Monday 1 February 2016
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
Transitional State Pension Arrangements for Women
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 110776 relating to transitional state pension arrangements for women born in the 1950s.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. At the outset, I want to say that I have a personal interest in this issue, because I was born in 1954—[Interruption.] There is no use in members of my Committee trying to be kind to me; I am a TOG—one of Terry’s old gals.
I am, however, one of the very lucky members of that cohort of women because I belong to the parliamentary pension scheme, and when that scheme was changed in the previous Parliament, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority—I make it clear that this was done by that body, not MPs—decided that the new scheme would not apply to anyone who had reached 55 by a certain date. Sadly, although the reason for that decision was that people would not have time to make alternative arrangements for their retirement, we have not extended the same consideration to many women who will have to rely on their state pensions. I speak today for those women, not for myself. I am speaking for the thousands of women in this country who are having to change their retirement plans at short notice, to dig into their often meagre savings, or to rely on their husband’s pension. Many of them are being driven into poverty as a result.
This debate is not about the question of equalising the state pension age. Of all the many women who have contacted me, none has objected to that. This is about the speed of the changes, their impact on a particular group and the lack of notification, or totally inadequate notification, that women have received.
To explain the situation, I am afraid that we have to go back through the history. The Pensions Act 1995 sought to equalise the state pension age for men and women at 65. In 2007, the then Labour Government decided that the pension age would increase to 66, and then to 68, but over a very long period—from 2024 to 2046. However, the coalition Government then decided to pass the Pensions Act 2011, which speeded up the changes so that the state pension age for men and women would reach 66 in 2020. To achieve that, they brought forward the increase in the pension age to 65 for women from 2020 to 2018. At that time, the coalition Government were warned again and again about the problems that the changes would cause. In fact, the Opposition moved amendments that would have ensured that no one would wait more than a year longer for their state pension than would have been the case under the 1995 Act.
I, too, declare an interest as someone who was born in 1955. Does my hon. Friend agree that the really objectionable thing is that we know that people need to be able to plan for their pension provision? This cohort of women—we could be talking about factors such as reduced contributions, or not qualifying due to caring responsibilities all the way through their lives—has got it in the neck, so we need transitional arrangements to put that right.
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend, and I will come to that point later.
As I said, the problem was recognised by many people at the time of the 2011 Act. My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce), who has a great deal of expertise in this area, moved amendments that would have protected women born between October 1953 and April 1955 from waiting more than an extra year for their state pension.
Is it not also the case, as several of my constituents have said, that these changes compounded measures in the 1995 Act of which women were not informed? One lady said that until she got a letter saying, “You are no longer retiring at 64, but at 66,” she knew nothing about the fact that there had been a change, so for her the difference is six years.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Again, I will come on to that point a bit later.
Part of the problem in 2011 was that the Government did not seem to understand the implications of their own Bill. When the former Pensions Minister gave an interview to the Institute for Government after the 2015 election, he said, somewhat ungrammatically, I think, but fairly clearly:
“We made a choice, and the implications of what we were doing suddenly, about two or three months later, it became clear that they were very different from what we thought.”
I have known a few Ministers in my time who did not seem to understand the implications of their own Bills, but this was a former Pensions Minister—an acknowledged expert on social security—who did not understand what was going to happen. If he did not understand the position, how on earth could he expect the many thousands of affected women to understand it?
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. She quotes the former Pensions Minister, but the current Minister for Pensions said in 2011:
“The Government has not given women enough time to change their plans…I believe the Government’s decision is unfair and disproportionately hits women who are now around 56 years old.”
She said that then, so it is a shame that now she is in government, she is not trying to change the situation.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend.
Let us remember that during our consideration of the 2011 Bill, the then Pensions Minister promised to look at transitional arrangements for some of the women affected. Towards the end of the Bill’s passage, the Government made amendments that at least prevented people from having to wait longer than an extra 18 months for their state pension. That certainly helped some women born between January and September 1954, but there was still a whole load of anomalies that were not dealt with. One of the things that has made the situation worse, as has been said, is the lack of notice that women received about the changes.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. May I give her one instance of what she described? Somebody who was born in 1956 was notified in 2006 what her state pension would be at the age of 60. That was the last communication that she had, so in 2010, when she was offered early retirement as a teacher, she took it on the basis of that information, and retired in 2011. She was given absolutely no indication that she would be in this situation, but she has now been told that she will not get her state pension until she is 68.
Absolutely. Many, many women have found themselves in a similar position. They have been given information that has never been corrected and they have relied on that information.
Several hon. Members rose—
I need to make some progress, because lots of people want to speak in this debate and I do not want to take up too much time.
Let us remember that, way back, the Turner commission said that people should be given at least 15 years’ notice of changes to the state pension age. The Pensions Act 2014—we wait ages for a Pensions Act and then they are like buses; a load come along together—set up periodic reviews that aimed to give people at least 10 years’ notice. One could argue that, in principle, the 1995 Act gave that kind of notice, but lots of people did not know about it. There was no requirement under the Act to inform individual women who might be affected. Indeed, apparently what happened was that the Department produced a leaflet. That is very nice, but if people are going to request the leaflet, they must know about the changes coming forward. I certainly did not know that it existed, and I do not think anyone else did. There was an advertising campaign about preparing for retirement, but it was aimed at both men and women. It was not aimed specifically at those whose state pension age was changing. There were a few inserts and adverts in papers and magazines.
For most people, those things were background noise as they were getting on with their lives. No one wrote to the individual women who would be affected. It was not until 2009 that the Government started to do that, but that process was stopped in 2011 as we debated yet another Pensions Act to introduce more changes. That gross dereliction of duty on the part of the Department for Work and Pensions cannot be defended.
After the Pensions Act 2011 was enacted, the Government again began to write to people. They finished the process in 2013, but that meant that some women, if they were notified, received only between three and four years’ notice of changes to their pensions, which was not nearly enough time to make proper provision. In fact, some did not receive notification at all, as we have heard, because their letter were sent to their old address. Some received the wrong state pension forecast and they were not corrected.
Before she became Minister for Pensions, Baroness Altmann said that
“until recently, many of these women were expecting to receive their state pension at age 60, since they were unaware of the changes made in 1995”.
Indeed, the former Pensions Minister said the same thing. In 2015, when he gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee, he said that it was clear that there was a cohort of women who did not know about the changes and that
“there is no question about that.”
The rapid changes introduced by the 2011 Act have resulted in huge inequalities, because small differences between people’s date of birth may mean a big difference to the dates when they reach their pension age. Women born in the 1950s are particularly affected, and I am grateful to those women who have written to me with specific examples of what is happening. I shall quote some of them because I stress to the Government that this is not an academic exercise. Real people are on the receiving end of the changes and many of them are suffering.
One lady wrote to me pointing out that her husband was born in January 1954, meaning that he can retire at the age of 65 years and two months. She was born in August that year, but cannot retire until she is 65 years and 11 months. She said, “Whatever that is, it is not equality,” and it is not.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will give way, but then I want to make some progress.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. If, in March 1953, Mrs Jones gave birth to twins, Jack would get £155 a week under the single-tier state pension, but Jill would get £131, because she was born a woman. Where is the justice in Jack getting £20,000 more over 20 years than his sister, Jill? That is ludicrous.
My hon. Friend is right. The system is riddled with inequalities.
Many women have received wrong information. One lady who contacted me wrote:
“I have a pension calculation from the DWP telling me that I retire at 60 and this would not be reviewed until 2020”—
someone obviously keeps her paperwork carefully. She went on to say:
“I have had no notification or correspondence from the DWP informing me of these changes and have…just found out by applying for a State pension forecast…To be told at the age of 58 that you will not get any pension until you are 66 does not give enough time to plan or budget”—
she is right.
Many women have been caught out by the changes in the number of years’ contributions to national insurance required before receiving a full pension. One lady said:
“I was made redundant after 30 years and I contacted the NI people to ask about my contribution record…I was told because I had paid a full 30 years I didn’t need to pay anymore”.
She then found out that she
“was no longer getting a full pension but approximately £35 a week less because guess what I haven’t paid enough NI contributions in the last 7 years! I WAS TOLD I DIDN’T NEED TO!”
In any private pension scheme, that would be called mis-selling, but we see the same from the Government.
Another lady highlighted the fact that many of this cohort of women took time out to look after their children or to act as carers, meaning that they did not build up enough occupational pension. In some cases, women were not allowed to join occupational pension schemes at all and some were working before the Equal Pay Act 1970 came into force. She said:
“I am also penalised here because when I did return to work after my children were older I did not accrue enough to have a reasonable work pension…It is totally demeaning that I have to rely once again on my husband who is 67 this year and worked from the age of 18.”
That is not equality.
Another lady, who is also a carer, said:
“I will be 62 next month and found out that I will not be getting my state pension until I am 65 and some months. I made Choices in my mid fifties and gave up work to look after my husband expecting to only wait 5 years or so to get my pension but it came as a shock to find out that I wasn’t”.
People have made decisions based on information they were given at the time in good faith, but they then found that decisions had been overturned.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. This is the second debate on this matter that we have in a few weeks, but the Government have not taken a blind bit of notice. I have also received correspondence outlining similar cases. In fact, we received more than 3,500 examples in Coventry. Is there not a danger that women will be in the same position as they were before the Equal Pay Act? Equal pay has still not been achieved in some industries, and women are also being affected in terms of their pensions.
Many women are losing out on their pensions in all sorts of ways, not least because of the change in the retirement age. One woman who wrote to me has, like many of those I have heard from, worked all her life. She suddenly found out that rather than her retirement age being 62, it was going to be 65. She said:
“I am really annoyed with the Government’s lack of respect for those of us that have worked hard all our lives.”
The phrase “lack of respect” sums up the situation. There has been failure to give proper notification—sometimes there has been no notification—a failure to understand that many of the women affected were working in low-paid jobs all their lives, a failure to understand that women could not change their plans at short notice and that many of them would have to rely on their husband’s pension, and a total failure to see the impact of the legislation on those real people. Many of these people are now living in poverty or working for longer in low-paid jobs, while many were made redundant in their early 60s and cannot get other employment.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will give way once more and then make some progress.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her speech. Has she been able to obtain from the Treasury an estimate of the saving to its coffers due to this acceleration of equalisation? It seems to me and many others that, alongside measures such as the restriction to the lifetime allowance, this is part of the Chancellor’s great raid on the pensions of people around the country.
The Chancellor’s financial calculations are always a little opaque, but I think that we are talking about something like £30 billion.
The Government have consistently undervalued these women and their contribution to the country through work, caring and childcare. These women are being forced into poverty, and they are angry, as they have every right to be, because they have been treated appallingly. Frankly, blaming the EU for the fiasco, as the Government have tried to do, will not work. I know that many MPs are being told to blame the EU in the standard letters that they send back. It is common for some Ministers to blame the EU if it rains three days in a row but, in this case, that is not correct.
EU directive 79/7/EEC promoted equal treatment in social security matters, but it specifically recognised that progress towards equal pensions would have to involve transitional arrangements. In fact, the European Commission’s 2007 report made it clear that it expected transitional arrangements to be made. What are other EU countries doing? Austria will equalise its state pension ages in 2033. France is doing that earlier—in 2020—but it is equalising them at 61. In fact, many European countries have a long transitional process in the move towards equalisation. The European Court of Justice judgment that is often cited applies to occupational pensions, not state pensions, which are specifically exempted under paragraph 1(a) of article 7 of the directive to which I referred.
The real reason behind this, as we heard earlier, is to save money. Again, the current Minister for Pensions agrees with that, because in an article for the Yorkshire Post—again, this was before she became Pensions Minister —she wrote:
“increasing state pension age saves significant sums, as millions must wait longer before their pension starts, but for many this is causing real hardship. Surely Ministers should be sensitive to the damage done to older people’s lives”.
Well, Ministers are not sensitive to that damage. The new Pensions Minister in particular is not sensitive to that damage, because she wrote to a member of Women Against State Pension Inequality—I congratulate it on its work—to say:
“there is no basis for me to demand spending public money when due process was followed.”
Well, let me ask this: who contributed to that public money? Many of those contributions came from women who have worked hard all their lives and have relieved the state of huge burdens through their caring responsibilities.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way in which she is pursuing this argument. Is not that the very point? Women such as the many constituents who have come to see me have contributed to the state throughout their lives. They have put in, but now they are not allowed access at the point when it is their turn to get support.
My hon. Friend is quite right. That is exactly why women are so angry about the situation. They rightly feel undervalued and ignored.
There are steps that the Government could take, many of which were suggested during the passage of the 2011 Bill. The Government could limit the amount of time that someone has to wait longer for their state pension to a year, as my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) suggested at the time. They could ensure that the age for pension credit remains in line with that under the 1995 Act. They could also exempt some of these older women from parts of the Work programme, because it is frankly appalling that when women who have worked all their lives are made redundant in their early 60s, they are put on the Work programme and treated like a bunch of workshy teenagers. That is degrading to those women.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate and absolutely agree with what she is saying. She talks about women being undervalued. Does she agree with me that these 1950s heroines not only have worked all their lives but, because they did not have notice in time, as she rightly says, have opted to be carers for their mothers or mothers-in-law and are contributing even now?
That is exactly right. A number of these women, such as the one whose letter I read out earlier, have taken the decision to retire early from work to look after someone in their family on the basis that they can manage if they have only a few years to wait for their pension, but then have then found that they are waiting a lot longer.
