I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Sixth Report of the Science and Technology Committee, Evidence Check: Smart metering of electricity and gas, HC 161, and the Government response, HC 846.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. It is good to see some fellow Committee members here for what I am sure will be an interesting debate for us, and hopefully for the Minister and shadow Minister.
By way of background, the Government’s smart metering implementation programme requires energy suppliers to offer smart electricity and gas meters to all homes and small businesses in Great Britain by 2020. The idea behind smart metering is that the meter communicates directly with the supplier using wireless technologies, removing the need for meter readings or estimated bills and allowing price information to be transmitted to the home. Through an in-home display, the customer can see in pounds and pence how much electricity or gas is being used, nearly in real time.
The smart meter roll-out is a major project, with total costs of nearly £11 billion and projected benefits of around £16 billion. Millions of people already have some experience of the roll-out of smart meters, and millions more will be offered one in the next few years. It should be no surprise, then, that the Select Committee on Science and Technology was not the first to look at smart metering. Colleagues on what was then the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change examined the beginnings of the smart meter roll-out in 2013 and again in 2015, and the Public Accounts Committee held an inquiry in 2014. Their work provided an excellent foundation for the Science and Technology Committee’s scrutiny.
My Committee’s report was published on 24 September 2016. It was the output of a short inquiry concentrated specifically on the evidence behind the smart metering policy, rather than on exploring the roll-out’s progress from a value for money or project management perspective as other Committees had done. The inquiry took place under the direction of my predecessor as Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood), to whom I am grateful for all her work in guiding the Committee so well before she was promoted to Government. We received the Government’s response at the end of November, shortly after I became Chair.
This debate is timely. A few months after our report, the Government published an updated cost-benefit analysis of the smart meter roll-out that shed further light on the issues explored by the Committee. We were pleased by the publication of that document, as it fulfilled our recommendation that an update to the 2014 figures should be provided. However, the analysis included some concerning figures and information that I am sure will feature prominently in this debate. In my remarks, I will focus on three of the report’s recommendations in particular: first, the need to act with greater urgency to address some of the technical limitations of the early first-generation smart meters; secondly, the need for the Government to be clearer about the national benefits of smart metering, as opposed to those for the individual consumer; thirdly, the need for excellent consumer engagement to realise the benefits of smart metering before, during and after installation.
We learned during our inquiry that the roll-out began in 2013 with a foundation phase of smart meters built to a specification known as SMETS 1, if Members will excuse the ugly acronym. The latest quarterly figures from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy show that there are now more than 4 million such meters in homes across Britain. We are now moving towards the mass roll-out phase, which will use meters described as SMETS 2. However, SMETS 2 meters rely on the implementation of a piece of national infrastructure, the Data Communications Company, which has been delayed several times in going live.
During our inquiry, we heard that the early SMETS 1 meters had some unfortunate technical limitations. One relates to interoperability among suppliers: customers who switch their energy supplier after installation run the risk of losing the meters’ smart functionality. Depending which supplier they switch from and to, the meter could revert to being a “dumb”—or, perhaps more kindly, a traditional—meter. Last year, The Daily Telegraph reported that more than 130,000 smart meters were now operating in dumb mode as a result of switching.
It appears that it might be technically possible to modify the early meters to work with the national communications infrastructure—the phrase is “adopt them into DCC”—to ensure that smart functionality is retained when the customer switches supplier. The DCC has been commissioned to undertake a feasibility project to assess the options, but at present, the Government merely have an ambition to sort it all out by 2020. The problem is that the scale of the task of adopting the early meters into the DCC is growing by the day.
As the Minister will know, the DCC finally went live in November, but the delays mean that suppliers will still be installing SMETS 1 meters for some time to come while the DCC undergoes testing. The latest cost-benefit analysis suggests that 8 million SMETS 1 meters will be installed in total during the roll-out, far more than the 5.4 million estimated during our inquiry and double the 4 million installed so far. In fact, the DCC estimates that there could be more than 10 million SMETS 1 meters, affecting more than 6 million households. From a consumer point of view, that means that 6 million households, or around one in five, will effectively have to choose between smart and switch. If they switch supplier to get a better deal, they risk losing smart functionality, but if they stay with a bad tariff, they get a better idea of what their bills will be and are more able to take action to reduce them.
I am sure that hon. Members will agree that it is a difficult choice. Those who wait for SMETS 2 can have it all, but until the problem is solved, those with SMETS 1 meters will be forced to choose. The most extreme scenario is the early adopter who received a meter in 2013 but must put up with the situation until 2020, or perhaps even longer if the Government’s ambition is not met. I am sure that we would all agree that seven years of waiting for the full benefits of smart is a long time. I would not blame someone in that situation for being somewhat unimpressed with the roll-out.
Our report recommended timely action, not least because the problem was known at the very start of the programme. The Government’s response to us was essentially that it is a work in progress, but we know that the scale of the problem has grown. In his remarks at the end of this debate, will the Minister address the need for greater urgency to prevent a poor experience for up to 6 million households? Moreover, will he consider setting a hard deadline by which suppliers must take necessary steps for their SMETS 1 meters to work with the DCC system?
The Government also told us that they had put in place protection
“to ensure consumers are appropriately informed that they may lose smart services”.
Effectively, it is a condition of suppliers’ licences that they provide that information at the point of installation, and when the supplier gains a customer through switching. However, in a Citizens Advice survey last year, just 3% of consumers said that they had received information about the limitations of SMETS 1 before installation and only 13% thought that their meter functionality would be affected if they switched. Is the Minister confident that customers are receiving information about the limitations of SMETS 1 and that they understand that information?
The second theme that I would like to explore is the need to better communicate the national benefits of smart metering. Put simply, one of the advantages of the communications link between the supplier and the meter is the scope for offering time-of-use tariffs. Some hon. Members may be familiar with the idea of economy 7 meters, which have a day rate and a night rate. Smart metering enables a concept that is broadly similar but much more flexible. Broadly speaking, if suppliers can incentivise customers to run their dishwashers while the sun is shining or their washing machines when the wind is blowing, they can take advantage of renewables without the network cost of having to store the electricity until it is needed. As a result, they may be able to avoid having to build a new fossil fuel plant. As we know, there is a problem with peak demand; if we can smooth out electricity use and lower the peak, we will not need quite so much fossil fuel capacity in the energy network to keep the lights on.
There is also an element of future-proofing. In coming years, we may all be driving electric vehicles. The first thing someone will do after coming home from work will be to begin charging the car so that it is ready for the morning commute the next day, which could mean a huge spike in demand in the early evening. Smart meters could pave the way for smart charging—charging in the sense of replenishing the battery—to balance the total demand on the network, and hence the price, against when cars need to be charged. They may not need to be charged straight away to get to 100% capacity by 8 o’clock the following morning. Optimising when they are charged may mean being able to avoid having to fire up gas plants to deal with the evening surge in demand.
That is my very general description, with no numbers attached, of some of the national benefits of the smart metering project. The Committee concluded that, without a proper description,
“there is a risk that the project will become viewed solely as an inefficient way of helping consumers to make small savings on their energy bills.”
When the Committee published its report, the estimated saving for the average dual fuel bill through smart metering or through the behaviour change that it prompts was £26 per year by 2020—about 50p per week. That is the national figure, although I accept that for some people the saving may be considerably greater because they have used the installation of a smart meter to change their own habits at home. The latest assessment downgrades that benefit to only £11 per year by 2020. Surely that is a harder sell to a consumer if the Government cannot explain why smart metering is good for the country too and why it is a valuable investment for the future.
The Committee was clear that the national benefits of smart metering need to be communicated
“alongside emphasising savings for individual customers.”
Unfortunately, the Government dismissed that recommendation on the basis that successful smart metering projects in other countries
“have messages focussed on benefits that are immediately relevant to consumers and not complicated by references to longer-term benefits.”
Will the Minister confirm whether that is still the Government’s view?
We asked the Government to provide us with more information on the national benefits. Disappointingly, that information took the form of a list of three items, which were,
“reduced need for new generation capacity to be built…more efficient use of existing generation assets… and…avoided investment in transmission and distribution networks.”
I think we would all agree that there is a distinct lack of specifics there. Perhaps we are wrong and the national benefits are not of any significance, but if so, the analysis needs a rethink.
If hon. Members had time last week, which I suspect they did not, they may have watched an ITV documentary on smart meters, which concluded that
“the only ones who are sure to benefit are the power companies themselves—and to millions of hard-pressed bill payers, that will sound all too familiar.”
Is it any wonder that reporters are focusing on the tensions between benefits to the individual and to the suppliers, when there appears to have been little attempt to communicate the much wider national benefits of smart metering? If the project is considered only in such simple terms, the Government may have millions of annoyed consumers on their hands. I ask the Minister to address in his remarks the need to explain the national benefit as well as the saving to individual households of £11 a year.
The final theme that I would like to highlight from the report is the need for consumer engagement in order to realise the benefits of smart metering. Witnesses to our inquiry told us that “fit and forget” was not an appropriate approach, because the smartness lies not in the technology itself but in what can be done with it. We told the Government that there must be no compromise on consumer engagement in the rush to meet the roll-out deadline of 2020. If suppliers skimp on their obligations to get as many meters on the wall as possible, consumers will not have the confidence to make use of the information that they provide. I was encouraged by the Government’s response:
“The Government agrees with this recommendation. Consumer engagement is at the heart of the smart meter roll-out in Great Britain. It is central to ensuring consumers realise the benefits of smart metering…The Government is…carrying out further work to assess the provision of post-installation support for vulnerable and pre-payment consumers and will seek to ensure good practice is shared across industry.”
Will the Minister tell us a little more about how that work is going?
Does the Minister think that there is adequate aftercare for consumers? What form is it taking? After all, a new gadget can be quite intimidating for some people. If that gadget ends up in a drawer, it has all been a waste of effort. Vulnerable and pre-payment customers have the most to gain from smart meters, but they strike me as the ones who are most at risk of being neglected after installation. What does the Minister think is the minimum standard of aftercare that we should look for? Is he confident that it is being delivered at the moment?
To allow other hon. Members plenty of time to speak, I will draw my remarks to a close, although the Committee’s report explores many other interesting themes that I am sure will be touched on in the debate. I will conclude with the words of one of the Committee’s final recommendations, which might provide a helpful segue into many other aspects of the project:
“The Government has invested in trialling smart meters and in studies of their impact. Smart Energy GB is also making use of evidence in understanding consumer behaviour. Despite the growing evidence base underpinning the project, there are a number of areas where the Government clearly believes there are misconceptions and misunderstandings about the utility, impact, and security of smart metering. The Government should reflect on these in the context of the mass rollout and consider how best to communicate with consumers on some of these topics.”
Today’s debate could serve as a helpful way of communicating with Members and the wider public on these topics, given that people may already have concerns about the smart metering programme. I look forward to contributions from other hon. Members and to the Minister’s response, which I am sure will address many of the concerns that have been raised.
Members have about 10 minutes each. I call Patricia Gibson to speak.
Thank you, Mr Turner, for calling me to speak, and I also thank the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) for introducing this debate.
I have always been very supportive of the programme to install smart meters. I always believed that smart meters gave consumers control over, and information about, the energy they are using, in near to real time. Smart meters enable the transmission of readings for the amount of gas or electricity being used in each property, as well as the transmission of information from suppliers to consumers, such as current tariff rates. What could possibly go wrong? An in-home display, or IHD, connects with the smart meter and shows consumers exactly how much their bills will be. The Government’s smart metering implementation programme requires energy suppliers to offer 53 million meters to homes and small businesses in Great Britain by 2020. For all these reasons, I was always very supportive of this initiative.
I had understood that high levels of satisfaction with smart meters had been recorded and that consumers were using the technology to help them to gain some control over their energy consumption. I believed that smart meters supported households, as they tried to change their behaviour and conserve energy, which would be good for the environment as well as the purse.
Smart Energy GB found that 82% of smart meter users had taken at least one step to use less energy, that 80% of smart meters were checking their IHD regularly and that 81% of users said they would recommend smart meters to other people.
Smart Energy GB’s campaign seemed to be creating a positive shift in the levels of understanding of smart meters and the propensity to have them installed. Research suggested that the number of people who understood in detail what a smart meter was, what it did and what it could do had risen to 33%, and of those people 71% said that they would be interested in having a smart meter installed if they did not have one already.
