In some ways, it could not be better that this debate is following the previous one, because, as was rather graciously referred to by the leader of the previous debate, the Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), we have had an announcement today from Sir Philip Green about part of a settlement to bring justice to BHS workers and pensioners. The inquiry on BHS showed how two Select Committees working together can be more powerful than the sum parts of each Committee. I continue to emphasise, as my hon. Friend did, that the announcement represents the first piece of the puzzle on pensions being put in place. We have not had a chance to read the small print, but one hopes it is good as the headline.
A number of reports are still outstanding, including from the Inland Revenue, which has arrested Dominic Chappell—the person who, wisely or foolishly, bought BHS for £1. There are outstanding reports from the liquidators, the Serious Fraud Office and the Insolvency Service. The Prime Minister has made it plain that she will make no move on making a recommendation to the Honours Forfeiture Committee that it should begin work on considering whether Sir Philip should keep his knighthood until she has access to all those reports. That is immensely sensible, as one would expect from somebody who is as careful as she is before taking such decisions. All I would add is that although we know that seeing justice as a result of the reports from the Revenue, the Serious Fraud Office, the liquidators and the Insolvency Service is much more important in the longer run than any knighthood, some in the country will look for sacramental changes that show that the Government have really taken on board how horrendous the BHS chaos was.
I am obviously not going to talk any more about that subject, Madam Deputy Speaker, because you have been kind in letting me make a follow-up statement on this of all days, when we are following a debate on a Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee report with one on a Work and Pensions Committee report. Those Committees joined forces to look carefully at the beginnings of a longer-term solution for the pensioners and workers, and what these things mean for public companies, as well as a whole host of other issues. The two Committees began that work together, and I am pleased that our two debates have, with providential luck, somehow been joined together.
We are using the privilege of occupying the Chamber of the House of Commons to debate the Work and Pensions Committee report on intergenerational fairness. I am pleased that a number of members of the Committee and others are here to make a contribution. If I keep disappearing, Madam Deputy Speaker, to make some comments on Sir Philip Green, I hope I will be allowed some leniency; normally I would stay in the Chamber for the whole three hours.
By way of introduction, I would stress two points. First, intergenerational fairness is a huge, huge topic. The problem for any Select Committee—or for Select Committees that have joined together—is where to begin in order to make sense of a topic. The Committee has looked at, and made recommendations to the House on, the triple lock, and that will be the main subject of my speech. I agree that we could have started with other topics and looked at other aspects of intergenerational fairness, but the triple lock was where we began our inquiry. As my speech unfolds, I hope that Members will see that while there were immediate pressures that pushed us to look at that area rather than other aspects of intergenerational fairness, those other aspects need to be considered.
Does not my right hon. Friend agree that the fundamental core of this issue is that there are people in our society who will succeed because they have assets? However, someone who is talent-rich but asset-poor is unlikely to succeed in life, in terms of getting into the school they need to go to, educational attainment, and health and economic outcomes. The core challenge for our generation is to make sure that everybody has access to the best our economy can deliver, whether they are born into a family with assets or otherwise.
I could not agree more, but I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not follow that up, because one of our colleagues wants to talk about how aspects of education affect intergenerational fairness.
The Committee decided democratically that it would look at the triple lock. However, I was also struck by the difference between my life chances and those of people who are the age that I was when I set out to earn a living after university. When I graduated, I was one of 3%. People might say, “Well, we can see which cohort you belonged to,” and it was a very privileged cohort. I went to university, but I did not pay fees—we expected county scholarships to see us through university, and we did not come away with debt. When we graduated, we interviewed big firms to see whether we wished to work for them, and now graduates are scrambling for jobs, so it is a very different world. I expected to get a job, I expected at least to own a house—if not more than one house—I expected to have savings and I expected to have a pension. One need only look at how privileged my life has been compared with that of people in their 20s who are graduating today to realise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) said, that the wheel of fortune has turned. Whatever one wants to say about the golden oldies, we are in a very privileged position, and that has been reinforced by the Government. I shall return to that in a moment.
The Committee wanted to test whether the triple lock was viable for the next Parliament and beyond. If it was not, we wondered whether we could marshal a report on which all of us agreed, and behind which political parties could slowly move before deciding what policy they would stand on in the election, perhaps in 2020. We now see our role as a Select Committee as taking on controversial topics and letting the Government and Opposition judge for themselves what nuclear warfare should be employed against us. Then, if we are still standing to tell the tale, perhaps the Government can be a little more brave than they would otherwise have been.
