For many across the UK, the old adage “always a bridesmaid, never a bride,” is not such a terrifying thought. There are currently 3 million unmarried, heterosexual couples cohabitating in the UK, 40% of which have children. Couples who choose to remain committed yet unmarried often think of marriage as an outdated institution that simply doesn’t align with their values.
These couples lack the pension and inheritance tax benefits that their married counterparts enjoy, yet many of them are unaware of that fact. As Tim Loughton, Conservative MP for East Worthing and Shoreham points out, “Many cohabiting couples are living under the complete misconception that they are protected by ‘common law marriage,’ which does not formally exist.” While unmarried, cohabitating couples may think they qualify for the same rights as those who have tied the knot, they simply can’t without marrying – unless they’re a same-sex couple.
Civil partnerships afford the same legal benefits as marriage without any of the perceived cultural baggage, but are currently only available to same-sex couples. Charles Kaidan and Rebecca Steinfeld, a cohabitating, opposite-sex couple campaigning for civil partnership equality, call this a “basic issue of discrimination and equality.” Indeed, the Civil Partnership Act seems to conflict with the Equality act, which forbids public institutions from sex-based discrimination.
However, it is worth noting that Tim Loughton MP, who has called the lack of civil partnerships for heterosexual couples a “glaring inequality”, actually voted against same-sex marriage twice in 2013.
Civil partnerships were initially introduced in the UK in 2005 as a means to grant same-sex couples equal legal treatment to their heterosexual, married counterparts without explicitly allowing gay marriage. This marked a monumental improvement in gay rights, but some felt that civil partnerships lacked the status of traditional marriage. After a further nine-year struggle for marriage equality, same-sex marriage was legalised in England, Scotland and Wales in 2014.
As a result, homosexual couples in those three countries are now able to choose between civil partnerships and marriage, while opposite-sex couples must either marry or forfeit any accompanying legal benefits. This has led couples such as Kaidan and Steinfeld to campaign for the right to a civil partnership, just as same-sex couples sought the right to marry. The irony of the situation aside, there is little reason to deny the UK’s many heterosexual, cohabitating couples the chance to secure their families under the law without engaging in the institution of marriage.
On 21 October, Loughton tabled a Ten Minute Rule Bill calling to include opposite-sex couples in the Civil Partnership Act. The Civil Partnership Act 2004 (Amendment) Bill 2015-16 went through unopposed, and will have its second reading on 29 January 2016.