I beg to move,
That this House has considered acceleration of the state pension age for women born in the 1950s.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall, and to appear in front of the Minister. I look forward to a positive response from him to all the remarks made today.
A woman born on 6 March 1953 retired on 6 March 2016, aged 63. A woman born a month later, on 6 April 1953, retired on 6 July, aged 63 and three months. A woman born on 6 May 1953 retired a few days ago, on 6 November, aged 63 and six months. A woman born on 6 June 1953 has to wait until 6 March 2017, when she will be aged 63 and nine months. A woman born on 6 July 1953 will not receive her pension until her 64th birthday, in July 2017. We are beginning to get the picture. For each month that passes, women’s pensionable age increases by three months. Let us just dwell on that—a three-month addition to someone’s pensionable age for each month that they were born later than their neighbour, friend or colleague.
I spoke of a woman born in March 1953, who retired this year aged 63. A woman born a year later, in March 1954, will not retire until September 2019, when she will be aged 65 and a half. She will be two and a half years older than a woman born a year earlier before she receives her state pension. A woman born six months later, in September 1954, will have to wait until she is 66, in September 2020. Over an 18-month period, women’s pensionable age will have increased by a whopping three years. As we keep saying, we are not against equalisation of the state pension age. The issue is the pace of change, as well as the lack of appropriate notice.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and on making these compelling historical points about women. For that reason, and because of the documented evidence that he has submitted here today, does he agree that there is a compelling need—and an imperative on the Government—to bring about transitional protection and transitional payments for these women?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. She makes a telling point. The significance of having the debate today, for which I am grateful, is that next week we will have the autumn statement. That is the opportunity for the Government to respond to the injustices that women are facing and to do the right thing. We often hear about people who have been left behind. The Women Against State Pension Inequality have been left behind, and the Government must act.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. He has certainly done women a great service, because he has been working on this issue for a long time. The other dimension to the issue, which we see when we do an analysis of it, is that it affects women in different ways. There are different poverty levels involved, so things such as bus passes may not be accessible to them.
Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I will come later to the proposals that my party has made. We have been able to test the number of women who would be taken out of poverty as a consequence, and it is a very important point.
We should remind ourselves what a pension is. It is deferred income. Women and men have paid national insurance in the expectation of receiving a state pension. That is the deal, plain and simple: people pay in, and they get their entitlement. They do not expect the Government, without effective notice, to change the rules. What has been done to the WASPI women has undermined fairness and equity in this country.
The hon. Gentleman is certainly painting a picture. Does he agree that the impact of the changes to the state pension age cannot be seen in isolation from the impact of historical gender inequality?
Absolutely. The hon Lady makes a valid point, because women have faced inequality in pension entitlement, whether in the state pension or occupational pension schemes. In the past, they were even denied access to occupational pension schemes, and we are still battling for equal pay for women. It is simply not right that in addition to all the injustices that women have faced, they now face the injustice of having to wait much longer than they expected for their pension.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He is making a compelling case and outlining the lottery of the current arrangements. The WASPI petition was signed by 2,249 of my constituents and I also received many letters. Does he agree that additional transitional arrangements are needed to support a group of women who in the past have often been working mothers and are now carers for elderly parents and sick husbands, and who have often had low-paid manual jobs and just have not been able to build up private pensions?
Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point and demonstrates, rightly, why hon. Members across the House need to unite. This is not about one party—let me make that absolutely clear.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will in a second. This is about all of us recognising that, as a House, we have a responsibility to do the right thing. It is about giving encouragement to the Government, just as happened last year with tax credits when we realised that we were going to be punishing hard-working families, to do the right thing by the women affected by this issue. That is what the Government have to listen to and respond to in the autumn statement.
I will take another couple of interventions and then I need to move on.
Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), the fact that this issue kicks in at the latter stages of a woman’s career, when her caring responsibilities can increase significantly because of elderly parents and her own health may start to deteriorate, means that the level of uncertainty and anxiety is greatly increased. Suddenly, the prepared-for pension does not materialise, and women with caring responsibilities are left in limbo.
The right hon. Lady makes a valid point, and I will come later to the notice period because the issues are both the lack of time that women have had to prepare for the changes and the caring responsibilities that many women in particular have. She is right to raise that point. I will take one more intervention and then move on.
This is a very important point. I have lost count of the number of women in Dudley who have told me that they have not had time to make plans for the new arrangements. They have had to take time off to bring up their children, or reduce their hours or retire early to care for ageing parents or grandchildren. Other women have told me that they have lost their husbands and have not just had to come to terms with the bereavement, but have been thrown into financial turmoil as a result.
There is an additional unfairness in former industrial areas such as the black country, where women typically left school at 15 or 16, started work and did hard work all their lives. That is very different from someone graduating in their early twenties and doing an office job. Women in the black country have done their bit, and that is why the Government should be coming up with proper transitional arrangements so that they can plan properly for their retirement now.
I agree with that point. Many of the 2.6 million women affected have made more than 35 years’ worth of national insurance contributions. They have paid their way. They have paid their dues. This is about us accepting our responsibility. As I mentioned, 2.6 million women are affected by the increase in pensionable age and have an entitlement to a pension that they should have had. They need to be treated fairly—no more, no less.
The Government often state that the increase in pensionable age under the Pensions Act 2011 means that no woman will have to wait more than 18 months for their pension. That is disingenuous, as it came as an addition to the changes in the Pensions Act 1995, which are still being implemented. It is a fact that women’s pensionable age is increasing by six years over a very short period. That is the issue and the reality. It is about the combined impact of the 1995 Act and the 2011 Act. The Government have a duty to be truthful about the matter.
I am conscious that many Members want to speak and I do want to take interventions, but I will press on, if I may, and take interventions later.
The issue is not only the sharp acceleration of pensionable age, but that many women were unaware of the increase in pensionable age. As the Select Committee on Work and Pensions reported in March this year,
“more could…have been done”
to communicate the changes, especially between 1995 and 2009. Women have been let down not only by the rapidly increasing pensionable age, but by a failure of communication. We face the rapid acceleration of pensionable age and also the nightmare scenario for many women that they were not aware that it was coming. They have had little notice and no time to prepare for an increase in pensionable age. They have not been able to adjust accordingly, and in many cases we are talking about women and families who are struggling.
The Prime Minister talks about those who have been left behind and the duty the Government have to deal with it; the WASPI women have been left behind and it is now our responsibility to deal with it. We cannot just shrug our shoulders and blame past Governments for the failure to give women notice. We have a collective responsibility to deal with this issue and we have to show leadership. We cannot take the line that the last Parliament made a decision and there is nothing we can do; that is an abrogation of responsibility by all of us.
When the Government came forward with proposed changes to working tax credits that would have damaged millions of families in the UK, after much opposition, the Government ultimately relented and removed the proposals. We need to campaign in Parliament and throughout the United Kingdom to achieve the same objective here. We are not going away. The Government have to recognise that women should not be punished in the way that they are being by this increase of three months for every month’s difference in their age.
