I thank the MSPs who have signed the motion and enabled the debate to take place, and I thank Jackie Baillie, my co-convener of the WASPI cross-party group, for her support throughout the meetings that we have had.
I thank the WASPI campaigners for their dogged determination in highlighting the serious injustice that women who were born in the 1950s face. I was going to say that some of them are in the gallery, but I can see that the gallery is full of WASPI women. I thank them so much for turning up. That shows the importance of the debate and the subject to all women in Scotland and beyond. As the Presiding Officer said, there will be a reception later, and I look forward to meeting all the campaigners after the debate.
This is not the first time that I have had the opportunity to bring this important issue to the chamber. In 2017, I held a members’ business debate, yet here we are in 2019 and the WASPI women’s situation has not changed at all. In fact, the situation for the women has got worse, thanks to further Tory austerity and cuts to benefits for those who need them most. The issue affects hundreds of thousands of women. It is estimated that no fewer than 250,000 women will be affected in Scotland alone, yet the situation has remained the same. There has been no justice so far.
No one disagrees that there should be state pension equalisation, but we disagree with the way in which the changes have been implemented, which has been so damaging. The timetable for the changes to women’s state pensions, as set out in the Pensions Act 2011, has been accelerated over a short space of time and, in many cases, women have not received letters or any notification of changes at all. Not only is that unjust, it is causing severe financial and emotional hardship for women who are caught up with the changes. They simply have not been given the opportunity to put in place adequate financial measures to compensate for the shortfall.
As I am sure many members across the chamber have done, I have heard stories that illustrate the appalling situation that such women and their families are facing. The Tory Government is adding further hardship by penalising the women and their families through its draconian reforms to our welfare system, which have cut pension credit.
I am certain that the following stories will be familiar to many members. I have left out the people’s names at their request. I have said that they are stories, but these things happened. One woman said:
“My own story is that I was born in mid-October 1954 and I have worked since I was 15. Then 6 months before I was 60 I contracted Viral Meningitis. I decided not to be a burden to my employer and take my retirement. It was only after the paperwork was signed that my sister who volunteers for CAB informed me that I would not get my state pension until I was 66. I have paid 43 years National Insurance”— that is the important point; she paid that money—
“and I feel this is a total injustice that have to wait not 18 months, but an extra 6 years to get my state pension.”
Another person told us:
“Due to life circumstances I was unable to join the superannuation scheme until 2004. In 2005 I received a letter stating that I wouldn’t be eligible to my pension until I reached the age of 66! I have worked for the NHS from 1986 and paid my national insurance since I was sixteen.”
Again, she has paid her national insurance. She went on:
“In 2014 I developed pancreatic cancer. I have since undergone surgery and chemotherapy and have no doubt that it will return. Therefore I had to leave my post with the NHS and retire early due to my ill health and I fear by the time I reach the age of 66 it will sadly be too late for me to even receive my pension that I paid into for 40 years.”
Those are shocking lived-experience testaments from women across the country. I am almost certain that other members will know of examples of the impact that the changes are having on their constituents, such as women who are unable to work as they care for elderly or ill parents or are suffering from ill health themselves. There are women who are forced to take jobs that are inappropriate for the state of their health, in order to qualify for limited jobseekers allowance, and then endure humiliating tests or face sanctions. Women are being forced to take jobs that place them in a worse financial situation, particularly jobs with zero-hours contracts. Single, divorced or widowed women often have no other sources of income; we know that that is the case because those women turn up at our cross-party group meetings. There are women who have planned and saved for their retirement and are living on dwindling limited savings until they reach the new state pension age, when the only income that they will have will be their state pension.
United Kingdom Government ministers are quick to defend their position by citing statistics that show that life expectancy is on the increase. As I am sure they know—and it is not news to us—the latest research shows that Glasgow has the lowest life expectancy, with women on average living to 78. So, tell them the statistics.
Pensioners are being hit under Tory austerity cuts. The UK has the lowest state pension in the developed world, and the UK Government is robbing the lowest earners of vital funds in their retirement. I say this all the time to WASPI women and to others: the state pension is not a privilege or a benefit, it is a contract that is entered into by hard-working women with the UK Government, and the UK Government has reneged on that contract. We must constantly say that it is not a benefit.
That is why I whole-heartedly support the WASPI campaign and its call to the UK Government to
“provide a bridging pension that supplies an income until state pension age, which is not means tested, as well as compensation for the absence of a bridging pension to those who have already reached their state pension age, compensation to all those who have not started to receive a bridging pension by an appropriate date, which would be sufficient to recover lost monetary interest, and compensation to the beneficiaries of the estates of those who are deceased”
—such as the lady I talked about—
“and failed to receive a bridging pension.”
That is justice and fairness, which is what WASPI women want and are entitled to.