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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 01 February 2017

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Legal Aid Review, Female Genital Mutilation, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, State Pension Inequality


Contents


State Pension Inequality

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-03344, in the name of Sandra White, on the women against state pension inequality campaign. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament acknowledges what it considers the injustice facing women affected by the acceleration of the increase in the state pension age; welcomes the Landman Economics report on the impact of the changes to pension arrangements for women born in the 1950s, which identifies an affordable solution that would slow down that increase in order to give adequate time for women in the Glasgow Kelvin constituency and across Scotland who are affected to make alternative arrangements, and notes the calls on the UK Government to work with Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) to explore transitional protection for those affected.

17:05  

Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

I thank the WASPI—which is short for what you just said, Presiding Officer—campaigners for all their work in highlighting the serious injustice faced by women who were born in the 1950s. I welcome to the Parliament those who are in the public gallery and I thank them for all their hard work. [Applause.]

This issue, which I believe has been debated in Westminster no less than five times and raised there—amazingly—44 times affects hundreds of thousands of women, and yet the situation remains the same.

No one disagrees that the state pension should be equalised, but what we disagree with—and what is so damaging—is the way that the changes have been implemented. Accelerating the Pensions Act 2011 timetable for women’s state pension age from 63 to 65 between April 2016 and November 2018 and from 65 to 66 by October 2020 is not only unjust but causing severe financial and emotional hardship for women who are caught up in the legislation, and it gives them no time at all to replan for retirement.

To illustrate the impact of the changes, I will share with members and people who are in the public gallery some personal stories that women have sent me. This is one lady’s story:

“Due to life circumstances I was unable to join the superannuation 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!”

Non-communication is a huge part of the problem.

“I have worked for the NHS from 1986 and paid my national insurance since I was sixteen. 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”—

diligently—

“for 40 years.”

Another lady told me:

“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 and I feel this is a total injustice that I have to wait not 18 months, but an extra 6 years to get my state pension.”

Other women sent in emails and letters, and I spoke to some women. I will dip into their stories—I will not be so diligent about telling their whole stories.

Women are being forced to take jobs that are inappropriate to their state of health, to qualify for limited jobseekers allowance, and they are then enduring humiliating tests—if they do not take them, they face sanctions. Some are forced to take jobs that place them in a worse financial situation, particularly jobs that have zero-hours contracts.

The next point, which a lady sent to me, is very important:

“Single, divorced or widowed women often have no other sources of income”.

That is completely ignored by the Westminster Government and the Department for Work and Pensions with regard to the pensions issue.

Another issue, which I am sure that lots of us know about, is that some women are unable to work because they care for elderly or ill parents or are, in fact, in ill health themselves. All those women are affected.

Some women who have planned and saved for their retirement are living on dwindling limited savings until they reach their new state pension age, when the only income that they will have left will be their state pension.

We, the Scottish National Party, commissioned the Landman Economics report into the impact of the changes to pension arrangements. The report identifies an affordable solution that would slow down the increase in order to give adequate time for women affected by the acceleration to make alternative arrangements. The United Kingdom Government has rejected both the report and its recommendations, despite the fact that the measures would alleviate very difficult financial situations for women across the country. The proposed solution is a more rational approach to the equalisation of state pension age, in stark contrast to the United Kingdom Government’s bulldozing action, which illustrates the Government’s disregard for the women who are affected by the changes.

My colleagues in Westminster will continue to push the Tory Government on the matter, and I will do everything that I can do—as I hope and am sure that other members here will—to fight for the rights of those women. More important, the WASPI women will continue to fight the injustice. They will have all our support as they do so.

The Conservatives have ducked their responsibility to the WASPI women for too long. It is time to face up to reality. We must remember that pensions are not a privilege; they are a contract, and the UK Government has broken that contract. The WASPI women entered into a contract when they were working and paying in, and the contract has been broken.

The Landman Economics report proves that the Tories’ figures are wrong and that the UK Government can afford to right the wrong that it has done to the WASPI women. The UK Government rejected the report and its recommendations, despite the fact that the proposed measures would go some way towards alleviating a very difficult financial situation for women across the country.

We know that the national insurance fund surplus is projected to be more than £30 billion at the end of 2017-18. Instead of sitting on that hefty pot, the UK Government must consider releasing £8 billion—£8 billion from a £30 billion pot—to alleviate the plight of the women of the 1950s. That progressive approach will cost the UK Government significantly less. More important, it will reduce relative and absolute pensioner poverty. [Applause.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I ask our visitors in the gallery to refrain from clapping, please. I will happily give you the opportunity to applaud at the end of the debate. Thank you.

17:12  

Annie Wells (Glasgow) (Con)

I thank Sandra White for bringing this issue to the Parliament today.

