State Pension: Impact of Changes on Women

Opposition Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:00 pm on 26th September 2016.

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Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker 5:00 pm, 26th September 2016

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other speakers will have five minutes.

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP

I beg to move

That this Assembly acknowledges the Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) campaign; recognises its call for fair transitional state pension arrangements for women born in the 1950s who have been negatively impacted by changes made to the state pension age under the Pensions (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 and the Pensions Act 2011; accepts that the changes were poorly communicated; appreciates the impact of the changes on post-retirement planning; and calls on the United Kingdom Government to re-examine their position and bring forward fair transitional arrangements for the women affected.

I bring the motion before the House to recognise the unfair treatment that has been forced on women born in the 1950s, who have been negatively impacted by increases to state pension age.

Allow me to first outline the issues that have left the affected women feeling rightly aggrieved. In 1993, in his Budget statement, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Ken Clarke, outlined that the state pension age for women would be equalised between 2010 and 2020.

At the time, this was justified on the grounds of financial sustainability and equality in order to bring the UK in line with the equal treatment rules in European law. The Pensions Act 1995 set a timetable for women's pension age to accelerate to reach 65 by April 2020. It would begin to increase in April 2010.

Let me make this clear: no one is arguing against equal state pension ages for men and women, especially not the women behind the Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) campaign, whom I had the pleasure of listening to this morning. What has caused grievance is the lack of any attempt by the Government to make those affected aware of the changes. Given that the changes would not begin to take place until 15 years after the legislation was introduced and that, when the proposals were announced, the relevant women would have been no older than 44, the responsibility lay with the Government to ensure that all those who would be disadvantaged by the changes were well informed of the implications. Sadly, this did not happen. To add further anguish, following the 2010 general election, the coalition Government announced that they would increase the overall state pension age to 66 in light of increases in life expectancy. Women's pension age would now reach 66 by October 2020. For this to happen, the Government would accelerate the increase in women's state pension age from April 2016, when it would be 63, to reach 65 by November 2018 rather than April 2020 as previously planned under the 1995 Act. In their 2010 manifesto, the Conservative Government said that the pension age for women would not increase beyond 65 until at least 2020. Therefore, the Pensions Act 2011 amounted to a broken promise.

It was only shortly before their sixtieth birthday that many women learned that, in fact, they would not be able to draw their pension at 60, with some having to wait until they were 66 to receive it. The changes in the 2011 Act mostly acutely affected women born between October 1953 and April 1955, who will have their state pension age increased by at least a year on top of the increase that resulted from the 1995 Act. These women worked hard all their lives and contributed to the National Insurance pot with the belief that, when they turned 60, they would be able to draw the state pension, yet these changes have unfairly and disproportionately impacted women born on or after 6 April 1951. They have been uniquely disadvantaged. A large percentage of these women received a letter advising them of significant increases to their state pension age only within two years of the expected state pension age of 60. It is not unreasonable to expect Government to take appropriate steps to communicate the biggest changes to women's pensions in half a century. However, the changes were not communicated in a way befitting the scale of the changes, leaving many women unaware and still planning to retire at 60. Many women reported never receiving a letter. Others say that letters were sent to the wrong address, despite their notifying DWP of the address change. WASPI is still receiving reports of women who are just finding out about the changes.

It is important to note that the Turner commission, the Work and Pensions Select Committee and Saga have all recommended that, for changes to the state pension, those affected must receive 10 years' notice at the very least. The Government now agree with this position, despite not following it in the past.

It is important to focus on the human side of these changes. I am sure that we could all think of friends or family members who have been impacted. Women who expected to be able to spend their early 60s in retirement or semi-retirement and believed that they would be able to spend more time with their children and grandchildren now have their lifetime ambition postponed. Financially, these changes have driven a horse and carriage through retirement plans, with the lack of communication leaving little time to make alternative arrangements. That has had devastating consequences.

We know that there are substantial barriers to older people gaining new employment. Some have been forced to seek casual, low-paid work as a result of these changes. Some women are relying on increasingly dwindling life savings, and others will have to depend on their spouses for financial support, which means loss of independence for women who are single, divorced or widowed. It could mean the delay of their only source of income. As a member of the WASPI campaign put it:

"Significant changes to the age we receive our state pension have been imposed upon us with a lack of appropriate notification, with little or no notice and much faster than ... were [proposed] – some of us have been hit by more than one [change]. As a result, hundreds of thousands of us are suffering financial hardship, with not enough time to re-plan for our retirement. Women are telling us that they can’t believe their retirement age has increased by 4, 5 or 6 years and they didn’t even know about it!!"

The WASPI campaign is not seeking to challenge state pension equality, nor does it seek to reverse the 1995 or 2011 Pensions Acts. What it seeks is fairness. It is a matter of fairness that transitional payments be given to those women.

