13:32, June 27 245 0 theguardian.com

2018-06-27 13:32:05
The Guardian view on heterosexual civil partnerships: a good thing

Since 2005, gay couples in the UK have been able to form civil partnerships. Since 2014, those in England, Scotland and Wales have also had the right to wed. Yet this choice for opposite-sex couples has been denied. Many assume that for heterosexual relationships, the courts recognise a common-law wife or husband. They do not. By affording rights to same-sex couples and not opposite-sex ones, the supreme court squarely says the United Kingdom is discriminating against heterosexual partners.

The judgment is another reminder that forms of love and commitment are unequal in the eyes of statute. It was delivered because a couple, Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, had ideological objections to marriage, which they deem patriarchal, but wanted a way to formalise their long-term relationship. It is important to note that not all unmarried couples have defied convention in such intellectual terms. Some may be drifting through life collecting mortgages and children without marriage. Some may be simply living together in bliss – and, in the church’s eye, sin.

Yet as a society we have become intensely relaxed about such situations. This is a good thing. Thankfully we are no longer collectively so uptight, so censorious on matters of sex and love. The number of people in the UK living as couples who are married or in civil partnerships is stable at just under 13 million. The number of couples cohabiting has doubled from 1.5 million in 1996, to 3.3 million. Last year, more than a quarter of babies were born to unmarried parents.

Nevertheless, most couples who are living together either wrongly believe they have rights if they separate or are completely unaware of what rights they may not have. In effect, such couples are being treated by the state as second-class citizens. By not being married they often miss out on rights under company pension schemes, cannot access income-tax breaks for couples or have entitlement to bereavement benefits. They miss out on inheritance-tax advantages currently restricted to married couples. It is often women who lose out, bereft of the legal protections that marriage confers.

The supreme court noted that “the government knew that it was perpetrating unequal treatment by the introduction of [gay marriage] but it decided to take no action” because ministers could not decide how to proceed. This paralysis by analysis is fast becoming a leitmotif of Tory administration. The only objections that ministers have recorded are from the Church of England and the Methodist Church. It has been a long time since the spiritual and temporal stepped out in tandem. This is not a moment for them to do so. Instead, today’s government should pick up where Justine Greening as education secretary left off. She proposed extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. This was the right thing to do. The world has moved on. Ministers should too, and legislate for rights for cohabitees.