‘The Tories stole my state pension when I was 60, now I want it back’
Ten years ago Catherine Williams made a big decision: in order to spend more time with her family, she would reduce her hours as a nurse and take a pay cut at the age of 55. The move was based on the assumption that she would be entitled to her state pension at 60. “I did fewer hours and voluntarily went down to a staff nurse level,” said Williams, from Barrow-in-Furness. “Unfortunately, I shouldn’t have really done that. At 62, I just couldn’t do it any longer. I was expected to do 13-hour shifts, work nights. So I left work without my state pension.”
Williams, 65, who worked as a nurse from the age of 16 and had paid national insurance contributions for more than 40 years, is among the worst affected of the women born in the 1950s who have seen their retirement age rise by up to six years. She calculates she is more than £40,000 out of pocket, not including the perks that come with retirement, such as free bus passes.
The issue dates back to a decision by the coalition government formed by David Cameron to accelerate a planned increase in the women’s state pension age. Many women have complained that they were not properly informed about the changes.
Ruth Wright, 63, a part-time gardener who lives in the Cotswolds, wanted to be spending more of her time doing voluntary work. She feels aggrieved by the plight of others. “Someone I work with spent all the inheritance from her parents keeping herself going from the age of 60 until quite recently and is now on income support. I just find that absolutely appalling. Somebody who’s done all the right things all her life. It’s a matter of principle for me.”
The sense of injustice has led many women to form local groups and campaign about the issue across the country. “I’ve never claimed benefits,” says Williams. “It’s just so unfair. I’ve paid all this money in. I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ve never even had a parking ticket. I’ve always obeyed the law and done what’s right. What thanks am I getting for that? None at all. I could cry.”
Ministers have rejected demands for compensation and a group of activists recently lost a court case in which they argued the government had unlawfully discriminated against them. So Labour’s decision to treat the issue as an “historic injustice”, setting up a scheme compensating the women to the tune of a basic £100 for every month of pension missed, is a big moment.
With so many women involved from rich to poor, it’s also not hard to see why the party would see the move as a vote winner.
Almost four million women are affected by the changes. As a result, it is perhaps unsurprising that Labour’s proposed scheme to compensate them could cost £58bn over five years, though some of that money will be recouped by the tax applied to the payouts. Labour will be braced for accusations that the scheme is essentially an uncosted pledge. It argues that should the government lose in court over the issue, it would have to pay the money anyway – meaning it is treating the colossal sum as a “contingency” cost.
John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor who has been looking at the issue for some 18 months, said that in the end, compensating the women was just the right thing to do. “We’ll raise the money in the appropriate way,” he said. “It has got to be done. I think any government would have to do it at some stage. You can’t treat people like this.”