The key point is the lack of notice. The Work and Pensions Select Committee at Westminster has established that more should have been done to communicate the planned changes. In 2011, the Pensions Minister, Steve Webb, was on record as saying that the Government were forced to implement the changes without appropriate notice because of the state of public finances at the time. We are now in a different fiscal context, and, because of the lack of appropriate notice, and the effect that the changes have had on women born on or after 1951, the Government should introduce transitional payments to assist those women who have been adversely affected. The Government have made £30 billion of savings from these changes, so it is only just that some of those moneys be released to assist those women who have been disadvantaged.

In written responses to questions asked by my Westminster colleagues, the Department for Work and Pensions has continuously stated that it has no plans to introduce transitional arrangements. I call on the Department to rethink that position and to consider ways in which the grievances of the women affected can be addressed. I encourage Members to support the motion.

Photo of Emma Little Pengelly Emma Little Pengelly DUP 5:30 pm, 26th September 2016

I add my voice in support of the many hundreds of thousands of women in their 60s across the United Kingdom who are suffering severe financial difficulties because of this situation. I have had first-hand experience of this. My mother has been caught and is one of those women who have to face this and, despite having worked every day in a school kitchen in a local primary school, she still has the difficulty of having to wait for years for pensions to come through and is looking at what are very low-level benefits.

The impact is on many thousands of women across Northern Ireland, not just the hundreds of thousands across the United Kingdom. In many cases, these are women who have worked, have been mothers for perhaps 10 or 20 years, and have continued with caring duties, including looking after elderly parents and grandchildren. They contribute a huge amount to our society and have found themselves, unexpectedly, in a very difficult financial situation. Many of them have had their retirement plans thrown into doubt; at times, as has been pointed out, with just one year's notice that added a three- to six-year wait to draw down their pension. Some who had planned for redundancy or early retirement took irreversible decisions and are now really suffering as a result. It is too late now to go back and change plans that were communicated in a different context.

For the first time, many thousands of women in their early 60s have had to go to the jobcentre seeking employment. Jobcentre staff have been placed in a situation of trying to recommend what are often very low-paid manual or physically demanding jobs to women who have effectively been full-time mothers for decades. Women who are single, separated or divorced have been particularly hard hit and are trying to survive on jobseeker's allowance alone, with little option but a few hours of low-paid work. For women who are in a marriage or who are co-habiting, there are options with pension credits, for example, but that does not apply to women who live alone and who have been particularly badly hit.

The campaign Women Against State Pension Inequality has done great work in raising coverage and awareness of the issue. They have made it clear that it is not an issue about equality but fairness: had these women known in time, they could have planned for their retirement and put a little aside that would have made things much easier for them. They now find themselves in very difficult financial situations and in financial stress. Many are suffering from poverty and are struggling to get by.

DUP MPs have been at the forefront of campaigning on the issue at Westminster. It is a UK-wide issue — I think that we are all aware of that — and it has been a product of the Westminster process, particularly the legislation that was passed in 1995.

I wholeheartedly support the campaign to keep the pressure on the United Kingdom Government to look again at the issue. It is a small cohort of women, but the impact is profound.

The recent statement by the Pensions Minister at Westminster that there would be no change to the Government's position was disappointing. The arrangements for these 1950s women, who have been treated very badly, are a mess and have not been appropriately implemented. The matter needs to be looked at again — urgently, given the poverty and stress that these women in their sixties experience. Unfortunately, it is difficult for the House to make an impact in any specific way, but he campaign should continue and has my full support. These women have given a huge amount to families and to the community and are the very backbone of our society.

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

I support the motion and thank its proposer for bringing it to the House. It has been said clearly that we are not debating the equalising of the pension age between men and women but looking at how those plans are being carried out, particularly at the timeline and at how it impacts on a group of women who were born in the 1950s.

The motion supports the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign. This is a group of women affected by the changes who got together to create the campaign. They have to be commended for that. They are a voice for all women who have been unfairly impacted on by the changes to the state pension age. They are challenging not the equalisation of the age with men but the way in which it has been carried out and almost accelerated, meaning that they have not had time to plan for their retirement. Imagine, as one of the contributors said, that you thought that you were retiring at 60 and then, all of a sudden, were told a short period before then that you now had to wait a number of years for your pension. That has a big adverse effect on people and pushes them into financial difficulties. These are people around 60 years old who have contributed to society in whatever way. A lot of the women have been low earners throughout their life, simply because they may have been in part-time jobs because of family and caring responsibilities. They were waiting patiently for their state pension — the only pension that they can access, because they had not had enough contributions to have a private pension — only to be told that they are not getting it and may have to look for work at 60 years of age. That is totally unjust. The lack of a public awareness campaign around the issue has been particularly difficult for the women, who have not been notified directly, as the group highlighted. A lot of them only heard through the media or places like that.