The Government have asked what we would do. That is why, in September, we in the Scottish National party published our own report looking at various options. We suggested a return to the timeline of the 1995 Act, which would slow down the increase to a pensionable age of 65 by 18 months, and defer the increase to a pensionable age for women of 66 years into the next decade. The cost of deferring over an additional 18-month period would be £7.9 billion. The Government estimated that the acceleration of state pensionable age in the 2011 Act for both women and men saved around £30 billion from 2016-17 to 2025-26, but that is simply not the case. That was scaremongering from the Government and, not for the first time, they got their numbers wrong. Depending on the timescale for the increase to age 66, there will be additional costs in the next decade.
I am grateful that, through the Backbench Business Committee, we have secured this debate, which is supported on an all-party basis, with a number of Conservative Members supporting the motion that was originally put forward. Of course, that happened on the back of many of us here today and in Parliament putting petitions down on behalf of the WASPI women. The WASPI women are going to be knocking on Members’ doors this week, next week and until we do the right thing.
We are often told that this is about the money. “We can’t afford it,” they say. This is not about women getting something they are not entitled to; it is about entitlement based on national insurance payments and about the Government meeting their obligations out of the national insurance fund—yes, for those who were not aware, inside Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs there is a national insurance fund. I am grateful to the Government, or more specifically the Government Actuary’s Department, for stating that there is a projected fund surplus of £26.3 billion at the end of 2016-17, rising to £30.7 billion in 2017-18. The argument that the Government cannot do this is therefore bunkum. The money is there. These women have paid into the fund and we should meet our obligations. Women have paid their dues, the fund is in surplus and the Government can make restitution.
Next week we will have the autumn statement. If the Minister chooses, he could tell the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the strength of feeling on this issue. Next week the Chancellor could, if he is minded, deliver some good news for the WASPI women. Will the Minister demand that the Chancellor uses the surplus to do so? The money is in the national insurance fund to allow the Government to take action—to right a wrong, to reflect on the injustice of a sharp increase in pensionable age, to show leadership and to recognise that Parliament collectively got it wrong with the timetabled increases. This is, after all, about fairness. Men are seeing a one-year increase in pensionable age; for women it is six years, over too short a period. The Minister can be a hero to 1950s women by addressing the injustices that many are facing.
We are often told that there was no choice in the scale of the increase or the timing, and Europe was forcing equalisation upon us. In our report, we published the scale of increases in pensionable age in each European country. There are only two countries that are seeing such a rapid increase in pensionable age: Italy and Greece. When the Prime Minister took office, the first debate she fronted was on Trident renewal. The motion did not have a price tag, but the Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), informed the House that it could be as much as £205 billion. The Government effectively asked Parliament to give them a blank cheque. We can find hundreds of billions of pounds for weapons that can blow humanity to smithereens, but we cannot meet what should be a contractual obligation to 1950s-born women. Where is the fairness? Where is the humanity? Of course, the Government will be prepared to find £7 billion to renovate this place. If I had a choice, I would fund the WASPI women’s pensions first, and not spend a fortune on this place.
I know that a number of Conservative Members are here, and they are broadly supportive of the WASPI campaign. It is a pity that we do not have those who so far do not support it, but I say to the Conservatives: is there anyone on the Government Benches who is prepared to stand up and say that it is right for women’s pensionable age to increase at the rate of three months per month? How can anybody possibly think it is right that pensionable age should increase by three months per month? I would be happy to give way to anyone who wants to stand up and say that it is right, but I suspect that we will get what we always get: silence—silence and the hope that we, the Opposition, the Tories who support this and the WASPI women will go away. As I have said, we are not going away. We have given the Government an option and, unlike their Trident nuclear weapons commitment, it is costed. More importantly, not only are we not going away; the WASPI women are not going away.
The Pensions Commission that reported in 2005 suggested that at least 15 years’ notice should be given on any future increase in pensionable age. Given that, I ask the Minister: how can the Government defend the 2011 Act and some women receiving pretty negligible notice? Does the Minister think that is acceptable? There would be uproar, and no doubt legal challenges, if occupational pension schemes behaved in such a way. Can we imagine the outcry from Members of Parliament if we were told, with little notice, that our pension payments would be deferred by an additional six years?
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I want to make a little progress, and will take interventions later.
Just as workers pay into occupational schemes, men and women pay national insurance in return for a state pension. Why should women be treated so shoddily? It is little wonder that WASPI women are considering legal action. For too long women have suffered injustices as far as equal pay is concerned. They tend to have much poorer workplace pension protection than men and are now facing state pension inequality. Why do we not stop, take stock and put in place mitigation? Let us have equalisation, but let us do so fairly. When we consider what has been done as far as communication is concerned, it is dismal. Women should have been written to at the earliest opportunity, letting them know what was changing and allowing them to consider their options. Yet in 2011, the Government said their approach was to inform women through leaflets and publicity campaigns. That was a failure of responsibility to act and inform appropriately.
It was only in 2009 that the DWP began to take responsibility and proactively write to women to tell them about the 1995 Act. They started to tell women in 2009, but it took the DWP years to issue all the letters. Last night I was given the response to a freedom of information request on the timeline of the letters—perhaps the most damning thing about this whole debate. Women born between April 1953 and December 1953 were formally told of the increased pensionable age only in January 2012. Women born between December 1953 and April 1955 were told only in February 2012. A woman born in April 1953 under the old regime of retiring at 60 would have expected to retire in April 2013. She was given just one year of formal notice of her new retirement date of July 2016. It was 17 years after the 1995 legislation before the DWP could be bothered to formally tell the women involved—too little notice; too little, too late. We should all hang our heads in shame at the way the WASPI women have been treated. If there is one issue that should force the Government to agree to change now, it is that new information and the timeline of notice given.
Why have we been able to find this out through a freedom of information request from the WASPI women? Why have the Government not come clean about this before? Who knew about this in Government? Did the Minister know? I have had many letters on this issue from the women affected. Rosina wrote to me:
“When the 2011 Pensions Bill was announced, it accelerated these changes, so that Women’s SPA would be 65 by November 2018 and then both Men’s & Women’s SPA would rise together to 66 by 5th April...Letters began to be sent out...but many never received them. I received my letter in early 2013, just before my 58th Birthday and just 2 years before my expected retirement age of 60. The letter advising me that I would now have to wait until I was 66 before I could draw my pension! How can I be expected to plan for a 6 year increase with just 2 years notice? How can this be acceptable? I had already made plans for my retirement. I will lose over £40,000 of pension because of this. I have paid into the system in good faith and the system has now failed me. I want the Government to stand up and admit that they have ‘wronged’ us Women of the 50’s by their gross mismanagement and...that they will now do the right thing and pay us what we are due.”
I cannot put it any better than Rosina. Will the Minister now accept that we have a responsibility to Rosina and the 2.6 million women who have been cheated out of their entitlement?