My mother, at the age of 72, has just gone from working 24 hours a week to working a still-impressive 17 hours a week at a local supermarket, so I understand at first hand some of the financial pressures that women of retirement age face.

This is a difficult situation. I strongly believe that people who have worked hard all their lives deserve security in their retirement.

In 1995, legislation was passed to equalise the age at which men and women would be eligible to draw their state pensions. That meant raising the pension age for women from 60 to 65. The process was intended to take place gradually between 2010 and 2020.

It is unfortunate that, because life expectancy projections rose sharply beyond initial projections, the Pensions Act 2011 provided for the acceleration of equalisation so that the process would be complete by November 2018 rather than April 2020, as was originally intended.

In 2011, after listening to concerns, the UK Government capped the maximum increase in state pension age at 18 months relative to the 1995 timetable. That was a £1.1 billion concession. It is important to highlight that concession, but I still understand the concerns of the women who have been affected, having met WASPI members from Glasgow over the past few months.

Although many people were sympathetic to the idea that the state pension age should be equalised, the speed of change and the perceived lack of communication over timetable changes concerned people most.

The Work and Pensions Select Committee commented on the latter point last year. As members know, the issue has been debated in the UK Parliament on a number of occasions, and an all-party parliamentary group was set up to address the public’s concern.

At this point in what has been an on-going issue for many years, my course of action will be to write to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, to echo the concerns that are expressed in the chamber today. A key point will be the concern about how changes were communicated.

Clare Haughey (Rutherglen) (SNP)

It is laudable that Annie Wells says that she will write to the Westminster Government expressing her concerns, but what other actions are she and her party going to take so that there is some justice for the women who are sitting in the public gallery today?

Annie Wells

As I said, because it is a reserved matter, I can write about what has happened in the chamber tonight, and I intend to do so. I will put down the concerns about how the changes have been communicated despite the UK Government having insisted that women be given between five and a half and six and a half years’ notice. I know, from meeting WASPI members that that has not been the case, and that is part of what I will put in my letter. I am also going to highlight, from information that I have received from WASPI women in Glasgow, the unique position in which Glasgow sees itself because life expectancy rates there are lower than in the rest of the UK. I will put forward whatever comes out in this debate, and I hope to communicate more with the WASPI women on that.

I know that it will come as little reassurance to those who are affected, but I reiterate that some positive changes have taken place with regard to the state pension. It does not help someone who has not got their state pension—I know people who have not received their state pension—but the state pension triple lock, which was introduced in 2010, means that pension holders are now in receipt of over £1,000 a year more. The new state pension has been introduced at a single flat rate of £155.65 a week, which equates to an average £8 a week more in the first 10 years for thousands of Scottish women.

Beyond the positive steps that we have seen regarding the state pension, I understand the concerns of the women who are affected by changes to the state pension age. I assure the members of WASPI who are sitting in the public gallery and elsewhere that I will make their concerns known.

17:17  

Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

I feel very privileged to be able to take part in the debate, and I thank Sandra White for bringing this very important topic to the chamber. I welcome our WASPI guests to the public gallery.

Of course, we should not have to debate the issue, and I should not be standing here about to recount stories from women I know who feel let down and left behind by the Government at Westminster. It is all very well for a member of the Scottish Conservatives to explain what the current pension is, but that is no good if people are not getting it.

I am 39 years old and I must admit that I did not really think about my pension or give it as much consideration as I probably should have done. I do now. Mhairi Black MP is 22 years old, and I dare say that she has put a lot more thought into pensions in the past two years than she normally would have.

I should perhaps declare an interest, as the change affects my mother, who is a proud WASPI woman. The WASPI campaign has reached all parts of the UK, and I am proud to say that two feisty women from my part of the world, Aileen Shanks and Lorna Simpson, have been instrumental in representing the views of women in the far north. They went to the demonstration in London last June and presented a petition to the House of Commons in October, which had over 2,000 signatures from Caithness alone. They are also urging women who are affected to write formal letters of complaint to the Department for Work and Pensions. It is international women’s day on 8 March, when thousands of people will again descend on Westminster to demonstrate. They are determined.

In such debates it is powerful to provide—as Sandra White has done—real-life examples. One woman told me:

“I was always under the impression that I could retire at 60 so decided to change jobs to a less stressful position with another organisation. (I was working very long hours, had a huge amount of responsibility and knew I had to look for something less stressful for health reasons.) I took a huge drop in salary which I was more than willing to do. Unfortunately I then found out that I wouldn’t be able to retire until 10 days off my 66th birthday! I was informed of the changes to state pension age when I was 58 years old and was absolutely stunned as clearly my expectation would be that I would only have 2 years to go before receiving it. As I was only given 2 years notice of the change, it left little time to plan for my retirement.”

Another woman, who worked as a cook, took early retirement knowing that she would receive a small pension from her employer. She found out that she would not receive her pension until months off her 66th birthday. She is now living on a very small pension and struggles day to day. Her husband is on a low income. She feels that, at her age, she has no chance of finding another job.