We have to look at this in the context of gender inequality right across the piece. There is inequality in the gender pay gap, and women are particularly impacted on by cuts to in-work and out-of-work benefits. This will only add to their financial difficulties, particularly this group's. It is very unfair to treat women in this way. We need to support the campaign, which is about fairness and equality. I call for the making of transitional arrangements for people who have been caught up in this. I am not sure of the numbers, but we could look at some sort of a transitional period in which these women are given something financially to get them through it. We support and look forward to working with the campaign, and I congratulate the proposer of the motion.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I cannot but feel that this is like bringing children into a sweet shop and showing them exactly what they cannot have. What we have here is a group of women who have worked all their days, expecting to get their pension at the age of 60, only to be told that they are not entitled to it and will have to work longer. That seems to be decidedly unfair to these people who, in all fairness, entered into contracts when they started work and started paying their National Insurance contributions. They expected that, at the end, at 60, they would get their pension, but that has been taken from them. It is the inequality of picking on one group with the changes that I find particularly distasteful.

When the changes were introduced in 1995, it took HMRC a full 14 years before it wrote out and told people about them. For some people, those changes would come online in 2010 and they were given a year's notice. Back in 1995, when the decision was taken, there was no social media, Facebook or the mass spreading of information. Taking out a few advertisements in a few newspapers was not an adequate way to inform people of these major changes.

There is just no sense to the gradual introduction of the change, with people born at different times getting a different retirement age. People who are about two and a half years apart in age have to retire about six years apart. There has been no methodical approach to it. People in the same family — two sisters with only maybe a year or a year and a half between them — have different times to retire. It has just been very unhelpful. People feel very hurt and aggrieved that they are losing out on a large amount of money.

There is also the insult that, because they have to work extra time, extra years, they have to make the contributions. They can pay the money in, but they do not get the money out. That was the double dose for them. They just do not appreciate the fact that they have to spend extra time paying in without getting the money back.

We have also heard today, through the petition and in the debate, about the scale of the issue: 68,000 women in Northern Ireland. If any other sector of Northern Ireland's population were being detrimentally impacted, there would rightly be all the shouting that there should be about the issue. It is important that we bring this to the Floor of the Assembly so that we can raise this important issue for all those people. Other figures that are available show that the 1995 rule affected 1·1 million people across the UK and that the changes that were brought in in 2011 increased that to over 2·5 million women, who are having to work the extra year. A massive proportion of the population is being impacted by this. Needless to say, it is no shock or surprise that it was Tory Governments in 1995 and in 2011 who introduced the changes, but we have a local —

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Does the Member agree that, at the outset, the issue was to address equality of access to pension income but, in fact, it has had the reverse effect? Women did not have equal access to planning and scoping out their retirement and what their choices might be at that time. You mentioned 14 years and the scale of the problem: do you agree that this goes beyond inequality? It goes back to the Government at that time actually being negligent.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

The Member has an extra minute. I ask that when people make interventions they keep them brief.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker. The points raised are exceptionally valid. This was to address a £30 billion gap, as we were told, in the pension pot, but it seems most unfair that to address a £30 billion gap in the pension pot they singled out this one group, this narrow band of people, and picked on them. That seems exceptionally unfair. It is the fact that, when the changes were made, people were not fully aware of what their implementation would mean. That was caught on only in 2008, 2009 and 2010. That is why the issue is being raised now.

Some of the matter is devolved. I wrote to the Work and Pensions Minister in England and to our local Minister. With respect to our local Minister, he wrote back to me. The Minister in England said that it was a devolved issue; the local Minister said that it was something that we did on a parity basis with London. It just seems that, as the women were explaining to me earlier, every time they try to get the issue sorted out, they seem to go round in circles.

This is a big issue. It affects lots of people in our community. They are being treated very unjustly. They are being left substantially out of pocket. I support the motion so that we can send them a message from here to say that we support them and are on their side.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance 5:45 pm, 26th September 2016

I welcome the opportunity to speak in favour of the motion.

I do confess, however, to being a bit surprised to find on this much vaunted Opposition day that we have a second motion over which the Executive have no control. I doubt that it will have the Executive quaking in their boots if we are holding to account the British Government in London and, indeed, commercial decisions by banks, neither of which are the responsibility of the Executive.

That said, I have supported similar motions —

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

No, I will continue, if that is OK.

