Gay and lesbian couples are to be given the chance to get similar legal rights to married couples under a new Civil Partnership Bill.
In 2001 Germany introduced similar equality legislation
The measures, unveiled on Wednesday, allows legal recognition for gay couples for the first time.
The Bill gives the legal rights to same-sex couples who register their partnership at a civil ceremony.
Official estimates of the number of couples likely to join the scheme are now thought to have been much too high.
Last June, the government suggested that up to 425,600 same-sex couples would sign up to the new civil partnerships by 2050.
But now Department of Trade and Industry officials put the figure at 42,500. The change comes after take-up in Scandinavian countries already offering such schemes has proved much lower than expected.
By 2010, between 5,500 and 11,000 same-sex couples are predicted to join the scheme. The original estimate was 31,000.
The plans, announced in last year's Queen's Speech, follow a long campaign for equality for same sex partners.
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 process for dissolving it.
It means same-sex couples will be entitled to a range of property rights, the same exemption as married couples on inheritance tax, social security and pension benefits, and also the ability to get parental responsibility for a partner's children.
CIVIL PARTNERSHIP RIGHTS
Social security and pension benefits
Possible parental responsibility for partner's children
Full recognition for life assurance
Responsibility to provide reasonable maintenance for partners and children
Same tax treatment as married couples, including exemptions from inheritance tax on homes
Visiting rights in hospitals
The term "gay marriage" is not used in the Bill, but the Civil Partnership Registration Scheme seems to have been designed to be as close to a marriage contract as possible.
That has angered some Christian groups, who argue marriage is being undermined, but some gay rights groups say they do not go far enough.
There are also complaints that same-sex couples are now getting rights not available to unmarried heterosexual couples.
Launching the Bill, Equality Minister Jacqui Smith said the changes underlined the value of committed same-sex relationships.
"It opens the way to respect, recognition and justice for those who have been denied it for too long," she said.
Trevor Bentham, partner of the late Sir Nigel Hawthorne, said the new Bill would dignify relationships in the eyes of the law.
"The public pat you on the back for having lived together for so long," he said.
"But that isn't the point. The point is, in law, you have no status at all and that's quite cruel to actually have to face finally,"
When Sir Nigel died, Mr Bentham feared he would lose the home they shared for 22 years because of the inheritance tax bill he faced.
Under the law he had no more rights than a flatmate.
It was an "enormous relief" times were changing, he said.
"We've all waited a long time for this. It is in place in many countries already and has been for years," said Mr Bentham.
The plans have already faced criticism for failing to offer similar rights to unmarried heterosexual couples.
Earlier this week, the Tories held a "gay summit", marking a shift for a party which only recently dropped support for a law banning councils from promoting homosexuality.
Conservative leader Michael Howard indicated he would give his MPs a free vote on the issue, but several are expected to vote against such partnerships when the Bill is debated in the Commons.
Schemes which recognise committed homosexual relationships have already been set up in nine EU countries.
And in June last year, Canada's largest province Ontario ruled that gay and lesbian couples have the right to marry there.
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.
The proposals went out for consultation last year and have provoked opposition in some quarters.
Mike Judge, a spokesman for the Christian Institute, said the new civil partnerships amounted to marriage in all but name.
"We are opposed to the Bill in principle because it devalues marriage by giving all the legal privileges of married couples to same sex couples," he said.
If the government was being consistent it would extend rights to anybody living together in a loving relationship - two sisters, for example, who still faced inheritance hurdles, he said.
The government says the concerns of other home-sharers are a separate issues and argues that heterosexual couples are already able to get legal recognition through marriage.
It's good but not imaginative enough. "Marriage" is undermined by cruel divorce laws, for example, where a person who has done nothing for a relationship gains huge control over their partner's assets. Let's have a more flexibly defined civil partnership agreement that will work in the 21st Century, not the rigid marriage agreement of the 18th Century. Then the heterosexuals will have a real reason to complain!
Steve, Lympstone, UK
This is great news! My partner and I had our Partnership Registration ceremony in London last year and it was one of the most amazing days of our life. It's nice to know that now, after signing this new registration, we'll be legally protected and recognised. The argument that it does not extend to co-habiting heterosexual couples doesn't wash with me though, as they have always had a choice to marry and have those rights or not, homosexual couples haven't before now.
Roddy, London, UK
I am very sad for this country that we have come to the place where gay/lesbian relationships are considered acceptable. We have been made for heterosexual relationships - it is plain to see that the basic physical attributes of a man and a lady are made to compliment and 'fit' together... surely anyone can see this. Anything outside of this seems to me to be an abomination and perverse.
Paula Moreland, East Grinstead, West Sussex
My partner and I have been in a steady faithful relationship for almost 20 years. We have chosen not to marry, for our own reasons, but I am appalled that we will not be entitled to any of the legal benefits that the government is about to offer to unmarried homosexual couples. I see no difference in our situations at all. Any couple, living together in this way, should be protected by the Law.
