Fairer pensions for all

20 October 2011
Corinna Ferguson, Legal Officer

Last month the major multi-national company Foster Wheeler Energy Ltd had a change of heart – with a little helping hand from Liberty – regarding the intricacies of its pension policy.

Before the firm’s rethink, under its pension scheme surviving spouses were entitled to 50 per cent when a member died – civil partners on the other hand were not entitled to anything if the member retired before 5 December 2005 (when the Civil Partnership Act came into force).

This left former Foster Wheeler worker Ian Waddy, 73, and his partner Trevor Skipp, 65, less than pleased. The couple have lived together for 40 years and entered into a civil partnership in 2006. Mr Waddy receives a pension from Foster Wheeler but because he retired in 1999, under the previous rules Mr Skipp would have received nothing had Mr Waddy passed away first. If Mr Waddy married someone he’d only just met, by contrast, she would receive full spousal benefits.

The couple approached Liberty and we brought a claim on their behalf in the Employment Tribunal. Thankfully our actions prompted a turnaround from Foster Wheeler. The fact civil partners weren’t entitled to the same pension benefits as surviving spouses was clearly discriminatory and we were delighted the company saw sense and rectified the situation.

But despite their agreement to change the rules, Foster Wheeler relied on an exemption within the Equality Act to defend the original policy and argue it was not unlawful. The firm is continuing to defend the claim of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.

It’s therefore crucial that the law is clarified in this area – and soon. A hearing in Reading Employment Tribunal in January next year will determine whether the original rules did in fact discriminate unlawfully against the couple.

Mr Waddy says he hopes this case will secure fairness for other civil partners in the same situation. We will do everything we can to achieve that. To help us in our quest we’d like to hear from other couples who have been affected by this. If that’s you, please contact us at information@liberty-human-rights.org.uk.