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Is this pension equality? Not quite

Andrew Fleming

The Government has matched the pensionable age for both men and women at 65. But rather than this being a welcome sign of gender equality, female campaigners say many women are far worse off than men as a result of the new measure.

In the words of Bolton’s greatest poet, the late lamented Hovis Presley, “It’s true what they say about women, it’s an irregular plural.”

Unfortunately, irregularities for women extend way beyond points of grammar – the acres of newsprint devoted earlier this year to the gender pay gap being a good, if bad, example. In fact, inequalities persist across wide swathes of society, culture and the economy, and while progress has been made, it’s been slow and inadequate.

An example: when Tony Blair swept to power in 1997 (backed by a host of newly elected female MPs widely and embarrassingly described at the time as “Blair’s Babes”), it was only some weeks after the election, and long after every other government post had been filled, that he appointed the first dedicated Minister for Women, Joan Ruddock.

As all the other ministerial jobs had been filled, there was no money left to pay her, so she didn’t get a ministerial salary. And she didn’t have a ministry – she was found an office in the Department for Social Security. And her PR person, drafted in from the DSS press office, was a hapless (male) idiot, whose stint in the job was at best undistinguished, though mercifully brief.

One typical conversation went something like this:

National newspaper journalist: “Hi, is that the spokesperson for the Women’s Minister?”
Hapless idiot: “Yes”
Journalist: “Does the minister think VAT should be abolished on women’s sanitary products?”
Hapless idiot: “What? You mean you have to pay VAT on tamp-“
Journalist (interrupting): “Yup”
Hapless idiot: “Erm…ok.. let me check and get back to you…”

The same idiot soon found himself back working on what he wrongly saw as the safer ground of pensions. The pensions industry has hardly been a bastion of feminism over the years.  The equalisation, this week, of the State Pension Age  at 65 for both men and women, originally legislated for over twenty years ago, has been presented as at least a step in the right direction. Women, after all, are now finally on a level playing field with men on pensions, at least as far as the State is concerned.

Hmmm. Not according to WASPI – Women Against State Pension Inequality. Though not against the equalisation in principle, they point out that although the legislation was passed in 1995, it was not until 2009 that women began receiving individual letters alerting them to the change, leaving them way too little time to amend their financial plans accordingly.

A point which has been made forcefully and repeatedly over recent years to the afore-mentioned hapless idiot. By his mother-in-law. Bless her.