Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
I thank you, Mr Flello, for your excellent chairmanship—very stern, but firm. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for securing this vital debate, which is so essential for securing a dignified retirement for some 2.5 million women. Her speech was factual, relevant and presented the arguments succinctly. I also congratulate the hon. Members who are here from the SNP for their elegant speeches and the contribution they have made today.
The injustices currently being experienced by women born in the 1950s at the hands of the Government are a travesty and it is right that they are discussed here today and at every other given opportunity. We must not allow this Government to turn a blind eye. Today it is especially poignant that the debate focuses on working-class women who are feeling the effects of this injustice so acutely. Many of the women have no savings and are likely to be working in physically demanding jobs. I am of an age that means I need to work a lot longer than I originally intended, but I am very fortunate—I have a clean job that involves a lot of sitting down. When I was in my 30s I was a dinner lady in a special school. That involved lifting children and young people, to allow them to go to the bathroom or have their lunch, and all the other things that have to be done for children with special needs. I could not do that job today; I physically would not be able to do it. There are women today doing heavy jobs, not for the luxuries of life but to live life.
There are those of us on this side of the House who are passionate about helping these women, and indeed there are also some on the Government Benches who lobby for fair play and justice for them. However, our efforts to date have been frustrated by the Government’s reluctance to engage in productive dialogue. At the end of last year, Labour’s suggestion to extend pension credit to those who needed it was turned down by the Secretary of State and his Pensions Minister. That would have extended support to hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable women.
Our suggestion that the Minister set up a special proactive helpline for the women affected to ensure that they all had access to the social security system, which is claimed to be sufficient to meet their needs, also went unheeded. Perhaps the Minister needs reminding of the hardship that the poorly managed changes that this Government have put in place have caused to more than 2.6 million WASPI women. The Minister argues that the social security system will step in to support women struggling to make ends meet as a result of the changes. May I remind the House that that is the same social security system that this Government have spent seven years savaging, with swingeing cuts to universal credit and employment and support allowance alongside sharpened conditionality measures in a punitive and discredited work assessment system?
In our work to support the WASPI women and WASPI Voice we have heard from many women who have been left in dire straits by the pension age changes but cannot obtain sufficient social security support. I hear every day, as I am sure many Members do, of hardship cases that are beyond belief—women going to food banks, women losing their homes, women being forced to move in with their children because they cannot afford to live in their own homes. One woman whose pension age was moved back and could no longer afford to pay the rent has spiralled into debt and is on the verge of losing her home. Another is struggling to keep her sick husband out of care so that they can hang on to their family home, without the state pension income that she was planning to use to keep them both going in her retirement.
By now, most Members of this House will have heard of similar cases—repeated reminders of the Government’s failure. Thankfully, an army of campaigners are now planning to work with us to keep the pressure on the Government. Those groups stand shoulder to shoulder in the message that this Government have got it wrong and should reconsider. The two main campaigning groups, Women Against State Pension Inequality and WASPI Voice, both agree with equalisation of the state pension age; where they differ from the Government is on the means by which that should be achieved.
Lessons must now be learned from the failure to communicate the changes to state pension timetables to those affected. However, that does not go far enough as a means of redress. Fair transitional arrangements should be put in place to support the most vulnerable. The Opposition have suggested plans, but the Government have dismissed all suggestions of measures for amelioration. One of the WASPI campaign groups has decided to mount a legal action against the Government; its representation is preparing to pursue maladministration complaints against the Department for Work and Pensions. Labour proposals call on the Government to extend pension credit to those who would have been eligible under the 1995 timetable, so that women affected by the chaotic mismanagement of equalisation will be offered some support until they retire.
I repeat my previous comments about chaotic mismanagement; it obviously goes to the top.
Our proposals would make hundreds of thousands of WASPI women eligible for up to £156 a week, but we will not stop there. We are developing further proposals to support as many WASPI women as possible. We are considering proactive ways to support the most vulnerable now. The proposals will be financially credible, based on sound evidence and supported by WASPI women.
It was disappointing that the Government did not use the opportunity provided by the autumn statement to do anything to support those women. It was equally disappointing that our amendment to the Pension Schemes Bill, which would have implemented our pension credit proposals immediately, was unsuccessful. My party believes in standing up for the most vulnerable, which is what we are doing today and will do tomorrow, the day after, next week and next year. We will continue to support the WASPI women in this fight. I made a personal promise in the Chamber to raise this issue at every opportunity, and I stand firm in that commitment. My party and I call on this Government to stop burying their heads in the sand and do the right thing by these women. Give the women affected the respect that they deserve: act now and rectify this injustice.
Does the Minister acknowledge that women who are currently in work may be there not because they want to be, but because they have to be?
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