The U.K. House of Commons gave preliminary approval Tuesday to a bill that would give civil partnership rights to gay couples, bringing it one step closer to passage. Commons lawmakers voted 426-49 to approve in principle the Civil Partnerships Bill, sending it on to a parliamentary committee that will work on the details.
The legislation, proposed by Prime Minister Tony Blair's government, would give same-sex couples the right to form legally binding partnerships and entitle them to some of the same tax and pension rights married couples now have. "This bill offers a reasonable and principled solution to the disadvantages which same-sex couples face because they are unable to gain legal recognition," said Equality minister Jacqui Smith. "The bill sends a clear and unequivocal message that same-sex couples deserve recognition and respect. It is a crucial step on the road to a fair and inclusive society."
Under the proposed law, gay partnerships would not be called "marriages," and Smith said she realized many lawmakers feel strongly about the religious connotations of that word. "This is a secular approach that the government is taking to resolving specific problems of same-sex couples," she said. "On the vast majority of areas it is the intention of the government that those people who enter into a civil
partnership will receive the same rights and take on the same responsibilities as we expect of those who enter into civil marriage."
The opposition Conservative Party did not guide its lawmakers on how to vote, saying the issue was a matter of conscience. Conservative lawmaker Ann Widdecombe said the bill was "wrong" and would undermine the institution of marriage. Conservative Gerald Howarth agreed. "Aren't you setting up yet another alternative lifestyle which will be considered by young people to be equally valid and the nuclear family is going to be destroyed?" he asked.
Once the bill comes out of committee, it would have to be approved by the House of Lords to become law. The government says the Lords have already tried to defeat it by adding amendments that would extend the rights given to gay couples to cover relatives living together and those providing long-term care to the ill. The Commons vote did not address those amendments, but Smith said they should be stripped out before the bill gets final passage.