A bill that would give gay and unmarried couples the same legal rights as married couples was given a second reading in the House of Lords yesterday despite opposition from bishops and Conservatives.
Its sponsor, the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Lester of Herne Hill, said the time was "over-ripe" to create a legally recognised civil partnership system. "What the Bill seeks to achieve is a law which gives full partnership rights and responsibilities to all mature adults, whether same sex or opposite sex, who wish to enter into a binding legal contract to organise their common life together," he said.
The move came as the Tories signalled a shift in the party's attitude to homosexuality. Oliver Letwin, the shadow Home Secretary, said couples of the same sex should have more legal rights, such as the ability to share the tenancy of a rented house and the right to be consulted by medical staff in an emergency.
Mr Letwin said unreasonable prohibitions – including the right to give consent for a life-threatening operation – should be ended. "These are prohibitions that few of us today would regard as reasonable or even humane," he said.
But the Tories were accused of confusion after they made it clear they would oppose Lord Lester's Bill and may try to stop it reaching the House of Commons.
Conservative peers, supported by bishops, expressed concerns that Lord Lester's Bill undermined the institution of marriage.
The Bishop of Winchester, the Right Rev Michael Scott-Joynt, said most marriages did work and 60 per cent lasted "till death us do part".
"Still more regrettable and damaging, I believe the Bill will seem to give official backing to the belief the lifelong exclusive commitment is simply not desirable," he said.
The Government is unlikely to give time to the Bill, so it stands little chance of becoming law.
Lord Lester, supported by the gay rights group Stonewall, wants a Lords committee to be set up to take evidence in public and help to persuade the Government to reform the law. He said he would be willing to curtail its progress through the Lords in return for a committee that will consider the issues seriously.
"We very much hope that the Government and the House of Lords will support the select committee on the Bill to inform them and the public about the issues," he said. "This would be part of a sensible process of law reform on very important matters of principle affecting vulnerable sections of society."
The Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris said: "It's unfortunate that this Bill does not have government time. It's a simple matter of equality and human rights."Reuse content