A bill due to arrive at Malta’s parliament which was designed to give cohabiting couples legal rights will include provisions for gay civil partnerships, an official has said.

Having been announced fourteen years ago, questions had been asked about whether the cohabitation bill would include specific provisions allowing gay couples to have legal recognition of their relationship or treat them in the same way as cohabiting siblings.

According to the Times of Malta, a spokesman for the Justice Ministry spokesman said: “The government’s stand is that the relationship between gay couples should be regulated through the law on co­habitation, including the institute of civil partnership.”

A backbencher in Malta’s parliament, Dr Pullicino Orlando, had written an opinion piece in the broadly Catholic country’s Times newspaper yesterday calling for equal marriage rights.

He wrote: “The Catholic Church, locally, has had a profound, positive impact on our society. It has been contributing in areas which range from education to the care of the elderly and the disabled for centuries, often stepping in to fill the gaps left open by the government.

“However, the policies of our political parties should not be adapted in such a way as to ensure that the metaphorical feathers of the Catholic hierarchy in Malta, which leans towards the conservative when compared with the rest of the Universal Church, are left unruffled.”

He added that “the only reason many are averse to the idea of gay marriage is simply a misguided one based on religious beliefs”.

Asked about the timing, he said: “When would it be the right time? Why should gay couples today be denied rights that gay couples in 10 years’ time are likely to enjoy?”

While Malta’s government has made no representation supporting gay marriages, the cohabitation bill is a first for the Mediterranean islands.

Couples, gay and straight, cohabiting outside marriage will be given greater legal protection than before in a special class of relationship below that of marriage but above that of individuals cohabiting outside a relationship.