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Government under attack on pensions equality

Written by: Emma Lunn
Widowers with female spouses have been denied the same rights as widowers with same-sex partners.

The government has announced it will not make any retrospective changes to existing rules on pension benefits by responding to a report published five years ago.

Minister for pensions and financial inclusion Guy Opperman made a written statement to Parliament referring to both a review of survivor benefits published in June 2014 and the Walker case heard in the Supreme Court in 2017.

Opperman’s statement said: “Following careful consideration of the review’s findings, the government has concluded that, aside from those changes brought about by the Supreme Court judgment, it will not make any further retrospective changes to the existing provisions in respect of occupational pension schemes to equalise survivor benefits.

“While this means that the differences in survivor benefits for accruals in past periods will remain for some, these will work their way out of the system in time.”

The Walker case

John Walker had taken the Innospec Pension Scheme to court because as a member of a same-sex couple he would not be entitled to the same pension if his partner were to die as a member of an opposite sex couple would receive.

This was because the law only gave him entitlement for service since 2005, when Civil Partnerships were created. Male survivors are entitled to the same survivor benefits as women for any service after May 1990. In public sector schemes the cut-off date is April 6, 1988.

In July 2017, the Supreme Court found in Walker’s favour and the government has now agreed to implement the necessary changes for public sector pension schemes. Private sector pension schemes will also be expected to follow the judgment.

Lack of pensions equality

The particular group that will lose out as a result of the government’s decision will be widowers who will, for many years to come, generally get poorer benefits following the death of their wife than a widow would get following the death of her husband. It is estimated that putting this inequality right would cost public sector pension schemes several billion pounds.

Steve Webb, policy director at Royal London, said the statement shows the government is ‘dragging its heels’ on pensions equality.

“When leading politicians can find billions of pounds to spend on their spending priorities, it is deeply disappointing that the money cannot now be found to put right a historic inequality in the pensions system. The report published in 2014 made clear that there remain clear unfairnesses between men and women in pensions, and yet five years later the government still does not think that this issue is worth addressing. A generation of widowers will lose out as a result.”

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