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Women Against State Pension Inequality: a distraction from deeper problems


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Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) is waging an impressive campaign for ‘1950s women’ to be compensated for financial hardship arising from the rise in their state pension age (SPA) from age 60. It presents its demands in terms of discrimination against 1950s women, arguing that the equalisation of SPA was implemented unfairly, ‘with little/no personal notice (1995/2011 Pension Acts), faster than promised (2011 Pension Act), and no time to make alternative plans.’ The result, argues WASPI, is that the retirement plans of 1950s women ‘have been shattered with devastating consequences.’ It demands a ‘bridging pension’ for 1950s women equal to the state pension they have forfeited.

WASPI has the support of Labour and SNP MPs, and its message clearly influenced the House of Commons’ Work and Pensions Select Committee in their March 2016 criticism of the government’s failure fully to communicate SPA equalisation to women affected. The campaign continues to be widely and sympathetically reported.

Women born in the 1950s do face significant financial challenges as they near state pension age. Yet so do men, and so will younger women. In this sense the present domination of the debate by WASPI is a distraction from deeper and more intractable problems in the transition from work to retirement.

Background

The 1995 decision to equalise men and women’s SPA came after a quarter of a century of campaigning for gender equality. As politicians responded to that campaign with legislation such as the 1970 Equal Pay Act and the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, questions began to be raised about an SPA that varied depending on gender.

Not surprisingly, politicians favoured equalising downwards to age 60. Successive attempts to do so, starting with Barbara Castle in 1978 and then under the Thatcher governments of the 1980s failed because of the cost. ‘Split the difference’ approaches were considered, but also judged too costly. Politicians vacillated for two decades, but a series of legal judgments that differential pension ages were discriminatory made inaction increasingly untenable. Finally, in 1995, the Major government grasped the nettle, establishing a timetable which phased in the increase to 65 between 2010 and 2020 – giving ‘1950s women’ a quarter-century transition to equalisation.

This timetable did not survive unscathed. In 2007, the government responded to rising life expectancies by instituting a rise in the future joint SPA to 68, in stages between 2024 and 2046. This applied to women and men equally. In 2011, the coalition government then instituted an acceleration in the pace of women’s transition to equal SPAs (which would now occur in November 2018 rather than April 2020), and in the subsequent planned joint increase to 66 (brought forward to September 2020). 

Finally, the 2014 Pensions Act brought forward to 2026-8 the phased increase in the joint SPA to 67 for both men and women.

WASPI’s complaints

WASPI complains that all ‘1950s women’ have been discriminated against. In the case of women affected by the 2011 Act’s accelerated increase to 65, which affected women born between 6 April and 5 December 1953, there may be a case that they have been treated in a discriminatory way given the relatively short notice (as pensions expert John Ralfe has argued). But for those born later who are affected by 2011’s accelerated rise to 66 it is hard to argue there has been gender discrimination since the rise applied equally to men. Any compensation paid would really also need to go to men affected.

What of WASPI’s complaint about a failure to communicate directly with individuals? This is not unproblematic. Firstly, many legislative changes are made which have consequences for individual finances but are not individually communicated. Secondly, neither WASPI nor the Select Committee acknowledge widespread media coverage of the 1995 decision to equalise state pension ages (the Financial Times’ correspondent Josephine Cumbo presented the committee with a list of 600 newspaper articles between 1993 and 2006 on equalisation and its implications for women).

Most fundamentally, WASPI ignores the historical roots of the changes it objects to. More than 40 years on from the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act we are moving to equalise pension ages and it is not clear why that should require full compensation for ‘all 1950s women’, as WASPI demands. Moreover, as Frances Coppola has observed, to award such compensation would serve to destroy the whole concept of a phased transition. A woman born in 1960 would have a SPA of 66, but that of a woman born on 31 December 1959 would effectively be 60. That would surely be an intergenerational injustice.

This is NOT to say that that ‘1950s women’ who are unemployed, earning very low wages, or feeling ‘too old and tired to do my job effectively’ after a long working life (as one women put it to the Select Committee) are without problems. In fact, they face significant financial hardships, not to mention the humiliations and complexities of the UK’s niggardly benefits system. But it is important to note that these issues also affect men, and will affect younger women in the future.

In short, WASPI’s campaign against ‘state pension inequality’ is mainly a distraction from deeper problems that are and will be faced by women, and men, at or near the state pension age.

A longer version of this piece appears in The Political Quarterly. 

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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