I have supported similar motions in Westminster concerning the pension injustice facing women, and I am wholly supportive of the campaign being run by Women Against State Pension Inequality. They deserve praise for how they have run their campaign since early last year, most notably for having engaged directly with the decision makers by submitting evidence to Westminster and petitioning for debates in Parliament, as well as making regular appearances in national media, organising rallies and developing their social media presence to raise awareness of the issue. Their cause is a just one and is aimed at delivering fairness for those women born in the 1950s, who deserve to have proper transitional state pension arrangements introduced.

The Pensions Act 1995 announced that the pension ages of men and women would be equalised by 2020, which was a fair measure under equality law. However, that was fast-tracked by the coalition Government in 2011, along with provisions to raise the state pension age, with pension age equalisation going to happen in 2018, not 2020, and with the age rising to 66 by 2020. That decision left a sizeable proportion of women underprepared for the changes and without sufficient time to make adjustments to their plans for retirement.

No one is disputing that the pension age has to rise, given the growing older population relative to our working age population. However, any such reforms should be fair, be properly notified to those affected and be implemented in a time frame that allows individuals to adjust their future provisions. Sadly, due to the manner in which this was handled, thousands of women who have worked from their teens, with an expectation of one set of pension arrangements, now find none of those opportunities afforded to them to adjust to those changes. Many have received correspondence from the Department for Work and Pensions informing them of the change only relatively recently or have been left totally unaware of the changes so many years after they were made. These women are being disproportionately affected and have a right to feel aggrieved.

Despite evidence of the harm that the current policies will have on women financially, physically and mentally, and despite the £1·1 billion concession by Parliament in 2011, many thousands of women who have worked hard and contributed to the economy stand to lose out financially and face uncertainty and hardship. Thus far, the Conservative Government have consistently opted to ignore the plight of these women, raised by Opposition parties and backed up by clear evidence. Unfortunately, recent comments from the Department for Work and Pensions Minister, which I think the Member for South Belfast also referred to, simply restated their position, confirming that a policy reversal is unlikely.

Women Against State Pension Inequality has confirmed that, regardless of the Government's intransigence thus far, it will continue to fight this injustice and seek fair transitional arrangements for the women who are bearing the brunt of these changes. I believe that it is right that they should do so with the full and unequivocal support of this Assembly. Therefore, I am happy to reiterate Alliance support for their cause and to call on the UK Government to put in place necessary transition arrangements to ensure that all those affected by the pension changes are treated fairly and equitably and relieved of the stress that the mishandling of this issue has created.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP

I thank those who brought the motion forward. I will speak in favour of it, and I commend those who have already spoken in support of the motion.

My research and engagement with affected women in the Upper Bann constituency has highlighted that this is not an equalisation issue — as has been mentioned throughout the debate — but an implementation issue. Its implementation has been what I would class as rather clumsy and badly communicated. Let us be honest: it is a blunt and crude instrument that the Government have used as a saving technique, and it is not a case of equalising the playing field.

Communication from the Government to date on this issue has been lamentable. Many women have not been informed at all of the changes and others have received one year's notice. For anyone who is planning financially with regard to cash flow, one year's notice is not sufficient. I believe that a wrong has been committed, and the Government should be held to account. My colleagues at Westminster have highlighted this matter, and I commend our DUP team on the Westminster benches for their robust action against the way in which this is being brought forward and the fact that they have been very vocal and supportive of the WASPI campaign. We need a fair transitional process for the many thousands of women — our colleague mentioned that there were 68,000 — in Northern Ireland. That is a sizable number of our population. We need a very fair transitional process for those 68,000 people.

As an Executive, we have highlighted mental health and physical well-being as being a key issue to address during this mandate. This is certainly having an effect on the mental health and well-being of the women within our society, and we have heard today of many of them. Cases have been brought to me in Upper Bann. One, for instance, is a lady who is caring for an ill husband and is also caring for a mum who has Alzheimer's. That is the harsh reality; these people are now carers. We have got to take this into account and think of the contribution that they are making to society even through that caring role.

Like most Members, I have been contacted by constituents who are gravely concerned about these changes and who are worried about how this will affect them financially. Many are now reliant on small amounts of savings to top up their modest pension. Let us be honest: women who are single, divorced or widowed are amongst the most heavily affected — women that have given so much to our society but, owing to this change in legislation, they have no other source of income and have been subjected to going to the jobs and benefits office to inquire about JSA and consider going into zero-hour contracts. As my colleague Emma Pengelly highlighted, they are also having to look at very heavy-duty jobs. I do not think that that is acceptable in this day and age.