However, like the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock, who spoke before me, I have learned—with some concern—that the Science and Technology Committee has found that the Government do not appear to be clear on the benefits of smart meters. The Government listed 11 different objectives for the project, including saving customers money on energy bills, and yet the amount of money saved by individual consumers is, it seems, expected to be small.
The Committee’s report said that the Committee would continue to monitor the implementation of the smart meter programme. I am very interested in longer-term monitoring of it, because the contradictory pictures that are emerging are confusing for consumers. I have been deeply alarmed by some of the findings of the report, which has pointed out that the cost of providing smart meters, some £10.9 billion, is being borne by consumers through their energy bills—an average of £215 per home, including installation costs.
Concern has also been expressed that the smart meters currently being installed are not of the highest specification in terms of function and data security. Indeed, the Committee took evidence that
“the smart meter network is being installed before its requirements as an Internet-connected energy system have been fully determined”.
In addition, in March last year the Financial Times reported that GCHQ had “intervened” in smart metering security and that the agency had discovered glaring loopholes in meter designs. That poses real questions, and consumers need to be reassured that their data and security are robustly protected in the course of this roll-out.
In Scotland, the priority of the Scottish Government is to press the UK Government to ensure that the programme is delivered to the greatest number of Scottish consumers at the lowest possible cost, while enhancing the benefits to the most vulnerable in our communities and those at risk of fuel poverty.
Concerns have also been addressed that the smart meter roll-out may be hindered by a lack of focus and clarity about its purpose. At the heart of this programme, we need consumer satisfaction and a genuine, hard commitment to tackling fuel poverty. If the documentary referred to by the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock is correct that the biggest beneficiaries of smart meters are the power companies themselves, that would be most alarming.
Of course we want consumers to be more energy wise, to be more informed and to have greater control over their energy use, and we want to use all the means at our disposal to tackle fuel poverty. However, this report by the Science and Technology Committee on the costs and benefits of smart meters for consumers can only be described as alarming. It is to be hoped that the recommendations of the report are acted upon as soon as possible.
If smart meters genuinely empower consumers, help them to save money and help to tackle fuel poverty, we await longer-term independent analysis, which will help to illustrate these things unequivocally. I hope that analysis is forthcoming. Consumers are waiting; we are all waiting.
I am glad to have the opportunity to talk about smart meters. I remember when we did the inquiry; it was something that I thoroughly enjoyed and learned a great deal from. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), who is the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, for introducing the debate today.
There is no doubt that we should welcome the roll-out of smart meters, and we do welcome it. There is a genuine opportunity to bring an end to physical meter reading. I live down a very long lane and twice a year some very delightful gentleman finds his way down to where I live, to read the meter. I will talk a little about how successful that has been later on.
I am not looking to put people out of jobs, but where technology helps us to get accurate information and manage our energy use, as well as to provide data that can help to manage the nation’s energy supply and planning, it needs to be welcomed, and I think the smart meter roll-out is welcome.
As we have heard, smart meters have clear benefits. Their introduction has the potential to help consumers to reduce their energy consumption, shift their energy demand away from peak periods, which the Chairman of our Committee referred to earlier, and improve customer choice. Choice is a particularly interesting angle; if smart meters allow people to switch suppliers quickly and to access better tariffs, they must be welcome.
All of these measures will help constituents in west Cornwall and on the Isles of Scilly. We already know that 80% of smart meter owners are taking steps to reduce their energy consumption. According to Smart Energy GB, individuals are turning off lights, switching off the heating at certain times and changing the way in which certain household appliances are used, all in a proactive effort to engage with their energy usage.
I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) mention fuel poverty. My concern is that once people on limited budgets realise how much energy different appliances use, they will start to behave in a way that is harmful to them—particularly older people during winter months. So we need to be very careful about how we communicate with people and empower them to get the best out of their homes.
The smart meter roll-out on its own is not really good enough. I know that this is a slightly separate issue, but the Government must consider how we can improve the efficiency of people’s homes, particularly those of vulnerable people. Otherwise, the smart meter roll-out might actually be detrimental for those households.
Dr Sarah Darby of the Environmental Change Institute has said that smart meters are effective, smart systems that bring together every-day human intelligence and technical ingenuity. We are beginning to hear about some problems with the roll-out, and I am glad that we conducted the inquiry last year. We are well into the programme for 2020. As an elected representative in my first Parliament, I recognise that 2020 is coming around very quickly; it keeps me on my toes every weekend. Far more important, however, is the roll-out of the smart meter programme.
Technological advances should always benefit the consumer; it is really important that that is clear, otherwise we will never get proper engagement. However, the delay in the data communications company’s go-live date has put these benefits at risk. Originally, the company was meant to go live in autumn 2015; in reality, it was late in November 2016—more than a year later—and it was even later for the north of England.
That delayed start has meant that the 2020 deadline for the roll-out of smart meters across the country is rushing up on us. It has created an impractical timetable for suppliers. I am particularly concerned about the smaller energy suppliers. We are trying to encourage them into the market, yet we have created quite a challenge for them to supply their customers with smart meters. The delay to stage 1 of the roll-out has placed the availability of SMETS 1 meters under strain, as purchasing was done on the knowledge that their installation would have been completed a year earlier. I have been speaking to the smaller suppliers, and they are talking about the massive difficulty they have in sourcing the meters and the qualified competent engineers to fit them. There is now a need to extend the roll-out period for SMETS 1 meters to meet the delay in the go-live date and to address the functionality concerns about the SMETS 2 meters, which are being used for the mass roll-out of the scheme.
The lack of planning for the launch and the deadline for the roll-out of smart meters has increased costs and uncertainty for suppliers, who still have to meet the legally binding deadline of 2020. We know full well that if costs increase for suppliers, those costs will only ever go to the consumer. I am always referring to people struggling on limited budgets to meet their energy bills. The strict timetable has also meant that there is less time to test and learn the system, which could lead to greater problems down the line and has meant that many promised benefits for consumers cannot be delivered.
Additionally, part of the changes to the DCC functionality has removed the ability of consumers to switch between credit and prepay modes. In the inquiry, I remember talking about those with prepay meters and the kind of revolution that smart meters would bring for them. Prepay customers pay more for their energy, and they pay up front. Some of the people I meet have no choice; they are in properties that belong to other people. When I talk to social landlords, they see the roll-out of smart meters as an opportunity to help their tenants to reduce their bills and manage their finances more easily. What we are finding is that they are not able to switch between credit and prepay modes. The meters cannot deliver in the way we expected. That is a disadvantage for millions of prepay meter customers across the country as they cannot gain access to the market.
Dr Sarah Darby’s definition of smart meters also pointed to the importance of shaping human behaviours. We have already heard about that today. Improving energy use practices and consumer’s energy know-how are essential to ensuring that the full benefits of smart meters are realised. Data from the “Smart energy outlook” show that awareness of smart metering and its benefits rose by only 7% in the past year. That needs to be improved, and that is despite of Gaz and Leccy. Gaz and Leccy are enormous role models for my children. We watch their adverts regularly. If you do not know Gaz and Leccy, Mr Turner, you must go home and do the research. It will add value to your life. I share an office with three other MPs, and they have spent considerable time in research, watching Gaz and Leccy. They are fantastic adverts. They are absolutely worth watching, and they help to get across the point that we are not in control of the energy we use. However, if we are seeing only a 7% increase in awareness, despite that brilliant media campaign, we are not getting the information out in the way we should. Unless consumers understand the benefit of smart metering, we are not going to win the battle.
I was a builder before I came here. I used to do barn conversions. For many years, in every barn conversion I completed, a smart meter was installed, but often concerns about how the data would be used meant that it was never used. Instead, it was just left on the side. Because it was not integral to the structure of the building, it would just be unplugged. Customers would tell me, “I don’t want my energy supplier knowing when I am making a cup of tea or when I’m getting out of bed or when I’m doing this or something else.” There is a real need to make customers aware of what data are collected, why they are collected, for whose benefit and how they are used. That is a battle we have not yet fully dealt with or addressed.
Smart metering will improve the temporal resolution of energy data, but it will still not differentiate between heating and other energy demand, nor will it show where in the building energy is used so the need to address energy efficiency in the home remains.
There are some connectivity issues with smart meters, and I want to talk about my experience. We did the inquiry last year. I explained that the gentleman walks or drives down my lane a couple of times a year. On an unusual occasion I met him, and he said, “Do you know, your meter is still showing ‘blank’”—I had an old-fashioned meter—“so I have not been able to take a reading for four years?” I said, “Okay. What can I do about it?” He said, “I don’t want to tell you this, because it will put me out of a job, but you ought to put a smart meter in.” I applied for a smart meter and had one fitted. The energy company had estimated how much energy I had used in the past four years. I disputed it and, with the help of my children, managed to reduce the estimate. The energy company gave me a new bill that was considerably less, although that is a matter for another debate altogether.
The smart meter was fitted. Once a month, I have to go outside and take a photo of my smart meter and send that photo over broadband to the supplier, because I do not have connectivity. My smart meter is not connected to anything, because I do not have mobile phone signal. That will be a challenge if we are going to provide 20 million smart meters—or however many we are supplying; it is quite a lot—by 2020.
I am the local MP and, interestingly, the local BBC presenter recently emailed me to say that he had a smart meter fitted, and he has to do exactly the same thing. It is a bit worrying if we are to win public support for smart meters if the local MP and the local BBC presenter have meters that do not work. Clearly, this is a private meeting, so I am not telling the world that my smart meter does not work, but I do enjoy telling the story.
I have no idea whether the hon. Gentleman lives in Cornwall—he is clearly not getting a signal—but it is a much more general problem. At the present time, the smart meters are not functional in tall buildings. Does he consider that to be as big a problem as the one facing those living in the remoter parts of Cornwall?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I thank him for that intervention. I raised the issue because I am wedded to the idea of getting smart meters. If we get them right, they are a fantastic thing, and we should be ambitious, but the roll-out will be flawed and difficult to recover if we cannot deal with the connectivity issues. The issue is not just for the Minister; it is for the whole of Government to recognise the challenge of giving each of us the best available modern-day technology. I will move on, because I am probably taking too long.
The roll-out of smart meters will undoubtedly help my constituents in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, but there is work to do to convince them of the benefits and how smart meters can help them manage their energy better and in a different way, so that we do not place such a demand on, dare I say it, fossil and nuclear power. In Cornwall, we generate more energy than we use, such that wind turbines are turned off. If we get it right, and we learn to store energy, we will get people moving to electricity and away from oil for heating. We will be able to be much smarter about the generation and use of energy.
Smart meters have an important part to play, but the Government need to look at the challenge of delivering the programme by 2020. There is a real need for an independent review of the safety, cost and deliverability of the roll-out of smart meters. We must consider the pressure that suppliers are under to find and retain qualified engineers, to source the meters that will do the job and to ensure that they are fitted in a way that helps rather than hinders the consumer. The 2020 deadline is too ambitious. The cost and expertise required for installing smart meters has been underestimated, and if we stick to the current deadline, the impact on consumer experience will undoubtedly be negative. That is a shame, because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get it right.
To conclude, it is clear that the intentions behind the roll-out of smart meters are good. I am absolutely a fan of the ambition, but we have to accept that the timetable is over-ambitious and potentially harmful to consumers. We therefore must use caution, re-evaluate the timetable and draw on the words of Benjamin Franklin—we must prepare properly, or prepare for smart meters to fail. I did not write that last bit, and I am not sure that it is the best bit of my speech. Thank you very much, Mr Turner.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner.
I think there is something in the pathology of Government in this country—civil servants and Ministers —that means that we do not seem to learn from every new IT or technology project that goes wrong; we just wait for the next one to come along and that goes wrong. I think it was as long ago as 2000 that the then Minister of State in the Cabinet Office, Sir Ian McCartney, produced a special report, which, from memory, covered 12 IT projects that had gone wrong at horrific cost. Everybody said what a good report it was—which it was—but have Government learned from that? No. One could go through NHS recordkeeping, the Home Office, national insurance record systems, Libra—there are a whole series of IT projects that have put huge costs on the public accounts.
There are some real difficulties with smart meters, and I agree with the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson). We have good reason to be alarmed, however sensible it is to be in support of people having more real-time information about the energy they are consuming. Who could disagree with that as a reasonable objective? But let us look first at the Government’s cost-benefit figures, which the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), the Chair of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, referred to.
