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31 May 2019

Revealed: the women battling the government for a fair state pension

Women born in the 1950s are taking their battle for a fair state pension to the high court next week. Paul Davies looks at how an unlikely group of campaigners in their 60s has fought the government all the way to the courts - and whether they have any hope of recovering their 'lost' years waiting for their pension.

The impact has been 'devastating' and 'life-changing'. 'Dignity, respect and independence' has been put at risk. The prospect of an unexpected bill has become 'terrifying'.

These are the words of some of the 3.8 million women who, through a succession of changes over the past 25 years, have seen their state pension age radically increased, which - they claim - was done with little notice and at an unreasonably fast timescale.

Many have faced considerable hardship and financial difficulties. In reaction, an unlikely group of women born in the 1950s - those most affected by the changes - banded together to protest. The fight of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) and BackTo60 campaigners has been long and hard.

Women all over the country have mobilised to be heard about the perceived injustice in the rapid rise in the female state pension age, and the fact that the changes weren't adequately communicated. They want to be compensated for what they believe is state pension income that has been snatched away from them.

This demand comes with a hefty price tag, however, and these pension dissidents face a government resolute in its refusal to budge on the issue.

Returning the women's state pension age to 60 will not be considered, says the government. Reversing the process and making changes to the state pension arrangements for women born in the 1950s has been estimated at costing a staggering £77bn.

But the fight isn't over. Last year, a high court judge granted one of these campaign groups (BackTo60) a judicial review to determine if the age rises were lawful.

Next week, the millions of women who say they have lost out will finally have their case heard. But how did something as benign as the state pension become such a political lightning rod?

Which? has plotted out the complicated history of the increase to women's state pension age - and looks at what the human cost of this decision has been.

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What has happened to the women's state pension age?

The main issue is that some women born in the 1950s have had to wait for much longer than expected to receive the state pension.

Until 2010, women received their state pension at age 60. A phased timetable saw the state pension age rise rapidly for women from 60 to 65 between 2010 and 2018.

The state pension age is now rising again from 65 for both men and women to 66 by 2020, and will again increase to 67 by 2028.

Campaign groups argue that many of those born in the 1950s have lost out significantly and were not warned of the changes. Some of these women have suffered financially as a result.

When did the state pension changes begin?

It was the November Budget of 1993, delivered by Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Conservative government of the time, that the plans to equalise the state pension age for men and women at 65 were first announced.

Originally prompted by a European Union (EU) directive, the Chancellor's announcement heralded a number of changes and amendments over the next two decades.

The Pensions Act 1995 set the ball rolling by outlining a timetable between 2010 and 2020 to equalise men and women's state pension age in stages to 65.

Gradual increases would see women born in 1950 and 1951 retiring around age 61, those with a date of birth in 1952 and 1953 qualifying at age 62 until all women born post-April 1955 received the state pension at 65.

The Labour government pushed through the Pensions Act 2007 which raised the retirement age for both men and women to 66 by 2026 and 67 by 2036.

Following the 2010 election, Steve Webb, the Pensions Minister within the coalition government, outlined plans to speed up the timetable by raising the pension age to 66 for everyone by 2020.

To enable this, it brought equalisation forward to October 2020 after initially setting the date at April 2020. This added up to another 18 months to the state pension age of women born after April 1953.

Why have successive governments changed state pension ages?

From the rise in life expectancy to comparisons with other countries and the drive to equalise retirement ages in workplace pension schemes, the governments in the past have had plenty of reasons to bring men and women's state pension ages to the same level, and further increase the retirement age.

The most compelling argument was the fact that women live longer than men, and now work for longer.

In the early 1990s, there was also EU legislation that ruled that occupational pensions should be equal for men and women in respect of pensionable service. Schemes thereafter equalised their pension ages, primarily at 65. This contributed to the pressure to make alterations to the state pension.

Most EU and OECD countries have either brought the men and women's state pension ages into line already or have legislation in place to do so.

That the state pension overall is becoming more expensive for the government is pretty clear and has driven the need for expenditure reductions. The acceleration in the Pensions Act 2011 alone saved the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) around £31 billion.

Some argue that the rise is justifiable on the grounds of intergenerational fairness, with younger people having to pay National Insurance for longer, to get less in real terms at a later age.

The government insists that increasing the state pension age has been a necessity. The DWP said: 'The legislative changes of the 1995 Pensions Act were taken to address the longstanding inequalities that had previously existed between men and women's state pension age.

'State pension reform has focused on maintaining the right balance between sustainability of state pension and fairness between generations in the face of demographic change.'

Check your state pension age

Use our calculator to see when you qualify for the state pension.

Who has lost out because of the increase and by how much?

A huge number of women have been on the wrong end of this long-standing government policy. It is estimated that 3.8 million women born in the 1950s have faced, or are still facing, a delay of up to six years to receive the state pension.

