I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
May I first say something that might help the House? Hon. Members might not realise that there are a number of different things in the Bill, and I plan to go through those elements. I will obviously take interventions, and it would be helpful if interventions were made on those sections in due course; otherwise, it will take a long time, and I know colleagues want to speak.
The Bill is designed to secure this country’s retirement system, putting it on a stable and sustainable footing for the future. I remind the House that our first priority on coming into government was to secure the position of today’s pensioners. We acted immediately to introduce the triple guarantee, meaning that someone retiring today on a full basic state pension will receive £15,000 more over their retirement by way of the basic state pension than they would have under the old prices link. For 10 years, the previous Government talked about this, but we acted in our first year.
The backdrop to the Bill is that we have taken action, and we have committed to a permanent increase in the cold weather payments to £25—an increase the previous Government had planned to be temporary. The old rate, I remind colleagues, was £8.50. Last winter alone we paid out some £430 million to support vulnerable families. At the same time, winter fuel payments will remain exactly as budgeted for by the previous Government: at £200, and £300 for those over 80.
With respect, it never was under the previous Government, and we are not going to change that policy. We have had plenty of discussions on this, and I remind the hon. Gentleman that, although the previous Government uprated it, the Red Book for that time shows that absolutely no money was allowed thereafter, so it was going to settle back. Let us be absolutely clear about that.
Let me make a little more progress and then I will give way.
We have protected other key areas of support for pensioners, including free eye tests, free prescription charges and free TV licences for those aged over 75. Having quickly put incomes on a firmer footing, we have moved to secure older people’s right to work by taking decisive action to phase out the default retirement age, thereby sending a message that age discrimination has no place in modern British society and that older workers have a huge contribution to make.
Those were absolutely the right steps to take as a backdrop to the Bill, but they are just the beginning as we set about reforming our broken retirement system. At its heart, the Bill is about dealing with the challenge that faces the next generation, who will have to pay for their parents’ retirement while footing the bill for a crippling national debt, even before they start thinking about their own pension arrangements. I remind the House that 7 million people currently are not saving enough to have the income they want or expect in retirement. We need to look at the steps we can take to secure their future.
Is it not clear to the Secretary of State and the Government that although everyone accepts that there have to be changes, some of the proposals in the Bill are, for 500,000 women, unfair and unjustified? He should do a U-turn on those proposals as soon as he can.
Many of us agree with the Secretary of State that it was about time that someone grappled with this particularly difficult issue of reforming our pension system, so I congratulate him on that, but we need to know very early in the debate whether that group of women will be fairly treated and whether the Government will think again, because those of us who feel positive about many of the reforms would find that a sticking point.
I guarantee the hon. Gentleman that I will discuss the issue, and I hope he will still be here then—no doubt we can have an exchange on it.
The Bill addresses important issues, not just that of pension age. It is key that we get this generation saving and make sure that savings count and are not frittered away by the means test. We also have to find a way of sharing the cost of the retirement system between generations, ensuring a fair settlement for both young and old. I know that people think that retirement is all about just the group who are retiring, but as we look down the road ahead it is also very much about the generation who will have to pick up many of the bills. These are not easy decisions, but I want to make sure that the House recognises that we have to take decisions about the next generation; otherwise we will be guilty of falling into the same slot as the previous Government, who left us with the deficit.
Let me address auto-enrolment. The Bill takes forward the previous Government’s plans for automatic enrolment, which were debated and widely supported during the passing of the Pensions Act 2008 and to which we remain absolutely committed. The Bill refines some of the policy’s parameters to ensure that automatic enrolment works as effectively as possible, following the recommendations of the “Making automatic enrolment work” review that we initiated. First, we propose an increase in the earnings threshold at which automatic enrolment is triggered from an expected £5,800 under the previous Government’s plans—I say expected because the figure involves assumptions about changes as a result of inflation—to £7,475. That will protect those on the lowest incomes and will reduce the risk of the lowest earners saving for a pension when they do not earn enough to make it worth making all that effort and sacrifice. It will also simplify administration for employers by aligning the earnings trigger with the existing personal tax threshold.
We are committed to reviewing that year by year, so I can assure my hon. Friend that we will constantly take it forward and not leave it static.
Introducing a waiting period of up to three months, which has been widely discussed and debated, will ease the regulatory burden on employers. We had many representations from employers. In view of the present circumstances and the difficulties that many of them face, it is important to recognise the key considerations that we had to take into account in framing the Bill.
Workers will retain the right to opt into the system if they consider it to be in their best interests to do so. That is important. Although we are allowing a let-out, if workers want to enter they will retain the right to do so. The Bill also amends legislation to enable employers with defined contribution schemes to self-certify their scheme. That is simple and straightforward. It makes it easier for employers with an existing scheme to try to align that. If it is aligned closely enough, the scheme can go ahead, saving employers the complication of having to change and engage in a new scheme. That is fairer and more reasonable.
Given that the vast majority of the 600,000 people who will be excluded from getting a pension under the raised threshold are women, is the Secretary of State at all worried that the Bill is beginning to look as if it discriminates against women?
I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s concern. We are not blind to the issue, but we have decided to strike a balance between making the scheme work from the beginning and avoiding driving people on very low incomes into sacrificing too much and therefore not seeing the rewards. It is important to make the point that in the Green Paper, as the hon. Gentleman will have noticed, we talk about the single-tier pension, from which there will be very significant benefits to women. We hope that in due course that will achieve a balance.
I do not dismiss the hon. Gentleman’s considerations. We keep the issue constantly under review and will watch carefully to see what happens. It is important that we get auto-enrolment off the ground in a stable manner. I hope hon. Members on both sides of the House recognise that these are balanced decisions—sometimes nuanced decisions—that we have to take, but we will make sure that we review them.
The right hon. Gentleman knows that I have always admired his ambition, but is he familiar with the Burkean maxim that change always brings certain loss and only possible gain? What appears to sit within the proposals he is outlining today is certain loss for many thousands of women facing retirement. Will he sketch out a little more how he intends to give them security, given that many trade unions—the Public and Commercial Services Union, Unite, GMB and Unison—have just voted for strike action? I strongly contend that fear about insecurity in retirement is fuelling that.
It is always nice to be accused of having ambition. I thought I was supposed to have given that up a few years ago, but I will be tempted by the hon. Gentleman. Workers can still opt in. They must be told that they can opt in, and if they feel it is the right thing to do, auto-enrolment will still be open to them. I will not be tempted just yet on the other subject to which the hon. Gentleman refers, which is the pensions age. I will take an intervention from him, if he wishes, when we get to that. For the moment I want to stay on auto-enrolment. As I said earlier, I recognise that these are not absolutes. In other words, to get the scheme going we have taken some of these decisions, but we will see where that goes. If there is a very big drive for more to go into it, we will take that into consideration.
Amendments made in the other place will ensure that the strength of the certification test is maintained by requiring that I and subsequent Secretaries of State ensure that at least 90% of jobholders receive at least the same level of contributions under the certification test as they would have received based on the relevant quality requirement for automatic enrolment. Employers told us in discussions that the certification test will significantly ease the process of automatic enrolment.
I believe that these changes, taken together, will allow us to present individuals and businesses with a credible set of reforms that will bring much of the next generation into saving for the first time, which was Labour’s intention when in government, and one that we will pursue, thus beginning to improve the poor level of saving. There has been some talk, not necessarily by hon. Members here, about the possibilities of mis-selling. We have retained the powers to prevent excessive charging in automatic enrolment schemes and will use them as necessary and keep them constantly under review.
Part 3 of the Bill covers occupational pension measures, including a few relatively minor changes to the legislation governing the uprating of occupational pensions. The Bill amends existing legislation to set the indexation and revaluation of occupational pensions at the general level of prices. These changes are consequential amendments that follow the Government’s decision to use the consumer prices index as the most appropriate measure of inflation for benefits and pensions.
I remind the House that the key legislation for setting the statutory minimums for the revaluation and indexation of occupational pensions is not in the Bill, as we have already considered the issue in previous debates on the Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2010. This is not the time to revisit those debates, but no doubt someone will want to. Hon. Members might wish to note that all the Government will do is set out the minimum increases; if schemes want to pay more than the statutory minimums, that is a matter for them. I think that the move to CPI is supported, by and large, by Members on both sides of the House. That is certainly the indication I was given by the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and his previous leader, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown).
We must also consider judicial pensions, although I am not sure how long Members will want to spend on them. Part 4 introduces provisions to allow contributions to be taken from members of the salaried judiciary towards the cost of providing their personal pensions benefits. I know that the House will be very worried that this might be too tough on members of the judiciary, but I will resist any pressure to reduce this provision. Judges currently pay nothing towards the cost of their own pensions, while the taxpayer makes a contribution equivalent to about 32% of judges’ gross salaries, which we think is both unaffordable and unfair to the taxpayer. [Interruption.] I sense that the House is united at least on that.
I would like to be generous to Labour Members and say that they were thinking of the worst-off in society and hoped that they might be able to protect some members of the judiciary. We recognise that we cannot afford to do that, so we must make the system more responsible, fairer and more balanced for all, and these provisions will help us to do just that. It seems that the House is united at least on that.
That brings me to the area that I suspect most Members want to talk about—the state pension age. I believe that we will be able to secure a fairer and more balanced system only if we get to grips with the unprecedented demographic shifts of recent years. I will put the issue in context before moving on to some of the detail.
Back in 1926, when the state pension age was first set, there were nine people of working age for every pensioner. The ratio is now 3:1 and is set to fall closer to 2:1 by the latter half of the 21st century. Some of these changes can be put down to the retirement of the baby boomers, but it is also driven by consistent increases in life expectancy. The facts are stark: life expectancy at 65 has increased by more than 10 years since the 1920s, when the state pension age was first set. The first five of those years were added between 1920 and 1990. What is really interesting is that the next five were added in just 20 years, from 1990 to 2010.
On mortality rates, life expectancy has risen, but is the Secretary of State not aware of the huge inequalities between different parts of the country? We have not yet been allowed to discuss the detail of the equalisation of pensions, the unfairness and injustice of which 55-year-old women in my constituency want to discuss. Surely we ought to be looking at the detail of that, which the Bill simply does not do.
I recognise the hon. Lady’s concern, but life expectancy has risen among all groups. I recognise also that some groups in certain parts of the country have a lower life expectancy—in pockets of the country, definitely—given the type of work they have done. The point is that, in setting and looking at pensions as we have done historically, that is one thing; the other thing is to look at the people in those conditions and ask, “Why is that the case?”
Surely we need to deal with the issue through public health policy, through the way in which we educate people and through the work experience and training that they receive, rather than by trying to do so through differential pensions. Importantly, if we tried to deal with it through pensions, we would be in the invidious and almost terrible position of telling one group of people that they were retiring at a set age and another group, “You’re better than them, you retire at a later age.” That would be an inequality and would be unfair generally, so the hon. Lady is right that there is an issue, but it is not right to deal with it through the pensions age; it is right to deal with it through public health policy.
Given that the Secretary of State has told the House, and there is no reason to doubt him, that his proposals are based on fairness, it is reasonable to assume that before the Bill completes its passage we will see some changes to the way in which it treats women.
May I question the Secretary of State on a wider point, however? The Bill sets in motion measures not simply to equalise the state retirement pension age for men and women, but to increase it. Does he not accept, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Malcolm Wicks) has previously said, that people who enter the labour market early are usually those who live the shortest in retirement? Would it not be fairer for the Government to base eligibility for the state retirement pension not on a person’s age but on their contributory years?
I know that the right hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Croydon North (Malcolm Wicks) have raised the issue in the past. I recognise their background, great experience and genuine sense of a need to try to figure out a solution. I am always willing to listen to argument and debate that, but my concerns are twofold: first, I am not certain that we have the data going back far enough to be able to make the calculation, although I might be wrong; and, secondly, I return to the point that in the past we have not done things in that way, because it is very difficult to set out differential pension retirement ages for different groups. We are going to equalise provision for women and men, but now the debate is about breaking them apart, and that would lead us into all sorts of debates about unequal retirement ages.
With respect, I recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s point, and I will take an intervention from his right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North, but this is a complicated and fraught area that we should not necessarily deal with in the Bill. Beyond it, I am willing to hear more.
I am encouraged by the Secretary of State’s thoughtfulness on the matter, to which I hope we will return in Committee. According to the Office for National Statistics, almost one fifth, or 19%, of men in routine occupations—manual workers, labourers and van drivers—die before they receive their state pension. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) has implied, those people have probably worked since they were 14, 15 or 16 years old—very different from those of us who did not start in the labour market until our early 20s. Some sensitivity about when people who have worked for 49 or so years can draw their pension is a matter well worth pursuing.
As I said to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) and repeat to the right hon. Member for Croydon North, I am always willing to look and to think carefully about what proposals there are—not for the purposes of this Bill, obviously, but in the future. I know that he has written—
May I just finish my answer to the right hon. Gentleman?
I am always happy to discuss the matter. There are complications, and there may be some issues about women, too, because contributions are an issue for many women at the moment, so we cannot take these things lightly. I recognise the work that the right hon. Gentleman has done, however, and I am very happy to discuss the issue beyond this Bill, as is the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb). For the purposes of the Bill, however, the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I stay to the point that we are going to equalise the retirement ages for men and women. The only question is, at what point?
The Secretary of State seems to indicate that there is a potential practical problem. Is it not the case that when someone nears retirement age the Department looks at how many stamps they have paid and how many contributions they have made, which must mean that it keeps track of how long people have been working? That would resolve the problem mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Malcolm Wicks).
As I understand it, the pre-1975 data are very patchy and messy. I do not want to get sucked into this debate now, tempting as it is, and never to get on to the rest of the Bill; I do not think the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues would thank me for that. I recognise the issue and I am happy to discuss it post the Bill, but he will forgive me if I do not go down the road that Labour Members want by adding that in all of a sudden. I am not going to do that; we are going to stay with what we have. I am happy to listen to their concerns and to see whether we can make changes in future, but I do not give any guarantees.
To be fair, I want to make a bit of progress, because a lot of people want to speak. If the hon. Gentleman wants to raise something else about the matter, I will give way to him later.
Pensions policy has not been updated accurately to reflect all the increases that I spoke about. I remind the House, however, that we are by no means alone in having to deal with this issue; others are making decisions about it. Ireland has already legislated for the pension age to be raised to 66 by 2014, and the Netherlands and Australia are increasing state pension age to 66 by 2020. The United States is already in that position, and Iceland and Norway are now at 67. Under existing legislation, the timetable for the increase to 66 in the UK was not due to be completed for another 15 years, yet the timetable was based on assumptions that are now out of date. The Pensions Act 2007 was based on ONS projections of average life expectancy from 2004. Those projections have subsequently increased by at least a year and a half for men and for women, so the situation is moving apace. That is why we are taking the necessary decision to look again at the timetable for increasing the state pension age. The Bill amends the current state pension age timetable to equalise men’s and women’s state pension ages at 65 in 2018 and then progressively to increase the state pension age to 66 by 2020. This new timetable will reduce pressures on public finances by about £30 billion between 2016-17 and 2025-26.
The impact of the changes on women has been debated enormously, focusing particularly on certain cohorts. All but 12% of those affected will see their state pension age increase by 18 months or less. I recognise that some 1% of those impacted will have a state pension age increase of two years, but it none the less remains the case that those reaching state pension age in 2020 will spend the same amount of time in retirement as expected when the 2007 Act timetable was being drawn up. That is an important factor. There will be no change to the amount of time that they will spend in retirement—some 24 years, on average. In fact, the women who are affected by the maximum increase will still, on average, receive their state pension for two and a half years longer than a man reaching state pension age in the same year.
As a coalition, we are, and continue to be, bound by the agreement. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady can shout at me in a second, but let me try to explain. There is a slight problem with that element of the coalition agreement. It was done in that way at the time, and that is fair enough, but we have since looked at it carefully and taken legal advice. The agreement talks about men’s pension age being accelerated to 66, which would breach our legal commitment to equalisation and then not to separating the ages again. There are reasons for needing to revisit that, and we have done so and made changes.
The coalition agreement states that the parties agree to
“hold a review to set the date at which the state pension age starts to rise to 66, although it will not be sooner than 2016 for men and 2020 for women.'”
The Secretary of State’s provisions clearly breach the coalition agreement, so what has changed?
With respect, I have just said that there are certain elements that would not be legal. That is all that I am saying. The hon. Lady can go on about this point as much as she likes, but I have answered her. She might not like my answer, but that is the one I have decided to give. The fact that the women who will be affected will remain on the same level of retirement but will be in retirement for two and a half years longer than men is an important feature. I stand by the need to equalise women’s state pension age in 2018.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right in all that he is doing. No one can object to the equalisation of pension ages for men and women when we are fighting so hard for other areas of equality. However, does he recognise that for a particular group of some 300,000 women born in 1954 the transition arrangements are rather more difficult than for any other group in society? Although he should not change his policy, will he look at other ways to help that particular group of women?