Written evidence to the Committee said that the process the Government had used to get a cost of £12.1 billion and a net benefit of £4 billion was intellectual slosh, when compared to eight other international studies, and asked some fairly fundamental questions. Why, when Texas has 350 pages of regulations to cover its smart meter system, does our system have 7,000 pages? I have not only had the pleasure of taking part in the Science and Technology Committee’s report; I also sat on the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change with the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead). We asked just how many pages there were on the SMETS 2 meters, and it was a huge number of pages. One has to ask why there is no comparison. Why is it that in Italy and Spain the individual cost of meters is about half the price that they are in this country? The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran pointed to one of the reasons. There are 11 objectives and in anything with 11 objectives, things will get lost.
One of the major objectives, however it is stated, is to stabilise the energy network. It can be destabilised because we are using intermittent sources of energy, such as photovoltaics and wind farms. When there is a big change in the wind or sunshine, that can destabilise the network. Smart meters can help to stabilise that. That is one objective. It is a national objective, the costs of which have been put on the individual energy consumer. I do not think that is fair. The German assessment—one of the eight other studies referred to—found that there was really only a benefit of moving to smart meters when individual consumption was more than 6,500 kwh per annum. That means there would only be a benefit for 10% of consumers.
There is a great deal to be worried about, including the background, the assessments and the principles. The incompatibility between the SMETS 1 and SMETS 2 systems, which has also already been referred to, is a real problem that is yet to be solved. An even bigger problem is that when Ministers were asked by the Energy and Climate Change Committee—my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test may well have asked the question—what will keep the costs of the project down, because the Government have no control over that, the answer was “competition”. When British Gas are the near-monopoly supplier of the meters, that is not good enough.
The costs are going up, there is no compatibility between SMETS 1 and SMETS 2 meters, and if someone changes energy supplier, the meter will not work, so all the benefits of knowing the level of consumption disappear. That points to a fundamental flaw in the design. The meters should have been supplied, owned and paid for by the network supply companies, not directly by the electricity suppliers. If competition is what is going to keep price down, but a customer cannot move easily and get the benefit of a smart meter, it simply will not work.
I would almost guarantee without asking that every person in this room has a smartphone—we meet some people without smartphones, but very few indeed. In a common-sense world, a sensible system of trying to get immediate information—I accept it would not work at the moment in the more remote parts of Cornwall and perhaps Scotland—would be for someone to get the information directly to their smartphone and to have the control on their smartphone as well. That would solve the problem of the system not working if they changed supplier and of having to go somewhere to look at the meter.
I was in the British Embassy in Finland nearly 17 years ago, when a representative of Nokia showed me how he could close the curtains in his house and change which electrical appliances were working. Yet we started 10 years later, putting in systems that are less good than that Nokia system was then. We have to answer the question of why the system we are putting in is essentially obsolete, and chunky. It does not seem sensible.
One point that has not yet been made is that of security. We had a private briefing from GCHQ, which was quite reassuring, but we also got contradictory evidence from the Royal Academy of Engineering, which told us:
“The smart meter network is being installed before its requirements as an Internet-connected energy system have been fully determined”,
“the threat of cyber attacks—either to gain information, ‘steal’ electricity or disrupt supply—is real and pressing…Disruption to energy and gas supplies at a massive scale is possible, either from cyber attack or errors in software.”
It went on to say that those are not the only threats to the system, and that it could be threatened by rogue programmers.
I think the idea of having complete knowledge of the energy that one consumes is a desirable objective, but we are doing this in a way that will be not appreciated by the consumer and will probably cost them money. I have one final question for the Minister. There has been a large assessment of this scheme, and I understand that there were four years of freedom of information requests before the document was published. Will the Minister put it into the House of Commons Library? If he will not, will he explain why?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I thank the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) for securing this debate. I have learned this afternoon that there are two things I need to see: first, the ITV documentary, if I can get it on catch up; and, secondly, Gaz and Leccy, which I have not seen, but then again I do not watch television—that is my excuse and I will stick to it. It is interesting that the documentary said that energy companies have so far been the biggest beneficiaries of smart meters. That fact was reflected in the comments of several hon. Members.
Smart meters were billed as transformational—they were going to revolutionise the way we use and monitor energy—but, a number of years into the smart meter roll-out, it seems that the benefits to consumers are limited and amount to a few pounds a year. The cost of the roll-out—£10.9 billion, or £215 per household—certainly seems far greater than any of the benefits. The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) talked about the different price in parts of Europe where similar schemes have been rolled out at a much lower cost. We need to look at that.
There are great benefits to using smart meters. Up-to-date billing allows consumers to spread the cost of their energy use, which can be very important in tackling fuel poverty, and the real-time usage information allows consumers to monitor what is going on. One of the things we do with our smart meter at home—these are the great games that we play as we do not have a television—is to see how we can reduce the house’s energy consumption by going round switching things off and seeing what difference it makes. It is incredible to see the difference that switching on a kettle can make. Things such as that can make consumers think more carefully about how they use energy, so it does have benefits. Meter data can be used to smooth demand on the grid, as the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock spoke about in detail.
There are lots of challenges to the roll-out. The fact that the mobile phone network is being used to relay the information to the energy companies is problematic in some areas, and completely restrictive to the point of not working, as we have heard, in others. We know that that is a problem in rural areas—the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) said that he has to take a photograph and send it to the energy company. The roll-out will obviously be more challenging in rural areas—I am thinking about the highlands and islands of Scotland in particular. It is easy to install a lot of meters in an area of high population density, but it is more difficult when people are scattered widely across an area.
The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton mentioned flats and offices. That is an ongoing issue, which has to be looked at far more seriously than it is at the moment. The lack of qualified installers means it will be a challenge to reach the 2020 target, which the hon. Member for St Ives spoke about. I visited Scottish Gas’s training centre in Hamilton near Glasgow a few months ago. I saw smart meter installers being trained, and I looked at the equipment they use. Scottish Gas has lots of apprentices, and they are being trained not only in installation but in customer service and engagement. I am not sure every consumer gets service as good as those installers are being trained to provide.
A number of hon. Members mentioned the issue of data. Obviously, data can be used by energy companies to monitor consumption, but in our inquiry the Science and Technology Committee looked at the issue of who, other than the energy companies, is able to access the data. We asked whether, for example, somebody would be able to see that a person’s energy consumption had dropped, and therefore infer that they were not at home or on holiday. My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) raised the issue of GCHQ’s intervention in smart meter technology.
We know that certain demographics are more reluctant to engage with technology—I am thinking of elderly people in particular. Some of these meters are extremely user-friendly, but that is not always the case. The hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock talked in great detail about the difficulties with SMETS 1 meters—first-generation meters. The problem is not just the incompatibility of those meters. There is also the issue that some of the new meters being installed are of a far lower standard than others. There is great variety in the meters that are being installed. The ones that I saw at Scottish Gas were all-singing, all-dancing, and could probably make a cup of tea as well, but the meter I have got is far less interactive. There is a real danger—we have seen this happen—that after a short time people toss the meter, or at least the display unit, in a draw or a cupboard somewhere.
I agree with all the hon. Lady’s points. I do not think this issue was covered in our Committee’s report, but is she concerned that the cost of a second meter falls on the customer? The report shows that there is not enough advantage for the customer, compared with the energy companies.
Absolutely. As I said at the start of my speech, the energy companies are the biggest beneficiaries of the smart metering programme. If a customer has to pay another £250 for a second meter because they have changed suppliers, it makes changing too costly. The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton talked about the use of smartphones as a display, instead of using the units. Perhaps that is something for the future.
Fuel poverty was mentioned by a number of speakers, including my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran and the hon. Member for St Ives. The hon. Gentleman talked about vulnerable consumers seeing the amount of energy they were using and possibly being unwilling to heat their homes. That is a danger, but the biggest danger in that case is possibly the cost of energy and fuel poverty, rather than the meter.
To finish, I have a few questions for the Minister. First, what support will there be for people who have first-generation meters that could be obsolete even before the 2020 roll-out? Secondly, what will the Government do to increase consumer engagement, to make people more energy savvy and allow them to see how best to use their meter? Thirdly, will the Minister reassure all of us that the 2020 target for smart meter roll-out must not be met at the expense of the consumer?
I congratulate the Science and Technology Committee on its excellent report, which has been the subject of our discussions this afternoon. I also congratulate the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) on his success in obtaining the debate and on his presentation of the Committee’s concerns, which started an exceptionally well-informed debate about smart meters and their roll-out. I add a caveat, however: the problem is that the more we are informed about the subject, the more questions arise about what has happened, what will happen and what is going on with smart meter roll-out.
A number of those questions arise from what the Select Committee characterised as the multiplicity of aims set out by the Government for smart meter roll-out, and from the dissonance between what are presented as the benefits of the roll-out and what the various benefits actually are. Across this Chamber, I think we would say that those benefits from smart meters are real and considerable over a period time, but they are not necessarily cast as much for the public’s benefit as they are presented.
We do not need to look at a television documentary to tell us where and how the benefits fall, because the Select Committee report provides a helpful breakdown, derived from the 2014 impact assessment of the smart meter balance of benefits. The report sets out, perhaps more widely than in some of our discussion, what range of benefits occurs to what section of the industry and to consumers as a result of the smart meter roll-out.
For example, the Select Committee report sets out the estimated total benefits of smart meters, once they have been installed completely: more than £5 billion accrues to consumers from energy saving and micro- generation; but supplier benefits—the big six energy companies and others—come in at £8 billion, arising from avoided site visits, fewer inquiries and other such things related to the management of energy supply. The benefits also spray out to the rest of the energy industry: network benefits from reduced losses, reduced outage notification calls, fault fixing and so on come in at an estimated £1 billion; and generation benefits from avoided investment in generation from peak shifting through time-of-use arrangements and so on are getting on for another £1 billion.
That picture of the estimated benefits—based on Government figures—clearly shows that the consumer benefit is a fraction of the overall figure. The entire cost of the smart meter roll-out, however, will clearly be borne by that first group I mentioned, the consumers. I worry a little that that continues to be obfuscated in any presentation of what is happening with smart meters.
For example, the 2016 impact assessment—which by the way considerably downgrades the total benefits available and substantially increases the amount for the costs engaged in the system, in particular for DCC—insists on stating:
“Energy suppliers will be required to fund the capital costs of smart meters and IHDs. They will also pay for the installation, operation and maintenance of this equipment plus the communications hub (which links the smart meters to the supplier via the DCC).”
I imagine that that paragraph looks okay from the Government point of view, because it emphasises that the Government are not paying. At the other end, however, consumers are.
Consumers will probably pay somewhere between £130 and £200 on their bills to recover the costs of the installation of a smart meter on their property. Just this week two of the big six companies announced sky-high increases in their bills. They stated that the increase is as a result of the price surge in rising wholesale energy prices and—admitting this, I think, for the first time—the Government’s smart meter policy. They specifically state that of the 10% increase, a substantial element is because of the smart meter policy.
Among other things I would like to hear from the Minister this afternoon—it would save me some time, because I sent him a written question on this precise issue, so perhaps we will short-circuit the reply process—is, what are energy companies doing about their recovery of money from smart meters? If what is being said about the recent price rises is an accurate depiction of where the increases come from, at the very least energy companies are seeking to recover the cost of smart meters up-front in tariffs, rather than spreading it over a longer period. If that is the case, the £100 increase on the fuel bill as a result of price increases by the two companies can be depicted as a recovery of between £30 and £40 of smart meter costs in that price alone, which looks like a substantially greater amount of recovery than should have been the case given the spread out nature of the installation of smart meters and what is meant to be the recovery of costs over a period of time.
Has the Minister had any discussions with the energy companies about their policy for the recovery of the cost of smart meter introduction? How will they do that and what will be the impact on bills, bearing in mind that we know that consumers will be paying for it?
I have a great deal of sympathy with the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) made that it does not seem right for consumers to bear the whole cost of the introduction and roll-out of smart meters in the way that has been described, particularly given that the benefits are spread across the industry.
The other point that worries me on the basis of better information is the progress of smart meter roll-out. The Select Committee drew attention to that issue, but it is also apparent from the most recent impact assessment, which came out in late 2016, and the announcement at the end of 2016, which the Chair of the Select Committee pointed out, that DCC had finally gone live-ish at the end of November. I make two points about the significance of DCC going live. First, it announced that it had gone live on precisely the last day before it would have started paying penalties for not going live. It announced that it was going live in only two out of the three areas that it operated in, and that it would go live in the third area a month later.