A woman born in early 1953 received her pension in November 2015. However, a woman born one year later will not receive her pension until May 2019. This is a delay of around three years because of the Pensions Act 2011. The women who worked throughout this period did so when the gender pay gap was even more significant than it is now, until a so-called remedy was implemented by the Equal Pay Act 1970. These women do not have gold-plated pension pots to look forward to but rather are reliant on the state pension to help them through retirement. The reality is that the age discrimination Act did not apply when these women were seeking employment. Studies that were carried out recommended implementation over anything between 10 and 15 years. The Parliamentary Select Committee recommended 10 years, and this should be the minimum amount of time.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

Will the Member draw her comments to a close?

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP

I encourage the House to get behind the WASPI campaign and commend the campaigners on how hard they have worked.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Sean Lynch Sean Lynch Sinn Féin

I support the motion. This is an issue of equality and, in this case, gender equality. The pension changes were designed to give people long-term clarity about how much they could expect to receive and to allow for a planned approach for later life, but this did not happen for a group of women born in the early 1950s who are coming to pension age. The changes left this group of women, born between 1951 and 1953, not eligible for pension benefits although a man born on the same day is, or may be. This gives rise to inequality affecting a group of women in the North. A number of people have mentioned 68,000 women. I do not actually know the exact number, but it seems to me that the women in this narrow birth cohort are caught between two pieces of legislation.

This group of women does not disagree with proposals to reduce gender inequality in the state pension but they feel aggrieved that they will just miss out financially, whereas men born between these dates will be treated differently. That, to me, seems unfair. Yes, the majority of women born between the stated dates will be better off, but that number of women needs to be addressed.

Another change that caused the problem in this issue was the coalition's acceleration of the pension changes. Campaigners for these women, who had their state pension age unexpectedly pushed back, state that they either were not informed about the changes or were informed of them late, as a number of Members said, meaning they had little time to prepare. Let me give two examples. A woman who turned 60 this year has not received any information about the changes. She was the primary carer for her children and was unable to work due to disability, but she now has to work for a number of years extra to make up her pension. To give another example of how these women can be impacted, there is a woman who has had to push back her retirement several times, and now, aged 63, she still has to work part-time to make ends meet.

Most of the things said about this issue show that it is about women, equality and fairness. The group Women Against State Pension Inequality describes this as new permanent inequality.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I, too, support the motion and congratulate its proposer for bringing this important issue to the Assembly for debate. All Members so far this evening spoke about the inequity and, indeed, the downright unfairness of the acceleration of the equalisation of and increase in the state pension age.

Coming from a party with equality at the core of its ethos, I will not argue against men and women qualifying for the state pension at the same age. However, I am pretty sure it was not a desire for equality that prompted the Westminster Government to push through the Pensions Act 2011. It was and remains purely a money-saving exercise designed to get more money in from people without putting more money out. It is certainly not cognisant of the needs or the rights of the individual. It is also particularly unfair to force women to face two accelerations while men face just one.

Previously stated timescales indicated that there should be no changes until 2020. Therefore, women in work, and, indeed, women who left work in the belief that they would receive their pension — it is a pension that is their entitlement; a pension they have paid for — may not have enough money put by to cover them in the new transition period. We are talking about a generation of women in the North who are and have been the backbone of our society, growing up and raising children through some very dark times, often against the backdrop of low pay and inequality. Many women, as Mrs Pengelly pointed out, are now sandwiched between the conflicting pressures of caring for elderly parents and helping their own children with childcare. Their plans have been thrown into disarray. Forcing this group of women to change their life, plans and future, without considering the challenge that will pose for them, is a far cry from equality. To force them to accept these changes without sufficient time to make adequate provision is completely unfair.

While today is the first official Opposition day in the Assembly, I would like to think that Members and parties will unite in support of the motion. We must, as an Assembly, put all the pressure we can collectively bring to bear on the Westminster Government to re-examine their position and bring forward fair, transitional payments for the women affected. This is not the first time these arrangements have been debated in the Chamber. When we debated the Pensions Bill nearly five years ago, the SDLP proposed amendments, which we believed were fair, realistic and workable, to slow down the equalisation. We put particular focus on women born between 1951 and 1953, who are being particularly harshly treated by these changes. The amendments were very similar to those the DUP and Alliance Party voted for in Westminster but were unable to support here for fear of breaching parity. They chose, as did the UUP, as it happens, to slavishly follow the Acts and actions of the UK Parliament.

In rejecting those amendments, the Assembly missed an opportunity not only to reduce the negative impact that we are hearing about today that the changes will have on so many of our citizens but to show that we are capable —

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. He is correct that parity was the deciding factor. Will he tell us how much it would have cost Northern Ireland if we had broken with parity and gone for a completely different set of pension arrangements?

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party 6:00 pm, 26th September 2016

I thank the Member for the intervention; I was running out of time. The Member voted for the amendments or similar ones in Westminster. The cost of our amendments — they were costed — would have been in the region of £257 million and would have come as a huge relief to the 7,000 women who would have been impacted on positively had they been passed.

