I thank the Chairman and members for the opportunity to address the committee today.
I represent Pension Equality, which campaigns for gay and lesbian persons to be given an opportunity to leave a pension to their surviving spouses when they die. Our Chairman, Mr. Billy Hannigan, Deputy General Secretary of the PSEU, wished to be here today but, unfortunately, is unable to attend. I am accompanied by Ms Lily Toner who is one of our members. She has not been given the opportunity to leave a survivor pension to her wife.
Some of our group are elderly and ill and cannot be here today. Some of them did not wish to come because they are still fearful of public exposure. This is the first time that there has been an opportunity such as this for a public discussion on survivor pensions for same-sex couples.
We fully support the provision in head 14 of the Bill that provides a survivor pension for Dr. David Parris and remedies the injustice that he suffered. We deplore the exclusion from the head of a small group of people who are in the same position as him. We propose amendments to head 14 that are intended to rectify that anomaly and give practical effect to marriage equality. The amendments are accompanied by explanatory notes and are dated 12 June. An earlier version dated 28 May may be disregarded by the committee. The amendments we propose are restricted in scope and are intended to apply only to this small and diminishing group. There have been no new members since 1984.
We set out our case in our letters dated 28 May and 8 June that we sent to the committee. I hope that members have received them. Our central point is that our situation is unfair and our injustice is the same as that of Dr. Parris. He was locked out of his pension scheme because he could not marry his husband before he was 60 years of age. People like Ms Toner are locked out of her pension scheme because she could not marry her wife before her retirement. It is unclear why a distinction was made in head 14 between people in the same position as Dr. Parris and people in same position as Ms Toner. It is also difficult to understand why, two years after the referendum, we are here today.
We believe that the purpose of the constitutional amendment, and the reason that the people voted for it in such numbers, was to give same sex spouses the benefits and comforts that people in opposite sex marriages have always enjoyed, and that Article 41 of the Constitution protects. The people did not vote for partial equality or to keep special disadvantages for same-sex couples. Marriage cannot be separated from the benefits that it brings. Among the advantages of marriage has always been the opportunity to provide for one's family in life as in death.
The contention has been advanced that because, in 1984, some of our members who were in the public service did not accept the option of a survivor's pension for an opposite-sex spouse, acquired after retirement, they were forever disqualified from a survivor pension for a same-sex spouse. To even propose that shows a deep lack of understanding of the circumstances for gay and lesbian people in that period.
In 1982, when a young man was beaten to death in Fairview Park in Dublin because he was gay, the trial judge said that the crime could not be viewed as serious manslaughter, and the perpetrators received suspended sentences. Yet it is being suggested that at that time, and in that atmosphere, gay and lesbian people were required to make a final decision about their survivor pensions that would bind them, for the rest of their lives, in a pension scheme that was designed for opposite sex marriages only.
In 1984 the idea that there could be same-sex marriage would have been ludicrous, including to the State itself when it made the offer. One gay member has told me that he opted to benefit from an imaginary wife because he was fearful that if he did not do so he would be identified as homosexual, by his co-workers and employers, and passed over for promotion.
We have set out in our letter to the committee dated 8 June why we believe that our proposal will not cause unfairness to opposite sex couples, and this point have been raised. This includes persons who were prohibited from marriage by reason of the lack of divorce. FOI requests have ascertained that in the 20 years since the introduction of divorce, only one or possibly two persons who were affected by the lack of divorce have made application to any Department to change the option they had made. Their requests were successful. The reason for this lack applications is that anyone who was affected by the absence of divorce had ample opportunities, under the pension scheme rules, to obtain a survivor pension. We have listed the opportunities in our costings paper at footnote (e) for paragraph 6.
As regards the potential costs if our proposal is accepted, we have already furnished the committee with our calculations. They demonstrate that the cost would be minimal because of the very limited number of persons who would be eligible to benefit.
The State, it seems, has accepted in head 14, that changing an existing pension rule that is deeply unfair to gay and lesbian employees is the right thing to do, and will not be a cause of any general uncertainty. There is no reason to adopt a different attitude to our proposal to change an unfair rule.
In terms of the amendments, section 73A of head 14 effectively disallows any condition in a pension scheme that requires employees to have married or entered into a civil partnership before a certain age in order to obtain a pension for their spouse or civil partner. By adding the two words "or retired" to the section our amendment effectively disallows any condition in a pension scheme that requires employees to have married or entered into a civil partnership before retirement in order to obtain a pension for their spouse or civil partner. The amendment is shorter and clearer than our earlier wording dated 28 May but it has the same effect. We would not have a problem with an improvement of our wording that might be suggested as long as it achieves the purpose intended by our proposal.
Yesterday we received a copy of the response given to the committee by the Department of Social Protection. Having read it I spoke at length to Department officials.
There was a misunderstanding in that response, based on the mistaken belief that the original pension scheme to which most of our members belong does not have a spouse and dependant benefit. It does have a spouse and dependant benefit, but it is only available if the member marries before retirement. Following that clarification, we seem to have reached a common understanding with the Department of Social Protection that head 14 is intended to cover those gay and lesbian people in the original scheme who have retired and who were unable to marry before their retirement. However, putting that understanding into the Bill, where it will pass through several hands, is another matter. In order to guard against an unexpected change of mind from any source, it is very important that the committee make a formal recommendation that our group be clearly included in the scope of head 14. I believe that such a recommendation would ensure its passage.
Another issue which calls for remedy concerns gay and lesbian public servants who, following the constitutional amendment, have an entitlement to a survivor pension for their same-sex spouse but whose survivor pensions are not being calculated on the entirety of their service. One of our members, Annette McCabe, whose case featured in The Sunday Business Post recently and who is an ordinary level HSE employee, has been told that she is in this position. Whether this should be remedied by administrative action or by legislation is a matter for the Department, but we strongly urge that it be resolved speedily because of her serious health problems. She will not benefit from head 14. I suggest that the committee recommend that where a person has a right to a same-sex survivor pension, it should be based on the whole of her service record.
Pension Equality wants to be made redundant. We want an Ireland where there is no need to have gay and lesbian campaign groups for any reason. I hope the committee will make us redundant. Ms Lily Toner would like to say a few words about her own personal experience of the pension schemes.