This brutal judgment on pensions is blind to the reality of older women’s lives
Equality for women is not always a victory. Women and men’s entitlement to a state pension was equalised by law back in 1995, so women retire at 65 now, at 66 next year – just the same as men. Sounds fair? Not to women born in the 1950s whose lives were hard work and slim savings, with no chance to build up pensions: they expected to retire at 60 and draw their state pension.
BackTo60 took their case to court for compensation and today they lost. BackTo60 and Women Against State Pension Inequality (Waspi) are implacable campaigners for the pension rights of nearly 4 million women born in the 1950s. Waspi turn up at every political event and tail each Department for Work and Pensions secretary relentlessly to protest about pension changes that left many in penury. Politicians groan inwardly when they see them coming, but these women never give up.
Two campaigners, with the help of BackTo60 and crowdfunding, sought a judicial review but today were turned down. They don’t oppose an equal pension age: their complaint is the speed with which women’s pension age has been raised, to 65 last year, to 66 next year, giving many no chance to build up a pension. The law was changed in 1995 and was intended to be phased in between 2010 and 2020 – but in 2011, the coalition government speeded up the change, implementing it in 2018. Many women were only warned by letter 16 years after the initial legislation was passed.
This group are losing four to six years’ worth of state pension – life-changing individual sums of some £47,000, while the treasury saved £30bn.
The government’s case was bluntly put by Sir James Eadie QC: “Parliament has no substantive, freestanding obligation of fairness,” he told the court. There you have it, no duty to fairness and the court agreed, though claimed to be “saddened by the stories”. As we know, courts regard parliament as sovereign and parliament had passed it into law. Nor did it matter that the government had failed to warn the women: “There is precisely no obligation on parliament to notify those affected by its judgments,” Eadie said, and the court agreed.
Here’s what stands out: governments have been slow to pass laws and slower still to enforce equality for women in every other field. When the equal pay and sex discrimination acts were passed by Barbara Castle in the 1970s, we who had campaigned thought it was all done and dusted, job done. Yet the pay gap yawns wide, while women’s promotion to higher jobs lags behind and fair treatment in essential services that give women an equal chance are a matter of political whim – from childcare, which is the most expensive in Europe, to refuges for victims of domestic violence. The one and only equality for women imposed with a rod of iron was the equalisation of pension ages, because it saved the Treasury a fortune.
The court case was never against equalising the pension age – indeed, more women are in work and for longer. Since the abolition of the compulsory retirement age, the number of people continuing to work past the age of 65 has risen to 1.2 million. But introducing this “equality” at draconian speed was in effect a retrospective act. These older, poorer women’s lives were very different from younger women now. Many left school at 14 and 15 to work in hard manual jobs that took a toll on their health. Few had further education opportunities, and more of them are unskilled. They were paid less than men, and still are. In researching a book on work, I found trade union agreements in the car industry that demanded women be paid less, for fear they would take men’s jobs, hence the famous Dagenham women machinists’ strike. Part-timers, almost all women, were excluded from company pension schemes until 1989. Women back then had total responsibility as carers: there was no subsidised childcare nor nurseries until the Blair/Brown government.
Had they been clearly told, some could have planned working lives to last longer, though many couldn’t. Discrimination against older women applying for work is even worse than it is for older men. Michael Mansfield, representing the women, gave the court government documents proving ministers knew there was “widespread ignorance” among many women that they were about to lose their pensions. Informing people about pensions is notoriously difficult, hence the success of the recent automatic enrolment scheme requiring people to opt out – it relies on most people staying clueless.
Pensioners have been better off since Labour’s pension credit took a million out of poverty and the coalition government introduced a triple lock on state pensions, guaranteeing an increase of whichever is the highest – 2.5%, the inflation rate or the rise in average wages. Pensioners are now less likely to be poor than the rest of the population. But that’s not saying much, since almost 4.5 million children have fallen into poverty.
A recent Financial Conduct Authority report says the state pension is the main source of income in retirement for 44% of people. How can people save when that report finds 31% of adults with no private pension provision and nearly six in 10 (57%) with savings of less than £5,000 or no cash savings at all?
Those on high who make sweeping decisions about the lives of others screen out these brutal facts, as if they are beyond their comprehension. A large slice of the population they govern has nothing – no safeguards, no protection from even the smallest buffets in their lives. Poverty and living on the verge of poverty is widespread, and means a life of constant anxiety. Waspi describes how many of their number – unable to work until 66, and unable to draw a pension – are reduced to food banks to survive.
With his usual empty bravado, when asked on the leadership hustings if he would help the stranded women, Boris Johnson promised to “commit to doing everything I possibly can to sorting out” the issue if he became prime minister. Now Johnson is in No 10, how many of those hasty promises of everything to everyone will he fulfil?
• This article was amended on 4 October 2019 to clarify that the BackTo60 case is separate from a similar, still ongoing case brought by Waspi.
• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist
— This brutal judgment on pensions is blind to the reality of older women’s lives to www.theguardian.com