As an Assembly, we missed an opportunity to show that we are capable of challenging the shackles of parity in a mature and progressive fashion. Some people might even ask what the point of the Assembly is. I also recall an attempt at that time by the then Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland, to secure accelerated passage for the Bill so that it would not even have been debated in the Chamber.

Transitional protections and mitigation measures for those negatively impacted by welfare reform are welcome, but where is the protection for the women who have worked all their lives only to see their promised pensions taken from them and their retirement age raised? Even the former pensions Minister, Ros Altmann, has said that the Government got it wrong and has called for more help for the women affected. She, like the motion, recognises that women were not adequately informed.

The Tory Government have said that the matter is settled: Parliament voted for it, and that is that. Not only is this attitude completely dismissive of the women affected — I pay tribute to WASPI for keeping up its fight — but it is complete bunkum. The UK Government can and do move the goalposts on legislation when they want to make the nets smaller, to save them more money and to cause people more hardship, but they expect us to believe that they cannot do it when it comes to righting wrongs and ensuring justice. Let the message to Westminster from the Assembly today be very clear: we support this campaign and demand fairness for these women.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

I call Clare Bailey. You will have three minutes, and, if you choose to take an intervention, we will not give you an extra minute due to the time constraints in the debate.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

Thank you, Principal Deputy Speaker. I will keep it brief. I have heard most Members state that they understand exactly the implications and impacts that this issue is having on women. Naomi Long said that our Executive have no control over these changes, but having the debate in the House can highlight the fact that we as a society need to embed urgently a gendered impact study on economic decisions that are being made in the wider economy because this is an absolutely shameful treatment of women. I believe that it is targeted welfare reform from the Tory Government on women in Northern Ireland.

If a woman was born in 1953, she will be 63 this year. I am sure that that is no surprise to any women born in 1953, but these women have already suffered many economic disadvantages in their lives. They were forced to leave certain jobs in the workforce if they got married. They were actively refused access to some other career paths, and they had no childcare provision. Actually, even today, we still have no childcare provision, and we do not have equal access to maternity and paternity leave in wider society. All those things impact on women's economic autonomy and choices. For a Government to then target them and leave them with little or no notice to make the required changes is absolutely shameful treatment. I do not believe that this is an implementation matter, although that was disgraceful on its own. It is absolutely about the equal treatment of all citizens throughout Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

It has been an interesting debate. I thank Members for making their points. Let me say at the outset that I fully appreciate that women affected by the changes to the state pension age feel that they have been treated unfairly.

The state pension is and will remain an important part of income in later life. I will give some idea of scale: in 2014-15 the Department paid around £46 million per week in state pensions, which equates to approximately £2·4 billion per year. Moreover, that figure does not take account of other payments to pensioners such as housing and disability benefits.

State pension is paid largely from the Northern Ireland National Insurance fund. However, the fund is not self-sufficient, and, under the parity arrangements — Mr Durkan referred to why Northern Ireland should do its own thing — it receives an annual subvention from the Great Britain fund; for example, in 2015 it needed a subvention of £609 million.

I turn to the state pension age reforms, which were legislated for by the Pensions (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 —

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Can the Minister confirm for the House that the genesis for the pension changes came about in 1995 as a result of a directive emanating from the European Union?

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

The Member is right: the drive for parity in pension age is a result of the UK meeting its obligations to the European Union. Some Members voted to stay in that union, but part of the consequence of being in the union was the drive that has disadvantaged women in respect of this issue.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

If I can make some progress, I will come back and give way to you.

The pensions landscape has changed significantly in recent years, not only with state pension age increases but with the phased introduction of automatic enrolment and the introduction of a new state pension from 6 April 2016. Those reforms were introduced in an attempt to address three key issues: increasing life expectancy, gender inequality and the need to ensure that the state pension system remained affordable and sustainable in the long term. Successive generations have been spending longer and longer in retirement as a result of increasing life expectancy, advances in medical care and healthier lifestyles. Whilst that has been one of the success stories of the last 50 or so years, the challenges posed by an ageing society cannot be ignored, not only for pensions but for health and social care. The increasing proportion of adult life spent in retirement means additional financial pressures on state pension funding. The state pension scheme operates on a pay-as-you-go basis. Today’s workers pay for today’s pensioners, but the proportion of pensioners relative to the total population is increasing. For example, in 2012, there were around 4·3 people of working age for each person aged 65 or over; that ratio is expected to fall to 3·4 by 2022 and to 2·4 by 2037.

