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Women's state pension campaigners could take fight to courts
Campaigners against state pension age rises say Dutch court ruling shows government's actions are vulnerable to legal challenge.
The women battling state pension age rises are looking at taking legal action against the government after a Dutch court ruled in favour of a woman who fought to take her pension early.
In a House of Commons debate last week, Labour MP Barbara Keeley said it was a breach of the convention on human rights to raise the state pension age for women twice in quick succession.
The debate was secured after a campaign by women who have been affected – known as Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) – who have seen their pension age rise from 60 to 65 and then from 65 to 66.
The first increase was passed in legislation in 1995 and sought to end inequality in the pension age between men and women. The second increase happened in 2011 after the Lib-Con coalition linked the state retirement age with increasing life expectancy.
One of the main concerns is that women were not informed of the increases and not given time to prepare.
Keeley, who is supporting Waspi in its attempt to force the government to make transitional arrangements for those born in the 1950s who are hit hardest by the rises, said: ‘Recently a court in the Netherlands ruled that raising the state pension age could be considered a breach of the European convention on human rights.
‘A women in her 60s appealed against a two-year increase in her pension age because it created an "individual and excessive burden" on her. The court found in her favour.’
Waspi campaign spokesman Chris Shaw, said the group had already enlisted the help of a barrister to determine the legal position and had not ruled out ‘putting in a class action’, where the Waspi women appeal as a collective rather than on an individual basis.
‘The Dutch case could set a strong precedent,’ said Shaw. ‘We have engaged counsel to look at it and we are awaiting the barrister’s response.
‘I would not say [legal action] is the next step but it remains a possibility.’
Although the woman in the Dutch case was unwell and physically unable to work, Waspi said it would campaign for all women to be given transitional arrangements, not just those who could not work.
‘We still regard the state pension as an entitlement rather than a benefit, despite what the government’s official definition is,’ said Shaw. ‘We say that it should not be means-tested…and [basing transitional arrangements] on health is a type of means-testing.’
Waspi is aware a court case could drag on for years, moving past the state pension age of some of the women involved.
‘We would rather the government acknowledge that [the women] have a legitimate grievance and take swift and decisive action,’ said Shaw. ‘We do not want to see this dragged through the courts but we will if we have to.’
Keeley criticised the government for blaming increases in the state pension age on European legislation, saying that although countries were broadly moving towards higher state retirement ages there was no set timetable for doing so.
She said the EU directive on old age benefits ‘allows for different state pension ages’.
‘Indeed, article seven of the directive specifically states that the determination of the state pension age is the right of member states,’ she said.
‘A 2007 European Commission report confirmed that different state pension ages are allowed. Equalisation of state pension ages is therefore described as "an objective to be strived for".’
The Netherlands, Portugal and France have no current differences in state pension age for men and women but Austria and Hungary are equalising with long transitional arrangements.
The state pension will not be equalised in Poland until 2040, and not until 2044 in the Czech Republic, while Bulgaria and Romania have opted to retain different retirement ages for men and women.
Keeley said that other EU countries were helping women who will see their state pension age increased. ‘Other countries have had transitional arrangements, or have amended their legislation to help specific groups,’ she said.
‘The Netherlands has a bridge pension. Italy brought in extensive pension changes, but made exemptions for people who were made redundant or who had a defined level of contributions…the UK can and should put in place additional transitional arrangements to address the unfair consequences of this government’s Pensions Act.’
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has meanwhile been scolded by MPs for failing to inform the women about their state pension increases.
Many in the Waspi campaign say they did not receive any communication from the DWP about the increase, with many only finding out about the first rise to 65 when they were told their pension age was being increased to 66.
Labour MP Frank Field, chair of the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee, said ‘successive governments have bungled the fundamental duty to tell women of these major changes to when they can expect their state pension’.
‘Retirement expectations have been smashed, as some women have only been told a couple of years before the date they expected to retire that no such retirement pension is now available,’ he said.
He added that there were ongoing concerns about current pension age communications and the DWP needed to ‘hammer out a new pension entitlement notice and begin supplying all women with accurate information on their pension entitlement’.
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