Italian opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi slammed legislation to give legal rights to same-sex couples yesterday.

The former Prime Minister, who is still leader of Forza Italia, accused the Romano Prodi-led Italian coalition government of devaluing the institution of the family.

Last week the Italian Cabinet voted unanimously to bring forward legislation bestowing some legal protection to unmarried couples, including gay and lesbian couples.

“It creates exactly what we didn’t want, a sort of ‘second division’ marriage which devalues the meaning of family,” said Berlusconi, according to Reuters.

“And it’s certainly a preface to allowing same-sex couples to adopt,” he added. Last week Mr Berlusconi said his MPs would have a free vote on the legislation.

Under the Bill, unmarried couples of any sexual orientation will be able to formally register with their local authority and receive legal rights in areas such as property, inheritance and employment.

The Bill has had a turbulent passage so far and is expected to stir further debate and controversy when it is put before parliament.

As PinkNews.co.uk reported last week, the decision to bring the legislation forward caused outrage on all sides of the political spectrum.

Gay rights campaigners have criticised the Bill as a watered-down version of what the coalition government had promised in its election manifesto.

The Vatican has also voiced its opposition. Pope Benedict XVI has asked lawmakers around the world to block similar legislation.

The Bill’s legal benefits are a far cry from the kind of rights that gay and lesbian couples enjoy in the UK.

Indeed PinkNews.co.uk reported last year that Prime Minister Prodi called upon Italians to oppose any kind of civil partnership bill while he was opposition leader.

Last October Pope Benedict stated that the Church said “yes to authentic love, to the reality of man as he was created by God”.

He contrasted this with saying “no to weak and deviant forms of love.”

In a direct attempt to interfere with the political process in Italy, Benedict urged his audience to beware, “the risk of political and legislative decisions that contradict fundamental values and anthropological and ethical principles rooted in human nature.”

Italy remains divided over the extent that gay and unmarried couples should benefit from the legal rights that married heterosexual couples enjoy.

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