Proposals to give gay and lesbian partners the same legal rights as married couples look certain to become law after the Tory party agreed yesterday to allow a free vote on the issue.
The Tories made their announcement after the Government published its long-awaited plans for civil partnerships, giving same-sex couples inheritance, benefits, next-of-kin and pension rights for the first time. The proposal, first revealed in The Independent, will be included in the Queen's Speech in November.
Ministers had feared that hardline Tory peers, led by Lord Tebbit and Baroness O'Cathain, could use their numerical strength in the House of Lords to scupper any legislation. Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory leader, and several leading members of the Shadow Cabinet voted against the repeal of Section 28 earlier this year and many Tories opposed same-sex adoption legislation.
But Tim Yeo, the shadow Trade and Industry Secretary, made clear yesterday that the party would not block the plans. "I think it shows that we've grown up a lot in the last nine months," Mr Yeo said.
"I welcome the recognition that people in committed relationships will now have the chance to clear up any doubts over areas such as their pension entitlements, inheritance issues and next-of-kin status.
"It is right that those people that have been victims of discrimination in the past will now have this opportunity. This does not detract in any way from the status of marriage, which evidence shows is still the preferred choice of many couples, and provides an excellent framework for couples bringing up children."
Under the new measures, couples will be able to sign an official document at a register office in front of the registrar and two witnesses, although there will not be an official ceremony. The consultation document published by ministers also includes provision for dissolution of a partnership, giving partners the right to legal aid during a "divorce". The document predicts that up to a third of the lesbian and gay population would take part in civil registration by 2050. It says the cost to private-sector employers could be up to £20m a year and the total annual cost to government is likely to be about £75m in 2010 and up to £240m in 2050, taking account of state pension, public service pension and dissolution costs.
Jacqui Smith, the Equalities minister, said: "This is not about being 'PC' but about bringing law and practice into line with the reality of people's lives."
RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES
* Right to inherit a partner's state pension from 2010
* Right to be treated as next of kin for hospital treatment
* Can register death of partner and have a say over funeral arrangements
* Can inherit partner's estate and tenancy
* Entitlement to state bereavement benefits and criminal injuries compensation scheme
* Will be treated as "close family" for prison visits
* Immigration rules will be changed to remove the two-year prior cohabitation requirement for gay couples.
* Same protection as married spouses from domestic violence
* Treated as a "single family unit" for state benefits
* Automatic right to a partner's life insurance. Like married couples, registered partners presumed to have an "unlimited insurable interest" in each other's lives
* Partnership will be a factor when a couple want to jointly adopt children
* Couples who split up will be allowed to apply to a court for a contact order to ensure they see their ex-partner's children.
* On "dissolution" of the partnership, there will be a duty on one partner to provide alimony.
* Property and pensions will be divided after a couple split up
* Courts will also be able to make orders to provide "reasonable maintenance" for children.
* Names will have to be made publicly available on a register, unlike current confidentially run schemes