Contrary to popular belief, cohabitants have no legal status in English law. According to the Law Commission, the law in relation to cohabitants in England and Wales is widely accepted as complex, arbitrary and uncertain. People who have been together years can face appalling treatment. For example, they are not counted as next of kin, may have to pay inheritance tax and often lose out on pension rights. In response to an enquiry I made on behalf of a constituent, Barbara Roche, Minister for Social Exclusion and Equality, told me that “the Government can see clear and strong arguments in favour of a civil partnership registration scheme for same sex couples” but then went on to argue that “Opposite sex couples have the choice to gain a formal legal status for their relationship by entering into a marriage”.
It is welcome that the Government recognises that the lack of any form of civil partnership registration causes same-sex partners very real difficulties and that they are at last proposing to do something about it. However, it is very disappointing that the Government are backing away from offering heterosexual couples the same registration scheme. Many heterosexual couples do not want to marry (often for perfectly valid and understandable religious or feminist reasons) and they should be able to have legal status too. By proposing a separate scheme for same sex couples, the Government’s proposals continue to enshrine in law pointless differential treatment born of old prejudices. If the Government want to do away with homophobia they have to consider the principles underpinning the legislation as well as the practical impact of the registration schemes available. The attitudes which support discrimination against gay and lesbian people rely on the assumption that there is something intrinsically different and by implication inferior about a same sex relationship. We must not create a scheme based on a notion of difference that can only be supported by this kind of prejudice.
Of course, the logical continuation of the principle that people should have the same rights regardless of their sexual orientation is that, as well as introducing a civil registration scheme for all couples, the Government should also introduce the right for all couples to undergo a civil marriage. If the Government are holding back because of the press reaction, it is worth considering that they will probably get a similar fuss when their proposed civil registration bill goes through anyway. Once such a bill became an act and it became clear that the sky wasn’t going to fall in, the ‘Daily Hate’ and its ilk would have little on which to hang a headline. It is also worth remembering that the Tories are unlikely to present a united front, in view of the debacle over same sex couples and adoption.
Though there may be costs for equal rights for all couples there will clearly be gains as a result of the clarification of people’s rights and responsibilities. France, Sweden, Belgium, and The Netherlands all have legislation allowing the civil registration of both homosexual and heterosexual relationships and if they can afford it, so can we.
The Government propose to issue a consultation paper in the summer to address the issue of civil registration. They are unlikely to listen to calls to allow same sex couples to marry, but it is worth arguing loud and clear that all couples must have access to any civil registration scheme if we are to stop “ghettoising” same sex relationships.