to stay in the Conservative Party.

"Apart from the British National Party, I don't think there is a party that is excitable about people's personal sexuality."

A spokeswoman for Lady Young said she was unavailable to comment on the Conservative announcement.

The Tory peer has, however, launched an attack on a bill that would give gay and unmarried heterosexual couples many of the same legal rights as married people.

Civil partnerships

The bill, proposed by Liberal Democrat peer Lord Lester and backed by gay rights group Stonewall, would see the establishment of "civil partnerships", provides for the registration of the partnership and sets out the ensuing legal consequences.

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

Lord Lester said: "The Bill enables men and women to come together to form a caring relationship of mutual support protected by law.

Steven Norris
Mr Norris welcomed the change in tone
"It provides a fair and appropriate remedy for different family situations."

Lord Williams of Mostyn, the leader of the Lords, said that the government would "look very carefully" at the implications of setting up a scheme of civil partnership registration.

But Lady Young said the bill makes civil partnerships "indistinguishable from marriage in virtually all respects".

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes said he welcomed the fact that the Tories had "realised that their previous policy on same sex couples was inadequate and uncivilised".

"But their new position is clearly nonsense," he said.

"If Tories were either up to date or committed to civil rights they would, without compromising the sanctity and status of marriage, support the Liberal Democrat Civil Partnerships Bill."

The BBC's Nicholas Jones
"Iain Duncan Smith has embraced much of Michael Portillo's failed agenda"
See also:

14 Jan 02 | Scotland
MSP rings marriage changes
11 Jan 02 | UK Politics
'Gay marriage' bill launched
26 Apr 01 | Health
Gays 'have right to parenthood'
29 Nov 00 | UK
Profile: Baroness Young
18 Sep 00 | Liberal Democrats
Lib Dems back gay legal rights
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