SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Same-sex civil partnerships

From Socialism Today June 2004

AFTER MANY years of campaigning by gay and lesbian activists New Labour has introduced the Civil Partnerships Bill, which is currently going through the UK parliament. The bill sets out to create recognition of lesbian and gay partnerships, introducing the concept of �civil partnerships�. This will open up most of the legal benefits of marriage for lesbians and gay men.

The bill also contains provisions for the dissolution of civil partnerships in line with the law for divorce. The same court orders are available for disputes over finances and children as in divorce law.

Does this satisfy the longstanding demand for equality with married couples? The only answer to this is, �yes and no�. While civil partnerships are very similar to marriage they do not completely satisfy the demand for equality.

That reform is necessary cannot be denied. At present, lesbian and gay couples are disadvantaged. On separation, shared property is dealt with on a very inflexible basis. Each partner only gets what they put in (for example to the purchase of a home) either in money or in recognition of the financial enhancement of assets.

Many couples have problems from hostile families, who will be recognised as next-of-kin regardless of the strength of any relationship. This can affect medical treatment. A gay man or lesbian�s family can give consent to treatment in emergencies, but a partner cannot. Partners are sometimes frozen out of funeral arrangements or inheritance. On death, inheritance tax is payable by a surviving unmarried partner in respect of assets passed from their deceased lover. The limit for inheritance tax is low enough to be below the value of many houses, especially in London and the South East, so the survivor may have to sell up and move out of their home to settle tax bills.

The bill addresses most of the issues that arise. However, it has only had a qualified welcome from campaigners. Much of the criticism focuses on the fact that it is not marriage. Instead, a new form of legal relationship is created. For many, the most important reason for seeking a change in the law was to enable lesbians and gay men to have an official and public recognition of their relationships. Most couples marry to demonstrate their commitment to each other in public. Civil partnerships may become seen as having a second-rate status, and as a substitute for marriage.

Linked to this is the criticism that civil partnership ceremonies will not be allowed to take place at religious premises. For some this is seen as a violation of their rights to express religious feeling.

A very important criticism of the bill is that equality is not granted on pension rights. At present there is no obligation for pension schemes to pass benefits to a surviving unmarried partner of a pensioner. The bill grants automatic inheritance of pension rights to partners of anyone in a public-sector pension scheme. This is not granted when the pension scheme is private, whether it is an occupational or a private pension. The matter is left, as at present, to the employers and financial institutions which run such schemes.

By including such discrimination, New Labour again shows that it is a party of big business. Equality is secondary to the interests of big business and the City of London. To grant full equality would involve ministers in regulating their friends in financial capital and hitting profits.

Further discrimination will continue because the bill gives no rights to heterosexual unmarried couples. Such couples may face many, if not all, of the problems facing gay and lesbian couples now. The inheritance tax trap will face them, as will the problems that may arise if family members disapprove of a relationship. Of course, this also affects gay and lesbian couples who for whatever reason do not wish to become �civil partners�. This is a problem that has exercised the minds of many legal experts who have examined the issue. And is not easily resolvable. At what stage of a relationship should couples be granted rights? On co-habiting or after some years together? Perhaps on some form of registration so that the relationship is recorded for public knowledge?

If left unresolved, the issue could be used to stir up anti-lesbian and gay feeling. Reactionaries may claim that gay men and lesbians are being granted special rights.

Campaign group Outrage! has suggested that everyone should have the right to appoint (and if they wish, to un-appoint) a �next of kin�, who would have the right, for example, to consent to medical treatment or have inheritance rights.

The starting point for socialists has to be the need for equality. Discrimination against lesbians and gay men is one of the tools used to divide workers. We should broadly support the bill as a step towards equality, without hesitating to point out and campaign against its failings. We also recognise that it has not been granted as a gift from above. Capitalist politicians do not grant reforms from the goodness of their hearts. The bill is the result of many years hard campaigning, as are other reforms that have been won under New Labour.

Socialists also support the democratic right to freedom of religious expression. However, there is no reason why partnership rights should be linked to religious ceremony. We would support civil registration of all partnerships. Should the partners then wish to have the endorsement of their religion, that is up to them.

We would also support moves similar to those proposed by Outrage! to give rights to all couples, whether or not they wish to get married or enter into civil partnerships. However, the difficulties in coming up with a workable proposal that have taxed the minds of the legal experts arise from fundamental problems with the issue of property rights in a capitalist society. People�s standard of living depends on their class of birth or, at best, their skills at playing the lottery of the capitalist economy.

One of the ways in which capitalism preserves itself is by the transmission of property down generations. Thus, members of the ruling class can pass their position in society on to their sons and daughters. Resolving the problems that arise and trying to �modernise� capitalism to fit its legal systems to the way working- and middle-class people actually live is very difficult for the system�s thinkers.

A socialist society would provide decent housing, security in old age and a living income to everyone whether or not they were married or in relationships. Proper child care and benefits would remove the need for many, mostly women, to rely on the income and wealth of their partner. The fear of poverty on leaving a relationship which might be abusive or simply no longer emotionally rewarding could be removed.

Partnership rights for everyone could become solely about the commitment of people to each other and the recognition of such commitment by society at large. This change in itself would transform relationships and lead to a greater freedom and equality within them. To achieve true equality requires not just the fight for reforms but also for socialism.

Greg Randall