Thousands of dependants of public-sector employees are being denied pensions when their partners die, a report showed yesterday.
Many face financial hardship because employers are denying them the benefit rights paid to surviving spouses because they were not married to their partner, the Trades Union Congress study said.
The TUC yesterday launched a campaign to win the right for "widows" pensions to be paid to a partner, irrespective of marital status or sexual orientation.
John Monks, general secretary of the TUC, said "The social taboos of living together no longer apply and the [pension] schemes are out of touch with social realities. Unless they change their ways, employees will not join a pension scheme, which is not good for our members or the schemes themselves."
The TUC's campaign covers all public-sector unions, including health and local government workers, teachers, fire fighters, and civil servants.
The Police Federation, which is banned from joining the TUC, is nevertheless backing the campaign, after several cases where a serving officer died on duty but his partner was left with no pension.
Union anger has been heightened by the fact that public-sector pension schemes now lag far behind their private-sector counterparts, many of whose members have enjoyed the right to a pension for years, regardless of whether they are married.
Often, these rights are extended to cover people in same-sex relationships who are then classed as "dependants" and paid the same benefits.
More than 3 million public-sector workers pay into their respective schemes. Based on the Government's own figures the TUC report estimates that some 220,000 people are unmarried partners, a number that is expected to grow sharply in the next decade.
In all cases where staff pay into these pension schemes, the level of their contributions is based on the assumption that - if they are married - their dependants will receive a pension should they die.
Indeed, the schemes assume that 95 per cent of their members are married and charge them accordingly. Because this percentage has been falling for years, schemes are effectively saving money by denying unmarried dependants a pension.
Among the many private-sector schemes that pay out to unmarried partners are British Telecom, Tate & Lyle, Massey Ferguson, British Petroleum, Unilever, Boots the chemist, the John Lewis Partnership and the Automobile Association.
However, attempts by public-sector unions to win the same rights for their members have been spurned by employers.
The TUC said that one of the most important reasons for employers rejecting their claims is the moral one. "There is a clear implication that the Government thinks common-law relationships are not `proper' and that benefits should not be made available," its report claimed yesterday.
The TUC wants members of public-sector schemes to be able to nominate a partner in an "expression of wish form", as used in many private schemes.