State Pension: Impact of Changes on Women

Part of Opposition Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:45 pm on 26th September 2016.

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Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party 5:45 pm, 26th September 2016

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 —