Another lady, who works as a cleaner in the public sector, has health problems and is very worried. How is she going to manage working in that field for the next three and a half years? Her job is physical and a real struggle. Added to that is the worry of how she is going to cope—she lives on her own and pays full rent but earns only just over the minimum wage.

When talking about finding the money for pensions, Mhairi Black said:

“When we want to bomb Syria, we can find the money. When we want to refurbish Westminster, we can find the money. But when it comes to giving our pensioners their pensions, we cannot find the money? I just do not accept that.”—[Official Report, House of Commons, 24 February 2016; Vol 606, c 356.]

Presiding Officer, neither do I.

17:20  

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

First of all, I thank Sandra White for her extensive campaigning on behalf of the WASPI campaign group and for securing the debate.

As Sandra White said, the Conservative Westminster Government increased women’s retirement age to 65 in 1995 and to 66 in 2011. The UK Government has shamefully admitted that the first time it wrote to women to inform them of the changes was between April 2009 and March 2011—more than 15 years after the Pensions Act 1995. That disgraceful failure has destroyed the retirement plans of thousands of women who were born in the 1950s, leaving them with little time to amend plans for the future that they had regarded as safe.

With only two years’ notice, many women have lost as much as £36,000 of the pension that they would have had had they been able to retire as planned. That might not matter to the people of inherited wealth who make the decisions or to highly paid civil servants with huge pension funds, but for hundreds of thousands of hard-working women in Scotland and throughout the UK it is devastating. It shows just how out of touch this Westminster Government is. In East Dunbartonshire, where my constituency lies, more than 4,000 women are affected. It is nothing short of daylight robbery by the UK Government. As Sandra White said, pensions are not a privilege.

WASPI agrees with the equalisation of pensions. However, the core of the campaign’s argument is the unfair and unjust way the changes were implemented, as was so articulately highlighted by my Westminster colleague, Mhairi Black, who has waged a valiant fight on behalf of the women affected.

SNP MPs have raised the issue at least 44 times in the House of Commons, and the party commissioned independent research by Landman Economics, which WASPI describes as

“a useful first step in showing the Government that, despite their statements to the contrary, money is available in the National Insurance Fund for 1950s women’s pensions”.

WASPI has raised awareness of the injustice and championed the cause of thousands of women born in the 1950s who are affected by the lack of notification and the change to their pension status. Although the financial implications can be measured, the emotional implications of the stress of how to make ends meet are immeasurable. Much needs to be done to slow down the increase, allowing women to access their pension and giving them more time to change their retirement plans, and to alleviate pension poverty.

There are 140 WASPI local groups, more than 30 local and county councils have passed resolutions supporting the campaign and Unison pledges its support for WASPI at a national level. The UK Government needs to move away from its increasingly isolated stance on the issue and recognise the calls from across parties, local authorities and organisations for it to rectify the injustice.

Hard-working women deserve respect and access to their own money, on which they had planned their future.

17:24  

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

I congratulate Sandra White on securing the debate and, indeed, on the content of her speech. I offer an apology to the chamber from Kezia Dugdale, leader of the Scottish Labour Party. She had intended to speak in the debate; unfortunately, she had a funeral to attend.

I know how important this issue is to the women who are affected, because I have heard many similar stories from women in my constituency. However, it is important for us all because, fundamentally, it is a matter of fairness and justice. It is good to see so many women from the WASPI movement in the public gallery this evening.

The equalisation of the state pension age has had a devastating impact on many women who were born in the 1950s, some of whom are now facing real hardship as a result. Some 2.6 million women across the UK and 252,000 women in Scotland are affected, so the scale of the problem is enormous. They have not been able to plan for their retirement. They were given no notice that such sweeping changes were to be made and, frankly, they should not have to bear the brunt of Tory mismanagement.

It is genuinely interesting that Governments will talk about things such as transitional relief when they are discussing business rates. If we can have transitional relief when it comes to the rateable value of buildings, surely we can have relief for the women whom we are discussing, many of whom have worked all their lives and made immense contributions to their community in all sorts of different ways. Instead of robbing them of security in their retirement, the UK Government would do well to thank them for everything that they have done.

In 2011, lain Duncan Smith—remember him?—made a commitment to look at transitional reliefs to help the women who would be hardest hit by the changes. He did not make good on his promises, nor did any of his successors. It is no wonder that politicians—particularly Tory politicians—get such a bad name.

We in the Labour Party have repeatedly argued for transitional arrangements. Labour suggested an initial proposal that was allied to pension credit, which it expanded to include a cohort of women who were born between April 1951 and 1953. However, we recognised that we needed to deal with all the WASPI women, and it is right that the fight continues. Our colleagues in Labour and the SNP at Westminster have worked together on the issue, and I look forward to that continuing.

