Unmarried and gay partners of MPs are given pension rights

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Gay and unmarried partners of MPs and civil servants are to be given the same pension rights as married couples.

Gay and unmarried partners of MPs and civil servants are to be given the same pension rights as married couples.

Under a legal change to be made by October, unmarried partners will be entitled to widow's or widower's pensions.

The move will be welcomed by gay rights groups, but teachers, soldiers and health service workers who are not being given the same benefits despite years of campaigning, accused the Government of hypocrisy and discrimination.

The National Union of Teachers said ministers were applying double standards. "We have become used to one rule applying to MPs and an entirely different set of rules for the rest of us," said a spokeswoman. The public service union Unison accused the Government of "discrimination against people who are living outside legal marriage". A spokeswoman called on ministers to foot the estimated £80m annual bill for gay and unmarried NHS employees to have the same rights as their colleagues.

The pension changes are said to be designed to send a signal to the financial world about the acceptability of the relationships enjoyed by openly gay MPs, such as Chris Smith, Stephen Twigg and Ben Bradshaw. MPs in long-term relationships with unmarried partners – including the Secretary of State for Health, Alan Milburn, and the Secretary of State for Transport, Stephen Byers – will also gain. A Cabinet Office spokesman said claimants would have to have a long-term, exclusive, financially interdependent relationship.

The move follows a vote by MPs last year to instruct the trustees of the Parliamentary Pension Scheme to examine extending rights to unmarried couples. Actuaries told the trustees, chaired by the senior Tory MP John Butterfill, the cost of the reform and other details. The trustees will consider their report next month. However, the Treasury is believed to be unwilling to foot the bill, so MPs will be asked to increase their contributions to meet the extra cost.

Mr Butterfill said: "Marriage is a contractural commitment and we are saying we are going to recognise non-contractual commitments. It's a very complex area. If we have a very elderly member who suddenly has a very young partner, a 20- year-old partner, the cost to the scheme could be huge."

Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat who has been leading the campaign for equality in the House of Commons, said the rights should be extended to all gay and unmarried people in the public sector. "The change to the MPs' scheme will put further pressure on Members to ensure that less well-off workers such as those in the health service can have access to the same benefits," Mr Harris said. "It will send a strong signal to the private sector that they should also extend these rights." The rules are also likely to be extended to unmarried partners of people working for local authorities.