As I have made clear and will make clear later, the parameters of the Bill are clear and it is my intention to stand by those parameters. The ages will therefore equalise in 2018 and rise together to 66 by 2020. Of course, I am always happy to discuss these issues with colleagues from either side of the House, including those in the coalition. However, I make it absolutely clear that our plan is to press ahead with the Bill as it stands. The ages will therefore rise together to 66 by 2020.
Does my right hon. Friend not think that the criticisms from the Opposition are rather rich? In September 2004, the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), told the TUC:
“This Government will not raise the state pension age”,
yet Labour’s Pensions Commission reported in 2005 that the pension age should go up, and in the Pensions Act 2007 the Labour party legislated to increase it for men and women.
Is the Secretary of State honestly saying that the policy has been changed because of legal advice? If that is the case, will he publish that legal advice today before the winding-up speeches and before we vote? Will he also confirm that this is a breach of the coalition agreement?
I do not publish legal advice, but if the hon. Lady reads the coalition agreement, she will see the reasons. I ask her to study it carefully.
I know that the hon. Lady is sincere in what she is saying, but I say one thing to her. She made it clear on the media earlier that it is the Opposition’s policy to move the rise to 66 to 2022 and for it not to start before 2020. That would cost £10 billion. She will presumably have worked that out. Where does she intend to get that £10 billion? We have heard nothing from the Opposition about debt reduction or the financing of future pensions. She should know that her policy would cost £10 billion, and she should consider that important issue.
The Secretary of State rightly acknowledges that we have put forward proposals that would save £20 billion. [Interruption.] Has he looked at whether the increase to 67 could be brought forward, which would take us up to a saving of £30 billion? Can we find a compromise on those proposals, which would not cost women aged 56 and 57 so much money?
We agree, then, that the hon. Lady’s proposals would cost us £10 billion. We are on Second Reading, and if she wants to raise the same point or table amendments in Committee, she can do so by all means. The Bill as it stands is exactly as we set out, with equalisation of the age in 2018 and the rise to 66. I have no plans to make any changes to that.
I wish to make a few points, then I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman again. I think I have been reasonably generous, and I plan to continue to be.
As I said earlier, if we delayed the change as the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) suggests, it would cost us something in the order of £10 billion. That would be an unfair financial burden, and it would be borne disproportionately by the next generation. In a country in which 11 million of us will live to be 100, we simply cannot go on paying the state pension at an age that was set early in the last century. We have to face up to that, and to the cost and affordability of state pensions, in all the changes that we make.
If the last Government had managed to get re-elected they would be facing much the same decisions. I recognise the need to implement the change fairly and manage the transition smoothly. I hear the specific concern about a relatively small number of women, and I have said that I will consider it. I say to my colleagues that I am willing to work to get the transition right, and we will. Some have called for us to delay the date of equalisation of the pension age, but I wish to be clear again that this matter is the challenge of our generation, and we must face it. That is why we are committed to the state pension age being equalised in 2018 and rising to 66 in 2020. That policy is enshrined in the Bill.
My right hon. Friend is being fair and sensible in his approach, and we admire his determination in introducing the Bill. I accept the cost of widening the transition period for the 2.5 million women involved, but will he give particular consideration to the small group of 33,000 women born in March 1954, on whom the change will bear down disproportionately harshly? Surely there is a way of finding a transition method that takes account of that small group of women.
I repeat that the Bill that we have presented on Second Reading will retain the dates that we announced, but as I said earlier, I will quite happily discuss transitional announcements with anyone who wants to do so. I do not rule out discussions, but we plan to press ahead with the dates that I set out at the beginning of the process.
The Secretary of State keeps insisting that he wishes to be fair, but the country increasingly thinks that he is being unfair to a particular group of women. The Opposition are not saying that his Department should not deliver the savings set out, but we are suggesting that they could be delivered in a different way. If he wishes to treat men and women equally, so that they make an equal sacrifice for the contribution that he has to make to the Exchequer, would it not be fairer to raise the state retirement age for both and women more quickly rather than collect £2 billion from a particular group of women?
I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments about his willingness to consider transitional arrangements. My constituents, the class that left Foxhills comprehensive school in 1970, who were all born in 1953-54, have written to me to ask why the pensions goalposts should be moved twice so close to their retirement. What would he say to those women?
The only answer is that, so far, it is seven years away for women. I recognise the concerns, but I have had letters from the public stirred up by a number of people, and the facts have been simply incorrect. I am trying to set out the facts as we see them. The hon. Gentleman may disagree with us, but often people fear that something is going to happen overnight. There is some warning.
I think there is general acceptance that with increased longevity the pension age needs to be considered, including the current unfair distinction between men and women. However, there is a particular group of women who will be badly affected. I welcome the Secretary of State’s saying that he will consider transitional arrangements. Is he willing to consider with an open mind amendments in Committee and on Report, or other solutions that might be brought forward, to help that particular group of women?
My hon. Friend tempts me enormously, but she will forgive me if I do not give in to that temptation. Let me simply repeat what I said earlier—it is a bit like a recording, but I shall do it none the less: we have no plans to change equalisation in 2018, or the age of 66 for both men and women in 2020, but we will consider transitional arrangements.
Does the Secretary of State accept that some women in the group that we are discussing have already retired or signed early retirement arrangements in the belief that they would receive their state pension when they were 63 or 64? The original equalisation was announced 25 years in advance. For some women, the equalisation that we are considering is only five years ahead. Surely that cannot be right when we are asking people to plan long term for their retirement.
I think that the hon. Lady refers to people who have retired early, at around 57, as far as I can tell from her calculations. Other than that, I do not think that there is a huge difference. I recognise what their due would have been, but the change is no different thereafter for all the others. I acknowledge her point—I am sure that we will deal with it when we get into Committee.
I want to emphasise the point that the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) made about people who have already retired. The latest health statistics show that healthy life expectancy for women and men does not necessarily keep pace with actual life expectancy. Many women in their 60s are trying to wind down their working hours because they are in poor health. The key point is not equalisation, but that people have not had time to plan for it. It is a great burden on people in the latter stages of their career who suffer ill health.
I fully recognise the hon. Lady’s point. It applies to the whole debate. One could argue that even an extra year’s planning does not allow people time if they are not well. People living longer but being more ill is an issue for the health service—it is already having an impact on the health service. It is a reality—and a good thing—that people are living longer and are able to enjoy their retirement properly. For the most part, they can do that in good health, but I recognise that there are problems for those in poor health.
Hon. Members will forgive me if I make some progress. I gave way to the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) earlier, and, although I did not give way to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), others want to speak, and I must conclude.
All the changes should be put in the context of our recent Green Paper, which set out plans for fundamental reform of the state pension. They include the option for a single-tier state pension, set above the level of the means test, which would provide a decent foundation income in retirement for many of the next generation, who might otherwise be forced to live in poverty. Importantly, that includes many women and self-employed people who have tended to suffer poorer pension outcomes in the past, particularly women with caring responsibilities. The changes will be very beneficial for them. The Bill is therefore only part of the process, but it is critical as we take the necessary steps for the next generation. I believe that those are responsible choices for Britain, but responsible government is not always easy government. It involves commitment, tough decisions and a willingness to stay the course. We will not change from that—we will stay the course. We must try to secure our children’s future. The tough decisions are enshrined in the Bill, which I commend to the House.
The debate is extremely important and I am glad that the Secretary of State approached his remarks with such care. It is an important debate because our treatment of older people in our country is one of the most important ways in which we judge the health of a society. Those people have made our country what it is today, and, in their retirement, we respect and honour a lifetime’s work.
Frankly, when we came to power in 1997, too few of our older citizens enjoyed either that honour or that respect. Nearly 30% of our pensioners were forced to live in poverty. The state pension had declined from 20% to just 14% of average male earnings. That is why we set about changing that picture with such speed, passion and determination. That is why we lifted 1 million pensioners out of poverty; why we lifted gross income for our pensioners by more than 40%; why we ensured that no pensioner must live on less than £130 a week; why we introduced the winter fuel allowance, free off-peak travel on buses and free TV licences; and why we increased tax thresholds to ensure that 60% of pensioners now pay no tax. We are proud of our record. It is now set out in the Government’s own figures that pensioner poverty in this country is at its lowest level for 30 years.
In dealing with such long-term issues, the House could legitimately have hoped that the Government would have built on those changes in a careful and consensual way. Instead, they have built nothing but confusion. Last Monday, the Secretary of State had to slap down his colleague the noble Lord Freud on whether there should be a cap on benefits; on Wednesday, we had the spectacle of the Prime Minister not knowing the consequences of his own Welfare Reform Bill; and today the Secretary of State has come to the Dispatch Box when this morning’s newspapers are full of stories of how his Bill might be shredded, not in this House but in the very Treasury that pushed him out to walk this plank in the first place. It is U-turns, confusion and blunder, and the poor Secretary of State is forced to sit there in the middle as the House of Commons’s very own Captain Chaos.
I thank the shadow Minister for giving way—I almost thanked “the Minister” in a throwback to another day.
Somebody—I am not sure who—left a note saying that all the money had been spent. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree therefore that some measures that we could not have predicted when the previous Administration were in power are now necessary, such as the ones proposed today?
Perhaps the hon. Lady would like to reflect on why, just over 12 months ago, the Government whom she is so proud to support set out a policy in direct contradiction to the one proposed in the Bill. I look forward to seeing which way she votes and how she justifies that to her constituents.
This afternoon, we must try to bring some order to that confusion, and establish which clauses we agree on, and which clauses the Government—and, I might say, the Treasury—need to rethink. The Secretary of State began with automatic entitlement, on which there is a measure of agreement—it is a rock that we should hang on to in that regard. The proposal for automatic enrolment of workers into workplace pensions is to be retained, which is important, because as a country, we under-save for pensions. In fact, 7 million could be under-saving for their retirements. Bringing those people into a pension system and creating a national pension scheme into which they might opt could lead to a step-change in savings in this country.
The previous Government were very careful to build that consensus, which we did patiently, beginning with the noble Lord Turner’s commission. I am grateful that the Government have not junked that proposal, but it is deeply regrettable that they are increasing the salary threshold to entitle an individual to auto-enrolment. It is also regrettable that they are introducing a three-month waiting period before people opt in.
I understand the trade-offs that the Secretary of State is trying to make, but frankly, he has made the wrong call. Why? The first reason is that the salary at which someone is automatically enrolled will be raised from £5,000 to nearly £7,500. The impact of that will hit 600,000 people—they will be much less likely to opt in to long-term savings. If the Government raise that threshold in line with the coalition’s ambition to increase the income tax threshold to £10,000, nearly 1 million people will be excluded, three quarters of whom will be women. Their loss, potentially, is £40 million of employer pension contributions.
The Government are proceeding in full knowledge of that. There is no defence of ignorance. Their review states:
“Many or most very low earners are women, who live in households with others with higher earnings and/or receive working tax credits. These may well be exactly the people who should be automatically enrolled.”
Yet the House has been presented today with proposals that could exclude more than 1 million people. We think, therefore, that the earnings threshold should be looked at again. And if that idea was not bad enough, the idea of a three-month waiting period makes it worse and in itself could mean 500,000 fewer people enrolling automatically in a pension scheme. The loss to them could be £150 million in employer pension contributions. Put those two things together and the average man or woman could lose nearly three years of pension saving—a 7% reduction in an individual’s fund. I am afraid that we simply cannot support that measure.
That takes me to the most audacious broken promise of the lot—the proposal to single out a group of 500,000 of our fellow citizens, all of them women, and say to them, “You know your plans for the future? Well, you can put them in the bin.” The Secretary of State might think it a relatively small and trivial number, but the Opposition do not.
I will in a moment.
This unfolding chaos has been impressive even for a Government who have presided over U-turns on forests, sentencing reform and the reorganisation of the NHS, because we thought we knew where we were. The coalition Government made a wise move in appointing the Pensions Minister to his brief—he is a man who knows a thing or two about pensions. Indeed, in one of his first major speeches, he told his audience:
“I have become known as something of a bore at pensions conferences.”
We have no problem with that. Then we had the coalition agreement. I do not know whether anyone remembers the coalition agreement—it was important once. Page 26 reads:
“We will phase out the default retirement age and hold a review to set the date at which the state pension age starts to rise to 66, although it will not be sooner than 2016 for men and 2020 for women.”
For good measure, the Pensions Minister got to his feet a month or so later and said that the Government were committed to any change not being sooner than 2020 for women. Then, 118 days later, the Chancellor arrives on the scene. He stands at the Dispatch Box and says that
“the state pension age for men and women will reach 66 by 2020.”—[Official Report, 20 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 956.]
Yet buried in the fine print, we learnt the truth—not the Pensions Minister, the Secretary of State or the Chancellor could bring themselves to that Dispatch Box and actually tell people straight that that policy set out in the coalition agreement was absolutely worthless. The truth was set out in the depths of the spending review, page 69 of which read:
“The State Pension Age will then increase to 66 for both men and women from December 2018 to April 2020.”
That is a promise well and truly broken. At least when the Lib Dems changed their minds about increasing tuition fees, they could pretend that they were just making things up to get elected, but this was a promise they made and broke in government. Just last summer, the Pensions Minister boasted of reforms in the system that he said included
“those who the system has always missed out such as women and the lower paid.”
In his own Department’s review, he said that he wanted to look at the “particular challenge” for
“women pensioners. A group I have long worked for, and who are so often the poor relations in regard to pensions.”
I will let the House draw its own conclusions. One moment the Pensions Minister is offering to protect women pensioners, the next he is presenting proposals that will punish half a million women with a bill for up to £16,000.
The right hon. Gentleman was giving a discourse on integrity in pensions provision under the previous Government, which I think is important, because many of my constituents will be worried about this issue, and will be looking for integrity. He is very good with numbers—it is when he has to add them up that he has trouble—so I am wondering, on the point of integrity, could he answer this question? The Labour party has recommendations for how best to treat the women he is highlighting who are being impacted by the Bill, and those recommendations are costed at £10 billion. In the interest of integrity, will he please advise me and other Members where he would find the money?
The Minister gave an interesting answer, because those costings say that if, for example, we increased the retirement age to 67 by 2035—that is, if we accelerated the reform by one year—that would save £6.9 billion. However, if the retirement age was increased to 67 by 2034, by accelerating the increase by two years, that would save £13.7 billion. Therefore, the question for us this afternoon is: how much will be saved by accelerating the reform for those women who are now having to retire later, and who therefore confront trying to find all that money magically, in the space of just four or five years? Has that been traded off against other options, such as introducing advances in the retirement age later on? That is the question that we have to get to the bottom of in this Second Reading debate.
I will give way in a moment.
Let us hear what the impact of the Government’s proposals will be, because the Secretary of State rather glided over this point. Some half a million women will receive their state pension at least 12 months later than they had previously been advised, with 300,000 women—those born between December 1953 and October 1954—experiencing a delay of one and a half years. For 33,000 women—those born between 6 March and 5 April 1954—that period increases to two years. For them, the loss in state pension will be around £10,000. For those on full pension credit, the loss will be closer to £15,000. Those women, with five years’ notice of the timetable change, have almost no time to prepare for their income loss.
In a moment.
We are talking about women in the age group that was asked by a Conservative Government in 1995 to set in train the equalisation of the state pension, a reform that we accepted, because it came with time to plan. However, that cannot be said of today’s proposal. This morning, Age UK warned that
“a sizeable minority are not even aware of the 1995 changes with nearly a fifth expecting to receive their State Pension at the age of 60.”
The Secretary of State’s proposals will now make that worse.
I heard the Secretary of State refer in his speech today to legal advice that said that the Government could not keep to their original proposals in the coalition agreement. He did not make the House aware of why the Government cannot legally do what they originally intended, so has he made my right hon. Friend aware of why that is?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point, because I think that that was news to the House. We would certainly expect that legal guidance to be published before we get to the Minister’s winding-up speech. That guidance is a material point in a debate that is important to many people, as well as many right hon. and hon. Members, because this Bill has such a poor effect on women in this country—the people we represent.
In two minutes.
Michelle Mitchell, the charity director of Age UK, has said that
“it’s difficult to see how women can plan properly when the government keeps moving the state pension age goalposts”.
The director general of Saga has said that
“to make just one cohort of women bear all the brunt of this in the very short-term will undermine the concept of planning for retirement over the long-term and cause real distress to the responsible women who have made careful financial retirement plans.”
Can hon. Members tell me how this can possibly be justified?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for finally giving way. I speak with a lot of interest in this matter, as a woman in her 50s—[Hon. Members: “Surely not!”]—I know, shocking isn’t it?—who has seen her pension age increase, first by five years and now by a further year. However, does he accept that there is an issue with rising longevity and that we therefore need to push forward the retirement age of women such as myself?