My hon. Friend has come forward with a shocking revelation today, thanks to the WASPI women who made the FOI request. Nearly half a million women had only a year’s notice to change their retirement plans. I do not think that is acceptable, particularly given everything we have heard about why women are more likely to be dependent on a state pension and likely to be in poverty in old age. Does he agree that it puts an absolute moral imperative on the Government to take responsibility for their failure to let women know before a year in advance that they were going to lose out in such a way?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I know that the Minister is a decent and honourable man. I hope he listens to the evidence and will go back to his colleagues in Government and recognise that the surplus we talked about is there in the national insurance fund. He would make us all happy, but more importantly he would make the WASPI women happy, if the Government showed they were prepared to act.
The issue of notice is raised a great deal, and it has been said that notice was given in magazines and the like. Given the high-profile television campaign at the moment for workplace pensions, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the issue should have been on television 15 or 20 years ago?
Absolutely. There has been a gross failure of communication at all levels. Many of us have access to occupational pension schemes. We are members of the House of Commons scheme. We get an annual statement of our pension entitlement. That is what the DWP should have been providing, rather than waiting 17 years before communicating with the women involved.
I am conscious of time and I want to begin to wrap up. Much of what I have been talking about was picked up by the Select Committee report in March this year. It said:
“Well into this decade far too many affected women were unaware of the equalisation of state pension age at 65 legislated for in 1995.”
The National Centre for Social Research stated:
“In 2008, fewer than half...of the women who, at that point, would not be eligible for their state pension until they were 65 were aware of the...change.”
That statement referred to research carried out in 2011. Given that we knew there was a lack of appreciation of the 1995 changes, why pour oil on troubled waters by accelerating the timescales in 2011? That was simply vindictive and cruel. Today, let us correct that. Let us show compassion and deliver fairness to the WASPI women.
I have been dealing with this issue on a UK-wide basis, but I want to briefly touch on Scotland. To put this into context, there are 243,900 WASPI women in Scotland. I would dearly love for us to have responsibility for pensions in Scotland, but we do not. The commitment the SNP has given in supporting the slowdown of the increase in pensionable age is one we would legislate for if we had the powers, but we do not. The powers that Scotland has over social security are limited to 15% of such spending in Scotland. We have limited powers. Section 28 of the Scotland Act 2016 grants exceptions to reserved areas where we can top up payments, but this does not include pensions assistance or payments by reasons of age.
I mention that because the Secretary of State, responding to a question I asked about WASPI mitigation last month, said that the SNP
“now control a Government who have the power to do something about this and put their money where their mouth is.”—[Official Report, 17 October 2016; Vol. 615, c. 580.]
The Secretary of State created the impression that we hold powers in areas where we do not. I sought to be charitable to him in a point of order I raised later that day; rather incredibly, I received a letter from the Secretary of State on the 19th arguing that his statement was correct. Let me be clear: it was not. I then raised a further point of order on the 19th, when the Speaker suggested I apply for a face-to-face debate. I am grateful the Minister is here, but it is unfortunate that the Secretary of State is not. He should be dragged to this House and forced to accept that he cannot blame the Scottish Government when they do not have competency for the failures of this Government, and it must stop.
This is an important matter. We cannot have the UK Government suggesting that the Scottish Government have powers that they do not have. I wish we did have powers over pensions. If we had those powers, we would do the right thing by the WASPI women. Until such time as we have such powers we will push the Government to accept their obligations. This Tory Government have ducked their responsibility to the WASPI women for too long. It is time to face up to reality. Pensions are not a privilege; they are a contract, and the UK Government have broken that contract with the WASPI women.
I am looking to start the contributions from Front Benchers at 10.30 am, so based on the number of speakers I have been notified of, that will mean about five minutes maximum per speaker. I call Tom Elliott.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) for securing the debate, which is very timely. The most recent changes to the women’s state pension age will have a direct impact on around half a million women across the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman outlined the historical issues extremely well.
It is estimated that in Northern Ireland around 80,000 women will be affected. A number of weeks ago I, like other Members, presented a petition to the House containing the signatures of hundreds of residents of my constituency who are concerned about the unfair changes to the women’s state pension age. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to Wilma Grey, who lives in my constituency and is the co-ordinator of Women Against State Pension Inequality in Northern Ireland. She tirelessly campaigns on a voluntary basis to raise awareness of this issue.
Nobody would disagree that rationalisation of pensions is necessary, but it must be sustainable and ready for an ageing population who are living longer. If pensions are not properly funded and addressed, they have the potential to be a millstone around the neck of future Governments. We accept that, but few things are so clearly deserved in life as the state pension. I reiterate the promise that if someone works hard their whole working life, the state will take care of them in their old age. That ideal has underpinned our society for more than 70 years, but the promise is precisely why I am deeply worried about the manner in which the Government have decided to equalise pension ages.
This is the key issue: women who were born in the 1950s were made a promise and the promise is now being broken. Worse still, the changes are being made with little to no notice. These women, who have rightfully been considering and planning for retirement, now face uncertainty that threatens what should be the most relaxed period of their lives. Today’s national insurance contributions pay for today’s pensions, and many of these women believed that when they started paying national insurance contributions—some of them at the age of 16—they were entering into an agreement with the Government to retire at 60.
Raising the retirement age may be a necessary evil. With life expectancy climbing, it is unavoidable that we must work longer and retire later. However, the problem is that although that principle may be sound, the reality is somewhat different. When Her Majesty’s Government introduced the Pensions Act 1995, women were supposedly given 15 years to prepare, as the women’s pension age would not begin to equalise with men’s until 2010. However, no one who was aged 44 or over would have been affected at the time. It is therefore understandable that any discussion of pension changes was viewed as irrelevant.
The Government at the time should have made a concerted effort to publicise the changes widely and to spell out the implications for the women affected, but that was glaringly absent. To compound that, the Pensions Act 2011 increased the overall state pension age to 66 by 2020, accelerating the rate of increase for women. Because they had not been notified previously, it was only at that point that many women learned of the changes to the state pension age, with some women reaching state pension age at 66 when they had anticipated drawing their pension at 60.
It is therefore no surprise that the women affected by the changes are frustrated by the implications for their post-retirement planning, both financial and otherwise, and by the fact that the Government have substantially moved the goalposts without effective communication. That unfairness must be addressed and the Government must now consider the introduction of appropriate transitional payments.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) for securing the debate.
I find myself speaking on the Women Against State Pension Inequality women for, I think, the fourth time. Frustratingly, despite three previous debates and the launch of a UK-wide petition, which attracted 2,534 signatures in my constituency and would have attracted more had there been more time; despite legal action from the WASPI women being seriously on the table due to what has been, in effect, the mis-selling of this group of women’s pensions; and after a Work and Pensions Committee report concluded that
“more could and should have been done”
to communicate the changes, we seem to be no further forward. Everyone is feeling the frustration.
