The 83,600 women still identified by the State as ‘wife’

Government is wrestling with unfairness on pensions, but discrimination is not yet in the past

What if it’s the State that is identifying you by the fact that you’re married? That sees you, not as an individual in your own right, but as a “wife”. What then? File photograph: Getty Images

What if it’s the State that is identifying you by the fact that you’re married? That sees you, not as an individual in your own right, but as a “wife”. What then? File photograph: Getty Images

 

If you’re married, how do you refer to yourself: Ms or Mrs? When you get a wedding invitation addressed to Mr & Mrs O’Neill, or Mr & Mrs John O’Neill, or even Mrs John O’Neill, are you delighted at how they have highlighted your marital status, or do you see it as an antediluvian relic that makes you want to scream?

Either way, you get to correct, or – depending on who it came from – perhaps subtly suggest a rephrasing of how you should be addressed.

But what if it’s the State that is identifying you by the fact that you’re married? That sees you, not as an individual in your own right, but as a “wife”. What then?

Marriage bar

Ireland, like other countries across the world, has a mixed history in how it has treated women. Back in the 1930s, the marriage bar meant women were forced to leave the civil service after they married. The practice extended to many private companies too.

While this came to an end in 1973, more subtle acts of discrimination continued. Traditionally, women entitled to a “qualifying adult” payment as a result of their spouse’s welfare benefit, such as a state pension, found the payment went directly into their spouse’s bank account, and then to them only if the husband so wished it. Unbelievably, this practice wasn’t changed in law until the 2007 Social Welfare and Pensions Act.

More recently, women found themselves falling foul of requirements for a full state pension due to the ridiculous situation of having worked for a few years – and in some cases even less than that – before they gave up their jobs to rear their families.

“W”

The Government is wrestling now with unravelling the inherent unfairness on pensions. But discrimination has not even yet been consigned to the past.

Historically, when a woman got married in Ireland, she often assumed her husband’s tax reference, or personal public service (PPS) number. A “W” was added to the end of the husband’s number, indicating that she was the “wife” of the person with a tax number.

This arose because Revenue used the “W” number to identify spouses who were jointly assessed for tax. The income earner, who at the time the practice started would have largely been the husband, had their own PPS number. The spouse, typically the wife, received the “W”, linking them to the spouse who was being charged tax on their joint income.

So, for example, if a husband’s tax number was 1234567A, his wife would have gotten a PPS number of 1234567AW upon their marriage.

As a wife, and therefore most likely a non-income earner, you weren’t seen by the State back then as warranting your own PPS number.

Life has changed so much since then, but the iniquitous use of these “W” numbers still persists. The practice of offering such numbers only stopped in 1999 – not even 20 years ago. And, as of October of this year, some 83,601 women still had such a PPS number, according to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection.

Many of these women are now income earners in their own right. According to the Revenue, some 72 per cent of the holders of “W” numbers – about 60,000 women – are also taxpayers.

The numbers will continue to be used, the department says, until such time as there is a need to change them, or a person chooses to change their own one.

Get your own number

Sometimes a life event will precipitate such a change. It might need to be changed for Local Property Tax reasons, or if you receive an inheritance and have to settle a Capital Acquisitions Tax bill, Revenue says. Separation, the death of a spouse or civil partnership are other life events which can require an individual getting their own PPS number.

Alternatively, you can seek out a change yourself. According to the department, if you have a “W” PPS number, you are entitled to ask for your own number. And you won’t have to go through the same application process as you would to get a PPS number in the first place.

You can get a new number, or be returned to your old pre-marriage one – if applicable – by contacting the client identity section in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. The phone number is (071) 967 2616 or lo-call 1890 927 999.

That is the easy part, however. Once you get your new number, you’ll have to inform all the organisations that may hold your old number, such as your employer, banks, the National Driver Licence Service, the HSE and Revenue, to name but a few.

It’s a cumbersome task and one that many of the women concerned, some of them now be in their later years, may no longer be up to taking on.

Would it not be a timely idea if the department was at this stage to make the whole process that bit easier for these 80,000 women?