I am not saying—the whole Committee was united on this—that there are not a number of very poor pensioners in all our constituencies, but the position of pensioner poverty has been transformed over the past 10 to 15 years through Gordon Brown’s pension credits and the coalition Government’s triple lock. If we were having this debate 10 years ago and talking about not making moves to benefit the vast majority of pensioners, we would be laughed out of court, but now the debate has significantly changed. Despite that, I do not want anybody to think that we do not have to rack our brains to think how we can sensitively, but equally effectively, ensure that we continue to deal with poor pensioners. One does not have to be a very bright Member of Parliament to know that we all have some very poor pensioners in our constituencies. However, we also now have a growing number of rich pensioners, thank God.
It was against that background that we considered the whole business of the triple lock. There are four ways in which the Government could deal with this issue. First, they could just ignore it and allow the public finances to let rip, depending on the international money markets to shovel us loans at very low rates of interest forever so that we can continue, right into the sunset, to live beyond our means. I do not think for a minute that the historically low interest rates that we have at the moment will last for very long, let alone that we would have a Government who would commit the next Parliament to the triple lock. I cannot see that our public finances will be secure unless the Government take a deep breath and think very carefully about our report.
I also make a plea to Labour Front Benchers. People are now saying that it is impossible to envisage another Labour Government in anybody’s lifetime, but funny things have happened this year—funnier things than the election of a Labour Government. I therefore would not bank on Labour being unelectable and our party therefore not having to consider how fiscally responsible we have to be as we approach an election.
The second approach to the triple lock would be to say, “We’re going to increase taxation.” If we were to go down that route, we would need to raise the same amount of money that we would otherwise have to borrow, so we would be talking about raising an additional £40 billion in today’s money. That is half the sum that we raise from income tax, so it would mean saying to the country, “We expect to be continuously elected on the basis of putting up your income tax by 50%.” I do not think we would be able to hold that position for very long. If we look at the marginal tax rates paid not by the rich, but by the working poor who draw benefit and then lose it as they work harder, we will see that the idea of putting 10p on the standard rate of tax seems so absurd that there is hardly any point in suggesting it, but that is the second way in which we could square the circle of keeping the triple lock.
The third approach is to continue the policy of not just this Government but previous Governments of favouring pensioners and reducing the living standards of the working population. I do not believe that that is tenable now, but it is what will happen until the end of this Parliament. It is certainly not tenable beyond that point, however, because we are taking resources from the working population and giving them to many pensioners who are well off. People sometimes hear what they want to hear rather than what is being said, so I want to emphasise again that I am not denying that there are not too many poor pensioners. However, the standard of living of the vast majority of pensioners is of a kind that the pensioner population has never experienced before. Thank God for that, but cuts in the living standards of the working poor are already starting to result in people of working age being reduced to destitution.
It is heart-breaking that 73% of working parents already go without a meal during the school holidays in order to feed their children. Is not that an indictment of exactly where we are going wrong as a country and society?
It is, and my hon. Friend’s intervention could not be better timed. Members who followed closely the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Christmas message will know of an example from Feeding Birkenhead. A family would lower their child into a supermarket waste bin to scavenge for food before rescuing them and seeing what food they had. The mother is suffering from cancer. She is now fed by Feeding Birkenhead with food that would otherwise go to the tip, but she says that she has never been better fed. Is this House prepared to continue policies that put so much pressure on working-age families that that example will no longer be exceptional? More and more of us will be troubled by examples of our constituents nobly not feeding themselves, as my hon. Friend says, and it will happen more regularly. Destitution is an issue.
I agree with the argument that the right hon. Gentleman is developing, but what he is suggesting would be politically unpalatable. Given that the majority of healthcare costs that we generate in our lifetimes come at the extremes of life, does he agree that one way of selling this to the population, and especially those pensioners who are principally in the frame, would be to say that the £2.2 billion per annum that the 2.5% element of the triple lock will probably generate by the end of this decade might be hypothecated into the national health service? In that way, we might gain some level of acceptance from pensioners.
Again, I could not agree more. I did not want to fan out the debate—I wanted to keep it as tight as possible so that we might get some agreement—but these are proper options that have to be considered. There is no way, sadly, that we as pensioners can get all the goodies and expect other people to pay for them. The issue of how we integrate care into the NHS will grow in importance as each month of this Parliament passes.
