Home Office ministers have decided to relax the rules on citizenship for homosexuals to bring them closer into line with the law for heterosexual married couples.
They want to halve the amount of time that a gay couple must have been together in order for the foreign partner to gain residency rights.
The move, which comes after months of behind-the-scenes wrangling in Whitehall, is certain to infuriate "family values" campaigners, including Baroness Young, the Conservative peer who led the successful move in the Lords to block the Government's attempt to lower the age of consent for homosexuals.
The change would be the most concrete recognition yet by the Government of the status of gay relationships. It is understood that an announcement about the change to the law has been delayed because Downing Street fears it will provoke a row.
Under the current rules, gay couples must prove that they have lived together for four years before the foreign partner can qualify for a British passport. However, gay rights campaigners argue that this puts them in a "Catch-22" situation because it is impossible for them to spend enough time legally in the same country.
Mike O'Brien, the Immigration Minister, intends to cut the time requirement. He believes that the non-British partner should then be able to apply for "probationary" leave to stay after this initial period before qualifying for full citizenship after four years.
The change would also apply to cohabiting heterosexuals, but only if they can demonstrate a reason they cannot get married.
Home Office ministers are determined to press ahead with the change because they believe that the existing rules are too tough and could leave the Government open to legal challenge. Last week, a Malaysian man refused the right to stay with his partner in Britain was granted leave to apply for a judicial review. Lawyers believe that he stands a good chance of winning because it would have been impossible for the couple to build up four years together in Malaysia where homosexuality is illegal. Another gay couple is challenging the four year rule in the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds that it is discriminatory and impossible to fulfil.
Mr O'Brien met several couples who face being split up at a reception organised by the gay rights lobbying group Stonewall. Although the four year rule was only introduced 18 months ago, the Home Office launched a review of it in December. Only a quarter of the 200 people who applied for residency in the UK to stay with their gay partner last year were successful.
Mark Watson, communications director for Stonewall, said the current rules were "ridiculous". "It is impossible for couples to build up the four years they need to get residency rights because they are not allowed to stay in the same country for that length of time," he said.
Mick Chatwin, the legal director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants also supports the change. "There is great difficulty for couples to show the kind of evidence they are expected to show at the moment," he said.Reuse content