Of course. The hon. Lady makes an extremely fair point, and that is why, after the Turner commission met and the Pensions Act 2007 went through this House, a clear timetable was set for how the state pension age should increase. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State is muttering from a sedentary position about how the longevity assumptions have now been increased. That is perfectly fair, and we should have a national debate about how the state pension age should be brought forward; indeed, the Pensions Minister has issued a consultation. It is just a shame that it closes on Friday, after this debate is concluded.
The right hon. Gentleman made two comments about how the Bill treats women. He estimated that the cost of the changes to some women would be £10,000. Does he not recognise, however, that the change in the value of the basic state pension as a result of this Government’s commitment to linking it back to earnings will be worth more than £15,000? Will he also acknowledge that, as a result of the new flat-rate basic state pension being applied, a lot of women who would previously have lost out because of their caring responsibilities will now benefit hugely? Does he not agree that women will benefit from the changes in the basic state pension in those two ways?
Let us take the hon. Gentleman’s second point first. I understand that the proposal for a flat-rate pension is included in a Green Paper. It is therefore an early statement of the direction of Government policy. Given what the Government have managed to do to commitments in their coalition agreement, I am not sure how much water that proposal holds. The hon. Gentleman’s first point was more interesting, because he was comparing the benefit for someone on a pension under the lock introduced by the Government with a pension that is linked to prices. Going into the election, no party proposed to keep the pension linked to prices, so his calculation is purely fanciful. Indeed, the Pensions Commission said that we should re-link pensions to earnings in 2012. That was in our manifesto, and that is what we would have done if and when we were returned to office. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman cannot make up fantasy numbers comparing the reality—
The right hon. Gentleman is generous to give way again but, with all due respect to him, I am comparing the fact of what was delivered by one Government over 13 years with the fact of what has been delivered by this new Government within one year. The Gloucestershire Pensioners Forum, which was created by members of his own party precisely to campaign against the de-linkage made by the late Mrs Thatcher when she was Prime Minister—[Hon. Members: “She is still alive.”] Indeed she is. I meant to say “the former Prime Minister”. The Gloucestershire Pensioners Forum has now fully recognised the value of re-linkage, which this Government will introduce. It is a shame that the right hon. Gentleman does not recognise these facts.
I am glad to hear that correction about Baroness Thatcher. I think that the hon. Gentleman would also accept his Government’s own figures, which show that pensioner poverty is now at its lowest level for 30 years. I am sure that he would accept that pensioner incomes increased faster than gross domestic product and faster than earnings over the past 13 years. That is why we are proud of our record of delivering on pensions.
In response to an intervention by the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), the right hon. Gentleman said that the legal advice was news to him. It was not news to the House of Lords, however, as it was debated there on 15 February, at which point this matter was raised. Surely the real news appeared in the weekend’s newspapers, which have provided yet another bandwagon for the right hon. Member to jump on.
I do not know how much attention the hon. Gentleman has been paying to this debate, but we championed this issue before it came to the House of Lords and as it went through the other place. We will champion it through the House of Commons as well, until this bad Bill has been thrown out.
I agree that, for a small group of women, the Bill is unfair. However, I was pleased that the Secretary of State said that he would be happy to look at transitional arrangements. The right hon. Gentleman has been very good at criticising the Government, but will he please tell the House what the Labour party’s plans are?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for decoding the Secretary of State’s remarks and putting on record that there will be transitional arrangements. I heard about that only by looking this morning at certain blogs written by Liberal Democrat Members, who also expressed great confidence that there would be a compromise on this. We look forward to hearing a lot more about what that compromise will be. It is a shame that it is not in the Bill in time for this Second Reading debate. We would all understand the logic of this if we heard a little more from the Secretary of State about why the Government are introducing this measure.
The truth is that the Secretary of State used as a justification for his argument the idea that women in this position will somehow be living that much longer to enjoy their new pension. Well, they will draw cold comfort from that. The point is that it is simply not realistic for women in their late 50s, who are truly fearful about being given no time to adjust to their loss of income. Surely that is the critical point for us this afternoon. Women in their later 50s will have earned less over their lifetime; they have lower state pension and private savings than men; many have been unable to join a workplace pension and have interrupted their careers to look after their family; many will have stood down from jobs on the understanding that they would get that state pension early.
These are not simply my assertions; they are the Government’s own facts. The Pensions Minister was forced to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) that 40% of women aged 56 have no private pension wealth:
“The proportion of women aged 56-years-old who have no private pension wealth”,
he told the House on 10 March,
“is estimated to be 40%.”—[Official Report, 10 March 2011; Vol. 524, c. 1266W.]
What on earth are those women supposed to do with the measures in the Bill? On 4 February he admitted that the median pension saving of a 56-year-old woman is six times lower than that of a man, yet he tells us not to worry because he has a plan. He has a word of reassurance—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State should listen to the plan of the Pensions Minister. I think he will be rather pleased with it, as we were offered words of reassurance and comfort. On 14 February, the Pensions Minister said:
“One reassurance I can offer is that those women…will be eligible to apply for jobseeker’s allowance”.—[Official Report, 14 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 681-82.]
They might, I think, call that the final insult.
There is not much that unites the House these days, but concern about this Bill is fast becoming one of those causes. I understand that even the Department for Work and Pensions Whip, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), who is not in her place on the Treasury Bench has said:
“I’m pressing Ministers on this because a number of women have raised it with me, and it so happens that members of my own family are in this group. It’s certainly an issue I sympathise with greatly.”
Her concern is widespread. I believe that the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jenny Willott) has told no less than the Deputy Prime Minister:
“I agree with the Age UK protestors: these changes should be reconsidered.”
Nearly half the Liberal Democrat MPs have signed an early-day motion that says that the Government should
“rethink its retirement timetable in the Bill so that these women have a fairer chance to plan and save for their retirement.”
Tonight, there is a chance to put a vote behind those words.
Who will vote to support the Pensions Minister? Once, he never tired of telling the Tories about the error of their ways. He was the man who once said:
“Pension policy needs to be stable and predictable years ahead, not made up on the back of a cigarette packet.”
That was still there on his website, www.stevewebb.org, on 6 October 2009. Alongside it, I found another rather apposite quote:
“It is typical of Tory policy to hit the poorest the hardest.”
That is still there on his website. This is the Pensions Minister who said:
“As ever when it comes to pensions, it is as if women are an afterthought. That is clearly not the way in which to change state pension ages.”—[Official Report, 9 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 33WH.]
That was not on his website. That is what he said in the House of Commons in March last year. Tonight, we have the chance to help the Pensions Minister stand by his words and his record. I think that we should help him with his honour.
This is a Second Reading debate. We are supposed to be debating the principles of the Bill and we are then asked to vote on those principles. We are being asked to do this when it is perfectly clear that the Government no longer believe in the Bill. We are privy to reports in the newspapers that the Government might be working on another U-turn. I am not sure whether it is Conservative or Liberal Democrat Members who are behind it, although I know who will claim the credit. The Secretary of State told the Financial Times today that there are “issues and concerns” that need sorting out, while senior Ministers, says the Daily Mail,
“are telling the Chancellor he must think again.”
The Secretary of State, it says, is “sympathetic”. I have to ask, then: why are we voting on a Bill that the Government do not believe in? The Chief Secretary does not believe in it; the Pensions Minister does not believe in it; half of the Liberal Democrat Members do not believe in it; the Tory Whips do not believe in it. What on earth are we doing going into the Division Lobbies to vote to punish half a million women through a Bill that no one believes in? Will the hon. Gentleman answer that question now?
It is unclear whether the right hon. Gentleman is going to vote against Second Reading—he has not said so yet. On the assumption that he is, he would have to find not just the £10 billion that his hon. Friends want to raise, but the £30 billion that this Bill saves. Where will he find £30 billion when all the money is gone?
I am glad that the Minister has raised that point. His own consultation, which closes on Friday, is examining the question of how savings can be made through acceleration of the granting of the state pension age later in life. That is an issue that should have been brought to the House for debate before we were asked to debate egregious measures that will hit half a million women. We should re-examine the timetable for the raising of the retirement age to 67, but that must be done on the basis of equal treatment of the sexes, and the principle that people should be given time to prepare.
We are sick of this confusion. We are sick of this chaos. We say to the Government today, “No more: you need to get a grip. Take this Bill away, and bring us a plan that you have had the decency to half think through.”
“The critical factor in pension arrangements is certainty. People need to be able to plan with certainty”.—[Official Report, 11 January 2011; Vol. 342, c. 179.]
Those are not my words, but the words of the Pensions Minister who is responsible for the Bill. Tonight the House will be asked to vote on a broken promise. We urge the Government to think again. We shall vote to oppose the Bill, and I urge others to do the same.
Let me begin by drawing the House’s attention to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which shows my connections with the pensions industry over many years.
As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, you and I entered the House on the same day back in 1992, but this is the first opportunity that I have had to observe the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) in full flow. I have often wondered how he managed to reach such an elevated position in Government in such a short time, and having listened to him today, I am still wondering.
I was staggered by the right hon. Gentleman’s opening remarks, in which he said how proud he was of his Government’s record on pensions. Is he utterly unaware of the destruction of the private pensions system in our country wrought by his former leader, and of the revelation that when the Labour Government were elected in 1997, the National Association of Pension Funds said that the end of dividend tax credit would mean the end of at least half the defined benefit schemes in our country? In fact, we have seen much more than that brought about as a direct result of the Labour Government’s policy. I believe that it was forecast to cost our private pensions system at least £50 billion. Is the right hon. Gentleman proud of the fact that under a Labour Government a record number of pension funds closed to new business? Is he proud of the record of a Labour Government who gave pensioners an increase of merely pence? I can tell him that people in my constituency remember that event.
I will in a moment—unlike the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, who was not prepared to hear these remarks from me.
Two years ago, the state earnings-related pension scheme was not increased by even one penny by the Labour Government. That is an illustration of how much we can trust Labour on pensions.
Government Members constantly raise the subject of the 75p pension increase. It is not necessarily a choice that I would have made, but it is the choice that the Labour Government made at the time. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that that increase was introduced during the first couple of years of that Labour Government, when they were following Conservative financial rules.
I am trying to get my head around the idea of Tony Blair standing at the Dispatch Box and taking his instructions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague). It is a little bit too difficult for me to accept.
I think it important for us to recognise real concerns that have been raised throughout the country. All Members of Parliament have received many letters, e-mails and other representations relating specifically to the proposals to increase the age at which the state pension kicks in and the impact that that will have on a number of people, not least women.
Before my hon. Friend moved on from his powerful previous argument, I wish he had remembered to add to his list the discreditable way Equitable Life victims were treated. Their pension shortfall dilemmas were kicked into the long grass for many years.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that observation, but I hope she will forgive me for not going down that road. If we were to do so there would be no time left for the debate in hand, because we would all be pointing out the many Labour shortcomings on pensions.
There has been a lot of misinformation about the proposals we are debating. I listened to a staggering example of that at 9.30 this morning on Sky News, when the otherwise excellent Charlotte Hawkins said that today we were going to vote on a proposal to make women work a further five years before receiving their pensions. It amazed me that that could be said; I am sure it must have been a slip of the tongue. Later, I opened my e-mails and came across a letter from a lady who will be required to wait a further two months as a result of these proposals, but who stated that she believed she will have to wait a further six years. That highlights the exaggerations, and in some cases the dishonesty, in the campaign that has been waged against the proposals.
Indeed, and one of the difficulties in this regard is to do with the first change, to which almost all e-mails refer: that women were getting the pension at 60 and that that is now gradually being moved up to 65. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill referred to his family being affected. Well, my wife is affected by these changes, but we in this House were aware of them because we legislated for them in 1995. [Interruption.] Yes, we have known about them, but we have known about them only here, because there has not been much dissemination of this information outside the Chamber to the rest of the public. [Interruption.] I am grateful to the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) for indicating that that is so. The idea that the retirement age might then be moved up to 66 is not new. It was debated in this House back in 2007, and legislation was put on to the statute book. What we are doing now is moving the first of these dates forward, and in my view that is necessary. It is perfectly clear that a significant saving will be made.
The Secretary of State made a typically sensitive address, which was well received on both sides of the House, and not only because he said he was prepared to listen. I am staggered that any Minister who says they are prepared to listen to an argument is treated with contempt from the Opposition Benches. [Interruption.] Absolutely: it is an indication of what Labour Members were used to when their party was in government. I commend my right hon. Friend on his approach, however, and I am impressed by the sum of £30 billion.
The Opposition propose that we should not take these steps for a while, and that we should instead return to a 2020 or 2022 timetable. The argument that everything the Government do is being done too fast is a familiar Opposition refrain. It in effect suggests that we can somehow just pass the responsibility on to succeeding generations and not grasp it ourselves. I think we must grasp it ourselves, but that does not mean I am unsympathetic to the arguments about that specific cohort of women who are affected in a particularly negative way.
I know there were debates on these measures in the other place, but I am not persuaded that we must defer taking them to beyond 2020. I am not going to talk about the implications of the equality legislation so often supported by Opposition Members, even though that may have led to a situation whereby what was stated in the coalition agreement cannot now be put into effect. However, what I am certainly uncomfortable about is any woman having to wait more than an additional year. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be aware that Sally Greengross—Baroness Greengross, a Cross Bencher widely respected in this area—put forward a compromise proposal that has much merit, based as it is on the idea that no woman waits for more than a year. The restriction was limited in that way, and the measure was exceptionally intelligently crafted.
I have read Lord Freud’s responses to this debate. He said that the proposal would cost not £10 billion, as the Opposition suggest, but only £2 billion. Given that I want to husband public resources—and that we apparently have the Opposition’s support for shifting retirement ages forward from 2034 and 2044 to dates that are significantly earlier, saving perhaps £2 billion—I am much more attracted to the idea of matching that saving and making far greater savings elsewhere.
Lord Freud responded to the debate by pointing out the gender equality legislation—the equality provisions of European law—that might make this a difficult proposition. However, I am not persuaded that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s Department lacks minds sufficiently sharp to overcome this difficulty. [Interruption.] Yes, I am absolutely sure that the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), could draft the legislation required; but if not, he has all the necessary skill within his Department.
I am very happy to tell all of my constituents who have written to me on this issue that, because of what is happening with longevity, it is fair, if we are asking men to wait a further year, to ask women to wait another year. There are those who say it is a double whammy because we are also seeing equalisation from the age of 60, but that is already a part of the architecture and cannot be taken into account. I am certainly prepared to argue that case.
I want to make two final points that are connected not with this issue but with other aspects of the Bill. In it, adjustments are made to the financial assistance scheme. Many of my constituents have been affected by the collapse of Allied Steel and Wire. On the question of the general attitude of Labour toward pensioners, many of ASW’s pensioners know the “assistance” they got from Labour: none whatsoever. That is the reality. However, the truth is that, under the financial assistance scheme, many people are not even going to get the 90% that was flagged up as their likely reimbursement. I hope we get opportunities to address that issue. I am looking across at my hon. Friend the Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams)—I do not know whether I should call him my hon. Friend; he might be offended by that. My hon. colleague and I have discussed this issue, and it is important that we return to it to address some of the injustices in the operation of the financial assistance scheme as it affects ASW pensioners.
Will the hon. Gentleman at least acknowledge, in fairness, that it was the last Labour Government who set up both the financial assistance scheme and the pension protection fund, which, whatever the difficulties, have helped many tens of thousands of people who were going to lose their pensions?
The right hon. Gentleman and I have known each other for many years and he knows I have the highest respect for him. I certainly accept that we eventually ended up with that legislation, but it took a long time to get there. However, he was material in trying to achieve that.
Let me also say a word about the effects of auto-enrolment. I was staggered to hear the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill tell us that he does not like the proposals on auto-enrolment. I have to say that I am concerned about the impact of our continually increasing the personal allowance—as I understand it, that is going to be part of our policy—if we are just going to link the personal allowance figure to the level at which auto-enrolment kicks in. I am reassured by what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State says about keeping this under review, but the movement from £5,000 to £7,000 is not, as described by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, an attack on poorer workers. The reality, on the information that we have, is that those people would be worse off if they were within the scheme.
May I tempt my hon. Friend with a thought about why the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill made such an issue of this? I wondered whether he was searching for a reason to vote against the very policy that his Government, when in power, wanted to bring in, because there is nothing else in it with which Labour disagree.
I am aware that the Forum of Private Business does not like the fact that the Government have not made more adjustments in this area, and of course the Government would like to have a situation in which all parties were on board at the end of the review, but the proposal of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill has virtually no supporters, save perhaps for those within the union movement—surprise, surprise. The reality is that the proposals we are taking forward are overdue, but there has been too much misinformation about this change. Ultimately, I want to see a situation in which no woman has to wait more than a year longer than she had expected to wait, but the linking of that issue with a 25-year lead-in to the equalisation of pensions at 65 by those engaged in this campaign has been deliberately misleading and has not served the interests of all the people who have written to us.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans), but I will disagree with quite a bit of what he said.
