I listened to several hours of the Pensions Bill debate yesterday with a sinking heart and a growing sense of dismay. Not surprisingly, most of the debate was around the issue of speeding up the rise in the state pension age to 66. It would be naive to expect a political debate not to include point scoring but I was surprised at how much of the debate was about the politics and not the substantive issues around raisng the state pension age:
1. This is not about equality. I don't expect to receive my state pension before men and it's right that the state pension age is being equalised to 65. I can also see the case for bringing forward the rise in state pension age to 66 from its current timetable of 2024-2026. However, the plans for raising it to 66 by 2020 would penalise around half a million women in their mid 50s who will experience one increase in their state pension age on top of another.
2. Women in their 50s have not had equal access to state pensions. The previous government's figures showed that only 45% of women reaching state pension age in the tax year 2009-2010 qualified for a full basic state pension. The reforms introduced in April 2010 mean that figure is increasing to 75%. However, this compares with well over 90% of men who receive the full basic state pension - currently worth around £102 a week.
3. Women have missed out for a variety of reasons. This could be because they've had a family (and the crediting system for state pensions for women looking after children, called 'Home Responsibilities Protection' only credited women for entire tax years that they were looking after their children until April 2010). It could be because they've acted as carers - and until April 2010 you had to be eligible for Carer's Allowance to receive credits for the state pension. You could only claim Carer's Allowance if you cared for someone for 35 hours a week or more and they received Attendance Allowance or Disability Living Allowance at the highest rates). Women also missed out if they earned less than the National Insurance limit (currently around £102 a week), perhaps from part-time work. Even if someone has several part time jobs paying less than £102 a week they won't receive any credit towards their state pension.
4. Figures from last year show that only 50% of women aged 50+ are in full time work. That's not because women in their 50s are idling and don't want to work full time, many are taking on caring roles (either of elderly parents or childcare of grandchildren), many haven't been able to get back into full time work since having children because the jobs aren't available and - due to the public sector cutbacks - many thousands have been made redundant.
5. Women in their 50s have not had equal access to work based pensions. Several women in their 50s have got in touch to say that their company pension wouldn't let them join until they reached their mid 20s. Some told me that as soon as they were eligible to join the pension scheme they had to leave because they wanted to have a family.
6. Part time workers (mainly women) had no automatic entitlement to join their company pension scheme until 1990. In 1990 it was ruled that it was illegal to refuse to let a part time worker join their employer's pension scheme. Women were then able to backdate their membership of the scheme - but that assumed they could afford to pay pension contributions for all the missing years.
7. Until December 2000 pensions couldn't be split in divorce. That doesn't mean they were ignored (although frequently they were because solicitors didn't understand their importance), but it means their value couldn't be divided at the time of divorce.
These are just some of the reasons why women who are currently nearing retirement or in their 50s rely more on their state pension than men do. Government figures show that two thirds of pensioners in poverty are female with 1.7 million women claiming Pensions Credit, compared to 1.1 million men. Official figures also show that women receive half the amount from their works pension that men do (£78 a week compared to £143) and that the average 56 year old man has saved £52,100 into his pension whereas the average 56 year old woman has saved £9,100.
That's why the plans to raise the state pension age to 66 by April 2020 are unfair. We don't need 'transitional measures'. We need a complete rethink.