The establishment figure who struck blow for gay rights
Conservative ex-officer is celebrating victory in his pension equality battle
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