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Pensions scandal: broken promises, cruelty and contempt

Yvonne Roberts
Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

Last week, in a landmark case, the high court decided that almost four million women born in the 1950s would not be compensated for the money they lost – for some individuals up to £40,000 – when the female pension age was raised from 60 to 66.

Julie Delve, 61, and Karen Glynn, 63, from the campaign group BackTo60, challenged the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) with a judicial review, arguing that raising their pension age “unlawfully discriminated against them on the grounds of age, sex and age and sex combined”. Previously, women could claim a state pension at 60, men at 65 (by 2020 both men and women will receive their pension at 66). Lord Justice Irwin and Mrs Justice Whipple dismissed the claim, saying there was no discrimination as the decision did not treat women less favourably than men but corrected a historic discrimination against men.

Related: This brutal judgment on pensions is blind to the reality of older women’s lives | Polly Toynbee

The judges are correct – up to a point, Lord Copper. Since the postwar welfare state was established there has been discrimination – but between men, not against them. Between men because it is patently unfair that those who grafted during a time of heavy industry for years have to wait until 66, the same as, say, the bank clerk, who physically has not paid so high a price. At the same time, for women born in the 1950s to receive their pension at 60 is fair recompense for the lives they have lived. As one woman in a documentary made by Backto60 says so spiritedly: “I am a woman. I am different from a man. I’m not inferior. I’m not better. I’m different.” So, in the framework of pensions, how different?

A newspaper ad in the 1950s, has a miniature woman in a frilly pinafore ecstatically dancing on the draining board of a monster kitchen sink apparently beside herself with joy waving a tin of Vim – for those not familiar with the elbow grease school of housework, it’s a scouring powder. “When you tackle the midday meal,” the slogan reads, “There’s a row of happy Vim-trim saucepans ready and waiting!” Women born in the 1950s were reared in an era in which they experienced what feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham calls cultural schizophrenia. The prevailing attitudes were that they were expected to be traditional wives and mothers. At the same time, the huge rise in consumerism pushed the working-class woman into (guilty) employment to “help out” the household budget. Many women had time out of frequently low-paid work to rear children and care for ageing relatives, or didn’t work at all, affecting their national insurance contributions – and they had the added burden of unequal domesticity. If that doesn’t add up to deserving the six years’ pension that they are now denied, what does?

Don’t give tax cuts to the 1% while ignoring those who have contributed all their lives

BackTo60 campaign group member

Government maladministration also played its part. The 1995 Conservative government’s State Pension Act included plans to increase women’s state pension from 60 to 65. The Turner Commission recommended 15 years’ notice – yet, according to the campaign group, Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI), some women were only sent letters a staggering 14 years later. Many have never received letters. Government advertising about pension changes has been dire, patronising and obscure. In 2011, further increases to the female state pension age were brought in faster than the coalition originally promised, again with little or no notice. That’s showing contempt.

Women in the 1950s reared children, they volunteered, they put their own ambition on the back burner and gave freely of their time, earned modestly and paid their taxes. Now, some say, they have a choice – to heat or eat.

Related: Iain Duncan Smith wants us to work until we drop. But we are not machines | Stefan Stern

It’s a terrible irony that too many 1950s women have been catapulted from a past of traditional housewifery to the snapping jaws of today’s welfare state – struggling to beat ageism in fruitlessly applying for a ridiculous number of jobs every day in order to secure the little to which they are entitled on benefits or experiencing for the first time the insecurities of the gig economy and life on a teenager’s salary.

As one member of Backto60 said: “Don’t give tax cuts to the 1% while ignoring those who have contributed all their lives, expecting them at 60 to go out and find an apprenticeship.” Equality is meant to mean equality of opportunity, not equality of injustice.