Give these overdue rights to everyone (not just MPs)

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The decision of the Government to change the law to permit the gay partners of MPs and civil servants the same rights as married couples is a welcome step towards the goal of complete equal rights for gay and lesbian people.

The decision of the Government to change the law to permit the gay partners of MPs and civil servants the same rights as married couples is a welcome step towards the goal of complete equal rights for gay and lesbian people.

For the first time, unmarried same-sex partners will be entitled to a widow's or a widower's pension – but only if they happen to be MPs or civil servants (including people who work for government agencies). Those in the public sector who work, for example, for the NHS or a local authority are not to be afforded the same rights – a facet of this limited reform that whiffs of hypocrisy and may well prove susceptible to judicial review.

But the anomalies about how the new rules apply in the public sector merely point up all the more dramatically the need for a simple measure to ensure that the principle of equality of treatment is universally applied. As it happens, such a principle already exists in legislative form: the Bill put forward by Lord Lester of Herne Hill to extend the rights enjoyed by married couples to lesbians and gays and to heterosexual partners who are not married.

This is a simple matter of justice. There are some well-established and important legal privileges afforded to the institution of marriage. It is iniquitous that they should be denied to couples who have made a similar commitment but who choose to do so, or who have to do so, outside a traditional marriage. Although it is all too often seen as a trivial matter, such treatment causes much distress because of, say, the absence of the automatic right of inheritance when a partner dies intestate or the absence of a right to some tenancies or pension entitlements.

There has never been a good reason for MPs – and, in particular, those sitting on the government benches of the House of Commons – to refuse to act to remedy this state of affairs. The reason why both Conservative and Labour frontbenches find the idea of gay equality so troublesome may be fairly put down to their fear of the reaction from certain hostile elements in the media.

Yet, as we witnessed when Parliament at last equalised the age of consent for homosexuals and heterosexuals, our legislators – and some newspapers for that matter – have not yet caught up with a much more liberal, tolerant climate of opinion on such private matters among the public. Ministers have less to fear from acting bravely than they seem to think.

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