Partnership Rights: Topical Issue, week ending 25 January 2002

Lord Lester’s Partnership Bill to give legal rights to unmarried couples, received its Second Reading in the House of Lords on 25 January, but the government have refused to back it, saying that it has come "too early" before its review of laws relating to unmarried couples has been completed.

However, they claim they are "not opposed to the principle that couples in civil partnership should not face discrimination", and that ministers were taking a "very cross-cutting look at current financial and administrative issues" that included whether unmarried couples should be granted legal status.

If media jitteriness is the reason for the government’s refusal, their fear would seem to be unjustified. The media has largely welcomed the Bill as a sensible reaction to the changing mores of contemporary British society. A recent editorial in the Times ran with a number of compelling reasons why even "Conservatives should support the Lester Bill".

Even the prospect of "gay marriage" has aroused little consternation in the tabloids, with many welcoming the provision to allow same-sex partners the chance to register their relationship as a just and much needed reform. In September 2001, the Sun’s Richard Littlejohn ran an article in favour of Ken Livingstones’ Civil Partnership Scheme entitled "Why I support gay weddings".

No doubt another reason for government reticence on the issue is their concern about the potential cost of the proposed civil registration scheme. The Bill would extend pension benefits and inheritance tax exemption rights currently enjoyed by married couples to cohabiting partners who register.

Whilst as yet there are no detailed costings of the financial implications of the Bill, the Employers’ Organisation and Local Government Association recently commissioned evidence suggesting that the potential cost to occupational pension schemes over time would be as little as 0.1% per annum. Public sector schemes currently assume a high level of marriage of around 90%. The reality is that far fewer than 90% of scheme members are married so, in effect, unmarried members have long been subsidising the benefits afforded to married members of public sector schemes.

The public sector currently lags way behind the private sector in making provision in their pension schemes for cohabiting partners. According to the National Association of Pension Funds, in 2000, only 12% of private schemes ruled out making such a provision. In contrast, in the public sector, only the civil service scheme is proposing to allow unmarried members to make provision for their cohabiting partners.

And, of course, MP’s have just voted to extend our own pension scheme provisions to cover unmarried partners. As Stonewall’s Executive Director Angela Mason said in a recent article in the Financial Times, "If it’s good enough for them, then it’s good enough for us!"

The campaign for reform is gathering momentum and winning supporters from across the political spectrum. An amendment to the Adoption and Children’s Bill to permit gay, as well as heterosexual, unmarried couples to adopt has received all-party support and could become law by the end of the year

In addition to Lord Lester’s Bill, a similar Bill being sponsored by Jane Griffiths MP is scheduled for its Second Reading in the House of Commons in May, having already amassed considerable support as a Ten Minute Rule Bill at the end of last year, with a vote of 3 – 1 in favour of the Bill.

Lord Lester’s Bill may not make it onto the statute book this time around, but surely it is only a matter of time before full legal equality is granted to gay and heterosexual couples who cannot or, for whatever reason, choose not to marry. The issue will not go away.

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