Update: Pensions Equality

Tuesday 21st May was an historic day for the UK. The milestone Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill passed through the House of Commons for the final time with a huge majority. Equal marriage opportunities for all couples, same- or mixed-sex, are now one step closer to being a reality.

Disappointingly, the draft laws went through with a huge inequality still in place. Despite nearly 2000 of us emailing our MPs to ask them to vote for an amendment which would have stopped pension companies discriminating against same-sex marriages, the amendment was eventually scuppered.

We’ll have another chance to fix this in a few weeks when the Bill goes through the House of Lords. In the meantime, here’s a short comment piece about Tuesday’s events. It’s written by Sally Scott, Campaigns Officer at Liberty – the organisation with whom 38 Degrees ran this campaign:

“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.”

Author: Sally Scott, Campaigns Officer, Liberty