The claim

“£4bn is back of fag packet scaremongering particularly if Govt doubt straight couples want civil partnership.”
Tim Loughton (via Twitter), 19 May 2013

The background

It “could cost the exchequer £4 billion”. That was the line from the Mail – and many other news outlets – as MPs prepared for days of wrangling over the government’s same-sex marriage bill.

David Cameron is keen to legalise gay marriage, but his Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill could fall foul of former families minister Tim Loughton.

The Tory backbencher – an opponent of gay marriage – has tabled an amendment that would enable heterosexual couples to have civil partnerships instead of weddings too.

This could be a principled stand aiming at giving gay and straight couples the same options, but it’s been widely interpreted as a “wrecking amendment” designed to stall the bill’s progress through parliament.

The latest is that Labour is staking a claim to the moral high ground by telling its MPs not to support Mr Loughton’s amendment in the free vote later on Monday.

The move comes after a flurry of headlines quoting government spokesman on the supposedly huge cost of heterosexual civil partnerships.

Is there anything in these figures or are ministers trying to head off an embarrassing Commons defeat by any means necessary?

The analysis

It was very widely reported on Monday that the cost of extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples could cost the public purse £4bn.

This figure was attributed to an unnamed “government spokesman”, but this shadowy individual may have been a bit overenthusiastic in briefing reporters.

Pensions Minister Steve Webb first came up with this sum in evidence to the parliamentary joint committee on human rights, but he wasn’t really talking about the direct cost of the new amendment.

His actual words were: “If you allowed opposite-sex couples to form a civil partnership, the question then would be if their pension rights, in respect of each other, look like those of a married opposite-sex couple.

“There would be a strong argument for that. I do not know what the government would decide but, if it decided that, you would have a whole set of people who at the moment have no survivors’ pension rights at all who would suddenly have survivors’ rights.

“It is pretty clear that, as soon as you have gone down that route, you might end up in a position of full equality, for example, for widowers expecting the same rights as widows. We have costed that of the order of £3 billion to £4 billion cost to public service pension schemes.”

We’re talking about public sector pensions here – the massive schemes that teachers, NHS workers, civil servants and others pay into.

The fear is that if the government extended civil partnerships to straight couples it would be under pressure to give partners the same “survivors’ rights” that most spouses enjoy – the right to claim your husband or wife’s pension if they die before you.

But there are apparently inequalities in the way widows and widowers are treated, and if the government made a move to tackle one kind of inequality it would be forced to do the same for widowers, creating a new financial burden that the pension scheme wasn’t designed to bear.

A spokesman for Mrs Miller’s department (Culture, Media and Sport) answered for Mr Webb, telling us: “This figure gives an indication of the scale of the costs involved once you start creating additional pension entitlements for different groups who did not previously have these entitlements, where pension scheme could not have planned for such costs.

“So clearly we would need to also look very carefully at any potential pension costs involved with the creation of opposite sex civil partnerships.”

While Mr Webb may be right about this in principle, it’s clear that he wasn’t actually talking about the direct cost of straight civil partnerships when he quoted the much-repeated figure of £3-4bn.

This is the theoretical cost that public pension schemes might incur if the government hypothetically decided to equalise pension rights for newly-created civil couples, and then had to do the same for everyone else.

In a BBC interview today, Maria Miller quoted a more modest figure of £90m as the cost of “equalising survivor rights in contracted in and contracted out schemes”.

Does this mean that only £90m – a tiny percentage of that £3-4bn – relates to civil partnerships, the actual issue that MPs are voting on?

A spokesman for Mr Webb’s department (Work and Pensions) answered for Mrs Miller, telling us she was talking about the effects on private rather than public pension schemes.

But her own department made no mention of that and simply said: “Civil partnership is really complicated and the figure that Maria quoted forms part of that £4bn. The £4bn is not a definite cost though.”

No indeed. The one thing everyone can agree on is that it’s the Treasury that is ultimately responsible for the £3-4bn estimate. And the Treasury isn’t returning our calls.

We can only assume that however they worked out the costs, they made assumptions about how many cohabiting men and women would take the opportunity to become civil partners rather than husband and wife.

This is, of course, impossible to predict, although in a YouGov poll this week, only 5 per cent of people said they would like to be in a civil partnership “in an ideal world”, while 74 per cent said they would prefer to be married.

The pollsters provide more food for thought for the Conservative Party when they reveal that same-sex marriage is way down the list of voter priorities. Only 7 per cent of voters cite it one of the three or four most important issues, making it even less of a concern than Europe.

The verdict

So what do we know about this £3-4bn? It’s “not a definite cost”, it doesn’t appear to relate directly to the issue at hand, and the people who supposedly came up with it don’t want to talk to us.

All of which suggests that a generous pinch of salt may be called for.

In fairness to Maria Miller, she has generally remained vague about the costings and has said explicitly that the job of working out all the complex fiscal consequences of the civil partnership amendment “has not been done” – that being another good reason not to vote for it.

By Patrick Worrall