The pensions minister is facing criticism after suggesting that millions of women in their 50s and 60s who are facing cuts to their state pension could take up apprenticeships as a route to re-employment.
Guy Opperman said the government would not change laws that have disadvantaged older women, but instead highlighted “extended apprenticeship opportunities” to get older people into work.
His comments, which were met with cries of “shame”, came at a meeting in Westminster Hall at which fellow Conservatives and members of the Democratic Unionist Party were among dozens of MPs saying that the changes were unfair.
The debate centred on the plight of the so-called Waspi women – Women Against State Pension Inequality – whose aim is to achieve fair transitional arrangements for women born in the 1950s, for whom the state pension age is being raised from 60 to 66 by 2020.
Opperman said the government would not offer concessions and instead suggested that older people could retrain, go back to work or take up an apprenticeship.
“There is a massive amount that this government has done on a progressive basis to get people back into employment in their pre-pension years.
“We have created and extended a network of older people’s champions into all 34 Jobcentre Plus districts in the country.
“We have committed to lifelong learning – over 200,000 over 60 have entered further education.
“Thirdly, we have also extended apprenticeship opportunities as one of the best routes to skilled employment for people of all ages and gender. Such apprenticeships in England for example in 2014/15 are 12% of the starting apprenticeships are for those over 45,” he said.
Graham Jones, the Labour MP for Hyndburn, raised a point of order following Opperman’s comment.
“I’m struggling to hear the debate, did the minister just say that women aged 64 could go on an apprenticeship course?” he said.
Campaigners for Waspi women took to Twitter to express their anger at Opperman’s comments. Diana Mitchell Launt wrote: “I don’t want an apprenticeship: I’ve studied enough. ILM Level 3 in Management, NHS M & H trainer. H & S. Want my pension. 45 yrs NI.
“I care for my partner who has severe heart failure. At 60 I would be gutted that I would be stealing an apprentice ship from young.”
Another, Carol Billett, tweeted: “So maybe us Waspi Campaign women can all be become sorcerers apprentices and magic a pension! Guy Opperman, you’re a disgrace!”
Mhairi Black, the SNP’s pensions spokesperson, told MPs that if the Conservatives could find £1bn to strike a deal with the DUP, they could afford to give women the pensions they are due.
“For the government to say they can’t afford to pay these women what they are owed is laughable.
“These women have had the misfortune of being female and being born in the 1950s and live under this UK government, which refuses to do the right thing.
“This is an issue of equality. The UK government must take responsibility and do the right thing for these women who are missing out on their pension,” she said.
Labour’s Caroline Harris said the government “has betrayed these women – they’ve stolen their security and they’ve shattered their dreams without time to prepare and make the necessary alternative arrangements”.
Conservative MP Keith Simpson said his own wife was affected by the changes. “She feels incandescent with rage. She had no correspondence whatsoever,” he said. Another Conservative, former children’s minister Tim Loughton, described the changes as an “injustice” and “unfair burden” made worse by “poor communications” from the government.
Sammy Wilson, a DUP MP, said his party would use its “influence, however minimal or maximum”, to push the government into changing the policy.
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