Pensions inequality remains in Marriage Bill

23 May 2013
Sally Scott, Campaigns Officer

On Tuesday night the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill was passed by the House of Commons, after an eventful few days of debate.

A great deal of distraction was caused by an amendment calling for straight couples to be allowed civil partnerships. While Liberty fully supports allowing straight couples to take part in a “partnership” ceremony, this misnomer of a debate very nearly derailed this important Bill.

Most disappointingly, the Bill heads to the Lords with a substantive and substantial inequality remaining: the issue of equalising pension survivor benefits for gay couples. The Bill in its current form will allow pension providers to discriminate against gay married couples as well as those in civil partnerships, by ensuring they receive far less survivor benefits than their straight counterparts.

Last night, Dr Caroline Lucas MP spoke stirringly to her amendment on this issue and the effect it had on Liberty client John Walker. John successfully challenged this discrimination after learning that in the event of his death, his civil partner would be entitled to just £500 whereas if he dissolved his civil partnership and married a woman, she would be entitled to £41,000.

Dr Lucas made short work of the Government’s argument that equalising occupational pension benefits to gay married couples will cost too much, pointing out that no one, not even the pension providers, could estimate how many married couples would be gay.

John’s MP, Sir Malcolm Rifkind also challenged the House, saying if they ‘want to give complete equality to same-sex relationships, they must address the pension question’.

Tory MP Mike Freer, who co-signed the amendment, talked about his astonishment to realise that, as a gay man in a civil partnership, he too was subject to this discriminatory legislation. Lib Dem MP Dr Julian Huppert also pledged his support, describing the discriminatory provision as ‘truly bizarre’ and ‘not at all sustainable’.

Sadly, Shadow Equalities Minister Kate Green, speaking for the Opposition, was unable to support the amendment despite acknowledging that the discrimination existed. Instead, she called for a thorough investigation into the cost of equalising pensions, perpetuating the belief that Labour, like the Government, will make their decision on whether to right this wrong on cost rather than conscience.

Liberty strongly believes cost is no justification for discrimination. We will now take our fight to the Lords to ensure that this fundamental issue of equality does not get ignored a second time.

Trade union support

Liberty has the backing of five trade unions who have all supported our call to equalise pensions. With your support and theirs, we will continue our fight to convince the Lords that no Bill can promise equal marriage if it doesn’t address this pension inequality.

UNISON General Secretary, Dave Prentis: “UNISON has long called for workers to be able to leave survivor pension benefits to their same sex partner.  It’s a simple matter of workplace justice. We had hoped to see complete equality with same sex marriage.  As worded now, the Bill perpetuates injustice, with devastating impact on affected couples. This simple amendment brings true equality and we strongly urge its adoption.”

CWU General Secretary Billy Hayes: “We support Liberty’s suggested amendment to the Bill which would remove this last discriminatory hurdle and ensure that gay employees, who have paid into their pensions in the same way as colleagues, receive the same benefits for their loved ones.”

Frances O’Grady, TUC General Secretary: “The TUC welcomed the Marriage (same sex couples) bill as a major step towards establishing recognition for LGBT people as equal citizens. For the same reason, we believe the bill should be used to end existing inequalities in pension provision for same sex couples. To that end, the TUC welcomes the amendment proposed by Caroline Lucas MP and encourages MPs to support it.”

Paul Kenny, GMB General Secretary: "GMB supports LGBT equality,  including equality in same sex marriage in the UK.  We welcomes and supports Liberty's amendment to remove the inequality on occupational pension schemes."

Mark Serwotka, PCS General Secretary, has provided the following supportive public statement on Liberty's excellent amendment to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill: "PCS fully supports the amendment to remove one of the final legal discriminations against same sex couples. If it is serious about equality, the government must accept this amendment to remove this anachronistic anomaly, and not only put marriage on an equal footing but rights for partners too."