These women fall into three groups covered by the 1995 and 2011 legislation:

  • Those born between 6 April 1950 and 5 April 1953 saw their pension age increase to between 60 and 63 (under 1995 Act), and qualified for it by March 2016.
  • Women born between 6 April 1953 and 5 December 1953 qualified for the pension between 63 years and 3 months and 65 (under the 2011 Act) by November 2018.
  • Women born between 6 December 1953 and 5 April 1960 have a SPA of between 65 years and 3 months and 66 (under the 2011 Act) by 2020.

Around 2.6 million women born between 1953 and 1960 were impacted by the 2011 Act.

Of these, some 500,000 women born between October 1953 and April 1955 saw their age rise by more than one year. A smaller sub-group of 300,000 - those born between December 1953 and October 1954 - were burdened with the full additional 18-month delay.

The amount of state pension that this group of women has foregone runs into tens of thousands of pounds in some cases. This is money that they expected to receive on turning 60 having paid the 'full stamp' during their working lives.

Taking the average state pension of £140 and applying a triple lock increase of 2.5%, the amount that would be missed out on would be in the region of £46,500 over the course of a six-year delay.

It is not just a financial loss for some women. Working for longer has been the only option for those dependent on the state pension and this can cause health problems where a job is physically demanding.

Women say they have been 'cheated out' of retirement years by being forced to extend their time in employment.

An Institute for Fiscal Studies report in August 2017 highlighted that employment levels in women aged between 60 and 63 had risen by around 10% since the Pensions Act 1995 changes came into effect.

However, for many of these workers staying in employment is an economic necessity rather than a lifestyle choice. There are also examples where women have given up long-held positions, so that they can 'retire', only to find out that they wouldn't be getting the state pension.

Hunting for new employment opportunities in your early 60s can be a major challenge.

Were women notified of the state pension changes?

Speak to any of the group worst hit by the change in the state pension age and they will be adamant that the increases were not appropriately communicated to those affected and that insufficient notice was given. This has been acknowledged by many of the parties in the debate.

The Pensions Act 1995 didn't, in fact, place any requirements on the relevant department to directly inform those affected. Leaflets were printed and a publicity campaign launched (via women's magazines and national newspapers). Those requesting a state pension statement after 2001 were informed of their new pension age.

The DWP began to write to some of the women affected from 2009, but for certain recipients, this was less than a year before they expected to get the state pension.

Between 2009 and 2011, around 1.2m letters were sent to those affected by the early part of the timetable outlined in the 1995 Act - women born between 6 April 1950 and 5 April 1953.

However, this only covered a minority of women impacted by the 1995 Act and not those born between 1953 and 1960 who faced waiting an extra three to six years. Letters were sent between January 2012 and November 2013 to all of those affected by the 2011 Act acceleration.

Campaigners have claimed that many women born in the 1950s did not receive appropriate (or any) notification of the age increase.The DWP's own research in 2004 indicated that only 43% of those affected knew that their pension age had increased.

The past few years, lawmakers have acknowledged that they should have done a better job communicating the planned increases. A 2016 report published by the Work and Pensions Committee stated that going forward, it was 'critical that people affected by any future changes in the state pension age are fully and properly informed'.

'We are not living. We are existing'

Which? sat down with two women who are deeply feeling the effects of the state pension age changes. They told us their stories.

Michaela (64), South Wales

I was born in July 1955 and live in South Wales with my husband, Wilfred.

I worked full-time from the age of 15, only taking breaks to have our two children. Early years were spent working in factories, before I switched to the care sector in my late 30s, working with adults with learning difficulties.

Throughout my career, I paid the full National Insurance stamp instead of the married women's stamp because I wanted to have the state pension in my own right at 60.

A great shock

It came as a great shock to me when I found out, through word of mouth, that I wouldn't be receiving my state pension at 60. I have never received written notification of the changes.

The news that I wouldn't be getting the state pension has had a dramatic impact on my life. I had planned to retire at 60. My husband is 11 years older than me and only receives a small miners' pension and the state pension. We would barely survive on this.

This all means that I've had to continue to work, otherwise, we would be in a desperate situation.

The government took away six quality years of my life

I love my work, but at 64 it is really telling on me, both physically and mentally. My body is slowing down, I get tired more quickly and this then leads to mental fatigue.

This has had a direct impact on my family life as all I want to do when I come home from work is rest. I haven't the energy to play with my grandchildren, who I'd love to spend more time with.

When the government took away six years of state pension, it also took away six years of quality life that I wished to spend with my family.

The success of the judicial review will not only assist with our financial security, it will help me maintain my dignity, respect, and independence.

Elaine (61), Stoke-on-Trent

I've lived in Stoke-on-Trent all of my life, having been born there in June 1957. After getting my exams, I started work, aged 16, in an office. My husband, Terry, was an LGV mechanic and then became a self-employed driving instructor.

I have had no breaks after starting work at the age of 16. I paid the full National Insurance stamp, rather than the married women's stamp, from the outset on the advice of my dad.

Terry collected his state pension in 2015 and worked for two extra years until my state pension was due in 2017. He will be 73 before I reach my 'new' state pension age.

I didn't get a letter

Finding out from a friend who used social media, when I was 58, that I wouldn't get the state pension until I was 66 came as a huge shock. It appeared that the changes were scheduled for 2020, so I at first thought that they wouldn't affect me.

