Across the country this week, hundreds of couples will be celebrating a major milestone in their lives. They will be followed by thousands more in the coming months as same sex couples take the opportunity to gain legal recognition and protection for their relationship.
The Civil Partnership Act may not be the biggest change that this Government has brought in. But, by correcting an obvious injustice, removing fear and providing security, it will change the lives of tens of thousands of people for the better. It is also, importantly, another step towards the fairer, more tolerant country which this Labour Government pledged to build.
This landmark measure ends the situation where same-sex relationships were invisible in the eyes of the law, denied any recognition of their commitment. It gives gay and lesbian couples who register their relationship the same safeguards over inheritance, insurance and employment and pension benefits as married couples. No longer will same sex couples who have decided to share their lives fear they will be denied a say over the partner's medical treatment or find themselves denied a home if their partner dies.
As you would expect from this New Labour Government, new rights and privileges are also matched by new responsibilities. Financial support will be expected to be provided for the couple's children, for example, in the event of a breakdown in the relationship.
Such a wide-ranging reform was long overdue. By 1997, society's attitudes to lesbian, gay and bisexual people had changed dramatically. There is, as we have seen already this week, still some opposition to these measures. But I don't believe these views reflect the opinions of the overwhelming majority of people in our country.
Past hostility and suspicions have been replaced with tolerance and understanding. Our laws and political culture, however, had simply not kept pace with these changes. So when we came to power, Britain still had an unequal age of consent and it was lawful to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation, religion and age.
It was something I was determined to help tackle. I was struck when I listened in the Commons to debates on the age of consent and other issues like this just how much of the opposition was based on prejudice which was very old-fashioned and, at times, downright spiteful. It seemed to me that a Labour Government committed to equality must take action.
In the last eight years, we have seen steady and, at times, remarkable progress. The age of consent for gay men has been equalised. Section 28, a law of which a great many Tory MPs were rightly ashamed but which they still put in place, has been repealed. Anti-gay discrimination in the workplace has been outlawed as it will soon be, we intend, in the provision of goods and services. From 1 January, gay and lesbian couples will be able to adopt children jointly for the first time.
I am proud it was this Labour Government that has brought in these modernising and fair measures - and I can't imagine that any government will reverse them. I wouldn't pretend for a moment that MPs from other parties did not campaign for these changes. But I am convinced that we would not have come so far or so fast without the election of a Labour government determined to turn its words on an equal, opportunity society into action.
For the Civil Partnership Act helps highlight again this Government's determination to create a more modern, open, fairer and democratic country. It's a commitment which can be seen in a wide array of measures, not all of which Independent readers may welcome as much as this Act. So along with the Freedom of Information Act, improved rights for parents at work, devolution for Scotland and Wales, better public services, and the creation of the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights, we have also seen new powers - with more to come - to tackle the antisocial behaviour that still blights too many communities. All are part of our central mission to provide security and opportunity for all.
They are having an impact. Britain is, in many different ways, a more modern, fairer and better place to live than it was. One of the greatest delights about London's winning bid for the 2012 Olympics was that the decision by the IOC was based, in no small part, on their recognition of the dynamism, strength, tolerance and diversity of our society.
There is, of course, no room for complacency. There is still too much injustice, discrimination and unfairness. But in ceremonies up and down the country this week, we can also see that, as a society and country, we continue to move in the right direction. That's a good enough reason for us all to celebrate.Reuse content