Tories rush to woo pink vote with a 'gay summit'

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The scramble for the "pink vote" begins this week as the Government unveils a raft of new rights for homosexual couples and the Tories stage their first gay summit.

The scramble for the "pink vote" begins this week as the Government unveils a raft of new rights for homosexual couples and the Tories stage their first gay summit.

The Civil Partnerships Bill, to be published on Wednesday, will for the first time will give a legal recognition to so-called gay marriages.

Same-sex partners who register their commitment in a civil ceremony will be afforded property rights, including exemption from inheritance tax. Pensions rights will also be shared and they will be obliged to support one another financially. Partners will also have visiting rights in hospital and be given responsibility for each other's children.

The plans, announced in the Queen's Speech, are being hailed by the Government as one of the most far-reaching social changes since the equal opportunities legislation of the 1970s.

Although the term "marriage" will not be used by the Government, couples will be able to sign an official document at a register office in front of witnesses. And if they decide to break up they will have to go through a divorce-style process in the courts.

A spokesman for the Department of Trade and Industry, which last week announced a drive against homophobic bullying in the workplace, said the Bill underlined its commitment to equality. "Its aim is to give homosexual people in relationships some of the rights and responsibilities heterosexual people can have," he said.

Michael Howard, the Tory leader, has indicated his support for gay civil partnerships and given his MPs a free vote on the issue. And today, at a conference in Westminster, his party will seek to bury the memory of years of apparent hostility to homosexual lifestyles.

The summit, "Supporting Young Gay Men and Lesbians - the Way Forward", will be attended by homosexual support groups from around the country. The Conservatives have only just dropped their support for Section 28, which outlawed the promotion of homosexuality in schools.

But the conference will hear David Bull, the television doctor, call for pupils to be given the full facts about gay sex in an effort to halt rising levels of sexually transmitted disease among youngsters.

Tim Yeo, the Tory health and education spokesman, will tell the conference: "We want to be a party that represents all sections of our society and helps people to achieve their own aspirations.

"We believe in the individual, we believe in allowing people to live their lives as they choose and we believe that it is not for the state to interfere in people's lives."

The conference organiser, Charles Hendry, the shadow minister for young people, said the event was "a ground-breaking initiative, not just for the Conservative Party, but for the gay community". He said that only a handful of colleagues had voiced opposition. They include the former Home Office minister Ann Widdecombe, who called it a "complete nonsense".

A survey for a gay website showed that 68 per cent were intending to vote for the Liberal Democrats, compared with 15 per cent for Labour and just 5 per cent for the Conservatives.