The reality is that many women have been forced to accept low-paid jobs on temporary or zero-hours contracts. Others who had retirement plans to look after grandchildren or elderly parents have had those plans shattered. It is simply not fair, so Scottish Labour pledges—as others have done—to stand four-square in support of their cause.

I turn briefly to the powers that we have in Scotland. The Parliament now has the power to top up benefits or to create new benefits in devolved areas, and although I am absolutely not in favour of letting the Tory Government off the hook, I am concerned that we do not miss the practical opportunity to help the women affected here in Scotland. Therefore, I hope that if the time comes that we do not win that argument with an uncaring Tory Government, the Scottish Government will consider using its new powers to ensure that women do not have to suffer.

Just when we thought that things could not get any worse, along comes a consultation on the concessionary bus pass. I have been contacted by a number of women in my constituency who are genuinely concerned, and they have asked me to raise the issue this evening. I say this as gently as I can to ministers: let us not penalise women any more by changing the qualifying age for concessionary travel. I hope that that does not happen, but if it does, collectively, we will be no better than the Tory Government in making it even harder for the same cohort of women.

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

Will the member take an intervention?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The member is just closing.

Jackie Baillie

Let us all send a strong signal that women and men across the chamber—regardless of the party to which they belong—would regard it as unacceptable if the qualifying age for concessionary travel were to be changed.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Please close, Ms Baillie.

Jackie Baillie

I again thank Sandra White for a very thoughtful and powerful speech.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I am aware that quite a lot of members still want to take part in the debate, so I would be content to accept a motion without notice under rule 8.14.3 to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[Sandra White.]

Motion agreed to.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I am pleased that members agreed to that, because there are quite a lot of people in the gallery who would not have been pleased if they had not done so. The debate will be extended.

17:29  

Angus MacDonald (Falkirk East) (SNP)

Being fully aware of the importance of this issue to so many of our constituents, I thank my colleague Sandra White for bringing it to the chamber for debate. I have been contacted by many Falkirk East constituents on the issue of state pension equalisation, and I know the feeling of utter disbelief and, at times, devastation that is conveyed in the personal stories of women born in the 1950s being unfairly and unjustly treated by the UK Government.

In recent years, this issue has been met with the stone faces of a Tory Government in Westminster that seems oblivious of the impact of these changes on thousands of women up and down the country who were completely unaware that they were to be made. As has been acknowledged, state pension equalisation has been widely accepted—that is not in question—but the fact is that these changes are being imposed unfairly.

What it boils down to is that the changes were not effectively communicated—in the majority of cases, they were not communicated at all—to the women who will be severely impacted if something is not done to mitigate the pace of change. The Landman Economics report, which has been referred to and which was commissioned by our colleagues in the SNP Westminster group, not only strikes a compromise with regard to the pace of implementation of the reforms but takes the commonsense approach of ensuring that women who have paid into the system for over 30 years—some of them for over 40 years—are not disproportionately disadvantaged and left with a financial void that they did not expect when planning for their retirement.

The single-tier pension is not the focus of this debate, but the fact remains that there are more women than men over the age of 65, yet only 22 per cent of women who reached state pension age in 2016 will qualify for the full £155.65 rate. That cannot be acceptable. Even by 2054, women will be one and a half times more likely than men to receive less than the full amount of the single-tier pension due to a lack of sufficient qualifying years. Removing those pension entitlements with little notice or time to plan for the rule change will disadvantage many women, who will not have had the time to achieve the financial stability required to ensure that they are not put into a dire position through no fault of their own. Many women have made decisions based on the understanding that their state pension would be payable and due at 60, but that will not now be the case.

WASPI has been instrumental in alerting everyone to this issue, and I pay tribute to its work to highlight the issue. However, the anxieties that are being expressed by thousands of women affect not just that age group but younger people in their 40s, who are extremely concerned that their pension age, which is nearly 70 at the moment, could be extended once again.

It has been proven time and time again that the UK Government is unwilling to consider any suggestion or compromise, reasoned or otherwise, on several issues, but that is particularly the case on this issue, even though the Landman Economics report offers five separate options as solutions. It beggars belief that, each time this issue has been debated in the Houses of Parliament at Westminster, we have heard the same old tune from the Tory Government that this is about equalisation, that it will not repeal the Pensions Act 1995—which no one has asked it to do—and that it will not be held accountable, as this issue has had its moment in the spotlight. However, it is for those precise reasons that the WASPI campaigners have kept this issue on the radar, and we as their representatives should continue to press for the necessary changes.