I have never received a letter to confirm the changes - I'm organised and meticulous and would have remembered.

We wanted quality, precious time before we get too ill and old. Terry said that receiving this news was like paying off your mortgage all of your life, then just before it is clear, being told that you've got six more years to pay.

We are not living, we are existing

Having to wait an extra six years has had a truly detrimental effect on my planned and much-anticipated retirement with Terry. We have worked all of our lives - this was to be 'our time'.

If we go out now, we have to think twice about whether to have a coffee or a modest meal as a treat. The prospect of an unexpected bill or repair which we will be unable to pay is terrifying.

My husband, who has always been very healthy, had a heart attack in May 2018, which I'm convinced was exacerbated by the stress of our situation.

The judicial review is the only hope that we've got. We fully support the BackTo60 campaign and have 100% faith in Michael Mansfield QC. Justice must be delivered.

Who has campaigned on behalf of the affected women?

The plight of those affected was initially taken up by a group called 'Waspi' - Women Against State Pension Inequality. Its campaign was launched in 2015 with the aim to 'achieve fair transitional state pension arrangements for women born in the 1950s'.

The group agrees with equalisation of pension ages but does not agree with the way that the changes were implemented.

'Fair transitional state pension arrangements' could mean a 'bridging' pension to provide an income until the SPA according to the Waspi campaigners. For example, the benefit might be paid at 70% of what a claimant might otherwise have been eligible for until they reach SPA.

This wouldn't be means-tested and would provide compensation for those women already past the original age of 60.

The group has been backed by dozens of MPs and is currently pursuing a complaint through the Parliamentary Ombudsman.

A separate campaign group called 'BackTo60' was the one that successfully launched a legal challenge to the pension policy of previous governments.

It was granted permission to file a judicial review on 30November 2018 having been represented by well-known civil rights barrister Michael Mansfield.

BackTo60's primary arguments are that the original changes within the Pensions Act 1995 were implemented unfairly, with minimal or little personal notice.

Secondly, the acceleration of the transition in 2011 meant that there was no time to make alternative plans and this has had a huge impact on the economic, social and mental wellbeing of these women. As the name implies, this group would like to see women's state pension age put back to 60.

Joanne Welch, a spokesperson for BackTo60, told me she is 'confident about the judicial review after the Hon Ms Justice Lang accepted all the issues raised by our barristers in November 2018.

'The government's initial arguments were thrown out by the judge who agreed that the impact of the changes is still causing hardship for women today.'

What is the current government's view?

The government has long indicated that it wouldn't reverse the decisions taken in the Pensions Acts of 1995, 2007, 2011 and 2014. Increasingly life expectancy, the need to curb state spending and inter-generational fairness are reasons usually cited for this stance.

Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd reiterated the government's position in December 2018: 'With the Government facing increasing financial pressures, it is simply not justified to reverse these changes, especially when we take into account that women who reached state pension age in 2016 are estimated to receive more state pension on average over their lifetime than women ever have before.

'We will be making no further changes to the law on this issue.'

There was a similar response from Pensions Minister, Guy Opperman, when faced with an early day motion in April 2019.

He said: 'The matter had already been comprehensively debated on many occasions. Any amendment to the current legislation which created a new inequality between men and woman would be highly dubious as a matter of law.'

We asked the DWP about the judicial review but it told us it couldn't comment on forthcoming court proceedings.

A DWP spokesperson did tell us: 'The government decided more than 20 years ago that it was going to make the state pension age the same for men and women as a long-overdue move towards gender equality, and this has been clearly communicated.

'People are living longer so we need to raise the age at which all of us can draw a state pension so it is sustainable now and for future generations.'

Will women born in the 1950s get state pension justice?

Legal parties will convene at the High Court next week (5 and 6June) to undertake the judicial review of the alleged mishandling of the way that the state pension age of women born in the 1950s was raised.

A judicial review is a court proceeding in which a judge considers the lawfulness of a decision or action made by a public body.

The review comes more than a quarter of a century since the first shots in this particular battle were fired. The government unsuccessfully claimed that the challenge was too late because the law that brought in the changes was passed in 1995.

The Department for Work and Pensions will present its case that the reasons behind the increase from 60 to 66 were fair and that the communications campaign was clear and appropriate.

Representatives for BackTo60 will argue that the way the pension age increased after April 2010, and the fact that many women didn't receive notification or were sent letters when it was too late to make other plans, discriminates against women on the basis of sex and age.

It remains to be seen how the judicial review will play out. The court could grant a remedy such as a quashing order (overturning an invalid decision) or damages to those affected. However, even if the court accepts that a public body has acted unlawfully, there is no right to a remedy.

There have been cases in the past where a judge has agreed that there has been an unlawful decision, but has decided not to make an order.

That some women have suffered as a result of the changes is undeniable. Campaigners argue that these women have been prevented from having a happy and worry-free retirement, instead suffering for the sole reason that they were born in the wrong decade.

Whether the Waspi and BackTo60 groups will be ultimately successful is uncertain. The judicial review has, however, made sure that this issue doesn't go away quietly.