It is clear that the Government have failed these women. They broke the coalition agreement by introducing the 2011 Act. They failed to communicate with women successfully and they have failed to listen to their representations since. In fact, they broke the contract with their citizens whereby people pay their national insurance on the understanding that they will get something back when they are in need. The contract with these women has been broken, and I say again that if this had been done by a private provider, we would be after it for mis-selling.
It is time, after these many debates, for the Government at last to bring forward proposals for transitional arrangements that can be properly debated in the House so that the injustice can be put right. It is time for the Government to listen to the women of this country, and I hope that the Minister, after so long prevaricating, will finally do so.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Before I call Richard Graham, I have a note on the number of people who want to speak. I think that Mr Hanson, who will be in the Chair later, intends to start calling the Front Benchers to wind up the debate at 7 o’clock, which leaves about two hours for those Back Benchers who want to contribute to the debate. Twenty people wish to speak, so Members can do the arithmetic themselves. I do not intend to impose a time limit yet, unless people abuse the time that is available. We will take interventions and speeches only from people who have seats in this unusually well attended debate. I remind right hon. and hon. Members that interventions should be short and to the point.
I congratulate the WASPI campaign on the success of its e-petition, which has led directly to today’s debate. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on her speech, which made the case strongly on behalf of women born in the 1950s—she reminded us that, implausibly, she was too.
Today, we debate the WASPI e-petition and, in a sense, the consequences of it. I want to address in turn three separate parts of the e-petition: first, the changes to pensions for women born in the 1950s and the ask from the WASPI campaign; secondly, the communications to those women from the Government and in other ways, from 1995 onwards; and thirdly, the new state pension and the way in which information about that is being communicated. As I said, I will touch on each of those in turn, highlighting where I agree with the campaign and e-petition and where not.
Let me start at the heart of the WASPI e-petition. This is the third time that we have debated this issue in the House, and as we go around the course again today, I hope that we will focus as much on the facts of the ask and the consequences of that as on the understandable emotion of women born in the 1950s. By way of reassurance to those in the Chamber, let me say that that includes my wife and both my sisters.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
May I make a little progress before giving way to the hon. Lady?
First, I agree that the changes in the Pensions Act 1995 and the Pensions Act 2011 will undoubtedly be difficult for women born in the 1950s. Indeed, those changes have been underway for some time and the pension age for women is already 63. But—this is a significant but, and a challenge that has to be made today—I do not accept the proposed WASPI solution, and I will explain why.
The e-petition states:
“The Government must make fair transitional arrangements for all women born on or after 6th April 1951 who have unfairly borne the burden of the increase to the State Pension Age”.
The fair, transitional arrangement sought by the campaign is spelt out on the WASPI Facebook page, which reads:
“What is our ask?... put all women born in the 50s, or after 6th April 1951 and affected by the changes to the state pension age in the same financial position they would have been in had they been born on or before 5th April 1950.”
One of the key WASPI campaigners, Anne Keen, who I imagine is here today, said in her evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee,
“we feel this is a very fair ask”.
Now, the impact of the ask that appears on the WASPI Facebook page has been estimated at more than £30 billion. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us a little bit more clarity on that. The figure is a third more than the entire Transport budget, more than the entire budget of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and probably the same as—possibly more than—the entire budget for Scotland. What we are talking about today may be considered a very fair ask by some people, but others may consider it an enormous and wholly inappropriate ask.
The petition states that the WASPI campaign agrees with equalisation, but the implication of the ask on the Facebook page, and as repeated to the Women and Equalities Committee, is to unwind the 1995 Act, which was brought in specifically to bring about the equality of gender.
If the spokesman for the Scottish National party wishes me to give way, I am happy to do so.
We recognise that equalisation has to take place, but this is about the pace of change and the desire to ensure that mitigation can take place. We talked about the pension age being 63. As it is, somebody born in February 1954 will not retire until July 2019—two and a half years after somebody born a year earlier. That cannot be acceptable. Also, £30-odd billion is not the spending in one year; it is the spending up to 2026. The hon. Gentleman should get his facts right.
I am half grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The SNP’s position has always been interesting, because its Members are in the happy situation of being able to say—and, if need be, to promise—whatever they like without any danger of having to fulfil a commitment on the pension age. I notice that he did not try to commit himself to any transitional arrangement, let alone the full transitional arrangement proposed by the WASPI campaign. It is fine for hon. Members to posture in this debate, and I am in no doubt that we will see a great deal of that, but it is unkind and unfair to the WASPI campaigners for Members not to speak honestly about what they and their party would do.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way.
On a point of order, Mr Stringer. Did I just hear the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) correctly in his accusation that some people were behaving dishonestly? Is that a parliamentary expression?
I did not hear the hon. Gentleman say that. I call Helen Jones to continue her intervention.
The hon. Gentleman said earlier that the women protesting about the change were being emotional. That is quite often a label attached to women who exhibit behaviour different from that of a doormat. What I said to him about the injustices in this scheme was based on fact, not on emotion.
I am semi-grateful for that intervention as well.
I am listening carefully to the debate, and I have heard a lot of warm words from the SNP and from the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), but I have not heard any solutions, let alone how those solutions may be paid for by any future Government.
I remind right hon. and hon. Members that interventions should be short. We are not doing very well at the moment.
Thank you, Mr Stringer; I am doing my best to take interventions. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) made a very reasonable point. The previous Labour pensions spokesman said that, in the four months in which he was in the role, he was
“grappling with how best to work out the transitional provisions.”
I hope that we hear more about what the Labour party intends to do in practice.
One of greatest difficulties in this debate is about the word “fair”. Over the weekend, a lot of WASPI campaigners were tweeting me back and forth about various issues regarding the debate and their e-petition. One of the most interesting views came from a woman born in early 1960 who made a point about what would happen were the main WASPI campaign ask to be given—that is, if everybody born in the 1950s were backdated as if they had been born before 1950. She asked why she and her contemporaries should bear the burden on behalf of those who would effectively be given an exemption from the changes, and who were born only a few months before her.
The problem is that whenever a change is made, some will always be relatively better off and some will be relatively worse off. I strongly support women born in the 1950s—as I hope I made clear from the fact that my wife and sisters are both girls of the 1950s—but to imply that somehow they must take preference over those born a few months before or after is a different kind of potential unfairness.
The second point of the debate is all about communication. Communication is at the heart of what many of the campaigners feel is unfair about the changes made in 1995 and 2011. However, it is simply not true that nobody knew, as the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) claimed in the debate in the main Chamber. In 2004 the then Labour Government estimated from their research in the Department for Work and Pensions that 75% of those affected had been told. A separate study by the DWP—not yet referred to in debate, but unearthed by the pensions correspondent at the Financial Times over the weekend—demonstrated that seven out of 10 people spoken to knew about the change in the pension age. The truth is that we will never know the precise figure. We will never know exactly how many people knew, did not know, and might have been told about it but ignored it because it was all a long way in the future—20 years away.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing this intervention. Does he not find it strange that thousands upon thousands of women from different careers, different backgrounds and different classes are all coming together to claim exactly the same thing, which is that they were not told? The DWP has conflicting records on what letters were sent out and when, so we should be careful when addressing the point that people were told.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we can be sure that not everybody knew and that not all of those who were told took the information to heart. We can be sure that some people were not told—there is no doubt about that. The pensions correspondent at the Financial Times told me:
“I dispute the evidence given to the Committee… by Lin Phillips, that ‘There was not much in the newspapers, only maybe a little bit in the business pages.’”
The correspondent has done a detailed study that will be presented as written evidence to the Select Committee, and she went on to say that she has looked at coverage from 1993, when the changes to equalise the state pension age for men and women was first mooted by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). She says that, from 1994 to 2006, there were hundreds of mentions of the state pension age in the news sections and the personal finance pages, as well as in the business pages.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that, for such a drastic change as a change in the age of retirement, women had a right to expect to receive a direct letter, in the same way as they are given a pension statement on an almost annual basis?
The hon. Lady is right. There are huge lessons to be learned, and I will come on to them because both parties that were in government between 1995 and 2010—predominantly the party that is now the main Opposition party—have to be able to explain, to look at themselves and say, “Could we have done more? Could we have communicated better?” The answer has to be yes, although there is a philosophical question that remains valid today. It is for Members, and indeed for the WASPI campaign, which has offered some thoughts, to come up with ideas about how that philosophical question can be addressed, because surely there is a balance of responsibility between what the Government must do to spell out change, what the wider world, including the media, must do to communicate that change—in today’s world that includes social media—and what the individual must do to take responsibility for finding out about major things that will affect their life.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on introducing this debate. Those of us who have had children have received child benefit. I have received an annual statement from the DWP about my entitlement to child benefit, so it would therefore not be too difficult for people to receive annual statements on their pension entitlement in the same way. If the DWP can do it for parents, surely it can do it for those approaching retirement age.
The hon. Lady is correct. Indeed, people can get a pension statement from the DWP, and half a million people have done so. Of course, an individual has to ask for that statement, rather than it being automatically sent. She raises a question about whether the DWP could do more to communicate directly, which I am sure the Minister will address.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will make a little progress first.
I agree with the WASPI campaign that it is clear that more should and could have been done on communication and that a lot of women have had a lot of difficulty as a result of that failure in communication. As I have said, there is still the philosophical question to address. What matters now is whether lessons have been learned by everybody involved and whether changes will be made that help people in future. So long as longevity projections continue to move upwards, the likelihood must be that the state pension age will also move upwards.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Let me finish my point, and I will come back to the hon. Lady.
I believe that the Government have now accepted three major points, and it would be good to hear from the Minister that that is the case. First, there will be a review of the state pension age every five years—I believe a review is planned for 2017, which perhaps he will confirm. Secondly, whatever is decided as a result of that review, which should have cross-party consensus as far as possible, everybody concerned will be given a minimum of 10 years’ notice. That will address the most difficult point for members of the WASPI campaign, which is the shortness of the time in which they knew about the changes. Thirdly, and this is also important, the basis on which the new state pension age will be calculated is that all of us, men and women alike, should have a maximum of a third of our life on the state pension. That is important for the one fairness that has not been mentioned today, intergenerational fairness, so that those who are paying for the pensions of their elders are paying for us to spend only a third of our life as pensioners.
Several hon. Members rose—
I will come to questions in a moment.
I hope the Minister will confirm all my points, because they have important consequences for everyone, not least the 10 years’ notice of any change.
On a point of order, Mr Stringer. You asked us at the start of this debate to do the maths on the time needed to allow all 20 speakers to speak. I did the maths, and it was five to six minutes. The hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) might be having some difficulty.
That is not a point of order, but the point is well made.
May I seek your guidance, Mr Stringer? I have tried to be as generous as I can in taking interventions.
You have the floor, but there are 20 people waiting to speak. When you sit down, I intend to impose a time limit.
Thank you. I have got the message loud and clear, and I hope that Members will respond accordingly—[Hon. Members: “It’s you!”] I was trying to help colleagues on both sides of the Chamber who are standing up and trying to intervene.
The last point raised by the petition is on the new state pension, the way in which it has been communicated and the implied fairness, or unfairness, of it. It is time that we all recognised that the new state pension has huge benefits for many people, and particularly for women. For the first time in the history of pensions in this country, women who have spent years out of the workplace, either bringing up children or caring for their parents, will receive those years as contributions to national insurance, which will determine what their state pension is. [Interruption.] That is a revolutionary change, whether Members care to recognise it or not, and it is one that we should all support.
Secondly, the changes made to the composition of the state pension, particularly the triple lock, mean that the absolute amount of money received by people on the new state pension this April will already be £1,000 a year more than in 2010. Thirdly, it has been calculated that, in the first 10 years of the new state pension, some 650,000 women will receive £416 a year more than they would have received without the new state pension.
On a point of order, Mr Stringer. As the hon. Gentleman moves into the 22nd minute of his speech, will he give us an indication of its likely future proportions, so that we can pace ourselves?
Again, that is not a point of order, but the point is made.
Further to that point of order, Mr Stringer. Can you guide me on whether you have any control over this issue? My concern is that it is deeply disrespectful to the many women here who are concerned about this subject.
Mr Graham has the floor. He has heard the points, and I intend to impose a time limit when he sits down.
Thank you, Mr Stringer.
I have covered the three main points that I wanted to raise today, and it is worth recapping the implications—[Hon. Members: “No!”] I will be very brief. First, many people in this House—
On a point of order, Mr Stringer. This debate is being held in a way somewhat alien to what we are used to in the Chamber. The Public Gallery is full, and rightly so; it is an important issue. I invite you to remind all of us that this is a meeting being held in public, not a public meeting.
Again, that is not a point of order, but you have made your point, Mr Hoare, and I think Mr Graham has heard it.
Thank you, Mr Stringer. In conclusion, the WASPI campaign has been well put together, and the e-petition has been a great success; that is why we are all here. I congratulate WASPI. All the points made by the campaign about communication in the past will have been noted and largely accepted by almost everybody in the House.
I have emphasised the lessons to be learned, in terms of what the DWP can take from this debate for any future changes made to the state pension age and how they are communicated, but WASPI’s central ask—changing the state pension received by people born in the 1950s—is not favoured by many of the campaign’s supporters, who understand that £30 billion or more is not an appropriate ask when there are so many other good causes on which money should be spent. On that basis, I do not believe that this House should support the e-petition’s call for fair transitional arrangements, which amount to that.
