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If, on your weekly trip to the supermarket, you should chance upon a loitering group of black-clad, mauve-sash-wearing women, do not avert your eyes and sidle past. For these women of a certain age are not soliciting charitable contributions. No. They are WASPIs – Women Against State Pension Inequality – so tarry for a moment to hear a classic tale of good versus evil; a story, however, that has yet to reach a happy conclusion.
To begin, we must cast our minds back to 1993, when a portly, chain-smoking figure shambled along to announce that women’s state pension age would rise from 60 to 65, to equal men’s. Ken Clarke – for he it was, then Conservative Chancellor – added that the change, affecting women born on or after 6 April 1951, would be phased in over 10 years starting in 2010: plenty of time to make alternative arrangements.
So, in 1995, with legislation in the bag, Clarke’s henchmen at the Department of Work and Pensions set to with alacrity to inform those affected of this first change to women’s state pension age in more than half a century.
Or at least that is what should have happened. Instead, the DWP did little more than issue a few press releases and rely on the media to get the message across. To their evident surprise, the news failed to set the world alight. So in 2009 – 14 years after the legislation and a year before the change was to be phased in – it began to write to the individuals affected.
Now enter George Osborne, Coalition Chancellor, who, sensing a soft target and an opportunity not to be missed, in 2011 eagerly follows his predecessor’s example and sets about looting the pension pots of the self-same women who had been hit before. Their pension ages would increase again – this time along with men’s, and with an accelerated timetable – to reach 66 by 2020. Women’s pension age would rise by another 18 months, and men’s by one year. Transitional arrangements, initially proposed to cushion the blow, were quietly dropped before the Act was passed.
The DWP’s bungling stooges who anticipating a second age hike had suspended their mail-out in 2011 – before everyone had been notified – shuffled into action again in 2012 to spread the tidings. The women being notified of their revised pension ages were by now aged 57 or 58. Those fortunate enough to have found out about the first state-sponsored raid were fully occupied in plugging the impending hole in their funds. Others, dwelling under the illusion that they would retire at 60, discovered for the first time that they faced any increase at all so had made no preparations. All were left shell-shocked, facing up to an extra 6 years before retirement.
Seemingly few in the light-fingered Coalition had thought through the likely consequences of a second successive hike in pension age. So WASPI was formed to tell the Government exactly what they were: nothing less than an old age of poverty and hardship. WASPI also set to, to spread word of the latest thievery because the message was still failing to reach everyone affected. Once the news was out, it would all be put right, surely?
Sadly, no. Rather than lend a sympathetic ear, the Westminster gang tried to justify the age hikes by saying, variously: we are all living longer (the rich are, the poor aren’t); the EU demands it (it doesn’t); and the Government has a large budgetary hole to fill (which government doesn’t?). If the reasons are hard to pin down – Government spending is about choices, after all – what is clear is that having got their hands on the cash, they will not easily let it go.
The WASPI women are asking only for the fair transitional arrangements promised in 2011. They do not want to have to beg for benefits, or to sell their homes, or to go cap in hand to their husbands to support them until their long-deferred retirement age. Sadly, however, many are already doing so – and the numbers will increase as the age rise accelerates sharply this year.
The bullyboys’ answer is: work longer. Not satisfied with their ill-gotten gains, they rub their hands at the thought of these women continuing to pay into the system – the one that has let them down so badly. Yet, as they well know, work is hard to find after 60. At this age, these women did not expect to be struggling to make ends meet, but to have the freedom to support the wider family, as their mothers and grandmothers did, by caring for the older generation and for their grandchildren so that their parents can work.
Unsurprisingly, the 1950s women are angry; they feel persecuted, singled out as soft targets, and it is hard not to conclude that the Government, having got away scot-free once, gave in to the temptation to double-dip. The effect – for anyone, male or female – of losing £40,000 in pension at the end of a working life should have been obvious. Similarly, the Government could hardly fail to be aware of the parlous state of women’s pensions, a fact well known for decades.
Put simply, the gender pay gap inevitably becomes the gender pension gap. Even now, 46 years after the Equal Pay Act, working mothers earn 33% less than their male counterparts. The Government must address this gap if women are not to have impoverished retirements.
Meanwhile, in possession of decades of National Insurance contributions from 1950s women, the Government continues with its mantra – oblivious of the irony – that it cannot afford to pay them back; the money is already spent. Mrs May, who once warned her colleagues against becoming the Nasty Party, is the latest to turn her back on these women.
So now, having heard the WASPI women’s tale, please join their campaign to right this wrong. JOIN US: waspi.co.uk or email: firstname.lastname@example.org