Ministers say private Bill on equality for unmarried couples is 'too early'

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The Government is to give fresh attention to reforming the law on unmarried couples, paving the way for radical changes that would include giving more rights to gay people.

A wide-ranging review, which could lead to the removal of questions about whether applicants for state benefits are married and the introduction of legal rights, is currently being conducted across Government.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said yesterday that ministers were taking a "very cross-cutting look at current financial and administrative issues" that included whether gay and unmarried couples should be entitled to benefits.

But ministers say they will not back a private member's Bill launched yesterday by Lord Lester of Herne Hill, a Liberal Democrat peer, on giving civil partnerships equal rights.

Government sources suggested that the Bill came "too early" before its review of laws relating to unmarried couples had been completed. The Bill is being backed by Stonewall, a gay rights pressure group, which has long been pressing for equal recognition of homosexual couples over tax and pensions. It would give unmarried partners equal tax and benefit rights, including the right to widows' pensions.

Lord Lester said yesterday that "the time is over-ripe for legislation to create a legally recognised civil partnership system. The law needs to do more than to equalise the position between same-sex and opposite-sex couples, because of the inadequate nature of the rights conferred on unmarried couples generally. Unmarried couples face immense and distressing difficulties in securing legal recognition of their caring and enduring family lives."

Under the existing law, unmarried people who lose their partners do not benefit from inheritance tax allowances available to married couples. They also do not have a right to be involved in decisions involving the withdrawal of life support from terminally-ill partners.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said that it would not be supporting the Bill, but was "not opposed to the principle that couples in civil partnerships should not face discrimination".