The situation is worse than the hon. Lady described. Five and a half years ago I stood in this Chamber with my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves)—our then Front-Bench spokesperson—and challenged the Government on this issue. We did that again the year after and again the year after that. The hon. Lady described recent action, but the situation is even worse: we have been telling the Government that this is wrong since 2011.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, and I go back to my original point: after all this time, all this activity, all the warnings, and all the stories of hardship, we are still no further forward. When will this Government wake up to the fact that pensions are not a benefit? The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott) described them as a promise. They are not a promise; they are a social contract, which has been cruelly and thoughtlessly broken. It is time for the Government to step up and take responsibility for the way in which this matter has been mishandled over a number of years, and stop dragging this misery out for the women caught up in this injustice.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will not—I am very conscious that other people want to speak, so I apologise to the hon. Lady.
Around 2.6 million women have been affected by these changes, and in Scotland, the number of women affected is 243,900. On behalf of the Scottish National party, Landman Economics analysed the costs and distributional impacts of potential changes to pension arrangements for women born in the 1950s who are losing out, in the context of the surplus in the national insurance fund, which is projected to stand at around £30 billion at the end of 2017-18 according to the Government’s own figures. With that surplus now forecast to be larger than it was before, the £7.9 billion that it will cost to give those women relief and a delay in the rise of their pension age is very much affordable.
The Landman report costed a return to the Pensions Act 1995 by immediately restoring the timetable in that Act, raising the pension age for women from 63 in March 2016 to 65 by April 2020, with no further increase to 66 until the mid-2020s. That is the second most expensive option, costing about £7.9 billion over five years. That cost is not trivial, but as we have heard today, it is not prohibitively expensive either in the context of other Government spending plans. It has the merit of completely eliminating the problem of an accelerated increase in pension ages for women born in the 1950s by returning to a timetable set out two decades ago, giving women much more time—necessary time—to adapt to the changes. It would then be possible to increase women’s pension age to 66 at some later point in the 2020s. That measure has the benefit of being progressive and reducing relative and absolute pensioner poverty.
The UK Government’s position, even after all the mistakes in the process have been laid bare for all to see, has been characterised by intransigence and wilful stubbornness. It is time to do what is right, fair and just. It is time for the Government to stop telling us that they have no choice. It is time to make the right choices, and it is time for justice for the WASPI women.
My thanks go to the hon. Members who secured this important debate. I want to contribute on behalf of the women in my constituency who find themselves affected by the change to the state pension age. They are angry about the pace at which the change has been accelerated, angry about the way it was done and how it was not communicated properly—many learnt about it from the media, not a Government body—and angry that the Government have not acted to help them.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government are being cloth-eared, that they should listen to the cries of anger across the UK and that these women need to be heard?
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) said, clearly the Government have failed to listen over successive years when the issue has been raised. As other hon. Members have mentioned, there has been debate after debate, and question after question.
The women affected in my constituency are not just angry but anxious and worried, because they face real financial insecurity. I will focus on that. Some 3,100 women are affected in Newport East, and 135,000 are affected in Wales. Many have been hit particularly hard, with significant changes to their state pension age and, as was mentioned earlier, a lack of appropriate notification.
Last week, a new constituent—I very much welcome new constituents—contacted me. Her story illustrates the financial insecurity facing many people. She had to sell her long-term family home in Bristol and move away from her children, parents and friends in order to make ends meet and to tide her over until she is 66. This is a woman who, as a single parent, received no support when her children were small. She worked all her life and then discovered, far too late in the day, that she will have to survive for longer. She is recovering from breast cancer but does not feel able to work at the moment, and she is trying to navigate the disability benefits system. This is a woman who explained to me how she would ring the DWP every single year when she was working to check that she had paid enough contributions to get her full pension at 60. In her words:
“This is not the retirement I planned at all—I live in a constant state of worry due to the cancer and financial pressures. The goal posts have been moved twice”.
She said that this is surely discrimination against women at its worst.
My hon. Friend is making an important point. Is she as surprised as I am that there are no Government Back Benchers here? Could that be because there are no WASPI women in their constituencies?
The constituent I speak of moved, in fact, from a constituency where she was represented by—
Or maybe not in that case, but I will leave that there.
Another constituent explained to me the impact of her pension date being deferred for the second time with little time to make compensatory arrangements. She has worked for 45 years and paid her way, and the changes to the pension age, which mean that she is not in receipt of her state pension at 60, will deny her more than £38,000. She, too, has cancer and is considering whether she has to give up work.
My hon. Friend was also in the debate with me and our hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) back in 2011, so we are veterans of this campaign. Does she think that the Government should look at the net cost of any transitional arrangements? As she points out, many women who are missing out on their pension are now relying on disability benefits because of the incidence of ill health among the women affected.
My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. The change to the state pension age is affecting people who are ill and on disability benefits, and the Government should look into that.
My constituent who has cancer and is considering giving up work tells me that instead of seeing retirement as a positive development, she is dreading the financial insecurity after having worked for 45 years. These women had a picture of what their retirement might look like and it has been cruelly taken away. They did not expect the Government to change the rules. It would be good to know whether the Minister gets just how tough it is for many trying to find work at this stage, especially those who are ill or who have a disability. What will Ministers do for that group of women?
Women who have contacted me from Newport East add their voices to the calls for more reasonable transitional arrangements that are particularly mindful of those who are ill, who depend more on the state pension in retirement and who have limits on their ability to work. We need the Government to move on this issue and ease the impact of the changes on those most affected. The Government have an opportunity in the autumn statement. There are a number of options on the table and they are all ways in which the Government could act. We need them to take responsibility for what has happened to these women.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) not just on securing the debate, but on bringing forward the report and putting on the table some real facts and figures that the Government cannot deny.
I often tell constituents that I speak from a different world from the Government, and today the Government’s attitude to the WASPI women has proven that to be the case. I come from a world where women worked, often intermittently because of family commitments that involved childcare and family caring. Those women suffered lower pay and a lack of pension contributions, often due to part-time work. However, they always had the comfort of their contract with the Government that they would receive their pension at the age of 60. That contract was broken by the Pensions Act 1995, and the women were not notified. Yet the previous Minister continued to tell us that women were generally aware of what was happening with pension changes. They may have been generally aware, but they did not know that it was happening to them in their personal circumstances. That has been proven by the lack of notification and the fact that the information that did come from DWP was often conflicting.
In the Government’s world, these women were deemed suitable for a rapid increase in pension age. Into the bargain, it was deemed necessary for them to pay more national insurance contributions than they were originally contracted to. Since then, as the proverbial has started to hit the fan, we have all become aware of the bigger picture and the implications for the women. In the past year, the Government’s Budget contained inheritance tax cuts of £2.6 billion, capital gains tax cuts of £2.9 billion, corporation tax giveaways of £8.5 billion, higher rate tax relief of £3 billion, and individual savings account and savings relief of £2.5 billion. That is nearly £20 billion of tax giveaways for the people who live in the Government’s world, but not for the people who live in our world. At the same time, the Government brought in the right-to-buy discount on social housing, which will cost something like £12 billion.
