‘They have no idea about the real world’

Written By: Chi Onwurah
Published: March 14, 2017 Last modified: March 14, 2017

This is a complex subject, but basic issues of fairness, justice and dignity in old age are at its heart. The Pensions Act 1995, brought in John Major’s Conservative Government, raised the women’s state pension age from 60 to 65, making it the same as men’s. I am proud to call myself a feminist, and as such, I agree with that equalisation, as long as those women have equal opportunities and life chances. Unfortunately, that is not the case. I also agree with raising the retirement age. We are living almost a decade longer than our grandparents on average, so it is right that we should also work longer and still be able to enjoy many years in healthy retirement. However, that does not mean that I must agree with the unfair way in which these changes have been implemented.senior member of staff.

As the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign has highlighted the changes have hit hundreds of thousands of women born in the 1950s particularly hard. There is real anger among those women at their unfair treatment because of the month in which they were born. There is anger about the lack of appropriate notification, despite recommendations from independent bodies, such as the Turner Commission, that the affected women deserved 15 years’ notice. There is anger that the pace of change has been much faster than that promised when the changes were initiated in 1995. There is anger that some women have been hit by multiple increases in their state pension age; the Prime Minister’s saying that no woman had seen an increase to their expected pension age of more than 18 months was a patent injustice to the many women who have seen multiple increases.

These issues have been debated previously, and Labour party has called for transitional arrangements for the WASPI women. We have laid out a fully costed plan to return their eligibility for pension credits to the timetable of the 1995 Act – but that proposal has fallen on deaf ears. One particular aspect that has not been adequately considered is the effect that the changes have had on working-class women.  I am often moved by the spirit and basic decency of so many of my constituents in the face of almost unbelievably bad treatment, but Mrs Tenniswood’s story moved me almost to tears.

Mrs Tenniswood is 60, and has worked as a dressmaker since she was 15, the school-leaving age before 1972. Few working-class women went on to further education—only 6 per cent in the late 1970s, for example—so many of the women we are talking about left school and started full-time work many years before they would be allowed to today. They will therefore have worked for longer than any other retirement group now or in the future. Last year, Mrs Tenniswood asked for her pension statement, and she learned that she had 42 qualifying years, yet she is not entitled to a state pension until she reaches the age of 66. By then, she will have been working in a manual job for around 50 years – half a century – with a likely number of 48 qualifying years, which is significantly higher than the 35 years usually required to reach the maximum state pension. That is especially the experience of working-class women of that generation, who are more likely to have started work immediately after leaving school at 15, and who are also more likely to be in manual trades, which take a greater toll on the body as it ages.

Mrs Tenniswood is a dressmaker. As such, she is often required to get down on her knees to pin and check fittings, and sharp eyesight is essential, given the detailed stitching required. Having done that physically demanding job for 42 years, she was suddenly told she would have to wait another six years for her state pension, during which the condition of her eyesight and joints will worsen as her profession takes its toll on her body.

Her experience is far from unique. One woman told me that she has a neck injury and spondylitis —two debilitating diseases that would exclude her from many jobs. She said: “I do not want to be forced to work until I drop.” Why should she be? Another woman told me that she had recently been diagnosed with osteophytic lipping in her hips. She said: “I am not so mobile as I once was. I cannot possibly carry on getting in and out of a car with the chemist’s deliveries—” that is her job 30 to 50 times a day.”  In the case of Mrs Tenniswood, one bureaucratic letter took away the certainty that she had had for most of her working life in a very hard trade. The belief that the state would provide her with a pension in her old age – one she had earned – was torn to shreds.

Because Mrs Tenniswood is working class, her life expectancy is lower. In Newcastle, the gap in average life expectancy between inner-city Byker and more affluent South Gosforth is 12.6 years, and the gap is rising under this Government. This pattern is repeated across the country. Owing to the health inequalities from which we still suffer, working-class women are on average expected to die seven years earlier than their peers from more affluent backgrounds. When Mrs Tenniswood finally receives her pension, she can expect to have less time to enjoy it than other women of her age, and she is likely to have a worse experience of old age.

A quarter of Newcastle’s neighbourhoods are in the 10 per cent most deprived in the country. In Newcastle, people are more likely to die earlier from cancer, heart disease and strokes. We suffer from the diseases of our industrial legacy, such as asbestosis. Heart attacks are responsible for 1,100 premature deaths in the north-east every year, which is higher than the national average because of the income disparity. Such inequality is replicated in regions across the country. Data from the Office for National Statistics tell us that, compared with women who live in more affluent areas, working-class women will live for 19 years longer in poor health. So they live shorter lives and a higher proportion of their time is spent in poor health before they die. That is also true of working-class men; they also suffer from significant health inequalities, but they have not had their expectations of retirement overturned without any attempt to ease the transition.

Our pension system, and the wider system of social security of which it is a part, was founded on the principles of reciprocity, justice and fairness. I fail to see anything just, fair or reciprocal in the treatment of the WASPI women by the Department for Work and Pensions.

The Government have rejected many opportunities to deliver a fair settlement for WASPI women, and by acceler­at­ing the changes they have embedded unfairness. To add insult to injury, ministers insist on ignoring and trivialising the issue. One of the women who got in touch with me told me: “The Conservative Government haves never had pocket money, just blank cheques – they have no idea about the real world.”

Whenever such issues are raised, we are told that we live in a country with a social security system that prevents changes such as the change in pension age from leading to hardship. If the Government seriously believe that our social security system – gutted under Tory changes since 2010 –is providing adequately for the women, perhaps it is true that “they have no idea about the real world.”

Another working-class woman, to my great regret, did not live long enough to be a constituent of mine. She was my mother. She was born in the 1920s in the depths of another great depression when there was no national health service. She grew up in Newcastle in great poverty. Of her six siblings, only one survived into adulthood. Five died of the diseases of poverty: diseases that, in the absence of the NHS, destroyed the lives of so many and had consequences much later in life, causing health inequalities that the health service cannot eradicate—certainly not one as underfunded as the NHS is now. I am sure that that childhood poverty influenced her life expectancy. She died before her 70th birthday, but had lived – cheerfull – with ill health and disability for two decades previously.

It is absolutely iniquitous to imagine that my mother would have had perhaps just three or four years of pension –and that in great ill health – because the Government cannot recognise a fundamental injustice, and, indeed, do not even recognise the existence of working-class women. Tens of thousands of working-class women whose lives and retirement have been blighted by changes that were ill-advised and poorly implemented, and in which they and their experiences were not considered.

When I appealed for personal experiences, one woman said: “Stress has made me so ill, physically exhausted and mentally struggling to survive”. Another said: “Being too disabled to work is humiliating enough without being made to suffer further humiliation at my age. Hopes, dreams and careful plans to enjoy our retirement shattered. Savings all gone, future bleak! No letter, no notice.”

This came from another woman: “I am at times very depressed as it felt like I had done a prison sentence for 44 years. Then, just before my release date, it was extended another six years.” Another said: “My mother welded fan blades for Ford Dagenham and it was women who all stood shoulder to shoulder that achieved equal pay for women. Nothing is ever impossible if women are united in their cause.”

Chi Onwurah is Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central. This article is an extract from a Westminster Hall debate