The fourth and last way in which we could keep the triple lock would be to raise the retirement age continually. Again, I make a plea to Front-Bench and Back-Bench colleagues, because such a policy would adversely affect our constituents almost more than any other. The Select Committee has published the names of the constituencies where the average life expectancy for males is such that they simply will not reach retirement age if we say that we will square the books by increasing the retirement age from 68, which is the figure that it is expected to rise to, to 70 or 71.
There is a commonality between the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), who leads for the Opposition on these matters, and my constituents. We do not say that no male in our constituencies will on average receive a pension if we raise the retirement age to 70 or 71, thank God, but we know that swathes of our poorer, older and frailer constituents will not actually reach the retirement line—the point at which they pick up the state retirement pension—at the age of 70 or 71, because they will simply have died.
As usual, the right hon. Gentleman is making an excellent and well considered speech. Notwithstanding what he says, given that average life expectancy has increased from 71 in 1960 to 81.5 now, and that 9.9 million people over 50 are working, people surely want to work longer—I know that the situation is different for those who work in heavy industry, which has killed a lot of people shortly after their retirement—and to be able to exercise their choice to do so.
I would not for a moment—look at me—say that people over the state retirement age should not be allowed to work; far from it. However, there is a difference when people have had jobs such as those in factories—I have not had such a job—and are simply worn out by the cost of such jobs, meaning that they will not make it to the finishing line if we keep extending that line. I am therefore making a plea that we do not go down the route of keeping the triple lock by just continuing to raise the retirement age, saying, “With fewer of you drawing the state retirement pension, we will balance the books.”
That approach was one of the alternatives, and I will go through the others again. One was just to continue putting all the cost on people of working age, and I have made a plea about why we should not do so. Another is to think we can just tax and tax again, but I simply do not think that Governments can get elected on that basis. They cannot put up income tax by 50% over a number of Parliaments and expect to be elected—and thanked in the process. Finally, I do not think that any party that wishes to be elected can let borrowing rip to the extent that would be needed to balance the books while keeping the triple lock.
I therefore make a plea to both the Government and the Opposition that they look carefully at the Select Committee’s proposal for a double lock-plus. Pension credit and the coalition Government’s triple lock have already—this will continue—raised the value of the state retirement pension compared with average earnings to a historical high. The Select Committee report says that by 2020, we should peg the state pension against earnings at the level at that time. The double lock-plus would ensure that the state pension would never from that day forward fall relative to average earnings. As there will be—perhaps in the very short term—periods during which price inflation exceeds earnings, we should honour the prices link at those times, albeit coming back to the earnings link as soon as possible. In that way, we would not actually have to face many of the terrible scenarios I have painted.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) said, the cost of the existing policy has been borne by people of working age. We should not pursue a policy of continuing to take money from that group, especially those who already find it difficult to put food on the table for their children for every meal in the way that our parents fed us when we were growing up.
This is not about begging both sides. If people came here with a script saying that they were going to reject the Select Committee’s report, I ask them not to read that passage, but perhaps instead to enter into discussions more widely with the House of Commons about how we can guarantee standards of living against pensioners’ earnings in 2020. We must ensure that they are never eroded, but we must also ensure that this policy of making increases at the expense of the working population ceases. We should all put such a programme to the electorate when the general election comes.
It is a real pleasure to follow the widely respected and thoughtful comments of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field). Sometimes they are difficult for the Government and sometimes they are difficult for the Opposition, but we should always take heed of his comments and listen to them very carefully.
This debate nearly passed me by until I saw a quote in the report stating:
“An economy that is skewed towards baby boomers and against millennials”.
That panicked me. We all have our own calling into politics. I went to a school that was bottom of the league tables in Kidderminster and my father died at an early age. Many of my friends did not fulfil their potential. I was always driven by the thought that, given the right opportunity, everybody can be successful if equipped with the right skills, sometimes the right luck, the right support and the right direction. All too many people—very, very good friends of mine—did not take that path and have missed out. That is bad for them, bad for the economy and bad for society.
I looked at that quote and I worried, because to me it was one versus the other, rather than the core principle that we have a duty to do our very best by everybody. I know a lot of people will focus their comments on the triple lock—whether it is right, whether we are doing too much for pensioners and whether we should be doing it in a different way. I would just gently say, because I wish to focus my comments on the younger generation, that we all welcomed the triple lock. There had been a long time when perhaps we had underserved those who had worked hard all their lives. I just urge caution. Once people get to pension age, they have limited opportunities through which to change their circumstances. They have either fulfilled their potential or there is not really much more opportunity to do so. They have reached the finish line that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead talked about. We have to respect the fact that their incomes are predominantly fixed, and we have to do our best by them.
