Time's not on women's side
Mary Williams, 60, was “horrified” to discover she has to wait six years longer than expected to claim her state pension. After being made redundant just two weeks before Christmas, she is now desperately searching for work as an administrative assistant to make ends meet until she can finally claim this cash.
Like many people approaching retirement, Mary asked for a state pension forecast in 2013. It was only then she discovered she wouldn’t be receiving the state pension when she turned 60 in March. “I’m now off to the Jobcentre to try to find work, which at my age is a big struggle – it’s really unfair and humiliating, as I’ve paid into the system since I left school at 15.”
Mary, from Ongar in Essex, adds: “I’m trying everywhere to find work, including supermarkets and delivering flyers – I’m coming up against ageism, but have to find work as I don’t have any savings.” She adds that her husband, a silversmith, will help financially, “but this is far from ideal after being used to bringing in my own money.”
Mary is one of many women born in the 1950s who have had their retirement dreams dashed, following rapid increases to the state pension age. Calls are growing to compensate women who claim to have little advance warning of the changes, with campaign groups gathering momentum.
The government first announced that the state pension age for women would rise in 1995, but many women claim they were left in the dark over the controversial reforms, designed to bring the qualifying age for women in line with that of men by 2020.
The rise in the state pension age for women from 60 to 65 was further revised in the 2011 Pensions Act, making it age 65 by 2018. Over the next two years up to November 2020, there will be a further rise to 66 – and 67 by 2028.
Women born in the 1950s have been hit hardest by the changes. Mieke Vrijhof, a former charity worker from Herne Bay, in Kent, says: “I am coming up for 62 in April but won’t get my pension until I’m 65 and five months,” she says.
“I’ve spent my life working and waiting for this point – and now I’m running down what savings I have after being made redundant last year, with no support from a husband as I’m single. It’s the speed and lack of notice we’re angry about.”
Alan Higham, founder of free retirement advice website Pensionschamp.com, says: “I can only imagine what it feels like to save all your life on a low income and then find your retirement age pushed back.” He adds: “The retirement age has been set at 60 since the 1940s, so it’s unsurprising these women weren’t expecting it to change.”
“Some small employers also still presume that if a woman is 58 or around that age she will only be working for a few years at most – so these women face problems from all angles.”
Many women say they only found out when they requested a state pension forecast. Susie Clarke, 61, from Dartford, Kent, says that as a self-employed teacher of classical ballet she’s “on the ball” when it comes to her finances.
“I knew I was due the full state pension but asked for a forecast some time in the mid-1990s, and it was then I found out my retirement age had been bumped up,” she says. “I’m certain I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t asked for this – and, since then, I’ve asked for a second forecast and it’s risen again – I’ll be 65 and eight months before I get the state pension now.”
Susie is anxious that as she has trouble with her knees she’ll struggle to keep going as a ballet teacher. “My husband is 14 years older than me – and I thought by now I’d be able to employ a younger person and pay them a bit to run classes, so I can spend time with family,” she says.
“Fortunately, my husband, who’s a musician, is still working in his mid-70s, but we’re still having to mainly live on savings. We feel cheated. It feels the government is whipping us like workhorses and wants us to die before we get our pension, but I’m determined not to.”
Petitions calling for a fairer deal have attracted hundreds of thousands of signatures. Campaign group Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) says the way the changes have been put in place is unfair.
Its petition has attracted more than 100,000 signatures, and calls on the government to “make fair transitional state pension arrangements for 1950s’ women”. While the group agrees with equalising state pension ages for men and women, it stresses the unfair way the changes have been implemented.
Mieke says: “Unfortunately, a lot of women in my age group don’t have access to social media like Facebook and Twitter, where the campaign is focusing its efforts – so a lot of women haven’t yet signed the petition.”
So far, there has been no positive news for the women affected, though they hope the issue is gathering momentum. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) claims women were “directly contacted” about the rise in the state pension age, stating there are “no plans to alter the state pension age arrangements for this group”.
Experts are sceptical that campaigns will prove successful. Mr Higham says: “I’m sorry to say the government has hardened its heart against these women – and won’t do anything. It will take some form of successful legal claim I believe before the government makes any changes.”