This is an alien world to the one that me and my constituents inhabit, and yet the previous Minister hid behind the stock answer that the alternative transition will cost too much money, and asked where that money will come from and what cuts we, in opposition, would make. As we have heard, our preferred option would cost £8 billion and there is no need to make cuts. I have outlined simple tweaks that could be made to the Budget. There is £30 billion of surplus in the national insurance contributions fund, so the money is clearly there, and there is an autumn statement coming up in which the Government could do something.
The name “national insurance fund” is a misnomer, given the way things are happening. This generation of women has lived through the endowment mis-selling scandal and the payment protection insurance mis-selling scandal, but to have to live through the state mis-selling pensions is something else. It is no wonder these women are going to court. This is not about where to make cuts; it is about making the correct moral decision.
Last week I went to the funeral of a former councillor colleague, Jim Buchanan. He was a great campaigner for social justice and could not believe this position, which affected his wife—and, by default, the two of them as a couple—and many others. Jim actually joked that he would need to work longer to keep bringing extra money into the household. Instead, sadly, he died at 63, leaving behind a widow who is still affected by the pension increases. There are many such cases across the country.
I say to the Minister that there are now Tory Back Benchers involved, and there is cross-party support for the campaign. Do the right thing and act. The forthcoming autumn statement is a golden opportunity to do something that these fantastic WASPI women, and the local Ayrshire WASPI campaigners in my constituency, deserve.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) for securing it and for giving us all a chance to speak. It was a pleasure to join him and others in going to the Backbench Business Committee—this debate is the result of a combined request from many of us here in the Chamber. It is good to see a goodly number of Opposition Members, although there are perhaps not so many Government Members.
I welcome this debate, which was secured with a great work ethic. If people do not work, they do not eat. If people pay their dues, they reap what they sow. That is the premise on which an entire generation was raised, but I have been told that the dues have been uplifted and that, for some, the harvest is not due for another three and a half years, so they have to keep slogging on.
That might seem okay. What is three and a half years in the grand scheme of things? It is not that long. I want the House to consider a lady who left school at 14, as was then permissible, to work in a local sewing factory. She worked there for the next 35 years, until the factory was closed and relocated abroad. With no education and no skills, she took on a job cleaning the floors of schools and buildings, which she has done on her hands and knees for the past 11 years. For that lady to wait another three and a half years is not a small thing—it is more years of an aching back, fingers that remain bent and knees that are worn away.
I have a constituent who describes herself as “June ’54 and furious.” One source of her fury, apart from having to wait for her pension, is that she is having to wait for her entitlement to winter fuel allowance and a bus pass. We need to remember that it is not just about pensions; it is about things that will help these women in their declining years as their health declines. Small things are adding to my constituent’s fury.
The hon. Lady is very clear. Many of my constituents are equally furious. They might not have been born in June ’54, but they are equally furious. The lady she mentions and the lady I spoke about, who worked for 35 years in a sewing factory and 11 years in a school, are representative of ladies across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Northern Ireland pensioners’ parliament, which has done tremendous work? One person in my constituency, Mr Nixon Armstrong, has been a great ambassador in getting rights for these women.
All Members from Northern Ireland have had a chance to meet the pensioners’ parliament, which has lobbied us on this issue. We are here today to speak on their behalf.
We all know the background to this debate. The Government changed the timetable because of the increase in life expectancy, but as we have illustrated, the numbers do not equal the human cost or the health implications. Even for women who have a job in an office and are expected to continue working for another six years, the repetitive strain of typing, and so on, has not been taken into consideration and has been ignored.
Women born in the 1950s are justified in their argument that they have been hit particularly hard by the significant changes to their state pension age, which was imposed without appropriate notification. They have not been looking to the future and thinking, “I’ll take a high-tech job at night-time and do a course to get a qualification. I can’t do this hard-labour job for the next 30 years.” The fact is that these women have been subject to the whim of Government, with no notice for them to change their future potential.
I understand how the world works. If the Government continue to borrow, the debt continues to rise. We all know the story. Changes must be made, but how we make those changes is a problem. I fully support the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign in calling for a fair transitional state pension arrangement that translates into a bridging pension between the age of 60 and the increased state pension age.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that most people accept that there has to be some change because of the increase in life expectancy? The problem is the utter confusion, the lack of clarity and the complete absence of proper, coherent information. Does he agree that one small thing the Government could do today is to be completely upfront, honest and transparent and say exactly where we are? My constituents and his constituents are in the dark on this issue.
Some 4.5 million people in Great Britain will have their SPA increased by less than a year, and 500,000 born between October 1953 and 5 April 1955 will have their SPA increased by more than a year. In Northern Ireland, 76,000 people face a further one-and-a-half-year wait on top of previous rises, which is simply not acceptable. Something must be done to bridge the gap, especially for those who physically cannot keep working. Is there an argument for opening the door to the personal independence payment just a little further to enable these women to have an income without working? That is unlikely, as the Government have made it clear that they are determined, by hook or by crook, to lessen the number of claimants, despite what people’s doctors say—that is a debate for another day.
Jobseeker’s allowance is restricted, and the employment and support allowance criteria ask, for example, whether a person can lift a cardboard box or move a £1 coin. If only that was all it took for a woman to work again, but it takes more than that. I am sorry to say that the Government have not understood the real issue.
We do not have a benefits system that allows us to bridge the gap, so who will help these women? They do not seek to have something for which they have not worked. They are not asking for a handout, like so many people do; they are asking for a return on their hard work over 45 years or more. Why have we let these people down? What will be done today to help those whose hard work means their bodies can no longer continue at this pace?
Individual cases do not necessarily make good law, but I have not recounted an individual case. There are many such women in my constituency and across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is time that the Government acknowledged the effect that the acceleration has had and is having. They should seek to do the right thing for this generation, who have worked hard in all areas to build this country and who deserve the same respect and attention that they have given to this country all their lives.
I am grateful for the chance to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) on his excellent, terrifically detailed speech. I will not go into great detail, but I wish to make three points. When I first got involved in politics, which was not long ago, I was shocked when an old hand said to me, “Politics isn’t fair.” I hope that we can all prove him wrong. This debate is about fairness for women who have had their pensions taken away. They are struggling at the moment, and they need the Government to be fair.
It is kind of the hon. Gentleman to allow me to intervene. Not long ago, on 13 July, the new Prime Minister stood on the steps of No. 10 and talked about all parts of the nation, including Northern Ireland, and about bringing the United Kingdom together. She said that her Government would be not for the privileged few but for the many. We need to hear from the new Minister—I welcome him to his place—the new Prime Minister and the new Government that thousands of women have suffered an injustice. I am one of those women born in the 1950s who is affected; I am one of the furious ones. This is an opportunity for the Prime Minister to meet her words with action. Does the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) agree?
