Soon the bells could ring out for gays and lesbians

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Civil partnerships, a crucial step towards giving gay and lesbian couples equal legal rights, will be considered by both Houses of Parliament this autumn.

Civil partnerships, a crucial step towards giving gay and lesbian couples equal legal rights, will be considered by both Houses of Parliament this autumn.

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Lester of Herne Hill will introduce a private member's Bill in the Lords calling for registered unmarried partnerships to be given legal status. The Labour MP Jane Griffiths will bring in a similar motion in the Commons. Both are backed by the gay rights pressure group Stonewall. Their actions will increase pressure on the Government, which has so far resisted change, to recognise unmarried partnerships.

The London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, will launch his London Partnership Register for same-sex couples in September. The Greater London Authority already has a waiting list of couples wanting "marriage ceremonies".

Further weight will be added to the cause by MPs' recent decision to vote for pension rights for their own unmarried partners.

The gay community has been lobbying for some time for same-sex partnerships to be recognised under the law. There is particular concern that if one partner dies, the surviving partner is currently left without protection. Some people in gay relationships have been denied pension rights; others have not been treated as next of kin when medical decisions were needed. Where there was no will, surviving partners have also been left homeless.

Angela Mason, director of Stonewall, said: "These are important issues that people care about. It is just not fair. It is straightforward discrimination. It is absolutely no skin off anybody's nose to treat same-sex partners fairly."

Couples have also made it known that they want to be able to celebrate a long-term partnership publicly with family and friends.

Ms Mason said: "Gay and lesbian couples have milestones in their lives like everybody else has. When you start living with somebody and make a long-term commitment it does change who you are. Marriage is about a public statement of that."

Unmarried heterosexual couples could also benefit from the protection of registered civil partnerships – it was such a case in her Reading constituency that prompted Ms Griffiths to start work on her Commons motion.

Labour has struggled in power with the concept of marriage. Tony Blair and his ministers have on numerous occasions been tongue-tied when it comes to expressing support for marriage as a "model", if not the "ideal model", for family life. But the Government has refused to back any changes that would give equal rights to unmarried couples – other than ministers' own unmarried partners.

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