The minister will be aware that my local authority in Falkirk recently debated the issue at length at a full council meeting, with the ruling Labour-Tory administration calling for the Scottish Government to compensate those women affected by the changes to their state pension age. Members of the administration in Falkirk should have known, as should Jackie Baillie, that the Scottish Government does not have the power to pay a pension to women who have not reached the UK pension age. However, had the UK Government seen fit to transfer the necessary powers over pensions to the Scottish Parliament under the Scotland Act 2016, the Scottish Government might have been able to take a different approach and, I am sure, would have ensured that these women were given the fair treatment that they so rightly deserve.

Once again, the best chance that we have is to ensure that the voices of those affected continue to be heard and that this issue continues to be a thorn in the side of an increasingly arrogant and out-of-touch UK Tory Government.

17:34  

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

I, too, thank Sandra White for securing a debate on this really important issue, and I also thank her and my colleagues for their contributions this evening.

I was proud to speak at the WASPI rally that was held outside Parliament last September. Indeed, I find it remarkable that a campaign that began with five women getting together in 2015 has gathered such strength. The petitions have been well supported and the debates well attended; the website attracts great interest; and there are more than 140 local groups. It all shows that people care passionately about this issue.

The pension changes are unjust and simply indefensible. Before that rally, many constituents got in touch with me to explain how the changes will affect them, and many have done so since—Sandra White touched on some of those ways. This week, a constituent told me that her pension age went from 60 to 64 and a half and then to 66 basically without notice. It is entirely unacceptable to introduce such devastating change without giving people an opportunity to plan. The decent thing would have been to delay. Women are quite accepting of equalisation, but it has to be done in a fair and balanced manner.

Many of the women affected chose to raise children. As a result, they made financial sacrifices in their time spent out of employment. Their financial needs are now being sacrificed again.

The changes are being made against a backdrop of severe inequality. We know that pensioner poverty continues to affect women disproportionately due to maternity leave, parental responsibilities, the pay gap and other aspects of workplace inequality. Let us not forget that many women were not even allowed to join company pension schemes until the 1990s.

Although the issue affects women who were born in the 1950s in particular, it has an incredibly serious impact on us all. It erodes public trust in pensions and damages public confidence in our social security system. As others have said, how can young people today be expected to feel secure about their financial future when such erratic changes can be just swept through without any warning or consultation?

Pensions are reserved to Westminster, but it is crucial that we debate the changes here. I am one of those who would like pensions to be devolved to Scotland. We know that Scotland has specific demographic challenges and that life expectancy is lower in Scotland compared with the rest of the UK. We have to challenge that, too, but the UK Government has attempted to justify raising the pension age by saying that we are all living longer. We are not all living longer. In many parts of this country, people are not living long enough. In the most deprived areas, people begin to suffer multiple chronic diseases at shockingly young ages. On average, women in Scotland are expected to enjoy good health only until the age of 62.

On the wider social impact that the changes will have, most carers in Scotland are women, and most carers are aged between 55 and 64. A significant number of carers will be affected by the changes. If women over 60 are forced to work for longer, who will take on those additional caring responsibilities? Many other women who counted on leaving work at 60 planned to help their families with childcare needs. These unfair changes will leave other working parents—they will most likely be women—without vital family support. Therefore, gender inequality will continue to cascade down the generations.

It is fair to say that austerity is gendered. Of the £26 billion of cuts from Westminster since 2010, a staggering £22 billion of them have been felt by women. Almost every Westminster Government action that we examine has had a strongly negative impact on women or a relatively beneficial impact on men. Members should not take my word for that: the highly respected women’s budget group has highlighted that fact.

I am delighted that Westminster is taking an interest in the matter. The new cross-party group that was set up to look at it attracted 120 MPs at its first meeting. Our sister party in Westminster is represented on the group by Caroline Lucas, who is a co-chair.

The issue will not go away. We will not simply sit back and be quietly reasonable. We will continue to contest this until we have fair pension rights for women.

17:38  

Clare Haughey (Rutherglen) (SNP)

I, too, thank Sandra White for bringing the debate to Parliament, and I welcome the WASPI women who are in the gallery, including those from my Rutherglen constituency.

Unfortunately, I have not heard about any positive steps from the Tories—Annie Wells spoke of those in her speech. However, I will read what was said to see whether I missed something.

It has been estimated that 243,000 women in Scotland have been and will be affected by the change in respect of women’s pensions. As many members have already said, we do not object to the equalising of the pension ages of men and women, and neither does the WASPI campaign. What we oppose is the ill-thought-out decision that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of women enduring significant changes that have been imposed on them with no appropriate notification.

Anne Potter, the WASPI co-ordinator for Glasgow and Lanarkshire, has argued:

“Those born in the 1950s are angry. They feel persecuted and singled out as soft targets for the government to save money.”

That reflects the opinions of many women who have had their retirement plans obliterated, with overwhelming consequences.

