A gay Midland politician has spoken of his joy at being able to hold a civil partnership ceremony with his partner of 22 years.

Michael Cashman, the MEP and former Eastenders actor, is planning to formally register his relationship with boyfriend Paul Cottingham in the New Year.

Legislation allowing gay and lesbian couples to gain the same legal rights as married couples through civil partnerships comes into effect in December.

Mr Cashman revealed his plans during a speech to the Labour conference in Brighton.

He said: "On a personal level, I'm deeply proud that our Government had the courage to bring forward civil partnerships, so people like me can establish our relationships officially."

The MEP, aged 54, was performing in Scarborough when he met 41 year-old Mr Cottingham, who was then a Butlins redcoat. The pair were introduced by actress Barbara Windsor.

Mr Cashman told The Birmingham Post: "I was one of those who asked the Prime Minister to bring this legislation forward, and lobbied for it.

"I have been with Paul now for 22 years, and it has always worried me what happens to me if I fell ill, or the other way around. There are pension rights, hospital rights and a whole range of rights that apply to married couples but could not apply to us before.

"I think having fought for equality I would be a bloody fool not to sign up to it now. It is about saying these rights are not just academic, and it is about giving us both peace of mind.

"Paul and I plan to have a New Year ceremony. 2006 will be a big year for us. Who knows, I might invite Tony. We don't know where it will be, but we want to do something unusual and to have it in this country."

Mr Cottingham now works as an event organiser, said Mr Cashman. "I'm going to leave it to him. I know it will be special."