BLOG: The right result

Written by Laura Blows
14/07/17

A landmark judgment has recently been handed down by the Supreme Court, ruling that same-sex couples that are married or in a civil partnership should have the same pension benefits as heterosexual couples.

This ends a five-year battle from John Walker, who retired from chemicals group Innospec in 2003, having worked for the company for more than 20 years and paying the same pensions contributions as his heterosexual colleagues.

Walker has been in a relationship with his husband since 1993, and they entered into a civil partnership in January 2006, having registered on the first day it was legally possible to do so. This was later converted into a marriage.

However, relying on the Equality Act exemption, Innospec made clear that – should Walker die – his husband would not receive the same survivor benefits he would if he were a woman.

Those benefits would not include all the contributions Walker had made prior to 2005 – leaving his husband with a pension of only a few hundred pounds a year. If he were married to a woman, she would receive £45,000 a year for the rest of her life.

However, the Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that an exemption in the Equality Act – letting employers exclude same-sex partners from spousal benefits paid into pension funds before December 2005 – is discriminatory and breaches EU equality laws.

I am absolutely overjoyed at this result. Over the years as a pensions journalist I have noted, with what feels like disappointing regularity, court ruling after court ruling denying Walker, and in effect all same-sex couples, the same rights as straight pension scheme members.

Yes, retroactively applying pensions rights to homosexual couple prior to 2005 will add costs to already-stretched pension schemes. I can understand why some trustees may be dismayed at having to bear these extra liabilities – particularly when they never had done anything ‘wrong’ and were simply following applying the rules as they stood.

According to ex pensions minister Ros Altmann, the ruling should affect approximately 20 per cent of private-sector schemes that are treating same-sex and opposite-sex couple the same, with estimates suggesting that the cost to private sector pension schemes could be around £100million, not including the costs for public sector pension schemes.

Yes, I hear the concerns surrounding costs. But I dismiss them completely. Sometimes doing the ‘right thing’ comes with a price. And someone who has paid into a pension regularly for decade the same as their colleagues that have done the same, differently simply for being in love with someone of the same sex is clearly wrong. When looking beyond the letter of the law and examining the bigger picture, that should be clear for all to see.

However, the pensions industry has often been accused of wearing blinkers, of being too focused on the (admittedly vital) importance of retirement saving and not sufficiently acknowledging the other priorities and pressures facing individuals.

This is it is important to focus on that big bigger picture –exploring the pensions industry’s role within the wider world of employee benefits, examining areas within the sector that may be under-reported and seeing what lessons can be learnt from other sectors or even other countries’ pensions systems.

It’s a big world out there for those managing pension schemes. And rulings like that of the Supreme Court’s helps keep pensions part of, and relevant to, today’s society.

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