I am disappointed about the change in the financial assistance scheme from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index, particularly in relation to Richards Textile factory in Aberdeen, which went bust with the collapse of its pension scheme. Although the very hard work of many Labour Back Benchers ensured that those pensioners did not lose all their money, they still feel aggrieved that they do not have the same cover as those who subsequently entered the pension protection fund and that they do not get quite as much as those covered by it.
Let me start by saying which parts of the Bill I agree with to show that not everything in it is bad, although quite a lot is. I agree wholeheartedly with the lifting of the default retirement age and I only wish that my Government had done that. I have a friend who has been told by his employer that he has to retire at 65 and he does not want to, but unfortunately his birthday falls on the wrong side of the divide.
I am also very glad that the Government are going ahead with the national employment savings trust. There was a bit of worry at the time of the election that some people in business who were not too keen on it, particularly on auto-enrolment, might put pressure on the coalition Government, who I am glad resisted. NEST is certainly the way forward for occupational pensions, to ensure that there is pension cover for everyone and that most people will not have to depend on the basic state pension as their sole income in retirement. That is very important.
I also agree with the proposal to bring auto-enrolment forward to July 2012 for large companies. If they are ready to go, the sooner the scheme gets up and running the better and the sooner it is tested the better, because part of the reason for rolling out auto-enrolment is to test how it works in practice.
So those things are all good, but that is as far as that goes and there are issues of concern. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), I am concerned about the lifting of the auto-enrolment earnings threshold by £2,500. I tried to intervene about this early in the Secretary of State’s speech, but lots of other people were jumping up and down at the time. The problem is that low earners might not always be low earners. Auto-enrolment is important in getting people into the scheme as soon as possible and in ensuring that even low earners are enrolled in a pension scheme. If those people continue to earn similar amounts for the rest of their working life, the scheme might not have the returns that they would expect, but no one knows, at the start of their working life, what their eventual earnings will be and we should always err on the side of caution in ensuring that people enrol. The raising of the threshold could result in about 600,000 people not being enrolled who otherwise would have been. It has been said that those people could opt in, but it is highly unlikely that many people on such low incomes would do so. If the Government introduced a foundation pension or a pension for the state, which the Secretary of State put into context, the scheme would make a difference for people making such low contributions. Even someone earning just over £5,000 a year could make a valuable contribution to their eventual occupational pension.
I worry about that issue and I worry when I hear that the threshold might go up to £10,000 or more in future, because the whole point of auto-enrolment and of NEST was to make things easy, to make belonging to an occupational pension fund a no-brainer and to ensure that everyone who was in work would automatically pay into an occupational fund. People who are not auto-enrolled and who are not in the pension fund will lose out on the employers’ contributions as well, so they will lose out not only on their potential pension earnings towards the end of their life but on what we often think of as deferred wages in the employers’ contribution.
I am also concerned about the introduction of the three-month wait, for many of the same reasons I have just given. The shadow Secretary of State has already made the arguments, which are important to remember.
All those issues could probably have been swallowed if they had been the only things we were concerned about, but the big sticking point in the Bill, which I suspect most Members will be talking about this afternoon, is the acceleration of the state pension age, particularly the anomaly that hits the 500,000 women who at very short notice will have to wait more than a year for their pension. I wonder whether the Government have analysed exactly who will lose out as a result of the measures and which women will not be in work at the age of 66, when they get their state pension. The figure of £10 billion has been bandied around for how much it would cost not to go ahead with the proposal, but I suspect that is a gross figure. I do not know whether the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), has any idea how much the welfare bill will go up as a result of people’s falling out of work before they reach the age of 66.
I agree that it is right that the state pension age should rise and indeed inevitable that it will rise, and I accept that there are issues to do with longevity, but I am concerned that we are potentially creating not the pensioner poor but a group of people who become the new poor because they have fallen out of work in the last years of their working life and are struggling to get by on benefits. It is not good enough for the pensions Minister to say that for anyone who falls out of work before reaching the state pension age and who does not have a pension they can draw early, there is always jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance. The contributory element of JSA lasts only six months and the Government propose that the contributory element of ESA will last only a year. Nowadays, women expect to have their own wages, but their qualifying for income-related JSA or ESA will depend on the household income and whether they have a working partner. For many women, that misses the point. Quite a few women in my constituency say, “I’ve only got a pension of £1 a week.” What they mean is that they have 60% of their husband’s pension and £1 a week on top of that, but they still see that £1 a week as their pension and they feel very aggrieved about that.
Does the hon. Lady share my concern that the healthy life expectancy for men in Scotland is currently 60 years and for women is 62 years? In that context, a dramatic increase in the pension age for those people is simply displacing on to the benefit system the burden that will have to be met.
Indeed. The hon. Lady says more eloquently what I was trying to say about displacing people out of pension age into the working age poor. There is nothing to be gained for those people if all we are doing is delaying when they get their state pension. There will be the odd situation that when people retire, their income will go up, rather than people being able to work until they reach retirement age.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as we are coming out of carers week, the Government should remember the 37% of women affected by the state pension age increase who will not be in the work force in the last years of their working lives, as the Government call it, and who have responsibilities caring for an elderly or ill relative or for their own grandchildren? They will be among those who suffer most as a result of the increase.
There are much wider issues with raising the state pension age such as the fact that, towards the end of their working life, many people may start to take on less paid employment because they have taken on caring roles. My generation of women is often called the sandwich generation in as much as they are looking after elderly parents or other elderly relatives as well as looking after their own grandchildren, to allow their sons and daughters to go to work. That is the generation that is caught by the anomaly—a generation of women who, perhaps, were not able to work throughout their married life and have not necessarily built up the national insurance contributions that will give them a full state pension.
I am curious about the Government’s argument that the flat rate pension will miraculously mean that all women will get a state pension, when my understanding is that that pension will still be based on the number of years of national insurance contributions. That was brought down to 30 years in the Pensions Act 2007, so women can already qualify. That Act also made it easier for carers to qualify for credits. I see the pensions Minister is about to jump up. Perhaps he can clarify whether the qualification for the flat rate pension will not be 30 years of national insurance credits.
The hon. Lady raises serious points. She is absolutely right—for the basic pension, those credits are already in place. The problem is that many of the women we are discussing will have done their child rearing before credits for the state second pension came in, so they will still retire with inadequate state pensions, which would be corrected under our proposals.
So those women will still have to have the 30 years of credits, but in respect of the SERPS element they will be the winners. But for every winner in all these changes, there will inevitably be losers, and there will be those who have paid their SERPS all their working life, including women who have paid the big stamp but not the small stamp. They are the ones who often feel aggrieved. As the Minister knows, pensions policy is a minefield covered in all those booby traps. As soon as one presses down on one thing, another pops up, making it all very difficult.
It is the group of women who were born in 1953 and 1954 who are being expected, at very, very short notice—five years’ notice—somehow to change their whole financial planning for their retirement. As I pointed out to the Secretary of State in an intervention, when the equalisation came in the warning that people were given ranged from 15 to 25 years. The evidence that I received from Age UK showed that 20% of women still have not realised that they are not going to get the state pension at 60 but will have to wait until they are 64 or 65.
That proves not that we have been lax in trying to inform or educate women about what state pension they can expect, but that it takes a long time for such things to sink in and for people to make arrangements. In the case of the current proposal, the women who will be most affected have just over five years’ notice. That is unfair and I hope the Government will look again.
In her intervention, the Chair of the Select Committee made the excellent point that some of the women we are talking about have already left the labour market, having taken early retirement. Does she agree that the Government have a special responsibility to those former Government employees who they persuaded to take early retirement instead of a redundancy option and who now find that they will not have access to a state pension as part of the plans that they would have made when deciding to leave their employment as civil servants?
I could not agree more. It is imperative that we get that sorted out now. I am sure that other local authorities will not be any different from my local authority, which knows that cuts are coming. My local authority managed to have a funding black hole of £25 million. Before there was any economic disaster in any other part of the world, it happened in Aberdeen. I will not talk about that being a Liberal Democrat council, but it was. That has resulted in large numbers of local authority employees—not only women, but predominantly women—being offered early retirement, which councils have been encouraging their employees to take because they do not want to go down the route of compulsory redundancies.
People have been signing up and are still signing up for early retirement without the full knowledge that what they are signing up for is a lower pension that will not be supplemented with the basic state pension when they reach the age of 63 or 64, as they thought it would be. In some cases, they may have to wait another two years. Their entire financial planning was based on the expectation that they would get whatever the basic state pension would be at that time. It is £105 now, so it will be more than that, and the flat rate pension may have come in. They were expecting at least another £100 a week in the income that they have worked out they will need to survive.
The short notice is the injustice. The Government must look at this again. They cannot leave out this group of women, who did not have the chance to build up their pension protection but who took on the burden of care in the community, saving the Government billions of pounds. The same group of women have had to fight many of the equality battles, yet it is being hardest hit, and it cannot be right that, because of the acceleration, the Government are making them pay the price not of deficit reduction—according to the coalition, the proposals will not apply until after the deficit is meant to have gone—but of the longevity of other groups.
I accept the Secretary of State’s point that the coalition Government discovered that their proposed acceleration was illegal. It would probably be illegal under European law because the Government had already said that they would equalise the pension age of men and women. That makes me wonder what else in the coalition document might be illegal. Has someone been through it with a fine-toothed comb? If that was such a glaring error, have others sneaked into the coalition agreement, or was it just this issue where someone failed to notice that signing up for the equalisation of the state pension age might not be fulfilled by the words of the coalition document?
I will vote against the Bill because it fails on the basic principle of fairness, and in pensions policy fairness is all. When those now sitting on the Government Benches were in opposition, fairness was all they talked about. The previous Labour Government went a long way in introducing fairness into the pensions system. Pension credit was certainly a revolutionary policy that lifted many pensioners out of poverty and transformed the incomes of many pensioners, who saw their incomes double when Labour was in power. Fairness must be at the heart of pensions policy, but the Bill does not pass the fairness criterion.
The Bill has been somewhat hijacked by the women’s pension age issue, but as the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) has said, there is much in it that is very good and extremely uncontroversial. There are other proposals that are good, but which some people find controversial, such as those on judges’ pensions. Funnily enough, a number of speakers in the other place became extremely worked up about that. As the Secretary of State said, judges currently make no contributions to their pensions. The only thing they contribute to is survivors’ benefit, for which they pay the princely sum of 2.4% or 1.8% of their salary, depending on the scheme, but they get an extremely generous pension at the end of it. I understand that one in six judges draws a pension of more than £67,000 a year, which puts them in the top 0.01% of pensioners, as the employer contribution is around one third of the salaries. The hon. Lady has just said that fairness is all in pensions, but clearly that does not seem fair to an awful lot of people. At a time of great debate on public sector pensions, there is no reason for judges to be exempt from reform. There seems to be a clear consensus in this place, if not in the other place, that that needs to be tackled as soon as possible.
I also welcome much of the rest of the Bill. The introduction and simplification of many of the opt-out arrangements is really important. The hon. Member for Aberdeen South and I were members of the Work and Pensions Committee in the previous Parliament and did a lot of work on the arrangements for the National Employment Savings Trust and how to ensure that people on low incomes are encouraged and supported to save for retirement. Like her, I welcome many of the Bill’s proposals and think that it is really important that the measures are being introduced. Hopefully, the tweaks will overcome some of the problems identified during the passage of the Pensions Act 2007, which most people supported. Many of the concerns that were raised related primarily to small businesses and those on the lowest incomes and are covered by the Bill.
I am also glad that the Bill will set up a system that will make it easier for people on low incomes to save, because that has been a problem for far too long in this country and needs to be tackled. Although the level of means-testing is still an issue and therefore for some of those on the very lowest incomes, as employers will also contribute to pensions, it will be more worth while under the system in the Bill and the previous Act for more people to save.
However, like the hon. Member for Aberdeen South, I am afraid that I will do what I am sure everyone in the debate will do and raise the concerns about the proposals on the women’s state pension age. I am sure that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will be sick to the back teeth of people complaining about the women’s state pension age by the end of the debate, as I am sure will the Minister. [Interruption.] You are far too charitable, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I agree with the Government that the state pension age needs to rise. In 1970, someone retiring at age 60 could expect to live a further 18 years. Last year, the figure was 28 years. There has clearly been a significant change in demographics in this country, which has to be reflected in our pensions system. We cannot expect people to work until they drop, but the more time they spend in retirement, the more strain that puts on the public purse.
That issue goes hand in hand with pensioner poverty. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), who is no longer in his place, talked about the progress he felt the previous Government had made on pensioner poverty. Progress was made, but last year there were still 2 million people of pension age living in poverty, which is unbelievably high for a rich country such as the UK and a disgrace. Unless we seriously overhaul the pensions system, pensioner poverty will continue to be a problem. The longer people live, the less an occupational pension is likely to pay out, for those who are lucky to have them, and the longer they will have to live in poverty after they retire.
We must invest in the state pension in order to tackle pensioner poverty, which is one reason that I welcome the steps that the Government have already taken to bring in the triple lock, which has been a Liberal Democrat policy for a number of years. By linking the basic state pension to earnings and instituting the triple lock, pensioners will hopefully take home £15,000 more over the course of their retirement than they would have done under the previous Government’s policies. That will start to make a difference to levels of pensioner poverty.
What I think will really make a difference is the Pensions Minister’s plan for a flat-rate pension, if and when he is able to introduce that and work it through the House. As has been announced, the plan is for all pensioners with contributions of more than 30 years to receive a flat-rate pension of around £140 a week, uprated by inflation, from 2016. For many people, particularly women in the cohort which has been referred to today, that would be a significantly higher basic state pension than they currently receive. There is particular concern about those women, many of whom do not have private savings and do not necessarily have a full contributions record, as we have discussed in relation to the state second pension. The people who are likely to be penalised by the rising state pension age will benefit significantly from the introduction of a flat-rate pension.
We should not be trying to tackle pensioner poverty simply by increasing the burden on those in society who are working. Wages are flat at the moment and prices are rising, and the Secretary of State has laid out the change in the ratio of pensioners to working people in the population. We need to do something more fundamental. We need to create a sustainable way of managing our ageing population, rather than continually increasing the demands on taxpayers. The Turner commission and the 2007 legislation accepted the premise that, as longevity increases, so the state pension age must rise, but we have now learned from the most recent figures that the situation has changed even more than was understood when the commission carried out its work. We need to take that into account if we are to have a sustainable pension scheme that people can trust for the long term. The Government are right to look at raising the state pension age, and if the flat-rate pension is introduced in 2016, although hundreds of thousands of women will have to work longer, they will get a better pension in the end, which is a trade-off that many will feel is worth it.
As many Members have mentioned today, it is the cohort of women born in 1953 and 1954 who will feel the greatest impact of the change, particularly the 33,000 born in March 1954, who will have to work two years longer. Like other Members, I do not believe that the plans currently laid out are fair for those women. People need time to plan for their retirement, as the hon. Lady for Aberdeen South said. A number of Members have said that those women will have five years’ notice, but my understanding is that it will be seven years before facing the situation, so I would be grateful if the Minister clarified that. Seven years is not a very long time in which to plan whether to work for another two years. In order to keep the public support that we need for such long-term plans, pensions must have full support across this House and among the public as a whole.
I concur with every single word that my hon. Friend says. Owing to the difficult decisions that the coalition Government are making on the economy, I am confident that, by 2018, 2019, 2020, the challenges will have been met and the Government will be able to listen to Back Benchers from all parts of the House and move the change back to 2020. The difficult decisions that will have been made by then will mean that the economy is ready and able to sustain such a move.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and it will be interesting to hear what the Minister says to that when he sums up the debate. I am sure that during the debate several suggestions will be made on how to tackle the issue, and that is one.
The changes have to feel fair, but the current proposals do not. The hon. Member for Aberdeen South said that fairness is extremely important, and as the Pensions Minister has said it is extremely important that the basic state pension, whatever its structure, has to feel fair, because it has to last a long time and be free from arbitrary political intervention. The current proposals, however, do not pass the fairness test.
The hon. Lady, who is making a powerful speech, seems, like me, to agree with an awful lot of the very good that is in the Bill, and it would be a shame to ditch the baby with the bathwater, as Opposition Members plan to do tonight. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) has come up with an interesting proposal, and her hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) has just come up with one as well. Does she agree that Second Reading is the time to do so and to take such ideas into Committee? Like me, the hon. Lady will, I hope, have been encouraged by the sympathetic noises from Government Front Benchers, who are listening to the sensitive arguments from Government Members.
I absolutely agree. As the hon. Lady says, the point of Second Reading is that we have the opportunity to air a whole load of different options and concerns about the Bill, and as she says also, there have already been a couple of proposals for tackling the issue. I am sure that we will hear more as the debate goes on.
I completely agree that the Bill contains a huge amount that is valuable and important, so I am concerned about the Opposition saying that they will vote against it as a whole. Our constituents, living in our local communities, will be disappointed that the Opposition have taken that approach to the legislation and are not prepared to give a Second Reading to its positive elements.