Before I call Mhairi Black, I am imposing a five-minute limit on speeches. If Members take interventions as well as taking up the whole five minutes, either Mr Hanson or I will have to reduce that limit.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I shall be as brief as possible.
On 7 January, I was happy to lead a debate on the issues raised by Women Against State Pension Inequality. We heard, first, how consecutive Governments did not give women enough information or notification; and secondly, how, owing to the acceleration of equalisation, women were not given enough time to make appropriate financial arrangements for themselves. A motion was tabled calling on the Government to consider new transitional arrangements; it was overwhelmingly passed by the House, with 158 votes for and zero votes against.
Despite all that, I am still no further forward in understanding whether this Government have any intention of considering new transitional arrangements. Instead, I have been met with the same three rebuttals over and over—we heard some of them in the previous speech—given by the Government to justify doing absolutely nothing. I know that many colleagues will, as previous speakers have done, mention personal stories and examples showing the human cost of the issue, but I shall focus on the three rebuttals continually given by the Government.
First, we hear that the single-tier pension will solve all the problems these women face, but the reality is that they will receive the higher rate of the new state pension only if they have paid national insurance for 35 years. That means that many individuals who have had low-income or part-time jobs, or who have been in and out of work because they have cared for children, elderly parents or disabled family members, will not meet the 35-year contributions level. It is important to note that approximately 80% of those in this category who will not qualify for the higher rate are women. The idea that the single-tier pension is the answer to the problems that these women face is absolute nonsense and totally irrelevant.
It is also incredibly damaging to continue sending that message. Only this month, The Telegraph reported inaccurate communication from the Department for Work and Pensions to pensioners, after thousands of workers were told that the number of years needed had been reduced to 30, when the new scheme will actually require 35 years. Similarly, and rather embarrassingly, the Select Committee on Work and Pensions raised concerns about the Prime Minister’s misleading claim that the new single-tier pension will start at £150. The Pensions Minister, Baroness Altmann, had to explain:
“That is the full new rate for someone who starts building up from April 2016. That is where there has been so much misunderstanding”.
The whole reason why we find ourselves with this problem in the first place begins with poor communication between the Government and those affected, and it seems that this Government have not learned any lessons from that poor communication. They cannot continue to imply that the single-tier pension will solve the problem, because it will not.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful case, but will she concede that thirty thirty-fifths of the new single-tier pension are still worth more than the old pension?
I accept that point, but how is it relevant to what these women are facing?
It would seem that this is not the first time that the Government have misled people, or certainly gotten their facts wrong. The Pensions Minister gave inaccurate information to the Work and Pensions Committee when she said that WASPI was calling for the Government to undo the Pensions Act 1995—in other words, to reduce the pension age for women back to 60. That is strange, given that she was so involved with WASPI before being employed by the Government.
That brings me on neatly to the second reason why the Government think that nothing should be done: the principle of equality. We hear time and again that this is about equality, which is why we cannot repeal the 1995 Act and why the women affected should just put up with it. Let me set the record straight for the Government and for the Pensions Minister so that there can be no more confusion or inaccurate information: no one is calling for the 1995 Act to be repealed. No one is against the principle of equality. Neither I nor my colleagues nor the WASPI women—nor anybody in this room, I think—are against the principle of equalisation; it is about the speed of it, and the inadequate time and information given to the women affected. I truly hope that when the Minister responds to this debate, we do not hear at great length why equalisation is important. That is agreed. We want the Government to address specifically the speed at which it is being implemented.
The third and final reason commonly given to justify doing nothing is that the issue has already been debated, in 2011. That is correct. The changes were previously considered, and the concerns being raised now were raised then, which is why the Government rightly recognised that the initial transitional arrangements were not appropriate and responded, “Do you know what? We’ve listened, and you’ve got a point,” and changed the waiting period from two years to 18 months.
But if colleagues speak to Pensions Ministers or pensions experts, as I hope they do regularly, the Ministers and experts will say that quite often they do not fully know or appreciate potential problems with pensions until they experience them, and it is then that they have to respond appropriately. So yes, although this issue was debated in 2011, we are returning to tell the Government that in fact the initial six-month concession is not enough. It is not working out, so they have to consider something else that works better.
I have outlined why the Government’s responses have been completely inaccurate and often irrelevant. I do not want to hear that the new single-tier pension is the answer, because it is not; I do not want to hear speeches about the concept of equality, because it is irrelevant; I want to hear a genuine response from the Government on this matter. I said during the last debate that I did not believe that the policy was vindictive or deliberate, but with the knowledge of everything that is happening, it will become deliberate. That is not something I want tied to my name.
I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Mr Stringer. I commend the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for securing it and the members of Women Against State Pension Inequality, many of whom are here, for their successful petition.
There is a great deal of heat in this debate; I hope that at the end of it, we will get a bit of light as well. We owe it to the many people who have signed this petition to lift the fog of debate. I say that because many of my constituents have contacted me to ask for clarification of many of the issues raised here. The Minister has an important role to play in ensuring that some of those issues are clarified.
What is clear is that we all agree on equalisation of the state pension age. It is the right thing to do. It is equally right that we are regularly reviewing the age at which we retire. The great news is that we are all living longer, but we cannot possibly expect that not to affect the age at which we can retire. Surely it cannot be sustainable for us to live longer in retirement than in employment. The sums simply do not add up.
Does the right hon. Lady have some heart for my constituent Lilian, who this year had the honour of receiving an MBE but was told in the same week that she is not getting her state pension? You could not meet a more loyal person or a more honoured person, nor a more betrayed person.
The hon. Gentleman makes his own point in his own way, but we are trying to take some of the emotion out of this debate to get to some of the facts, and we owe it to those people who are really heavily engaged in this debate to do that.
We need a fairer pension system and one in which everybody knows what they are going to get out of it at the end, not only from the state pension system but from private pensions as well. It would be very fair of us all here today to be highly critical of the pensions industry for the opaque way in which it operates, which makes it is very difficult for us to know exactly what we will get and when.
I shall refocus on the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) made, namely that the petition being debated today creates some of the fog because it appears to call for change that puts all women in their fifties who were born on or after 5 April 1951 and who are affected by the changes to the state pension age to be in exactly the same financial position that they would have been in if they had been born or before 5 April 1950. That appears to be a call for a significant change, which I am not sure has been advocated in the contributions made by hon. Members thus far.
On a point of fact and reasonableness, none of the constituents directly affected by this issue whom I have spoken to have asked for any woman born in the 1950s to be able to retire at 60, but they have come to me with specific injustices, such as the women born in 1953 or 1954 who had 18 months added to their retirement age as a result of the 2011 change. That simply cannot be right and it does not really help the debate to try to claim that all these women are calling for something, which does not appear to be true.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point but we are today debating a petition and I am just trying to focus on that. There is so much debate in the Chamber about exactly what we are talking about, and it is important that we consider the petition as it is written rather than as we might like it to be written, which is what he is talking about. Considering the petition is important, because so many people have supported it, but we also need to consider how any changes that would be made, in the way that is being suggested, would be financed. To ignore that and to simply try to pretend that that is not the case would not be fair on those who have created the petition and those who have signed it, because they are pretty clear what they want.
I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), who will respond to this debate, will be clear about what the exact elements of the petition would mean. Equally, however, I hope that he will be clear about some of the other issues that hon. Members have raised, particularly the notification of those who have been affected by this change, which I will focus on in the remaining few minutes that I have.
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) is absolutely right when she says that there appears to have been a great deal of communication —no doubt, extremely expensive communication—over a great many years but very little understanding of what has actually come out and been given to people. It is regrettable that the Pensions Act 1995 did not contain a requirement to communicate effectively with those who were affected by it. Although a leaflet was published at the time, I have no doubt that it was entirely ineffective.
Lord Willetts, who was a Member of this House at the time, pressed the issue back in 2002 in parliamentary questions. The hon. Member for Warrington North is absolutely right to say that at that point there was potentially a gross dereliction of duty at the DWP in not ensuring that there was more effective communication, but I guess that we could also look at the fact that the Department undertook research that clearly showed that three quarters of the women affected were aware of the increase in the state pension age. Perhaps that is why the then Labour Government did not do more at that point.
I just want to set the record straight. I am trying to draw attention to the poor level of communication and to the miscommunication, and I hope that the Government will learn from that.
I can reassure the hon. Lady that that is exactly the point I am making—a great deal of money was spent on things that clearly did not work. Otherwise, we would not be here today.
We know that the women who are affected were written to on numerous occasions. Clearly, they were not communicated with in an effective way, and some of the research I have referred to may well have been misleading in the impression it gave to the then Labour Government and the coalition Government that followed.
What I would like to hear from the Minister today is exactly how he will ensure that not only will the women currently affected by the situation really understand the true position that they are in following quite complex mitigation but that we never, ever find ourselves in this situation again.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for the eloquent way that she opened this debate. May I also say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer? I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) to her Front-Bench position. Mainly, however, I pay tribute to the WASPI women—Women Against State Pension Inequality. I have stood with them for quite some time because there is a real injustice here and it is about time that Parliament served these women as well as it ought to.
Mr Stringer, in future we will probably need a bigger venue and more time for a debate on these issues, and the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) has proved that someone does not need 23 minutes to make a good speech but they certainly need 23 minutes to make a bad one.
Hon. Members will know that my interest in this issue is a long-standing one, and for good reason. They will also know that when constituents come to an MP in numbers and tell them that the Government are doing them an injustice, the MP’s ears perk up and they just know that something big is coming. Well, 140,000 signatures on an e-petition is something pretty big and that is why I pay tribute to those women who have secured those signatures.
The problem is not a new one. When these women realised what had been done to them, they found it difficult to get their voices heard. What I knew was that often women of that age have not had the best luck in life. Women in their 60s still earn 14% less than men and many do not have private pensions. Until 1995, women who worked part time were not even allowed to join company pension schemes, and others did not qualify because they took time away from work because of ill health or to fulfil a caring role.
I do not want to repeat what other Members have said or predict what others will say, but I will make a few brief points, to which I hope the Minister listens carefully. First, when the Pensions Act 2011 was debated on the Floor of the House in June 2011, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said:
“We will consider transitional arrangements.”—[Official Report, 20 June 2011; Vol. 530, c. 52.]
These ladies are still waiting for those “transitional arrangements” and time is quickly running out. I hope that when the Minister comes to respond, he will finally set out what these “transitional arrangements”, which these women were promised, are.
I am sure that the Secretary of State, wherever he is, knows that we will not stop asking questions about this issue; we have raised it many times before and we will raise it again, In the previous debate on the issue, I said that the WASPI ladies were, like wasps, not easy to bash away; when someone tries to bash a wasp, they get angry and they come back and sting. I fear that the Minister is in for multiple stings unless he changes his ways.
I will very briefly mention the Second Reading debate in 1995. In opposition, the Labour party, under Tony Blair, tabled an amendment to point out that the Pensions Act 1995
“does not fully reflect the importance of pensions as a form of deferred pay, takes too rigid an approach to the equal treatment of men and women under the State pension scheme, and includes a range of proposals designed to undermine the State Earnings-Related Pension Scheme and disadvantage occupational as against private pension provision.”
The Conservative Government at that time ignored that amendment, which fell by 267 votes to 228. The amendment summed up our concerns about the 2011 Act, and we made much the same point in the debates about that Act.
Who else shared our concerns in 2011? Well, the current Minister for Pensions, Baroness Altmann, did. Back in 2011, in the same month when the 2011 Act had its Second Reading, she said:
“Ministers must listen to reason on this issue. The current plans are unfair and may, indeed, be illegal in public law terms”.
It is amazing what a subsequent ministerial salary can do. That is the biggest conversion since St Paul on the road to Damascus.
A number of constituents have come to me, including one who worked for the Department for Work and Pensions who said that even she was not aware of many of the changes. Indeed, the WASPI women have today been tweeting that the DWP website still says that the state pension age is 60. What a farce! I hope that the Minister will do the decent thing, listen to these women and give them the justice they deserve and the transition they want.
Hopefully I can be a little more measured.
I echo the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) and congratulate the WASPI petitioners on securing the debate. As a member of the Petitions Committee, may I say that I would not even contemplate the idea of treating the Chair of the Committee as a doormat?
I think that both sides of the House agree that changes to the state pension age are necessary but, famously, when von Bismarck created the state pension in Germany in 1889 for all those of the age of 70, life expectancy was only 35, whereas a woman who reaches 65 in 2018 has a life expectancy of nearly 90 years. Increased life expectancy has presented a challenge to pension systems all over the world, and equalising the state pension age is an important step in addressing that.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will make some progress.
The reality is that there has been no shock. People have been living longer for decades, and it is frustrating that Governments of all colours have done nothing about it. In fact, during the 13 years of Labour nothing was done to remedy the issue—at least the Scottish National party has an excuse.
Several hon. Members rose—
I want to try to make some progress. I note the time, and I do not want to go on for too long.
There is a legal obligation here, and also a European Union directive on gender discrimination, with several EU members already having equalised the state pension age. One of those is Germany, the birthplace of the state pension. I am, therefore, supportive of the Government’s state pension changes but, as a member of the Women and Equalities Committee, I think there is a case for transitional arrangements for the most vulnerable. However, that must be balanced against the implications for our yet-to-be-eradicated deficit. Even the most minimal of mitigations would come at a significant financial cost; just paying the state pension for an extra 12 months to the women affected would cost £2.2 billion, and that is aside from the further complications that would be caused to the system. However, I must note the concerns I have heard about the changes, and I know that the Department for Work and Pensions continues to deny that the women affected were not contacted.