I certainly agree. That goes to the heart of what I was saying about the world needing to be made fair for these women.
Do the Government have the will to deal with this matter? As my hon. Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott) did, I congratulate Wilma Grey on all her work. What came home when we petitioned Stormont and others is that there is still a mass of women who do not know that this is happening—or they vaguely know. Do the Government have a complete database in Northern Ireland? If 76,000 women are affected, how many of them actually know? Are we working on a database? Will that database be used to ensure that everyone knows? We can then concentrate on whom we can help. If we cannot help everybody, can we look for those who really need help, such as those with ill husbands or ill children to look after, those who cannot get a job and those who live out in the sticks? So many different areas have been addressed today. I would rather see the Minister helping everyone, but if not, let us look at the details and make sure that we know who needs help so that we can get involved.
I have spent my life trying to get people in Northern Ireland working together. Will the Minister work with the four separate campaigns so that we get much better detail on this issue and a result that is fair to everyone?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. This is the fifth or sixth time that we have had this debate, and every single time the Government’s response and stance has been littered with absolute hypocrisy. This Government lecture the Opposition about how they are the Government of responsibility, the ones making the difficult choices and the ones who can be trusted, yet they do not even allow people the chance to be responsible for their own pensions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) made clear in his speech, women were not given the slightest notice. Some of the women with the steepest hike were given a year’s notice. How does that encourage responsibility?
If anything, the Government have shown how irresponsible they are in working out solutions to problems in society. We have said for years now that people have to make 30 or 35 years’ worth of national insurance contributions to get their pensions. The generation of women that we are discussing have been paying in for 45 or 46 years now, yet they are being told, “Sorry, you still can’t get your pension.” We say that we care more about our pensioners than anybody else, and we pride ourselves on how we look after them, yet as has already been stated, the only other European country that has hiked the pension age at such an incredible pace is Greece, which a few weeks ago tear-gassed pensioners for protesting against austerity. Is that really where we want to put ourselves in terms of how we deal with constituents?
The thing that blows my mind is that if a private company were acting in this way, it would be taken to court. By the sound of things, if the Government do not act soon, they might be taken to court as well. We cannot blame individuals for being pushed to it; the Government are leaving them with no option. This is the last chance for the Government to do something right.
In every debate on this subject, we have called for transitional arrangements, and the Government’s response has always been, “What transitional arrangements are you asking for?” The Scottish National party has gone away and paid our own money to commission a report. I have printed it out, and I am happy to give it to the Minister at the end of this debate in case he does not have a copy.
Our report—I must give credit to Howard Reed of Landman Economics, which did a power of work for it—found independently that the figure of £30 billion being thrown about by the Government was nonsense. Implementing some form of transitional arrangement would cost £8 billion spread across five years. Bearing in mind that we are spending money on nuclear weapons, airstrikes in Syria and renovations to this building, I think it is about time that we got our priorities straight in terms of who needs what most. Even if we were to forget or not bother criticising the poor choices made by this Government, by the end of this year, the national insurance fund will sit at a surplus of £26.3 billion, which is expected to rise to £30.7 billion. The idea that we cannot afford it is nothing other than a bare-faced lie from the Government.
I must say, not just for the Government’s benefit but for that of any women from Women Against State Pension Inequality who might be watching, that we know that our report is not completely perfect and involves an element of compromise. We recognise that this Parliament has only a couple of months left to make an effective change to get something for these women. Therefore, we suggest delaying things for the people with the greatest hike for another two and a half years, to give them an extra chance. Also, all women benefit from the fact that the rise to 66 is pushed to the next Parliament, so the report affects every single woman affected by the changes, although in different ways. We have been reasonable and tried to be genuinely conscientious in coming up with something that the Government can support.
I am at my wits’ end to know what we need to do for this Government to act. We have proved that women in every constituency and from all backgrounds are affected, brought hundreds of petitions before Parliament with thousands upon thousands of signatures, had umpteen debates and gone away and done the Government’s homework for them, and yet we are still told that the Government will not act. What more do we need to give them in order for them to give us something?
I thought that the Government were just arrogant, but now I see that they are both arrogant and incompetent. They do not know what notice they gave women. They do not know the effect that the changes have had on people. They do not even know what powers they have given to the devolved Administrations to deal with things. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber said, the Scottish Government do not have the power to top up pensions. Even if we did, I would ask why the Government should effectively ask the Scottish Government to tax Scottish people twice so that they can receive a pension they have been paying into all their lives. However, we do not have those powers. We have argued that we would quite like them; if the Minister is prepared to move on that, we are more than happy to listen.
Most of all, the Government have managed to allow a genuine problem that transcends party political leanings and affects every constituency to become a party political issue in their own minds. The Government are so adamant that they cannot give the Opposition an inch that they are prepared to put this on the backs of women who have suffered their whole lives from inequality and unjust policies. That is completely unforgivable. If this Government are so arrogant and obsessed with not giving the Opposition an inch, they should come up with their own plans to sort the issue. We have jumped through every hoop that the Government have put before us since I first raised the issue during this parliamentary term.
Surely by now the Government recognise that this issue is not going away. It is a reasonable ask, and it is doable. The Government are out of excuses, and hell mend you if you do not do anything to fix it.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) on securing this debate on an important issue. I am sure that ’50s-born women up and down the country will be listening eagerly to hear whether the Minister is prepared to do anything more to alleviate their plight. I also pay tribute to the many MPs across the House campaigning on the issue, particularly the all-party parliamentary group on state pension inequality for women, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley).
I was never in any doubt when I took on my role as shadow Pensions Minister that this issue would be one of the biggest and most contentious, and I have been proven right. I have already had contact with groups from across the country, all campaigning on the same message: the previous Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition Government’s rapid changes to the state pension age are simply unfair.
Most of the women recognise, as others have said, that the state pension age must be increased in recognition of a workforce that is living longer and to address the gap in the retirement age between men and women. However, what cannot be accepted is the unfair and unjust approach that the previous Government took and that the current Government are not prepared to change. The policy has had failures from the start. There has been a severe lack of communication from the Government on the changes, leaving 2.6 million women in doubt about their circumstances and providing only uncertainty to potentially vulnerable people up and down the country.
The Minister has heard many Members outline the case on behalf of ’50s-born women. The hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber made a comprehensive speech that left us in no doubt about how unfair it all is and how the Government could change things. Although I do not recognise some of his financial numbers, we agree that some changes could certainly be funded if the Government had the will.
There is some Conservative support for the WASPI women. The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), who has now left, spoke about the lottery faced by ’50s-born women when it comes to retirement age. That is hardly fair. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) spoke about the different levels of poverty created by the Government’s policy, and another Conservative, the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), spoke about people in the latter stage of their careers who find themselves with caring responsibilities and little income to support them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) spoke of bereaved women left with no support. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) described herself as a veteran of the campaign and reminded us that we have been having this debate and talking to the Government about the issue for more than five years, yet they do nothing. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) spoke of angry women, but also of anxious women, one of whom has had to sell her home and move away in order to make ends meet. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke of the hardship of a woman in her sixties forced on to her hands and knees to scrub floors to make ends meet. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) spoke of the half a million women given too few years to prepare for retirement, many of whom probably have some of the lowest incomes in the country.
