From the TUC

Equal marriage: The other side of the debate

17 May 2013, by in Equality

The House of Commons returns to the Marriage (same sex couples) Bill for its final stages before being despatched to the Lords on May 20-21.  The bill came through the committee stage with scarcely a single amendment. Now, the list of amendments being proposed for Monday’s debate is growing by the hour as everyone who had a go at changing the bill during committee is returning for another go.

The TUC approach has always been to welcome the bill: we have supported every step that has improved the position for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people however limited the progress may be.  While almost all the publicity has attached itself to the vociferous claims of those who are actually opposed to equality to win exemptions for people who don’t support our equality from having to comply with the law, others have tried – so far without success – to improve it.  Amid all the hullaballoo about allowing registrars to ignore the requirements of their jobs and teachers not to have to promote equality for all their pupils, amendments have also been proposed that will strengthen equality and the TUC, many unions and campaigns such as Liberty have been campaigning in their support.

Take pensions, for example. Under existing law, survivor benefits only apply from the date of the Civil Partnership Act (2005). The government intends to replicate this in the new law. Where an opted-out occupational pension scheme pays survivor benefits, these can be backdated to 1988 (thanks to a successful TUC-led campaign back in 2004-5), but that still isn’t equality. In truth, as Maria Miller acknowledged during the committee stage, a large proportion of pension schemes have voluntarily agreed to make equal provision. That being the case, how can there be a problem with putting this into the law?  There has been a European Court of Justice decision (Maruko, 2008) that sees this as illegal discrimination, and now we’ve had a UK employment tribunal reach the same conclusion (Walker v. Innospec Ltd, 2012).

Caroline Lucas MP has now tabled an amendment to end this pensions inequality with the backing of Liberty. The TUC is pleased to associate itself with this. If you have a link to your MP, please encourage them to turn up on Monday and support this principled approach.

The trade union movement is also supporting attempts to extend civil partnerships to heterosexual couples.  Why? Because, firstly, it’s basic equality. But it’s also important for the many same sex couples currently in civil partnerships who do not plan to get married once this bill is enacted (for many different reasons) that CPs do not become segregated and seen as second class relationships.  The government doesn’t want to extend CPs, they want to retain marriage as “the gold standard”. But since we feel that people ought to receive equal respect for their relationship, whatever it’s called, we don’t accept this approach. So we want Parliament to agree that CPs should be available to all, regardless of their sexuality.

The debate in Parliament will do no doubt continue to be dominated by those from the right who want to derail this bill.  It has to be hoped that the government will stand firm and resist attempts to extend exemptions that would undermine equality.  Every attempt so far to appease the enemies of equality – such as the infamous “quadruple lock” –  has just led them to come back for more.  So we will have to be vigilant – and then prepare ourselves for further obstacles certain to be raised when the measure reaches the Lords in early June.