Does the hon. Gentleman not understand that a contract exists, in effect, between the affected women and the Government? If someone was paying into a private pension and the rules were changed at the last minute, my heavens the matter would end up in court. This is not about the Government’s deficit; it is about doing the right thing, and about a commitment that the Government have to women of a certain age.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He makes his point in his own way, but any changes in welfare come with a cost implication, as he well knows.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will make some progress. As I said, I must note the concerns I have heard from constituents who have come to my surgeries. The Department for Work and Pensions continues to deny that women who were affected were not contacted, but a number of constituents have contacted me to say that they did not receive adequate notification. It was also concerning to hear that the Department failed to send out a significant number of state pension estimates, citing, in part, reasons of data protection.
Apart from for actuaries and accountants, pensions are confusing; indeed, I am no expert myself. Not only do the Government need to investigate their contact with women about the changes, and the methods used, but there is a wider issue about financial education and I am pleased that the Money Advice Service is working on a new strategy for the financial education of children.
Several hon. Members rose—
I am happy to give way.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way but, given what he has said, how does he defend the disproportionate hit that is being taken by this small group of women? This group had low incomes and therefore could not build up their pension contributions, then they got hit by the reduced rates and they have now been disproportionately hit by the transition period? Why should that cohort take the biggest hit?
I thank the right hon. Lady for that intervention but, as I said, as a member of the Women and Equalities Committee and as someone who has campaigned on equalities issues for a while, I believe that the most vulnerable people need to be looked at, if the Government are to review the policy. Unequal pension ages are unfair and unsustainable in an age of greater life expectancy and of women working longer, but we must remember that there are still glaring financial inequality issues for women in this country, despite huge strides made in recent years.
In some parts of my constituency of Glasgow East, life expectancy is 67, so it is simply not correct to say that life expectancy for all is increasing. As Age UK says, it is the people in the poorest areas and in the lowest-paid jobs who are disproportionately hit.
As I said earlier, transitional arrangements need to be made for the most vulnerable. I completely understand the hon. Lady’s position and I hope that the Minister will look into it. Indeed, in my constituency, and in the south-west in general, there is a nearly 20% difference between the earnings of men and women. My colleagues and I on the Women and Equalities Committee are currently taking evidence on that issue and we will publish a response later this month.
At my surgery last week I met with women affected by the changes, and they brought to my attention the issue of divorce and pensions. As women earn less than men they tend to save less towards their retirement and are often dependent on their spouses’ income, but the vast majority of them do not choose to consider their husbands’ pension in a divorce settlement. I hope that the Minister will consider that further issue in his summary.
Given that emotions are running high, it is important that the Government learn lessons. Although the changes are necessary, we must consider how we can better educate people about their personal finance. We must also remember that women remain economically disadvantaged in both pay and private pension provision. If we address those things we will be able to avoid a recurrence of this regrettable situation in the future. There is little doubt that we will all be living longer and we should not make the same mistakes in communicating such changes in the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. It is interesting to follow the hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) because, if I heard correctly, he seemed to suggest that it would perhaps help the Government with the pension policy if we all died sooner. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on her contribution to the debate and on all the work she and many other Labour colleagues have put in.
How many times have we heard constituents say, “I’m not interested in politics. What has it got to do with me?” Well, here today we are debating political decisions on the pension age that have profoundly changed the law with regard to men and women. The fundamentals of the change to equalise the state pension age between men and women is not the problem. It is right that as the barriers to women working and saving for a pension were tackled in the 20th century, the anomaly between the retirement ages for men and women should be addressed too. While recognising the health inequalities that still exist, it is fair to reflect on the statutory retirement age and on what is appropriate, as we are all living longer overall, and to recognise that pension support must better reflect how we live our lives today and that funding must be sustainable in the future.
So what has gone wrong? Why are so many MPs from all parties concerned? How did the WASPI campaign manage to get more than 139,000 signatures on an e-petition, so as to be granted today’s debate? The problem is when politicians and senior civil servants forget that public policy making is only as important as delivery, especially when we expect the public to make important decisions affecting their lifestyle and future financial security. It is because of the lack of attention to delivery and to the impact on women’s lives that the genuine and widespread concern of the many women and their families affected by the changes has struck such a chord.
Sometimes laws require relatively little of the public, but pension changes need the public to engage with how they will be affected and what they need to do ensure that they can retire with security. For that reason alone Governments have a huge responsibility to do as much as possible to ensure a smooth transition.
The first increase in women’s state pension age was introduced by the Pensions Act 1995, but the plan was that the change would not start until 2010 and that it would take 10 years to complete, so that by 6 April 2020 women’s state pension age would be 65 and equal to that of men. Perhaps the thought of 25 years between 1995 and 2020 led to a complacency in Whitehall that has exposed the lack of priority given to ensuring that women were informed and prepared. One letter, even if it gets to the recipient, is not enough. Receiving such a letter at 58—even at 59—saying that the pension age of 60 has been delayed, has left many women unprepared for retirement, after decades of work.
My right hon. Friend is making a good point that is not just about the principle of equalisation, but the speed and sharpness of the increase. That is what has been the focus of so much anger and frustration. Does she agree with my constituent Mrs Cox, who points out that it is not just about the state pension, but other benefits, such as bus passes in some parts of the country, continued national insurance contributions and winter fuel allowance? It is not just one hit on the women affected, but several, and that is what has made them so angry.
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. The problem has been compounded by the coalition Government’s decision to speed up the introduction of the equalisation of the pension age and to increase the state pension age. Those changes were made without any sense of how aware and ready women were.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
No, I am going to make some progress. I want to share the story of a constituent from Cantley, Margaret Quilter. When the Pensions Act gained Royal Assent on 14 May 2014, it was two months before Margaret’s 60th birthday. That Act pushed the date of her reaching state pension age from November 2018 to May 2020. Margaret was not notified of that change and nor was her occupational provider, the teachers’ pension scheme. All correspondence from that scheme used the 2018 date. Margaret has more than 40 years of national insurance contributions, but she was contracted out, as so many were. The amount of years of NI contributions required has also moved, and she believes that that led her to making judgments based on inaccurate information. Margaret’s is a classic case: she expected to retire at 60, then 61 and a half. That became 64 and then nearly 66.
Margaret believes that by equalising pensions at the finishing line, Governments have failed to acknowledge inequality from the start. As she told me, when she was working she barely broke even paying out for childcare for her two children, but she thought it worthwhile to keep working and to keep contributing. In her 50s, she found her retirement age was to be delayed, but at the same time her work opportunities were beginning to dry up. She feels let down. Having been assured in 2014 that there would be 10 years’ notice of future rises, at 61, having requested a forecast, she discovered the third increase to her state pension age.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
I will not give way, because of the time. My constituent Margaret recognises that she is more fortunate than many. When she had been retired from teaching for a year, the teachers’ pension service wrote saying that it used the state pension age of 64—not the state pension age of 66—in its pensions calculation letter sent in July 2014, as changes in the state pension age were not in the public domain. That forecast letter stated that the state pension age was unlikely to change, but it did four months later. Seriously, if an established occupational pension scheme cannot advise clearly in July 2014, is it any wonder that so many women have found themselves unprepared for the changes to their financial and social wellbeing? Margaret has never received any information directly from DWP. She has requested all the information herself.
It is clear that mistakes have been made. Sometimes Governments get it wrong and sometimes Departments mess up. In those cases, they should try to put things right. I hope that after today’s debate, the Government will consider transitional arrangements to soften the blow. I also hope that lessons will be learned, across all levels of policy-making, about treating changes of this magnitude as a major project in which the people affected should be at the forefront of planning for change.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), who led the debate so brilliantly. The issues of the WASPI campaign have been raised with me by a number of constituents, so I wanted to participate in the debate. I will not talk for long, as the points I wish to make have been mentioned and will no doubt be mentioned again by Members speaking after me.
I will be honest: before it was widely reported and debated in Parliament, I was not majorly aware of the issue—it had not been raised with me—for women born in the 1950s. The WASPI campaign has evidently gained much momentum over the last few weeks, and the number of letters and emails sent to me has increased, with women from all over North Cornwall telling me about their concerns and how much money they will lose from their state pension. I have also met some of the affected women in my surgeries. I thought it would be a useful starting point to sympathise with their argument and predicament and to bring their concerns to the House. Although the changes were made when I was not a Member of Parliament, I felt it was important to listen to and convey their concerns.
First, I agree with the Government’s equalising the state pension age and saving billions for the taxpayer, but the change has been brought in rather bluntly. Men and women pay the same level of taxes and national insurance contributions. They can learn to drive or buy a lottery ticket from the same age, so they should be treated the same when it comes to state pensions. Life expectancy figures also show that women outlive men in many cases, so it is right and fair that their pensions are equalised.
Given that many of the women affected by the changes in state pension age were in full-time employment from the age of 15 and younger, does the hon. Gentleman agree that they have more than contributed? Their full half-century of hard work should be taken more seriously by the Government.
I absolutely agree. The ladies sitting in the Public Gallery and many others across the country have been affected by the issue and have made a full and active contribution to their national insurance contributions. It is right that their opinions are listened to, as they are today.
I absolutely understand why the Government wish to implement the changes quickly. They are working hard to eradicate the budget deficit and get us into a surplus. My concern is how the changes have been communicated and the affect that they have had on the 135,000 people who have signed the petition. Importantly, the women I have spoken to understand that the changes are being made for equalisation, but they ask for help with how they are being implemented. Some have not received letters from the DWP about the changes. Others have said that the changes have drastically changed their retirement plans. Some are set to lose tens of thousands of pounds.
The Work and Pensions Committee said in its interim report that the details sent to people affected were inadequate and confusing. It said that it had widespread concerns about women being unaware of increases in their state pension age dating back to 1995. I come here not as someone who is affected by the changes, but instead to fulfil my role as the MP for North Cornwall by speaking on behalf of those who are affected and are concerned, but who are unable to stand here today and make the case themselves. On behalf of my constituents, I simply urge the Government and the Minister to pause and consider another way of facilitating the changes that would be fairer for the taxpayer and the women in North Cornwall who are set to lose thousands of pounds as a result of something they have little control over. I further urge the Minister and his Department to consider the Select Committee’s findings and to contact all women affected, laying out how they will each be affected by the age changes, how they will benefit from the new single-tier pension, and on balance how they will be positively or negatively affected.
[Mr David Hanson in the Chair]
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), the Chair of the Petitions Committee, for the excellent way she opened the debate. It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Hanson. I thank the WASPI campaigners for the great job they do. I think that we should all thank them. I say to the Minister that I think it is shabby for another Minister to block people on Twitter who are doing such a lot of work to bring issues to our attention. That is a dreadful thing to do.
The former Pensions Minister, Steve Webb, has said that the Government made “a bad decision” over the changes to pensions. His excuse was that Ministers had not been properly briefed. Despite the excuses, it seems astonishing that so many crucial issues were overlooked. Raising the state pension age creates a need for new jobs and new support for people if they are made redundant. For all the women no longer allowed to retire at 60, there has to be a job so that they can continue to work, or a scheme for financial support.
The Commons Library estimates that 3,200 women in Greater Manchester and 9,400 women in the north-west are affected this year alone by the increases in the state pension age. Across the 10 years to 2026, those numbers rise to 100,000 in Greater Manchester and nearly 300,000 in the north-west. Across the United Kingdom, a staggering 2.5 million women will be affected by 2026. Where is the work and the suitable support for all those women? Finding suitable employment when you are in your 60s is not the same as looking for work in your teens and 20s. The experience of my constituents who are unemployed or who took redundancy hoping to retire at 60 is that suitable work or support programmes do not exist. It seems to me that the issues were known about at the time.
When I mentioned this afternoon the case of a constituent who is a widow and is severely affected by this issue, the Minister in his reply read out a long list of benefits that the lady could receive. Unfortunately, she cannot work. In a sense, having paid in all her life—for 35 years—why should she go cap in hand to the jobcentre?
Absolutely. I know of a similar experience, which I will come to in a moment.
The impact assessment for the 2011 Bill showed the number of inactive women as 31% of those aged 55 to 59 and 65% of those aged 60 to 65. Four out of 10 of the women aged 50 to 59 were inactive owing to ill health or disability, and 24% stated caring at home as their reason. What plans did the Government make to give support to such women once they were over the age of 60, in terms of suitable jobs, financial support if they were ill or disabled, or financial support if they gave up work to care for family members?
Like the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), I have a constituent who is forced to attend the Work programme. She feels that it fails to take into account her previous experience, and she feels that she is going to be “parked”, working for free for up to 30 hours a week, or face sanctions. It is difficult for her. She has mobility problems, but she has to pay her own parking costs when she attends the Work programme, because only petrol is paid for.
I have spoken to WASPI campaigners with similar problems in Greater Manchester: forced on to the Work programme at age 62, despite having more than 40 years of national insurance contributions—exactly the point that the hon. Member for Gainsborough made. I have another constituent of 62 who has worked since she was 15. She has osteoarthritis in both knees. She has had one knee replacement and is now waiting for a second. She cannot get her pension until 2019. She is on half pay from her employer and she had contributory ESA to top that up for a while. That seems fair, given that she has more than 45 years of national insurance contributions. However, after assessment she has been told she is fit to do some work and she must apply for jobs, despite having her second knee replacement scheduled soon, and despite being on sick leave from her job. She told me,
“I have been so upset with this whole procedure you are not able to get better... Can you believe it I was pleased they took the ESA off me because it is making me ill to keep dealing with them and the way you are dealt with.”
