With Elton and David leading the way down the aisle amid a media frenzy, hundreds of couples are reported to have followed suit.  Civil partnerships or “gay weddings” became lawful in the UK on 21 December 2005.  Under the new laws, couples who want to form a civil partnership must register their intentions with local councils and can then formalise their relationship by signing their names in a register in the presence of the registration officer and two witnesses.  The intention is to allow same sex partners to have many of the same rights as married couples in the UK.  So what changes will this bring into the workplace?

Since the introduction of the Sexual Orientation legislation in December 2003, gay men or women have had protection against discrimination in the workplace.  However, the Partnership Act 2004 introduces some new rights for same sex partners who have registered their civil partnerships and formalised their relationship or “tied the knot”.

The main change to be aware of in the workplace is that the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 has been amended to include discrimination against civil partners in the employment field.  The provisions which have always applied to married persons from discrimination therefore now apply to those in a civil partnership.  Therefore, it is unlawful to discriminate against a person by treating him/her less favourably than a person not in a civil partnership because he/she is in a civil partnership.  The new legislation covers both direct and indirect discrimination (and only indirect discrimination can be objectively justified if it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim).  The new legislation means that it is no longer permissible for employers to say that they are not extending benefits to couples in a same sex relationship on the basis that those benefits are only offered to those partners who are ‘married’.  With effect from 5 December, any benefits offered to married partners should also now be offered to partners who have registered a civil partnership.  Note that if benefits are offered to unmarried partners, they should also be offered to same sex partners who have not registered a civil partnership.

Employers should therefore review their policies to see what benefits they offer to the married partner of an employee, and should ensure that these are extended to the partner of an employee who has entered into a civil partnership.  This could include, for example:

  • Survivor pensions – ensure that any benefits offered to married partners are extended to those in a civil partnership.
  • Flexible working, statutory paternity pay and adoption leave – since same sex partners who have registered a civil partnership will be able to acquire formal parental responsibility for a child or apply jointly to adopt a child, you should ensure that your policies are widely drafted enough to cover those in a civil partnership.
  • Health insurance – if you offer health cover to spouses and children, you should also extend this to those in a civil partnership (and their children).
  • Wedding benefits – if an employer offers wedding gifts to those getting married, or extra holidays, these benefits should also be extended to those entering into a civil partnership.

Note that same-sex couples in certain official relationships from other countries including Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Vermont USA and Quebec may automatically be treated as civil partnership.  Where this happens, civil partnership certificates should be accepted as evidence of the name change.

Employers should therefore review their policies and contractual documentation to ensure that they reflect the new arrangements and to make it clear that where there are any references to “marriage” or “spouse”, this also includes “civil partnership” and “civil partner”.  The ACAS guidance recommends notifying staff about these changes, and employees will need to notify someone within the organisation (on a confidential basis) if they want to take advantage of any of these changes.  If a notice is sent round the organisation, it could be a sensible time to remind employees of their obligations not to discriminate on the grounds of actual or perceived sexual orientation, or on the grounds that someone is in a civil partnership.  Obviously, it will be important to ensure that any information obtained which relates to an individual’s sexual orientation is kept confidential, and that the terms of the Data Protection Act are complied with.  It may not actually be necessary to ask individuals seeking to rely upon these rights whether they are in a civil partnership or a marriage since the rights are the same.

With the government expecting somewhere between 11,000 and 22,000 people to be in a civil partnership by 2010, employers would be well advised to ensure that their policies are up to date and ready for when the pealing of pink wedding bells is heard in their office.

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