HC Deb 21 January 2003 vol 398 cc185-6 1.32 pm
James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for persons in receipt of a public sector pension to be able to provide survivor benefits for unmarried, financially interdependent, partners; and for connected purposes. Two years ago, one of my constituents was killed in a car crash. He was returning from Sheffield on the snake pass when he was hit by a car coming the other way. His death shook my village. Although nothing could have put right the grief of his partner and two children whom he left behind, insult was added to that grief when they discovered that the Teachers Pension Agency refused to pay out on his pension. I was amazed by that and assumed that it was an anomaly, but when I looked into the problem it turned out to be the norm across the public sector. Only about a quarter of public sector pension schemes pay out for unmarried partners. Many right hon. and hon. Members share my belief that that discriminates against cohabiting families. My Bill would put that right.

The Bill would require every public sector scheme to offer its members the choice of covering unmarried partners. Last year, 202 Members supported my early-day motion on the subject, including the current and previous Chairs of the Social Security and Work and Pensions Committees, a number of Liberal Democrat Members, the Trades Union Congress and the public sector trade unions. Even some modernising Conservative Members supported it. The Government have made quite a lot of progress since then. They have introduced a new scheme for civil service pensions that allows members' pensions to cover unmarried partners. In particular, they have made it clear that they intend to introduce a registration scheme for homosexual partners. I wholeheartedly welcome that. It is a brave and overdue move. Unfortunately, the registration scheme would not cover unmarried heterosexual partners, which is why I am introducing the Bill.

As the law stands, any police officer who is killed in action could leave behind a family without support. Any of our soldiers who are killed in Iraq could also leave behind partners who are unable to pay the mortgage or support themselves. The Government made an exception when that happened in Sierra Leone to the late partner of Anna Homsi, and I have no doubt that they would do so again if the same circumstances arose, but I want to ensure that that exception is turned into the rule. That is what the Bill would do. It would require scheme trustees to consult their members about providing survivor benefits for unmarried partners and to give them an option to pay extra to cover unmarried partners. The Bill would create a consistent policy across the public sector. As I said, only about a quarter of public sector schemes provide that benefit whereas, perhaps surprisingly, 90 per cent, of those in the private sector do. So the public sector is way behind the private sector in terms of discrimination.

The Government recognised that problem in the 1998 Green Paper. They made it clear that in principle they were in favour of recognising unmarried partners, but unfortunately only the civil service scheme has been changed since then. The Bill would ensure that that policy was turned into reality. As so often, the obstacle is one of cost. The Government Actuary estimates that the cost would be between £350 million and £1 billion. That is a gross exaggeration. The £1 billion assumes that anyone with a girlfriend or boyfriend would fall within the scheme. That condition is not part of the civil service scheme. The conditions on financial interdependency and the length of a relationship in that scheme would bring the costs significantly below £350 million. Indeed, in the first few years, the cost would be extremely small because the vast majority of pensioners who are in receipt of public sector pensions are married to their partners. So the cost would only accumulate a long way down the line.

My Bill would not require any public sector spending. It would be possible for the individual schemes to comply with it by ensuring that the costs were borne entirely by their members. I have some sympathy with the trade unions when they argue that the costs should be shared between the Government and members. Of course, at the moment the Government are pocketing the savings from the rise in the number of cohabiting couples, which has tripled over the past 15 years, but the decision should be for individual public sector schemes.

The moral arguments for my scheme are sufficient to justify it. However, they are backed up by the cause of expediency. The Bill would help public sector recruitment. Private sector employers can offer coverage to unmarried partners, but those people are not covered in the public sector. That must surely be a disincentive for about 15 per cent, of the population who live in cohabiting relationships. It is clear that the Government are cutting off their nose to spite their face because we are not providing enough benefits to attract that category of people to the public sector.

The Bill would remove that disincentive. It would be in line with the recent decision by the House to give unmarried couples the right to adopt children, who under current law could end up being brought up without support. We recently voted for our pension scheme to recognise unmarried partners, yet millions in the public sector do not have the same rights. The Government have paid out when a partner has been killed in the line of duty, but they might not if the death occurred in peacetime. They accept the principle of the Bill. It would not cost anything; it would reflect the changes in our society; it would right a wrong; and it would help public sector recruitment.

Question put and agreed to. Bill ordered to be brought in by James Purnell, Ms Meg Munn, Mr. Sion Simon, David Wright, Mr. Tom Harris, Kevin Brennan, Mr. Chris Bryant, Mr. Chris Smith, Mr. Steve Webb, Mr. John Bercow and Ms Oona King.