If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
– Katherina, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ Act 2 Scene 1

WASPI (Women Against State Pension Inequality) is a campaign group founded in 2015 to seek redress for the up to 4 million women who may have been affected by the way that state pension age (SPA) was equalised for men and women.

At times it has been a battle of the sexes worthy of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” but nine years later, and after a series of court actions and investigations, the Parliamentary Ombudsman has issued its report, and they may finally be close to a resolution of sorts.

Old fashions please me best. I am not so nice/To change true rules for old inventions.” (Bianca, Act 3 Scene 1)

It wasn’t always the case that men and women had a different SPA.  When the first state pension was introduced in 1908 it was payable at age 70 for both – at a time when average life expectancy at birth in the UK was 40 years for men and 43 years for women.  In 1925 the SPA was reduced to age 65 for both and it wasn’t until 1940 that it was set at age 60 for women and age 65 for men, and at which it would remain for half a century.

When the Pensions Act 1995 was being drafted it was decided that there should once again be a common SPA for both men and women. Rather than setting this at age 60 it was decided to set it at age 65, largely reflecting improvements in life expectancy and reductions in the dependency ratio – the number of people contributing to the social security system compared to those drawing benefits.

The change in the women’s SPA was to be phased in over a 10-year period from 2010 for women born between 1950 and 1955.  For similar reasons further increases to the SPA were then scheduled so that it would increase to age 66 by April 2026, age 67 by 2036, and age 68 by 2046.

The Pensions Act 2011 then brought the timetable forward so that women had an SPA of age 65 by November 2018 and the SPA for both increased to age 66 by October 2020.  The scheduled increase to age 67 was also brought forward and should be in place by 2028.  The further proposed increase to age 68 is still scheduled to take effect by 2046 but that might be brought forward to 2039 according to some sources.  Indeed, recent reports in the media have suggested that SPA could even be increased to age 71.

Think you a little din can daunt my ears?” (Petruchio, Act 1 Scene 2)

The central concerns of this issue have always been the extent to which women who were approaching their then SPA of age 60 were made aware of the proposed change and given sufficient opportunity to put in place financial plans to deal with that, and the cases of women counting on being able to draw their state pension at age 60, and with little or no other means of support, suffering financial hardship as a result.

Shortly after its founding in 2015, WASPI launched an online petition, which would eventually lead to a debate in parliament.  Both WASPI and a similar group called Backto60 also threatened the DWP with legal action against the change in SPA, but a court case by the latter was dismissed by the High Court in 2019 and rejected by the Court of Appeal the following year.

WASPI instead sought redress for the affected women through the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman for the manner in which the DWP implemented the change.  In 2021 the Ombudsman considered the specimen cases brought and found that there had been maladministration on the part of the DWP in not writing out to the affected women sooner than it did.  A subsequent report the following year initially concluded that despite the maladministration the complainants had not suffered direct financial loss or lost opportunities as a result of the DWP’s actions.  However, this was challenged through judicial review and the Ombudsman eventually conceded in April 2023 that this was incorrect and undertook to review that decision and its further report on compensation.

We will have rings and things and fine array.” (Petruchio, Act 2 Scene 1)

Or perhaps not.  The DWP has made it clear that it has no intention of paying backdated pensions from age 60 for those affected and the Ombudsman has confirmed that it has no power to instruct the DWP to do so.  For the record, in 2020 the then Pensions Minister, Guy Oppenheim, estimated the potential cost of restitution at £215 billion. In fairness it should be stressed that the WASPI campaigners themselves are not looking for this, but for adequate compensation.

Now that the Ombudsman has issued its final report it has recommended that based on the specimen cases examined payments ranging from £1,000 to £2,950 should be made.  In an earlier report the Ombudsman had already indicated that all of the affected women should be compensated and not just the complainants in the specimen cases.  In the meantime, a private member’s bill had been tabled by Alan Brown MP suggesting that payouts should be in the region of £10,000 or more, but despite having cross-party support this has yet to be taken forward.

Meanwhile the more cynical of readers may wonder if it requires a television drama for this issue to be resolved.  Others might agree with Katharina in the play and conclude that perhaps the DWP’s guiding principle throughout has been that “a woman may be made a fool/If she had not a spirit to resist.”