Prior to the last election, the National Women’s Council, Age Action and Active Retirement Ireland, and Siptu came together to form the STOP67 campaign.
The campaign raised two demands. The first was that the planned increase in the pension age to 67 years in 2021 be stopped.
The second demand was that a stakeholder forum be established and made up of representatives of employee and employer groups along with civil society organisations. The objective of this forum was to achieve a consensus around new policies on the pension age, as well as addressing issues such as workplace age discrimination and living standards in retirement.
The pension age increase became a major issue during the election, with all political parties, except Fine Gael, supporting the STOP67 demands.
The subsequent Programme for Government committed to deferring the pension age increase and establishing a commission to examine the matter. However, we were shocked and surprised to learn that the membership of the commission, appointed by Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys, did not include representatives of groups in society that are most directly affected by the pension age increase.
While the minister’s appointees are eminently qualified across a range of specialties, the commission lacks the balance needed to arrive at conclusions that can accommodate a range of interests, especially those most affected by any pension age increase, and achieve a consensus.
In this regard, the minister has failed to recognise the importance of including the representatives of the lived experiences of older people and of those whose lives and wellbeing may be determined by the recommendations of the commission. This will undermine its work as it denies the experience and insights such groups can bring.
For instance, the current system has given rise to a gender pension gap with women receiving close to 30% less than men in retirement. The issue of life quality in retirement is also central to any discussion on pensions. While much of the debate has focused on longevity, that is, the average number of years people are expected to live, a crucial benchmark is ‘healthy life expectancy’. This is a measurement which is used by the World Health Organisation and which illustrates that increasing the pension age significantly lessens the ‘healthy life’ span of pensioners.
In its recent report on the social protection system, the National Economic and Social Council argues that “in the absence of an employment strategy for older workers, simply increasing the pension eligibility age and offering Jobseeker’s Benefit as a temporary and transition 2 income will disproportionately impinge on lower-income workers, undermine support for the reform and increase the at-risk-of-poverty rate among older people”.
Without a membership that includes those who reflect the real-life experience of current and imminent pensioners, the commission will struggle to balance the issues of social equity and fiscal sustainability.
STOP67 recognises the challenge of getting this balance right. However, many commentators seek to reduce the complex issue to primarily that of pension age increases.
The challenges which the commission will confront encompass revenue raising and expenditure management measures as well as policies that extend beyond the state pension itself. These include the promotion of long-term economic growth, higher employment rates, and productivity within the wider context of demographic change.
Older people, those approaching the pension age, women who suffer discrimination in a system which punishes them for their years caring for children or relatives, and the low paid who depend entirely on the state pension for their income are among those most affected by any changes to income provision in their later years.
It is to be welcomed that workers will be represented on the commission by Ictu delegate and Siptu deputy general secretary Ethel Buckley. However, it is regrettable that those representing the specific interests of women and older people are not. The Government should nominate representatives of organisations that have a long track record of advocacy for, and engagement with, those who are most affected by the pension age increase. These include the National Women’s Council, Age Action, and Active Retirement Ireland.
Failure to recognise this deficit and take this action will give a clear signal that the Government’s stated commitment in its Programme for Government to greater stakeholder engagement on the pensions and other issues is not worth the paper on which it is written.
- Orla O’Connor is director of the National Women’s Council