Fight for pensions justice: ‘This is no way to treat women in their twilight years’
PUBLISHED: 14:35 11 February 2018 | UPDATED: 21:27 11 February 2018
Margaret was about two years from retirement and looking forward to it. Then a letter blew a hole in her dreams
“I feel like one of those suffragettes,” says Margaret Thompson, ruefully. By chance, we’re talking on the anniversary of women getting the vote. Margaret’s always had the right to make her mark in a polling station but doesn’t have the state pension to which she’s entitled. It was pushed more than five years into the future, at scant notice.
She’s one of thousands of women born in the 1950s and battling for a fairer deal. Many have had financial problems as a result of their plans being shattered and it’s claimed it’s even prompted some to commit suicide.
Twelve days ago, Margaret travelled from East Anglia to join a protest at the gates of Downing Street. The Prime Minister wasn’t there to meet the delegation, but it did hand over a booklet of more than 300 stories of hardship.
Whether it will do any good is another matter. For the WASPIs (Women Against State Pension Inequality) have been demanding action since 2015; and other campaigners are also fighting. They’ve won sympathy, but not the battle. “I don’t know how else we can get our voice heard – apart from doing something illegal…” muses Margaret, 64 this weekend. Well, I was going to ask. Ever feel like chaining yourself to railings, like the suffragettes? “I actually put on Facebook an idea that popped into my head. My husband said ‘You can’t say that!’ I said ‘For us to get noticed, we ladies could do a strip act outside Downing Street or in Parliament – to show that we have nothing. I’m sure people would notice us then!’ You can imagine the comments received on this.”
At the heart of this bitterness is the Conservative Government’s 1995 Pensions Act, which included moves to raise women’s state pension age to 65, then 67. WASPI is not against equality, but is angry about the way the change was rushed through, claiming there was little or no personal notice given to women to make alternative plans. “Why didn’t the DWP (Department of Work and Pensions) write to us and give us 10 years’ notice?” says Margaret.
For her, the news had been a bolt from the blue. In the early days of 2012 the then 58-year-old was looking forward to retiring in 2014, so she could spend more time with her husband and family. Then that letter arrived. It said her retirement date was not 2014 but July, 2019. Did she scream? “I don’t think so. I think I was just numb.”
Margaret says she battled alone for six years “to get non answers. It wasn’t until I joined the WASPIs that I found out how many other women were doing the same”. She adds: “Our letters to MPs and the DWP keep being sent round in circles. The only answers we have been given is we should have found out this ourselves by getting a pension forecast and seen a small advert in a women’s magazine and The Times newspaper!”
Margaret has worked since the age of 15 and began paying into a non-state pension scheme only when she joined the NHS, more than 20 years ago. She points out that many workers couldn’t even contemplate doing that, as some couldn’t afford to sacrifice 6% of their wages to a pension scheme.
She chose to start taking her NHS pension at 60 and continued to work in a temping job, before deciding to finish work in March last year. The cost of travel and low pay wasn’t worth the one-hour journey each way to work.
“At the moment I’m juggling around with my small NHS pension and my savings and have to draw some out to make sure the bank accounts don’t go into the red... Ideally I would love to spend more time with my family. I’m going to be a grandmother for a second time around; my (second) husband has five grandchildren, so I’m a step-nan to them too. They all live down in London and I would love to travel down there more often to see them.”
WASPI is seeking fair transitional arrangements: bridging pensions paid until the postponed state pension is triggered, as well as compensation for losses suffered by women who have already become pensioners.
What would Margaret like to see, personally?
“What I would like is for me to get my pension now, as in December 2013 the Government set out the principle that people should spend no more than a third of their adult life (measured from age 20) on the state pension.
“They should have looked at it with a better sliding scale of weeks/months, not years – not have a rigid cut-off date and tell some people ‘After this, you’ve got to wait six-plus years’. So poor souls born one day over that cut-off date have to go six-plus more years to get their pension.”
Margaret’s written to the Independent Case Examiner, to complain about the DWP’s alleged failure to give information at the right time, but says her situation is not yet being looked at as they are still dealing with more than 100 cases from last March.
How does she keep her spirits up? “I live on top of Kett’s Hill (in Norwich). I think I may have got the spirit of William Kett in me. Rebellion!” she laughs, evoking the memory of the man involved in a 1549 protest after robber-barons seized common land.
“I’ve always been a person that will never give up. If there’s something I believe is wrong, I will fight it. There’s a lot of ladies like me out there.”
She also says: “Men continued their career while we women put ours on hold to bring up our families. There was no workplace pension in those days. We didn’t earn enough to save; and whilst things have improved thanks to the suffragettes and the Dagenham girls, we have had a fight on our hands all our lives…
“This is no way to treat women in their twilight years.”