When the contributory state pension was introduced in the 1940s it had a differential state pension age – 65 for men and 60 for women. However, the five-year gap in men's and women's state pension age could no longer be justified in a world where women increasingly play a role equal to that of men in the economy and National Insurance credits provide pension protection for those unable to work. The Pensions (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 provided for a phased increase in women’s state pension age to 65 between April 2010 and April 2020. The 1995 Order did not impact on anyone aged 44 or over at the time of the announcement and gave the women affected 15 years in which to prepare for a later retirement. The planned equalisation of state pension ages also ensured that the United Kingdom met its obligations under European law, which required a progressive implementation of the principle of equal treatment for men and women in matters of social security. Maybe it was on that point in respect of the EU that the Member wanted me to give way.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for giving way. The Minister refers to the EU rule on the need for equalisation. No one in the House today has disputed the need for equalisation, but what the Pensions Act 2011 did was accelerate that equalisation. That is the point that I was making.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

The Member makes a valid point. However, what drove this was not just the economic arguments but European legislation on social security matters. That is something that people who wanted to stay in the European Union need to recognise.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

I thank the Minister for giving way. Would you recognise, if it was a European-driven policy, that many other European countries have removed a lot of the economic barriers for women — something that the UK, particularly Northern Ireland, has failed to do? Targeting them at the end of their working life, rather than removing barriers during their working life, is still a failure.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

On this issue, I am on the same page as the motion. I will support it, but I say this to Members: reflect on what has been driving the changes to the pension. There are the issues to do with economic arguments, but proponents of the European Union need to accept the consequences of that, not just on this issue. For example, for girls now going out to get car insurance — I accept that girls are better drivers than boys, particularly at the age at which they get their licence — insurance companies can no longer discriminate because of European regulations. You cannot make that differential between girls and boys who drive, irrespective of the fact that girls make for better drivers. I am moving away from the issue, however. Let me get back to the point, but it is worth bearing in mind that point about the European Union and the impact that it has.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

Let me make some progress, if I can.

In 2010, women reaching state pension age would, on average, spend 41% of their adult life in receipt of state pension. The figure for men was only 31%, owing to the longer life expectancy and earlier state pension age for women. The equalisation process was designed to treat men and women equally. The Pensions Act 2012, which Mr Durkan referred to earlier, accelerated the timetable so that women's state pension age will now be 65 by November 2018, rather than by April 2020. It also brought forward the increase in state pension age to 66 for men and women by October 2020, rather than by 2026. The original policy intention was that state pension age would reach 66 by April 2020. However, that would have resulted in some women experiencing a further increase in their state pension age of up to two years. Therefore, during the passing of the equivalent Pensions Act 2011, the Government made a concession, costing around £1 billion, that delayed the increase in state pension age to 66 by six months. That ensured that no woman would experience an additional increase in her state pension age of more than 18 months, relative to the 1995 timetable.

Over the years, changes to state pension age have been promulgated in a variety of ways. For example, as long ago as 2001, Minister Morrow launched a pensions education campaign to encourage people to plan for retirement. The campaign was supported by a series of leaflets, including one entitled, 'Pensions for women – Your guide' that included a ready reckoner to allow women to see what their new state pension age would be and a telephone helpline from which people could request more information. In subsequent years, information has been available through a variety of sources, including state pension forecasts, websites and direct mailing. For example, Northern Ireland citizens born between 6 April 1953 and 5 April 1960 were issued with a letter by the former Social Security Agency to advise them of the changes to state pension age flowing from the 2012 Act.

I turn to the Department for Work and Pensions estimate, and this gets to Mr Durkan's suggestion that we should break parity. I believe that, regarding a UK position, we are right to argue against what has been happening, but for someone to argue that Northern Ireland should take a separate approach is, I suggest, not just foolish but entirely reckless when it comes to the use of public funding.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

Let me just crystallise it for the Member. To undo the 2012 reforms across the United Kingdom would cost in the region of £30 billion. To undo the 1995 pension reforms would cost approximately £77 billion up to 2020-21, and the costs would continue to accrue after that period. That is on a UK-wide basis. Let us make those arguments at a national level. On the basis of those figures, it is estimated that, in Northern Ireland, such measures could cost £750 million and £1·93 billion respectively.

I say to Members very clearly that the motion should be supported and the battle should be taken at a UK-wide level, but to suggest that Northern Ireland should break with the approach that we have taken on the issue is entirely reckless when it comes to public funding. I note that there has been not one suggestion from the SDLP as to how that would be funded.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

Will the Minister bring his comments to a close?

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

I accept that the Ulster Unionists did not take that approach. The SDLP did, and that shows it up for the type of Opposition that it intends to be in the Assembly.

