This government is punishing women who work for free

Those opposing the pension reforms have leapt to the defence of working women affected by the change

Iain Duncan Smith had it right. Eight decades ago, when the state pension age was reduced to 65, there were nine people of working age for every pensioner. Today, the ratio is closer to 3:1 and it was due to fall to 2:1 by 2050, without the changes first introduced by Labour. When, in 2007, Labour planned to raise the pensionable age to 66 (starting from 2024), it took the decision based on life expectancy projections from 2004.
Since then, those projections have increased by more than a year and a half for both men and women. Bringing the proposals forward does not, on average, steal anybody's retirement. It will still amount to an average 24 years for women - a couple of years longer than men.

The problem is that average. As the former Labour pensions minister Malcolm Wicks recently pointed out in a Commons debate, the class differences in mortality are vast. Almost a fifth of men - 19 per cent - from the lowest social class die before they are 65, compared to just 7 per cent from the highest. For women, the respective figures are 10 per cent and 4 per cent. These matters of public and occupational health are of general concern.

Perfect system

Equalising the pensionable age at 66 by 2020 might not be fair to everyone - big welfare changes never are - but it is not nearly as unfair as the inbuilt inequality that already exists and will continue to exist between the rich and poor. As Wicks also told the Commons, among Britons who make it to state pensionable age, those in social class 5 draw their pension for four years less than those in social class 1, because their life expectancy, at 65, is lower. Yet they have probably worked for far longer, leaving school at 16 for tough manual jobs while
the middle classes stayed in education into their twenties.

Arguably, it would be far more equitable to allow people to choose to draw their pension once they have worked a certain number of years. Those in higher-income groups with enjoyable jobs and who do not want to retire could still work into their seventies and keep paying taxes.

You will never get a perfect system under which nobody loses out, but pension reform is essential. Without it, the welfare state could collapse altogether. When David Lloyd George introduced the Old Age Pensions Act, just over a century ago, the average life expectancy was lower than the pensionable age of 70. Today, ten million people are expected to live to 100. Even with the planned raising of the pension age, there will still be just 2.74 workers per pensioner by 2058.

The half a million or so women whose cause is being championed particularly loudly at the moment are not the only ones who will be caught by the higher pension age. They are simply the ones who have been given a bit less notice of it. For those in work, however, seven years is a reasonable warning time. I keep hearing that the time frame isn't long enough to enable them to plan financially. Plan for what? They should just keep working.

The earlier rise in the pensionable age will be hardest for those women who are not in work. These might be early retirees, many of them caring for elderly relatives or grandchildren. MPs have claimed in the Commons that some might even have taken an early redundancy on the understanding that they would be getting the state pension in a certain number of years. This would be unfair and deserve some special attention - but has anybody found one of these cases yet?

A good bill that seeks to lower the cost to the next generation of supporting a generation that generally has done well from the welfare state, born as it was into the "golden age" of welfare in the postwar boom years, should not be derailed by special pleading from MPs with vocal and ageing female constituents and their interest groups.

Many of the complaints about the injustices of the pension proposals are objections about unpaid caring, made on behalf of women who haven't earned enough pensionable years, who may have taken time out of the paid workforce to raise children or help elderly relatives, or who never did any paid work.

Insult to injury

The inequity of the extent of unpaid work that women do is shocking (and is one of the reasons why the "big society" is such an insult to so many women, who work for free to help the vulnerable every day of their lives without making special claim for it). It should, however, be decoupled from the debate over the state pension age.

This is not a good government for women. Cuts in public-sector jobs and the changes to benefits and tax credits in the Welfare Reform Bill will hit women hard, as the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, has demonstrated. The freeze in child benefit, the uncertain future of the childcare element of the working tax credit, the transfer to universal credit - all of these will hurt women who are raising children most. Some 70 per cent of tax credits is claimed by women, and the future envisaged by the Welfare Reform Bill is tougher than most have yet realised, with the introduction of work conditionality requirements for the receipt of universal credit (in place of tax credits), pound-for-pound reductions for maintenance and any other income, uncertainty over mortgage and council tax payments, and the replacement of some cash payments with vouchers. As many as 4.7 million households that can currently claim tax credits will be affected - a far higher number than the 1.5 million individuals affected by changes to Jobseeker's Allowance.

So, the pension reforms are a little bit unfair on a few women nearing retirement. At whose expense should that be fixed?

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The food issue