Leading Article: Women's work is never done

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The Independent Online
'ANYONE can get old,' Groucho Marx once remarked. 'All you have to do is go on living.' Today he might add, 'and working ever more years', for the Government seems poised to raise the retirement age for women to 63 or 65. It will be the greatest change to women's conditions of work in half a century. The days when Britain looked forward to lower retirement ages as it grew wealthier appear to be over.

Ostensibly, the reason for raising the age at which women can claim the state pension is not an outbreak of misogyny in Westminster but concern about the 'demographic time bomb' of an ageing population. It is also in deference to a European Court judgment. In 1990 the court ruled against discrimination between the sexes in determining the official age of retirement. The Government was obliged to decide how to equalise the state pension age, which, since 1940, has been 65 for men and 60 for women.

The election last year meant controversial decisions were delayed, and the Conservative manifesto made no commitment on the age of equalisation. However, women have already been paying a price for equality. More than three- quarters of companies have changed or are planning to change the rules of their pension schemes so that men and women become entitled to a full pension at 65. This has been a blow to women. The advantage they have enjoyed over men by retiring at 60 instead of 65 had gone some way towards compensating them for the much lower pensions many receive as a result of being out of paid employment during child-rearing years.

Equalisation at 65 has occurred with only muted protest. The recession partly explains the peaceful nature of the revolution. Women are aware that opposing the change, after demanding equality in other spheres of life, would leave them open to accusations of hypocrisy. The Government has spotted the weakness and, according to inspired leaks, is poised to exploit it. Instead of equalising the state pension age at 63, which is fiscally neutral, ministers want to raise women's retirement age to 65 and save pounds 4bn a year. Thus, the cause of equality is no longer at the heart of the matter; cutting the social security budget is the issue.

This pill will probably be sugared with claims that the money saved will be ploughed back into helping the poor. Ministers will offer demographic lessons on how, without changes, pensioners will impoverish workers in the next century. This rhetoric should not obscure the truth that women - probably those aged less than 47 - will lose five years' benefits to which they were previously entitled. Women in menial, low-paid work may feel that their sentence has been lengthened with no opportunity of a defence or an appeal. Those who would trust Treasury officials to take over the pension funds of state industries such as British Rail should be warned.

A fairer solution would be equalisation at 63. Men would gain the fruits of equality, but the change would not be too dramatic for women. Perhaps the age of retirement would have to be raised again, but any additional increase should be put to voters in a general election, not legislated by a government in a hurry to make savings on its budget.