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UK unveils "gay marriages" plan

July 1, 2003

LONDON - Britain unveiled controversial plans Monday to allow "gay marriages", a radical reform which would for the first time give homosexual couples the same legal rights as married people.

Under the proposals, gays and lesbians will be able to sign an official document of civil partnership at a register office, giving them pension and property entitlements.

The contracts will only be open to homosexuals and not as an alternative to heterosexual marriage -- a position which was immediately attacked by a prominent gay rights campaigner as "heterophobic".

The government's plans were set out in a consultation paper, with newspapers reporting that a bill containing the reforms could be introduced into parliament this year.

"This is not about being PC (politically correct) but about bringing law and practice into line with the reality of people's lives," said Jacqui Smith, the government's deputy minister for women and equality, as she unveiled the proposals in London.

Smith added: "Same-sex couples often face a range of humiliating, distressing and unnecessary problems because of a lack of legal recognition.

"Civil partnership registration would underline the inherent value of committed same-sex relationships. It would open the way to respect, recognition and justice for those who have been denied it too long."

If the proposals are passed by parliament, registered gay couples will be given next-of-kin rights in hospitals, the right to benefit from a deceased partner's pension, and exemption from inheritance tax on a partner's home.

The scheme does not mention the term "gay marriage", but the civil partnerships have been designed to be as close to a marriage contract as possible.

Ben Summerskill, the chief executive of gay rights group Stonewall, said he was delighted that the government had taken a "long overdue step".

"Hundreds of thousands of gay people are in stable, long-term relationships, but still don't have the same rights as many others," he said.

"It's not just social status that matters, like the right to visit each other in hospital, but the right to share a partner's pension, for example -- which is something available to every heterosexual."

But Peter Tatchell, a prominent gay campaigner and human rights activist, said it was "divisive, heterophobic and discriminatory" to exclude unmarried heterosexual couples.

"Cohabiting heterosexuals also lack legal recognition and protection. This is a grave injustice," he added.

The document published by the government predicted that up to a third of Britain's lesbians and gays would take part in civil registration by 2050. The "gay marriages" would be available to partners aged over 16.

Ron Strank and Roger Fisher, a homosexual couple from Croydon, south London, who have been together for 43 years, welcomed the new proposals.

"We have no interest in being married but if we can sign a piece of paper that says we are partners and (it) gives us legal entitlement, that's fine by us," Fisher said.

It is estimated the measures will cost the government 75 million pounds (125 million dollars, 110 million euros) a year by 2010 and up to 240 million pounds by 2050, including pension payments to individuals with deceased partners.

The proposals do not cover Scotland, which sets its own laws for civil relationships.

- Sapa-AFP 



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