Geoffrey Howe’s wife Baroness Howe demands government provides equal survivor benefits for gay couples

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Before the amendment was withdrawn in the Lords on Wednesday evening, the wife of former Conservative Chancellor Lord Geoffrey Howe, Baroness Howe of Idlicote, pleaded with the government to equalise survivor benefits for same-sex couples and invoked the spirit of the US Supreme Court’s ruling against the Defence of Marriage Act in her argument.

Here is Baroness Howe’s speech:

“My Lords, as in Committee, I am pleased to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Alli. As he has pointed out, the amendment represents a crucial opportunity to ensure that the introduction of same-sex marriage in this country is achieved with exactly the same basic benefits and insurance rights for male/male and female/female as for male/female.

“If we do not address this final discriminatory hurdle now, it will be several decades before all gay couples achieve equality. For gay men and women, it will mean decades of waiting as they continue to live with the reality that their loved ones may not be provided for when they die; decades in which individuals who have worked and contributed to their pensions, planned and been prudent, are subject to the whim of employers and pension providers, who may choose to pay a pittance in survivor benefits for no other reason than the gender of their spouses.

“If we do not remove this last remnant of historical injustice, the ‘second tier’ of marriage will continue in contradiction of all the calls for exactly equal treatment that we have heard again and again over the past few days in your Lordships’ Chamber.

“A brief look across the Atlantic may help to illustrate the point. Two weeks ago, in the landmark case of United States v Windsor, the Supreme Court considered the case of Edith Windsor and her spouse and partner of 44 years, Thea. They lived together in New York, a state which recognises same-sex marriages, and when Thea died in 2009 she left her entire estate to Edith. Had they been a heterosexual couple, Edith would have inherited the entire estate tax free. However, US federal law prevents their marriage being recognised for the purpose of inheritance tax and Edith was hit with a bill for $363,053 (£243,070).

“The Supreme Court found the law to be unconstitutional. A key plank in its reasoning was that the treatment of Edith and others like her had the effect of creating a separate sub-set of legal marriages that were treated less favourably. To use the words of Justice Kennedy, ‘it tells those couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition’, and, ‘the principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law are to demean those persons who are in lawful same-sex marriage’. The effect of this judgment was to grant legally married same-sex couples access to the same federal entitlement available to heterosexual married couples including tax, health and pension rights.

“Questions of taxes and pensions may seem mundane to some, but I can confidently say that this change in the law would mean the world to those people whom it affects. Among them is a client of Liberty, John Walker. I mentioned him when your Lordships debated this issue in Committee. John and his partner have been in a loving, committed relationship for more than 20 years, and they registered for a civil partnership at the earliest opportunity. Yet John’s partner is currently entitled to a fraction of the survivor benefits which would be available to a female spouse, even one John met and married today.

“It cannot be right to continue a two-tier discriminatory marriage system. Surely John deserves the peace of mind of knowing that his partner will be equally provided for. Is that not exactly what the government’s commitment to securing real equality for gay couples really means?”