Esther Shaw: Get saving, girls - tomorrow <i>will</i> come

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The Independent Online

However, much as I like the idea of marrying a rich man who will keep me in the style to which I'm accustomed, I know I'll need a back-up plan.

But millions of British women, it seems, don't agree. A new report from insurer Scottish Widows, reveals that only three in 10 female of working age are currently saving towards their retirement, compared with half of men. And half of those who are saving stop doing so when they have children.

"They reassure themselves that if the man in their life won't provide, then the state will," says Baroness Hollis of Heigham, a campaigner on women's pension rights and a contributor to the Scottish Widows report. But the reality is, neither of these are givens any more. For a start, six million women could be financially dependent on their husbands during retirement, leaving them in a vulnerable position, as around half of marriages are ending in divorce.

Nor can women rely on the state, as the current pension system penalises those who work part-time or take career breaks. For while more women are earning their own living, the gains will always be fragile because of the need to combine a career with the demands of caring for children or elderly relatives.

And that means they are penalised twice, as many women struggle to build up enough national insurance contributions to qualify for the full state pension. This is also unfair to those who do unpaid care work - suggesting they are somehow less valuable to society.

As if all this weren't bad enough, women are still more likely to be in lower-paid or part-time jobs than their male counterparts - which means they have less chance to build up either state pension rights or a substantial private pension.

This is why there is a real need to develop a level playing field when it comes to providing for the future.

Ian Naismith from Scottish Widows quite rightly states: "When you have a pensions system that overlooks the need of women, it should come as no surprise to find so many women living on low incomes in retirement."

He also points out that preventing an impoverished old age is not simply down to convincing women to save more. "We need major change within the state and private pensions system to make it more feasible for them to save, and to make it more attractive for them to do so."

Baroness Hollis adds that women are baffled by the complexity of the pension system. In the report, she calls for both a decent basic state scheme on which women can rely in their own right, and also second-tier pensions which fit the lives that women lead.

These second tier plans, she says, need to be transparent and easy-to-understand - offering flexibility, portability and the ability to underpay and overpay as family life permits.

Looking at the bigger picture, the report adds, these reforms need to be accompanied by moves to improve the position of women in the workplace, and to have unpaid care work recognised and reflected in the pension they receive at retirement.

Campaigners are pinning their hopes on the report by Adair Turner, the chairman of the Pensions Commission - due out next month. In his suggestions for solving Britain's long-term savings crisis, they hope he will recommend reforms that improve the lot of women.

Given that he devoted a whole chapter to the issue in his interim report in November last year, the signs are encouraging. But what form those reforms will take remains to be seen.

Sam Dunn is away

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