Government Members who talk about ESA and JSA, as some Members did in DWP questions earlier, should realise what it means to have to go to jobcentres, go on to the Work programme or go to ESA assessments.
We should be ashamed to have a system that treats women born in the 1950s in this way. They have worked all their lives, brought up children and paid more than 40 years of national insurance. Very few of them ever had equal pay, and certainly not equal chances of an occupational pension. So I want to ask the Minister why his Government did not consider different schemes for people who have worked all their lives and find themselves redundant or unemployed in their 60s. I can tell him that other EU states have done so.
Faced with the facts of the ill health of women in the 55 to 59 age group, why did the Government not introduce a different support scheme for women who became ill in their 60s after a lifetime of working contributions? Why have the Government not looked at a bridge pension scheme, as some other EU states have done? Why did the Government not look at allowing women aged 60-plus and living outside London to have concessionary travel, as the Mayor of London did for women—and men—with the 60+ Oystercard? Why did the Government not consider women born in the 1950s being able to qualify for winter fuel payments between the ages of 60 and retirement?
The Government are taking £30 billion off women born in the 1950s, which could mean as much as £36,000 per woman affected.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for sponsoring this debate. We have talked about the amount of money that women will lose in terms of detriment. I hope that the Minister takes this on board, and I hope that the hon. Lady agrees with me. We heard earlier about women relying on their husbands to make up their income, but in the case of women who are married to women, both suffer detriment because of the changes in pension age.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. It is useful that he has done so, because it has not come up before. I hope the Minister will think about that, too.
Sometimes when we have debates, Ministers do not listen to the questions that are put. Some Members have said that life expectancy is still rising in this country, but it is not. The figures that were published in 2013 for 2012-13 show the first fall, which is possibly to do with how social care is being cut in this country. I want the Minister to think about the point I made earlier, which he did not seem to hear, about how female life expectancy is only 72 in parts of my constituency. If those women have to work until they are 66, they will have only six years of pensions, not 20 or 30 years as in more affluent parts of the country. Healthy life expectancy in that same ward in my constituency is 54, so why should women in Salford and in other deprived parts of the country bear the full cost of equalisation? The costs of support to women born in the 1950s via fair transitional arrangements would be transitional costs. It is the right thing to do and the Minister should agree to ask the Government to bring in those transitional arrangements.
There seems to be widespread consensus that that acceleration of the equalisation of the state pension age directly discriminates against women born on or after 6 April 1951. We all agree that women have not been given fair notice to prepare and manage their plans and finances for an additional number of years before receiving their state pension. Many women in my constituency are genuinely alarmed and worried about their financial future due to the lack of preparation time that they have had. As has been said—it bears repeating—life expectancy across the UK is not uniform, and that creates complexities when discussing this issue.
It has been hinted at but not explicitly said today that it is a real shame and a real disappointment that that fantastic crusader for people of pension age, Baroness Altmann, has allowed herself to be effectively neutralised by her ennoblement. Many women face the real prospect of cancelling retirement plans after a lifetime of work. That goes against the grain of natural justice, and it demands to be addressed because it is a breach of contract.
A DWP research report in 2004 found that only 43% of the women affected were able to identify their own state pension age as 65 years or between 60 and 65 years. That low figure was identified as a cause for real concern, showing that information about the increase in the state pension age was
“not reaching the group of individuals who arguably have the greatest need to be informed.”
Levels of awareness were even lower among women who were economically inactive or in routine and manual occupations, standing at a mere 36%.
Women born in the 1950s have been affected by significant changes to their state pension age with a lack of appropriate notification, little notice and much faster than promised. That can have only one outcome: straitened financial circumstances for women as they frantically try to prepare and re-plan retirement. With retirement a further four, five or even six years further away than originally thought, it is not just financially challenging; it is cruel and heartless. All of this, as has been said, is in the context of a lifetime of low pay and inequality faced by far too many women and the old-age problems that are a cumulative effect of that.
My hon. Friend talks about the lack of planning. In the Chamber earlier today, one of the fallback measures suggested by the Minister was that women could use pension freedoms. That shows a lack of understanding that women are less likely to have a private pension that they can cash in, but to suggest they cash it in to help them get by these few years is absolutely irresponsible.
Absolutely. I concur with everything that my hon. Friend has said.
Clearly, and despite the lack of action, the Government know there is a problem. Steve Webb, the Pensions Minister in the coalition Government, has admitted that the period of notice being given to some women was “the key issue”. He further went on to indicate that he recognised that not everyone affected by the 1995 Act had been aware of it. The Government must take responsibility for that. Why did they not act in this matter earlier to ensure that the women affected were fully informed? Why were women left in the dark, blissfully unaware that their retirement plans would lie around them in financial ruins?
The excellent campaign run by Women Against State Pension Inequality calling on the Government to make fair transitional state pension arrangements for 1950s-born women is one that we in the SNP fully support in the interests of natural justice. Fairness is all that is being called for here today. I take exception to what the hon. Member for Gloucester said about the cost being £30 billion. I will challenge anyone who makes that case. Is it more worthwhile to fund weapons of mass destruction or to ensure that our people have dignity as they approach pension age? The Government have not listened to our calls so far. They have avoided and obfuscated.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will not, as I am in my final seconds.
The Government have not listened or responded, despite the huge outpouring of public feeling, not only from the women affected but from a society that knows that this is unjust. I urge them to respond to our calls now.
Order. I cannot stop interventions, but they add minutes and reduce the time available to fit in everyone who is down to speak. I ask Members to reflect on that when they intervene.
I, too, strongly commend my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for leading this debate so powerfully. Although the injustice imposed on women born in the 1950s has been repeatedly debated, discussed and raised with the Prime Minister in recent weeks and months, this is my first opportunity since returning to the Back Benches to express my constituents’ concerns, and I am grateful for it.
The Minister and the Government regularly state that the changes to the state pension age imposed by the Pensions Act 2011 are vital to ensuring that our pensions system is fair, affordable and sustainable, and I am sure the Minister will repeat those words today; but not a single Member of this House would suggest that our pensions system should be anything other than fair, affordable or sustainable, and nor would any of the women who are part of the brilliant WASPI campaign. I agree that it is right to equalise the state pension age for women and men, but I thoroughly object to the Government’s implication that the women, and indeed men, who are campaigning on this issue are standing in the way of progress, or acting as a barrier to the achievement of gender equality and fairness. That is deeply insulting, patronising and wrong.
We are, thankfully, living longer, and few people would doubt that the state pension age must rise to reflect that, but the crux of the matter is that these pension changes have not been properly communicated to those affected, and women born in the 1950s have been disproportionately hit because their pension age has been increased not once but twice, with very little time for them to do anything about it. That relatively small group of women is being asked to bear the cost of making our pension system fair, sustainable and affordable for everyone else. That is patently unfair and blatantly discriminatory. Women across the country have been left in real fear, simply because they did not have the foresight to be born a few years—in some cases, a few months—earlier.
How dare the Government lecture those women about the importance of gender equality? They have worked hard, done the right thing and paid into the system. They have faced discrimination, unfairness and inequality throughout their working and often their family lives. They thought they had entered into a pensions contract with the Government, only to discover as they neared retirement that the Government were not going to keep their side of the bargain. That is the very definition of unfairness, and the notion that inequality can be fought by imposing more of it is absurd.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am sorry, but I will not.
Women across Newcastle North face real financial hardship as a result of these changes, just when they thought they had done their bit As well as repeatedly lobbying the Minister for Pensions about the wider injustice, I have written to her about every single case in my consistency that I have been contacted about. I want her to appreciate the real impact that the changes are having on individuals’ lives. I want to share some examples today, if I have enough time.
One of my constituents, a brilliant WASPI campaigner, at the age of 54 and on the advice of her union contacted the DWP in 2008 to request a state pension forecast. She was informed that she had attained 38 qualifying years. She has received no other information from the Government about the 1995 changes. However, she was born in November 1954, so under the 2011 pension changes, at the age of 61 with 45 qualifying years, she is unable to receive her state pension for another five years. She has worked since she was 15, and is now unable to do so because she is pre-diabetic and pre-glaucomic. She claims jobseeker’s allowance, but cannot complete the job searches because her condition makes it difficult to use a computer. She is attempting to find work in a region that has the highest level of unemployment anywhere in the country by some margin.
What particularly worries me about that case is not only that my constituent has received no information from the Government about the 2011 changes—she found out about them by chance—but that she has been informed that she will not be entitled to receive a full state pension under the new system unless she makes further contributions between 2016 and 2020, despite having 45 qualifying years. Given her health conditions, it is impossible for her to do so. I gently ask the Minister, who campaigned vociferously on this issue, what is the point of becoming a Minister if you are unprepared to use the levers of power when you have the opportunity to do so?
Thank you for calling me, Mr Hanson. I thought I had withdrawn my name. I would like to make a few points that have particular relevance to Northern Ireland and my constituency.
We debated this issue in the Chamber some weeks ago. I hope that the Minister has reflected on our debate and has some answers about how to give transitional protection to the women sitting behind us and those in the devolved regions and England who are affected by the changes. They deserve it, and the Government must see that it happens.
There are particular issues in Northern Ireland affecting women who left school between 1947 and 1957. The school-leaving age in Northern Ireland was different from that in other parts of the UK. About 500 of those women have lost about two years’ contributions and are not getting their correct pension. Many of them are now in their 70s—it is a different group to those in their mid to late-50s. I ask the Government, in the interests of social justice, fairness and equality, to give those women protection.
Everybody understands that the changes were made to ensure equality, but women’s pensions are riddled with inequality. When I started at the NHS in 1982, I could not accrue death in service benefits to leave to a husband and children, if I had any. When that was finally remedied, it was backdated only to 1988. It is exactly the same for women who worked as cleaners and auxiliaries in the NHS and never had protection for their families.
I thank the hon. Lady for that very compelling intervention. That is absolutely right. Women in the lower age brackets will be deeply affected, because they will have to wait longer for their pensions. Many of them are in caring roles, perhaps because their partners are not in good health, so their family income levels are desperately below the level needed to live on.
I speak on behalf of the many women in North Down who are furious about the changes to their pension arrangements. I am one of the 1950s ladies—I am not going to declare my date of birth—so I have a personal interest in this matter. I wrote to Baroness Altmann—I had enormous regard for her before she became Baroness Altmann—at least three weeks ago and invited her to Northern Ireland to meet the affected women face to face. As the hon. Lady said, the situation in Northern Ireland is slightly more complicated than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Does she share my bitter disappointment that I am still awaiting a reply?
I thank the hon. Lady for her very helpful intervention. Of course I share her disappointment and disgust at the position being adopted by the Minister. In the other place, the Minister for Pensions did not take on board our points about the forgotten 14s. She did not acknowledge their financial position, and offered them no form of redress. I hope that the Minister here today, who responded some weeks ago, has had time to reflect and has realised that women will be expected to work for longer for a smaller pension than they had expected and planned for. We have been asked to ponder and reflect on solutions today, and the clear solution is to introduce transitional arrangements. The women behind us in the Public Gallery and throughout the UK should not have to lose out and pay the cost of a financial crash that was not of their making.
It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I thank WASPI and the Petitions Committee for ensuring that this subject is once again debated in the House. I hope that we get more of a response this time.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), I am one of the 1950s generation who is luckily protected by the parliamentary pension scheme. I was slightly late being born, so instead of my pension being delayed until 2018, it is actually only delayed until November 2017. Jumps are inevitable when such arrangements are changed; the problem is that women need enough time to plan, and the difficulty with the 1995 changes and even more so with the more recent changes is that the time left for women to plan was inadequate.
I received a pension statement in 2005 that stated:
“Retirement may seem a long way off but thinking about it now can make a big difference to your future.”
The postscript said:
“Remember, no matter how far off retirement may be, acting today can make a big difference to your future.”
At no point did the letter tell me that my retirement was going to happen not when I was 60, but when I was closer to 64. That is the point: I am not unusual. The letter told me exactly what my basic pension entitlement would be at that year’s cash equivalent and what my additional pension would be. It was a personalised letter. It would not have been hard for the “Retirement Pension Forecasting Team” to have included a line: “and this is the date at which your retirement will happen”, but it did not. That is a case of the state letting down the citizen.
As many have said, this is a contract between the state and the citizen. We hear that the change is about equalisation, so let us talk about equality—a subject about which I am passionate. Men’s and women’s pensions are not equal. A European Union research document states that
“pensions tend to be more unequal between men and women than other forms of income”.
Women in their 50s—those of us who fought for the Equal Pay Act 1970 and discovered that it did not deliver us equal pay—have the biggest pay gap compared with men than any other age group. There are other forms of inequality: when I was secretary of the Labour party’s commission on older women, I heard many women make a point that was summed up well by one of my constituents: “We are last in the queue for a job and first in the queue for a redundancy.” That is absolutely typical for women in their 50s.
