London (CNSNews.com) - The British government on Monday announced plans to create a register of same-sex partnerships that would give homosexual couples most of the same legal rights as married couples, including social security benefits and the right to inherit property tax-free.
Jacqui Smith, minister for women and equality in Prime Minister Tony Blair's government, said that homosexual couples would be able to enter into legal partnerships through registry offices, which handle civil marriages in the U.K.
In addition, a framework would be set up for dissolution of such partnerships, including "fair arrangement for property division" and "appropriate contact with children."
"Thousands of people are in long-term, stable, same-sex relationships. These are ordinary couples, living their lives and planning their futures together," Smith said in a statement. "They are committed to each other in all areas of their joint lives -- but their relationships are invisible in the eyes of the law."
"This is not about being 'P.C.' but about bringing law and practice into line with the reality of people's lives," she said.
The partnership register is supported in varying degrees by all three of Britain's main political parties, but the proposals have been opposed by religious and conservative groups along with campaigners who say a similar register should be set up for heterosexual couples who don't wish to marry.
The Christian Institute has slammed same-sex registration proposals as privileging homosexual partnerships above other relationships, including long-term family ties.
Peter Tatchell, one of the country's most outspoken homosexual campaigners, called the government's plans "divisive, heterophobic and discriminatory."
"Cohabiting heterosexuals also lack legal recognition and protection. This is a grave injustice," Tatchell said. "The government should amend its proposals to ensure legal rights for all unwed couples, gay and straight."
Tatchell said the plan should also be extended "to cover all relationships of care and support, not just sexual partnerships."
"It is a pity the government has opted for an unimaginative, watered-down version of marriage, instead of having the foresight to devise an entirely new, modern legal framework for partnership recognition," he said. "There is no reason why partnership rights should be restricted to people in sexual relationships.
"These proposals will remedy key aspect of discrimination against gay couples, but will introduce a new type of discrimination," he said. "Replacing homophobia with heterophobia is a retrograde step."
Evan Harris, the equality spokesman for the Liberal Democrat party, said Blair "has only done the bare minimum."
"The decision to exclude opposite sex couples from claiming the rights conferred by civil partnerships will be a bitter disappointment to hundreds of thousands of heterosexual unmarried couples," he said.
But homosexual campaign groups welcomed the proposals.
"We're delighted that this long overdue step is now being taken by the government," said Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall. "It's not just social status that matters but also things as simple as the right to share a partner's pension - something available to every heterosexual."
In addition to social security payment and inheritance rights, homosexual partners would be given several other rights traditionally reserved for married couples, including next-of-kin rights in hospitals, welfare benefits, immigration rights and exemption from being compelled to testify against each other in court.
Monday's report will form the basis for legislation and the proposals will still have to pass both houses of Parliament, a process that will probably stretch into next year.
"We want 2004 to be the year that our relationships receive the legal recognition they deserve," Summerskill said.
The report is the latest step in a series of recent moves towards legal recognition of same-sex relationships in Britain.
A similar bill introduced in the House of Lords last year was the subject of a scheduled debate but didn't make it out of the upper chamber. Blair's government has hinted for months, however, that it would support the setting up of a registration framework.
In April, Britain's top family court judge called for same-sex partnerships to be legally recognized.
Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss said that homosexual partnerships often "create a family structure."
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