Secondly, the going-live document contained pages and pages of “workarounds”—in English, that means “things we haven’t resolved yet”—and those appear still to be substantially outstanding. I understand from talking to people who rely on DCC going live to get going with SMETS 2 meters in a coherent way that a good proportion of those workarounds and the way things are presently configured render it difficult reliably to go live on those meters. So, to paraphrase a phrase that we have heard recently, is DCC going live actually DCC going live? Are there still issues with DCC, and particularly SMETS 2 roll-out, that we need to look at?
Finally, one of the consequences of roll-out not having started very quickly and SMETS 1 meters having been rolled out that may well be obsolete and need to be replaced in the second phase of roll-out is that in the 2016 impact assessment, there is a curve for roll-out—not just the roll-out itself but the speed of the roll-out—with a gradient that bears no resemblance to the gradient of the curve in the 2014 impact assessment. Contrary to previous suggestions that about a million and a bit meters per year would be installed between 2017-18 and 2018-19 before the finishing date of 2020, it is now suggested that 2.5 million meters should be installed per year. The industry says that it will be impossible to do that over that period.
All that adds up to the suggestion that the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) made that it may be time for a review of what is going on, so that we are clear that we can achieve the roll-out on time and it will have the expected benefits for customers, on the basis of a fair distribution of costs and benefits.
I call the Minister, who has until 2.58 pm.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I hope that you have got something out of the debate. At the very least, we have had an introduction to Gaz and Leccy, courtesy of my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas).
I congratulate the Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), his Committee and its previous Chairman for an extremely useful report and debate. He described our commitment to ensure that every household and small business is offered a smart meter by the end of 2020 as a “major project”. I think he rather underestimates it, and we need to bear that in mind.
It is absolutely right and a central part of a functional democracy that Select Committees and Opposition parties probe, prod, ask tough questions and even, in our view, tip over the line into spreading alarm. That is how we operate, and it is entirely right, particularly when we are faced with a project on this scale, not least as the past is littered with good intention and bad execution, as the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) pointed out. I therefore entirely welcome the challenge that we have heard during the debate, but I urge hon. Members not to lose sight of the context.
We are talking about an upgrade of a significant part of our infrastructure—a 100-year-old technology that means that far too many people receive bills on which their consumption is estimated. We do not tolerate that in the supermarket, so why on earth, in 2017, should we tolerate it at home? Our energy system is absolutely functional to a smart and prosperous economy, so why should people continue to be dependent on a technology that is so out of date? That is the context: it is about upgrading out-of-date infrastructure as part of a bigger transformation and transition process in our energy system.
I think there is cross-party agreement about the opportunity and need to move to a smart system that is more flexible and ultimately cheaper, and which our constituents feel they have more control over. I do not think there is any real resistance to the direction of travel, but the debate sits in that important context. Hon. Members have posed tough questions and challenges, which I will do my best to respond to, but those who know anything about system change and consumer behaviour change should recognise that some of the momentum is genuinely encouraging, and we must not lose sight of that. Almost 5 million customers now have smart meters, and the economic analysis continues to suggest that they will have a net benefit of £5.7 billion. We do not obfuscate about that in any way, and that analysis is regularly updated.
[Robert Flello in the Chair]
The Chairman of the Select Committee talked about the benefit to consumers. I know the point he was trying to make, but we are all aware that consumers are concerned about costs. Evidence from British Gas surveys suggests that consumers with smart meters save 3% or so on their energy bills, which, in my experience, is material, and I think he also knows that those savings will grow as we move towards 2030.
One important piece of information that has been missing from this debate is that consumers like smart meters. Surveys suggest that something like eight out of 10 people with smart meters would recommend them to their friends. There are of course big challenges around implementing them—how could there not be?—but we are driving hard a process that our constituents like and which is an important part of upgrading the country’s infrastructure.
I will do my best to address the issues that have been raised, particularly by the Chairman of the Select Committee, whose points were valid. He quite rightly presses us on the need to tackle the technical limitations, which are real. A conscious decision was taken to proceed with SMETS 1, because first-stage smart meters do deliver some benefits and were an essential part of the process of getting a supplier system moving and helping to prepare for installation. Of course, we do not want our constituents to trade off the opportunity to get a better tariff against the opportunity to retain smart functionality. That is clear.
I assure my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock that the DCC has begun the project to enrol the SMETS 1 smart meters from 2018 in order to make them usable by all energy suppliers rather than just the one that initially installed them. This is an issue I feel strongly about and the Government will be watching extremely carefully. There has been a consultation. Nothing I have heard gives me cause for alarm at this stage but it is extremely important that we end up at a destination where the early smart meters are usable by all energy suppliers and constituents do not face trade-offs between tariff and functionality.
My hon. Friend pressed me on national benefits and the need to make a broader case than the simple proposition, “This will save you money.” That is an interesting debate, and it is the same kind of debate and challenge that I am wrestling with, as Minister for Climate Change, in engaging people with climate change. Do we try to frame it in language that talks simply about things that are closer to home and more relevant to our constituents, or do we try to put it into a bigger picture of public good? Most of the advice suggests that when trying to propose something to a consumer or our constituents, it is better to focus on the issues and concerns most directly relevant to them.
I would draw a distinction between, as it were, a marketing proposition to a consumer and our constituents and the need for this place, with its processes of accountability, transparency and scrutiny, to be clear about what we are trying to do and what the wider benefits are. That is entirely valid. My hon. Friend wanted more information about the system benefits, which are a clear part of the net benefits analysis, and I think they are real. They fit into the broader strategic thrust that the Department is now leading on, in moving towards a smarter system. He may be aware that we put out a call for evidence recently and we are receiving information on that. That information about how smart meters fit into a broader strategic thrust to make the system more smart and flexible will be transparent and open to accountability and scrutiny.
My hon. Friend asked about consumer engagement. He is entirely right about that, because ultimately smart meters must be a fantastic consumer experience; otherwise, these things will sit in drawers and get ignored—everything that the contributors to the debate have rightly pointed to. That is why we mandated the setting up of Smart Energy GB and mandated energy suppliers to engage with their consumers before, during and after installation. Smart Energy GB is working with trusted third parties, including Citizens Advice, National Energy Action, the National Housing Federation and Age UK, among many others, to ensure that customers can access advice about the roll-out. I should add that we are conducting our own research into consumers’ experience about the service they get after installation, which is a point he made specifically.
I am concerned about the exaggeration of the benefit for customers. In the Select Committee we found that we have one of the smallest variations between peak and standard demand of almost any country in the world. I put it to the Minister that we should be honest with consumers and say, “No, it is the companies and the Government, in policy making, who will benefit from this most.”
I am not sure that is entirely right. My hon. Friend is right that the benefits are not restricted entirely to consumers, but that has been made public; we have been open about that. Missing from the debate is an acknowledgment that suppliers face costs associated with installing the meters, which need to be recovered. Yes, there are system benefits, but this is not something that does not benefit our constituents and consumers. We want less cost in the system and a smarter system, and if the meters contribute to that, that is good. I come back to—not estimates, but actuals, if we believe it—the large British Gas survey of their customers, who are achieving 3% savings. That is not immaterial, particularly because, as she well knows—she is close to her constituents’ concerns—we are in a climate where people are concerned about rising energy costs, as we saw the other day.
This is not what we investigated, but, as the Minister knows, the direct debit monthly bills for customers with smart meters still use estimates.
We need to move on from estimates—that is part of the point. We do not make purchases or pay estimated bills in other areas, so why should we in this area? The whole point is to move to a system where we can pay for what we use. The point I am labouring is that the actual data, not the estimates or predictions, suggest that people are saving money now, and not in an immaterial way. If the projections are right, that will grow.
I want to say something briefly about privacy and reach, which I know from having tackled this in a previous debate is a particular concern for many communities in Scotland. Suppliers must take all reasonable steps to reach all households in Great Britain, islands included. Privacy has been an important issue from the start; in fact, I remember constituents raising it with me. Let me assure the House that a robust privacy framework is in place. The central principle of the framework is that consumers have control over who can access their consumption data and only authorised parties can access consumption data through the Data Communications Company.
I hope that I have addressed some of the principal concerns. Let me address a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives and others, questioning the ambition and pace. We hear that point, not least from suppliers, and we tend to hear it from those suppliers who are performing less well than others. I think the House is savvy enough to know that some of the motives behind such questioning and challenge may be mixed. Our position is that we recognise that the situation is challenging, but we are driving system change and it needs to be driven hard. We review the situation and will continue to do so and to listen.
I do not see any argument at this stage that the Government should send a signal of weakening ambition. Far from it. Actually, given the prizes attached to this, if we want to get it right—a lot is work in progress in tackling some of the thorny, difficult issues that underlie it—it is not right to send any signal of slipping ambition. For that reason, I come back to my main point, Mr Flello —it is good to see you in the Chair. This is not a trivial issue; it is a fundamental piece in the broader picture of how we upgrade our critical energy infrastructure to deliver a better system for our constituents.
Welcome to the Chair, Mr Flello. I thank the Minister for his words and for some of his assurances. Forgive me if I failed to recognise the scale of the challenge. I do not; I get that it is a huge undertaking. However, he will agree that the role of the Science and Technology Committee is to provide challenge where possible. We all recognise that there are huge potential benefits to be found through smart metering. We want those benefits to be available as quickly as possible and for them to be rolled out in a way that we can all understand.
We heard praise and concern in all the contributions. I have a long list of people, which I will not have time to go through, but they covered issues around fuel poverty and who actually gains: the consumer or the supplier? The one issue I had not imagined would come up this afternoon was using a smart meter as a replacement for a television, running around the house, seeing what to switch off. However, from my experience, I know when someone has left their straighteners or a television on in the house, because the meter goes into the red, and we do benefit from that.
We all want this programme to work, and with enough effort I am sure we will get it to work. We will continue to keep an eye on it, and I am sure that the Minister will also—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
The hon. Lady is giving a graphic account of the difficulties that Mrs Tenniswood and many other women have faced. Mrs Tenniswood has paid national insurance contributions for 42 years. Is it not the case that somebody in her situation was doing that under the impression that that was a contract with the Government—an entitlement to a pension? The hon. Lady has described how Mrs Tenniswood has had to write and ask for her pension statement, but the Government should have communicated with Mrs Tenniswood. That failure of communication has not allowed people the time to properly prepare, which is the real damage caused by the changes.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right—there is a sense of a broken contract between the state and hard-working citizens. The failure to give adequate notice means that the changes could not have been planned for. The consequences of many life decisions that WASPI women have taken are now that they face many years of reduced income that they could not have anticipated.
Mrs Tenniswood’s experience is far from unique. One woman told me that she has a neck injury and spondylitis —two debilitating diseases that would exclude her from many jobs. She said:
“I do not want to be forced to work until I drop.”
Why should she be? Another woman told me that she had recently been diagnosed with osteophytic lipping in her hips. She said:
“I am not so mobile as I once was. I cannot possibly carry on getting in and out of a car with the chemist’s deliveries—”
that is her job—
“30 to 50 times a day.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Constituents of mine have been in exactly the same position as Mrs Tenniswood, so her case is not exceptional, but unfortunately very much the norm. These women have paid in year after year and then, when they come to take back something that they thought they would receive, it is not there. Not only that, but they cannot get other entitlements that are linked to the age of retirement, so it makes things very difficult for them. Sometimes, if they fall on hard times, the Department for Work and Pensions deals with them in a way that is demeaning, which also does not help.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I said, part of the debate is about dignity in old age. It is also about the contract with the state. In fact, he has anticipated what I was going to say. In the case of Mrs Tenniswood, one bureaucratic letter took away the certainty that she had had for most of her working life in a very hard trade. The belief that the state would provide her with a pension in her old age—one she had earned—was torn to shreds.
Because Mrs Tenniswood is working class, her life expectancy is lower. In Newcastle, the gap in average life expectancy between inner-city Byker and more affluent South Gosforth is 12.6 years, and the gap is rising under this Government. This pattern is repeated across the country. Owing to the health inequalities from which we still suffer, working-class women are on average expected to die seven years earlier than their peers from more affluent backgrounds. When Mrs Tenniswood finally receives her pension, she can expect to have less time to enjoy it than other women of her age, and she is likely to have a worse experience of old age.