Age discrimination in employment affects women much more than men. Some interesting American research used a technique that was employed when studying race discrimination and job applications. Stating a women’s name and an age and then a man’s name and an age found that age discrimination, while present for both, is some three or four times as extreme for women. That is why we should be talking about equality. We are discussing women who have suffered more than any other group from inequality in pay and pensions.
When people talk about using new pension freedoms to deal with the problem, let us be clear that those new pension freedoms actually help those with big pension pots much more than those with small pension pots. Who has big pension pots? The guys. Who has small pension pots? The women—and they are better off hanging on to annuities than using pension freedoms, as any financial journalist will affirm.
These women are saving the state huge amounts of money. They care for their children and grandchildren and look after elderly parents. They get no recompense for that, but Government Members have the cheek to say that those are the women who should pay for the deficit. It is unacceptable. The time has come to ensure that we get real equality in pensions and that these women are not made to pay for the problem.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on leading today’s debate. We are here to consider the petition organised by the WASPI campaign. I was going to say that it has been supported by 139,059 people, but I checked before the debate and the figure is now over 140,000 with some 1,200 people signing the petition today. The number of Members here and the number of people who have signed the petition highlight how important it is that we address the issue.
For me and many others, today’s debate is about fairness. The transition to equality is an accepted principle; what is not acceptable is the lack of information and the lack of notice and time to prepare and plan for the transition. I have received many emails and letters from my constituents and those are the overriding concerns. The other common factor in the cases that I have read about is that many of the women affected by the changes have had low, and in some cases unequal, pay. Some have had periods of time outside of work due to bringing up children and have therefore been unable to contribute to national insurance and work pension schemes. Against that background, the changes to pension arrangements mean that what they had planned on getting is now hugely different from what they will receive, which is damaging to their financial security and their retirement plans.
Many women born in the 1950s will have started their employment when the gender pay gap was significant. The number of women across our country affected by the changes is also significant, with 3,180 in my constituency and many hundreds of thousands across the country. Most will not have company pensions, having been excluded from schemes for a variety of reasons. All Members will have heard cases similar to that of my constituent who at 58 is no longer able to retire at 60. She does a physically tough job and will now have to work until she is 66. She has had a relatively low income throughout her working life and now has to continue doing her tough job, totally unplanned, for a further six years. That just is not fair.
The WASPI campaign’s argument is powerful and its members should be congratulated on their passion and perseverance. The women at the centre of the campaign have been treated unfairly. It is surely time for the Government to propose measures to remedy that unfairness. The issue will not be resolved until the Government put it right by introducing a fair transition period to allow people to plan. I hope that the Minister will go some way towards that today by acknowledging the unfairness and by agreeing to discuss what options the Government will consider to bring about a fair transition.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Seven people are left to speak and we have 32 minutes remaining, so I have to bring the speaking limit down to four minutes per person.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. May I start by saying that we should dispense with the use of the word “emotions”? We have heard it only from Government Members in this debate. We should talk about the facts.
The Government’s record on issues relating to women is at best lamentable and at worst fundamentally discriminatory. From changes to tax credits and child benefit to the current pensions issue, the Government’s policies have adversely impacted on women across the United Kingdom. House of Commons Library research shows that the measures announced in last year’s Budget will have an disproportionate impact on women, and individual proposals, such as the Chancellor’s “rape clause”, which would require a woman who has her third child as a result of rape to justify her position in order to avoid losing tax credits, are horrifying in their callous disregard for human rights. The matter before us is important because in that wider context, it presents the Government with an opportunity to now do the right thing by the women of this country and, indeed, by the WASPI campaign.
The Government have rightly recognised that when it comes to changes that affect people’s pensions, they need to take a more measured approach in future and ensure both effective communication and a reasonable lead-in period, so that those who are affected can properly plan for retirement. The Government should therefore now take their own advice in that respect and act properly and fairly for all the thousands of women who have been adversely affected by the equalisation of the pension age and the subsequent decisions taken in the 2011 Act.
Most of all, this is an issue of fairness. As someone who has argued all their life for equality for women, I absolutely agree with the principles behind the 1995 Act; those are not in dispute. I support equalisation of the pension age, but I have enormous sympathy—we all should—for those who may not have been aware of these changes and are suffering hardship as a result. I cannot support the unfair manner in which these changes were imposed under the 2011 Act to the detriment of so many women in Clackmannanshire, Perthshire and Kinross-shire and across the rest of the country. They believed they had a deal, an agreement and even an understanding with the state, and the state has moved the goalposts. This is a failure in the Government’s policy and a fundamental breach of contract, and the Government must take responsibility for that and bring forward transitional protection now.
I know that the Government are capable of making sensible and reasonable decisions in this area. That is why I wholeheartedly welcome the fact that under the Pensions Act 2014, future reviews of the state pension should give 10 years’ notice of such changes. The same principle should be applied to right the wrongs of the changes made in 2011. We know that some of those impacted by the 2011 changes received only around five years’ notice of the changes that would impact them, while those with the largest increases of 18 months got less than eight years’ notice. I am sure we have all heard from constituents explaining, often with heartbreaking detail, how that has meant they were given insufficient time to prepare for their retirement. One constituent of mine said:
“At present I will not get my pension until I am 66 with no warning. I will suffer true hardship and misery.”
The system has let that woman and thousands like her down, and the Government must act now to make amends.
Pensions are not a benefit; they are part of our social contract, and this Government have broken that contract. I understand—we all understand—that what we seek today costs money, but the Government have a duty to do the right thing, not the cheap thing, when it comes to changing this sort of contract. Our duty must be to do what is right and to then take the difficult decisions necessary to pay for it. We should not start with the cost and work back from there.
Politics is about decisions and priorities. I am here because I believe that getting a fair deal for these women should be a priority. To take another path would be to demonstrate to the thousands of women watching today that this Government know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate the WASPI campaign on getting this debate on to the parliamentary agenda.
Like many MPs, over the past few months I have had a flurry of emails from women who are extremely concerned about their future and how the equalisation will affect them financially. They are rightly angry about the lack of fairness. The fact that women were given just two years’ notice of a six-year increase in their state pension age, while men received six years’ notice of a one-year rise, is representative of just how unfair the changes are.
I obtained data from the House of Commons Library, which estimates that around 4,470 women in my constituency will be affected by the changes to the state pension age. If the Library can find out that information, why on earth can the DWP not find it out and have the courtesy to tell all the women affected? On the basis of the figures given by the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), some 1,300 women in my constituency are still not fully aware of the changes.
It would be wrong to debate the changes without discussing the knock-on effect they will have on older women who have planned their retirement but now remain on the job market. Many people in the room will know that we have a real issue in this country with the employment of older women, who are often on low pay and in zero-hours contracts. Many of those women had career breaks. Many earned less than men doing equivalent work, and many suffered gender discrimination in the era before the Equal Pay Act 1970. Many were working at a time when few women worked in well remunerated professional roles with occupational pensions, as other Members have mentioned.
Does the hon. Lady agree that we have ultimately failed to take into account the gender pay gap and the inequality between women and men for the many women who have been in low-paid work and have caring responsibilities?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right; this situation compounds a number of other inequalities that women have faced in the workplace.
One constituent of mine was not informed of the changes and only found out due to divorce proceedings. She was formerly a pro tennis player and a coach. Due to the nature of her field, she had to retire from the sport as she got older and retrained in childcare to get her through to 60. It is now not only too late for her to retrain in another field but too early for her to retire. She is stuck struggling with the demands of caring for small children and counting down the days until she can finally retire.
Women have emailed me to say that not only are they finding it difficult to find jobs, but the financial burden is causing breakdowns in family relationships. That is why I urge the Government to consider making transitional arrangements that truly work for the women adversely affected by the changes to state pensions. I received an email from a constituent outlining her case and how the changes affected her, and I was struck by her final sentence:
“As a single woman, my future is bleak. As a woman with significant underlying health issues, my future is dire.”
We cannot overlook the misery that this change is causing people. The former Pensions Minister, Steve Webb, said that his one regret during his tenure was that he
“pushed too hard and too fast on raising women’s state pension age.”
I plead with the current Minister to learn from the mistakes of the past.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I am grateful to the Petitions Committee and all those who signed the petition for bringing about the debate. I know that my constituents would want me to pass on their thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for her excellent opening speech and ensuring that we have the debate.
I want briefly to tell the story of one of my constituents who, despite the protestations from the Government Members, tells me she was never informed in 1995 that her state pension age was changing from 60 to 65. From her own reading and information picked up from various sources—I do not know whether that includes the Financial Times—she was led to believe that she would receive her state pension at 62. She told me that although she was unhappy with a two-year deferment of her state pension, she was fit and healthy at the time and did not understand the magnitude of the changes. Her view is that we lived in a different world at that time, and she said:
“The welfare state had not been mauled…There were safety nets to assist the poor and the sick that have now been removed.”
Like a lot of working-class, low-waged people at that time, she was depending on her state pension as her main source of income at retirement, although she hoped to be able to save a little bit of money to supplement that. As time progressed, she unfortunately began to suffer with serious health issues and was forced to give up work. She was born in 1957 and is doubly unhappy that she now has to wait until she is 66 to receive her state pension. She has little in the way of private pension provision and is forced to live on minimal income, while suffering from ill health, with the prospect of having to wait until 2023—seven more years—before she qualifies for her state pension.
Given increasing multi-morbid health conditions, there will be women in the 60 to 66 age group with ill health who are suffering due to the cut in support and are then put in the employment and support allowance work-related activity group with absolutely no chance of getting a job or decent support.
The hon. Lady is, of course, absolutely right. Several Members have mentioned the lack of support that is available to women born in the ’50s who find themselves in that situation.
Many women have visited my surgeries, such as Barbara, who was born in 1955. She said to me:
“Women born in the 1950s were more likely to give up work when bringing up their children because there was no provision for maternity leave. They are unlikely to have had the option to develop their own personal occupational pension to the same level, even if they have one. It also remains to be seen whether the majority of women affected will be able to remain in paid employment into their mid to late 60s to lessen these effects.”
I also met Lorraine, who worked in education but, because she worked part time, was not even allowed to join the occupational pension scheme. She is now 59 and has had to give up work completely to care for five elderly relatives. She also does respite fostering. This woman does so much for society and ultimately saves the Government money by caring for all these people, yet her reward is to wait until she is 66 before she qualifies for her state pension.
Jackie introduced herself to me as “June ’54 and furious!”—she allowed me to quote her on that. She pointed out that raising the state pension also denies entitlement to concessionary travel and heating allowances. She started work in 1971, when the pension age was 60, but had to take early retirement from the police service to look after an elderly relative. She will not get her state pension until she is 66. She tells me—I believe her—that she did not receive any letters informing her of that.
The Government try to justify the increase in pension age by stating that life expectancy is increasing, yet there is a real north-south divide regarding life expectancy, as several hon. Members have said. Women born in the 1950s deserve to be treated fairly. Many of them worked part time and brought up families. Many were denied access to private and workplace pensions, so the state pension was key to their financial plans for retirement. I call on the Government to reconsider the unequal treatment of women born in the’50s, to consider the inadequate notice that those women were given of the increase in the state pension age and to revisit the transitional arrangements made for them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on securing the debate and, of course, I pay tribute to the superb campaigners who are here and who are watching today’s proceedings.
The women who are being forced to wait longer for their pension, and who have been hit twice—by the changes in 1995 and then again in 2011—have been done an injustice. In 2011, as shadow Pensions Minister, I was proud to work with Age UK, USDAW––the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers—and many women, including my mother, in calling on the Government to think again. We were pleased then that we won a partial concession so that no woman would have to wait for more than an additional 18 months before they could claim their pension. However, I said then, and say again today, that that does not go far enough in righting this wrong. There are still 2.6 million women who have lost out as a result of the Government rewriting the rules, and 300,000 will have to wait an extra 18 months before they can retire.
Last week, I caught up with Barbara Bates, who lives in County Durham, with whom I campaigned in 2011. Even after the Government’s concession, Barbara still faces working an extra 78 weeks before she will see her state pension. The osteoarthritis that affected her wrists and thumbs when I first got to know her five years ago has now spread to her hands, knees, neck and right foot. She said:
“no government can change the way our bodies age, and in particular those of us who started work at 15 in the 70s, a lifetime of menial and heavy jobs that are vital but un-noticed”.
Like other Members, I have also been contacted by constituents. This morning, Margaret Cutty phoned me during her office tea break. She works mostly on her feet, doing lots of lifting as well, and she has had three operations in the past year. Her husband has just had a triple heart bypass. She wants to be able to spend more time caring for him as he grows older but, because of these changes, she will not be able to do so. The experiences of Barbara and Margaret are just two examples of what we know are hundreds of thousands of stories.
I was also recently contacted by two constituents: Lorraine Derret and Evelyn Winstanley, who have worked for 42 years and 45 years respectively. Like others, they have said that they were not told at all by any letter that this was going to happen to them. The DWP has been negligent, so there should be some transitional arrangements.
I absolutely agree. The reality is that the 300,000 women who are suffering the maximum 18-month delay have lost out on £12,000 of pension. Official statistics show that only six in 10 women aged 55 to 64 have any private pension at all. For those who do, the average size of their pension pot is only 57% of that of a man of the same age. Women such as Barbara, Margaret and others whom my hon. Friends have mentioned—women earning little more than the minimum wage who are often struggling to work full time because of their caring responsibilities, and who are desperately trying to conserve what savings they have to ensure at least a minimal standard of living during their retirement—are very worried. For those women, moving the goalposts for the second time, as the Government have done, can have a devastating impact on their finances, families and life plans. That is why I propose that, at the very least, the Government should offer some specific protection for those women.
