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In Britain, civil partnership registers are registers which allow couples who have been cohabiting for more than six months to register their relationships, for a fee between £70 and £100. At the moment, they exist purely on a local level, although a Bill was introduced into the Houses of Parliament in an attempt to establish a national scheme. It should be noted that civil partnership registers are not the same as civil marriage.

They allow all couples, whether hetero-, homo- or transsexual to register their partnerships. Therefore, they are particularly popular with couples who are not allowed to marry, such as homosexual couples and those where one or more partner is transgender. They are seen by gay rights groups, such as Stonewall and OutRage, as an important part of the process of gaining recognition for gay relationships. They are also useful for heterosexuals who disapprove of marriage, or just cannot afford it, but who wish to be recognised as a couple. There is, however, more emphasis on the issue of gay and transgender partnerships, as heterosexual couples do have marriage and common-law marriage open to them.

The drawback with local civil partnership registers is that they do not actually confer legal rights upon the couple. In this sense, they will always be a second best to the right to marry. Gay, transgender and cohabiting heterosexual couples are still not allowed widow's pensions or married couple's pensions, or recognised as each others next of kin in matters such as hospital treatment and inheritance. Besides anything else, it is frankly insulting to have to tick the 'single' box on a form, when you consider yourself married or widowed. However, the registers do provide some visibility to these couples, and some indication of the demand for such rights. They also confer unofficial status; you are more likely to be taken seriously as a couple if you have registered.

The first register was introduced by the Greater London Authority under Ken Livingstone/Red Ken, the first elected Mayor of London. The London Partnerships Register was introduced in September 2001, but had the drawback that it was only available to couples who were actually living in London. Nontheless, it was an important step forward, and magazines such as Diva and the Pink Paper were full of pictures of elated gay couples signing the register. The GLA's statement that they would be conducting "gay weddings", predictably, created an outraged reaction from conservative and pro-nuclear family groups.

It seems likely that Liverpool City Council will be the next to introduce a partnership register, with a fee of £80. Liverpool's proposed register (as reported in the Pink Paper) will have an advantage over London's, in that it will be open to couples who are not residents of the city. The Liberal Democrats in Birmingham have also stated that they would support a civil partnership register, should they do well in the upcoming local elections (May 2, 2002). In January 2002, Green Party Member of the Scottish Parliament Robin Harper asked the Scottish Parliament to establish a civil partnership register:

"To move that this Parliament notes the proposed legislation laid before Westminster that is designed to afford couples in long-term relationship the right to legally register their relationships, and calls on the Executive to progress equivalent legislation to establish a register of civil partnerships in Scotland, and to afford couples who register their partnerships full legal recognition, in areas relating to inheritance, pensions and bereavement damages and all other relevant areas."

Two Civil Partnership Registration Bills have been introduced with the aim of creating a national register. One was introduced into the House of Commons by MP Jane Griffiths in October 2001 and, as far as I can tell, sunk without trace. This is a fairly common fate for Private Members' Bills. The second was introduced into the House of Lords by Liberal Democrat peer Lord Lester. This Bill, as well as setting up a national register, would confer legal rights on couples who signed it. According to Stonewall, the Bill would enable registered couples to:

"Be next of kin
Arrange their property jointly
Make provisions in the areas of mental health, social welfare and social security
Benefit from their partner's pension scheme
Register their partner's death
Inherit their partner's property where no wills have been made
Claim exemption from paying inheritance tax on their property."
The Bill also allowed for the "cessation of the relationship" and splitting of property through the courts, ending the current situation, whereby property rights after a split were entirely down to the goodwill of the partners involved. This Bill was abandoned on the 11th February, but Lord Lester said that he would be agitating for a Lords select committee to review the issues, and would probably reintroduce it in autumn 2002.

