Partnership Rights: Topical Issue, week ending 25 January
Lord Lesters 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 governments 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
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
Suns 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, MPs have just voted to extend our own pension scheme provisions
to cover unmarried partners. As Stonewalls Executive Director Angela Mason said in a
recent article in the Financial Times, "If its good enough for them, then
its 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 Childrens 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 Lesters 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 Lesters 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.