To be honest, I cannot remember whether anybody asked me to vote against the Bill. Most writers of the letters and e-mails that I have received raised concerns about the particular proposal in the Bill, and I agree with them. As I have already said, I share their concerns and have issues with what is proposed, but the whole point of Second Reading is that we have the opportunity to raise our concerns and to send the Bill into Committee, where people will be able to go through it clause by clause, to debate what the alternative may be and to have a chance really to scrutinise it. Today’s debate is not the time just to chuck it away.
I cannot possibly say what I will do at that stage, because we do not know what shape the Bill will be in. I put the Bill in the safe hands—I am sure—of the Pensions Minister and of colleagues from all parts of the House, who will be able to look at it, try to refine it and send it back to us in the best possible shape. At that point, like all hon. Members, I will be able to decide whether to support it in its entirety.
We have no idea who will be on the Committee for the Bill before us, so I cannot possibly comment on what amendments might or might not be tabled or on who might or might not support them.
The Government should, however, think again about these plans and find a way to make them fairer for the worst affected women. We have already heard a number of proposals, and I was pleased that the Secretary of State made it clear that he is open-minded and willing to listen to what options there are. It was important for us to hear that this afternoon.
I concur with my hon. Friend. The importance of today is that the strength of feeling about this one aspect of the Bill is aired, that Ministers convey the feeling that there will be a response and, most importantly, that there is a response that makes this part of the Bill fair.
I agree. My hon. Friend has spoken in the House in recent weeks on the issue and on her concerns about its fairness, and I am sure that Ministers are listening and taking that message on board.
I appreciate that this is a difficult and costly area in which to make any changes. The figures are mind-boggling, and a few months here and there will make a significant difference to the cost, but it cannot be beyond the wit of man to find a way to smooth the process in order to ensure that that small group of women does not end up being so badly affected. I have every faith in the Government and, in particular, in the Pensions Minister, who is generally regarded as one of the UK’s foremost experts on pensions. He has done a huge amount of work in the past on women’s pensions, helping thousands of women to get the money to which they are entitled, so I put him on notice today that I trust him to resolve the issue. I am sure that, if he cannot do it, nobody can.
The upshot of the Bill is that many people will have to work longer than they expected, and at short notice. That is the point. People will have made their plans, but they will no doubt have to be changed if the Bill goes through.
I am sure the Minister knows better than I that pension planning is a long-term business, and that is why there is such value in cross-party consensus, in stability, in fairness and in any change being slow and clear. Those are, I think, the Pensions Minister’s own views, and that is one reason why there have been constant problems since a previous Conservative Government broke the consensus on pensions almost 30 years ago—a consensus that the Turner changes in the 2007 Act re-established to an extent.
I, too, have received a lot of correspondence, with constituents and others expressing lots of concern at what they see arising from the Bill as a sudden change, which, they also contend, does not have broad support across the parties or among people throughout the UK. Some see the change as a fundamental break in the social contract between government and people, while others accept that as life expectancy lengthens so too must the length of the working life, but all object to the change in the implementation time scale that the Bill proposes.
Hon. Members have already said that an estimated 5 million people born between 1953 and 1960 will have to wait longer to reach state pension age. Although the wait for the majority of people will increase by less than one year, about 500,000 women born between October 1953 and April 1955 will have to wait more than an additional year and 126,000 women born between December 1953 and October 1954 will have to wait up to two years, losing about £10,000 in pension. Those are the facts as we understand them.
Men and women on low incomes who are reliant on pension credit and have no private pension savings will be most affected by the changes, and we have many such people in Wales. A great deal has been spoken about the gender effects of the potential changes, and women will be hit hardest, but there are also effects on disabled people and potential effects on ethnic groups.
We have also heard about class effects. I, too, have looked at the Age UK briefing, and it states for example that a higher percentage of people in social classes D and E are unable to work on, with one third of such women, at least, being in ill-health. Age UK also points out that awareness of the changes among people in classes D and E is very much lower.
There are also national and regional effects, which have had less attention. The changes will hit some sectors of society harder than others, and we in Wales, as in Scotland, have more people in those sectors than other parts of the UK. In Scotland, life expectancy is four years below the European average at 76 for men and 80 for women. Glasgow has the lowest life expectancy in the UK—71.1 years for men and 77.5 for women. These people will be severely hit.
The hon. Gentleman is right about life expectancy numbers. Somebody with a fund who has a poor health record will get a bigger annuity than somebody who has a healthy record. How would he resolve that in terms of the state pension situation? He seems to be saying that he would not change the current arrangements.
A large number of people are unable to get an annuity in the first place because they do not have that sort of pension. Nobody is arguing against the fact that life expectancy is extending—of course, that should be welcomed. However, the fact that the change is being brought in quickly will particularly affect certain groups in relation to class, gender and where they come from.
The effects in Wales will be much more pronounced. That is demonstrated by figures for July 2009-10 on the composition of the work force taken from the ONS publication “Regional Trends”. The average proportion of the population in the UK who are managers and senior officials is 15.6%, the figure for the south-east is 18.3%, and the figure for Wales is 13%. Managers and senior officials will not be hit as hard by the changes, because they have other sources of pension income and live longer. In Wales, we have fewer such people who are able to depend on a decent pension and expect to live longer; unsurprisingly, the south-east has many more. Likewise, in the case of process, plant and machine operatives, the UK average is 6.7%, the figure for the south-east is 5%, and the figure for Wales is 7.3%. As regards people in elementary occupations, the UK average is 11.1%, the figure for the south-east is 9.7%, and the figure for Wales is 11.8%. Workers and future pensioners will be disadvantaged in Wales, as in the rest of the UK, but the effects there and in Scotland will be more pronounced.
Plaid Cymru Members welcome the continuation of automatic enrolment in pension schemes. Given the increases in short-term employment, casualisation and multiple part-time jobs, we share Age UK’s concern about the earnings threshold, particularly the possible negative impact of the three-month waiting period and its effect on staff who might not stay in the job for long enough. We have the same concern about those who have multiple low-paid jobs and therefore may not reach the threshold and be excluded.
In a speech I made some months ago, I expressed reservations about the indexation process, so I will not labour that aspect. My final point is about the Pension Protection Fund, which was raised by the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) and is referred to in part 3 of the Bill. The PPF came about partly as a result of pressure put on the former Labour Government by Members in all parts of the House arising out of the ASW steelworkers scandal: a very difficult situation in which the Government had to be persuaded—I use that word advisedly—to act. Unfortunately, the ASW campaign is still ongoing. I recently met some of the workers, and I have tabled early-day motions and attended meetings on the subject, as has the hon. Member for Cardiff North. In November 2010, the pensions specialist Dr Ros Altmann suggested possible ways in which the coalition Government could assist the ASW workers. Will the Minister tell us what progress is being made in that case? That would go a long way towards responding to the campaign by those workers.
The salient fact of this debate is that by the time it finishes at 10 o’clock, the average age to which we and our constituents might expect to live will have increased by an hour and a half. If I were to speak for 10 minutes or a quarter of an hour, which I will not, then merely in the course of my speech average life expectancy would have increased by four minutes. I hope that that is compensation for what hon. Members are about to endure.
The simple fact of demography that for every hour that passes 15 minutes is added to the age to which we, as a population, can expect to live forces us to revisit the state retirement age—the age at which people stop paying taxes and start depending largely on the fruits of others’ labours. It is a fact that is unlikely to change in the half century to come. In fact, if the experience of the past few years is anything to go by, the acceleration of our expected mortality rates will only increase, rendering irrelevant and insufficient all the predictions on which we currently rely. There is near consensus that maintaining the existing pension age is unaffordable and that we should correct that by ratcheting up the state pension age year by year to reflect increasing life expectancy.
However, I am worried by the idea that by the mid part of this century, asking people to retire at 70—incidentally, the age intended by Lloyd George in his great Act of 1908—will be seen as the way to fix this problem, because we may not correct everything that we hope to correct just by increasing the state pension age and doing everything contained in this excellent Bill. Although I support the intention of the Bill and the immediate steps that it takes, the Government need rapidly to revisit the conventions and means by which successive Governments address the central problem of increasing life expectancy and the effect of that on the Exchequer and those working to fund it. Otherwise, we will again end up in a situation that is unsatisfactory and inadequate. It is unsatisfactory because with every increase in the state pension age, we inflict another set of injustices and unfairnesses on those who are approaching that moment in their lives. The predicament of the relatively small group of women we have been debating is a sure indication of far greater problems to come for Governments in future years.
Because we are facing this cross-generational challenge, it is incumbent on us to try to forge a consensus between the parties about the rules by which we deal with pensions policy. One of those rules is suggested by the example of the women who are particularly affected by the Government’s proposed changes. When times are normal—these are not normal times—there might be a rule whereby people are given at least 10 years’ notice before we change their pension entitlements or the age at which they can claim them. Perhaps the case of the class of ’53, as they call themselves, is the test by which the Government will be measured in this respect.
Although I understand why the Government might fairly ask that people work an additional year to deal with the horrendous deficit and national debt we have been left, to ask a relatively small group of people to work an additional two years with six years’ notice is a very big ask, not least because it calls into question other excellent parts of the Bill that are designed to encourage saving. We cannot ask people to save and then give them no time in which to do so. I hope that in considering a way to smooth the edge of this part of the legislation, the Government will not only fashion a compromise for the women who are being asked to work an additional 13 to 24 months, but thereby establish the first set of conventions by which successive Governments can deal with this issue.
Another unfairness in the Bill, which was not intended by the Government, results from the change from RPI to CPI for uprating. Many of my constituents who are on occupational schemes, mostly from British Telecom, have found that their pensions have been changed only two years after they were renegotiated between the trustee and the pensioners. The trustee claims that it has been forced to do that by the rules of the scheme. My constituents and I would be interested to know the degree of consideration the Minister gave to the effect that his changes to the uprating regulations would have on the occupational schemes of previously nationalised industries, because they have had a very adverse effect on people who thought that they had funded schemes.
Those are the unfair and unsatisfactory parts of the Bill, which I consider to be largely good. I understand that the Opposition supported the change from RPI to CPI, but on a temporary basis. With characteristic innumeracy, they therefore miss the central challenge that confronts us, which is not just the deficit that we must deal with between now and 2016, but the period after that. There is an idea that in 2016 the deficit will somehow come to an end, we will be finished with our problems, and we can then extract the cheque book from our pocket and go on another splurge. That will sadden people, because if we did that, we would find ourselves with one of the highest debt to GDP ratios in the developed world—higher than most of our developed competitors and significantly larger than almost all of our developing competitors, just at the point at which they move up the value chain to meet us on high-end manufacturing, learning-based skills and value-added services.
At that point, we will be faced with a demographic scene that is not much altered from the one the Government look at now. We need only look at the support ratio to tell us that. It currently sits at about four workers per pensioner—the lowest in the history of the state pension. Under the Pensions Act 2007, it would decrease by 2023 to 3.11 workers per pensioner. That figure will improve under the Bill to 3.35—a difference of 6%. At that point we will still be slipping down, and none of this changes the central projection to 2058—150 years after the introduction of the state pension—when there will be 2.74 workers per pensioner. There will then be fewer than three workers for every pensioner they must support.
Pensions are a double-sided promise. On the one hand, we, as parties engaging in government or opposition, must give people the security to know what they will receive in their retirement. That is why I urge the Government to look carefully at the women who will be particularly affected by this change, and at those who are coming to the end of their working life in the public sector. As many of their accrued rights as possible must be respected, because that is what was promised to them, whether or not it was prudent to do so at the time.
In understanding that, we have to be far more brutal with the younger generation, which has many more years to work. Frankly, younger people will not be able to have a pension of the size that their parents and grandparents have come to expect, because of the horrendous deficit and the enormous debt that we have been left by the previous Government—larger than those of almost all our competitors around the world. As a result of that debt, we will have less to spend on education, training and infrastructure improvement. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) smiles, but it is true that as a result of the actions of his Government, we have less to spend on things that will grow the economy and there will be fewer tax receipts to pay for the welfare state that we have come to expect as a nation.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend picked up on the remark from the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), when challenged on the cost of his proposal, that money could be raised by bringing forward significantly the current programme for retirement at the ages of 67 and 68. Perhaps we should bank that promise from the Opposition before it evaporates like so many of their remarks.
What I found surprising about that comment from the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) was that it completely ignored the sensible intervention by his colleague the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), who made quite plain the difficulty of bringing forward the state pension age rise too quickly because of its manifest unfairness on manual labourers, who have a much lower life expectancy than others. That is a central problem that we have to deal with and a reason why the state pension age will become inadequate. At some point, we have to address that unfairness, whether by measuring the length of period worked or by doing far more than has been done so far to improve the occupational health of large numbers of people in this country.
We come back to the essential problem: there is not only no money now, but there will be no money for many decades to come if we are to have the money to invest in growing our economy. Frankly, we will have no welfare state to pay for if we do not address these big issues now. We will be lying to future generations and forcing upon them a generational theft if we are not straight with them now about the reality that confronts them. That is my generation, as much as it is that of the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves). We will be expected to save considerably more and receive considerably less from the state. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown)—she is a Whip and I will not criticise her—is huffing and puffing away, but the fact is that between 2002 and 2006, the structural deficit was run up, inflicting this problem on generations of people to come. The worst affected will be those on low incomes and the unemployed—the very people her party was founded to protect.
We must be honest with future generations and correct the small inadequacies in this Bill. I urge the Minister to look carefully at the long-term reforms that are needed in our pensions system if we are not to come back here year after year to let down pensioners on the promises that were given to them in ages past.
Back in the 1940s, Aneurin Bevan referred to the ageing of our population as the “peculiar problem” of the era. When one thinks of the controversies just of the last few weeks over the national health service, the quality or lack of it in our care homes, and now the pension age, one can see how prescient the Bevanite analysis was.
I will argue that pensions policy is at its best when it has an understanding of the pace and grain of people’s lives and of the society—an understanding of how people work, their employment patterns, care patterns and family patterns. Looking back, one can see examples of that. Lloyd George—a reminder that there were once great Liberal reformers—was urged to introduce the first old-age pension, albeit at a slightly measly 70 years old, because working people were, rather peculiarly and in a sense for the first time, outliving their working lives, so it was asked where their incomes would come from. Thus occurred the birth, more than 100 years ago in this Parliament, of the first old-age pension. Much more recently, around the 1970s, Barbara Castle and other Secretaries of State realised that the national insurance system was inadequate when it came to women’s caring responsibilities, and credits started to be built into it.
My question is whether, by introducing uniform state pension ages—I listened with great care to what the hon. Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) said on the matter—we are now fashioning a policy that makes sense given the different life cycles of people in this country depending on their occupation and social class.
I think about my own family’s experience. My dad and my mum left school at 14 to work, and my dad had jobs in the market in Islington long before that age. At that time, the vast majority of people left school at that type of age. If they worked through to 65 or so, they would have been working for half a century or more. I did not get my first proper job until I was 21. I remember my nan from Islington—Hansard must record “nan” not “nanny”, because I do not want to excite Conservative Members—saying to me when I was 16, “Malcolm, why haven’t you got a job yet?” She just could not understand why I was not yet working.
My own three children were fortunate enough to go to university and then do some postgraduate qualifications—one of them very ably taught, by the way, by a young lecturer at Bath university, whose name I temporarily forget. I often wonder what happened to him. I refer, of course, to the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb). My children did not get their first proper jobs, rather than holiday jobs, until their early to mid-20s. That is a pattern among certain middle class and professional families.
Today, some people coming up to claiming their state pension will have left school at 15 or 16, but some will not have got their jobs until their late teens, early 20s or even mid-20s. Are we being sensible when we say that people who have worked in hard, tough manual jobs for a very long time should be able to claim their state pension only at the same time as those of us from cosier professional and middle-class backgrounds? That is the issue that I wish to explore today.
The proposals in the Bill are based on certain assumptions, and two in particular. One is that the generalisation about life expectancy is true for all social groups. Others have questioned that assumption. I had an opportunity to intervene on the Secretary of State about it earlier, and I want to question it in a little more detail. The Minister of State and the House have heard my argument before. Alongside the gender issue, which is hugely important, there is the social class dimension, which the data show mainly affects men. It needs some airing and some debate, and I would argue that it also needs some solution. There is the assumption about life expectancy, which is broadly true but with some important qualifications, and also the assumption that if we keep raising the state pension age—and occupational pension ages, by the way, although I know that is another debate—the market will respond and jobs will be available. I want to question that assumption, too.
I was shocked when a constituent of mine, Mrs G. E. Smith, came in to see my at my last surgery. She will be 60 next month, and she was hoping to retire. She works in an exhausting cleaning job in a sawmill. I think Ministers have no idea what life in hard manual work is. She is shattered and wants to retire, but she has been told that she now has to go on another year, which will be injurious to her health. The Government have no idea of how what we used to call the working class suffer.
I imagine that that woman might have been categorised by the Office for National Statistics, rather inelegantly, as being part of the social class of “routine occupations”. That includes many women who are cleaners, and men who are manual labourers, van drivers or packers—heavily demanding work. Can they all look forward to living to 80 or, as the Minister likes to remind us periodically, to 100? Actually, they cannot.
