HAMPSHIRE MPs have given a cautious welcome to Government plans to legalise gay marriage.

Amid a furious row with traditionalists and church leaders the Government has published a consultation into a proposed change in the law.

It is expected that Conservative MPs will be offered a free vote when the legislation comes to Parliament, meaning they will not be told by Government whips what they should do.

A campaign opposing the change has gathered more than 200,000 signatures, including those of the Rt Rev Timothy Dakin, Bishop of Winchester, and Rt Rev Michael Scott-Joynt, who used to hold the post.

Caroline Nokes, Tory MP for Romsey and Southampton North, said: “Broadly speaking, I am with the Government on this. However, I do have concerns about any religious institutions being forced to conduct gay marriages against their wishes and contrary to their theology.”

The consultation would entitle same-sex couples to get married in a register office or other civil ceremony. They would also be allowed to convert existing civil partnerships.

However, as the proposals stand, the legal ban on same-sex religious services would be maintained – despite some churches expressing an interest in conducting them.

Gay right campaigners and the Labour Party said that ministers were not going far enough.

Southampton Itchen Labour MP John Denham said: “I think the change should go ahead. The establishment of civil partnerships was much more significant, but there’s no reason why the current legal discrimination should continue.”

Julian Lewis, the Conservative MP for New Forest East, said most of the letters he had received from constituents had been against the change. He said he had backed the introduction of civil partnerships, but had not yet decided which way to vote on gay marriage.

He added: “I will go along and listen to the debate and make up my mind.”