The es­tab­lish­ment fig­ure who struck blow for gay rights

Con­ser­va­tive ex-of­fi­cer is cel­e­brat­ing vic­tory in his pen­sion equal­ity bat­tle

The Guardian - - NATIONAL - Owen Bow­cott Le­gal af­fairs cor­re­spon­dent

John Walker was on a river cruise in Bangkok with his hus­band when he heard the UK supreme court was fi­nally about to end his 11-year le­gal strug­gle for equal pen­sion rights for gay cou­ples.

Last week he won a re­sound­ing vic­tory in the bat­tle to which he had ded­i­cated his re­tire­ment. Five supreme court jus­tices unan­i­mously ruled EU equal em­ploy­ment rights trumped English ex­cep­tion­al­ism so Walker’s part­ner will be en­ti­tled to a spouse’s pen­sion of £45,700 a year af­ter his death.

The re­fusal of his for­mer em­ployer, the chem­i­cals com­pany In­nospec, to grant the same ben­e­fits it would have awarded a wi­dow had in­fu­ri­ated Walker, and op­po­si­tion from the De­part­ment for Work and Pen­sions – re­ly­ing on ex­emp­tions in the 2010 Equal­ity Act – un­der­mined Con­ser­va­tive claims to have de­liv­ered equal rights.

At home in west Lon­don last week, Walker cel­e­brated his suc­cess by leaf­ing through a sheaf of sooth­ing but eva­sive re­sponses he re­ceived over the years from politi­cians. He se­lected one from Theresa May when she was shadow equal­i­ties min­is­ter. “It says: ‘I am very in­ter­ested to read about this sit­u­a­tion ... I’m sure the pos­si­bil­ity of plac­ing greater bur­dens [on firms’ pen­sion funds is an is­sue]. I will con­sider whether it can be ad­dressed’.

“Then [in of­fice] she gets her de­part­ments to fight me tooth and nail! You can see my frus­tra­tion. I have been to a lot of very se­nior peo­ple. They were all very sym­pa­thetic and said they would get back to me.”

Walker, 66, is in many ways an ar­che­typal es­tab­lish­ment fig­ure. Born in Wilt­shire and ed­u­cated at Har­row, he is a mem­ber of the Con­ser­va­tive party, served in the army and worked in the Mid­dle East for a Bri­tish trad­ing oper­a­tion be­fore join­ing In­nospec in 1980.

In 1993, the firm sent him to Sin­ga­pore, where he met his hus­band. He is de­ter­mined to shield his iden­tity, a ret­i­cence dat­ing back to 2005 when they en­tered into a civil part­ner­ship. The story reached Sin­ga­pore and jour­nal­ists turned up at the fam­ily home as his hus­band’s mother lay dy­ing. Walker’s hus­band is Mus­lim and Sin­ga­pore does not recog­nise same sex cou­ples.

When Walker re­tired, aged 50, he un­der­stood he had ne­go­ti­ated a deal en­sur­ing his part­ner would ob­tain the equiv­a­lent to a wi­dow’s pen­sion. The firm later dis­puted this. That trig­gered a le­gal chal­lenge fought through tri­bunals and the court of ap­peal to the supreme court. In 2012, the hu­man rights or­gan­i­sa­tion Lib­erty joined Walker’s case. Emma Nor­ton, a lawyer for Lib­erty, said: “This is a hugely im­por­tant rul­ing. The con­cern now is that Brexit could undo the progress that’s been made [since] John’s vic­tory came un­der EU law.”

For some, the judg­ment has come too late, said Walker. “A man came up to me and said his part­ner died last month. He can’t ben­e­fit now. Why didn’t the gov­ern­ment do the right thing?”

The De­part­ment for Work and Pen­sions es­ti­mates it will cost £100m for the pri­vate sec­tor and £20m for the pub­lic sec­tor to de­liver pen­sion equal­ity – though 80% of firms have granted it al­ready, said Walker.

“This was, as far as I know, the last le­gal dif­fer­en­tial be­tween gay and het­ero­sex­ual peo­ple,” he said. “There’s no need to talk about mar­ried and ‘same­sex mar­ried’ cou­ples any more. I don’t be­lieve there’s any dif­fer­ence.”

John Walker be­lieves his fight all the way to the supreme court has over­turned the fi­nal dis­crim­i­na­tion in Bri­tish law against same-sex cou­ples

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