With the General Election and more recently the offer of apprenticeships from a government minister, the Solent WASPI campaign against women’s state pension inequality has had a lot to deal with. Shelagh Simmons and Carolyne Jacobs, Joint Co-ordinators for Solent WASPI Supporters’ Group, update us on the campaign’s progress.
WASPI stands for Women Against State Pension Inequality. The campaign has over 69,000 supporters and represents almost 3.5 million women born in the 1950s – around 116,000 in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight – who are suffering because they weren’t told by the Government that their state pension age would be increasing. They have had no time to put in place alternative financial arrangements to see them through to the new state retirement age, which in some cases is now 66.
When Theresa May announced the General Election, many WASPI hearts sank. The Conservatives were way ahead in the polls. Political pundits predicted this would translate into an increased majority – even a landslide. If that happened, we knew it would be a huge blow for the WASPI campaign. Put simply, the Conservative Government has refused any form of engagement with us. Its consistent position has been to either ignore us or peddle misinformation about the way state pension age rises have been introduced for women born in the 1950s. Former Pensions Minister, Ros Altmann, says she was told to avoid any contact with WASPI. If we were ignored, the Government reckoned, we would go away.
However, the Election – and the prospect of a huge Conservative victory – provided us with a number of opportunities. The election campaign offered the chance to take our message around the country and WASPI attracted widespread coverage in national, local and social media. Locally, our Solent group featured in newspapers, on local radio and television. And 480 candidates nationwide – 35 of them in our Solent area – signed and shared on social media the WASPI Pledge promising to work in Parliament for a fair solution if elected. Responses from Conservative candidates were disappointing but we were grateful to Flick Drummond in Portsmouth South who was the only Conservative candidate in our area to sign. In the last Parliament, she was a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group investigating the WASPI case. But despite a number of sympathetic individuals like Flick, there were others like Amber Rudd. She caused outrage on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour when she said there’s no “magic money tree” for our pensions – this, as if we are asking for a handout instead of what we have contributed for, and were promised, all our working lives.
By the time the election came around in June, everyone knew about WASPI. And the outcome wasn’t what we had feared. The General Election result leaves us in a very strong position. It’s clear the electorate was generally unhappy with the Conservative position on social care/pensions, and many traditional Conservative voters changed their lifelong stance due to these concerns. On the other hand, the Labour Party is sympathetic to the WASPI cause. There is obviously a range of reasons why there was a large swing to Labour and WASPI may, or may not, have had an influence. However, what is clear is that the WASPI campaign has increased its profile, gained the support of many candidates who have now been elected and has caught the attention to the media.
We were sad for Flick personally that she lost her seat but her party – with a few exceptions – has treated us with callous contempt. Labour’s Stephen Morgan’s took Portsmouth South and Labour was the only party to make specific commitments to us in its manifesto, including on transitional arrangements. He signed the Pledge and we look forward to working with him.
It’s important to consider another point. Much has been made of the supposed impact of the young vote. We are very pleased that so many young people went out and voted this time; older people do traditionally vote in greater numbers. But 3.5 million of us nationally – 116,000 here in Hampshire – have been hit by these state pension age changes and we all have votes. Our families have votes too. Everyone has a mother, daughter, sister, aunt, niece or friend who is affected by this injustice. Many younger people support our campaign because they have seen how unfairly we’ve been treated; what happens to us could have an effect on everyone else’s pension tomorrow. Our campaign is their campaign. We don’t accept that different age groups vote for different reasons. As pensions guru Steve Bee points out, there’s “plenty of evidence of intergenerational support in families up and down the land”. He regrets such familial concern isn’t reflected in our social legislation. We do too.
As reported in our previous article, the issue of the state pension age for women was once again the subject of an Early Day Motion (signed by Portsmouth South’s Stephen Morgan) that was debated in Westminster Hall on Wednesday, 5th July. We are grateful to all the MPs who spoke so eloquently on our behalf. We were heartened that so many members, representing all parties, took part in the debate and we particularly welcome new MPs to the discussion.
The position of the WASPI women was put factually and with passion so we were surprised and shocked when the new Pensions Minister, Guy Opperman, responded with nothing more than rhetoric about retraining opportunities for older people. These included apprenticeships for over 60s! His words were met with disbelief and anger. Cries of “shame on you” echoed around the packed hall.
We do, of course, welcome any initiatives that support career changes in older life. But such initiatives form part of long-term plans and are totally inappropriate for women born in the 1950s who were promised their state pensions at 60, only to find the Government had moved the goalposts. What training/apprenticeship opportunities are available, for example, to a woman aged 63 who may not be as agile as she once was and has commitments caring for grandchildren because her children need to work but can’t afford childcare? It’s a complete waste of tax payers’ time and money, if they will be finishing work a couple of years later. Wouldn’t it just be easier – and fairer – to pay them the pension they are entitled to?
The Minister’s response was wholly inadequate and did not in any way properly address the injustice suffered by 1950s women. Conservative MP for Broadland (Norfolk), Keith Simpson, spoke for many of us when he said his wife feels “incandescent with rage”. She too “had no correspondence whatever” from the Department for Work and Pensions about the increase in her state pension age. Mr Simpson’s experience reflected our own that government websites are “incoherent” and give contradictory information.
We know the General Election result has changed a lot of things. The number of MPs who support WASPI has increased and there are now 17 Conservative members who signed the WASPI Pledge during the election campaign. The Democratic Unionist Party (the Government’s Confidence and Supply partner) has 10 MPs who all support us. We have our own coalition and it’s getting stronger. We won’t be fobbed off with crass, patronising suggestions like apprenticeships. We want fair solutions.
WASPI remains strong and focussed, including in our Solent area. Alongside our lobbying campaign, the process of making maladministration complaints against the DWP continues. So many complaints have been received that the Independent Case Examiner has been forced to set up a dedicated team to deal with them, starting in October.
The hapless Minister’s comments have had the unintended consequence of drawing yet more attention to the injustice we have suffered. We should, at least, thank him for that. Guy Opperman is the latest in a line of Pensions Ministers to discover that WASPI is a force to be reckoned with – and we’re not going away.
So where is WASPI going now?
WASPI nationally, and the Solent Group, is continuing to fight for compensation payments for 1950s women. There is now a broad coalition of support for our campaign. But since the election there has been no recognition from the Government of the severe financial hardship faced by women across the country because of the mismanagement of changes to the state pension age. WASPI is therefore seeking an urgent meeting with David Gauke, the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, to discuss how fairness and justice for all women – regardless of their background and financial situation – can be achieved. Solent WASPI is writing to all newly elected and re-elected MPs in our region asking them to work for a fair solution. They include Gosport MP, Caroline Dinenage, who is now Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions. And we will be making sure those in Parliament who signed our Pledge – 190 in total – deliver on their promise.
In June, we were at the Unison National Conference in Brighton, where a WASPI fringe meeting attracted an unprecedented 200+ delegates. Shockingly, we still meet women who have no idea they won’t be getting their state pension at 60 so we’ll continue raising awareness in our area via a leafleting campaign, media releases, spreading the word on radio and TV and a day of action on the Isle of Wight, where over 9,400 women and their families are affected. We’ll continue lobbying local councils to pressure the Government on our behalf too. And Labour MP Grahame Morris secured a Westminster Hall debate on WASPI for Wednesday, 5th July. He has also submitted an Early Day Motion (EDM) for MPs to sign to show their support. It’s clear that, despite what the Government hopes, we’re not going away. In fact, our resolve has never been stronger.
Image by Sarah Cheverton.