Support for the idea of civil partnerships comes mainly from the Liberal Democrats. It was a Lib Dem peer who introduced the recent Bill, and the Lib Dems in Birmingham have said that they support the setting up of a register there. The setting up of a national register was voted into party policy at the 2001 Party Conference, while the Lib Dems, under Charles Kennedy, are generally in favour of ending discrimination against gay people. Some, but not much, support has come from the Labour Party; the first Civil Partnerships Registration Bill was introduced by a Labour MP, and the first register was set up by a former member of the Labour Party (Ken Livingstone). When Lord Lester's Bill was passed on its second hearing in the House of Lords (January 25, 2002), the Labour government said it would "look very carefully at" a registration scheme conferring legal rights. Personally, I believe that Labour are in favour, but are too afraid of losing votes on the issue, and are prepared to let Private Members' Bills and the Liberal Democrats do their work for them. They are probably still afraid of the queer-loving-loony-left stigma of the late 1980s, when Labour-controlled Lambeth council's campaign for "positive images" of gay and lesbian families led to an anti-Labour backlash and Section 28.

Opposition to civil partnerships comes, predictably enough, from the pro-nuclear family Christian Institute. As far as I can tell, they oppose them on the following grounds:

  1. They devalue marriage, by equating it to homosexual and temporary relationships
  2. Homosexuals don't want them anyway, as they prefer temporary and polygamous relationships
  3. They could pave the way for gay marriage and adoption
  4. They don't confer rights on people living together, but not in a relationship, or family members
  5. A registered partner could turn out to be using you for sex and/or money.
Forgive me, but these arguments are too ridiculous and offensive not to be debunked.
  1. Partnership registers are not equivalent to marriage. Even if they were, the only way you could say they devalue marriage is by saying that homosexuals are innately inferior and don't deserve it. I don't see that, from a secular viewpoint (and church and state were seperated centuries ago, whether the Christian Institute likes it or not), marriage has any innate values which would be destroyed by recognising the rights of those who cannot or will not marry. The short time period before registering - six months - is often repeated, but nothing stops a heterosexual couple getting married after one day. Also, marriage is not such a grand institution itself, with a British divorce rate of 40%.
  2. This one is simply based on prejudice. The Christian Institute, bless 'em, have no authority on which to say "what homosexuals want". It's also rather circular: homosexuals cannot prove their commitment, ergo we refuse to believe they are committed, ergo they do not deserve the opportunity to prove their commitment.
  3. Firstly, it's a partnership register. It's an end in itself, not a means to getting marriage and adoption rights. Secondly, even if it did, so what? I do not believe gay marriage and adoption are a priori a bad thing, and some evidence needs to be produced before I will.
  4. No, they don't, but then neither does heterosexual marriage. The point of these measures, and the point of marriage, is to recognise the bond between cohabiting lovers, not any other relationship. The point of the Civil Partnerships Bill is to rectify the difference between those in a committed relationship who can marry, and those in a committed relationship who cannot. Objecting that this does not help friends or family members is like objecting to green on the grounds that it's not red.
  5. A husband or wife could also turn out to be using you for sex or money. Unless, of course, you buy the Christian Institute's viewpoint that only gay people are evil and irresponsible.
/soapbox.

Less opposition than expected comes from the Conservative Party. This has had a history of being pro-nuclear family and opposing any measures which would improve the lot of unmarried couples. While the front bench is still officially against the proposals for a national civil partnerships register, Conservative peers were allowed a free vote on the subject, and Oliver Letwin (shadow Home Secretary) and Ian Duncan Smith (Conservative Party leader) have both stated that they want to move away from the image of the party as intolerant, old-fashioned and homophobic.

To make this writeup less anglocentric, it should be noted that Denmark has had a civil partnership register since 1989.


Sources:
  • The Greater London Authority website - http://www.london.gov.uk
  • The Christian Institute website - http://www.christian.org.uk
  • The Scottish Green Party website - http://www.scottishgreens.org.uk
  • The Guardian website - http://politics.guardian.co.uk
  • The Stonewall website - http://www.stonewall.org
  • Various Pink Paper articles
  • OutRage's website - http://outrage.nabumedia.com
  • 'Learning Our Lines: Sexuality and Social Control in Education', edited by Carol Jones and Pat Mahoney.

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