Where does Waspi go from here?

The “Waspi issue” has reached deadlock.

For those who are unaware of the issue, it is the campaign called Women Against State Pension Age Inequality – known as Waspi for short – by some 1950s-born women to get a better deal in the face of the rise in state pension age.

I won’t rehearse all the history of the campaign here, as there is plenty about it elsewhere on the internet. But the issue now seems to be divided into two camps: the Waspi leadership, who want nothing less than financial compensation to put themselves into the position they would have been in if the 1995 Pensions Act had never existed, and the Government, which says it has no money and is refusing to respond to their demands.

In between are two groups of well-meaning folk: those who feel that the 2011 Pensions Act, which escalated the effects of the 1995 Act and made the rise in pension age for women – and indeed men – steeper and faster, was harsh, and would like to see a relaxation in the timetable; and those who would like help for the poorest women with some sort of means-tested benefits.

The reason that the matter seems to have reached deadlock is that the campaigners are steadfastly refusing to agree to any sort of means-testing, and want “the lot”. But the Government is determined not to spend any more money than it has to, particularly on reversing a measure that was legislated for more than 20 years ago and would cost an estimated £115bn if the demands were met in full.

Waspi has done great work in highlighting the issue of poor Government communications in respect of pensions changes, and indeed is to a great extent still doing the Government’s job for it in notifying women who may still be unaware that their state pension age is no longer 60. But there it ends. The women simply have nowhere else to go with their “ask” because they have no leverage.

They have rallied vast swathes of sympathetic public opinion in drawing attention to their plight. However, opinion is, sadly for them, worthless. The legislation is now on the statute book, the Government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons and is in power until at least 2020. So huffing and puffing by opposition parties, some of which have taken up the Waspi cause, is pretty much a waste of breath, not to mention parliamentary time.

The only place for the Waspis to go is, unfortunately, law. Whether they have any case in European legislation, and whether they could find someone to sponsor them or crowdfund a case to be taken to another legal forum beyond the UK Parliament, remains to be seen. The prospect seems remote, and any resolution by legal means could be years in the making. Even supposing a case could be won, it would not help the campaigning women who want the money they say is theirs now.

Barracking the pensions minister, Baroness Altmann, is not only unfair but pointless. Lady Altmann’s hands are tied by Government policy. Perhaps as a former doughty campaigner for the rights of wronged older citizens and ripped-off pensioners, she should never have thrown her lot in with a Conservative Party that is intent on pushing though harsh austerity cuts, but that is just some people’s opinion. I personally give her the benefit of the doubt on her motives for joining the Government. Yet even if you are not so generous in your views, the fact is that she is where she is, and calling her names is not going to have any effect.

The bottom line is that no amount of collecting petition signatures in supermarkets in fancy dress or clogging up the surgeries of MPs is going to make a ha’porth of difference to the outcome of the campaign.

The Government must be “sold” fully costed measures that it can adopt without punching holes in other policies. Pensions expert John Ralfe came up with a sensible suggestion in a well argued piece for the Telegraph, but I fear that at £8.5bn it is too expensive. George Osborne has a record of robbing Peter to pay Paul, so anything that costs money has to come with a suggestion as to where the money can be found – and if £8.5bn could be found easily it would already have been. Remember, several alternative scenarios were suggested in the formulation of the 2011 measures, all of which were rejected.

One of those was Pension Credit for both men and women between the Women’s State Pension Age as it was laid down in the 1995 Act, and their new SPA determined by the 2011 Act. Rachel Reeves, MP, who posited this as a failed amendment to 2011, is suggesting this once again, and it is the solution I personally favour. However, I am told by ministers that it too is too expensive and a non-starter.

That even this not overly generous measure is not being reconsidered, I’m afraid indicates the Government’s determination not to yield an inch to the women’s campaign, making the request for “transitional arrangements” in the form of the financial equivalent of WSPA at 60 a complete fantasy.

Another suggestion put forward in several quarters has been to offer the poorest women affected by the 2011 escalation in pension age, who have no means and cannot find a job and who would otherwise be on Job Seekers’ Allowance, some sort of benefit that equates financially to JSA but does not have any of the conditions attached to it, such as the requirement to sign on, seek a job or risk sanctions. Let’s call it “transitional pension benefit”. It would have to be available to men as well, but if it was the equivalent of JSA it should cost no more money than JSA itself. It would mean that those women who – sadly, common sense tells you – are not going to be able to find work in their mid-60s, if they haven’t been able to find it in their early 60s, would at least have an income without the burden of submitting to retraining for jobs they will never do, and the cost of transport to distant Job Centres to sign on.

This solution, which could even save the Government money by reducing administration costs at Job Centres in respect of the poorest pre-pension claimants, will not satisfy the Waspi campaign. It would not help those who are now approaching their sixties and who now find they have to wait several more years to get their pension. It would not help those who would fail a means test because they have savings or support from other family members. But it would help those hit hardest by the 2011 escalation.

It would be a credit to the Conservatives if they could come up with something imaginative to help the poorest affected. George Osborne offered temporary relief to families affected by the tax credit cutbacks. He should similarly offer transitional help to the Waspi women.

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