A quarter of Newcastle’s neighbourhoods are in the 10% most deprived in the country. In Newcastle, we are more likely to die earlier from cancer, heart disease and strokes. We suffer from the diseases of our industrial legacy, such as asbestosis. Heart attacks are responsible for 1,100 premature deaths in the north-east every year, which is higher than the national average because of the income disparity. Such inequality is replicated in regions across the country. Data from the Office for National Statistics tell us that, compared with women who live in more affluent areas, working-class women will live for 19 years longer in poor health. So they live shorter lives and a higher proportion of their time is spent in poor health before they die. That is also true of working-class men; I recognise that. They also suffer from significant health inequalities, but, as we have heard, they have not had their expectations of retirement overturned without any attempt to ease the transition.
Our pension system, and the wider system of social security of which it is a part, was founded on the principles of reciprocity, justice and fairness. I fail to see anything just, fair or reciprocal in the treatment of the WASPI women by the Department for Work and Pensions. The Government have rejected many opportunities to deliver a fair settlement for WASPI women, and by accelerating the changes they have embedded unfairness. To add insult to injury, they insist on ignoring and trivialising the issue.
Last week the Minister, who is with us today, refused to use the phrase “working-class” in what passed for an answer to my question on the subject, and argued that
“we are all working now.”—[Official Report, 2 February 2017; Vol. 620, c. 1171.]
I take issue with that premise. In Newcastle, unemployment stands at 5.4% of the economically active population, which is almost twice the national average, and that figure is rising year on year. The figures are even bleaker for older adults. Nationally, the employment rate for people aged 50 to 64 is only 70%. Last Thursday—the same day I asked the Minister my question—the DWP published a guide to help employers hire older workers, noting that three out of four retiring men and two thirds of women have not worked for five or more years. So we are not all working now. Perhaps the Minister was not informed that that was a priority for her Department: hardly an example of joined-up Government.
Irrespective of whether the Minister believes that we are all working now, the conditions that we work in are not equal. Perhaps the Minister should consider that not all women were so fortunate as she was, staying in full-time education until the age of 22—[Interruption.]—21. The Minister corrects me. And immediately starting work as a researcher for an MEP who happened to be her father. I do not want to make assumptions, so perhaps the Minister will clarify whether she considers the job working for her father, or a subsequent one as chief executive officer of the National Pony Society, to have been manual labour.
One of the women who got in touch with me told me:
“The Conservative Government has never had pocket money, just blank cheques—they have no idea about the real world.”
I will leave it to others to decide whether that is a fair depiction, but it is obvious that the Government have not done enough to help the women. Talk of a Government who work for working people would be laughable were it not such a serious subject.
Whenever such issues are raised, we are told that we live in a country with a social security system that prevents changes such as the change in pension age from leading to hardship. If the Government seriously believe that our social security system—gutted under Tory changes since 2010—is providing adequately for the women, perhaps it is true that
“they have no idea about the real world.”
However, I will give the Minister the opportunity to demonstrate her understanding of reality by asking her: first, does she acknowledge the existence of working-class women? Secondly, does she acknowledge that although many more of us may be working now, working-class women, who often face the challenges of poverty predominantly in manual trades, have specific experiences? Thirdly, does she acknowledge that working-class women were more likely to start working earlier, and to work in jobs that take a higher toll on the body? Fourthly, does she acknowledge that working-class women are more likely to die younger and to suffer more ill health in retirement? Fifthly, does she acknowledge that they are more likely to be more dependent on the state pension, not having benefited from subsidised work pensions? Does she agree that those five factors make it much more likely that they will not benefit from their retirement to the extent that more privileged groups do, and that the state pension changes are therefore more unjust? Will she commit to considering transitional arrangements for WASPI women? Will she commit to working with the Treasury to announce a solution to the dire predicament in which so many women have been left in the forthcoming Budget?
I called this debate on behalf of all women whose lives have been blighted owing to the ill-considered and discriminatory nature of the changes. As I started with the example of a constituent, I would now like to end with the experience of another working-class woman who, to my great regret, did not live long enough to be a constituent of mine: my mother.
My mother was born in the 1920s in the depths of another great depression when there was no national health service. She grew up in Newcastle in great poverty. Of her six siblings, only one survived into adulthood. Five died of the diseases of poverty: diseases that, in the absence of the national health service, destroyed the lives of so many and had consequences much later in life, causing health inequalities that the health service cannot eradicate—certainly not one as underfunded as the NHS is now. I am sure that that childhood poverty influenced her life expectancy. She died before her 70th birthday, but had lived—cheerfully—with ill health and disability for two decades previously.
It is absolutely iniquitous to imagine that my mother would have had perhaps just three or four years of pension —and that in great ill health—because the Government cannot recognise a fundamental injustice, and, indeed, do not even recognise the existence of working-class women. The debate is, however, not about my mother’s experience, or even Mrs Tenniswood’s experience; it is about the experiences of tens of thousands of working-class women whose lives and retirement have been blighted by changes that were ill-advised and poorly implemented, and in which they and their experiences were not considered.
I want to close my remarks with a small selection of quotations from the appeals that I received. One woman said:
“Stress has made me so ill, physically exhausted and mentally struggling to survive”.
“Being too disabled to work is humiliating enough without being made to suffer further humiliation at my age. Hopes, dreams and careful plans to enjoy our retirement shattered. Savings all gone, future bleak! No letter, no notice.”
This came from another woman:
“I am at times very depressed as it felt like I had done a prison sentence for 44 years then, just before my release date, it was extended another six years.”
I came into politics to fight for people like those women, but I am not simply fighting on their behalf. I am fighting with them, side by side.
Another WASPI woman said:
“My mother welded fan blades for Ford Dagenham and it was women who all stood shoulder to shoulder that achieved equal pay for women.
Nothing is ever impossible if women are united in their cause.”
I believe that to be the case and I plead with the Minister to heed the voices of the thousands of working-class WASPI women who are crying out for justice.
I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) and congratulate her on bringing the debate forward today. We are again focusing on the effect of the state pension age on working-class women. The motion of course concerns those women who were informed, with little notice, that the pension they expected to receive at 60 had moved further away from them, upsetting their plans for retirement, and perhaps interfering with caring responsibilities, or disrupting plans to spend time with grandchildren or allow sons and daughters to enter or re-enter the workforce. As has been pointed out, those women, whom the motion refers to as working-class, can most easily be identified as women doing demanding physical jobs for low pay. They are jobs requiring good health; perhaps there is an expectation that workers will stand or be on their feet for long hours, or perhaps physical strength is required.
As we have heard quite graphically, many women in their 60s cannot easily do such jobs. When we are in our 60s, like it or not, we are past our physical best. We expect to be able to take our lives a little easier after a lifetime of work—and why should the women in question not expect that, given that their contract with the state was, “Pay in and you will get paid out at 60”? Any change to that has to be planned well in advance. The women were not paid that courtesy or afforded that justice. This is the sixth or seventh debate—I have lost count—on the injustices done to the women affected by the changes. They are angry, because those controlling the levers of power seem not to be listening, because those with the power to put things right are stonewalling them and those speaking up for them, and because they are having to fight, organise, march, demonstrate and agitate to win back what was so wrongfully and cruelly taken from them, in some cases with shockingly—appallingly—little notice.
I believe that the women are right to be angry. I suspect that many of those taking part in the debate are angry on their behalf. Amid all the important and tragic things on the political agenda—all the carry-on about Brexit, the use of EU nationals as bargaining chips, the turning away of child refugees from war-torn countries, and nuclear missiles that do not appear to project in the direction in which they are fired—the women are determined that their voices will not be drowned out. The UK Government appear to believe that if they sit tight, the women will go away. They will not; they have nowhere to go. They need their pensions so that they can live with dignity and some kind of peace of mind. It is not pin money that they seek; it is their rightful pension, which they need to pay their bills, put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. The Government hope and believe that they will go away. Where should they go—and where can they go, without justice?
Thousands of pounds have been robbed from those women, who must have seemed an easy target for the austerity agenda. If the Government want to equalise pensions, fine. No one here is arguing against that, but it should have been done properly, by which I mean that the Government should have given all the women fair and proper notice. That is it. It is not complicated and it should not be controversial. As it is, women who have worked all their lives, often suffering pay discrimination relative to their male counterparts, are in the appallingly cruel situation of being denied the dignity and financial support that they need and deserve in retirement—the pensions that they contributed to.
If those contracts with the state can be so easily disregarded or altered without proper notice, what does it say about citizens’ relationship with the state? I am sure that if a private pension provider had behaved as the Government are doing now, the pensions ombudsman would have something to say on the matter. It looks as if the only recourse to the women who have been robbed of their rightful pensions is through the courts. It is a disgrace that they have been left with that option in the face of an intractable, stubborn and heartless lack of movement from the Government. I wish all the women well in their fight for justice, and I and my party will stand beside them as long as justice is denied them.
The dispute is not about affordability, as the UK Government often like to pretend. The women contributed to the state, paid their taxes and did all the things that they believed they should as good citizens. If every global organisation, every business and every individual in the UK paid their taxes—instead of which, so many of them do all they can to avoid it—there would be more money to go round. Instead, as too often happens, ordinary citizens at the bottom of the heap are punished, while those who actively avoid contributing to the Treasury appear to be protected. People are alienated from politics. They feel that the system is always stacked against ordinary, hard-working, decent folk who go quietly about their business. There is no starker example of that than the treatment of women born in the 1950s.
The WASPI women will not be quiet. They will continue to raise their voices to cry out against the injustice, and we in the Scottish National party will cry out with them. These women will not allow their quest for justice to be dismissed. Wasps can sting and the Government need to watch out. All that is required is for justice, decency and honesty to prevail, and the argument will end. It is not too late for the Government to do the right thing—giving the women the pensions they are due; no more, no less. Then let us put the whole sorry, awful business behind us, so that they can enjoy their well-deserved retirement, after a lifetime of work.
I had not intended to speak this afternoon, Mr Flello, because I expected the debate to be over-subscribed. I am sad that more hon. Members are not here to speak on behalf of working-class women. I have looked into the figures, and I understand that 2,410 women in my constituency are affected by the changes. The figure for the whole city of Glasgow is 23,100 women. That is no small number; it is a huge number, in a city that has had heavy industry and long-standing economic deprivation. Those women have worked damn hard for that money and they deserve the pension they thought they would get. I am hugely disappointed that successive Governments did not do more to notify them. Those who got in touch with me at my surgeries and through my office spoke of their shock that they were not told that they would not have the life they had planned for their expected retirement after working so hard in so many heavy industries for low pay, sometimes with pay discrimination. They were shocked not to be told and to find themselves without the retirement they had expected.
The number of women who have been in touch with me is nowhere near 2,410. We can all do more every day to make sure all the women affected know that we are on their side and fighting for them. I pay tribute to the WASPI campaign in Glasgow, which is doing so much to achieve that. I was proud to go to the demonstration in George Square last year, but there were not 23,000 people there that day. This is the tip of the iceberg. The women are finding out not from the Government, but through the WASPI campaign, social media, their families and friends and their own networks. That is the sad thing. The campaign is great, but it demonstrates how much these women have been let down.
One woman I must mention—or I will be in serious trouble—is my mother-in-law. She has worked all her life and has had the goalposts moved not once but twice, with loss of access to her pension for six years. She had planned and worked hard for her pension and it is hugely disappointing that the Government have left her in this situation.
One thing that annoys me is that the Government keep saying that no woman has suffered an increase in their pensionable age of more than 18 months. That is patently not true. As my hon. Friend has just said, some women have seen a six-year increase in their pensionable age. The Government should start telling the truth.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I commend his campaigning on this issue. Women have been cheated and it is entirely unfair. The Government expect many of them to seek work. I met a constituent outside Bridgeton Jobcentre a few weeks ago when campaigning against its closure. She was 62 and she was in absolute pieces because she had been called to the jobcentre. She had moved between employment support allowance and jobseeker’s allowance. She is not fit to work. She had been through a traumatic experience. Her daughter had died. She has poor physical and mental health and she told me about her pension age, which has added insult to injury. She has been through enough in her life. She deserves peace of mind and time to enjoy the retirement she should have.
Instead, at the age of 62, the Government expect that woman to go out and seek work, which, given the condition she is in, is pretty unlikely. Having spoken to her, I cannot see that many employers would consider her a good employee prospect, given her circumstances and the experience she has had in life. What employer will say, “Yes, we will take her on. She may be here for a couple of years, if that, because her health is poor, so she might not be here for long.”? Sadly, she is not a good prospect. She has worked all her life and she is tired. She is done and she deserves the time and peace she thought she would have. She deserves a dignified retirement.
