The Italian government yesterday agreed to bring forward legislation that will grant legal recognition for gay and lesbian couples for the first time.

The decision was criticised on all sides. Gay campaigners complained that the proposed new “civil pacts of solidarity” are a watered down version of what the coalition government had promised at last year’s election.

Catholic MPs denounced the new bill as an attack on marriage.

However, the cabinet decision will be a relief for Prime Minister Romano Prodi.

His nine-party coalition has spent months tussling over the new bill, with rumours the government could collapse over the issue.

In the end the Cabinet unanimously approved the new legislation, which also grants rights to unmarried heterosexual couples. One cabinet minister boycotted the meeting.

Couples will be able to formally register with their local authority, and will have rights over property and inheritance.

They will also have the right to visit their partner in hospital.

The new bill is expected to have a tough passage through the Italian parliament.

The coalition has a healthy majority in the lower house, but the bill could fall in the Senate.

Uniquely in Europe, both houses in Italy’s bicameral parliamentary system have equal power.

Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the largest opposition party, Forza Italia, said his MPs could have a free vote on the issue.

The legislation falls far short of the rights that gay and lesbian couples have in most other western European nations.

However, socialist and leftist politicians are jubilant.

“For the first time in our country, people in a steady relationship, whether heterosexual or homosexual, are granted important rights,” said Piero Fassino, head of the Left Democrats, according to journalo.com

The decision is a clear defeat for the Vatican and yet another indication of their waning power in Italy.

Pope Benedict and many bishops have publicly decried the proposed “civil pacts” as a form of “pseudo marriage” that will undermine traditional family life.

The country is still divided over wheter gay and unmarried couples should be granted rights. A recent poll found that 51% opposed legal recognition for gay couples with 47% in favour.

The number of non-formalised same-sex unions in Italy doubled between 1994 and 2003, from 227,000 to 557,000.

The Italian town of Bolzano had this week registered a homosexual civil union between two middle-aged men.

This was the first of its kind in the town, whose local government had passed an ordinance which acknowledges same-sex civil unions back in 2003.

Until now, the local ordinance had been largely symbolic.