Photo of Jennifer Palmer Jennifer Palmer UUP 6:15 pm, 26th September 2016

This is an extraordinarily complex matter. I thank my colleague Andy Allen for bringing the motion to the House, and I will certainly support it. It is vital that we have had the opportunity to discuss the issue. The most recent changes to the women's state pension age will have a direct impact on around half a million women across the United Kingdom. Nobody would disagree that spending on pensions must be rationalised and must be sustainable for an ageing population. Pensions have the potential to be the millstone around the neck of future Governments if they are not properly funded and addressed. It is common sense that the Government must make sure that they are adequately resourced going forward.

That said, there are few things so clearly deserved as the state pension: the quintessential promise that, if you work hard for your whole working life, the state will take care of you in your old age is an ideal that has underpinned our society for more than 70 years. That promise is precisely the reason why I am so deeply worried about the manner in which the Government have decided to deliver the equalisation of pension age, and it is why I am speaking in support of the motion today.

Women born in the 1950s were made a promise; that promise has been broken. Worse still, it is being done with little or no notice. Women who have rightly been considering and planning for retirement now face a level of uncertainty that threatens what should be the most relaxed period of their life. While today's National Insurance contributions pay for today's pensions, many of those women believed that, when they started paying National Insurance contributions at the age of 16, they were entering into a social contract with the Government to retire at the age of 60.

Raising the retirement age is a necessary evil. With life expectancy climbing, it is unavoidable that we must work longer and retire later. Equally, because a far greater number of women today work on an equal footing with men, which we all support, the principle of equal state pension ages should be fair. The problem, however, is that while the principle may be sound, the reality is somewhat different. When Her Majesty's Government introduced the Pensions Act in 1995, women were supposedly given 15 years to prepare, as their pension age would not begin to equalise with that of men until 2010. However, no one aged 44 or over at that time was to be affected. It is, therefore, understandable that any discussion of pension changes was viewed as irrelevant. What was required from the Government at the time was a concerted effort to publicise the changes widely, spelling out the implications for the women affected, but this was glaringly absent. Compounding this, the Pensions Act 2011 increased the overall state pension age to 66 by 2020, accelerating the rate of increase for women. The previous lack of notification meant that it was only at this point that many women learned of the change. Some women who had anticipated drawing their pension at the age of 60 will not now reach the state pension age until they are 66.

I will put this in perspective: men will see their state pension age rise by one year between 2010 and 2020; the state pension age for women will increase by six years in the same period. The unfairness is made worse when we consider that the pension system already unfairly targets women, who, traditionally, are more reliant on the state pension as they have had less chance to build up a private pension due to the breaks in their working life to bring up children and the fact that they have lower incomes than men. It should be noted that men of this age could join company schemes, but women working part-time were banned from them. Yet it is the women who the Government expect to bear the brunt of the cost-saving measures designed to save money on pensions in the long term. It is, therefore, no surprise that the women affected by the changes are frustrated by the implications for their post-retirement planning, financial and otherwise.

The Government have substantially moved the goalposts without effective communication. This is an unfairness that must be addressed. There is a need for transitional payments to come into play. Consecutive Work and Pensions Ministers, Iain Duncan Smith, Stephen Crabb and, currently, Damian Green, have said that they are not for moving on the issue. In fact, this weekend, as mentioned by a Member who spoke previously, the Minister said that all pensioner benefits were under review, which sounds like we could see a further grab at pensions in the future.

In thanking all the contributors who spoke with passion, I pick out Andy Allen, who outlined the negative impact of this accelerated state pension timeline and focused on the human side of the changes. He called on the Government to introduce transitional payments to assist the disadvantaged. Carla Lockhart said that the implementation of the changes was clumsy and badly communicated, and she talked about people's mental health and well-being. Seán Lynch highlighted gender inequality and stated that some women were caught between certain age gaps. Mark Durkan said that this was a money-saving exercise from the Westminster Government and that it was unfair to force women to seek other employment. He asked for all parties to support the motion. Emma Pengelly said that women contributed highly to society and that many thousands of women are seeking jobs through job centres because of the unfairness in the pensions system.

I recognise that the power of the Assembly is constrained because, sadly, the issue lies primarily with changes made by the Government at Westminster. However, we have a voice and we can apply pressure. We can say that we feel that these women deserve to be treated as people and not as unfortunate rounding errors. They should not be disadvantaged solely because they had the bad luck of being born a year too early or a year too late. I must, therefore, back the motion and ask that the UK Government demonstrate some compassion and look again at this matter. I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly acknowledges the Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) campaign; recognises its call for fair transitional state pension arrangements for women born in the 1950s who have been negatively impacted by changes made to the state pension age under the Pensions (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 and the Pensions Act 2011; accepts that the changes were poorly communicated; appreciates the impact of the changes on post-retirement planning; and calls on the United Kingdom Government to re-examine their position and bring forward fair transitional arrangements for the women affected.

Adjourned at 6.21 pm.