Ros Altmann: The government had a duty to ensure that women affected by age increase were aware of this so that they could adjust their plans
An important case against the raising of the state pension age of women to 66 years was dismissed by the court of appeal.
Two plaintiffs, supported by the BackTo60 group, argued that raising their retirement age discriminated against them.
Former Pensions Secretary and campaigner Ros Altmann says the government may have misled many women and caused them hardship, but this may be due to mismanagement rather than discrimination.
The Court of Appeal has made a clear ruling that the sharp rise in the state pension age of women did not discriminate against those affected.
The judges expressed their condolences to their plight, but the legal conclusion was a government victory against the women who opposed the changes on the grounds of gender discrimination and wanted their state pension age back to 60.
I have long considered that raising the state pension age for women has caused injustice and difficulties, but it is not clear that this can be classified as discrimination.
I think there are strong arguments to help women who have been badly affected because they were unaware that their retirement age had changed.
Many are seriously ill or have retired to care for loved ones, expecting to receive their state pension earlier than the legal allowance.
Yet the problem seems to me to be more related to maladministration and misinformation than to the gender discrimination alleged in judicial review.
Successive governments since the 1990s have not properly informed the millions of women facing an increase in the state pension age that by the age of 60 they would not be able to enjoy the state pension they might have expected.
Women, especially those who are already in their later years, have much lower pensions than men – both private and state pension.
For the most part, receiving an AOW is a crucial part of their retirement income. Any delay in the start date is likely to be more serious for those with little or no private pension.
So what have governments done wrong? I don’t think it was wrong to raise the state pension age for women so that it would be on a par with that of men.
However, when a government makes such a fundamental change, it has a firm duty to ensure that affected women know what is going to happen so that they can adjust their plans for the future. This is where the problem seems to lie to me.
When I was Secretary of Pensions in 2015-2016, I saw copies of official letters written by the government in 2003 and 2004 to millions of these women about their state pensions.
These did not clearly indicate that their pension would not be paid by the age of 60. They only told them what state pension they would receive when they reached state pension age, but they did not tell them what that age would be!
Receiving a letter from the Pensions Department about their state pension, not urging them to check what their state pension age would be, may have lulled them into a false sense of security that they would receive it from the age of 60 – only like any other woman they’d ever known.
This looks like maladministration. It is certainly the case that the government has not realized that many women had no idea that their retirement age would not be 60.
Of course, the officials and ministers who wrote the letters all knew, but they did not understand that the women they were writing to had never been directly notified.
The original increase in the state pension age was recorded in 1995 when those affected were only in their 40s or younger.
There were some newspaper articles mentioning the change in law, which would increase the retirement age of women in 2010 and reach the age of 65 in 2020.
The change was believed to be public knowledge, but simply wasn’t communicated properly to those who needed it over the years.
Indeed, government websites also did not flag women for the impending rise and, worse, when I became Secretary of Pensions, I found that official websites still incorrectly stated that women’s state pension age was 60.
This careless approach to an issue so important to many women was quite surprising.
This lack of overview of state pension information, and the damage to women’s retirement prospects, was subsequently exacerbated by the decision in 2011 (which I strongly opposed at the time) to accelerate the already planned increase in the state pension age for women, so that it would reach 65 in 2018 and rise to 66 in 2020.
This second hike caused even more hardship and added to the problems faced by many women who badly needed their state pension and didn’t have time to change plans they had already made.
The government did try to write to women in 2009, but that was very close to the 2010 start date for the retirement age increase. Shortly after women received those letters, the next government decided to delay their state pension even further.
Governments have a legal right to change the terms of state pensions, but they certainly also have a duty to ensure that those affected are notified of what the changes will be.
So what happens next? An appeal can now be made to the Supreme Court.
But there are also many maladministration cases with the Parliamentary Ombudsman, which were frozen while judicial review and appeals were ongoing.
If there are no more appeals, these will continue, and if maladministration is confirmed by the Ombudsman, there may still be a solution to this problem.
I don’t support a return to retirement benefits from the age of 60, but I think there is a strong reason for the government to help those women – and men – who are struggling as a result of the postponement of the state pension.
Think of more access to pension credit, or early access to AOW for people who are seriously ill or who care for others.
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