People think we have equality – but discriminatory pension laws robbed me of my security
John Walker writes for PinkNews, as he takes a battle over discriminatory pension rules to the Supreme Court.
When I tell people about my case against my company and the Government – which reaches the Supreme Court today – they inevitably say the same thing.
“But surely that was all sorted out ages ago? Now it doesn’t matter whether you’re straight or gay – everyone’s treated the same.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking state-sanctioned discrimination on the grounds of sexuality had been consigned to the dark ages, where it belongs. Sadly, as my case shows, we’re not there yet.
I gave 23 years of working life to my former employer Innospec. During those 23 years, I faithfully paid in pension contributions, just like all my colleagues. In 2003, I retired, safe in the knowledge that my partner – now husband – would be provided for after my death.
But a little-known loophole in the Equality Act has robbed me of that security. It says private pension funds are only legally obliged to pay spousal benefits to civil partners and same-sex spouses based on contributions made after civil partnerships were legalised – December 2005. By then, of course, I had retired and was already drawing my pension.
And so we find ourselves in a situation as absurd as it is unjust. When it comes to spousal benefits after my death, two decades of pension contributions amount to nothing – solely because of my sexuality.
Should I go first, my husband will receive only a few hundred pounds a year. We have been together since 1993. Were I to marry the first woman I met today, she would be entitled to more than £45,000 annually for the rest of her life.
I joined Innospec in 1980, and joined the pension fund at the same time – it was mandatory for all new employees. I contributed right up until I left in 2003.
In my latter years with Innospec, I was posted overseas. My partner was treated just like any other employee’s spouse. The company agreed that, subject to the discretion of the pension fund’s chairman, he would receive exactly the same spousal pension rights as those of my married colleagues.
We entered into a civil partnership in January 2006. Shortly afterwards, I asked Innospec to confirm my partner would receive equal pension rights. No, he would not.
Which was when my fight began, backed by human rights organisation Liberty. Today we will argue in the Supreme Court that this legal exemption is discriminatory and, as such, breaches my human rights and the rights of countless others.
For many years now, Prime Ministers have been telling us everyone will be treated the same. We will be a more equal, caring society, a fair society, “a country that works for everyone”.
Successive governments have trumpeted the importance of long-term commitments and marriage. The Coalition even brought in tax breaks for married couples, of the same or opposite sex.
Yet if I were to divorce my partner, then civil partner and now husband of 24 years and marry the very first woman I met, she would immediately be entitled to my full spousal pension. What sense does that make? How does that sit with the Government’s supposed support for loving, lasting relationships?
In October 2015, David Cameron himself even wrote to me, promising that “being black, or Asian, or female, or gay doesn’t mean you’ll be treated differently”.
But when we still live in a country where same-sex couples are treated differently – worse – than their opposite-sex married friends, those words ring hollow.
How can this possibly be fair? How can it be right? How can it be anything other than discriminatory, unfair and totally illogical?
The majority of private pension schemes have altered their rules so this situation doesn’t arise. Two years ago, the Government announced that more than 70 per cent of companies had followed this route. I believe it is now closer to 90 per cent.
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But there are still companies like Innospec who refuse to do the decent thing. And, until the law changes, they can get away with that – and will continue to.
This is one of the last areas of law that allows for naked direct discrimination against gay couples. It’s an aberration, with no place in the UK in 2017. Isn’t it high time it was scrapped?
I am lucky. I’m still reasonably young and in fair health. With luck, I should live for many more years yet. But there are many other gay men and women who have died, or are coming to the end of their lives, forced to see out their final days knowing their partners, husbands and wives will receive nothing.
And while the Government persists in spending tax-payers’ money fighting to preserve this outdated law, they are sanctioning that suffering.
Today I hope the highest court in the land – the last stage of my legal fight – will put this right once and for all.