Prime Minister Tony Blair's government said Friday that gay couples should be allowed to register their partnerships and enjoy some of the legal rights of married couples.
Opposition parties — including the Conservatives, who for many years opposed any extension of gay rights — said Friday that they support the concept. Blair's Labor Party holds a commanding majority in the House of Commons and can pass legislation on its own.
Barbara Roche, minister for social exclusion and equalities, said there was an "extremely strong case" for registering same-sex relationships and that ministers would consult on the specifics.
"I do think society has moved on, and I think that we recognize that there are very many people in gay relationships who are in very loving relationships — they may have been very long, enduring relationships — but their partnership has no recognition in law," she told British Broadcasting Corp. radio.
A Blair spokeswoman said the government would put out a position paper on the issue early next summer a first step toward possible legislation.
Roche said the partnerships would not be equivalent to marriages.
"We are not talking about marriage here," she said. "What we are talking about is the signing of a register."
Because their relationships have no legal status, gay couples are denied many of the rights given to married people, in the areas of inheritance, pensions, tenancy and immigration, among others.
The city of London already allows gay couples to formally register their unions, but the registration doesn't confer any legal rights. d Liberal Democrats said Friday they support giving gay couples the same property and inheritance rights as married couples.
Oliver Letwin, Tory spokesman on domestic issues, said Friday that his party would support property and inheritance rights for gay couples if the measure is introduced in Parliament.
"Whilst we attach a huge importance to the institution of marriage, we do recognize that gay couples suffer from some serious particular grievances," he told the BBC.
The Conservatives, long opposed the extension of gay rights, have recently modified their stance in an effort to become more inclusive.
Evan Harris, health spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said the registration proposal was overdue. "Couples of any sex must be made equal before the law," he said.
David Allison, spokesman for the gay rights group Outrage!, also praised the proposal. "We certainly welcome it and would hope that the government will go on and recognize these relationships in full," he said.
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