Parliamentary debate on transitional arrangements for women affected by the state pension age rise – what happened?

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Today there was a backbench debate about the rises in state pension age and their effects on women born in the 1950s. The MPs who were there voted resoundingly in favour of transitional measures to help women – 158 – 0.

Q. Why was the debate called?

A. The WASPI campaign (Women Against State Pension Inequality) was instrumental in getting this debate, which was led by the SNP MP Mhairi Black.

The debate was scheduled by the backbench Business Committee.

Q. Who attended?

A. Any MP could attend. In the event, 158 were there by the time of the vote. From the beginning there were far more opposition MPs (especially Labour and SNP) than Conservative. At one point there were only a handful of Conservative MPs present. The Pensions Minister, Ros Altmann, and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, were not present. However, the Under Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Shailesh Vara, was at the debate.

Q. What was the debate about?

A. This is what the motion for debate said:

“That this House, while welcoming the equalisation of the state pension age, is concerned that the acceleration of that equalisation directly discriminates against women born on or after 6 April 1951, leaving women with only a few years to make alternative arrangements, adversely affecting their retirement plans and causing undue hardship; regrets that the Government has failed to address a lifetime of low pay and inequality faced by many women; and calls on the Government to immediately introduce transitional arrangements for those women negatively affected by that equalisation.”

Q. What was said?

A. The debate went on for over three hours, but some of the key points made were by Mhairi Black MP, who spoke passionately about the issue (she was also very well informed about the problems that the rises in state pension age had caused for hundreds of thousands of women, unlike some of the MPs). Here are some of the key points to come out of the debate in the order that they were made (with the name of the MP who made the point in brackets):

1. Information about the rise in state pension age to 65.

As late as 2008, fewer than half of women knew that they would be affected. The National Centre for Social Research stated in 2011 that only 43% of women were aware of the planned change. (Mhairi Black SNP).

A response to a Freedom of Information request states that the Department [for Work and Pensions] eventually wrote to individuals affected and that “Mail campaigns took place between 2009 and 2013. That is 14 years after the 1995 Act. Women were not personally notified by anybody official until 14 years after the changes came in. (Mhairi Black, SNP)

2. Transitional measures

Does she [Mhairi Black, SNP] think that it might be sensible to urge the Government to look at the sort of 10 to 15-year transitional arrangements that were made in public sector pensions reform? Would that be a constructive way forward? (Robert Neil, Conservative). (For readers’ background, the public sector pension reforms were introduced in such a way that any pension benefit you’d built up before the changes were introduced were kept under the old system, and any pension built up after the changes came under the new rules).

3. Confusing communication

Many constituents who have written to me said that the information in the letters that they did receive was conflicting. They were getting different information. In one case, a constituent was told that they had enough contributions to receive their full state pension at 60, which was a few months away, only to receive a further letter three weeks later telling her that she will not get her pension until she is nearly 66. (Mhairi Black, SNP)

4. Media coverage of the issue

When giving evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee, financial journalist Paul Lewis told us that after researching this himself he could barely find any reporting of the issue at all in 1995. There were a few small press cuttings from the business pages at the back of some newspapers. (Mhairi Black, SNP)

5. Fairness of the state pension age rise

In civil law, if we enter into a contract, there are terms and conditions stating, “If you want to change this contract or break out of it, there will be a price to pay.” Why are pensions any different? This is a contract people have entered into, but it is now being broken and nothing is being done to allow them to transition. (Mhairi Black, SNP)

We all agree with equalisation of the pension age. Large sums of money are involved and difficult decisions have to be made, but it is important that the rule of fairness is applied as much as possible, and it is clear that a sizeable group of women seem to be bearing the brunt of these changes disproportionately. (Tim Loughton, Conservative)

6. The new state pension

Fewer than one in four women who qualify for the new state pension in 2016-17 will get the full amount. Right up to 2054, fewer women than men will qualify for the full standard pension. Women are significantly more likely than men to work part time, and to do so for longer periods throughout their working lives, largely driven by caring roles, as hon. Members have mentioned. They therefore tend to be under-pensioned. (Tim Loughton, Conservative)

7. The state pension age rise to 66

The former Pensions Minister, Steve Webb, has admitted that the Government made “a bad decision” over these changes [the rise in state pension age to 66]. His excuse was that Ministers had not been properly briefed. It appears that civil servants did do a poor job on this legislation; astonishingly, the impact assessment for the 2011 Act states in its conclusion: “Overall…based on the available evidence, the change to the previous timetable will not have a disproportionate impact on any group compared to another.” (Barbara Keeley, Labour)

8. Do EU rules say state pensions must be paid to men and women at the same age?

A 2007 European Commission report confirmed that different state pension ages are allowed. Equalisation of state pension ages is therefore described as “an objective to be strived for”. The Netherlands, Portugal and France have no current difference in their state pension age, but Austria and Hungary are equalising the state pension age with long transitional arrangements. In other states, a difference in pensionable age is currently maintained, or changes are being made very slowly. (Barbara Keeley, Labour)

9. Transitional arrangements

We know the problem. We cannot sit idly by and allow cack-handed policy implementation from subsequent UK Governments to devastate the lives of so many people who have worked so hard for so long. The Government cannot shirk their obligations. They must accept responsibility, apologise and correct this as a matter of urgency. Ignorance will simply not suffice. (Gavin Newlands, SNP)

10. Affordability and sustainability

For our state pension system to function effectively, it has to be fair, affordable and sustainable. The changes made to the state pension age under the Pensions Act 2011 make an important contribution to achieving those aims. Gender equality is one of the main purposes of the changes to the state pension age. Under the previous system, women reaching state pension age in 2010 would spend on average 41% of their adult lives in receipt of the state pension. For men, the figure was only 31%, owing to the longer life expectancy and earlier state pension age of women. (Shailesh Vara, Conservative Under Secretary of State for Work and Pensions)

The Government listened to the concerns expressed during the passing of the 2011 Act, and shortened the delay that anyone would experience in claiming their state pension, relative to the 1995 timetable, to 18 months. That concession benefited almost a quarter of a million women, who would otherwise have experienced delays of up to two years. A similar number of men also benefited from a reduced increase. The concession was worth £1.1 billion in total, and as a result 81% of women affected will experience a delay of 12 months or less. (Shailesh Vara, Conservative Under Secretary of State for Work and Pensions).

Useful links:

If you want to read a transcript of the state pension debate in full, it’s on the Hansard website.

WASPI petition calling for transitional arrangements for women affected by the rise in state pension age. 

WASPI Facebook page

Related articles:

The Cridland state pension age review – recommendations to government

10 things you need to know about the new state pension from April 2016

The state pension age rise to 66 – when will you get your state pension?

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