I know of another example: a 61-year-old woman having to live with a friend, who receives just £8 a week from a private pension and is worried how she will afford basics such as dental treatment. She is like so many others: not fit for work, but not sick enough for employment and support allowance. She walks to the jobcentre every day, even in the snow, with her walking stick. She was let down by the last Parliament, and now this Government are letting her down.
I believe the Minister to be a caring and compassionate man who is looking for answers to a problem that is not of his making but is tricky for the Government. Indeed, the absence of Conservative Members in the Chamber illustrates how tricky this issue is for the Tory Government. Sadly, some very specific ideas put forward by the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), have been rejected by the Government. That has probably been driven by the Treasury’s not being prepared to invest in a better quality of life for the women most affected.
That is very disappointing, but there is still time: the Minister has an ideal opportunity to do something positive. He can go to the Treasury before the autumn statement and fight for the resources that are needed, and he can then have clauses added to the Pension Schemes Bill that is currently in the other place, to allow the necessary changes. Then again, he may feel constrained by the threat of legal action from WASPI, which has raised more than £100,000 to challenge the Government’s failures in the courts. Perhaps he can confirm whether he feels that his hands are tied.
Contrary to what the Prime Minister claimed, the Opposition have tried to help her out of this hole and laid out plenty of options for the Government. Labour set out six transitional options and we are still waiting for the Government to properly address them and their potential. We proposed delaying the state pension age increase until 2020; capping the maximum state pension age increase from the Pensions Act 2011 at 12 months; keeping the qualifying age for pension credit on the previous timetable; allowing those affected to take a reduced state pension at an earlier age during the transition; extending the timetable for increasing the overall state pension age by 18 months so that it reached 66 by April 2022; or paying those affected a lower state pension for a longer period. Sadly, the Government chose not to follow up any of Labour’s suggestions.
Of course we recognise that solutions cost money, but the Government have made vast savings as a result of the late changes to the pension age and should be able to reinvest some of them to do something to help the vulnerable women who have been ruined because of a decision that they had no say in and certainly did not vote for.
The hon. Gentleman says, rightly, that the Labour party has presented options. Does he welcome the fact that the Scottish National party is presenting a costed option? The Government cannot argue with the figures.
I do not recognise some of the numbers that the SNP is using, but believe me, we want a solution just as much as the SNP. I believe that Conservative Members do too, and we need to work together to achieve that solution.
We have had half-hearted attempts from the Government to quell the voices of women who are rightly angry about these changes and the impact they will have on them and their families, but those attempts are not good enough. An independent review into the future of the state pension age that will not even consider the existing accelerated timetable is not good enough either. Sadly, previous Pensions Ministers have chosen to bury their heads in the sand, but I hope the new Minister is as anxious to find solutions as we are. Failing to use the Pension Schemes Bill to marshal in change would be a missed opportunity by the Government to address the concerns that are being raised by hundreds of thousands of women throughout the country. The Government must think again, and they must do so urgently to cause minimum hardship.
I am well aware that past Ministers have ducked the issue, claiming that sufficient transitional arrangements are in place. The accounts we have heard today, and many others that I am sure the Minister is aware of, demonstrate that those arrangements are totally inadequate. Despite his past misgivings, the Minister can provide real hope for the women affected. I hope he will take the opportunity to do so today.
Before I call the Minister, I ask him gently to allow a couple of minutes at the end, so that Mr Blackford can sum up and wind up the debate.
It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. It is also pleasing to see so many Members present, which shows the importance of the issue. The Westminster Hall debates that I address usually have a much smaller audience. It is also fair to say that Members from all political parties have been present at different times in the debate.
The Minister studied jurisprudence at university and had a career in the retail industry, so he will recognise the concept of good faith. Does he accept that the women concerned in this matter entered into a contract with the state about their pensions in good faith and that the Government’s actions amount to bad faith? If so, what is he going to do about it?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which I will attempt to answer in a moment, after I have thanked the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) for opening the debate and hon. Members from both sides who contributed.
I must say that this is the first time that my rather limited attempts at jurisprudence between 1976 and 1979 have been mentioned in the House. At least they will now be recounted in Hansard rather more than they are by my tutors of the time. The serious point that the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) makes is that hon. Members feel that the Government have broken some form of contract, presumably non-written, with state pensioners generally or WASPI women specifically. I have heard that point made several times today, but the Government’s position is very clear: this was not a contract. State pensions are technically a benefit. I add no value judgments to that, but since he made a legal point, I felt I should place the answer to it on the record.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I think I should continue, but the hon. Gentleman will have time at the end.
I am sorry, but—
I am very sorry, but to allow time for the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber to wind up, I have to continue. I am happy to discuss the matter—although not my jurisprudence degree—outside the Chamber.
I have been quite clear in public and in the House that the Government will make no further changes to the pension age of those affected by the 1995 Act and the 2011 Act, nor pay them financial redress in lieu of pension. I know that Members present do not agree with that, but I feel it is right to state our position clearly without leaving any doubt. That view has not changed.
It is important to acknowledge that state pension age increases cannot be looked at in isolation. The acceleration of the state pension age is a consequence of serious and fundamental changes that continue to affect the wider state pension system, such as the significant changes in life expectancy in recent years, the huge progress made in opening up employment opportunities for women and the wider packages of reforms that we have introduced to ensure a fair deal for pensioners.
Life expectancy, as everyone knows, has been increasing for a number of decades; people are living much longer. However, the increase in life expectancy over time has not been linear. Between 1995 and 2011—in just 16 years—remaining life expectancy at age 65 increased by 3 years for women and 4 years for men, an unprecedented increase compared with past decades. There are significant variations across council authorities and within Scotland, for instance. I could spend a lot more time going into those differences, but I feel I have made the point.
Employment prospects for women have changed dramatically since the state pension age was first set in 1940, especially for women affected by the acceleration of the state pension age. The number of older women aged 50 to 64 in work in 2016 stands at more than 4 million —a record high. Some 150,000 more older women are in work than this time last year, and 580,000 more than five years ago. In addition, independent research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that employment rates for women aged 60 and 61 have increased as a direct result of the changes in state pension age. Furthermore, to help older women remain in work, the Government have abolished the default retirement age.
Will the Minister give way?
I am really sorry but there is not enough time. Members should hear me out.
Some women may wish to continue to work but be unable to do so. The welfare system provides a safety net for those of working age, which has been ignored by many speakers, and there are a range of benefits tailored to individual circumstances. The system is designed to deal with problems ranging from difficulty in finding work to disability or ill health making work difficult, and to help those with increasing caring responsibilities.