The class differences are most pronounced for men, but they also exist for women. Here are the ONS statistics. Almost one fifth of men from the lowest social class—19%—die before reaching the existing pension age of 65. We talk about pension ages, but sadly a lot of these guys are already dead by that point. That 19% figure compares with just 7% from social class 1. For women, the respective figures are not so stark, but 10% in routine occupations die before the current pension age of 60—not like my right hon. Friend’s constituent, I hope, but with that type of job—while the figure is just 4% for those from the professional classes.
I am pleased that the Minister wants to intervene, but may I add another statistic? I have given him a lot of notice of this point, and a wonderful briefing paper has been presented, so I hope there might be some solutions. An additional pension penalty is paid by the poorest groups. Whereas the great majority survive to get the state pension, they then draw it for fewer years than people from the top social classes, because of earlier mortality. Life expectancy at 65 is 18.3 years for men from social class 1, which is professionals, but it is only 14.1 years for those from social class 5. That four-year difference is the same for women. A double pension whammy affects people from the poorest social classes, and that should at least raise a question in the Minister’s mind about whether the general policy that he is pursuing—to be fair, it is the general policy that my party’s Government were pursuing—is on the right track.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a characteristically fascinating contribution. He is citing different social groups, but does he accept that the sizes of those groups are changing? His idea would have been brilliant in 1975, but in designing a pensions system for the 21st century and beyond, is he not trying to solve a problem that is diminishing with every passing year?
I was solving many other problems in 1975—they were so numerous that I cannot think of an example. I believe that there are solutions to the problems. They might be complex, but if the Minister will bear with me I will come on to them.
I first wish to make my other contrarian point about the general assumption that it will be all right if we keep raising the state pension age—and indeed the occupational pension age. It is about employment patterns. At the moment it is not the case that 90%-odd of men and women are working until they are 65 and 60 respectively, and that if we keep increasing the pension age by a year or two there will be jobs available. That is not the situation at all. Labour force survey data show that almost a quarter of men aged 50 to 64, and more than a quarter of women aged 50 to 59, are classed as economically inactive. Many of them are not working at the moment. Why do we assume that there will be jobs for them if they have to work for a few more years? More specifically, 39% of men aged 62 are currently not working. By the age of 64, the figure is 52%. Among women aged 58, two years before their current state pension age, 36% are not working. The assumption that general life expectancy increases will benefit everyone and the at least implicit assumption that jobs are available are at least partly illusory.
I am not challenging the demographic logic, or the fact the state pension ages—and, may I say in a reasoned way, occupational pension ages—have to increase. Of course they do. That is the logic of demography, and it helps us safeguard our welfare state system. I ask, however, whether the situation is right for a man or woman who left school at 15 or 16. They may have had caring responsibilities or periods of unemployment, but they will have essentially worked for 49 or so years. They currently get their pension at 65, in the case of men. Is it right that they should be on the same playing field as the professional person who left university and did not do the type of job that my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) described, as a packer, cleaner, steelworker or miner, but who is from the professional classes, rather like many of us who are currently in this room? Is it right that the same state pension age should apply to both groups? I do not think that that is a state pension system that is in line with, or goes with the grain of, people’s lives. It does not seem fair to many people.
I meet many people from professional classes—politicians, business people, think tankers and broadcasters—who dread retirement. They want to keep working. They are hale and hearty and often at the top of their game. They want to carry on working, and that is a good thing. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham gives an important example. In 10 years, he will constitute another important example.
That is right and proper, but people who have done physically demanding work are literally worn out in an old-fashioned sense. Some of the steelworkers I met when we set up the Pension Protection Fund were physically worn out. They do not want to keep working for another couple of years. They want to retire to have a well deserved rest.
What is the answer? I think that we should try to calculate the records of those who left school at 15 or 16. I know that it is a challenge for the civil service. I have not got the briefing paper—the Minister has it and I am sure that he has read it. Given national insurance records, employment records and perhaps income tax records, should not we be able to calculate that people who have worked for 49 years can retire at the age of 65—for men and women in due course—rather than assume that they can carry on working? It is a big issue for social administration and it needs a bright Minister to tackle it. The Minister should give it rather more attention than I think he has given it so far.
Today’s debate takes place more than 100 years after the Old Age Pensions Act 1908 was introduced by a slightly different coalition Government, led by Lloyd George, but including Churchill in his Liberal phase. The most important change since then is clearly in life expectancy. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) and other speakers this evening have already tackled that in forensic detail.
I think it would be helpful if I detailed a couple of salient facts as an introduction to my views about Second Reading. A hundred years ago, life expectancy was slightly less than the pension age of 65. That would imply a pension age of about 87 today. To put it another way, 10 million people who are alive today will live to be 100. Clearly, something must be done, and I am afraid that it falls to this coalition Government to do it. The Labour party had its chance. In 2002, the Labour Green Paper fudged the issue and, two years later, the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions clearly told the TUC that raising the pension age would not happen. The message today from the shadow Secretary of State and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), who is in her place, blithely recommending as an alternative to some aspects of the Bill a speeded-up increase in the pension age beyond 2020, can therefore be treated with a huge bucket of salt. Their paymasters, the trade unions, simply would not let it happen. As is so often the case, it falls to this Government to tackle the difficult questions and decide how to balance the interests of future pensioners with those who are earning, paying taxes and paying for those pensions.
The most critical issue of fairness that the Bill must tackle is intergenerational fairness. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State introduced the Bill, he highlighted several aspects that are worth mentioning. He referred to life expectancy, and I hope that I have covered that point. He also mentioned fairness between generations, which is the basis for the main provisions of the measure. He talked about the importance of savings and their not being frittered away through a means-tested system. I echo that strongly. Correspondence from my constituents in Gloucester constantly reflects the unfairness between people living next door to one another, some on means-tested pensions and others not, owing to their small amounts of hard-earned savings.
The other key aspect is auto-enrolment. I pay tribute to the Labour party for the previous Government’s work on auto-enrolment, but once again this Government will have to implement the scheme. We have examined the details of simplifying the administrative aspects, ensuring an opt-out, not an opt-in, getting the self-certification from defined contribution schemes and so on. I welcome those aspects of the Bill as well as the changes to occupational schemes, in which I should declare an interest as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on occupational pensions.
It is notable that no Labour Members referred to judges’ pensions. An extraordinary silence has come upon my friends on the Opposition Benches. Several Government Members have pointed out that having zero contributions to the judges’ pension scheme is surely a massively unfair anomaly, which Work and Pensions Ministers are quite correct to change. That should have been done years ago.
That brings us to the one aspect of the Bill that causes hon. Members of all parties some concern: the effect on women born between December 1953 and October 1954. I have written to the Secretary of State and the Chancellor, inquiring whether it would be possible to introduce some flexibility to tackle the specific problems of women in that age group. I received a letter from the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), which tackles the question in some detail. He said that
“implementation of the increase to 66 between December 2018 and April 2020 is the option that best balances sustainability with fairness in the face of demographic change.”
I recognise that Ministers have a difficult task in trying to balance often conflicting aspects of dealing with pensions. I wondered—the Minister has agreed to consider the matter—whether the same argument could be made even more convincingly for stretching the period from December 2018 to the autumn of 2020 so that the increased period of waiting for their pension for those women would effectively be reduced from 24 to 18 months. I am confident, given everything that has been said today, that Ministers will consider that during the Bill’s later stages. I await what happens on Report.
It is important that our constituents understand that today we are considering and debating the principles of the Bill. The detail will be examined in Committee and again in the Chamber. I believe that the principles for tackling critical issues such as savings, auto-enrolment, occupational pensions, judges’ pensions and changes in life expectancy should occupy our time here today.
I was genuinely disappointed by the contribution of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), who gave a speech that contained a series of stories, rumours and quotes from newspaper articles—admirable soundbites in the absence of any policy. One must conclude that the shadow Secretary of State has no more policy on pensions than he had money left in the Treasury coffers a year ago. Although he said that he was proud of Labour’s pensions record, and the right hon. Member for Croydon North (Malcolm Wicks) gave one or two examples, such as the creation of the PPF, which are to be commended, I wonder whether Labour Front Benchers’ pride extends to the 75p increase in the state pension that was offered to my constituents so very recently. It is difficult to be proud of policy, but if Government Members are to be allowed some pride, it is in restoring the earnings link to the basic state pension, added to the triple guarantee that ensures that the basic state pension will always rise by at least 2.5% every year. That is a huge contrast to 75p.
I therefore believe that the Bill has a lot in it to commend to Members on both sides of the House. This issue should be non-partisan and non-tribal. We all want a good, affordable, sustainable pension for our constituents. I shall therefore support the Bill, which will make a significant difference to the 7 million people of both sexes who are currently under-saving, resolve the scandal of judiciary pensions, and allow for sensible reflections on aspects for women born within a particular year.
This debate is incredibly important to Members on both sides of the House. Before I move on to what most concerns me about the Bill, which has been raised by most hon. Members today, I should like to comment on some of the things that my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Malcolm Wicks) mentioned. My constituency’s past is in heavy industry, and it still has a huge element of industry. Both men and women work very hard in difficult, not-wonderful conditions. Many simply do not reach pensionable age. It is important to bear that in mind in our discussions. Nobody can argue with the statistics on the rate of increase of life expectancy, but in some areas of the country, especially in pockets within those areas, life expectancy is increasing much more slowly. That needs to be borne in mind in our considerations.
In my office, there are folders containing letters from many of my constituents who feel strongly about changes to their state pension age. Many have felt compelled to write to their MP for the first time. I want to speak on behalf of those people, who are predominantly women. They have told me what they think of the Government’s plans, and I promised that I would represent their views to the Government. I shall take this opportunity to raise their objections on their behalf. Some have told me extraordinary things about their lives, the jobs they have done and how hard they have worked. It is my privilege to speak on their behalf. Likewise, I was pleased to take part in a debate on this issue in Westminster Hall recently.
What are my constituents so unhappy about? These women have worked hard their entire lives and done everything right. They have worked, saved and planned. Along the way, many have raised families, and many now have caring responsibilities for younger and older members of their families—I could add that, in that way, they are saving the taxpayer money. They have made their contribution to society. They paid their taxes and national insurance in the hope of a happy, relaxed, financially secure and worry-free retirement, yet the Government have moved the goalposts. My constituents feel angry and let down. Many are afraid and wonder how they will manage financially. Those who must continue to work are fearful of the long-term implications for their health.
Before I go any further, I should like to make something clear. My constituents do not disagree that the state pension age should increase. They recognise that average life expectancy in this country is increasing and they recognise the dangers that come with an ageing society, but the Turner commission recommended 15 years of preparation before implementation, as a swift alteration could cause financial hardship and unnecessary anxiety.
That is of great concern to my constituents, some of whom have already retired. Many who were seven or eight years from pensionable age calculated their savings, pension entitlements and income and retired so that they could take on caring responsibilities within their families. They simply cannot adjust their finances to cope with such sudden changes.
The issue that concerns them, and indeed me, is the sense of injustice, which has left them feeling betrayed. When they started work aged 15 or 16, they had an idea of what was expected of them and what they were signing up to—similar, perhaps, to signing a contract of employment—but that is being unjustly altered, retrospectively, leaving them with very little time to prepare. They thought they were contributing to one thing, but in fact they will get another. There is simply not enough time for them to plan and prepare financially for their retirement, which causes them a great deal of anxiety. Moving the goalposts at such short notice is not the correct way to go about this. My constituents feel penalised, despite, as I said earlier, doing everything right.
Retirement should be about choice. People should be able to assess the prevailing factors and decide when it is appropriate for them to retire. Some of my constituents affected by these changes have already made the decision to retire and are living off small private pensions. The Bill effectively removes that choice. Their carefully planned savings will not suffice for the two extra years they will be forced to wait before receiving their pension.
I worry about the wider implications of the plans. The Minister says that we need to encourage people to save for their pensions, but what message is the Government sending to the young women of today? Are they saying, “You may save and you may plan, but we’ll make the changes anyway”?
I said that I would speak on behalf of my constituents, and I shall now directly quote just a couple of the letters I have received in the past few weeks. One constituent wrote:
“I started work aged 16 with the expectation of receiving a full state pension at 60. 5 years was added. I am now outraged to find that this government has changed it again. Having paid full contributions I now find myself worse off compared to my colleagues and friends who are only a few years older”.
As a result of the arbitrary way in which the Government have decided their dates, I am sure that some of that woman’s better-off colleagues and friends are only a few months or days older than her.
Another constituent wrote:
“I am currently in full time employment and have had 2 knee replacements and am about to have surgery on my back. I am in constant pain and find full-time work very difficult. However I was looking forward to my retirement. I had hoped not to have to claim for any benefits before my retirement but I can no longer see this being possible. I feel very let down and wonder why I have pushed myself to work so hard all these years”.
Have the Government assessed the costs they will incur when people who physically cannot work extra years claim benefits? Has that been taken into account?
Finally, another constituent said:
“I find that the goal posts are being moved and if these proposals go through I shall have to work for a further 91 weeks and £9,295 will be taken from my State Pension. I have worked hard all my life from the age of 15 and I have also brought up a family. I am looking forward to my retirement as the toll of all these years of working is starting to show and feel. This Coalition government is letting thousands of women down.”
Hon. Members on both sides of the House will have received similar letters. The Labour party’s policy, as far as I understand it, is to begin the process in 2020. Therefore, those people would write similar letters—would they not?—if the policy adopted by the hon. Lady were pursued.
That is absolutely right. The Labour party set out a similar policy of raising the pension age, but we would have done it by 2020, which would have allowed a considerable time for people to plan and to take that into account. The problem with the Government’s proposal is not raising the pensionable age, but doing so in such a short period. That is radically different from anything the Labour party proposed.
The coalition agreement said that the state pension age would not rise sooner than 2016 for men and 2020 for women. The Bill breaks that coalition commitment. My constituents feel very angry and misled about that. Like many of the coalition’s ill-conceived policies, this is too much, too fast.
I would like to open my remarks by reflecting on a tale of two 64-year-olds. My great-grandfather died in Salisbury in 1944. In the words of my grandmother, who is now 90, he was seen at the time as an old man. Next week, my father will turn 64. He will retire having done a manual job for 48 years, and with the expectation of perhaps living, as his father did, to 90 or 92. But we do not know, which goes to the heart of the problem faced by the Government: changing expectations of how long we will live and what to do about it versus the reality that decisions will have to be made with finite resources.
I think that the Government have made an excellent start with this Bill, which addresses three interlocking issues. The first is our ageing population. Only a few weeks ago a lady came to my constituency surgery, sat down in front of me and asked whether I could help her. I said I would do what I could. I really thought it would be about an issue of care for herself or her aged husband, but in fact she wanted to talk about her 99-year-old mother. We have a ticking time bomb that, over the past two generations, Governments of all colours and parties and at all times failed properly to grasp. We cannot go on like that.
Will the hon. Gentleman accept that it is a gross generalisation to say that this problem has been ignored? The Bill makes a relatively minor change compared with the major changes proposed in the Turner report and the last Pensions Bill. It is wrong to suggest that this has not been looked at.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I think I will address the thrust of her comments in a few minutes.
The second issue is our active ageing population. Notwithstanding the remarks of the right hon. Member for Croydon North (Malcolm Wicks), who pointed out the differences in life expectancy between regions and socio-economic backgrounds, many people expect to lead an active retirement, which is why I welcome the proposal to remove the default retirement age. That will be important in allowing people to do more and to continue working if they wish.
The third problem that the Bill addresses is the lack of saving. It has been said that 7 million people are not saving enough for retirement. The problem is the general sentiment that things will be all right on the night—people expect to be able to sell a property or make some money to put in a pension pot. The Government are facing up to these tough issues, and have realised that that is not a realistic proposition.
I recognise that there is a gap between the long-term solution and the needs of those currently near the pensionable age, and many have acute concerns about what will happen—many Members have referred to the cohort of women who face a particularly tough time. All the indications are that the Government are prepared to acknowledge and address those concerns, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Pensions Minister will have an ingenious solution. However, I would like briefly to draw the House’s attention to a few specific issues.
Despite the welcome introduction of the triple lock, it is clear that pensioners feel a great sense of vulnerability. They know that they have a reasonable expectation of living many years, and are anxious that at a time of low interest rates and little investment income their basic state pension should grow. I therefore welcome the Government’s proposal. I recognise that it will cost a lot of money and will take time to work out, but its general thrust is the right one.
It has to be acknowledged that we have seen massive changes as a result of the increase in life expectancy over the past 50 or 60 years. Life expectancy at 65 has grown upwards of 10 to 15 years over the past two generations, and it would be helpful if the Government set out what we are aiming for. Notionally, we will have parity between genders over the next 10 years, but what are we aiming for? Are we saying that everyone should have a right to expect a fixed number of pensionable years? Are we seeking to address the statistical evidence on demographics and regional differences, or should we recognise, building on the comments of the right hon. Member for Croydon North about the level of complexity and a complexity deficit, that we will not be able to make the pensions system sufficiently complex to address every one of those factors?
