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Pension age rise will 'damage Northern Ireland devolution'

The Assembly's decision to raise the pension age of women in Northern Ireland to 65 by 2018 will dilute people's faith in devolution, MLAs have been warned.

In voting against legislation that replicates law changes introduced by Westminster last year, the SDLP accused other Executive parties of simply rubber-stamping Conservative policies.

But Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland insisted any move to break parity with the pension system elsewhere in the UK was a “dangerous game”.

The bill that was granted final passage in the Assembly will accelerate the timetable of increasing the pension age of women from 60 by two years.

Around 7,000 women in their 50s will be hit by this measure in Northern Ireland. It will also see the pension age of both men and women raised to 66 in 2020, before the original 2026 date.

The same timetabling changes were introduced in Westminster by the Coalition last summer.

SDLP Foyle MLA Mark H Durkan said the Assembly's decision would leave many people's retirement plans in disarray.

After the bill was passed by 77 votes to 13, he said: “It is more in sorrow than in anger that I concede the passage of this Bill by the Assembly”.

“Not only have we missed an opportunity to mitigate the detrimental impact that this legislation will have on so many of our citizens, particularly on women, but we have also missed a chance for this Assembly to show that it is

not just here to rubber-stamp Tory policies.”

He added: “People will rightly ask: what is the point of devolution when this Assembly meekly accepts Westminster cuts without even attempting to explore how we can mitigate against them in the interest of people here.

“Not only will it dilute faith in devolution but also in democracy.”

Mr McCausland noted that former SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie had backed changes to how pensions were calculated.

He said: “I must emphasise that members who believe we should push the boundaries of parity are playing a very dangerous game.”

The DUP minister said taxpayers elsewhere in the UK would not pay to enable Northern Ireland workers to draw their pensions earlier than them.

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