Following the success of the WASPI campaign, the government was forced to debate the changes in Parliament in February, however it still seems to be sticking to its guns.
Tom McPhail, head of retirement policy at Hargreaves Lansdown, stresses the massive cost involved if the government reversed its plans. He says: “The WASPI group has generated significant momentum in its campaign, as well as sympathy for its predicament.
Many outside government argue that some of them have been ill-treated. The twin problems they now face are that some are more deserving of compensation than others; and that any concession by the government could quickly run into billions, which is why the government’s position continues to be that no further concessions will be made.”
He adds: “The DWP’s communications around the state pension changes generally have been pretty poor, if it had got that right in the first place, we might not have this problem now.”
A former concession, seeing the rise delayed by six months from April 2020, cost the government more than £1 billion. Mr McPhail adds that there are around 360,000 women aged 61 and that paying them all the state pension, which is currently an average of £117.45 a week, for an extra 12 months would cost around £2.2 billion.
If you are personally unhappy and affected by the changes, it’s worth writing to your local MP and making a complaint to the Department for Work and Pensions.
Meanwhile, the state pension age is expected to keep rising along with life expectancy, the Chancellor said in his Autumn Statement last year, and to be reviewed every six years from May 2017 along with official data.
“I have to wait till I’m 66”
Susan Carter, 61, suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and is registered disabled. “I didn’t find out that I wouldn’t get my state pension at aged 60 until my sister-in-law told me two months before the new rules came in. I have to wait until I’m 66 now,” she says.
“I can’t afford to live on disability benefits – I work part- time as a team coordinator for social services.”
Susan helped care for her mother until she died three years ago. “I’d do the cooking and she’d help me, but now I’m on my own.”
Susan, from Custom House, east London, says she didn’t get any warning of the change, so had “no time to prepare”.
“I complained to the government and was told I should have known – what did it do, send mythical letters?” She joined campaign group Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) and is hopeful of some success for its cause.
“When I do manage to retire, I’ll only have the state pension to live on – I think the change should have been more gradual, as it’s really hit women in my age group hard.”
What to do if you are affected
Along with signing the petition calling for the change to be reversed, you can take a number of steps that might ease your financial situation.There is help on offer for people aged over 60 if you know where to look for it.
Claim benefits: You may be entitled to benefits you’re not aware of, as around £5 billion goes unclaimed by people over 60 every year, according to Age UK. Some benefits are means-tested, which means you’ll have your income assessed. Go to Entitledto.co.uk and Ageuk.org.uk for more information.
Switch suppliers: Changing gas, electricity and telephone suppliers can save you hundreds of pounds a year. To find the best deal you can use our comparison tool to compare suppliers.
Energy grants: For information and money-saving tips, contact Home Heat Helpline on 0800 33 66 99. Also visit Energysavingtrust.org.uk. There are heating grants available for householders of 60 or over who get means-tested and/or disability benefits. These can help with central heating, insulation, energy-efficient boilers or repairs.
Water meters: If you live in a large home with few occupants, installing a water meter could save you money. Ask your supplier – meters are installed for free for domestic customers in England and Wales. (There is a charge for water meters in Scotland, while residents in Northern Ireland don’t pay for water.)
Council tax discounts: Many older people are entitled to money off council tax but don’t claim it, so check to see if you qualify. You can claim this rebate whether you own your home or rent it.There are also discounts of 25% if you live alone.
Help with health costs: Everyone over 60 gets free prescriptions and eye tests. If you have less than £16,000 in savings, you may be entitled to help towards dental treatment, glasses and travel costs to hospital if you complete an HC1 form (visit Nidirect.gov.uk/hc1.pdf)
Letting a room in your home: If you own your home, you could take in a lodger if you have a spare room. Under the Rent a Room scheme, you can earn up to £4,250 a year without paying income tax. This rises to £7,500 in April 2016.
To check your pension age, go to Gov.uk/calculate-state-pension.You can support the WASPI campaign at Petition. parliament.uk/ petitions/110776.