We have to recognise that we need to do something, particularly about the 33,000 women who face this two-year delay, but it would help if we set out some broader principles. My generation—those under 40—will have to bear a much greater responsibility. I expect to work much longer, although I might have a different job from my father, who worked on the land. We need to send the message so that the next generation and those after know to put more into their pension pots and expect to retire later. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) has already mentioned the fact that 10 million people now living will live to 100. That is beyond the realistic expectations or assessments of most people today, but it will impose strains on public finances, health care costs and end-of-life care, which are the issues that we must address. We must not fail to consider my generation and those that come after because they do not seem to matter today.
I welcome the changes to auto-enrolment, but I ask the Government to avoid unnecessary and bureaucratic changes for small business people, especially those in the tourism or retail sectors, where staff turnover is high. Too often justice is not done in the detail to the headlines of Government. We need to ensure that small employers do not bear a disproportionate cost.
The free eye tests, free prescriptions, free bus passes, free television licences for the over-75s and the free winter fuel payments, along with the Government’s commitment to solidify the £25 payment in bad weather, are welcomed by many. Certainly, they are welcomed by the poorest members of my constituency—in Bemerton Heath and the Friary, for example—who rely on the payments year in, year out. I hesitate to say it, however, but is it really fair for those earning more than, say, £50,000 a year in retirement to have that extra money? There is usually a snigger, a gasp and a “Well, we don’t really need it.” However, in the assessment of true fairness, what value accrues to the public purse from expenditure on those people?
I welcome the Bill, which establishes the right direction, but there is still work to be done in certain areas, which I hope I have set out. No Government, past or present, will get everything right. I applaud the work of my hon. Friend the Pensions Minister and wish him well as he unravels these complex issues and develops a pensions system fit, in all respects, for the nation we live in and the number of years we can expect to live.
Like many Members, I have been inundated with e-mails and letters from women who will be affected by the acceleration in the state pension age. I declare an interest, in that I was born between 1953 and 1955, and will have to wait longer for my pension.
Last month I held a 90-minute Westminster Hall debate in which I outlined my opposition to the Government’s plans. The arguments that I put forward then still hold. The Government’s proposals are unfair, because they target a group of women based on when they were born and give them too little time to plan. These are women who have done the right thing—they have paid their national insurance contributions and planned for their retirement—and they should not be penalised by a Government who are moving the goalposts at the last minute. The Government are threatening to undermine confidence in the pensions system and some of the more positive proposals in the Pensions Bill, such as auto-enrolment, that are designed to improve pension coverage. However, people may think, “If the goalposts are moved at the last minute, why bother? We may make our contributions now, but who’s to say that the money will be there at the end, when we expect it?” That is the opposite of the Government’s intentions for pension reform, but it is a distinct possibility.
When I held my Adjournment debate, not a single Conservative MP spoke. I am encouraged that we have had such thoughtful and wide-ranging contributions from all parts of the House on this important issue today. I also hope that the opposition expressed in this debate will cause Ministers to pause and rethink their plans. My early-day motion on the issue has gathered 177 signatures from all political parties, so there is widespread support in the House for a rethink.
I would like to touch on the Secretary of State’s comments in today’s media. He said that it would cost in the region of £10 billion to drop the accelerated timetable, and that he would therefore stick to his plans. The Bill’s regulatory impact assessment says that the proposal will save no money before 2016, by which time the Chancellor says that he will have balanced the books. I am therefore unsure what the Secretary of State means. Is this about deficit reduction, or is it about fairness and equality?
I would like to touch on some issues that have already been covered and put some further questions to the Minister. What assessment has his Department made of the proposal’s effect on the number of unpaid carers and child minders in the UK? The accelerated timetable means that many people who would have taken up caring for relatives or provided child care when they retired, in order that the next generation could join the work force, will not be able to do so because they will be at work for another two years. That will have an important social policy impact. What assessment has the Department made of the proposal’s effect on volunteering and the Government’s big society agenda? People who have retired are not inactive; they volunteer at libraries, charity shops and lunch clubs. They also act as school governors and provide much needed care in our communities. If they are kept in the labour market for longer, they will be less able to volunteer in those ways.
I am also deeply concerned about unemployment among the over-50s. It is not easy for the women affected by the proposal to get another job or increase their hours to fill the two-year gap if they find themselves out of work, especially at such short notice. I receive many letters from constituents in their 50s who are willing to take any kind of work, but who are finding it impossible to get a job. It is not easy for people to return to the labour market once they have left. It is also becoming increasingly difficult to hang on to a job in later years. If women are expected to work longer, there needs to be work for them to do. That is particularly important given the current economic situation and the rise in unemployment. In looking for work, those women may well be competing against their own grandchildren in the labour market.
What projections and costings have the Government made for how many women affected by the proposal will have to claim employment-related benefits? Many women will not have enough savings to fall back on, particularly those who have been employed in low-paid work or who have taken time out to have children or act as carers. Will the Minister outline the measures that the Government plan to introduce to help them work longer? Will he comment on how women who are not in work are meant to balance their finances in the two-year gap, given that they will be eligible for jobseeker’s allowance for only six months if they have savings or will not be eligible at all—this is my understanding—if they have a small occupational pension?
I was going to mention some of the class issues affecting people’s life expectancy, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Malcolm Wicks), who is no longer in his place, went into that in great detail, and much better than I could. I would therefore like to end by asking the Minister about auto-enrolment and NEST—the national employment savings trust—which I broadly support. The three-month waiting period will mean that 500,000 fewer people will be automatically enrolled in a pension scheme. It is my understanding that workers will be able to opt in during that three-month period and receive the employer contribution, but people will do so only if they know that they have that right. Will the Minister assure the House that the regulations will require employers to explain that to jobholders from day one of their employment?
It is disappointing that NEST will not be allowed to deal with small transfers in and out, and sweep up small pensions from casual employment. Many people are employed dozens of times over their lives, many doing short-term jobs in, say, call centres. The reality is that we have a much more transient labour market. Provisions for transitions in and out of NEST should be included in the Bill, even if they cannot be implemented immediately. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response on those two issues.
It is a privilege to have the opportunity to contribute to such an important debate, and to follow some extremely thoughtful speeches from all parts of the House. Ensuring that Britain has a fair and financially sustainable pensions system must rank as one of the most important priorities on the coalition’s ever growing “to do” list. After all, not only does this Bill shed light on a pensions system that is currently broken and unsustainable; it also touches on key issues of individual responsibility, a new savings culture and easing the administrative burdens on small businesses. All those factors make this Bill a significant piece of legislation. However, it is impossible to reflect fairly on the initiatives in the Bill without taking note of the current state of our pensions system.
Unfortunately, Britain’s pensions system is dangerously creaking, with real doubts about its financial sustainability. The challenges that it faces are frankly enormous. Official projections of average life expectancy were once again revised upwards in 2009, indicating that men and women are expected to live an extra one and a half years longer than was thought at the time of the Pensions Act 2007. Although we must welcome increasing life expectancy rates, their impact on our pensions system cannot be ignored—a point already covered by a number of Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer), who did so very eloquently. The impact will be huge.
Meanwhile, it is a sad reality that too few people have been saving enough for their retirement in recent years. Indeed, according to the Office for National Statistics, fewer than 9 million people in Britain now participate in an occupational scheme, with around 7 million people not saving enough for their retirement. Combined with increasing life expectancy, our poor savings culture is a potent time bomb beneath the surface of our pensions system. In addition, the Pensions Commission recently described the UK pensions system as one of the most complex in the world. A 2009 survey by the Department for Work and Pensions highlighted the fact that 71% of people did not understand the workings of modern-day pensions. To my mind that is a worrying statistic.
With increasing life expectancy, a poor savings culture and a complicated system, our pensions systems is not fit for the 21st century. The status quo will no longer suffice. We cannot pass this ticking time bomb to the next generation. Change is absolutely necessary. This Bill paves the way for such timely reform. As in other policy areas, such as health, higher education and welfare, the Government are absolutely right to tackle pensions with a long-term focus on ensuring sustainability. As in other areas of Government, the coalition cannot be accused of currying favour ahead of the next general election. By tackling big, sensitive issues head-on, we will restore confidence and fairness in such vital areas. The Government are therefore right to commit to increasing the state pension age in the Bill. As I have said, we are experiencing significant increases in life expectancy.
I had hoped that that part of the Bill would be welcomed across the House—it was, after all, Labour which committed to increasing the state pension age in the Pensions Act 2007—but, sadly, that does not appear likely. In the light of new evidence about the rate of increasing life expectancy, I firmly believe that it is right to review the original time scales set by the previous Government and to speed up the process. I admit that that is not an easy decision to take, but it is vital that we grasp the nettle on this specific aspect of the Bill. If we are to pursue a policy to bring about long-term, sustainable change, we should do so courageously and without compromise to the Bill’s main principles.
I therefore urge the Government to resist calls from some to slow down their approach to increasing the state pension age, and I am pleased that the Secretary of State outlined his commitment in that regard earlier. Having said that, I acknowledge, as have many colleagues, that a sizeable group of individuals will now qualify for their state pension more than a year later than they would have qualified under the present arrangements, with more than 30,000 women qualifying more than two years later. Obviously, those affected will feel harshly treated, but it is encouraging to hear that the Secretary of State is willing to listen to the arguments put during the passage of the Bill. I very much welcome that; it is an important factor in the process. However, we must remember the previous Government’s regrettable mismanagement of Britain’s economy. Had we inherited a slightly more stable financial state of affairs, we might perhaps have been able to do more for those who now face a delay in their state pension entitlement.
The second part of the Bill deals with reforms relating to workplace pensions. I welcome the fact that the Government appear to be implementing the findings of “Making automatic enrolment work”, an independent review of automatic enrolment into workplace pensions. Independent reviews tend to be rather more balanced than those carried out by Whitehall Departments. I largely support the deregulatory nature of many of the workplace pension reforms. Reducing the cost of bureaucracy to small and medium-sized businesses should always be a cause for celebration. Indeed, I am led to believe that even the TUC supports this aspect of the Bill. Perhaps Labour Members can confirm that. Such support is wholly justified, as these reforms will ensure that, from 2012, millions of people will be saving for a pension for the first time. I have always believed in encouraging a new savings culture, and auto-enrolment is a really positive step in the right direction.
In summary, the challenges facing our pensions system can fairly be described as a ticking time bomb. The measures in the Bill alone will not be enough to turn the tide and reform pensions as widely as is necessary. Reforms of the state pension are currently being consulted on, and even at this stage I urge the Government to ensure a fair deal not just for future pensioners but for existing ones. Nevertheless, the Bill represents a good step forward in the attempt to tackle our out-of-date pensions system. The Government should again be congratulated on doing the right thing, even when it might not be the easiest of their duties. Good governance is about taking difficult decisions in the long-term interests of the country, which is what this coalition Government are doing. The Pensions Bill lays a solid foundation for a more sustainable and fairer pensions system, and I look forward to the Government building on it further in future.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. Like many hon. Members on both sides of the House, I have been contacted by a huge number of constituents about the measures in the Bill. Indeed, I expect that the e-mails are continuing to flood in even as I speak.
The debate today has rightly focused on women’s pensions, but it is important that we also remember the wider context. The majority of people want to plan ahead for their retirement, and they are happy to make their contributions during their working lives in the knowledge that they will reap the benefit when they retire. I am pleased that today’s debate has not had more heat than light, and that we have heard thoughtful contributions. All too often, insulting comments are made to suggest that people who have a decent pension might be getting something for nothing, or getting more than they deserve. I am genuinely glad that we have not heard any of that today.
For many working people brought up to do the right thing, pensions are like deferred wages. They have carefully planned for their later years because they believe that it is right to avoid being a burden on the state or on their families. Unfortunately, however, it is those thrifty, careful planners who are being let down by this Government in the Bill. It is sad that the Government have broken their promise in the coalition agreement not to raise the women’s state pension age to 66 before 2020. As we heard at the beginning of the debate, the coalition agreement clearly stated that the state pension age would rise to 66 but that this would
“not be sooner than 2016 for men and 2020 for women.”
Ministers have performed dramatic U-turns on a whole range of issues, some of which have been welcome, but this one is most unwelcome. The legislation will now accelerate the equalisation for women to 2018, and then increase men’s and women’s state pension ages to 66 by 2020. Anyone reading the coalition agreement when it was published would not have expected that to happen.
Some 2.6 million women will be affected by the Government’s proposals. The state pension age for women born between 6 December 1953 and 5 October 1954 will increase by more than 18 months. I should say that I do not have an interest to declare in that regard; the increase will not affect me, but it will affect many women in my constituency. The Government’s own impact assessment estimates that the measure will affect about 330,000 women. In the most extreme cases, some 33,000 women born between 6 March and 5 April 1954 will see an increase of two years. Those are the points that constituents are contacting me about, because they are worried about the impact that the Bill will have on them.
To put this in context, a woman born in April 1953, as one of my good friends in my constituency was, will be able to get her pension at the age of 62 years 11 months. However, another friend who was born just a year later, in April 1954, will have to wait until she is 66 before she can draw her pension. It is completely understandable that people feel that the measures are unfair. We have heard that comment time and again this afternoon. They are certainly not fair to the 1,200 women in my constituency aged around 56 and 57 who are set to lose the most from these changes, and who will have very little time to prepare or to amend existing plans. Many of them have worked in a series of jobs, raised families and perhaps worked part-time over the years. It is difficult enough for those women on low pay to plan for their retirement without this additional burden being placed on them. I think the most significant part of the issue before us is allowing people time to plan adequately for retirement.
Age UK has highlighted a number of concerns, not simply about the plans, but about the fact that people are not necessarily aware of them. It estimated that about 32% of the women it polled said that, following the Government’s proposals, they did not know when the state pension age would reach 65 for both women and men. Just one in 10 correctly said 2018. Almost half expected equalisation to happen before the planned date, while 9% thought it would be later than planned. As we can see, there is confusion.
In the last few months, despite the public outrage and a campaign supported by different charities and organisations, Members of all parties and affected individuals, it appears that, although Ministers might have begun to listen, they have certainly not come forward with any clear proposals on what they intend to do.
We all understand the simple truth that our society is ageing. The previous Labour Government recognised it and, as we have heard, established the independent Turner commission and built a consensus for change around a number of key areas: linking the basic state pension to earnings, raising the retirement age to 68 by 2046, starting the rise from 2024 and making private pensions opt out instead of opt in, with employers also making a contribution. After trying to build that kind of consensus, it is simply wrong to penalise women who have worked hard for their whole lives and now have no time to plan for their retirement.
As I have said, many women of this generation are already at a disadvantage when it comes to pensions. They have perhaps been denied access to private pension schemes and have had to take career breaks to bring up children. Raising the state pension age for women so rapidly could result in some women currently in their 50s having to work for two years more than they had previously thought. That might not seem a great deal if people are not at the stage of life when they are thinking about planning for retirement, but for people working in an arduous job with long hours or working very early in the morning, as many in the cleaning or hospitality sector have to do, or late at night, that means a lot. The women affected are being made to accommodate the changes within fewer than seven years and it will not be possible for them to make up the time and earnings that they would have wanted. They are at a significant disadvantage. We have also heard that the median pension saving for a 56-year-old woman is just £9,100—almost six times lower than that of a man, which stands at £52,800.
During our debate, we have also heard about the number of people eligible to be auto-enrolled in a pension scheme. I have concerns about that. I was a bit disappointed to hear some of the attacks on the shadow Secretary of State when he raised these issues. We all need to hear the Minister respond to the issues raised. I am concerned that limiting the coverage of the scheme could exclude women disproportionately. It has been estimated that 7 million people are not saving enough to ensure an adequate income for their retirement. We have heard genuine concern about that from Members of all parties. That is why there was cross-party consensus to introduce auto-enrolment.
Combined with a minimum employer contribution and the creation of a pension scheme that could be used by any employer, the principles behind the legislation could be expected to lead to a step change in the level of participation in pension saving. Concerns have been expressed today, however, that the Government are proceeding with the introduction of auto-enrolment in a way that will limit its scope, including raising the salary level at which someone is automatically enrolled from about £5,000 to about £7,500. The Government predict that up to 600,000 fewer people will be automatically enrolled in a pension scheme as a result—as I have said, disproportionately affecting women.
My concerns about that could be summed up briefly. I am worried that this will rise in line with the income tax threshold, and therefore looks set to increase to £10,000 over the next few years—excluding a considerable number of people who will be earning less. Compared to Labour’s original plans, it will exclude in the region of 1.5 million to 2 million people, of whom 1 million to 1.5 million would be women. I hope that the Minister will respond to these points later. Having a three-month waiting period before auto-enrolment could mean 500,000 fewer people automatically enrolling in a pension scheme, which does not improve the position on encouraging people to save for the longer term.
