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Volume 464: debated on Thursday 11 October 2007

20. What policy appraisal the Government have undertaken of the impact of its pension proposals on women by 2020; and if she will make a statement. (156860)

22. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on provision of pensions for women. (156862)

The Government have looked carefully at the implications for both men and women when developing our pensions reform proposals. An extensive gender impact assessment was published late last year alongside the Pensions Bill, now the Pensions Act 2007, which mainly focused on state pension reforms. Later this year the Government will present a further Bill with an emphasis on private pension reforms. We will be conducting a gender impact assessment for these proposals, which will be published alongside that Bill.

I am particularly concerned about the many women in my constituency and across the country who have been carers for elderly relatives or for children for many years. They find it unfair that their pension is reduced through this service that they have given not just to their families, but to the whole country. What reassurance can she give these women that they will not face a retirement of poverty?

It is a scandal that, despite the fact that women are caring for children and elderly relatives as well as going out to work, there is a 20 per cent. gap between their income in retirement and that of men. That is unfair, bearing in mind the fact that women are often older pensioners and live much longer. That is why we have taken action to deal with pensioner poverty, as most poor pensioners have been women. We are increasing access to the basic state pension and improving access to occupational pensions.

I would welcome any proposals that would encourage more women to save for pensions. Does the right hon. and learned Lady think it is helpful for the Chancellor to do a smash and grab on the state second pension as this will discourage more women from investing in such a pension?

The important thing is for women to have the opportunity to work, as well as having enough time to care for their families. That is why the right to request flexible working and the right to maternity pay and leave have been important, allowing women to stay in the labour market and therefore still earn. When they are in the labour market, it is important that they have decent rates of pay, which is why we are determined to take further action to tackle unequal pay and the gender pay gap. We also need a pensions system that ensures that everybody has a decent income in retirement. The hon. Lady will know that our pension reforms must not only be simple, affordable and sustainable, but fair. We must tackle unfairness against women in terms of their income in retirement.

Has the right hon. and learned Lady assessed the impact on women of the latest £2 billion raid on pensions as a result of the Chancellor’s pre-Budget report? As she said, fair wages and equal pay are important factors if we are to overcome female pensioner poverty. When the Leader of the Opposition and I launched our policy to combat the gender pay gap, the right hon. and learned Lady said that it was “very interesting”. As that pay gap is widening, has not the time come for action rather than just warm words? Given that the Government have taken our lead on inheritance tax, aviation tax and non-doms, will she now take our lead in this area and adopt our policy on equal pay?

As someone who has campaigned to push equal pay up the agenda for many years—I have done so for decades—I think that it is important that we all work together to challenge the fact that women are not paid as much as men. The pay gap between women part-time workers and men full-time workers is 40 per cent. None of us can possibly accept that they are worth 40 per cent. less. I will look at any proposals the right hon. Lady brings forward. What is important is not whose idea a proposal is, but whether it is a good proposal that is fair and helps people.

More than 500,000 women over the age of 60 are missing out on a state pension unnecessarily. Paying just a few hundred pounds to fill in the gaps in their national insurance record could entitle them to thousands of pounds in backdated pension payments. What have the Government done to make sure that such women are aware that they could claim that money, and what more will the right hon. and learned Lady undertake to do to ensure that they do not miss out?

It is important that women who have not qualified for basic state pension contributions, either because they took time out of the world of work to care for their families or because they have been in low paid work below the national insurance threshold, know that if they have the money they can make up up to six years with additional voluntary contributions. We are concerned about the low take-up of that provision, and we intend to take further action on it. That provision is an attempt to remedy a past unfairness. What is important is that we have put in place structures that ensure that the unfairness that marked the old system is not in the current system. We need to make sure that people are rewarded for going out to work, but also that they are rewarded for staying at home and caring for their families.