Same-sex couples in the United Kingdom will have the right to legal civil unions under new a law to be unveiled this week, The [London] Observer reports. Under the Civil Partnerships Bill, to be published on Wednesday, same-sex couples will be able to sign a register held by the register office in a procedure similar to a marriage. Although the government will insist it is not officially a marriage but rather a contract between two people, it will have much the same effect. Couples will have rights to pensions similar to married couples, will not have to pay inheritance tax on property passed between them when one dies, and will have access to hospital records similar to that allowed for a spouse. The government has decided not to demand that gay couples go through an official ceremony as heterosexual couples do but will leave it to the discretion of local authorities. Couples who then want to split will have to go through a dissolution in the courts, similar to a divorce.
The publication of the bill reveals the remarkable change in the political status of gay people in Britain, and the main political parties are now scrambling for the gay vote. Britain's main opposition Conservative Party, which had antagonized many gays with past legislation, held a conference for young gays and lesbians on Monday in an effort to widen its appeal. The event in the House of Commons marked a sharp change for the party, which under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher introduced a law in 1988 banning local councils from "promoting" homosexuality. Prime Minister Tony Blair's government repealed the law last year. "We want to be a party that represents all sections of our society and help people to achieve their own aspirations," said the party's education spokesman, Tim Yeo.