Unfair to everybody!

Observations on gay marriage laws

Forget OutRage! for the moment. What we now need is HetRage! The government has announced that gay couples are to be granted many of the legal rights that go with marriage, but that these rights will not extend to cohabiting heterosexual partners. This is outrageous heterophobic discrimination: one law for gays and another for straights. The government plan is doubtless well-intended, but it is crazy to remedy one injustice by creating another.

Under Labour's scheme, there will be a three-tiered legal system for couples in long-term relationships: marriage, same-sex civil partnerships and cohabitation. With marriage, partners get full rights. With same-sex partnerships, they will get some rights. And with cohabitation, couples get no rights at all.

Moreover, marriage is available only to heterosexuals, and civil partnerships will be restricted to gay couples. It is discrimination run riot. Whatever happened to the government's commitment to equality?

Don't worry, they haven't abandoned it completely. The rights of cohabitees are the one area in which same-sex and opposite-sex couples are genuinely equal. But it is not the type of equality they want. Both gay and straight live-in lovers remain equally lacking in legal rights.

The consequences are dire. Unlike married couples, if one cohabitee dies the surviving partner is not allowed to register his or her death or sign the funeral arrangements. In the absence of a will, they have no right to inherit their lover's property. Even when a will allows them to inherit, they could face an inheritance tax bill that may force them to sell the house they shared with their deceased partner.

Labour's same-sex civil partnership scheme won't resolve the injustices faced by either straight or gay cohabitees. But it will give new rights to lesbian and gay couples who register their relationship. The downside is that these civil partnerships will be a watered-down version of marriage, with fewer rights. Why should lesbian and gay couples have to settle for an inferior marriage mark two?

Don't get me wrong. I am no great fan of wedlock. The combination of the words wed and lock explains why. Nevertheless, it is arbitrary and unjust to deny a person the right to get married, just because their partner is the same sex. Dictating who can and cannot get married is what we expect from authoritarian regimes, not from supposedly democratic governments.

Let's not forget that the formal ban on gay marriage is less than 30 years old. Under the 1949 Marriage Act, there is no requirement that a couple getting married must be of opposite sexes. Parliament took it for granted. Three decades ago, transsexuals who wished to marry took advantage of this omission. Only then was the legal loophole plugged. The 1973 Matrimonial Causes Act stipulated, for the first time in British law, that marriage partners had to be male and female.

Wedlock is now in serious decline. Marriage rates are the lowest since the 1920s. Cohabitation has trebled in the past 15 years. By 2022, it is estimated that nearly 30 per cent of partners will be "living in sin". Instead of proposing a second-rate form of marriage for lesbians and gays, the government should remedy the lack of legal rights for all cohabiting couples.