Donald Macintyre: A modest social reform that Labour must dare to enact

'There is more sympathy among ministers to give legal status to gay couples than unmarried ones'
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The Independent Online

One of the many globally known facts about Rudolph Giuliani, an iconic figure of the times, is that he has been lodging in the 32nd floor Manhattan apartment of a gay couple; the wealthy car dealer, Howard Koeppel, and his long-term partner, the classical pianist Mark Hsiao. It would be hard to think of anything more calculated to legitimise in even the most reactionary minds the outstandingly obvious fact that stable and open relationships between homosexual couples are, and long have been, a fact of life in most Western countries. What's more, the laws of Australia, Canada, France, Germany and the Nordic countries go a long way to recognising that fact by extending to such couples many of the legal rights enjoyed by those who are married, including next of kin, property and pension rights.

There is now about to be a lively debate over whether Britain is ready to go down the same route. Later this month with the backing of Stonewall, the leading organisation campaigning for gay rights, Lord Lester, the Liberal Democrat peer, introduces a private member's bill in the Lords that he published yesterday. It would extend such rights to gay couples who chose to opt into a proposed system of "partnership registration." At the same time, an interdepartmental review, carried out by civil servants under the aegis of the Cabinet Office's equality unit, is beginning cautiously to examine the feasibility of such a plan.

This is interesting in itself of course, but the more so because it goes to the heart of a classic Labour dilemma about social and family policy: progressive liberalism versus social conservatism. And not just for Labour, since one of the legacies of Michael Portillo's abortive leadership bid is a continuing effort in some quite influential levels of the Tory party to make it friendlier to gays. In that way the debate could take on a totemic importance.

There will certainly be strong opposition to the proposal. But the case is very strong. There is no shortage of horror stories, for example, about gay people suddenly finding after their partners have died, particularly if they died intestate, that the deceased's family, refusing to accept the relationship, simply take over the home and property. That's even before you start thinking about the fact that gay people do not have the next of kin rights which allow them, for example, to have a say in whether life support should be withdrawn from their terminally ill partners. Or common pension rights, which, as they would with married couples, provide benefits for gay people when their partners die. Or the right to compensation in law if their partner suffers a fatal accident. Nor of course, are they relieved from inheritance tax, in the way that widowers and widows are.

In sum, unless you believe for fundamentalist religious reasons that homosexuality is in itself morally wrong, which mercifully fewer and fewer people do, then it's difficult to see it as other than discriminatory that gay couples in committed and long-term relationships enjoy none of the fiscal and other benefits of married couples. Particularly since, under the Lester bill, the registered couples he envisages would as a quid pro quo lose any tax advant- ages they enjoy through being single.

Lord Lester, Stonewall, and the Labour MP Jane Griffiths, who has introduced a similar ten-minute rule bill in the Commons, would go further. They would extend the right of "registered partnerships" to unmarried heterosexual couples. Part of the argument for doing this is that the disadvantages that apply in the cases of gay couples apply equally to unmarried heterosexual couples. Indeed Ms Griffiths took up the issue after a woman constituent was left in seriously adverse circumstances after her male partner died. There was the recent case of Anna Homsi, the long-term partner of an SAS soldier killed in Sierra Leone, who was refused a widow's pension by the Ministry of Defence, and only received an ex-gratia payment after very wide publicity.

Secondly, it's argued, there is very widespread acceptance of unmarried partnerships. The recent report of British Social Attitudes showed that only a quarter of the population think married couples make better parents than unmarried ones. Ms Griffiths says she has discovered the interesting fact that of 6,000 police officers in the Thames Valley force, 1,400 are living in stable, unmarried relationships. She points out that they contribute heftily into the pension scheme but their partners would not benefit, as their wives would, if they died. Finally it might look discriminatory if gay couples got the fiscal benefits of marriage and unmarried heterosexual couples didn't.

These are valid arguments. But I suspect they will not persuade the political classes. It isn't yet clear how much political will there is for any legislation. But there is probably more sympathy among relevant ministers for giving a legal status to gay couples than for heterosexual ones who are unmarried – even though Alan Milburn and Stephen Byers – not to mention Alastair Campbell – are all in the latter category. I'm told, for example, that David Blunkett is quite warmly disposed to the idea of a legal status for gay couples – who can't, of course, get married – but believes that if heterosexual couples want the benefits of marriage, they should get married. Mr Blunkett wouldn't be the responsible minister but he is bound to be influential and he has discussed it with Baroness Morgan, the equality minister, who first looked at the issue before going back to Number 10, to be replaced by Barbara Roche.

Equally it's rather easier to see the new (somewhat) more cuddly Tory party backing a move to allow gay couples to register than it is to change the laws in ways which they – and some ministers, possibly the Christian Tony Blair included – would surely see as further undermining the institution of marriage. For a start, gay people are an electoral force; a recent National Council for Social Research report identified one in 19 men saying they were gay, with one in 20 women doing so – some two million adults. Ministers should also bear in mind that Stonewall's Angela Mason is one of the shrewdest and most formidable lobbyists on the political scene. For another, it will not be lost on this highly media conscious government that even The Sun's Richard Littlejohn has counter-intuitively written a column entitled "Why I Back Gay Marriage".

In these circumstances, what would be inexcusable would be to do nothing at all – certainly in respect of gay couples. The costs, particularly in relation to pensions, are as yet unknown. And there would no doubt be some stiff opposition. But it would be a relatively modest social reform for which the country is almost certainly ready. When people try to recall the achievements of the troubled 1964-70 Labour government, they invariably come up with legalising abortion, race relations legislation, and homosexual law reform, all fruits of Roy Jenkins' Home Secretaryship. This is not in the same league as those important social advances. But it would still be welcome. And it wouldn't hurt the Government to find a group they can be nice to.