My proposal would mean restoring the qualifying age for pension credit to the 2011 timetable for women’s state pension age, thus providing at least some buffer for those who are least able to cope financially with this unfair move. Previous Government costings suggest that that would be affordable, with the money being well targeted at those who have been hardest hit. Let me be clear that I would like the Government to go further, but at the very least they should provide that support to those who have the least. Given the wrong done to those women by the Government, that is the least we should ask for and the least we should expect.
I agree that the state pension age needs to be increased to keep it affordable, and I agree that men’s and women’s state pension ages must be equalised, but I also agree with the part of the 2010 coalition agreement that stated that women’s state pension age should not rise to 66 before 2020. I agree with the former Minister for Pensions—the former Member for Thornbury and Yate—who admitted last month that reneging on that commitment was a “bad decision”. That is an understatement, but at least he came late to the party. I also agree with the current Minister for Pensions who has said:
“Unfortunately, the Government has not given women enough time to change their plans. These women have already accepted an increase in their state pension age, but they were given time to adjust. Suddenly, these same women are being targeted again, but this time they are not being given enough notice as the changes start in just five years’ time. I believe the Government’s decision is unfair and disproportionately hits women who are now around 56 years old.”
How right she was, and I hope that she will now stand by those for whom she spoke up then, as I and other hon. Members will continue to do until we get justice.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. We have three Members who wish to speak and 13 minutes, so it would be helpful if we did not have interventions or I will have to reduce the time limit for the last two Members.
Thank you for your advice, Mr Hanson.
I am delighted to be able to take part in the debate today, especially as this is the day of my 65th birthday—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Thank you. I now qualify for state pension, unlike my wife, who will not qualify, and the other women who will suffer a penalty because of the Government’s decision.
I thank the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for securing the debate. Before I became a Member of Parliament, I worked with and employed many women in my capacity as a small business owner in the hairdressing industry. Throughout the many years I worked with those women, I witnessed their struggles to get back to work after having children, and their subsequent efforts to juggle looking after their families with going out to work. The wholly necessary and desirable career breaks that working mothers take leave them with less pension provision than their male counterparts, assuming that the women are able to return to work. In many cases, for example, they may have, as has been mentioned, the added responsibility of an elderly relative who might be ill or otherwise require attention. Motherhood is only one aspect of gender inequality in the state pension system. The single-tier pension is not the focus of this debate, but the fact remains that the majority of people over 65 are women, yet only 22% of women who reach state pension age in 2016 will qualify for the full £155.65 rate. That cannot be acceptable. Even by 2054, women will be one and a half times more likely than men to receive less than the full amount of the single-tier pension due to a lack of sufficient qualifying years.
Women both disproportionately rely on the basic state pension and are proportionately more poorly served by it, as the women in question will know. Women’s financial independence throughout their working lives is critical, but married women have historically relied on derived pension rights from their husbands. Removing their entitlement to those rights with little notice or time to plan for the change will disadvantage many women who will not have had time to achieve the financial independence or the independent pension entitlement that they need.
During the past couple of months, like many other MPs, I have been contacted by a number of constituents and the campaign group Women Against State Pension Inequality, which has been instrumental in alerting everyone to this issue. One email that I got was from Fiona, who got straight to the point by saying that
“the legislation was rushed in too quickly without proper debate and undemocratically for my age group.”
She was born in 1955 and took partial retirement from the civil service in 2010. At the time, her decision was based on the understanding that her state pension would be payable and due at 60, but that is not now the case. The anxieties expressed by Fiona do not affect just that age group; they also affect younger people in their 40s who are extremely concerned that their pension age, which is nearly 70, will be extended once again.
These inequalities affect women born in the 1950s. Taxes are the price that we pay for a civilised society, and we willingly pay taxes in that civilised society for benefits. This Government should honour that commitment and contract.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, particularly as you appear to be saving the best till last on this occasion.
I would like to start, as many other hon. Members have done, by paying tribute to the members of the WASPI campaign. Like others who have spoken, I have been contacted by many constituents who are deeply concerned about the profound implications of these changes, which they say that they were not informed about. Many have told me how they have been individually affected, so I would like to draw the Minister’s attention to a couple of examples, as they illustrate far more eloquently than I can the injustice that has been created.
One constituent tells me:
“By the time I reach 66, my savings will have run out and the comfortable retired life I had planned and saved for, over 40 years, will have disappeared”.
“I am struggling daily with trying to work three days a week as I am now disabled. I suffer from anxiety and depression and every day is really hard for me. I cannot impress on you strongly enough how hard life is for me.”
I would also like to take a little time to talk about Jane, a constituent whose experience encapsulates very well the injustice that many people feel. She says:
“I left school at 15 and worked in a variety of jobs, taking time out to raise a family of three children. My last job was as a Healthcare Assistant”.
She explains that she became too ill to carry on working, so she took ill-health retirement. She continues:
“The final calculations were made, and my pension was worked out”
“retirement at 60 (I was 53 at the time). I received a lump sum and a small monthly pension of just over £250. It wasn’t a lot but I was also entitled to Incapacity Benefit and I knew I would have my State Pension which would be a big help.
Things began to change a couple of years later when I was…placed on work related ESA. It didn’t take long before that became means tested…It’s now a heat or eat situation for many. Some women are suicidal and some have had to sell their homes. Can you imagine how it feels for a 60 year old woman, frightened and in ill health, to be made to sign on and go on workfare? This isn’t equality, it’s injustice.”
Both Jane and her employer made the irreversible decision that she would take ill-health retirement, with the expectation that she would receive the state pension at 60. It is worth emphasising that Jane’s employer was the national health service—part of the state—but it did not seem to know about the changes to the state pension age either. It is hardly surprising that if parts of government did not know about the changes, many women did not either. The indignity that Jane has suffered as a result of welfare reform says an awful lot about how our society treats older women. She has already been granted ill-health retirement, but is now consistently challenged about her condition. Her years of service seem to count for nothing.
Women who have planned and saved for their retirement are living on dwindling, limited savings until they reach their new state pension age, when the only income that they will have will be their state pension. Do the Government really want to send people the message, “Yes, we want you to save for your retirement and to take responsibility for your old age, but beware—we might just move the goalposts and we probably will not even tell you about it”?
We have heard plenty of quotes from Baroness Altmann today. Unfortunately, I do not have time to add my personal favourite, but I will comment that we have seen a remarkable transformation in just a few months from her defending the rights of women to defending the indefensible. There can be no doubt now that the Government are aware of the issues, as this is the third debate that we have had in Parliament in just a couple of months, so will this be third time lucky? Are the Government finally prepared to listen? Will there be an acknowledgement that what has happened is an injustice that is indefensible? Nobody buys it when Ministers say time and again that nothing can be done. The Government’s U-turn on tax credits has shown that when they get it wrong, they can change course. I do not accept that nothing can be done, and the women who have talked to us in this campaign do not accept that nothing can be done—be in no doubt, they will not give up until something is done.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I commend the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for introducing the debate so strongly on behalf of the Petitions Committee. I join other hon. Members in praising WASPI for the great effort it has put into this petition. I know that the campaign will continue well beyond today, which has to be encouraged. Despite some of what WASPI has heard today, it can take great encouragement from many of the points raised on both sides of this room.
All hon. Members have said that this issue represents a breach of trust, or a breach of contract, and we need to address it in those terms. Parliament, in particular, needs to understand that we cannot see this just as a DWP issue, or just as an issue for Ministers; it is a test of this Parliament. We cannot say that the previous Parliament passed this and that there is nothing we can do about it, as some Members seemed to imply—they seemed to suggest, “Well, this legislation was passed in 2011, and we can’t really pass new legislation.”
In the main Chamber today other hon. Members are considering the Second Reading of a Bill that will change two pieces of legislation that went through in 2012 and 2013 and will significantly change the governance furniture on financial services and the Bank of England. If those key pieces of Government legislation from the previous Parliament have to be overhauled and changed now, there is absolutely no reason why the same cannot be done for the Pensions Act 2011, particularly on this glaring issue, when even the Minister who steered the legislation through the House says that he did not understand it and was not well advised. An hon. Member talked about the fog created around this petition, but it seems that the fog was actually in the DWP in 2011. Parliament was lured into that fog on the basis that there was nothing we could do about it and that the one transitional adjustment that could be made was being made—that was the adjustment that cost £1.1 billion a year. The Government rejected the other proposals.
When people talk about the new state pension costing £30 billion, that was the total quantum identified as, in effect, the saving from the change. We need to remember how the argument about that £30 billion has been reversed and misargued today. Let us remember that, when we had those debates and discussions back then, we did not have the pension freedoms on the horizon. I take the point raised by the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) that it should not be used as an answer to the problem faced by these women born in the 1950s, but—let us face it—the Government now have a tax windfall from the pension freedoms. Money is coming in to the Government well ahead of time, and that was not available back in 2011.
Similarly, the Government have moved to introduce a number of other benefit savings, and the welfare cap has produced even more savings. In the autumn statement, of course, £17 billion was suddenly found down the back of the Treasury and Office for Budget Responsibility sofa. Clearly, money that people thought was not there when this issue was debated in 2011 might now be there, and it is our duty to raise that issue.
This Parliament will see a lot of centenary landmarks of the struggle for votes for women. Will the message from this Parliament to this group of women be that they have to take the hit for equality, and for deficit reduction, by having their pension rights absolutely scrambled? If we tolerate that, it will be an intentional injustice. They will not just be passing, accidental casualties; it will be deliberate and targeted, and not just by Ministers. This Parliament will have conspired and connived in it, which is why we have to change it and why the campaign must continue.
Order. I intend to call the Minister at 7.18 pm.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I thank the Petitions Committee, of which I am delighted to be a member, for allowing this debate on the back of the petition from the WASPI women. They have been a credit to themselves in the way they have campaigned on this issue, and I hope that they will continue to campaign in the days, weeks and months to come. We must win this debate, and there has to be action.
I thank the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for introducing this debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. I am unable to go through everyone’s speeches because of time, but I thank all Members who have spoken passionately about the injustices faced by millions of women in this country because of the speed of the changes.
Some pejorative and patronising comments have been made about the degree of emotion that the debate has aroused. Does my hon. Friend agree that men can get emotional about social injustice as well and that we should see that as a sign not of weakness, but of common humanity?
There should be emotion in this debate. Why? Because women are losing tens of thousands of pounds that they are entitled to. Of course people should be emotional. There are facts that the Government have to address and they should do so in a measured and controlled manner.
The hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) said that the point about communications had been noted. Nobody is asking the Government to note the failures in communication; we are asking the Government to act on the basis of the failure of communication and to right the wrong that has been done.
I was grateful to hear the words of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann). He spoke honestly about not being aware of the issue. Is that not exactly the point? A Member of Parliament has not been aware of these issues, so how can we expect the women affected by the changes to be aware of them? That is yet another reason why we must act.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) spoke about the goalposts being moved. She is exactly right. There is a contract between the state and the women. This is not, as my hon. Friend said, about benefits they should be entitled to. It is about an entitlement based on the fact that these women have paid national insurance in some cases for 30, 40 or even more years. It is a breach of trust, as the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said. The Government should reflect on what has been said and on the tone of the debate.
The Minister spoke about this matter in the Chamber this afternoon, saying:
“A whole lot of other benefits are available to the women who may be affected—for example, jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance, income support, carer’s allowance and personal independence payment.”
Does that not explain the problem that the Government do not get this? They want women to go to the jobcentre, rather than to do what they should be doing by collecting a pension to which they are entitled.
What is parliamentary democracy in this country? On 7 January we had an excellent, well informed debate in the Chamber. The House divided and voted 158 to zero that the Government should put in place mitigation efforts. Weeks have passed and nothing has happened. When will the Government respect the will of this House? It is a shame that there is no mechanism by which to put the issue to a vote today, as I am sure that hon. Members want to ensure that it is put to a vote so that the House can express its will.
Speaker after speaker has condemned the Government for not doing the right thing. The way of this place is archaic. It is little wonder that folksy Westminster is out of touch. I contrast the behaviour of this Government in this attack on women born in the 1950s, and in so many other ways, with what our Government in Scotland do. Last week the Government in London were defeated in the courts over the bedroom tax. Was there any recognition that what they were doing was wrong? In Scotland, we have mitigated the effects of the bedroom tax and we want powers to remove it. One thing is crystal clear: if we had powers over pensions in Scotland, we would do the right thing for our pensioners. This Government plough on regardless, ignoring the justified claims of the WASPI women. I state once again, as many of my colleagues have, that we are not against equalisation. We support the move to equalisation, but the pace of the move is unfair.
Look at the reality of what is happening. We can take examples of women born across the early years of the 1950s, whose experiences will be sharply different. A woman born on 10 February 1950 would have retired aged 60 in 2010, whereas a woman born later would have to wait almost two years longer to retire on 6 January 2012. A woman born on 10 February 1952 would have reached state pension age a few weeks ago aged 61 years, 10 months and 27 days. Such a woman will have had to wait almost two additional years more than a woman born in 1950.
