Same-sex couples in Britain will have their relationships legally recognised for the first time following the passage of civil union legislation last week.

The historic step gives lesbian and gay couples access to the same rights and responsibilities offered to British heterosexual couples married in a civil ceremony.

The Civil Partnerships Act was given the royal assent last Thursday night and applies to couples in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland is expected to adopt the law soon.

Civil unions will not be available until mid-2005 due to necessary changes being made to financial institutions and the network of registrars, Gay.com reported.

Despite fears the bill would be blocked by the Conservative Party just a day before the end of the parliamentary session, it was passed by a majority of 251 votes to 136. It was supported by all three major party leaders.

This is an historic step forward, said Stonewall’s Ben Summerskill. Finally, the House of Lords has recognised that Britain is a tolerant 21st-century nation.

We’re delighted that the House of Lords has rebuffed those peers who indulged in offensive sneering at Britain’s lesbian and gay population.

Similar civil union legislation is expected to be put into law in New Zealand before Christmas.

Australian Democrats senator Brian Greig said the reforms in the UK and New Zealand highlighted Australia’s lack of recognition of same-sex relationships.

While the Howard government has expressly banned gay marriages, it has taken no subsequent steps to recognise lesbian and gay couples with civil unions, registered partnerships or de facto laws, Greig said.

Same-sex couples in Australia have no legal rights or formal recognition under federal law. Greig said while key aspects of superannuation discrimination have been resolved at the federal level, nothing else has.

While most Western, Eastern European and Latin American countries have variously removed this discrimination with anti-bias laws, gay marriages, civil unions or registered partnerships, Australia has not.

NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby co-convenor David Scamell said the organisation will conduct extensive community consultations around the state over coming months to see if civil unions are what the community wants.

We want to grasp exactly what the feeling in the community is, what priorities they have, said Scamell. If they want a federal civil union relationship scheme, that’s what we’ll push for. If there’s an overwhelming desire for marriage in the community, that’s what we’ll lobby on.

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