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Supreme Court battle leads to survivors’ pension equality for same-sex couples

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Congratulations to John Walker! For eleven years, he has been fighting his employer and the government, so that his husband can receive his pension when he dies. He had to fight because, until today, the law permitted same sex couples to be discriminated against.

Today the Supreme Court upheld Mr Walker’s argument, giving same-sex couples the same pension rights as all other married couples.

In 2006, Mr Walker entered into a civil partnership and asked his employer that, in the event of his death, his pension be paid to his civil partner.  His employer refused, relying on a loophole in the Equality Act.  As Mr Walker’s service with the company predated the legislation relating to civil partnerships, this was lawful.

If Mr Walker was married to a woman she would be entitled on his death to a “spouse’s pension” of about £45,700 per annum. Before the outcome of this case, Mr Walker’s husband would only have been entitled to a pension of about £1,000 per annum.  This was plainly discrimination against a same-sex couple.  It was shameful that the government supported this case.  This was summed up nicely by the judge, Lord Kerr:

The salary paid to Mr Walker throughout his working life was precisely the same as that which would have been paid to a heterosexual man. There was no reason for the company to anticipate that it would not become liable to pay a survivor’s pension to his lawful spouse.

Mr Walker’s struggle will be keenly felt by trade unionists who campaign for equal rights for same-sex couples. Trade unionists have negotiated with employers to improve many workplace occupational pension schemes.  We knew that the provision under the Equality Act which treated gay couples less favourably was discriminatory.

Thanks to Mr Walker and the Supreme Court all same sex couples will receive equal treatment on pensions.  The ruling from the UK’s highest court means that means that a provision under the Equality Act, which made it possible to discriminate against same-sex couples, is now obsolete.  From today, companies continuing to deny equal pension rights to same-sex couples will be breaking the law.  This means that tens of thousands of other same-sex couples will also benefit from John Walker pursuing this case so doggedly.  This ruling will end a system that has left thousands of people with added stress and financial concerns when they are grieving for loved ones.

Today’s decision is also a reminder of the vital role that EU legislation plays in safeguarding equality law.  The Supreme Court were able to set aside provisions of the Equality Act by declaring it to be incompatible with the EU Directive which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

EU legislation continues to safeguard equality for same-sex couples and one of the TUC’s campaign priorities is to ensure that Brexit does not lead to these important rights being rolled back.  We want a commitment from the government that employment rights are protected post Brexit and that this important change and any future developments in EU employment legislation will be respected by the UK government.

Mr Walker echoed our call today:

What I would like from Theresa May and her ministers today is a formal commitment that this change will stay on the statute books after Brexit.

Hear, hear.

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