New analysis suggests that individuals in the poorest households lose most from tax and benefit changes; it also suggests that single mothers are hardest hit by cuts to services and by tax and benefits changes. Simply put, women’s lives do not mirror those of men; differing working patterns, priorities and attitudes to saving have important roles to play in the discrepancy between male and female retirement planning. For a woman who was expecting to retire at 60 to be told, with little notice, that she must work for an extra six years, is crushing—especially if she has contributed for more than 40 years.

It is even more calamitous if the woman has poor health and is now expected to struggle on regardless. One of my constituents—Susan—is in exactly that situation. Having started work at 15 in a local factory, she eventually became a nurse, got married, raised a family, studied for and earned a master’s degree and changed career. In a demanding job, she suffered during her 50s from ill health, with a debilitating condition that can result in seizures. The condition is managed with medication, but a regular side-effect is chronic fatigue. In effect, she has to take prescription drugs to enable her to continue working. Susan had been looking forward to retirement last year at 60, but she must now work until she is 66. She is fearful that her health might not hold up, but with no pension at 60, she must continue to work for an income. A fair transitional arrangement could have offered her the prospect of perhaps an additional two or three years of working instead of six. That would not exactly have been the best of circumstances, but it would at least have offered some improvement on the current arrangements.

It cannot be right or fair that, after 45 years of paying into the system, Susan and many other women are now expected to work and contribute for up to 51 years, and might lose up to £40,000 in pension income in the process. It is also important to note that the increase in the state pension age also has multigenerational effects because, while older women continue to work, fewer jobs will be made available to younger generations. In addition, as we have heard, there will be an impact on caring arrangements, too.

As Sandra White mentioned in her opening speech, an independent report that was commissioned by the SNP found that it would cost £8 billion to return to the original timetable that is set out in the Pensions Act 1995. Rather than spending £7 billion on upgrading the Palace of Westminster, or £8.4 billion on the Iraq war, or £167 billion on the renewal of Trident, surely Westminster could easily have found £8 billion to prioritise women’s pensions and economic advancement. At the very least, consideration could be given to equalizing the pension age at some later point in the 2020s.

The SNP has raised the issue of women’s pension age 44 times in the House of Commons, has brought forth three debates on it at Westminster, and has even commissioned its own research, as I mentioned. However, as a result of inaction and indifference, the issue persists. That inaction indicates that women’s lives and their economic security are viewed as disposable or non-essential. That cannot continue. To ensure women’s economic safety, the Government must develop fair transitional arrangements for all women born on or after 6 April 1951 who have had to bear the undue burden of the state pension age increase.

17:43  

Alison Harris (Central Scotland) (Con)

I am pleased to speak in the debate. I believe that all people who have worked hard throughout their lives should be able to look forward to a financially secure retirement. Many people assist themselves in achieving that goal by having private pension plans, which are often taken out as early as when they are in their 20s. However, others quite rightly look forward to state pensions after working lives in which they have paid taxes. I say straight away that that means that I acknowledge and appreciate the anger that many women feel at the way in which the pension changes came in.

Our starting point is understanding the situation that the women who are affected find themselves in. From that starting point, there are a number of important contexts to the change that everyone in the chamber should acknowledge. The first is that the overall policy ambition for a secure retirement surely cannot be questioned. The UK Government has applied a triple lock to the basic pension, which has led to increases in the amount payable, and to the introduction of a flat-rate pension for all those who reach retirement age after April 2016.

Clare Haughey

Will the member take an intervention?

Alison Harris

No. I would like to continue with these points, please.

All women who are affected by the 2011 pension age changes will draw their state pensions under that new system. That means that tens of thousands of Scottish women will receive an average of £8 per week more in the first 10 years.

The second context is how the changes came in, which is an issue that stretches back many years. The Pensions Act 1995 legislated for equality in the state pension age to be introduced gradually after 2010. Following the sharp increase in life expectancy projections, the process had to be accelerated by the Pensions Act 2011 to secure the sustainability of the system.

Sandra White

Will the member take an intervention?

The Minister for Social Security (Jeane Freeman)

Will the member take an intervention?

Alison Harris

No. I am sorry, but I want to continue. I have only four minutes.

At that time, the UK Government responded to concerns and, as a result, put in another £1.1 billion to assist those who would be affected by the transition to the higher state pension age.

Sandra White

Will the member take an intervention on that point?

Alison Harris

No. I would like to continue, please. I have only four minutes.

We have to acknowledge that the arbitrary change caused anger, but we also have to acknowledge that some transitional relief has already been introduced and that the maximum increase was capped at 18 months, relative to the 1995 timeline.

The final context is the manner of communication with those who are affected. The notice that was given about the changes that arose from the 1995 and 2011 acts has been a source of much discussion. The Department for Work and Pensions is clear that all those who would be affected were written to well in advance of the acts’ coming into effect. However, I know that concerns about the changes will come with anything that requires people to work for longer. People felt that they did not see it coming. People felt shocked and surprised, and I have heard what has been said in the chamber tonight.

