Saturday, December 16, 2017

Theresa May faces the humiliation of a Commons defeat, as the Democratic Unionist Party prepares to side with Labour in a debate on women’s state pensions, The Independent can reveal.

A petition on the issue has now gained enough signatories to be debated in the Commons, but the DUP has said it will vote against the Conservatives if they continue to refuse “justice” for the women, who have been hit by sharp accelerations in the state pension age.

The stance opens up the deepest crack yet in the controversial “cash for votes” deal, which has propped up the Prime Minister in No 10 since her general election debacle.

It will also pile pressure on the Tories to finally help the so-called “Waspi women” (Women Against State Pension Inequality), who have been forced to wait longer than expected to retire. 

The Waspi campaign group say the women’s “retirement plans have been shattered with devastating consequences”, because of confusing retirement changes, and demand compensation in the petition.

DUP MPs have already joined with Labour by demanding transitional help, describing it as a “moral duty” in a parliamentary motion. 

Now Sammy Wilson, the DUP’s work and pensions spokesman, has told The Independent: “We stand by our manifesto commitment that this issue needs to be dealt with.

“The Government cannot go on with delay and delay on this until the women do finally qualify for their pension – or they die off.”

The DUP would almost certainly back Labour if the vote was to provide transitional help for those forced to delay retirement, Mr Wilson added. Some Tory backbenchers could also rebel, in a showdown expected over the next couple of months – having publicly voiced support for the women.

Plans to gradually increase the state pension age for women to 65, between 2010 and 2020 – to equalise it with men – were set out as far back as 1995.

But they were sped up by the coalition government in 2011, which means women cannot claim their pension until 65 from November next year and until 66 from October 2020.

Campaigners argue that the women were not properly warned about the first change, leaving them little time to adjust their plans – a problem deepened by the later acceleration.

The petition, signed by 68,000 people in just a few weeks, demands “a non-means tested bridging pension for women born on or after 6/4/1950 who are affected by the 1995 and 2011 Pension Acts”. It is poised to reach the 100,000-signature mark – making it eligible for a Commons debate.

Grahame Morris, the Labour MP behind the petition, revealed he would arrange tellers on both sides, to guarantee a vote when the Waspi campaign secures a debate.

While the vote would be non-binding on the Government, it would be an embarrassing defeat for Ms May’s administration, which is dependant on the DUP to pass laws. 

Mr Morris said: “This is an opportunity to divide the Tories from its governing partner. I think there is enough support for us to win and address this injustice.

“In my constituency, lots of women who worked in physically demanding jobs in factories now have to wait until they are 65 or 66 to retire. Or maybe they were nurses, also taking a toll on their health.”

Labour has also called for the worst-affected to be allowed to retire up to two years earlier – at 64, rather than 65 after November 2018 and 66 after October 2020 – on a slightly reduced pension.

The looming schism offers fresh hope to the Waspi campaign, but will potentially force a Government U-turn at huge financial cost. 

A defeat would not be binding, but would make it extremely difficult for the Government to refuse to help the women. Ministers have claimed that would cost “in excess of £70bn”.

Last week, pensions minister Guy Opperman told MPs: “The Government is not intending to revisit the state pension age arrangements for women born in the 1950s or affected by the Pensions Act of 1995, 2007 and 2011.”

The Conservative-DUP arrangement will also come under huge strain this week, when Labour will use a debate to demand a halt to extending universal credit to 50 more areas, after trials were plagued by problems. 

The change is meant to simplify the system, by merging benefits, but critics say claimants have been plunged into debt and forced to food banks, after being made to wait six weeks – or even longer – for a first payment.

The DUP is expected to abstain on the motion, making any vote – if one happens – extremely tight.

Last month, the Conservatives avoided Commons defeats when the DUP backed Labour on securing higher NHS pay and blocking student fee hikes by refusing to push votes.

Under the “confidence and supply” deal, the DUP agreed to back the Conservatives only on finance bills, Brexit legislation and protecting “national security”.

It said the party’s support on other issues would be decided on a “case-by-case basis” – making the agreement much weaker than a formal coalition.