Neither fair nor equal

Observations on the civil partnerships bill

The Tory peers were at least half right. They have extended the Civil Partnership Bill, which gives legal recognition and rights to lesbian and gay couples, to those in non-sexual relationships of care and commitment - for example, two widows who have set up house together and provide each other with emotional and practical support.

Unfortunately, having claimed the moral high ground by opposing discrimination, their lordships then inserted an outrageously discriminatory clause specifying that unmarried heterosexuals should be ineligible for civil-partnership benefits. Some peers on the red benches further undermined their reputation as campaigners for fair and equal treatment by ranting about "unnatural sexual practices" and the "hijacking" of the word gay.

The government is up in arms over the Lords amendment, but its own behaviour is less than creditable. As well as opposing the extension of rights to carers, ministers support the exclusion of non-married opposite-sex couples. Surprisingly, this stance is supported by the main gay lobby group, Stonewall.

Though the government says it is not feasible to broaden the Civil Partnerships Bill, the Australian state of Tasmania has set a precedent with its Relationships Act. Successful and popular, the act grants legal rights to all relationships of mutual devotion and support, including gay couples, carers and unmarried heterosexual partners. Its philosophical basis is that close, caring relationships - whether conjugal or non-conjugal - are socially beneficial.

The legislative fiasco over the Civil Partnerships Bill has prompted the Coalition for Marriage Equality to renew its call for an end to the ban on gay marriage. This would be a much simpler and more effective way to ensure same-sex partnership rights. The Marriage Act 1949 does not specify that marriage partners have to be a male and a female. This rule was introduced only in 1973, under the Matrimonial Causes Act. All that is needed is a short, simple bill repealing the relevant section of the 1973 legislation.

The Civil Partnerships Bill leads to one law for heterosexuals and another for lesbians and gays. The homophobia of marriage law is compounded by the heterophobia of civil partnerships. Two wrongs don't make a right. Just imagine the outcry if the government prohibited black people from getting married and introduced a separate partnership scheme for non-whites.