This piece first appeared in The Daily Telegraph on 28 September 2002
The text here may not be identical to the published text

Clear as mud, Minister

Crystal clear, ministering to women?

The Government Minister who recently said it would be unfair to compensate married women over wasted National Insurance contributions because social security leaflets issued in 1967 were "crystal clear" in fact wrote a guide to state pensions in 1973 because Government leaflets were so hard to understand.

The Rt. Hon. Patricia Hewitt MP is now Minister for Women as well as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. But in 1973, as the 24-year-old Public Relations Officer at Age Concern, she took responsibility for writing the first edition of the charity’s booklet Your Rights. In her introduction Ms Hewitt wrote "All your lives you’ve paid contributions and taxes which pay for the benefits which this booklet tells you about. That’s why it’s called Your rights, it advises you how to get the money which is yours—by right." Now in its 30th edition and completely re-written, the book is still seen as a valuable explanation of the impenetrably complex state pension rules.

Patricia Hewitt in 1973


Patricia Hewitt in 2002

Ms Hewitt refused for most of this summer to step into the row over complaints by married women that they had been misled over the effects of paying the reduced rate married woman’s National Insurance contributions rather than the full rate. The reduced rate, although costing up to £19 a week, is wasted money – it earns the married women who pay it no rights to pensions or other benefits. But, as The Daily Telegraph reported, the Minister for Women broke her silence two weeks ago after examining a booklet issued in 1967 by the then Ministry of Social Security. Its contents must have been familiar to the young Ms Hewitt who examined Government leaflets for her own booklet in 1973 where she felt the need to write her own explanation "If you are a married woman, and haven’t paid contributions or have only paid the small contributions for married women…you can only receive your pension if your husband is getting his." But the 53-year-old Ms Hewitt now claims that the government leaflet "was crystal clear".

David Hobman, who was Director of Age Concern at the time and Ms Hewitt’s boss, told The Daily Telegraph "I'm rather surprised that Patricia Hewitt should feel that the information from the Government was helpful all those years ago because when she worked with me at Age Concern she was regularly producing information material to help people who were totally confused by Government leaflets. We published Your Rights, which Patricia wrote, in large print and simple language so that people could understand the complications of the system. We used to joke that civil servants bought it so they could understand their own rules."

A spokeswoman for Ms Hewitt said "The fact that she produced her booklet doesn’t contradict the fact that she thinks the 1967 leaflet was crystal clear."

Whatever the clarity of the explanation in the past, four major changes since the 1967 leaflet, have made it almost certain that every one of the 100,000 married women still paying the reduced rate of National Insurance contributions should change to full contributions at once and that millions of people who paid them in the 1980s and 1990s were badly advised.

· Home responsibilities protection

Normally a woman needs 39 years of full contributions to get a full pension. But a new rule introduced in April 1978 reduced this number for each year in which she received child benefit for a child under 16. The result is that women retiring now who have had children could need as few as 20 years of full contributions to get a full pension and might get a pension of nearly £19 with as few as five years of full contributions. Each year she pays a full contribution can add nearly £4 a week to her pension.

· SERPS and S2P

Since April 1978 women who pay full contributions also get valuable rights to the State Earnings Related Pension Scheme (SERPS) and, from April this year, to its replacement the State Second Pension (S2P). A woman paying full contributions now will earn S2P of at least £1 a week for each year she pays them – better paid women will earn more. Entitlement to these earnings-related pensions is independent from any entitlement to the basic pension and can be claimed at 60.

· The half test

Until April 1979 working women had to pay full contributions for at least half their working life – around 22 years. This was more than double the period which applied to other people. The abolition of this discriminatory test for working women in 1979 made it much more worthwhile for them to pay full National Insurance contributions.

· Money for nothing

This year, people who earn between £75 and £89 a week pay no National Insurance contributions at all. Most of them nevertheless get credits to build up entitlement to retirement pension, incapacity benefit, and jobseeker's allowance, as well as bereavement benefits for their spouse. But some married women are still registered as entitled to pay reduced rate contributions and they get no rights to a pension or other benefits. Giving up the right to pay reduced rate contributions costs them nothing but could earn them money.

In another of her books Ms Hewitt called on the Labour Party to change its policies in favour of women. Women’s Votes – the Key to Winning (Fabian Society 1989) says "A profound transformation in Labour’s thinking is required if Labour is to put women first… Winning women means winning power". That is crystal clear at least.

28 September 2002

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