I applaud the courage of HM Government but will the legislation apply in Northern Ireland? Under the climate of Direct Rule and the ultra-conservative society in Ulster, the Government has a responsibility to protect minorities which the Stormont Assembly will not. Equality for all citizens of the UK, not just England and Wales.
Andie Thompson, Belfast, N Ireland
I am a 22 year old student who welcomes the new proposals for same sex relationships. I have been living with my partner for over two years and I can only hope that this will have a knock on effect on the younger generations who are afraid of coming out. I am sure it will take a while for some people to come around to the prospect of gay people being able to have such commitment ceremonies. Yet, if I had known that my sexuality was recognised as "acceptable" as opposed to "deviant" by the government and society, I am sure that it would have made the whole process of telling my friends and family a lot easier.
Nick Bassett, Portsmouth, UK
Isn't it interesting that the only comments posted have been positive ones that support this new Bill? Well, I am fairly sure that I am part of the overwhelming majority who do not support any such move.
As a society we have completely lost our way on the issue of marriage. The institution of marriage has never been about claiming rights; it is all about passing the family property and culture down the generations. If people, homosexual or heterosexual, don't plan to have children, there is no reason to get married.
Dave Brown, London, England
As a gay man I applaud the Government's decision to finally recognise that gay men & women deserve the same rights as straight people. However, I do think that straight couples that decide not to marry should be given the chance to register their partnership as well. Equal rights for ALL, that's what we need - not just for some!
Paul, Bournemouth, England
Cannot people see that this is yet another step away from the family unit which is the very basis for a healthy society. We will soon be looking back at many more social problems and wondering where they came from. God our creator has given us the blueprint for marriage, family and relationships as in the Bible. Anything outside this will lead to all manner of further issues some of which we are seeing today.
Allowing same sex couple to enjoy some rights they can't have at the moment seems to me to be a very fair thing to do. However, I can't see any justification for unmarried couple to have the same rights; they have the right already of marrying. Incidentally, can the Christian Groups explain how it affects Marriage? Do they expect people to chose a same sex relationship and not a heterosexual one because of this? I don't think so.
Robert, St Andrews, Fife
It can only be a good thing. My partner and I would have loved to have legal recognition (he had a fatal heart attack after we'd been together for 31 years).
Christopher Fillier-Brown, Guildford
I live with my boyfriend and so far we have chosen not to marry. Here the key word is 'chosen' - we have a choice. Gay couples do not have a choice but now with this change, they will. Hetero couples should stop moaning about this bill and the fact it doesn't apply to them - they could go out and get married tomorrow if they chose to. Everyone should have the freedom to commit to their partners.
It seems very odd to offer these rights based upon what goes on in the bedroom. People live together for all sorts of reasons, and build up deep trusting relationships. Why not extend the same privileges to everyone?
Phil, Oxford, UK
As a Christian, it is a tragedy to see the law-makers in England & Wales ignoring God's laws that were designed for our good. Thank God (literally) that it hasn't happened in Scotland yet.
Andrew Rose, Edinburgh, Scotland
This is fair enough but should not be compared to marriage, which is the union of a man and a woman for the rest of their lives, not merely a contract to ensure the right payoffs. Just because marriage has become denigrated as an institution with the now all too easy 'get-out' clause of divorce does not mean it should not be held in high esteem and the basis for family life. Let's get the difference between equality of rights and equality of being clear; a gay relationship is equal but different to a marriage.
Paul, London, UK
Gay and lesbian people are human in all the ways heterosexual people are. We love, we laugh, we cry, we die. Why are our human rights different? We contribute to society in many ways as heterosexuals do but we are not recognised for it. Why? It's about time that society accepts the diversity of its being and protects us all equally in law. Why not?
Azeem Ahmad, London
Laudable though this initiative is, I still feel it is an infringement of my situation to say that I need to have some kind of civil ceremony to be entitled to the same rights as a common law husband or wife. Why should gay - or even straight people - be urged into some kind of marriage agreement in order to access rights which are freely granted to people who live together or have children together?
Graham Thomas, London, UK
This looks like a step in the right direction but it needs to be extended to unmarried heterosexual couples too. Everyone knows that Marriage is outdated but MPs on both side of the fence are scared of confronting that.
Chris Turner, Surbiton, UK
Will homosexual couples have the same responsibilities, too? At the moment, when a student is being assessed for grant/loan purposes, his or her parent, step parent and opposite sex partner's income is taken into consideration - if the student's parent lives with a same-sex partner, that second income is not considered. Along with rights, there are responsibilities, surely?
Another step down the road of immorality being given government approval. Another instance of the moral code of this country being shot to pieces because enough people shout loudly enough that their "civil rights" are being ignored. As a Christian, I feel that this law should never have been passed, but then that's no surprise. It seems that morals and values hold no place in today's society, now that the last bastion of decency has been wiped away, removed from consideration at the stroke of a pen.
Mark, Belfast, Northern Ireland
What a relief that the validity of long-term gay relationships is finally being acknowledged by the law. I feel strongly that the easier it becomes for gay men and women to express their commitment to each other, the sooner the damaging myth of universal promiscuity and the destructive gay lifestyle will be banished forever. This is an extremely significant step forward in our quest for an fair and equal society for all.
