Opinion: Why the fight for Waspi pension justice is far from over

The lack of sympathy toward Waspi women is not surprising. Society continues to undervalue the work that women do and takes their contribution for granted

WASPI women at parliament

By UNISON’s senior national equality officer Josie Irwin

A whole generation of women has been badly let down by politicians.

Changes to pension law in 1995 and 2011 delayed the state pension age for 1950s-born women by up to six years. Many received information about the change with just one year’s notice. Some received no notification. An estimated 3.8 million women waited up to six years longer to receive the state pension.

Last Thursday (23 March), the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman reported that the Department of Work and Pensions had failed to communicate the changes adequately and recommended that Parliament should make things right by providing compensation of amounts between £1,000 and £2,900.

Is £3,000 enough? It seems a paltry sum given the dire financial straits that many of these women are in through no fault of their own. They were caught by surprise, their plans for retirement thrown into disarray with no time for them to make alternative arrangements.

Denied their state pension at age 60, some were forced to look for work again to make ends meet, but struggled to get jobs because of their age, physical or mental health issues, or because they had caring commitments. Others had to dig into the savings they had intended to use to ensure their retirement was comfortable.

Women who were in low-paid jobs – cleaners, teaching assistants, school administrators, cooks and catering staff, nurses and receptionists, or took time out to care for children – have been particularly badly affected.

Financial hardship has been made so much worse by the cost of living crisis, compelling some women to choose between buying food or paying for heating. Some have had to sell their homes to survive and have endured appalling poverty.

UNISON was the first union to support the cause of pension justice for 1950s-born women and is supporting thousands of women with individual claims for compensation as well as campaigning alongside women in the Waspi campaign for justice and lobbying parliamentarians.

Despite the damning ombudsman’s report, Waspiwomen still face hurdles however. So far, neither the Conservatives nor Labour have committed to paying the compensation.

Additionally, some print and social media commentators are questioning whether “these women have really been so hard done by?” They infer that, “as women have greater life expectancy than men and typically collect the state pension for longer”, they shouldn’t receive compensation.

Others talk about “the gold-plated final salary pensions” many will have been able to draw on. They mention welfare benefits that those who were unable to work would have been able to draw on.

Some financial experts – mainly but not exclusively male – are condescending, stating that the Waspi women should have known about the change, with an unspoken question being: ‘How could they have been so stupid?’ There is also a hint that the Waspi women are ‘greedy’ for wanting compensation that could run into billions.

This is despite the ombudsman highlighting that the Department of Work and Pensions failed to act on its own survey findings from around 2004, which showed that 1950s-born women still thought they would receive their state pension at 60.

The lack of sympathy toward the Waspi women and hostility from some quarters is shocking but not surprising. Society continues to undervalue the work that women do and takes their contribution for granted.

Our campaign is far from over. UNISON supports Waspi’s call for an urgent vote in Parliament on compensation. We will continue to speak out, about both the failure to communicate the change and the resulting hardship for so many women. 1950s women need swift action, not more excuses.