Life expectancy in the east end of Glasgow is significantly lower than in other parts of the country and other parts of Glasgow. On the train from Bridgeton to the west end, there is a huge gap of eight to 10 years in the life expectancy of people on the same train line because the heavy industry and its legacy has meant that some women have suffered ill health all their lives. Some have suffered as a result of the industries their husbands worked in. Women were expected to launder their husband’s clothes and have suffered asbestos-related conditions. That has not been recognised well enough. These women have worked very hard and they deserve a dignified retirement.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on securing this important debate. I, too, have WASPI women in my constituency with poorer health and shorter lives who are worried about their future and have health inequalities or caring issues. The Government have looked at transitional arrangements and want to provide dignity in old age. However, I am slightly concerned that the tone of this debate is writing off women at the age of 62 from having hope and opportunity. I have met some great women in my constituency surgeries who, with help and support, have found opportunities. I am looking for some balance in the argument, much as I have great sympathy with many of my constituents.
The hon. Lady is correct. Some women are able to work, want to work and do work. Some do not want to retire, but want to keep working, and that is great for them. I knew women when I was a councillor for eight years before becoming an MP who want to work, are part of their community and want to contribute. That is fine if they are able to, but not all woman are able to. We must think of them and look after them all the more, because they have given so much during their lives.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent contribution, but my intervention relates to the previous one. I have had two jobs that I have really enjoyed—Member of Parliament and engineer—and I hope to continue working into my seventies. Does the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) agree that my mother’s generation and the WASPI woman generation did not have our opportunities? Most of the Members of Parliament here are women. The previous generation did not have the opportunity to build up the sort of pension fund that we have and they did not have the opportunities for careers that give fulfilment without manual effort late in life. We should recognise that.
The hon. Lady is absolutely correct. Some women have had opportunities stifled throughout their lives. They were not given the chance to go off and have the careers they wanted. My grandmother was forced to leave school. I have her school report and she was one of the brightest in her class, but her family said she had to go out and work and not stay on at school or go on to further education.
That has been the life path for many women. It is what they have done. During their working lives they have not spent as much time as they would have liked with their children, but they saw their retirement as an opportunity to get that back, to look after their grandchildren and to enjoy that experience instead of being forced to go out to work at all hours to try to bring in a wage. The Government should at least acknowledge the impact of that, particularly on families in poorer areas where childcare is not as available or is too expensive. These are women who were hoping to make a contribution to their families, providing childcare so that their children could go out to work and bring in an income.
We need to think about the contribution those women have made to society in the round and the debt we owe them. I urge the Government in the Budget in a few weeks to see what transitional arrangements can be put in place and what can be done to give those women the fair retirement they deserve.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Flello. I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for securing this debate and putting across vividly the impact on women in her constituency. My hon. Friends the Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) spoke about the human cost of what has happened and the fact that so many women have been denied what is rightfully theirs.
I dearly wish that none of us were here today because the case has been made time after time, and it is time that the Government started to take notice. The phrase, “doing the right thing” has been used, but when reflecting on all that has gone on, not just all our debates but the 245 Members of Parliament who have lodged petitions on behalf of the WASPI women, the Government must respond to the pressures those women have been under.
What we cannot get away from is that the women rightly feel let down and that they have not had adequate communication. The point has been made, and no one disagrees that equalisation should take place, but it must happen fairly. This affects so many women— 2.6 million throughout the UK and 243,900 in my own country of Scotland. Many of those women are working-class and have faced particular pressures. There is an opportunity here today for the Government to admit that a wrong has been done and that effective notice was not given of an increase in pensionable age, and to recognise that the process of increasing pensionable age must be slowed down. It must be slowed down before it is too late.
I want to pick up on the issue of a pension being a right. Frankly, I am sick fed up of hearing the Government say that this is not a right but a benefit. They cannot get away with weasel words, because that is all they are, Minister. All these women, including many of the women sitting here and the women from Newcastle upon Tyne Central, have paid 42 years-worth of national insurance contributions. If that does not give them a right to a pension, I do not know what does. It really is about time that the Government accepted their moral and ethical responsibilities and stopped hiding behind the language that this is not a contractual obligation.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran said, if what has been done had been done by private pension providers, you can bet your boots that the ombudsman would have been involved. You can bet your boots that those pension providers would have been taken to court, so for once, when you stand up this afternoon—I appreciate that you are not the Pensions Minister and are here in another guise. I apologise for using the word “you”, Mr Flello. I am asking the Minister to recognise that this is not about benefits. It is about women who have paid in, and it is about time that they got their just rewards.
We often hear that the issue is affordability, and the point was made about austerity. The Government cannot run away from the fact that there is a national insurance fund and that fund is sitting, in year 2016-17, with a surplus of more than £30 billion. We have heard about mitigation, and different proposals have been made. We in the SNP have tried to contribute to that by commissioning our own research—the Landman Economics report, which was published last year—and it has been ridiculed and brought into question by the Government.
I have always made it clear that our favoured option, option 2 in the report, which calls for the slowing down of the increase in pensionable age, which would take a further two and a half years, would cost, in the lifetime of this Parliament—I stress “in this Parliament”—an additional £8 billion, but the Government have told us that we are wrong and the figure is £30 billion. The Government should sit down with me and go through our calculations, which are based on the Treasury model. They need to stop traducing the SNP and admit that the £8 billion figure is correct and that they can meet that cost out of the surplus that they have today in the national insurance fund. I say that because the payments into the national insurance fund have come from these women. This is about their entitlement and the fact that in the course of this Parliament, the Government could easily meet that obligation. When will the Government start to listen and actually do the right thing?
Thanks to freedom of information requests, we learnt that the DWP began writing to women born between April 1950 and April 1955 only in April 2009 and did not complete that process until February 2012. It wrote to women to inform them about changes in legislation going back to the Pensions Act 1995, but they had taken 14 years to start the formal notification process. It was 14 years after the legislation had been passed before the Government bothered to write to people. Taking 14 years to begin informing women that a pension that they had paid for was to be deferred is quite something. Can we imagine the outcry if a private pension provider behaved in such a manner? There would be an outcry in this House. Considering that entitlement to a state pension is based on national insurance contributions, the Government have an obligation to act in a fair manner. They have changed the entitlement to something women have paid in for with an expectation of retiring at age 60, and when the goalposts were moved, the Government could not get round to informing the women in a timely manner.
A woman born on 6 April 1953, who under the previous legislation would have retired on 6 April 2013, would have received a letter from the DWP in January 2012 with the bombshell that she would now be retiring on 6 July 2016—three years and three months later than she might have expected, but with only 15 months’ notice. We are talking about 15 months’ written notice that what she thought was a contract the Government had willingly ripped up. That is exactly why the Government have a duty to act: women born in the 1950s have not been fairly treated.
The lawyers Bindmans have published a guide to DWP maladministration in the WASPI women’s case, and let us be in no doubt that it is maladministration that we are talking about in this instance. The paper is a damning indictment of a failure to communicate effectively and directly with the women involved. It refers to the events that led to a change in women’s pensionable age, beginning with a White Paper in December 1993 that stated:
“In developing its proposals for implementing the change the Government has paid particular attention to the need to give people enough time to plan ahead and to phase the change in gradually.”
There is not much there I would not agree with, but when we accept the need for people to plan ahead, we need to write and tell them. The intent was there in the White Paper in 1993, yet it was 2009 before the Government acted.
Then there is the issue of phasing in gradually. I would not define that as increasing women’s pensionable age by three months for each month that now passes. The pensionable age will increase by three months in the month of February and by another three months in March. That is not gradual. It is scandalous that women’s pensionable age is increasing so rapidly. It is not within the spirit of what the Government outlined in their original White Paper.
In October 2002, while giving evidence to a Select Committee, the DWP suggested that the role of the state was
“to provide clear and accurate information about what pensions will provide so that people will understand how much they can expect at retirement before it is too late to do something about it”.
How does the statement
“before it is too late to do something about it”
equate with the 15 months’ notice that women were given? It was far too late, and the DWP must accept that women were not given appropriate notice, and must put in place mitigation. I might add that it was stated that the lead-in time in the original White Paper in 1993 allowed plenty of time for people to adjust their plans, but people can do so only if they are aware of it.
We also had the DWP public policy statement from March 2002, which stated:
“It is widely accepted that the department has a duty to give information or advice to inform the public about any new policies and developments that may affect them and crucially keep them informed on a continuing basis on their rights and responsibilities. It would be unreasonable for the department not to do this.”
I could not agree more. Where, then, were the letters to the women to inform them of the changes? This was 2002. The DWP has to take responsibility for that failure to communicate and, crucially, for the lack of time that women have had to prepare for an increase in their state pension age. Rather than recognising that women deserved to be communicated with directly, the DWP issued leaflets headlined “Equality in State Pension Age”. Can anybody in this Chamber remember those leaflets? No? I did not think so. I do not recall seeing them.
You’re not a woman!
It is interesting that a Government Member is actually laughing about this, because that defines what the problem is. There are women who are really struggling, and the Government laugh. You should apologise and you should accept responsibility for this and stop demeaning the women—
Order. The word “you” refers to the occupant of the Chair.
I apologise, Mr Flello, but you can understand the anger that the women feel. A Member of Parliament on the Government Benches laughing when we are discussing this important issue is beneath contempt, and the Member should actually stand and apologise to the women who have been affected by this, rather than sitting there smugly as he is.
As I mentioned, it is no surprise that women were unaware of the changes because when the DWP commissioned research in 2004 it highlighted that only 2% of respondents mentioned that they had been notified of changes to the state pension age via a leaflet. Perhaps the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) wants to rise and try to defend that—quite frankly, it is indefensible. It is an insult that the Government at the time thought that changes affecting a woman’s retirement age could be dealt with by a leaflet. That is an abrogation of responsibility and each and every Member who refuses to do something is culpable.
We should all receive an annual statement from the DWP on our expected entitlement, just as we do from private pension providers. Why has that not been happening? Do the Government not know where we all live? [Laughter.] It is a fair question. Why were the women not written to? Why have we not had an answer to that question? Why did it take all the years that it did? The case is not defensible—it is shameful—and the way the Government still refuse to accept responsibility is shameful.
The failure to communicate was highlighted by a DWP publication in 2004 called “Public awareness of State Pension age equalisation”, which found that only 43% of all women affected by the increase in state pensionable age were aware of the impact on them. If the Government accept that women were not informed in a timely manner and therefore did not have time to react, why do the Government not accept their responsibilities?
We also know—you couldn’t make this up—that the Government sent out 17.8 million letters to men and women between May 2003 and November 2006 on automatic state pension forecasts but, wait for it, they did not contain any information about the state pension age. That is quite remarkable. Letters were written, but they were just the wrong letters—they did not have the important information. They said, “To find out more about the state pension age for women, please see ‘Pensions for women: your guide’. See page 10 for details on how you can get a copy of this guide.” That is no way to convey information. The Government should have communicated accurate, clear and transparent information. That was another massive failure to communicate.
At some point, rather than hand wringing, the Government have to take responsibility, because 2.6 million WASPI women have been let down. I am going to wind up because I realise that time is pressing. Research in 2011 by the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing found that by 2008 only 43% of women affected by the change were aware of it. Just think about this: over half of women who were expecting a pension at age 60 were going to be denied that. I cannot imagine the shock when they realised that they were not going to get what they thought was rightfully theirs. It is not the women who are at fault; they have paid in, expecting a pension. It is the Government who have let them down and it is the Government who have a moral and ethical responsibility to do something about it.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will happily give way.
Order. May I gently suggest to hon. Members that, while I appreciate that there has been other business in the Chamber, we are on the wind-ups and Members really ought to be here for the debate rather than coming for the wind-ups? I will allow my hon. Friend, on this one occasion, because I am sure he has been in the Chamber previously up until now, but I remind Members that they really need to be in for the entirety of the debate. A very brief intervention.
I will be very brief. I apologise, Mr Flello; I was actually over in the Chamber because there were some important debates there as well and I cannot be in two places at once even if I would like to be. This is a timely debate because next month we will have the Budget. If the Chancellor can find billions for high-speed rail and other issues, surely he can find a couple of billion to give these women a decent life.