David Amini, Manchester, UK
As a Catholic priest who conducts blessings of same-sex couples, and has done for the past 4 years, this is a very welcome and necessary step in the right direction. Every day we are meeting same-sex couples who are as committed to each other as any other heterosexual couple, yet are victimised purely because of their sexuality. I sincerely hope that this will not be a matter of 'words' only and that all the necessary legalities are dealt with as soon as possible...as too often the gay communities across the country have had their hopes raised only to be dashed the next day when something else comes to mind in parliament.
Canon Pam Lees, Birmingham, UK
Having lived together as a gay couple for 20 years I think we have earned the right to joint title to all that is "ours". Our wills set out what the family can have once we are both gone and not before. The government can have their share then! I don't want a gay marriage but a civil contract would suit us fine, complete with divorce, inheritance, pensions.
Mike Wilson, Warsash, UK
Whilst applauding the decision for "The Civil Partnership Bill", it's a far cry from the equality of marriage. I have been with my partner for years, I would happily marry him but won't settle for second best. This Bill is unfair on gay/lesbian couples and also on straight couples who co-habit.
Garry Hallet, Manchester
Fantastic, finally someone sees sense. Still no help to me - I'm in a heterosexual relationship but we will not be getting married. I have no rights, still. Perhaps the bill could be amended slightly to say that ANY two people can sign a document such as this? Or must I go get a sex-change to get my rights?
Claire, Aberystwyth, Wales
I have no problem with gay couples getting married so long as they are prepared to accept the downsides as well. I know one lesbian couple with a child (that they both wanted and are bringing up as their own) where one is claiming tax credits as a single person to get more money, saying her partner is a lodger and therefore not declaring the two incomes together. This sort of thing makes me cross.
Great news, but why only England and Wales? When will Scotland be given the same rights?
David, Greenock, Scotland
I certainly will be welcoming the new move, as I am a gay person, with a long term partner and we have no rights as a couple! With this new bill, both myself and my partner will be able to plan financially for the future, and not have to worry about the implications of death of a partner, benefits and general financial securities. Although the Civil Partnership is not quite a marriage, I feel that this is one step closer to full equality and gives us the chance to take our relationship to the next stages...
Lee Thompson, Eastbourne, East Sussex
It's about time - those of us who are committed to each other should benefit from that love and commitment, as any human being should be able to, without reproach.
Kate Hedley, Godalming, UK
I think it's about time that gay couples are allowed to have their relationships recognised by law and have all the benefits of that recognition. I am however disgusted that this does not to apply to heterosexual relationships.
Thank God we have been heard at last.
Craig Tidmarsh, Birmingham
Excellent news, it's about time that dedicated committed same sex relationships were given the respect that they deserve. In this day and age of serial marriages, anyone of any sex and gender that can make a relationship work for a significant length of time should be recognised for their love, loyalty and efforts.
Nadia, West Midlands
Thank goodness that this issue has been raised into public consciousness! As a young man (22) who is gay and with a partner, this is something which at last makes my relationship real to other people. Attitudes are changing out there and I hope this will help to push it along a little further. It won't change all people's minds, that will take time, but it means that we have set the foundations for the future!
Benjamin, Preston, UK
I am about to buy a house with my partner, and am glad that the law is finally changing to bring us both some security.
This change in law would be very welcome. My partner and I have shared 6 happy years with one another and yet we have no more recognition in law than two flatmates. Those opposed to this might like to consider how they'd feel if they too were denied the legal right to visit their partner in hospital or register their death. This bill will be a test of the new Tories, but I wonder why Mr Blair hasn't used his massive majority to enforce this change of law before? He's been pretty happy to use it to take away rights but notably reluctant to give them to people.
Martin Hoscik, London
This is wonderful. For so long I have felt that I don't exist. Now my partner and I can be seen in the eyes of the law as a couple, and as such start being accepted by society. Maybe one day soon people will stop seeing my partner and I as lesbians and start seeing us as a loving happy couple who have a wonderful little boy. This is the first step in a very long process. But it' a good start.
Sam Stirling, Bridgwater, Somerset
This is certainly a step in the right direction, but it still treats same sex relationships differently from heterosexual ones. Whichever way you dress that up, it is still unequal treatment. I see no reason whatsoever that the government should not open up civil marriage to same sex couples. If the C of E doesn't want to marry them, then they have the same opt out as they do for divorced people, and will for transsexuals. Letting my partner and I marry helps us and hurts no-one else.
Anna Langley, Cambridge, UK
What about the rights of heterosexual couples who choose not to marry? With this law going through, we will be the only people without rights. Whilst not married, we are expected to support each other through times of unemployment, but come death we won' have any property rights, and will face large inheritance tax bills.
Susan Poole, Ashford, Middlesex
While I fully support the recognition of same sex couples and their rights I do feel that this should be extended to heterosexual couples who have chosen not to marry as well. I would personally love to marry but have accepted my partner's equal right to chose not to but do worry about both my rights and the rights of any future children.