The Guardian view on women and pen­sions: this gen­er­a­tion de­serves bet­ter

The Guardian Australia - - The Guardian View / Environment - Ed­i­to­rial

Peo­ple sup­port state pen­sions in large part be­cause they ex­pect them to be fair. This is ob­vi­ous in prin­ci­ple, but fraught in prac­tice. First, gov­ern­ments must guar­an­tee a de­gree of cer­tainty in a fast-chang­ing world: peo­ple work hard for years in the ex­pec­ta­tion of re­wards in old age. Sec­ond, com­plex so­cial re­la­tions – be­tween gen­er­a­tions, gen­ders and classes – have to be trans­lated into fi­nan­cial payments that are broadly just to all.

The 1995 equal­i­sa­tion of the state pen­sion age ad­dressed the dis­par­ity whereby women re­tired ear­lier than men de­spite liv­ing longer – as well, of course, as curb­ing the grow­ing cost of pen­sions due to in­creas­ing life ex­pectancy (it has now stalled). But add in later changes and bu­reau­cratic short­com­ings and many women born in the 1950s are now find­ing they must wait up to six years longer than ex­pected to re­ceive a pen­sion. Cam­paign groups Backto60 and Women Against State Pen­sion Age In­equal­ity say that women who have worked for decades and stand on the brink of re­tire­ment – or, worse still, who took early re­tire­ment in the ex­pec­ta­tion of pend­ing payments – have dis­cov­ered they are years away from re­ceiv­ing the state pen­sion. Some are stay­ing in ex­haust­ing jobs longer than they ever an­tic­i­pated. Oth­ers are un­able to find work. They are “des­per­ate, and in some cases des­ti­tute”, says one sup­port­ive MP – and they are an­gry enough to march on par­lia­ment, as more than a thou­sand did on Wed­nes­day.

In the­ory, the 1995 change gave the 3.8 mil­lion women af­fected 25 years’ no­tice. Many planned ac­cord­ingly. But, as the Com­mons work and pen­sions com­mit­tee has noted, “more could and should have been done” to com­mu­ni­cate the changes. Then, in 2011, the gov­ern­ment saved al­most £30bn by un­fairly speed­ing up the changes. Women who still be­lieved they would re­ceive the state pen­sion at 60 sud­denly re­ceived let­ters telling them they would get it as late as 66. Worse, thou­sands com­plain they never re­ceived those let­ters. Thus, changes car­ried out in the name of equal­ity have had a bru­tal im­pact on women born in the 1950s, who saw lit­tle equal­ity in their work­ing lives and who in many cases now face the ad­di­tional and un­paid bur­dens that fall more of­ten on women, such as car­ing for age­ing rel­a­tives or grand­chil­dren.

There are clear lessons here for the fu­ture. The first is that, in the words of former pen­sions min­is­ter Ros Alt­mann, “women have been the poor re­la­tion in pen­sions for a long time”. The sec­ond is that any changes in pen­sion pro­vi­sion should be shouted from the rooftops and via tar­geted com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Even many women who knew the pen­sion age was ris­ing did not re­alise they were per­son­ally af­fected.

None of that will help the women left in poverty to­day. Com­pen­sat­ing those worst af­fected via a tran­si­tional scheme is the best way out of this mess. Fair­ness is not easy to de­ter­mine in such a com­plex area of pol­icy. But the in­jus­tice done to many of these women is clear, and must be ad­dressed.

Women protest­ing out­side the Houses of Par­lia­ment on Wed­nes­day. Pho­to­graph: John Still­well/PA

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