That is a very good point. We can find the money for high-speed rail. We can find, at the drop of a hat, £170 billion or more for Trident renewal. We are even due to debate the renewal of this place. If I were given a choice, I would want to make sure that the WASPI women were compensated and not that £7 billion was spent on reforming this place. That can wait, but the WASPI women need their money and they need it today.
The DWP told the Select Committee on Work and Pensions last year:
“Until 2009, direct communication with people affected by increases in state pension age was very limited.”
The Government must reflect on that and on the fact that women have not been properly informed. The Pensions Minister, in a parliamentary answer to me on 23 November last year, stated:
“The Government has committed not to change the legislation relating to State Pension age for those people who are within 10 years of reaching it. This provides these individuals with the certainty they need to plan for the future. We recognise the importance of ensuring people are aware of any changes to their State Pension age”.
We have put an option to the Government that is affordable and is about doing the right thing. The Government should agree with us. Frankly, I do not want to see any of us back here again. It really is about time that when the Minister rises today, she recognises the wrong that has been done. For the love of God, do something—do the right thing.
Order. May I remind the Front-Bench speakers that in 90-minute debates it is customary to make 10-minute speeches? I am being more generous because we are not so pushed for time, but 10 minutes is expected and not what we just had. Thank you.
I thank you, Mr Flello, for your excellent chairmanship—very stern, but firm. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for securing this vital debate, which is so essential for securing a dignified retirement for some 2.5 million women. Her speech was factual, relevant and presented the arguments succinctly. I also congratulate the hon. Members who are here from the SNP for their elegant speeches and the contribution they have made today.
The injustices currently being experienced by women born in the 1950s at the hands of the Government are a travesty and it is right that they are discussed here today and at every other given opportunity. We must not allow this Government to turn a blind eye. Today it is especially poignant that the debate focuses on working-class women who are feeling the effects of this injustice so acutely. Many of the women have no savings and are likely to be working in physically demanding jobs. I am of an age that means I need to work a lot longer than I originally intended, but I am very fortunate—I have a clean job that involves a lot of sitting down. When I was in my 30s I was a dinner lady in a special school. That involved lifting children and young people, to allow them to go to the bathroom or have their lunch, and all the other things that have to be done for children with special needs. I could not do that job today; I physically would not be able to do it. There are women today doing heavy jobs, not for the luxuries of life but to live life.
There are those of us on this side of the House who are passionate about helping these women, and indeed there are also some on the Government Benches who lobby for fair play and justice for them. However, our efforts to date have been frustrated by the Government’s reluctance to engage in productive dialogue. At the end of last year, Labour’s suggestion to extend pension credit to those who needed it was turned down by the Secretary of State and his Pensions Minister. That would have extended support to hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable women.
Our suggestion that the Minister set up a special proactive helpline for the women affected to ensure that they all had access to the social security system, which is claimed to be sufficient to meet their needs, also went unheeded. Perhaps the Minister needs reminding of the hardship that the poorly managed changes that this Government have put in place have caused to more than 2.6 million WASPI women. The Minister argues that the social security system will step in to support women struggling to make ends meet as a result of the changes. May I remind the House that that is the same social security system that this Government have spent seven years savaging, with swingeing cuts to universal credit and employment and support allowance alongside sharpened conditionality measures in a punitive and discredited work assessment system?
In our work to support the WASPI women and WASPI Voice we have heard from many women who have been left in dire straits by the pension age changes but cannot obtain sufficient social security support. I hear every day, as I am sure many Members do, of hardship cases that are beyond belief—women going to food banks, women losing their homes, women being forced to move in with their children because they cannot afford to live in their own homes. One woman whose pension age was moved back and could no longer afford to pay the rent has spiralled into debt and is on the verge of losing her home. Another is struggling to keep her sick husband out of care so that they can hang on to their family home, without the state pension income that she was planning to use to keep them both going in her retirement.
By now, most Members of this House will have heard of similar cases—repeated reminders of the Government’s failure. Thankfully, an army of campaigners are now planning to work with us to keep the pressure on the Government. Those groups stand shoulder to shoulder in the message that this Government have got it wrong and should reconsider. The two main campaigning groups, Women Against State Pension Inequality and WASPI Voice, both agree with equalisation of the state pension age; where they differ from the Government is on the means by which that should be achieved.
Lessons must now be learned from the failure to communicate the changes to state pension timetables to those affected. However, that does not go far enough as a means of redress. Fair transitional arrangements should be put in place to support the most vulnerable. The Opposition have suggested plans, but the Government have dismissed all suggestions of measures for amelioration. One of the WASPI campaign groups has decided to mount a legal action against the Government; its representation is preparing to pursue maladministration complaints against the Department for Work and Pensions. Labour proposals call on the Government to extend pension credit to those who would have been eligible under the 1995 timetable, so that women affected by the chaotic mismanagement of equalisation will be offered some support until they retire.
I beg your indulgence, Mr Flello; I have been serving in a Bill Committee as the Opposition Whip. On the point about fairness, my hon. Friend will be aware that last week, on the Floor of the House, I asked the Prime Minister about my constituent Dianah Kendall and the impact of the state pension age changes on her life. The Prime Minister’s response was that no woman would wait longer than 18 months, but the reality is that many women will wait five, six or even seven years. That does an utter injustice to what she said on the Floor of the House.
I repeat my previous comments about chaotic mismanagement; it obviously goes to the top.
Our proposals would make hundreds of thousands of WASPI women eligible for up to £156 a week, but we will not stop there. We are developing further proposals to support as many WASPI women as possible. We are considering proactive ways to support the most vulnerable now. The proposals will be financially credible, based on sound evidence and supported by WASPI women.
It was disappointing that the Government did not use the opportunity provided by the autumn statement to do anything to support those women. It was equally disappointing that our amendment to the Pension Schemes Bill, which would have implemented our pension credit proposals immediately, was unsuccessful. My party believes in standing up for the most vulnerable, which is what we are doing today and will do tomorrow, the day after, next week and next year. We will continue to support the WASPI women in this fight. I made a personal promise in the Chamber to raise this issue at every opportunity, and I stand firm in that commitment. My party and I call on this Government to stop burying their heads in the sand and do the right thing by these women. Give the women affected the respect that they deserve: act now and rectify this injustice.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Flello. I congratulate you on having chaired this debate in a fair and exemplary manner, and for allowing those Members who were busy elsewhere in the House this afternoon the opportunity to speak, even if just briefly in an intervention. Important debates have been taking place this afternoon, and important work has been done in Bill Committees.
It is only right that I should take this opportunity to thank the hon. Members for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) and for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for being here. I know that they have been much occupied with the Under-Secretary of State for Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) in the Pension Schemes Bill Committee, which explains why I am here instead of him. I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for opening the debate and hon. Members from all parties—and all parts of the British Isles, with the exception of Northern Ireland—who have contributed. It is most unusual for the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) not to be present.
In recent decades, there has been a huge shift in how people spend later life. We are living longer, staying healthier for longer and leading far more active lifestyles, regardless of our age. More and more people are proving that age need not be a barrier to achieving great things. Some of the Olympians whom we sent out to Rio last summer were among the oldest athletes on record. I, for one, celebrate the fact that age increasingly places no bounds on those wishing to achieve new goals, try new things and play an active part in society.
The new state pension was introduced as a key reform to the UK pension system. The Government recognised that the pension system needed to change in response to the demographic and behavioural shifts of recent decades. For most people, we know that work is beneficial. It not only provides an income and a bedrock for saving, giving people greater control over their lives but crucially, the evidence shows that for most people, being in work can be immensely beneficial for both physical and mental health. The social and cultural benefits of remaining in work are sorely under-recognised. This Government’s pensions strategy does not focus only on the benefits to people. We know that the skills, experience and talents that older workers bring to organisations are invaluable. Older workers still have an incredible amount to offer.
It is also true that the living standards of pensioners have risen significantly, but we must remember that not all pensioners are in the same position. More than 1 million pensioners rely solely on the state for their income. That is why we introduced the triple lock in 2011 and have committed to continuing it over this Parliament. As well as guaranteeing increases to the state pension, we have fundamentally reformed it. Under our reforms, people will have a much better idea of what their pension will be, bringing more certainty and clarity where previously there was confusion. That design is integral to the Government’s ambition to provide a better foundation on which people can plan and build for a secure retirement. We want to make life easier and more comfortable for people in retirement.
How can people plan and build for retirement with 15 months’ notice of an increase in their retirement age?
The hon. Gentleman will of course know that I am referring to the new state pension. That is exactly why we are introducing it, so that people have more certainty and clarity than previously. As well as being simpler, the new state pension will give more to many of those traditionally less well served in the past. By 2030, around three quarters of new pensioners will get a higher state pension than if the old system had continued. More than 3 million women will get around £550 more each year. It is estimated that women reaching state pension age in 2016-17 will receive more state pension on average over their lifetime than women ever have before. We have also created new pension freedoms that mean that savers have more control over their money and can use it in ways that suit them. In the new pensions marketplace, we are helping people make the right decisions for them through things such as Pension Wise, which provides free, impartial information.
I am pleased that Members from all parties agree that it is right that we have equalised the state pension age for men and women. It is part of the DWP’s wider objective of eliminating gender inequalities in social security provision.
Does the Minister believe that the women whom we are debating were given sufficient notice to make correct and proper plans for their retirement?
If the hon. Lady will give me time, I will come to exactly that point later in my contribution.
It is important that we all recognise that the age at which we receive the state pension must rise. Life expectancy continues to rise, and it is a key priority for this Government to ensure the long-term sustainability of the pension system. For that reason, the Government have introduced regular reviews of the state pension age. The issue is also likely to feature heavily in the Cridland review, which will be published in the coming months.
We recognise that employment prospects for women have changed dramatically since the state pension age was first set in 1940, especially for the women affected by the acceleration of the state pension age. Alongside the age increases under the new state pension, we have made huge progress in opening up employment opportunities for women and older workers. Since the 1970s, women have seen repeated increases in employment rates in later life compared with their male counterparts. The number of older women aged 50 to 64 who were in work in 2016 stood at more than 4 million, which is a record high. Approximately 150,000 more older women are in work than this time last year.
Does the Minister acknowledge that women who are currently in work may be there not because they want to be, but because they have to be?
The hon. Lady makes a valid point, but I would argue that there are also many men, and indeed many younger people, who have to be in work. We want to encourage more people to be in work and to play their part in society. As I said earlier, work is an important part of wellbeing. Work in itself provides emotional, physical and mental wellbeing effects.
The rate of employment for women aged between 60 and 64 is more than 40%—another record high. [Interruption.]
Will the Minister give way?
Well, I might if there were not a little private chat going on at the front of the Chamber. Still, I acknowledge that the hon. Lady is no part of that, so I give way.
So far, the Minister’s contribution has not really reflected what this debate is about. I remind her that I asked her five specific questions and that I observed that this is a debate about working-class women. She has yet to use the word “working-class”; I hope she will before she sits down.
I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the specific title of the debate, which I believe I am covering: “That this House has considered the effect of state pension changes”. I have dealt with the new state pension thoroughly, and I hope that we will all acknowledge that we have indeed had a significant change with the introduction of the new state pension.
On a point of order, Mr Flello. I suggest, with regret, that we have not actually discussed the motion in front of us today. Unless the Minister does that in the short time that she has available, when we come to the appropriate point in the debate I will have no option but to move that we have not considered this matter.
I am not totally convinced that that was a point of order. Let us see how the debate continues.
I hope you will forgive me, Mr Flello, if I take the opportunity to ask you for some advice. Do I have another 18 minutes or so? I certainly have several pages still to get through.
Indeed, although I would like to be able to call the mover of the motion for a minute or so at the end.
Sixteen minutes, then.
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.
I must respectfully ask the Minister whether she has any idea of the disrespect that she is showing to the WASPI women by refusing to directly address the point that we are discussing. It has been pointed out that women have not been given effective notice. What are the Government going to do about it?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making another intervention, but he will be aware that I have 15 minutes in which to come to that point, and I have really only just begun.
The Government recognise the particular barriers that women face to remaining in the workplace and we have been quite clear that more action is needed to address them. For instance, we know that women with more children tend to take longer career breaks, which can impact on their retirement income. We also know that giving women the opportunities they need to continue working in later life, whether in a full-time or part-time role, is the best way in which we can help mitigate some of that impact, while of course making provision for those who may be unable to work or may have difficulty working. It is interesting to note that someone who draws on their pension pot at 65 instead of 55 and continues to receive average earnings for those extra years of working could increase their pension pot by half as much again. That is why we plan to do everything we can to change attitudes towards employing older female workers.
