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21 January 2016

What’s led to Ros Altmann letting down thousands of women on their state pensions?

Once a fearless pensions campaigner, the Minister has failed to clear up the government's mess over state pensions for an entire generation of women.

By Helen Walmsley-Johnson

For those of us seeking enlightenment on the vexed subject of women’s state pensions, last week was a busy time. There was, if you were able to listen, a pensions phone-in on BBC Woman’s Hour, which included helpful contributions from Paul Lewis of Radio 4’s Money Box. Later in the day came a Work and Pensions Select Committee hearing (chaired by Frank Field MP) with contributions from Baroness Altmann CBE, Minister of State for Pensions.

There is no doubting Altmann’s expertise and knowledge on the subject but having listened to the whole lot (twice) the main things I came away with were that a) it’s complicated; b) the DWP is working “incredibly hard”; c) pension statements are going digital; and d) if you have the double misfortune of being born both a woman and in the 1950s, sorry love, but you’re on your own.

If that sounds underwhelming, it’s because it was.

I am really rather cross with the Minister of State, although it hasn’t always been so. Back in the day when she was plain Ros Altmann and a champion for older workers and pension reform, I admired her very much. When she carried a placard proclaiming “You can’t trust government with pensions” I even gave a small cheer, but she has become the very definition of poacher turned gamekeeper.

Watching Parliament TV as she fielded questions with the pained expression and mildly vexed voice of a woman who’s just been offered someone else’s sandwich only made me crosser. But then so much of this is about wrong communication.

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The meeting was optimistically headed “Understanding the State Pension” – a tall order in 90 minutes – and it quickly became apparent that somewhat ironically that the Work and Pensions Committee itself was having trouble understanding.

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PFID, COPE, SERPS, SIPS – there are only so many acronyms a person can misunderstand. You can see how it quickly takes on the sense and structure of a bowl of alphabet spaghetti. I have some sympathy with Altmann on this and clearly she has invested a good deal of time in understanding it but then she does start from a position of considerable advantage.

It is indeed complicated – see point a) above and I don’t dispute that the DWP is of course working “incredibly hard” at what it does (point b)). The difficulty lies in not communicating to us, the people they’re working incredibly hard for, how whatever it is they’re actually doing is going to affect us in however many years’ time.

Over the next hour-and-a-half we were sent down various blind alleys, but what it all boils down to is a woeful record on communications. In the smoke-and-mirrors manoeuvring we heard Baroness Altmann say somewhat unbelievably that, “this government has done so much for older women” but on the other hand that in 2011 she had said, “the speed of change is harsher for women . . . it is women who are paying for that”.

In 2015 on Woman’s Hour, she agreed that women had been “mis-sold” the new state pension and she was “trying to correct that”, while on Monday she said that there was nothing to be done and she had no “magic pot of money”, adding unnecessarily that the only way to avoid poverty in old age was to carry on working.

I don’t disagree with the need to keep working, I always planned to and changed career path a couple of years ago to something I knew I could physically continue to do well into old age. It might surprise the Baroness to know that a great many of us do this. We call it planning ahead.

A lot of what happened on Monday circled around the issue of who was told what and when about their pension date, and it’s worth saying again that the primary problem with the new state pension is not the equalising of women’s pension age with that of men  that is entirely fair.

The problem is that, for a decade, nothing was done to tell the women who would be most disadvantaged by it followed by an acceleration of the changes that compounded the issue. When pressed on this there was little that Altmann could say that shed any light on the matter, but I’d put money on it not amounting to much in terms of effort or result.

Since October 2014, much more has been communicated, but by then, of course, it was far too late for a generation of working women.

On a more positive note, we did learn that in the coming months a new personalised digital statement will be rolled out. And in the interests of communicating clearly (we’ve established this is important) these will be “in colour” with “bright boxes” and “all the things we could want”. Well good. I hope the boxes will be pink for women because that’s the only way that statement could be any more patronising. Ah, Minister…it’s the way you tell them.

Helen Walmsley-Johnson tweets @TheVintageYear.