For the first time in nearly 80 years men and women born on the same date have exactly the same state pension age. People who were born between 6 December 1953 and 5 January 1954 will reach state pension age on 6 March 2019, by which time they will be 65 years and two or three months old.
Equalising state pension age was first announced by Kenneth Clarke in his 1993 Budget. The plan devised then was to raise women’s state pension age to that of men gradually between April 2010 and April 2020. Although the plans got some press coverage at the time, they were clearly not internalised by many of the women born in the 1950s, who were then in their thirties and early forties and not thinking of retirement.
A quiet revolution
The change overturned a system that had been in place since the Second World War and was part of the British psyche – men reached pension age at 65 and women at 60. That was partly so that couples – where men tended to be older than the women – could retire at much the same age.
The law was passed in 1995 but it went unremarked and unprotested, largely because it took the Government another 14 years before it even began to write to any of the women concerned, warning them to prepare for a longer working life. Many letters did not arrive and the Government has admitted that it shredded those that were returned. Then in 2010 the Coalition decided to accelerate the equalisation and to follow it with a further rise to 66. Another batch of letters to younger women were sent out, but most of them were given just a couple of years’ notice that their pension age would be not 60 but 65 or even 66.
Some women born in 1953 found the accelerated timetable very unfair. A woman born on 5 April 1953 would reach pension age at 62 years 11 months in March 2016. But her friend born just eight months later, on 6 December, would have to wait another three years to get her pension in March 2019, when she was more than 65 years old.
The pension divide
There was another important difference between those two groups of women. The first would get the old basic state pension of, now, around £126 a week. The slightly younger woman would reach state pension age after the new state pension began, which is currently £164.35 a week. Official figures show that in the first four years of the new state pension barely one in three women will get the full amount. But that £38 gap remains a big divide. Many older pensioners do not see why they should not share in the higher pension now paid to newly retired people.
Many of the women affected claimed that they were unaware of the plans to raise state pension age to 65 and were devastated to find that a second rise, to 66, was being imposed on them just a couple of years before they expected to have their state pension at 60. They saw it not as an extra year or 18 months but an extra five or six years.
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Pension changes cause hardship
There is no doubt that this change has caused great hardship. Many women found that they could not continue working even if they wanted to, owing to health issues, caring responsibilities, or simply prejudice against older women in work. Losing several years’ pension cost these women tens of thousands of pounds, which they feel they have paid for through their National Insurance contributions over a working life. Many have reported depression and even suicidal thoughts.
Recent research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that more than half of women approaching pensionable age did not know to the nearest six months when they could claim their state pension. That group was much worse than those who did know, at changing their employment plans and behaviour to try to fill that gap.
The first and best-known campaign against these changes was Women Against State Pension Inequalities (WASPI). It wants a non-means-tested bridging pension at a percentage of the full amount, to provide an income until the new state pension age is reached. Despite three years of campaigning, no pensions minister has been willing to meet them to discuss this.
The more recent and radical #BackTo60 campaign wants to reverse both changes and to revert to a pension age of 60 for women and 65 for men – as it was from 1940. That step has been taken in Poland, despite falling foul of EU laws. But here pensions minister Guy Opperman has ruled that out, saying it would cost £77 billion by 2021. BackTo60’s legal team is trying to get permission from the High Court to challenge the lawfulness of several decisions taken by ministers.
Pension changes affect men too
The changes do not just affect women. Pension credit, which tops up low incomes, could only be claimed by men (and women of course) when they reached women’s state pension age. Housing benefit and council tax reduction gave more help to people over that age. And throughout most of England free bus travel for men and women was also linked to it.
Now both sexes are treated the same, the Government plans to continue raising the state pension age. Men and women born from 6 October 1954 will have to wait until they are 66, and people born from 6 April 1961 until they are 67. Further rises, to 68 and beyond, seem inevitable.
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