Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Equality at Last – Civil Partnerships for Opposite Sex Couples, but Why the Delay?

Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld with the Green party’s (and Green Left’s) Peter Tatchell outside the Supreme Court after their successful case against the government

Theresa May, the prime minister, announced on Tuesday at the Tory party conference in Birmingham, that the government will legislate to allow opposite sex civil partnerships, in England and Wales. It comes in the wake of the Supreme Court judgement in June that ruled that the current prohibition breaks the Human Rights Act. No timescale has been specified as yet for the change to come into place.

The Scottish government launched a consultation last week on the possibility of extending civil partnerships to heterosexual couples, in Scotland. The option of scrapping civil partnerships altogether will apparently be considered. 

Same sex couples have been allowed to enter into civil partnerships since 2005, so this has been a glaring issue of inequality for some time. At that time, the defence of that state of affairs ran along the lines of straight people could get married, something unavailable to gay people. I never bought this argument, because it just highlighted that gay people should also be allowed to marry. The argument evaporated completely though when this situation changed in 2014, and gay marriage was legalised, (except in Northern Ireland).

There are plenty of opposite sex couples who happily live together for years, but do not wish to get married. I have to declare an interest here, as myself and my partner are of this opinion, because of the patriarchal associations surrounding marriage. But we don’t see why we should be denied the same perks in tax breaks, as married people or those in civil partnerships get.

Advantages of civil partnerships include a higher level of earnings that is non-taxable and no inheritance tax is payable in the event of one partner’s death. Even a shared home currently attracts inheritance tax for non married, co-habitees. It makes wills easier too because your legally recognised ‘next of kin’, becomes your partner. Not very romantic perhaps, but why should opposite sex couples be denied what is available to same sex couples?

This does open up a number of questions around what kind of partnership will qualify? The implication is that only people who are having sex together should qualify, but that is difficult to establish. Any two people, perhaps brother and sister should be able to have a civil partnership, if they want to. What you would do about multiple partnerships ,three siblings for example, I’m not sure, but I don’t think you can try to tie it to sexual relationships only.

It seems as though the government wants to have some kind of consultation period in England and Wales, and this may be why no timescale has yet been put on the changes coming into force. I really don’t see why though. It is largely an uncontroversial issue in Parliament and the country as a whole, so I can’t see what there is to consult about?

It could be that some Tory MPs and members will object, saying that it will discourage opposite sex couples from getting married, but even the Marriage Foundation supports extending civil partnerships to heterosexual couples, saying they are “infinitely preferable to unthinking and risky co-habitation”.

Theresa May’s announcement was definitive though, so it seems as though any consultation will be a mainly cosmetic affair, so you do have wonder what the delay is for, why can this not be introduced more or less immediately? There are pressures on the Parliamentary timetable, due to the on-going furore over Brexit, but such an uncontentious matter of basic equality, should pass into law unhindered.

France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece and Estonia all allow heterosexual civil partnerships, whilst in the US the issue is devolved to state or city level with New York and San Francisco for example permitting these unions. Some European countries, like Germany and Ireland ended the practice once gay marriages were legalised.

It looks like in England and Wales scrapping civil unions for same sex couples will not be considered, which I think is right. Why should married people get extra privileges, just because they are married? This unfair situation is not justifiable, and the government should get on with putting it right.  

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