As other Members have made clear, there are also concerns about people who work in call centres, and perhaps others in the retail and the hospitality sector, as they might work a relatively low number of hours at various points in their careers. Some people might have two or three different jobs to hold down, each of which might be under the threshold, but not when they are viewed cumulatively.
Has it occurred to my hon. Friend that there seems to be a mismatch here in respect of this Department’s policies? Just last week and all through the Committee stage of the Welfare Reform Bill, we heard great things about the importance of mini-jobs and the people who undertake them. Such people sometimes have more than one mini-job. At the same time, however, that does not seem to have been read across into this Bill.
My hon. Friend makes exactly the point that I was about to make. There does indeed seem to be a mismatch. I have to say that I am not a great fan of the term “mini-job”. Some people are getting up at 6 o’clock in the morning to work a shift as a cleaner, then have to take their kids to school and subsequently do perhaps four hours in a local retail establishment, after which they have to pick the kids up from school only to have to go out to another job in the evening. There is not much that is “mini” about that when all those jobs are put together. This is exactly the sort of issue that Ministers need to address if this Bill continues through its parliamentary stages.
I think the general public understand that as people live longer over the coming decades, the state pension age will need to rise to ensure that people who have longer retirements do not have them on much lower incomes leading to a lower quality of life.
I have heard many Members express concern this afternoon about the proposals in the Bill. We are being asked to vote on the Bill’s principles, but I have heard many Members express real reservations about them. I believe that if we are not happy with the principles, it is our duty to represent our constituents by voting against the Bill. My constituents—not just those directly affected, but many others who also have concerns—are asking me to vote against it. If the Secretary of State had given us a firm commitment today that something would change and problems would be addressed, my constituents would have understood if I went back and told them about those assurances. In all honesty, I have to say that when I heard the Secretary of State outline right at the beginning of the debate that the Bill will go ahead as drafted, that was not the assurance I was seeking. That is not what my constituents want, so I will vote against the Bill tonight.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson)—I hope I have pronounced that correctly—although I do not entirely agree with what she said.
I want to congratulate the Secretary of State and the Front-Bench team on this Bill. This is a time-bomb that has been waiting to go off for years. The Labour party looked at it, sniffed it and walked away because it stank. It does stink. It is going to require a huge effort by this Government, particularly from the Pensions Secretary, for whose diligence I have huge admiration.
It has been long apparent that something had to give. As has been mentioned many times in this debate, our longevity has increased nationally by an average of 10 years since the 1970s. Today’s pensioner numbers have doubled since the 1950s and the increase is accelerating. The Office for Budget Responsibility has estimated that pensions will cost a stunning £32 billion by 2015—up by a third from today’s figures in just four years.
The problem was not created by the coalition, and neither is it exclusively our responsibility. Having packed the public sector to the gunwales, the last Government were well aware of the oncoming crunch, and had legislated to raise the state pension age to 66. The old understanding that public sector employees could rely on secure jobs with more generous final salary pensions as compensation for low pay is outmoded now. The pay gap has not only narrowed but reversed.
Figures from Policy Exchange for the past year show that the average public sector worker is now paid 35% an hour more than the average private sector worker, and Office for National Statistics figures tell us that in the year before that, the average public sector worker earned £2,000 more per annum than his or her private sector equivalent. Today private sector workers are worse paid, have less security of tenure, and have more fragile pensions than their public sector equivalents, but under the current arrangements they are expected to subsidise the more generous final salary pensions in the bloated public sector. They are understandably embittered, as, paradoxically, are the public sector workers, many of whose jobs were created by the last Government. They now feel threatened.
But deal with the pensions time bomb we must. The private sector has absorbed many shocks. So that we can survive the economic downturn, pensions, along with salaries and bonuses, have been hit hard. Final salary pensions are fast becoming a distant memory, even in larger firms, and new employer rules on automatic pensions enrolment which are due to come into force next year are likely to have further detrimental effects.
The public sector, however, needs a culture change. The current arrangements are simply unsustainable and unaffordable. The bottom line is that we all need to pay more into our pensions for longer, which means that the age at which we retire will be higher: it will be 66 by April 2020. The last Government legislated for that, but their legislation will be accelerated by this Bill. We will also need to supplement what we already pay with increased contributions.
We are told by Treasury Ministers that if we make these changes now, there is a chance of a decent and relatively generous pension for all entitled public sector workers. We are also assured that 750,000 of the lowest-paid public sector workers will not be asked to pay more, and that the extra contributions of another 500,000 will be capped. I am relieved to hear that the pensions of those who risk their lives serving their country—members of the police, fire service and military—will be protected.
Raising the state pension age to 66 and upwards will take years to implement, even on the revised timetable, and I am anxious to ensure that some worthy recipients do not slip through the net. Like others who have spoken today, I have received many letters and e-mails from people who are very concerned about the proposals. Mainly they are from women. The equalisation of the pension age, causing theirs to rise from 60 to 65, and the subsequent acceleration causing it to rise to 66 by 2020, appear to have left some unintended victims by the wayside. I ask the Secretary of State and the Treasury to think again about those cases.
In particular, women in their late 50s who were told to prepare for retirement at 65 have now seen the goalposts moved again. Overall, 5.5 million women now aged between 51 and 57 are affected to a greater or lesser degree, and 330,000 of them— those given less than two years’ notice of the change—are particularly badly affected. There will not be enough time for the women caught up in the scheme to save enough to address their loss. Many are among the lower-paid, 40% have private pensions, and many part-timers were excluded from occupational pension schemes until the 1990s. Moreover, members of that age group are more likely to be economically inactive owing to caring responsibilities. Perhaps an interim measure can be introduced to ensure that they are paid what they have worked for, and that the longer gap before they reach the state pension age does not cause unnecessary hardship. After all, those women worked through the years of genuinely lower pay in the expectation of a comfortable retirement, only to see it evaporate.
What matters most in this debate is to find a way to make our pensions fairer, more affordable and as generous as possible, while taking into account the changes in life span and the sheer numbers involved. I know that that is the intention, but now, for all our sakes and those of our constituents, we must make it a reality.
Like other Members, I am encouraged by the agreement across the Chamber, particularly on issues related to fairness that mostly affect women. We agree, for instance, that we are all living longer and therefore need to extend our working lives. Contrary to what the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) said, the last Labour Government took that into account in the Pensions Act 2007, following the recommendations of the Turner commission.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Malcolm Wicks) made a relevant point about variations in life expectancy connected with socio-economic inequalities, and about the time for which people in a healthy condition can expect to live. I agree that more research should be done on that.
The hon. Lady mentioned the steps that the last Government took to deal with increasing longevity. Does she agree that the figures produced by the original Turner commission suggest that things are moving much faster than was anticipated even in 2004, and that since then longevity has increased by at least a year?
I think that the hon. Lady is referring to the average. It is important for us to consider not just the average, but how the figure is spread across different socio-economic groups. It does not explain or excuse the Government’s failure to protect the women who are being detrimentally affected by the acceleration of the equalisation of the pension age.
As many people have pointed out, this is about fairness. We must focus on what is right, and the Bill fails the fairness test. Many figures have been cited in relation to what the Bill means nationally. Half a million women will have to wait more than a year longer to receive their state pensions, 300,000 will have to wait an additional 18 months, and an unfortunate 33,000 will have to wait a further two years. Moreover, the Government will increase the state pension age for both men and women to 66 in 2018.
I asked the House of Commons Library to conduct an analysis of the impact in my constituency. I discovered that 4,300 women and 3,800 men would be affected, and that approximately 200 women would experience a notional loss of income from their state pensions of up to £10,700. I have been contacted by dozens of women in my constituency who have been working since the age of 14 or 15, including one called Linda Murray. She gave me permission to use her name. She was born in 1954, and left school at 16 to start work. She wrote:
“I have never had a job that provided a pension or had the means to provide one for myself. I have worked full-time apart from a few years when I worked part-time while helping to look after my mother who needed 24-hour care. For most of my working life I expected to receive my pension at the age of 60. However when the age started to rise I accepted this, as did everyone else. My retirement date was set at 64. I now work 47 hours a week in a dry cleaners and it is hard manual work. Due to my personal circumstances, full retirement is not an option for me, at least for a few years, but I was planning to greatly reduce my hours. I know that I won’t be able to continue working as I am now until I’m 66.”
Many Members have mentioned that that is hard to do because of the physical wearing out of the body.
“But my take-home pay is £267 a week—how am I going to be able to save enough from this to be able to work part-time when I’m 64?...This proposal is ill thought-out and cruel. It’s unfair to move the goalposts for a second time. Women of my age have worked hard and honestly and don’t deserve to be discriminated against in this way. We accept the need to equalise the retirement ages but it should be done in a fair way. I feel that this Act will create an underclass of women unable to continue in their present employment, unable to find another job and denied the pension to which they are entitled. In an interview in The Daily Telegraph…David Cameron said that a sudden rise in women’s retirement age was out of the question.”
So that is another broken promise. There are hundreds of women with similar stories, and there is considerable cross-party agreement that we need to do something about this. I therefore hope that Ministers are listening.
Another fairness issue is the switch from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index. The Department for Work and Pensions impact assessment produced figures that again suggest that the burden will shift from the Government and employers to the individual. Some £500 million will be taken from the Pension Protection Fund.
My final point is about the increase in income thresholds for automatic enrolment into occupational pensions and the delay in that regard. The former Labour Government introduced that measure in the Pensions Act 2008, but the current Government are restricting access to it by both increasing the threshold from £5,000 to almost £7,500 and introducing a three-month waiting period. Again, women and people in low-income jobs will be particularly affected. Indeed, the impact assessment suggests that those who will be most detrimentally affected will be women, people on low incomes, ethnic minority groups and people with disabilities.
We must not allow our pension system to be reformed in a way that pushes pensioners deeper into poverty. Labour did a lot to reduce inequalities—although I would have liked us to have done a lot more—but these reforms will make them worse.
First, I should tell Members that I am absolutely not a pensions expert; I have never spoken on the subject before in my life. I have therefore found this debate particularly enlightening, and I want to single out the speech of the right hon. Member for Croydon North (Malcolm Wicks) as it was extraordinarily illuminating and provoking. I hope Ministers will look at the issue he raised for the long term—after this Bill has been passed and changes have been made—and address the disparity between people who start work in their teens and those of us who are lucky enough to start work in our early to mid-20s.
I want to focus not so much on the detail of pensions, but rather on the context in which the Government are taking this Bill and its measures through Parliament. It is important to address that context because it explains so many of the difficult, controversial and even painful decisions the Government are making. It also informs and defines the approach taken by Her Majesty’s Opposition, which can be summarised by the refrain we have heard so eloquently and passionately from so many Opposition Members’ mouths tonight: it just is not fair.
Let us first consider the context from the Government’s point of view. Our strategy is simple. It is based on our reluctantly coming to the understanding that everyone in this country will suffer more—will suffer most, indeed—if the Government do not quickly deal with our unsustainable public finances. I use the term “unsustainable public finances” rather than “deficit” because it is important to understand that this is not just about dealing with the current deficit; it is also about putting in place a long-term platform of sustainable public finances. It is not about what we need to do between now and 2015; rather, it is about what we need to put in place for our country for the next two, three and four decades. The insight that everything must serve this overall objective of putting our public finances on a sustainable footing—
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He might address my point later in his speech, but does he agree that this issue is about not just public sector finances but a pension system that all our constituents can understand? Pensions is a very complex subject, as the Secretary of State said in opening, and many people do not understand the current system. Constituents who are in great need approach us when they finally receive their pension calculations and realise they might not have enough for the retirement they had planned.
I entirely agree. Indeed, clarity, simplicity and dependability are what we seek to achieve in all areas of public policy, and when we do not have that we end up with the public finances we inherited from the last Government.
We should not be shy about admitting that the state of the public finances is leading us to make a whole series of decisions that unquestionably have rough edges. Nobody on the Government Benches wants to withdraw child benefit from people paying the higher rate of income tax. Nobody on the Government Benches wants to withdraw education maintenance allowance from people hoping to stay on in education after the age of 16. Nobody on the Government Benches wants to charge students of the future the full cost—up to £9,000 per annum—of studying at university. Nobody on the Government Benches wants to put up VAT, which is paid by everybody in this country regardless of their income. We do not want to do any of those things, and not a single one of those decisions has no rough edges, not a single one of those decisions has no victims and not a single one of those decisions treats everybody in the country equally.
We have never claimed that these decisions have no rough edges—that they do not have victims, and that they treat everyone equally—but we have claimed, and do claim, that each of the decisions is an essential part of the overall objective of putting our public finances on a sustainable basis. If these decisions are not made and implemented in full, all the people affected by them—the very same young people who will not be getting EMA, the very same students who will be paying tuition fees, the very same pensioners who will be receiving their pensions a bit later—will suffer far more.
The Opposition’s stance is very revealing. They could have decided to restrict their opposition over the past year and during the rest of this Parliament to those matters on which they have a profound ideological dispute with the Government. They could have decided to oppose the benefits cap, whereby in future nobody will get more than average income from benefits and which will make it clear to people that the only way to earn more than the average is to work for a living. They could have decided to oppose the universal credit, which demonstrates our view that we have to remove excessive means-testing from the benefits system in order to make work pay. They could have decided to oppose immigration controls, which illustrate our view that we need to restrict the entry of people into this country, so that it is British people who can go out and get the jobs that our recovery creates.
The Opposition could have decided to focus on and restrict their opposition to those matters, about which they have genuine ideological differences of opinion with us that I entirely respect. However, instead, they are choosing to oppose all the measures we are introducing—even those that are driven not by an ideological programme or by an attempt to reshape the way this country operates, but by a wish to rescue this country from a road to ruin.
May I declare an interest as a trustee of the Conservative agents’ pension fund, and my other registered interests? Does my hon. Friend agree that Labour Members are opposing this because they are deeply embarrassed that they failed to increase the retirement age when they were in government? A much preferable approach is that followed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), who gave very long notice of these programmes and really did fix the roof when the sun was shining.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and he is absolutely right: the contrast is stark and is not flattering to the Opposition. Indeed, I would go so far as to claim that the curious thing about the Labour Government is that they demonstrated the quality we would normally associate with Oppositions: total opportunism—the total failure to grapple with any difficult long-term issues, and instead doing just the easy things that win votes at the next election.
I thank the hon. Lady—and remind her that her Government had been in power for 10 and a half years by the time they introduced those Acts, even though it was clear long before they took office that such problems existed. However, I do not want to be too ungracious and I do accept that some things were done—but not enough and too late.
So why are the Opposition taking this approach of opposing everything under the general charge that it just is not fair? Is it really fair to tell people that a budget deficit on the scale that we face can be dealt with without pain; without some people being asked to sacrifice things that are important to them; and without everyone in the country experiencing a real material loss? Is it fair to tell young people that, actually, there is no reason to pull back on EMA; that there is no reason to restrict their income when they stay on in education; that there is no reason to change the basis of funding for universities?
You have gone on a lot about ideological things, but is it ideologically bonkers to fight for a fair deal for women who have made the sacrifices that you are talking about? They have sacrificed for their country, for their families—
I beg your pardon, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it “ideological” for us to stick up for women who have had a raw deal through life looking after their families and doing a low-paid job, but who now find out they have to work even longer for a pittance of a pension?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, but I fear he misunderstands me: I am not accusing him and his colleagues of being ideological, and that, in a sense, is my point. Actually, the Opposition are perpetrating a grand deceit on the British people, which is that there is anything fair about protecting all these things that we can no longer afford; that there is anything fair about arguing to the British people that we—
No, I will not give way for the moment; I am in the middle of replying to the previous intervention. The Opposition are perpetrating the grand deceit that there is anything fair about pretending to the British people that this country is not poorer than it was; that it is not permanently poorer than we thought we would be in each of the next 20 years.
The point about what happened in the past three years is that the economy suffered a permanent drop. We can grow again from that drop—we can again achieve higher living standards—but we will never have back the growth that we lost in the past 10 years, and it is not fair to anyone to argue that this or any Government can proceed as if no sacrifices need to be made, no losses need to be felt and there can be an entirely victimless process of recovering from the terrible economic situation that the Government of the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) helped to create.
I thank the hon. Lady, but I fear that this man is a lot more substantial than just straw—even if the Leader of the Opposition sometimes appears to be exactly the straw man she refers to. The entire membership of the Labour party is signed up to the deceitful argument that we can correct this budget deficit, restore sustainability to our public finances and rescue this country from decline without taking painful decisions that cause people loss. That very same argument has been made in every single one of these debates—in the debates about education maintenance allowance, about tuition fees and about all the other benefit changes. We are hearing that argument here again tonight. This is not really an argument about pensions, but one about the future of this country, and the argument used by the Opposition is always exactly the same.
The hon. Gentleman has been using a lot of rhetorical questions in this debate. For me, the key question, if we accept the premise of his argument, is: why should women born in 1953 and 1954 take a disproportionate amount of the pain and take all that pressure for everyone else?