Equal marriage isn't totally equal when it comes to pensions

A hang-over from civil partnerships keeps same-sex couples different in the eyes of the law.

Moneybox's Paul Lewis points out on Twitter an interesting quirk of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill: when it comes to pensions, it's not entirely equal.

Paragraph 123 of the explanatory notes reads:

Paragraph 18 of Schedule 9 to the Equality Act 2010 provides that it is not discrimination because of sexual orientation to restrict access to a benefit, facility or service that would be available to a person who was married, to someone who is in a civil partnership in relation to rights accrued before 5 December 2005 (the date the Civil Partnership Act came into force). This means that an occupational pension scheme as a minimum only has to provide survivor benefits to civil partners on rights accrued since that date. Paragraph 15 removes the word married from sub-paragraph (1) and inserts a new sub-paragraph (1A) in paragraph 18 of Schedule 9 to the Equality Act 2010. This extends the exception so that it also applies to same sex couples in the same way as to civil partners.

That is: if you are married to someone of the same sex, your marriage is qualitatively different in at least one (potentially very important) way. Any pension benefits accrued before 5 December 2005 are allowed to continue to ignore same-sex marriages.

The reasoning behind the rule is obvious. When pension funds were estimating the costs of providing couples' benefits, a small but significant part of the estimation will have been based on the fact that any gay members of the pension plan would never be able to claim those benefits. When civil partnerships were introduced, it was decided it would be more trouble than it was worth to force those funds to treat civil partnerships as marriages; and now, since the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill is essentially just a provision for changing the name of civil partnerships, the same rule is being carried over.

It's important to note that the rules are just the minimum, so most pension funds will presumably do the right thing and cover married couples equally regardless of gender. And obviously eventually the difference will be moot. But the desire to take the easy way out may end up hurting a few couples just when they're at their most vulnerable. Hopefully an amendment will change this rule and restore equality to equal marriages.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.