Divorced wives have been promised a better deal on pensions. They should be grateful to Sallie Quin.
In Sallie Quin, 52 but still blond, slim and leggy, can be glimpsed the glamour that once earned the former casino croupier a living as a model. But her car is clapped out and the wood on the front porch of her spacious semi-detached home in a nice, middle-class street in Chichester is flaked and rotting. Inside it is disrepair and make-do, right down to the ancient tiles on the kitchen floor, all worn and separating.

Mrs Quin, "dumped" by her husband after14 years of marriage, still has the occasionally luxurious moment. "I've just had a glass of champagne with a friend whose decree nisi has come through," she says with a throaty, wry laugh. But she knows that for many women it is poverty that comes with divorce, not champagne. She now relies on income support to pay the mortgage, feed her and keep a roof over her head and that of her teenage daughter.

It was not always so. Six years ago, before her husband, an IBM press officer, left her for another woman, the family had a joint income of pounds 40,000. Mr Quin earned the bulk but Mrs Quin had a series of "little jobs" that brought in "extras" but kept her attention firmly focused on husband, home and child.

When they split up, Mrs Quin got the house and Mr Quin, who surprised his wife by taking early retirement, got the pension. That separation of assets - so common in divorce settlements - marked the start of Mrs Quin's own battle to get a share of a pension she says they had always earmarked to pay off their mortgage. It also heralded the beginning of a national fight by middle-aged women left in dire financial circumstances after marriage breakdowns.

Today, Mrs Quin is the spokeswoman for Fair Shares, an organisation she helped to set up just three years ago. Her home is the nerve centre for the group whose numbers have swelled from 25 to 2,000. It played a major part in forcing the Government U-turn this week on pension-splitting after divorce. After years of insistence that dividing pensions was just too complicated, Roger Freeman, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, pledged on Monday that the Government would change the law to allow a divorced wife to have a share of her husband's pension.

Fair Shares is unhappy at ministers' attempts to separate the pension- splitting issue from the Lord Chancellor's controversial Family Law Bill. But it is pleased that the Government's offer instead to present separate legislation at least recognises pension-splitting in principle.

"We are concerned the Government is wriggling, and we want a definite timescale," saysMrs Quin. "But whatever happens we know we are on a roll now."

Fair Shares was the brainchild of Dawn Barnett a drama teacher from Rugby. But Sally Quin has become its public face. Stuck in the benefits "poverty trap", she has had time to take on the group's PR responsibilities. She had no experience of politics or lobbying. Today, her telephone never stops ringing. She is a frequent visitor to the House and liaises regularly with the formidable list of groups that have thrown their weight behind reform. Baroness Hollis, the Labour peer, is a regular caller.

"The Law Commission first said pension-splitting should be looked at in the early Sixties," she says, sitting at a kitchen table that is cluttered with copies of Hansard and makeshift files made from old wine boxes. "Every government since has looked at it, then said this is too complicated and expensive and kicked it into the long grass."

Apart from a few CND rallies in the Sixties and a demonstration against the Greek Colonels in 1967, Mrs Quin has always been "apolitical". Her awakening came rather late: on a college course on information technology which she attended after her husband left. "About 90 per cent of those on the course were women of my age. Like me they had spent their quality years looking after families. About a third of them had been dumped. It only took a couple of coffee breaks for us to identify each other." When she saw a newspaper article on Mrs Barnett's new group she decided to get involved.

She hates the word lobbying - "It's too hard, too professional" - but says modestly it is not such a difficult game. Justice, she says, was on their side but she knew instinctively that danger lurked in the presentation. Fair Shares' members never considered chaining themselves to railings or demonstrating in the streets.

"We tried hard not to come across as harpies," smiles Ms Quin. "You know all the prejudices. I think we have proved we are not just a bunch of whining, rejected women and that we are standing up for a basic human right."

"If a man retires at 50 on a pension of pounds 10,000 a year, by the time he is 78 he has received pounds 280,000. His ex-wife won't see a penny. What she usually gets is half the equity on their house, perhaps about pounds 20,000. It is not enough to invest in an annuity of her own. Women generally earn less than men and live longer. No wonder so many end up in poverty."

She cannot understand how anyone can think it fair that a woman can spend 40 years with a man, supporting his career, entertaining his colleagues and caring for his family, and then end up penniless when he divorces her and remarries - usually to someone younger - who is then entitled to his pension when he dies, no matter how short the union.

Many of Fair Shares' members say that their husbands did not like them working. Their husbands feared it was a sign that they were bad providers, and women sometimes have to fight hard even to have part-time jobs. Mrs Quin points out that, until recently, part-time workers could not build up their own pensions, and even if they could have, it would not have amounted to much.

The Government's pledge, she says, is recognition at last that a pension does not belong just to a man. "It is basically a family pension, part of everything that goes into the family pot."

If the lobbying came naturally, knowledge was rather harder to acquire. Mrs Quin spent hours pouring over books in Chichester's reference library, trying to educate herself in the complicated history of pensions legislation.

What drove her was anger - what she terms the third stage of recovery after a marriage breakdown. "First you are shocked and bewildered and then terribly depressed and frightened. I got angry because I hated being frightened - particularly about finances."

Recovery is a lengthy process and in the initial stages she believes many wives are too distraught to properly protect their interests. The one-year divorce proposed in Family Law Bill is not long enough, she argues. "If you have been in business with someone for 25 years, you cannot sever a partnership that quickly."

She backs her argument with personal experience. For Fair Shares has become not just a campaign group but also a helpline. Her own problems, she says, pale when compared to those of many callers - particularly those in their sixties and seventies, struggling after the break-up of long marriages.

"We have one old dear in the West Country who stays in bed all day because she cannot afford the heating," she says. "The oldest are the most likely to have left all their finances to their husband. Some do not even known how to use a chequebook."

She believes that only divorced and separated women can truly appreciate the terrible position many find themselves in.

"There is no stigma to being divorced now," she says. "But there is a stigma to being poor. You become isolated from your peers. You cannot afford to have that weekly lunch with the girls or go to the races any more. They soon give up calling."

Fair Shares, she says, has succeeded in bringing together women who would never otherwise have met. "We have people from vastly different backgrounds, polarised in so many respects. But the fact that we have all walked this road is a tremendous bond."

In her affluent married days the women she knew came from a narrower social circle. "If this had not happened to me, I would never have come across many of the women I have met and I don't think I would have known myself either."

Ironically, she puts much of her own expertise down to her husband. All those nights spent at this same kitchen table helping with the bullet points for his IBM press releases paid off in the end.

"He was good at his job and I learned a lot from him." Then she laughs her same throaty laugh. "It hasn't been a totally negative experience. I wouldn't let it be."