There is one fascinating exception to the failure of the parties to engage with fundamental issues: that is, the position of the WASPI women, two and a half million women who have had their expected retirement dates delayed and their pension entitlements radically cut. This is yet another legacy of bad policy decisions taken in recent years. It has led, however, to Labour and the SNP making a commitment to compensate the women for the loss of rights that have been earned through contributory benefits.
The current position of the UK government has some parallels with the behaviour of Glasgow Council, which persistently underpaid women who ought to have had equal pay. Both of these problems have come about because the public authorities were looking for ways to save money, and they thought that it was easier to do that by taking the money from women, largely because women’s incomes are considered secondary to men’s. In both cases, the injustice is obvious and palpable. And in both cases, the main ground for resistance now is simply how much it will cost to set the issue right.
The WASPI women are set to appeal from the case they lost in the High Court. They lost that case mainly because they tried to argue that their treatment was discriminatory; that argument failed because as policy intended to equalise the position of men and women is the opposite. For what it’s worth, however, I think that ultimately they are going to win, because there are other, stronger objections to the policy. The case has direct parallels with a human rights case taken in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, in Five Pensioners v Peru. The decision in that case centred on the suspension of pensions by the Peruvian government. Disappointingly, the court did not attach much weight to the idea that social security was a human right; but they did think that there was a human right not be be deprived of one’s property, and that a contributory pension was the property of the pensioner, not the government.
The government can’t rely on its power to make the rules for social security. The DWP’s rules are mainly determined through secondary legislation, but secondary legislation can’t trump human rights or property rights. That has implications for any future government. The bill to compensate the WASPI women is going to be presented in due course, and regardless of the political complexion of the government, it is going to have to be paid.