Will the Minister give way?
I am sorry, but there is not enough time. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Well, okay, out of respect for the hon. Gentleman.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I took eight minutes, leaving him with around 15.
I gave the example of a 61-year-old woman in dire straits, and we heard many other examples of individual women who are not being looked after by the state benefits system. What can we do together so that the most vulnerable can live a life?
I know about the eight and 15 minutes, but I was asked by the Chairman to leave some time for the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber; I was not being discourteous at all.
Benefits are a complex subject that I am sure we will have plenty of time to discuss elsewhere. Suffice it to say that the range of benefits is quite wide. If the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) feels that there are gaps in the benefits system, I would be pleased to discuss them with him, but obviously not now because there is not enough time. I am trying to make progress, as you requested, Mr Nuttall.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and many other MPs shared cases of hardship, and of course I am sympathetic to them.
Will the Minister give way?
I will be very specific.
The new information that I provided in my introductory speech was that a woman who was born in July 1953, who would have expected to retire in July 2013, was told by the DWP only in January 2012 that she would not be retiring until 2017. When did the Government and the Minister know of those facts? Why will they not now listen on that basis? The statement is that there will be no further changes, but these women have been seriously negatively impacted. The Minister must respond.
I shall respond in due course. I want to finish my point about the welfare system. The Government are spending £60 billion on supporting people on low incomes, £50 billion on supporting disabled people and £15 billion on incapacity benefits for working people. According to some of the contributions we have heard, it would appear that the Government are really not spending any money at all.
Will the Minister give way?
Will the Minister give way?
I really cannot take any more interventions, simply because of the time. It is not in my nature, because I like interventions, but I really cannot.
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) and others mentioned a notional national insurance surplus fund. The fact is that, in order to maintain the minimum work balance of the national insurance fund, a Treasury grant of £9.6 billion was made in 2015-16. Public sector finance is complicated. It is easy just to pick out one bit.
I wish to spend a little time discussing the Scottish National party’s proposals. Its independent report suggests rolling back the 2011 Act and returning to the timetable in the Pensions Acts of 1995 and 2007, but that is simply too expensive for the Government to consider. The report puts the cost at £7.9 billion, but my Department’s direct comparison for the same period is £14 billion. We can discuss it however many times, but our modelling is comprehensive and no one is trying to take advantage of anybody else. I really believe that the SNP report has underestimated the impact by somewhere in the region of 50%. It has done so by ignoring most of the costs and applying costs only to the five-year window from 2016-17. Costs beyond that horizon have simply been ignored.
The Pensions Act 2011 not only increased the female state pension age to 65 sooner, but brought forward the increase to 66 for both men and women. The increase to 66 generates significant savings of more than £25 billion, yet such an important element of the Act is omitted from the paper, along with the associated costings.
John Ralfe Consulting, which is independent, reviewed the SNP option. Mr Ralfe concluded that:
“Sadly, the SNP has not managed to pull a Rabbit out of its Hat. The real cost of Option 2”—
the SNP’s preferred option—
“is almost £30bn…The SNP can claim the cost is much lower simply because it has chosen to ignore most of the costs.”
I hope that demonstrates that that option is simply not deliverable.
In the limited time remaining, I shall address the notification issue. In answer to the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott), between 2003 and 2006, the DWP issued 16 million unprompted products called automatic pension forecasts. People contacted the Department and it gave out all those forecasts. In 2004, the Department ran a pensions campaign that included informing people of the future equalisation of the state pension age. The Government made sure that the information was there, but I accept that it was not communicated by individual letter, as it was later when, as I am sure Members will be aware, millions of letters were sent out.
To say that nothing happened is not true. I have seen a leaflet on equality in the state pension age that was widely circulated, with many, many copies printed. A summary of the changes was issued and the general public were advised, although I accept that they were not informed by specific direct mailing in the way mentioned by some Members.
It is very kind of the Minister to give way. He will recall that in an earlier intervention I quoted the Prime Minister, whom he serves. Does he appreciate that his words make the Prime Minister’s words sound extremely hollow? This is not a nation in which the Prime Minister appears to care about all the people of the United Kingdom. Will the Minister please take that message back to the Prime Minister?
I certainly will not take that message back to the Prime Minister, because I do not accept that anything I have said today is incompatible with what the Prime Minister said on the steps of 10 Downing Street. Governments have to make difficult decisions, and the allocation of public spending is one of the most difficult.
It is not fair to say that the acceleration of the women’s state pension age has not been fully considered. It went through Parliament, there was a public call for evidence and there was extensive debate in both Houses. The Government listened during the process and made a substantial concession worth more than £1 billion. Finally, Parliament came to a clear decision. As it stands now, it would cost more than £30 billion to reverse the 2011 Act.
Will the Minister give way?
I am very sorry but I cannot give way because there are only three minutes remaining.
I conclude by reiterating what I have told the House and, indeed, the public before: we will not revisit the policy or make any further concessions. The acceleration of state pension age was necessary to ensure the system’s sustainability in the light of increasing life expectancy and increasing pressure on public resources. Mr Nuttall, I have left three minutes, as requested.
I thank all Members who have spoken in the debate. I have enormous respect for the Minister, as I think he knows, but I must say that I am plain disgusted with the response we have had this morning. To that end, I shall be contending that we have not considered the acceleration of the state pension age for women born in the 1950s.
This is not acceptable, because we are now looking at a cliff edge. As I explained, there is an increase in pensionable age of three months for every month that passes. The Minister talked about a leaflet—a leaflet!—that went to the women concerned. We now know that a woman born in 1953 was given just over one year’s notice in 2012 that her pension age was going to increase to July 2017. We now know that a woman born in September 1954 found out in February 2012 that, rather than retiring in 2014, she would be retiring in 2020. Where is the fairness? Where is the notice from this Government?
I have heard various figures from the Government, but this is the first time the House has been told about that £14 billion. The Minister should come with me and I will take him through the Institute for Public Policy Research model. I stand fully behind the £7.9 billion. To hear him dispute that figure is disingenuous, to say the least. The Government have failed to accept responsibility for the WASPI women. The Minister should hang his head in shame. The Government must act, and we will continue to push them.
That this House has considered acceleration of the state pension age for women born in the 1950s.
The Chair’s opinion as to the decision of the Question was challenged.
Question not decided (Standing Order No. 10(13)).
The fact that the Question is not decided shall be reported to the House. It is possible for the Question to be put to the House subsequently for a decision without further debate.
On a point of order, Mr Nuttall. Given that this debate was granted by the Backbench Business Committee, I understand that it is open to any Member to take this to the Committee and ask its members to push for a vote on the matter in the House. The Government must and will be held to account.
As Mr Blackford will be aware, that is not a point of order for me. He is aware of the rules relating to access to the Backbench Business Committee, as all Members are.
Could Members who are not taking part in the next debate leave quietly and quickly, so we can make progress?