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 Governments 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
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 wasnt
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 peoples
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.