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Lord Lester of Herne Hill, whose 2002 private members’ bill led to civil partnerships, says he believes that full marriage equality is now an achievable goal.

Speaking to PinkNews.co.uk, he praised the 2004 Civil Partnerships Act as “remarkable” but added: “I don’t see any reason why there should not be complete equality.”

The leading human rights lawyer introduced a private members’ bill in 2002 to give legal protection to unmarried gay and straight couples. This was the predecessor to current civil partnerships legislation.

The provision to allow straight couples access to the legislation was dropped by Labour in an effort to distinguish it from marriage.

Lord Lester praised civil partnerships, saying: “In terms of rights, they are completely the same.”

He added: “What we have achieved is remarkable. In America, you can have a gay marriage in Massachusetts but there are no federal benefits because President Clinton passed the Defence of Marriage Act, which prohibits them.

“Ours is extremely progressive legislation. It doesn’t go so far as to call a civil partnership a marriage.”

Lord Lester said his 2002 private members’ bill initially sought to give legal rights and protection to straight unmarried couples but he was persuaded by the-then Stonewall chief Angela Mason to include gay couples. The following legislation applied only to gay couples.

He said that to push for civil marriage at that stage would have been “hopeless” and so it was a “political necessity” to call for civil partnerships, as the main opposition to the bill came from religious groups.

When asked if he believed that marriage equality was now an achievable goal, he said: “I would hope so, yes. It’s very, very important for gay couples – it’s a matter of symbolism.”

But he added: “I’m much more concerned at the moment with practicalities. People in common-law marriages are not protected. I care not only about gay couples but straight couples too.”

In 2008, he introduced a private members’ bill on cohabitation, which sought to give unmarried couples the same rights as married couples in the case of a relationship ending through separation or death.

It reached committee stage in 2009 but did not progress further after running out of time. Some critics said it would remove choice for those who had chosen not to marry, while others claimed it would “undermine” marriage.

Lord Lester added that he strongly believed civil partnerships should be open to both straight and gay couples but said Labour “lost their nerve” in the 2000s.

He said: “There are a large number of straight couples who can’t or won’t marry, which leaves their children unprotected. It is absolutely essential that they should be protected. My cohabitation bill sought to do that.”

Citing the example of a straight couple who cohabit for ten years, he said that in the case of a father who leaves or dies without assets, the mother and children would lack legal protection.

When asked whether he thought Britain’s largest gay charity, Stonewall, should push for full marriage equality, Lord Lester said: “That’s a matter for them. I was strongly influenced by Stonewall in 2002 but that was under different leadership.

“Angela Mason insisted that my bill should apply to both gay and straight couples and I’m really sorry I wasn’t able to achieve that.

“Stonewall have to decide their priorities. If they see religious civil partnerships as the most important, that’s up to them.

“For my part, I see no reason why we can’t have civil partnerships recognised as marriage. It’s a matter of symbolism, as is religious civil partnerships.”