Thursday 23 May 2019

Our long-suffering women deserve more than words, they deserve pension equality

The current pension system is grossly unfair to females who contribute invaluably to society, writes Catherine Martin

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe has admitted it is
Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe has admitted it is "bonkers and unbelievable" that women are losing out on pension payments due to a recent change in the rules. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Catherine Martin

In recent years, the pension gap between men and women has widened, with women now having on average 37pc less of a pension to live on than men. Many women, who for so many years got up early in the morning to work or look after this nation's children are now entering an insecure, impoverished retirement. They will have limited access to pensions for a number of reasons including low pay, poor conditions of work or taking time out from work for caring responsibilities. Women who worked on family farms and in family businesses also do not have social insurance cover, which means they are often totally reliant on their spouse or partner in their older age.

Introduced in 1994, the Homemaker's Scheme made it easier for some women and men who have spent years out of the workforce caring for children to qualify for a Contributory State Pension, but a lack of fair and equitable access to the Homemaker's Scheme has led to experiences of inequality of treatment for a whole generation of women in the State Pensions system. The State's enforced marriage bar was in place in Ireland until 1973.

Tens of thousands of women who got married prior to 1973 and were forced to give up their public and civil service jobs are now out in the cold, forgotten, and, put simply, do not receive equal treatment. This is not good enough - it is grossly unfair. They deserve better.

The Taoiseach said that he planned to "reward work and enterprise" in Budget 2018, but it appears that fair pensions for these women forcibly barred from work by the State were not on his radar of his so-called just society, being deemed 'too expensive' and not a political priority in his Republic of opportunity.

The Government must accept that the Homemaker's Scheme should be applied retrospectively, and at the very least, the Government should commit to addressing this flagrant inequality among pensioners by indicating a timeline to eliminate this patent discrimination which Minister Paschal Donohoe has described as both "bonkers and unbelievable". It must be difficult for those women who have been denied their pension entitlement to take the Minister's words at face value given his inaction last week when introducing Budget 2018 - a sorely missed opportunity which will cause understandable upset for the cohort of people (mostly women) unjustifiably discriminated against - so despite the Government's abject admission, the plight of these women continues to be ignored.

In 2012, the previous Government introduced changes to the eligibility criteria for the Contributory State Pension and since April 2012, the total number of PRSI contributions made is divided by the number of years between when one starts work and reaches pension age. This arbitrary, sudden cut-off qualifying date is absent of any sense of fairness. The new bands, linked with this 'averaging' rule, have resulted in many people receiving a significantly reduced weekly State Pension payment. This has deepened the inequality. It adversely and disproportionately affects women because of large periods of time spent outside of the conventionally recognised workforce due to family responsibilities, part-time work and compelled higher concentration in insecure or short-term employment. Of the 36,000 people the Department of Social Protection records as impacted by these changes as of June 2016, more than 62pc are women.

This Budget was an opportunity for the Government to end this blatant discrimination by reversing the 2012 changes to pension contributions, but it turned its back on these women. And the Government seems intent on continuing this discrimination, as it indicates plans to replace the current system with the 'total contribution' approach for 'new' pensioners from 2020 - the key word here being 'new', as the Government will be ostracising pre-2020 pensioners by excluding them.

When we discuss pension contributions we should not forget the contribution these women have made to society. Unfortunately despite all the talk, their often invaluable contribution to society is clearly underappreciated and undervalued by Minister Donohoe and his Government colleagues. Action, not words and sound bites, is required. Compiling Budget 2018, like any budget, presented choices. The Government chose to ignore the contribution of these people to society and, in doing so, our nation's women continue to be punished for the time they spent caring for loved ones.

Over the past week we have heard many Government politicians talk about how unfair the current pension system is yet despite the candid admissions, there remains a deep reluctance to give any firm commitment to redress this issue effectively and fairly. Indeed, as recently as last month when I raised the pension gap in the Dail with Minister Richard Bruton, imploring him to tackle this ongoing glaring discriminatory practice, he recognised that it is "a very important issue" and accepted that "this underprovision is much more acute among women". But for the thousands of women who continue to be forgotten by this Government, continue to suffer from this discrimination, they deserve more than mere recognition of their plight, they deserve so much more than words. They deserve equality.

Catherine Martin TD represents Dublin Rathdown and is Deputy Leader of the Green Party

Sunday Independent

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