The election sting in the tail of Waspi women – Lesley Riddoch

It seems hell hath no fury like Waspi women scorned.

The first questioner on BBC’s Question Time debate asked if Boris Johnson would tackle pension inequality, “with fresh vigour and new eyes,” as he promised during the Tory leadership election. Johnson replied that whilst he “hugely sympathised” with women who’ve each lost around £45k of pension income, he couldn’t “magic up the money”.

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Labour pledges £58bn to compensate women born in 1950s for delayed pensions
Glasgow WASPI group mark International Women's Day in 2018. Picture: John Devlin

‘Magic money tree’

Now the 3.8 million Waspi women - caught out by a five-year retirement age hike in 2010 - didn’t have high hopes of help, hence their parallel legal action which ended unsuccessfully at the High Court in October.

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But no-one expected the Tory leader to invoke Theresa May’s contemptuous use of the “Magic Money Tree” - used to attack Labour spending plans in 2017. So after the debate, this tweet went viral;

“£100m on Brexit ads, £11m on scrapped Brexit 50p’s, £8bn on No Deal preparations, £2.2bn on Chris Grayling’s cock-ups, £70bn lost due to Brexit already. But money can’t be magicked up for Waspi women.”

Despite this anger, the storm seemed to be abating over the weekend, when Labour’s John McDonnell surprised everyone by announcing a £58bn scheme to end “historic injustice” with an average £15,380 per woman in compensation.

Suddenly, other party leaders were left playing catch up.

On the BBC’s Marr programme yesterday, Jo Swinson said compensating Waspi women was too expensive and Michael Gove muttered platitudes about being “naturally sympathetic” whilst insisting that Labour’s new spending commitment had “driven a coach and horses” through its fully costed programme for government.

So, who’s right? Is the pension pledge an election winner for Labour, or a millstone around its collective neck?

The Waspi vote

The largest campaign group, Women Against State Pension Injustice (Waspi) says John McDonnell’s offer is welcome as the culmination of 18 months’ joint work, even though the offer is compensation, not complete restitution of the money lost, but a spokesperson stopped short of urging supporters to vote Labour, explaining that a vote for Labour in some constituencies will only help Tories win, and that the SNP and Plaid Cymru have been the most sympathetic parties to date.

Waspi groups will therefore decide how to organise most effectively in each local area against parties that don’t match or better Labour’s proposals. With 77 active branches - including 17 in Scotland and 11 in Wales - that could mean a lot of pressure in 182 marginal constituencies where the number of 50s-born women is greater than the majority defended by sitting MPs. That total includes 13 Scottish seats last won by the Conservatives and Lib Dems.

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But Labour’s Waspi deal could alienate other voters, especially those worried by its current plans for the biggest spending and investment programme in peacetime history.

Even if the pension compensation is spread over ten years, it’s still a hefty-sounding sum - more than the annual £5.5 billion extra pledged for the NHS and double Labour’s projected spend on pensions and welfare.

But the Conservatives have already spent, lost and wasted crazy sums of money on Brexit planning. Perhaps that may limit the fear Boris Johnson can whip up about Labour’s spending commitments, and his decision to join the election spending game, may validate Labour’s plans. Even if McDonnell’s Waspi pledge looks like a bridge too far, is Boris Johnson’s outright rejection really more popular?

Much depends on the level of public sympathy.

The Waspi plight

Boris Johnson says the plight of the Waspi women is complicated.

It isn’t. Put simply, his party stole money from women who never complain.

Their problems began in 1995 with the first Pension Reform Act raising the date women could collect their pension from 60 to 65 - but only for the cohort of 50s-born women due to hit retirement first. These women would have had time to prepare, but most weren’t told about the change or didn’t register being told. In 2007 the pension age was raised again from 65 to 67. And then in 2011, without any warning, all these changes were brought in two years earlier than promised, before the 1995 legislation had even kicked in.

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Despite assurances in the Pensions Act 2007, the UK government insisted the sudden, dramatic and unexpected change was needed to achieve ‘equality for men’.

Aye right.

Former Pensions Minister Steve Webb later said; “Basically we made a bad decision. We realised too late. It had just gone too far by then.”

So were the changes a teensy-weensy mistake or a way to find £30bn savings from a soft target?

Chancellor George Osborne gave the game away in 2013 when he told a global investment conference; “Accelerating the state pension age for women probably saved more money than anything else we did – and it was not controversial.”

Really? Well it’s controversial now, because fifties-born women are set to lose an average £45,000 (six years of pension), compared to £4,000 for men of the same age. Put differently, 50s-born women must contribute £20bn of pension “reform” savings to the Treasury, compared to £10bn from same-aged men, even though these women endured huge, lifelong constraints on their earning and saving power. 85 per cent had children, dropped out of higher education, made do with low paid jobs instead of building up well-paid careers and missed out on state benefits, still aimed at full-time workers, single women and men.

The State Pension triple lock, for example, doesn’t cover the poorest on Pension Credit – mostly women. Auto-enrolment excludes low-paid part-timers -- mostly women. And mothers who didn’t claim Child Benefit actually lose their State Pension entitlement.

This is why women have lower lifetime earnings (£300k less than men according to the Fawcett Society) and therefore lower workplace pensions.

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So, the Tories pension “reforms” have caused a silent epidemic of destitution amongst older women. Scottish Social security statistics record a 400 per cent rise in the number of pension-aged women claiming Employment Support

Allowance between 2013 and 2017, and a shocking 630 per cent increase in deprived areas like Rutherglen. There’s also been a trebling of claims for Universal Credit and Jobseeker’s Allowance - another direct consequence of pension changes.

But no-one in the Conservative Party or Liberal Democrats seems to care.

Will they get their comeuppance on December 12th?

One bold Question Time audience member has suddenly made that much more likely.