When the Civil Partnership Act comes into force this December, same-sex couples will, for the first time, be able to form legal relationships. I am delighted that many HR managers are already geared up for the impact this will have on employee rights. Diversity is key to a happy and motivated workforce and recognising civil partnerships will play a part in this.
Civil partnerships will make a big difference to many people’s lives, not least to their rights as employees. It will give equal dignity and recognition to thousands of same-sex couples whose relationships have often been invisible in the eyes of the law. There are many couples up and down the country planning their civil partnerships, as they want their relationships recognised.
The Civil Partnership Act will, for the first time, directly address many injustices felt by lesbian, gay and bisexual couples. Same-sex couples that register a civil partnership will have parity of treatment with married couples in a wide range of legal matters, including employment rights. For many couples, this is another important reason for registering.
Many HR departments and employers already provide benefits packages to same-sex couples that match those available to heterosexual couples. However, from 5 December, all employers will have a responsibility to ensure they treat employees in civil partnerships the same way they treat married employees. For example, if you offer private healthcare to the spouse of an employee, you must also make it available to an employee’s civil partner. And if you provide benefits packages to unmarried opposite-sex couples, there may be additional benefits to married couples that you must offer to those in civil partnerships.
From December, civil partners will also be entitled to a survivor’s pension from their partner’s contracted-out occupational or personal pension scheme, public service pension scheme or non-contracted out scheme, which currently pays survivor benefits to widows and widowers. Many same-sex couples have campaigned long and hard to achieve these pensions rights, so I am especially pleased that we can now deliver pensions equality.
Legal rights at work are important for everyone. Civil partnership provides valuable rights for those same-sex couples who choose to register their partnership. I hope HR professionals will embrace this opportunity to further their commitment to the equality of rights for all workers.
For more background on the legislation and action points for employers, read Civil partnerships: Perfect match’, which first appeared in our sister publication, Employers’ Law magazine.
Investing time in diversity
“Lehman Brothers recognises the importance of having a diverse workforce and is committed to equality for its lesbian and gay employees. We have been considering the impact of the legislation for some time and have already started ensuring all of our benefit packages for employees adhere to the legislation, so that civil partner employees will be treated the same as married employees. We are confident that we will be ready when the legislation comes into force in December.”
Fleur Bothwick, European director of diversity at investment bank Lehman Brothers
A more enlightened future
“We have been a couple living together for 29 years. Our relationship is legally invisible at the moment, even though we’ve done things like named each other in our wills. We are now able to secure public legitimisation and recognition, both social and legal, of our lifelong relationship.
There was no legal protection in employment for gay people when we first got together. We suffered from social alienation at work, as well as missing out on the standard benefits that married couples enjoy.
We hope the enlightened legislation introduced by the present government will at last usher in a more sane, balanced and civilised attitude towards gay people in this country; we would not want young gay people to have to endure the treatment and behaviour to which we have been subjected for most of our lives.”
John Winter and Peter Thursfield, a couple from west London who plan to register on 22 December 2005
Action points for HR
- Examine existing benefits packages and HR systems to establish where changes are needed. The time and budget implications for this task will be relatively small
- Be sensitive to the needs of those in civil partnerships, as they may not want other employees to be aware of their status. To avoid unnecessarily making this information public, you should not have a completely separate process for employees to claim benefits in relation to their civil partnership
- Re-brand existing benefits packages for spouses as benefits for ‘spouses or civil partners’, avoiding the need for someone to identify themselves as having a spouse or a civil partner
- Avoid asking someone to identify themselves as either married or in a civil partnership on HR forms. Instead, people should be asked to identify themselves as ‘married or in a civil partnership’ or a ‘spouse or civil partner’
- Once you have adapted HR administration systems to accommodate civil partnership, communicate the changes to employees