This week a bill was presented to Parliament calling for civil partnerships to be extended to heterosexual couples. At the moment, straight couples can only marry and are banned from entering into civil partnerships, whereas same sex couples can choose either option.
Some argue that civil partnerships were only ever meant as the Government's 'half-way house' on the road to legalising gay marriage. However, for others, be they straight, gay or bisexual, civil partnerships represent an important alternative to marriage, a means of publicly declaring their love and commitment without having to compromise their views on marriage as an institution with a history of sexism and homophobia.
The current law is absurd and discriminatory. Same sex couples have two options; opposite sex couples have one. What is the distinguishing factor? Sexual orientation. This is blatant discrimination. It is also arguably illegal and contravenes our human rights legislation. One straight couple has been granted permission to pursue a judicial review case, which is due to be heard on 19-20 January 2016 (just before the second reading of the proposed bill on 29 January). This High Court case is supported by a crowdfunding campaign and their petition to "open civil partnerships to all" is available here.
There is clearly a significant minority of couples, both gay and straight, who are disillusioned with marriage. With more people living together outside marriage, and more children being born to unmarried couples, civil partnerships offer an important alternative way of legally recognising committed relationships.
Crucially, there is NO SUCH THING AS COMMON LAW MARRIAGE (sorry, I always feel the need to shout this). The law does not protect unmarried couples upon death or separation, for example:
If their relationship breaks down:-
- They cannot claim financial support beyond child maintenance, even if they have given up a career to care for the family (although child maintenance could be substantial and cover the parent's own needs if the other parent is wealthy).
- They have no entitlement to the family home if it is not in their name, even if they have lived there for decades and contributed to the household finances (although they may have housing claims on behalf of children).
If one partner dies:-
- The surviving partner must pay inheritance tax, even after say a 40 year relationship, which can often sadly result in them having to sell their home.
- There is no entitlement to National Insurance bereavement benefits, state pensions or private pensions (unless they had a specific arrangement).
Unmarried couples also do not enjoy the government's tax breaks for married couples/civil partners.
Why should straight couples be forced to marry to obtain the same rights, recognition and security as married couples? Legislation for cohabitees is currently being considered by the House of Lords, but is not yet on the near horizon. Opening up civil partnerships to all now would at least provides straight unmarried couples with another option.
Critics argue that straight civil partnerships would undermine the value of marriage in our society. But I find this difficult to believe. Marriage is clearly the more popular choice, for both straight and gay couples. The majority of gay couples marrying in this country since it became legal converted from civil partnerships. But the key word here is choice - everyone, be they gay, straight or bisexual, should have the same freedom to choose.