In turn, I believe that all politicians have a duty to be open with the public. Last week, we saw that a number of MPs who support the WASPI groups and said that they would move amendments in the House of Commons failed to do so, citing procedural issues.

We also have to see that, with rapid demographic change and an ageing society, further support would come at significant cost, which would inevitably mean reductions in spending elsewhere.

Clare Haughey

Will the member take an intervention?

Alison Harris

No. I am in my final minute.

To reverse the changes of the 2011 act would cost more than Scotland’s entire annual budget. The issues that underpin the pension changes are deep and complex questions for our society, and no one wins if we seek to duck those challenges.

I will always support people’s right to express their disagreement with policies of either of Scotland’s two Governments. In line with my colleague Annie Wells, I will also write to the DWP ministers to communicate the strength of feeling that is clear in this chamber and beyond.

I thank Sandra White for bringing forward the debate.

17:47  

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

I thank my colleague Sandra White for securing this debate on an important issue for thousands of my constituents and their families.

A basic point that identifies the most obvious and fundamental flaw with UK Tory Government policy on WASPI women is that the state pension is not a benefit as such, but a contract between those who are contributing towards their retirement and a Government obligation to make payments from state funds at the end of an individual’s working life.

We accept that the male and female retirement ages should be equalised, but to move the goalposts for women who were born in the 1950s and were already contracted with the state on set terms for their pension provision is a clear breach of that contract. Indeed, it is a betrayal of responsibility by the UK Government towards those women, many of whom now find themselves completely unsupported financially.

The UK Government’s Pensions Act 1995 outlined plans to equalise the state pension age at 65. When the legislation was passed, the Turner commission recommended that women be given 15 years’ notice to help them to prepare for the changes. However, the first letters from the UK Government to alert affected women who were born between April 1951 and April 1953 were not posted until 14 years later. Some women received as little as a year’s notice, while thousands received no warning at all and were completely unaware that their retirement age was to be changed.

The Pensions Act 2011 accelerated the timetable, with women now seeing a rise in the pensionable age from 63 to 65 between April 2016 and November 2018, and from 65 to 66 by October 2020. For many of the women who are affected, there is no alternative means of income. Some women who are suffering from ill-health and are unfit to work are being told that they need to continue in employment or retrain.

Of the women affected, 3,800 reside in my constituency, Cunninghame North. Of those who have raised their voices in opposition to the Tories’ ill-thought-out plans, none have been more vocal than the women against state pension inequality.

I was proud to stand alongside WASPI women at their rally outside the Parliament last September, and I pay tribute to their collective efforts to keep the issue at the top of the political agenda. Local groups such as that in Ayrshire have engaged with politicians on many fronts. At least one Ayrshire WASPI member, Margaret Johnson, is in the public gallery today.

I am delighted that, last October, North Ayrshire and Arran MP Patricia Gibson was able, on the group’s behalf, to present to Westminster a petition opposing the changes. It gathered 2,534 signatures from the North Ayrshire and Arran constituency. That was the second highest number from any UK constituency and the signatures were collected in only eight days, which indicates the strength of feeling.

WASPI campaigners now intend to take the DWP to court, to challenge the legality of the proposed changes through a judicial review and to make maladministration complaints. I wish them well.

Of course, there should be no need for such a campaign. A report by Landman Economics, commissioned by the SNP, modelled five different reform options for compensating women who will lose out from the planned changes. One option is a return to the original timetable as set out in the Pensions Act 1995, whereby the state pension age for women rises from 63 in March 2016 to 65 by April 2020, with no further increase to 66 until the mid-2020s. The cost of that would be £8 billion, not the erroneous £30 billion that is often claimed by the Tories when they are trying to avoid their responsibilities.

Talking about responsibilities, of the 37 MSPs who signed the motion to allow the debate to take place, not one was a Tory. If it was up to them, we wouldnae even be debating the subject.

The national insurance fund is projected to have a surplus of £30.7 billion this year. It can be used only to make contribution-based payments, such as the state pension. It is shocking that Jackie Baillie has cynically tried to imply that the SNP Government is somehow complicit, although we all know that the Scotland Act 2016 would prevent the Scottish Government from acting, even if resources were available. Of course, the source of such resources was body-swerved by Jackie Baillie, who was desperate to let the Tories off the hook. No wonder her party is in terminal decline.

The Tories’ refusal to give way on the issue is based on ideology, not affordability. In the interests of social justice, they must compensate those women whose own money is in effect being stolen from them.

17:52  

The Minister for Social Security (Jeane Freeman)

I, too, thank Sandra White for bringing this important motion to the Parliament for debate. I extend my best wishes to the WASPI women who have joined us in the public gallery and particularly—I have to say this—those from Ayrshire.

