Pensions Bill 'a mere rubber stamp'
The Assembly's decision to raise the pension age of women in Northern Ireland to 65 by 2018 will dilute people's faith that devolution works, 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" that would see Treasury funding to the region cut as a consequence.
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.
SDLP Assembly member Mark 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."
Mr McCausland criticised the SDLP's stance. He noted that former SDLP leader and social development minister Margaret Ritchie had backed changes to how pensions were calculated.
He said: "In an ideal world, nobody would want to increase state pension age. However, I believe there is general acceptance that changes are inevitable. The proposed changes will keep the state pension sustainable by ensuring that those who benefit from increased life expectancy share in the additional costs.
"I think if we are responsible, if we are sensible, if we are honest about it, we will face up to the fact that we have a Bill before us which we have no alternative but to pass today and therefore I commend the Bill to the House."