Christine Jardine: WASPI women stung as the social contract breaks down
A letter dropped on to my doormat recently which made me smile. It was more of an ironic smirk than a grin.
This was a letter from the Government informing me of the earliest date when I will be eligible for my state pension: 2027.
Now I’m not complaining. I have no intention of retiring even then.
But it did bring home to me exactly what is must have been like for the three million women in this country who suddenly found they couldn’t retire when they expected.
Ironically one of them could have been Theresa May.
She was born in the 1950s, she’s female, and she’s just past what would have been her expected retirement age. But the Prime Minister is in a rather privileged situation, and unlike 6,000 WASPI women in Edinburgh West, she doesn’t need to worry about when she’ll receive her state pension.
Which for many of us makes it all the more surprising, and frustrating that she is not part of the campaign to get justice for those who have been affected by the shambles caused when the state pension age was equalised for men and women.
Many of the women affected were only months from being 60 when they discovered they would have to wait up to six years longer for their state pension.
Their retirement plans have been shattered, with devastating consequences.
One of the first people to visit me when I became an MP was one of these so-called WASPI women – named after the inspirational group Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) which is campaigning for “fair transitional state pension arrangements”.
That woman – let’s call her Helen – had been 18 months from retirement when she took redundancy from the bank she worked in, thinking that her settlement would see her through to her retirement and her pension.
Then she learned she would have to wait almost a decade to get access to the pot she had been paying into all her working life. Now she has two part-time cleaning jobs and crippling arthritis in her knees.
It’s for women like her that myself and other MPs from all parties, are taking on Theresa May’s government.
Each time I see her in the commons I have to resist the urge to point out to the Prime Minister: “That could have been you.”
Each time we have debated the issue I have been proud of the cros-party support for the women, but baffled by the Government’s intransigence.
Even in the face of a 288 votes to zero backing for a backbench motion calling on them to improve transitional arrangements.
There are a number of things which they could do.
For example, the WASPI group favours a “bridging pension” paid from age 60 to the state retirement age. This would compensate those at risk of losing up to around £45,000.
But it’s not the only possible solution. I have also signed a Private Member’s Bill calling for a review of the best way of finding some sort of justice and compensation.
But ministers refuse to budge. Astonishingly, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Esther McVey, has declared that she has no plans to even meet with representatives of the WASPI campaign.
Contrast that with the speech to the Lib Dem conference a couple of weeks ago by my colleague and friend Jo Swinson. She spoke about how the “social contract” – fundamental in binding our society together – was being torn apart.
When I think about the WASPI women I meet regularly in my constituency, or the stories they tell me of the hardship they have faced because of pension changes, I couldn’t agree with Jo more.
These women were told from a young age that if they studied hard, if they worked hard, and they paid their national insurance in return they would earn a decent wage and could be sure of dignity and a decent quality of life in retirement.
But the way WASPI women have been treated by their own government shows us that those basic truths underpinning our shared responsibility to one another across society have broken down.
Why should the social contract mean anything now to women who have worked so hard all their lives, only to be told to shelve their plans for a dignified retirement to carry on for up to seven years longer?
And they look around and see the wealthy and the privileged enjoying far more than their fair share.
This can’t be right.
This isn’t justice.
And it isn’t what this government promised us.
When she stood on the steps of Downing Street the day she became Prime Minister, Theresa May gave her word that life would get better for those struggling to get by.
Many of us – WASPI women especially – must have felt a genuine sense of optimism. Here was a new, female Prime Minister promising that her government would champion the “just about managing”.
But Theresa May has betrayed these women, just like she has betrayed so many in our society who would have felt hope on that day back in 2016.
Like so many in Britain, WASPI women have been left behind. They deserve better. And I’m demanding better for them.
• Christine Jardine is the Lib Dem MP for Edinburgh West