Earlier this week I spoke in a debate in Parliament called by the SNP on the “WASPI” women.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to put some context around the comments I made in that debate. In the nature of today’s news cycle these comments have been deliberately taken out of context and manipulated by my political opponents to create a fake news story which they used to attack me. This attracted a lot of attention, and obscured the broader point I wanted to raise that actually, has nothing to do with the individual WASPI women themselves.
I couldn’t support the SNP call in that debate because they provided no credible costed suggestion for their plans. The government has already provided £1.1billon of help to women affected by the transition to the higher state pension age so that no-one will have to wait longer than 18 months compared to their previous expectations to receive their pension, and the issue has been discussed many times by the House.
The SNP proposals, when they’ve been assessed by the DWP, could cost as much as 30bn. This is cash that would have to come from another government department, such as schools, the NHS, or the recently announced package of support to help young people buy their first home. The SNP couldn’t say which one of these budgets should be cut to fund the proposal, and I know from talking to the older generation of voters in my constituency, very many of whom are homeowners themselves, that they are happy to see support announced for their children and grandchildren to enjoy the same opportunities to get on the housing ladder that they enjoyed.
To return to the comments that provoked a twitter storm. Taking a step back for a moment, it is now true that we are thankfully comfortable in our society talking about many forms of discrimination, as well as actually doing something to tackle them. We have laws and cultural norms protecting those who may previously have been discriminated against, and those who suffer from discrimination can call on the protection of the State. Employers recognise the value of diversity in building stronger teams. But I believe there is one area that remains stubbornly impervious to change and that is ageism. Combined with sexism this remains a toxic combination.
This nowhere more apparent than in the workplace where evidence suggests that older people face many barriers finding work, retraining or upskilling at the end of their careers.
And we lack role models all around of us of older people, especially women, who have made a success in later life, in all areas of society. Powerful stereotypes still prevail that prevent those who would like to continue to take an active part in the workplace from doing so.
That is why its so important to recognise the positive work that the Conservative Government is doing to help those older women who want to take up the challenge to learn new skills or retrain in later life. I don’t believe that age should be a barrier to learning new things.
I’ve been in the workplace for a fair time myself and I have changed careers a few times. I entered politics for the first time over the age of 50, which is pretty old by today’s standards, and I’ve taken part time work, voluntary work, different jobs and stepped off the career ladder to take care of my family a few times. So I know from personal experience how challenging it is to enter a new profession. I’ve done it myself and received the dispiriting knock-backs. I have been told, to my face, that I’m too old for roles on more than one occasion. Often its dressed up in language like “you’re overqualified.” I’ve also been overlooked for roles simply because the highly relevant experience I had was prior to a two year career break I had to take for personal reasons.
Often I have worked in businesses that employ women over retirement age. I witnessed at first hand a 64 year old female colleague break down in tears of relief because she wouldn’t be forced out of the job she loved and had done for decades once she turned 65. This was thanks to the government lifting the mandatory retirement age. She felt young at heart and enjoyed her job and her colleagues were like family to her.
Older people contribute an enormous amount to the workplace. They have a lifetime of experience, wisdom and skills. They also have learned all the soft skills that are essential in the workplace and employers who understand this benefit in spades.
So this is why I’m so driven to challenge the stereotypes we see all around us. And when I heard the statement in the House of Commons by the SNP that it is an insult to any woman over the age of 65 to be offered an apprenticeship I could not let that assertion go unquestioned.
No-one is suggesting that any woman should be “forced” to do an apprenticeship and that is not my view nor was it what I said. Nor do I think its easy to find the right apprenticeship, or that this would be the right route for everyone. And no-one is suggesting that this option would suit all women of this age.
A lifetime of hard work whether physical or sedentary in any type of job is enough for many and our generous state pension has lifted millions out of pensioner poverty, meaning today’s pensioners are better off as a group than they’ve been for decades. This is absolutely right.
However, if it is a positive choice, I simply suggest we ask the many women who have taken up this route and enjoyed the transformational effect that work can have at any age of life. They report high levels of satisfaction with the new opportunities they’ve been given. Why make learning and reskilling only a thing that young people can access? The world is changing and whole new industries are emerging all the time.
If a woman wants to learn a skill that wasn’t in existence when she went to school, then I believe this is the progressive thing to do rather than slamming the door in her face and saying, “you’re too old”.
This is why I’m so passionate about championing older women’s working opportunities and highlighting how much good this government has done.
We’ve enabled a total of 1.2 million people, men and women, over the age of 65 years to get into and stay in work, encouraged by the government’s comprehensive package of support, recruitment and retraining.
We’re working to change employer’s perceptions, to persuade them to increase the percentage of older workers they employ.
Andy Briggs, the CEO of Aviva leads on this mission, and many employers like Barclays, Aviva and the Co-op have taken up the challenge. They are recognising the enormous value people can make in later life, and provide support to the employer and the individual worker. By changing perceptions, many employers are now supporting older people into permanent employment
Job centres have dedicated support for older workers to provide targeted advice and support, where appropriate for those who would like to continue contributing to the workplace. And these employers are experiencing the massive benefits of having an age-diverse workforce.
By the end of 2017 employers will be publishing the age of their workforce, further driving change and opening up more opportunities for older workers.
Let’s not forget the state retirement age was introduced when life expectancy was decades shorter than it is now. It’s right that the government funds a decent state pension, and at the same time recognises that retirement can come at different times for people depending on their individual circumstances.
The world of work is changing and changing fast. And if this provides more choice for people at all stages of their lives to live fuller working lives, or make a choice to enjoy a dignified retirement, this government will be right behind it.
This is the point I was making in the debate, and I will continue to work hard, despite the obstacles and criticism I face, to make it. Until enough of us are brave enough to stand up and challenge outdated views when we see them, they will continue to exist, and older women will continue to be discriminated against.