I thank all the members who took part in the debate for their thoughtful contributions, although I am saddened that our colleagues on the Conservative benches that are—at least geographically—to my left continue to feel obliged to be apologists for their Tory Government. When someone talks about the importance of honesty in politics, it really is time for that honesty to be reflected in an understanding and an accurate description of what has happened to the women and what the Tory Government has done.

I have no hesitation in supporting the motion. The women who are caught up in this mess grew up, as I did, believing that they had a two-way deal with the UK Government. Sandra White brought to life many of the circumstances that the women face, as did other colleagues, who told some of the real stories that were brought to them as members of the Parliament.

The women involved have raised families, cared for those who needed care, worked and paid taxes and national insurance. They rightly expected to have returned to them a state pension of a modest, but liveable, amount.

To be clear, in principle, the Scottish Government supports equalisation of the pension age for men and women. In doing that, however, the UK Government has managed to penalise hundreds of thousands of women who were born in the 1950s.

To recap, the Pensions Act 1995 aimed to make the pension age 65 for men and women by—this is the important point—2020. The 2011 act changed the age to 66 and sped up the process, despite there being little evidence that we had all suddenly started to live longer in those 16 years, and despite the promise from both Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers in 2010 that changes would not take place before the 2020 date. Not content with that, that Government ensured that women now face the imposition of apparently random differences in how much later the pension that they have contributed to will arrive.

A woman who was born in January 1953 will have got her state pension when she was 62, but a woman who was born after 6 December of that year will have to wait until she is 65. Only in the parallel universe of a Westminster Tory Government could being a few months younger mean waiting three more years.

Why is that happening? It is not about equalisation or fairness; it is entirely about reducing public expenditure because of a Tory Government’s thirldom to austerity economics that makes those who are least responsible pay for the proliferation of riches for the few and the mad casino gambling of minimally regulated banks that successive Tory and Labour Governments foisted on us.

All this means major changes to the life plans and life chances of those women, which the Westminster Government did very little to tell them about. A series of broken promises was kept under wraps for as long as possible. There was no warning of impact, no exhortation to review retirement plans—nothing. Last year, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee produced a report that was full of statements of the blindingly obvious, such as “communication was poor” and “lessons must be learned”, but there was no action and no redress—nothing.

We are talking about women who grew up at a time when working full time and raising a family was even harder than it is now. Childcare was scarce. Most women worked part time and still do. Whether women are in full-time or part-time work, the majority work for low pay and, in far too many cases, for lower pay than their male colleagues. These women, whose retirement plans are shattered, have to try to continue to work and cope with the loss of years of pension that they were entitled to and right to expect.

More than the financial anxieties is the loss of valuable years that the women planned to spend with their family and friends, and all the while, they have a burning and justifiable sense of injustice. But here is the thing—the women are not powerless. They have found their voice and, like women everywhere, they are organised and organising. For that, the WASPI movement is to be congratulated and commended.

In Westminster, our SNP MPs commissioned the Landman Economics report, which considered and costed five options for the UK Government to consider so that it could deliver fairness and dignity, if it had the political will to do so. How the £8 billion could and should be spent is a political choice. As has been pointed out, not only is the money in alternative spending plans, although it would be better used in the proposed direction, but it is in the surplus in the national insurance fund, which is expected to be £30.7 billion by 2018, as my colleague Sandra White said.

Last summer, Angela Constance, our cabinet secretary, wrote to Stephen Crabb, the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, to urge him to reconsider his Government’s assertion that nothing could be done. His response was that the UK Government has no plans to revisit the changes. To Annie Wells, I therefore say, “Good luck with your letter. I hope you get a better response than we did, but I wouldnae hold my breath.”

The women—there are about 250,000 of them—were trying to plan for their retirement and to put something away for a rainy day when the goalposts were shifted and the ground was snatched from under their feet. It is not too late for the UK Government to right this wrong. It should take responsibility for the heartbreak and misery that it is causing and find ways and means to provide transitional protection.

To Jackie Baillie, I say that I am not prepared to let the Tory Government off the hook but, even if I was, section 28 of the Scotland Act 2016, on exceptions to reserved areas, says that top-up does not include pensions assistance or assistance

“by reason of old age.”

Jackie Baillie

Will the minister take an intervention?

Jeane Freeman

No—I will not.

The WASPI campaign will continue the fight for fair transitional arrangements and it should have our support today and every day, in every way that it needs that support, including on 8 March, when the campaign will organise its international women’s day demonstration outside Westminster.

It should never be too much when all that we ask for is honesty, decency, fairness and integrity. I urge all members to support Sandra White’s motion and the WASPI campaign and to pledge to continue our hard work to see the decision reversed.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I close the meeting. Those in the public gallery may show their appreciation now if they wish. [Applause.]

Meeting closed at 17:59.