Richard Graham is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Gloucester.
Yesterday Conservative MPs defeated a Labour Party motion to ‘bring forward transitional arrangements’’ for woman born in the 1950s who feel, with some justification, that they have had a rough deal on the state pension age.
The motion reflected a successful campaign organised by the Women Against State Pension Age Inequality (WASPI), and their e petition signed by 155,000 people. Why was it right that we did so?
On the face of it the WASPI campaign is very reasonable. All of us – perhaps especially those my age, with a wife, both sisters and many female friends born in the 1950s – know that the state pension age for women has been moving up for a while, since the 1995 Act that addressed gender equality (because women then retired at 60, while men at 65).
For those born between 1953 and 1955 it can feel a bit like chasing a bus – every time you catch up with it, it moves a bit further ahead. When can you finally get on board? And then there are genuine (although in many cases over exaggerated) arguments about women not having been told of the changes enough in advance.
The WASPI campaign wants ‘fair transitional arrangements’. The e petition didn’t spell these out, but the campaign Facebook page does: “What is our ask? Put all women born in the 1950s, or after 6th April 1951, and affected by the changes to the state pension age in the same financial position they would have been in had they been born on or before 5th April 1950”.
This ask has now been moved from the front of the WASPI Facebook campaign page to its notes, but no other ask is mentioned and none of the founders has denied to me that this is what they want. One of them, giving evidence to the Select Committee, said “we feel this is a very fair ask”. So what does it mean in legislative and practical terms?
It would unpick the 1995 Act and be open to legal challenge by men who could argue gender discrimination, but most importantly – since the WASPI campaign is all about the ‘financial position’ for the women born in the 1950s – is its cost.
During an earlier Westminster Hall debate when I suggested the WASPI ask might in total cost more than the total £27 billion annual bill of the Scotland Department. The SNP spokesman accused me of talking nonsense and said the cost, even if true, would be spread over many years.
So I got our Work and Pensions Select Committee to ask the DWP for their estimate. The immediate cost in 2016-2017 would be £29 billion (for the period 2010 on when the pension age started changing) and a total cost of £77 billion up to 2020.
I was wrong about the cost: it is two and half times what I imagined. An astronomical figure, and not one that any government of any hue would ever contemplate. (Something tells me that I won’t be getting an apology from the SNP spokesman).
Not surprising therefore that a senior former Labour Shadow Minister told me not long ago that the Labour Party was mad to pursue the WASPI agenda.
It could never commit to doing anything at all that WASPI wanted, and the longer this went on the more it would be clear to WASPI that they were simply being used for political purposes to attack the Conservative party, without any intention of a policy commitment.
Wise words, and I am sorry that the WASPI has been so manipulated by Labour, who, after losing the vote tonight, will tell WASPI “well, we tried”. No they did not: they postured.
I came into politics on the basis that there would be difficult decisions, and that spending taxpayer money recklessly, and increasing our already enormous mountain of debt was simply irresponsible – and particularly so for the next couple of generations who would have to pay any debts we run up.
We already spend more than the education budget every year on the interest of our debts, and that’s at a time of record low interest rates. When I explain to women born in the 1950s that state pensions are paid out of normal expenditure, not some magical pot of gold from NI contributions, and that our (1950s generation) pensions will be paid for by our children and grandchildren’s taxes, they all get the point.
None of us wants to load an extra £77 billion on to the next generation, nor do we want to see welfare or the NHS (biggest other spending items) cut to pay for this.
So I could not encourage WASPI to believe that any government would re-open the 1995 legislation, rather than make noises like ‘let’s not forget the women of the 1950s’ but commit to do absolutely nothing that WASPI wants. Better by far to be sympathetic but straight: no additional money is available for an unidentified transitional arrangement.
Some people have said that WASPI isn’t after £77 billion: they’re not policy wonks, they just want something ‘fair’. One Labour MP even said this is not about money, it’s about fairness. Really? What sort of fairness does the WASPI campaign want that is not about money?
There are significant points to be learnt about mistakes of the past – communication, length of time that people should be given when any future changes are made to the state pension age, and the relationship between years of earnings and years of pension, but yesterday not one of the Labour or SNP MPs mentioned any of these.
So what would be ‘fair’ to the women of the 1950s that is not unfair to the women born shortly afterwards, or before, or to men who’ve had a later retirement age although their life expectancy is lower? What did Labour, which does have a responsibility to provide alternative and costed policies, come up with, given that they called at least two of these debates?
In January Nick Thomas-Symonds, who was Labour pensions spokesman for about three months, said he was ‘grappling with how best to work out the transitional provisions’.
In early February his successor Angela Raynor floated an extension of pension credits as one option – something the WASPI campaign had specifically ruled out in their evidence to the Select Committee.
Yesterday, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Owen Smith was long on rhetoric, and still grappling. He repeated Rayner’s menu of unprioritised general areas to look at and made no commitment at all on what Labour would do.
It was business as usual: there was nothing in the last Labour manifesto, and there will be nothing in the next manifesto. They have betrayed the WASPI campaign, because they knew all along that nothing could be done without spending a lot of money, and they would not be able to explain where that would come from.
The SNP, who will never have responsibility for the state pension, have blustered about spending money on the 1950s women and not our nuclear deterrent.
No doubt that spending sleight of hand will be used almost as often as Labour once spent a hypothetically increased bankers tax: but I doubt swapping our security insurance policy for one decade of pensioners is a policy that many people in Britain would sign up to.
The real aim of the debate was this: lots of Labour (and SNP) leaflets this spring saying the Tories have let down a generation of women. A desperate smear attempt, just as the largest real increase in the state pension for decades arrives in April, taking the pension to over £1,000 more for the year than it was in 2010.
Trying to paint the Tories as anti-women and anti0pensions is the real ‘fair transitional arrangement’ Labour is interested in.
I hope that WASPI campaigners interested in the truth will read this and decide whether it is better to have politicians who will use you and deceive you, or politicians who, however sympathetic to a case, take a responsible approach to spending, debt and inter generational fairness and are not afraid to spell that out.
None of us should have any hesitation in seeing WASPI campaigners in our constituencies and explaining, regretfully, why their ‘ask’ is simply not possible. And I hope that the Select Committee report that will emerge in about three weeks on the State Pension Age, which will include a section on WASPI, will be equally responsible in its conclusions.