The Director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, writes on how there remains one obstacle to full marriage equality in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill.
It’s almost hard to believe but not so long ago – as recently as the 1960s – homosexuality was still illegal in Britain. Thankfully we’ve come a long way over the past few decades; making significant inroads against discrimination, prejudice and intolerance. The Government has now moved a step closer to securing true equality by attempting to legalise gay civil marriage. Almost 50 years on, equal marriage is nearly a reality.
The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill has been passed by the House of Commons, and is making its way through the House of Lords. The legislation represents a historic victory for freedom and fairness. But frustratingly there remains one final obstacle to genuine marriage equality, buried within the Bill: the issue of pensions. In its current form, the legislation allows for private occupational pension providers to discriminate against gay married couples and those in civil partnerships. As things stand, they could lawfully receive far less valuable survivor benefits than their straight counterparts.
This is a counterproductive, unnecessary anomaly in a Bill which otherwise makes landmark progress in equally respecting the rights of gay people. The excuse? Money. The Government argues that equalising pensions would leave providers facing previously unforeseen costs. But pension provision by its very nature is speculative. No provider can be sure how many individuals in a pension scheme will be gay – let alone the number who might marry or form a civil partnership with a partner who happens to outlive them significantly. Providers are constantly required to deal with the uncertainties of life – from the possibility of illness to the decision to get married. Besides, cost is no excuse for blatantly discriminatory measures.
Unfortunately the Equality Act already contains a loophole allowing for private occupational pension schemes to ignore years of contributions by gay employees and limit survivor benefits for civil partners. If this stays the same, and this inequality is extended to those in gay marriages via the new Bill, it will be decades before gay couples achieve real equality when it comes to pensions. At Liberty we see no justification for continuing to allow such discrimination. That’s why we’re lobbying hard for equal pensions by tabling an amendment to the legislation in the House of Lords, to try to remove this unfair provision. Only with these changes can we achieve true equality. Peers in the Upper House will be considering our suggestion today. Hopefully they’ll realise this fundamental issue of fairness cannot be ignored.
Overall this Bill is a monumental step in the right direction. It will place the UK among a growing number of democracies finally affording equal respect to the love and commitment shared by both gay and straight couples. Liberty seeks to protect civil liberties for everyone – which means ensuring that everybody has the freedom to pursue personal fulfilment. For many, that means sharing their life with another – safe in the knowledge their union will be properly recognised and respected. This legislation will secure precisely that – without, as some have suggested, posing any threat to our proud tradition of religious freedom and tolerance.
By opening up marriage to gay couples, we can only enhance the role this evolving institution has played, and continues to play, in our society and our lives. But we must go all the way, and ensure equal treatment for all – regardless of their sexual orientation – when it comes to pensions. Gay employees pay into their schemes in exactly the same way as everyone else. Their spouses and civil partners deserve the same benefits as their straight counterparts when their loved ones are gone. It’s really as simple as that.
Shami Chakrabarti is Director of Liberty.
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