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Last Updated: Monday, 30 June 2003, 16:00 GMT 17:00 UK
New rights for gay couples
Same sex wedding
Gay couples will have property and pension rights
Gay and lesbian couples will be awarded the same legal rights as married couples under plans outlined by the government.

These will include pension and property entitlements if couples register their commitment in a civil ceremony.

The moves will give next-of-kin rights in hospitals, allow gays to benefit from a dead partner's pension and exempt them from inheritance tax on a partner's home.

However, the changes have been criticised by human rights campaigners who complain that heterosexual non-married couples are discriminated against.

Under the plans, gay couples will not be entitled to a "marriage" ceremony, but will be able to sign an official document at a register office in front of the registrar and two witnesses.

It's no fun being the last bastion of acceptable prejudice - and a change in the law this year as we reach our 25th anniversary would be a real cause for celebration

Heterosexual couples will not be eligible for the registration scheme, a decision attacked by veteran gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.

Mr Tatchell said: "It is divisive, heterophobic and discriminatory to exclude unmarried heterosexual couples," he said.

"Cohabiting heterosexuals also lack legal recognition and protection. This is a grave injustice."

'Unimaginative'

He added: "It is a pity the government has opted for an unimaginative, watered down version of marriage, instead of having the foresight to devise an entirely new, modern legal framework for partnership recognition."

Liberal Democrat equality spokesman Evan Harris also criticised the government for ignoring unmarried heterosexual partners while welcoming the recognition for same sex couples.

"It is typical that the government has only done the bare minimum," he said.

"The decision to exclude opposite sex couples from claiming the rights conferred by civil partnerships will be a bitter disappointment to hundreds of thousands of heterosexual unmarried couples.

Civil partnership registration would underline the inherent value of committed same-sex relationships
Jacqui Smith
Minister for women and equality

"Currently the government treat them as married when cutting their benefits, but ministers are clearly refusing to reciprocate when it comes to pension sharing."

The government says heterosexual couples are excluded from the proposals because they have the option of getting married.

While the consultation paper does not use the term "gay marriage", the new Civil Partnership Registration Scheme seems to have been designed to be as close to a marriage contract as possible.

Gay couples would not have to live together for a certain length of time to be eligible for the rights, and if the partnership breaks up, there would be a "formal, court-based process" for dissolving it.

'Rights and responsibilities'

Jacqui Smith, minister for women and equality, said the plans, outlined in a consultation paper, would give gay couples "rights and responsibilities".

"This is not about being 'PC', but about bringing law and practice into line with the reality of people's lives," she said.

"Thousands of people are in long-term, stable, same-sex relationships.

Wedding ring
Gay couples will be able to sign a document with witnesses
"They are committed to each other in all areas of their joint lives, but their relationships are invisible in the eyes of the law.

"Same-sex couples often face a range of humiliating, distressing and unnecessary problems because of a lack of legal recognition.

"Civil partnership registration would underline the inherent value of committed same-sex relationships.

"It would support stable families and show that we really value the diversity of the society we live in.

"It would open the way to respect, recognition and justice for those who have been denied it too long."

Under the new plans, gay couples will be able to gain parental responsibility for each other's children, receive joint state pension benefits and be obliged to support each other financially.

'Overdue'

They will be able to claim compensation for fatal accidents or criminal injuries, have recognition under inheritance and intestacy rules, the right to register their partner's death and continue tenancy of a property.

Ben Summerskill, chief executive of gay rights group Stonewall, said he was delighted with the plans, which were "long overdue".

"It's not just social status that matters, like the right to visit each other in hospital, but the right to share a partner's pension, for example."

He said that was "something available to every heterosexual".

Schemes which recognise committed homosexual relationships have already been set up in nine EU countries.

A register for gay couples, set up by London Mayor Ken Livingstone in 2001, has already been signed by more than 350 gay, lesbian or unmarried heterosexual couples.

CURRENT UK PARTNERSHIP RIGHTS
Married couple Same sex couple
Next of kin Husband or wife can be recognised in law as next of kin, for example to express wishes of partner when ill. Partners can never be recognised as next of kin, although under Mental Health Act they can now be considered 'nearest relatives'.
Death registration Husband or wife counts as relative so can officially register death of partner. Cannot officially register death of partner and must get 'legal' relative to do it for them.
Tax In the case of a spouse dying, the surviving partner does not pay inheritance tax on their estate. If one partner dies the other has to pay inheritance tax (currently up to 40% over 250,000).
Pensions Husband or wife, and any children, can benefit from pension payments of partner following their death. Some company schemes confer pension rights on gay and lesbian couples. But in most cases if one dies their pension payments cannot be transferred to the surviving partner.
Hospital visits Husband or wife has right to see spouse in hospital and to be kept informed of treatment. Have no rights to see partner or to be kept informed.
Property On death of spouse, husband or wife has right to remain in property they shared. On partner's death the surviving partner, even with children, has no automatic right to continue living in property.
Criminal compensation Have rights to claim for partners' death under the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme. Recently given rights to claim for partners' death under the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme.
Source: Stonewall





BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
The BBC's Niall Dickson
"These proposals will make many feel uncomfortable"



VOTE RESULTS
Should gay couples have equal rights?
Yes
 77.70% 
No
 22.30% 
139 Votes Cast
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

SEE ALSO:
City recognises 'gay marriages'
25 May 03 |  West Midlands
Gay rights plan receives backing
06 Dec 02 |  Politics
Gay couples 'to get equal rights'
06 Dec 02 |  Politics
Head to head: Gay equality
06 Dec 02 |  Politics


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