On a recent visit to the jobcentre in Eastbourne, I was struck by something that was said to me by a work coach who I met there. It was her view that women aged over 50 and seeking work were the most optimistic of the people she worked with and tried to place into jobs. It was that cohort who were the most open-minded and enthusiastic about trying new roles and learning new skills. My hon. Friend—and, indeed, neighbour—the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), who is no longer in her place, raised absolutely that point. Actually, older women have the most flexibility and, as work coaches have said to me, the most open-minded attitude to trying new roles and being prepared to take on new challenges regardless of age. That is immensely encouraging. It tells me that what the Government are doing through the fuller working lives strategy, which the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central mentioned earlier and which was published last week, is the right course of action.
I have seen at first hand the value that offering older workers a new opportunity can have; it can truly transform their lives. I am proud of the commitment that I have witnessed from work coaches up and down the country. The hon. Lady might also recognise that the claimant count in Newcastle, which she referenced earlier, is down by 28% since 2010. The female employment rate in the UK now stands at 69.9%—a near-record high.
On a point of order, Mr Flello. May I ask for your guidance on whether what we are hearing from the Government is indeed in order, given the subject of this debate?
Again, I do not think that that is a point of order; it is a matter for the debate.
Hon. Members raised the increase in life expectancy. It has been experienced by all over the last few years, but it differs by occupation type—the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central was certainly right to point that out. Women aged 65 who worked in higher managerial and professional occupations are expected to live more than three years longer than those in routine or manual roles; for men, that difference is greater, at four years. However, women in manual occupations have a similar life expectancy at 65 to men in professional occupations. Life expectancy also varies across regions—the hon. Lady was correct to point that out—but it would be wholly impractical to vary state pension age across the country.
The fuller working lives strategy aims to increase the retention, retraining and recruitment of older workers by bringing about a change in the perceptions and attitudes of employers and by challenging views of working in later life and retirement among individuals. As part of the strategy, the Government are taking account of the fact that people change jobs over their lifetimes. It is now extremely unusual for people to stay in one career throughout their entire working life.
Does the Minister have anything to say to the women who are watching today, in the Gallery or at home, about the lack of notice that they were given and about how that has upset their retirement plans and put them in dire financial straits?
I reassure that the hon. Lady that I will come to that point.
The fuller working lives strategy adopts a very new approach: it is led by employers, who rightly see themselves as the ones who understand the business case and can drive change. Specifically to support older claimants, the Department for Work and Pensions has introduced older claimant champions from April 2015 across each of its seven Jobcentre Plus groups. It plans to roll the initiative out to each of the 34 districts. These champions will work with work coaches and employers to raise the profile of that age group and highlight the benefits of employing older jobseekers. In addition, the Government Equalities Office continues to work with the Women’s Business Council to tackle the outdated assumptions that some employers make about women, particularly mothers.
In “Building our Industrial Strategy”, our Green Paper published last month, the Government set out how we will test ambitious new approaches to encourage lifelong learning to help adults who want to upskill or move around the labour market during their career. However, we recognise that some women may wish to continue to work and are unable to do so, so we continue to spend £90 billion a year on working-age benefits in this country. The welfare system provides a safety net for those of working age, and there are a range of benefits tailored to individual circumstances. The system is designed to deal with the problems, such as unemployment, disability and coping with caring responsibilities, that affect those who are unable to work and are therefore in most need as they approach their state pension age.
I suggest to the Minister that she should stop wasting everybody’s time and concede that she is not going to do anything, so that the WASPI women can get on with legal action and take the Government to court.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has become so frustrated. He will be conscious that I could still fill another nine or 10 minutes or so. There are some very important points that I would like to make and I am sure that people will want to hear them. If he continues to chunter—[Interruption.]
Order. Continue, Minister.
Thank you, Mr Flello.
As I was saying, that is why we continue to spend £90 billion a year on working-age benefits to assist those in this country who are unable to work. For those seeking work, people in receipt of working-age benefits can access a range of support from Jobcentre Plus and tailored support from the Work programme.
Specifically, the evidence is clear, and we as a Government are clear, that work is the best route out of poverty. That is why this Government’s approach has been about recognising the value and importance of work, to make work pay and to support people into work, while protecting the most vulnerable in society.
Our reforms are transforming lives. Today’s labour market statistics show that we continue to have a record number of people in work—over 2.7 million more than in 2010. The number of workless households is down by 865,000, and the percentage of households in the social sector where no one works has fallen from 49% to 38%, which is a decrease of nearly 350,000 households.
We have made a real difference for women, with more than 1 million more women in work since 2010 and the highest rate of female employment on record. The gender pay gap is also at its lowest level since records began, and there are now 1.2 million women-led small and medium-sized enterprises, which is more than ever before. We are rightly proud of our record but recognise that there is more to do.
We had to equalise state pension age to eliminate gender inequalities in social security provision—it is the right thing to do—and we had to accelerate this process due to increases in longevity, in order to protect the long-term sustainability of state pension provision in this country.
We know that whenever things change, there have to be dividing lines, and I understand that the changes are most stark for those closest to the line. That is no different in this case. We understand that and the Government listened to the concerns expressed at the time. Therefore, a concession worth more than £1 billion was introduced, despite the fiscal situation, to lessen the impact of the changes on those worst affected. The concession reduced the delay that anyone would experience in claiming their state pension and benefited almost a quarter of a million women.
However, going further than that simply cannot be justified, given that the underlying imperative must be to focus public resources on those most in need. I have listened to Opposition Members, and I have heard and understood their concerns. However, let me be clear—we are making no further concessions on this issue. As well as being unaffordable, reversing the Pensions Act 1995 would create an anomaly, whereby women would be expected to work for less time than they work now, and it would be discriminatory to men. It is not practical to implement.
John Cridland’s independent report on state pension age will consider wider factors that should—
I certainly thank the Minister for finally coming to matters that are relevant to this debate and the people here. However, does she recognise the point that because the women we are discussing today started work earlier—at the age of 15, which is long before she or I started work—they are the generation who are working longer than any other generation? When she says that giving a further “concession” would mean that they ended up working for less time than other women, does she not recognise that they have worked, and are working, for longer?
Just before I call the Minister to continue, may I suggest that she perhaps speaks for only a couple more minutes?
The hon. Lady also needs to reflect that these women are also living longer; we are all living longer.
As I was saying, the Cridland independent report is coming forward and will be published in March. It is part of the Government’s review of state pension age, which is due in early 2017.
I will not give way again; the Chairman has made it very clear that he wants me to conclude my remarks.
A number of points have been made today about communications; in particular, the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber has been quite forceful on this subject. He made the point that there were about 14 years between the decision being made and letters starting to go out. When he refers to “this Government”, I remind him that for the bulk of that time my party was not in Government, and if he wishes to lay the blame for a lack of communication, he might do well to direct it somewhere else.
We have continued this country’s long record of raising the living standards of pensioners, through our commitment to the triple lock and our reforms of the state pension, and we are revolutionising the world of private pensions through auto-enrolment, which is for everyone. However, we want continue our work aimed at providing older workers with greater choice and greater security in retirement, which is at the heart of our fuller working lives strategy. The results speak for themselves. We not only continue to increase the employment prospects for women above the age of 60 drastically, but the new state pension provides people with greater freedom and greater choice, and dignity in retirement.
I call Chi Onwurah to wind up the debate.
Thank you, Mr Flello, for calling me to speak again, and I congratulate you on your excellent chairing of this debate—if, indeed, we can call it a “debate”.
I thank the hon. Members from the Scottish National party and from my own party, in particular the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), for their contributions, and for highlighting the experiences of so many hundreds of thousands—indeed, millions—of WASPI women; the poverty they have experienced and, indeed, the betrayal that so many of them feel at the tearing-up of the contract between state and citizen.
While I thank the Minister for including some relevant parts in her contribution, they were relevant only inasmuch as they made clear the Government’s total lack of understanding of the experience of WASPI women, and that no further “concession”—as the Minister chose to call it, whereas I would call it basic justice—would be offered.
I also observe that the Minister went through her entire contribution without mentioning “working-class women”, which is in the title of the debate. These women have worked the longest and suffered the greatest indignities in facing challenges that the Minister and I know nothing of, with regard to discrimination, poverty and lack of opportunity. That the Minister, from her privileged position, should nevertheless refuse to offer any kind of support or consideration to the great women of this country, who have worked so hard and deserve so much more from this place, I find absolutely unbelievable. Indeed, Mr Flello, I will sit down before I am forced to be disorderly in my condemnation of the Government’s position on this issue.
That this House has considered the effect of state pension changes on working-class women.
The Chair’s opinion as to the decision of the Question was challenged.
Question not decided (Standing Order No. 10(13)).
Thursday 9 February 2017
[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]
Smart Metering: Electricity and Gas
[Relevant documents: Sixth Report of the Science and Technology Committee, HC 161, and the Government response, HC 846.]
State Pension: Working-class Women
Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of state pension changes on working-class women.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Flello—particularly for such an important debate. When I heard that I had been successful in securing the debate, I posted on Facebook and Twitter asking working-class women to share their experiences with me. I was overwhelmed by the response; I received tweets, emails and posts from women the length and breadth of the country. Every hon. Member has constituents who are directly affected by this issue, and I am sure more hon. Members would be present were it not the last day before the recess.
This is a complex subject, but basic issues of fairness, justice and dignity in old age are at its heart. The Pensions Act 1995, brought in by the then Conservative Government, raised the women’s state pension age from 60 to 65, making it the same as men’s. I am proud to call myself a feminist, and as such, I agree with that equalisation, so long as those women have equal opportunities and life chances; unfortunately, as we will see, that is not the case. I also agree with raising the retirement age. We are living almost a decade longer than our grandparents on average, so it is right that we should also work longer and still be able to enjoy many years in healthy retirement. However, that does not mean that I must agree with the unfair way in which these changes have been implemented.
As the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign has highlighted—I am glad to see so many of its representatives in the Gallery—the changes have hit hundreds of thousands of women born in the 1950s particularly hard. There is real anger among those women at their unfair treatment because of the month in which they were born. There is anger about the lack of appropriate notification, despite recommendations from independent bodies, such as the Turner Commission, that the affected women deserved 15 years’ notice. There is anger that the pace of change has been much faster than that promised when the changes were initiated in 1995. There is anger that some women have been hit by multiple increases in their state pension age; the Prime Minister’s saying that no woman had seen an increase to their expected pension age of more than 18 months was a patent injustice to the many women who have seen multiple increases.
These issues have been debated previously, and the Labour party has called for transitional arrangements for the WASPI women. We have laid out a fully costed plan to return their eligibility for pension credits to the timetable of the 1995 Act—but that proposal has fallen on deaf ears. One particular aspect that has not been adequately considered is the effect that the changes have had on working-class women, the subject of today’s debate, which was inspired by a constituent of mine. Like many Members, I am sure, I am often moved by the spirit and basic decency of so many of my constituents in the face of almost unbelievably bad treatment, but Mrs Tenniswood’s story moved me almost to tears.
Mrs Tenniswood is 60, and has worked as a dressmaker since she was 15. I emphasise that point: before 1972, the school-leaving age in this country was 15. Few working-class women went on to further education—only 6% in the late 1970s, for example—so many of the women we are talking about left school and started full-time work many years before they would be allowed to today. They will therefore have worked for longer than any other retirement group now or in the future.
Last year, Mrs Tenniswood asked for her pension statement, and she learned that she had 42 qualifying years, yet she is not entitled to a state pension until she reaches the age of 66. By then, she will have been working in a manual job for around 50 years—half a century—with a likely number of 48 qualifying years, which is significantly higher than the 35 years usually required to reach the maximum state pension. That is especially the experience of working-class women of that generation, who are more likely to have started work immediately after leaving school at 15, and who are also more likely to be in manual trades, which take a greater toll on the body as it ages.
Mrs Tenniswood is a dressmaker. As such, she is often required to get down on her knees to pin and check fittings, and sharp eyesight is essential, given the detailed stitching required. Having done that physically demanding job for 42 years, she was suddenly told she would have to wait another six years for her state pension, during which the condition of her eyesight and joints will worsen as her profession takes its toll on her body. I do not know about you, Mr Flello, but I find bobbing to catch the Speaker’s eye quite tiring; I certainly would not want to be working on my knees in my 60s.