As if that were not bad enough, the increase for women born in 1953 and 1954 is worse. A woman born on 10 February in 1953 would have retired in January this year, aged nearly 63. A woman born on 10 February in 1954 will not reach pensionable age until 6 July 2019, when she will be aged 65 years, four months and 26 days. That is shameful—a woman born in 1954 will have to wait two and a half years longer for her pension than a woman born in 1953.
Just dwell on that: someone born on 10 February 1953 has now retired; someone born a year later must wait until July 2019. Where is the fairness in that? If the Minister wants to intervene, I will give him the opportunity to say now that the Government are listening and are going to change. Does any Conservative Back Bencher want to rise to their feet to recognise the unfairness of it? Do they want to punish women in the way they are doing, or will they accept that it is wrong? Here is the opportunity. They can rise to their feet.
I am happy to rise. I regret that the hon. Gentleman, in an impassioned speech in which he has done good justice to past inequalities suffered by women, has chosen to drag this issue into a political arena, because—[Hon. Members: “This is Parliament!”] A party political arena, I should say. There are Members from all parties who support the cause of the women fighting for greater equality, and women themselves, of all political persuasions and none, will be disadvantaged by the changes. He spoke just moments ago—
Order. Interventions must be short. Time is very limited, and I have to give the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson and the Minister time to finish before 7.30.
I say to the hon. Lady and her colleagues that they should join us in the Lobby and vote down the Government proposals. We need change. The Tory Back Benchers need to get some backbone and recognise the problems faced by women in their constituencies. I say to them, you hold your Government to account, and we will get on and do our job by holding them to account.
I ask Conservative Members: who will defend the proposals? Let the Minister say that he now recognises that they are wrong and must change. I have not even got to women born in 1955, who will not retire until February 2021, aged 66 years. It cannot be right. It is too steep an increase over so short a period. I ask Conservative Members to examine their consciences. Women from the WASPI campaign will be coming to their surgeries. Some of them will have been born in 1955 and were expecting to retire now or at least not long in the future. Are Conservative Members going to tell them that it is right that they must wait six years longer than someone born five years earlier, without mitigation? That is where we are at the moment.
It has been said that this is a breach of trust between the Government and women who have earned the right to a pension. In the limited time left to me, I will talk about proposals, because we were asked about them. Turner talked about taking 15 years to introduce the changes. The changes effectively started in 2010. The Government could look to moderate the increase from age 63 to age 66 over the next 10 years. That would mitigate the pressure that women are under. It is about doing the right thing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, during my first appearance on the Front Bench in this Chamber. I debated with the Minister in Committee last week, and I welcome him back to what is no doubt the first of many exchanges here. I reassure anyone tuning in late that the broken elbow and rib that I am sporting predate this debate, and that our discussions, although heated, have been civil, although I did fear at one point for the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham).
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for opening this debate with a fantastic speech, and the Petitions Committee for ensuring that we could have it. Above all, I congratulate the women of the WASPI campaign, and all those who signed the petition, on their work to get us here. Their numbers are impressive, but we have revealed that the numbers affected by the issue are even greater, at more than 2.5 million nationally. Around 3,500 of those are in my constituency and, like many here, I have heard their concerns directly.
Hon. Members have made some excellent points and we can tell the level of concern from the number of contributions from both sides of the Chamber. In particular, I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) and for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) for their tireless campaigning, and all hon. Members who have contributed today. There are too many to mention in the time I have, but I will write to them all independently.
People listening to contributions made outside this Chamber may have heard the Minister for Pensions say this morning that the WASPI campaign wants to return the state pension age to 60. Let me put it on the record, as others have done, that that is not the case and it has never been advocated in my hearing. Opposition Members are not arguing for that or against equalisation of the state pension age. I hope that, instead of following such red herrings, the Government will listen to the women who are affected, and act. That is what we want to hear from them today.
Opposition Members have shared concerns about the impact of the acceleration under the Pensions Act 2011, the adequacy of the transitional protections and the communication of the changes to retirement ages generally. At one point, those concerns were shared by the Minister herself. She described the last Tory Government’s 2011 Act as a decision
“to renege on its Coalition Agreement, by increasing the State Pension Age for women from 2016, even though it assured these women that it would not start raising the pension age again before 2020.”
That is still live on her website www.rosaltmann.com. After the passage of the Act including the concession that the Minister will no doubt repeat shortly, she said that the Government
“seems oblivious to the problems faced by those already in their late fifties, particularly women”.
Will the real Ros Altmann please stand up? Apparently, she now prefers to stand up for the Government than for those women. That is a pity because the issues at stake are real and the Government give every impression of simply refusing to engage with them. Instead, we have heard repeatedly—most recently a few hours ago at Question Time—that the 18-month cap is their start and end point.
Let me set out my start point. We must take into account that many of the women who are affected by the changes have also been victims of gender inequality for most of their working lives.
Will the hon, Lady give way?
I will not give way because I do not have much time.
The Equal Pay Act was not introduced until 1970 so many of these women began working even before the first legislative steps to ensure gender equality at work. Before I was elected to this place, I was in a traditionally low-paid, largely female workforce in social care. As an active trade unionist I fought for many years to improve pay and conditions, but even now we are a long way from achieving decent, let alone equal, wages in much of that sector.
Some of the women we are discussing today will have entered work before the 1968 strike in Dagenham. They will have been paid less than men simply because they were women. Those who are likely to have entered work earliest—those born between 6 April 1951 and 5 April 1953 —will not be eligible for the new single tier pension.
Another cohort, those born later in 1953, will have found their retirement age change twice: in 1995 and 2011—
Order. There is a Division in the House. We will reconvene in 15 minutes. If there is more than one Division, which is possible, we will reconvene 10 minutes after each subsequent Division.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
Before we left, I was saying how women have been discriminated against, and continue to be discriminated against, year on year and decade upon decade.
Transitional protections were discussed and promised during the passage of the 2011 Act. We now know that the Minister’s predecessor in the coalition Government, Steve Webb, had hoped for around a tenth of the direct savings—£3 billion—to be put aside for these protections. The option that was eventually put forward as a concession —the 18-month cap—cost around a third of that amount. So we have a missing £2 billion, which has gone to the Treasury, along with the rest of the savings made from these women.
Of course, it bears repeating that the former Minister has since admitted that that decision was a bad one, made as a consequence of his not being properly briefed. It would be interesting to know whether today’s Ministers have been better briefed and whether they will make a better decision.
The Minister has often put this question back on the Opposition but consistently refused to say whether the Department has properly investigated and modelled options for additional transitional protections. For example, as my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), stated earlier, during the passage of the 2011 Act we put forward the option to maintain the qualifying age for pension credit on the 1995 timetable rather than on the 2011 one. I hope the Minister will respond to the suggestions made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North and many other Members.
This debate is not the first time that I have asked what consideration the Government have made of these and other options. As the Minister will know, I have asked him in Committee, through written questions and, today, through oral questions. Despite the Government’s boast that they would be the most open and transparent Government in the world, so far we are none the wiser as to what options they have considered, let alone what the outcomes of those investigations were.
I ask the Minister again: what modelling and analysis has the Department carried out since 2011 on the potential transitional protections? Will he publish that work in full, so that we can assess it for ourselves? Will the Government then consider alternatives properly and in full, and come back with a proper response to those who have signed the petition that we are considering today and the many millions more who are similarly affected. In our view, that is the very least that they deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson.
I start by thanking the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for moving the motion today, and for doing so very passionately, convincingly and articulately. I also thank all other Members from across the political divide who have spoken today. Indeed, I commend all those who signed the petition that triggered this debate. As we have already heard, we have debated this issue extensively in recent weeks and months, and I am grateful to have another opportunity to put the Government’s position on record.
The debate has centred considerably on state pension age equalisation, and in particular its impact on the women who are affected by it. However, it is important that we do not look at this topic in isolation. We cannot look at the changes to women’s state pension age without also acknowledging the significant changes in life expectancy in recent years, the huge progress made in opening up employment opportunities for women and the wider package of reforms—
Will the Minister give way on that point?
I will not give way; I wish to make progress.
As I was saying, we must also acknowledge the wider package of reforms that we have introduced to ensure a fair deal for pensioners.
On life expectancy, people now live longer and stay healthier for longer. I took on board what the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) said, but although she may have quoted a specific figure, other figures show that life expectancy is projected to increase for both men and women. In just a decade, the length of time that 65-year-olds—
Will the Minister give way on that point?
No, I will not give way. A number of points have been made. I have listened very carefully for just under three hours and I am keen to put the Government’s views on record.
The Minister is wasting time when he could have taken an intervention.
The right hon. Lady is a former Pensions Minister, so—
No, I am not.
Order. I call Mr Vara to continue.
In only a decade, the time that 65-year-olds live in good health has gone up by just over a year. Of course, this is welcome news, but the reality is that it puts increasing pressure on the state pension scheme. Even when the state pension age changes are taken into account, women in this group will on average receive a higher state pension over their lifetime than any generation before them.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not give way.
The Government have a duty to ensure the sustainability of the state pension scheme, and it would be irresponsible to ignore such developments.
Employment prospects for women have changed dramatically since the state pension age was first set in 1940. The most recent figures show a record female employment rate of 69.1%, with more than 1 million more women in work than in 2010. I am sure that Members welcome figures showing that the number of women aged between 50 and 64 in work is also at a record high, with more than 100,000 older women in work than at this time last year.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not.
Turning to our broader reforms, we have introduced a package of measures to transform the pensions system. The triple lock is massively boosting the state pension, which will be £1,000 higher from April than would have been the case if we had uprated by earnings over the past six years. In addition, we have protected the winter fuel payment and permanently increased cold weather payments. We have created a new, simpler state pension, which will come in from April with a full rate of £155.65 a week. That means that 650,000 women will receive an average increase of £8 a week for the first 10 years. As that will be set above the basic means test for pensioners, people will have a clear platform to save on.
On a point of order, Mr Hanson. May I ask for your guidance about what can be done? This is a specific debate about the WASPI campaign, but the points that the Minister is addressing have nothing to do with that debate—
Order. With due respect to the hon. Gentleman, the content of the Minister’s speech is for the Minister to elucidate and defend accordingly. It is not for the hon. Gentleman to comment on in a point of order.
We have also abolished the default retirement age so that people can work for as long as they wish without fear of age discrimination. We have introduced the most fundamental reform to how people can access their pension in almost a century through pension freedom, which has abolished the effective requirement to buy an annuity.
No one can say that the changes have not been fully considered. The parliamentary process was fully followed. We held a full, public call for evidence alongside extensive debate in both Houses. Between January 2012 and November 2013, the Department for Work and Pensions wrote to all those affected.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not.
More than 5 million letters were sent to addresses then recorded by HMRC. Crucially, the Government also listened during the process. On Second Reading of the Pensions Bill in 2011, the Government said:
“we will consider transitional arrangements.”—[Official Report, 20 June 2011; Vol. 530, c. 52.]
On Report, after considering the matter, Ministers made a concession worth £1.1 billion, and the time period was reduced from two years to 18 months. For 81% of those affected, the increase in the time period will be no more than 12 months.
To reverse the Pensions Act 2011 would cost more than £30 billion, which simply is not sustainable, and nor is it sustainable to reverse the 1995 changes, which some wish to do, as that would cost many billions more. It is noteworthy that if we went back to the 1995 position, it would mean that women would be campaigning for a state pension age of 60—[Interruption.]
Over the past decade, women have on average stopped working later than 60. In the first quarter of 2010, the average age of stopping work was 62.6 years, while in 2015 it was 63.1 years. In fact, the actual women’s state pension age is approaching 63 years.
Will the Minister have some courtesy and give way?
I will give way to the hon. Member for Warrington North, who moved the motion, but I will not give way to others as I have limited time.
Very well then. The Minister cites average ages, but that does not address the issue. The issue is the extra time that women have to wait for their pension and the fact that they have not been informed. The average means nothing to that.
If the hon. Lady is a little patient, I will tell her about the issue concerning communications.
Get on with it then.
If the hon. Lady will stop interrupting, I will get on.
I mentioned in the House earlier and I say it again now that when people need extra funds, other benefits are available. That is the case for those who are in work and those who are not. A 2004 Department for Work and Pensions report entitled “Public Awareness of State Pension Age Equalisation” found that 73% of those aged between 45 and 54 were aware of changes to women’s state pension. In 2012, further research by the DWP found that only 6% of women who were within 10 years of receiving their pension thought that their state pension age was still 60.
Several hon. Members have mentioned Steve Webb’s comments. If one reads the full transcript, one sees that he referred to £30 billion. He said that he sought a concession of £3 billion, but got £1 billion. He added that
“a billion quid is a serious amount of money”.
Reference has been made to other European countries. To put the balance right, I point out that there are countries that have already accelerated the process and equalised the pension age for men and women, such as Germany, Denmark, the Czech Republic and Greece.
The Government recognise the huge contribution that older workers make to the workforce and the country, and we are working with stakeholders to ensure that they recognise those benefits. The number of women aged 50 to 64 is at a record high, as I mentioned earlier. Hon. Members talked about carers. Under the new state pension, people who care for others will qualify for credits that will go towards their contributions to that pension.
Our collective responsibility now is to support the package of reforms. Rather than causing continuous confusion for those affected, we need to build further awareness of the measures I have set out. I again thank all those who have contributed.
This has been an excellent debate, but in view of the Minister’s totally inadequate reply and his failure to address the issues raised, I intend to do what I would not normally do in this Chamber and press the matter to a vote. I urge my colleagues to join me in voting no.
Question put and negatived.