There is a lot in the report that I would recommend to my hon. Friend, but does he share my slight concern that we must not allow our long-term thoughts on pensions to be coloured by a particular cohort of pensioners retiring right now? In 10 or 15 years’ time, defined benefit schemes will have gone and people may be in a much worse position than those retiring this year or in the next few years.
I am very grateful for the fact that we have a fantastic Pensions Minister who will be responding to the debate and who will no doubt comment in detail on that point.
The broader point, as I turn to the opportunities for younger people, is that we all collectively—the Government and the Opposition—have a responsibility to recognise that we have a habit of spending more money than we get in as tax revenue. Since the second world war, I think there have been only six years where the Government of the day have spent less money than they have collected. What that really means in plain English is that we, as the generations from most of those years, wish to have more than we can afford and we would like our children, or maybe our children’s children, to pay for it. This applies to all Governments, except in those six years where, for whatever reason, the Government of the day were able to collect in more tax revenue than they spent. We have a moral duty and responsibility to future generations not always to take that easy decision.
I was doing a radio interview yesterday on a relatively contentious issue involving possible additional Government spending, and another MP said, “Well, if I was the Minister, I’d have taken the hit.” The key point was that it was not they who would have taken the hit; it was everybody. Given that we already spend more money than we collect, what they were saying was, “I’d pass that one on to the next generation as well.” We all know that. We would all like to balance the books immediately, but we also all have a long list of personal priorities we would like to spend money on—our inboxes are full of helpful requests from residents for where we could spend more money. Many of those are very important—a balance always needs to be struck—but I gently remind the House not to lose sight of the fact that if we wish to give the best opportunities to future generations, we must not saddle them with too much of our own overspending.
I am inherently a very positive person—I believe that if we equip people and give them the opportunity, they will seize it with both hands and make a huge success of it—so I am greatly encouraged that our Government have delivered 1.8 million more good or outstanding school places. As someone who went to a school at the bottom of the league tables, I understand the importance of equipping people with the right skills. In my constituency and across Swindon, we have had a difficult Ofsted report recently. We have fantastic teachers, headteachers and governors all trying their best in Swindon and we have secured extra funding for our schools, but we are not quite there yet.
We all—the Government, MPs, the council, the schools collectively, the parents—have to look at what more can be done. I am encouraged that the schools Minister recently visited two of my local schools, Nova and Swindon Academy, both of which are transforming the opportunities for their children, having come from what not so long ago were very poor ratings. Frankly, they were failing the children who were relying on them to equip them for the future, but both have transformed their ratings through strong leadership, and I am delighted that yesterday Ofsted confirmed that Nova had moved to “good” in all categories. I pay tribute to Mr Barton, the headteacher, and all his staff who have worked incredibly hard to achieve that. Schools are the fundamental building block for equipping young people in life.
I am also a huge fan of the National Citizen Service, a new initiative giving young adults real, tangible life skills, and every summer, without fail, I visit every stage of the three to four-week programme. It takes a random collection of young people—the activities cost about £1,500—and sends them away for a week to learn teambuilding skills. They then come back, form teams and choose a charity. They learn about that charity, organise entrepreneurial and fundraising activities, volunteer for the charity to see it at first hand, learn presentation skills, haggling, engaging and so on, and at the end, they graduate as NCS students. There is an incredible transformation in all those young adults, who arrive well educated by their schools but perhaps not quite ready for the workplace. I ran my own business for 10 years and employed a lot of young people and I am encouraged to see the huge difference in those young adults. They take the time in their summer holiday, when it is tempting to do other less-constructive things, to go and engage. In doing so, they give themselves the best opportunity when entering the workplace.
University numbers continue to increase, but the Government have rightly put a huge emphasis on apprenticeships. For generations, Governments and Opposition parties got into an arms race on students going to university. Every general election, we would hear, “We sent 25%.”, “Well, we’d send 30%.”, “We’d do a third.”, “We’d do 45%.”, “We’ll break 50%.”. Everybody has a talent. David Beckham is not renowned for being academically gifted, but he has a gift that has earned him more money in a week than the majority of people in society will ever earn, and that was because somebody recognised his skill and allowed him to develop it.
We all have a talent. Every time I failed to make it on to a sports team, I wondered whether I did—perhaps that is why I am here—but everyone has a talent, and apprenticeships rightly recognise that. Workplace learning provides people with real, tangible skills and a fantastic opportunity to secure a long-term career with good career prospects. That is also vital for our growing economy, particularly where we have skills gaps.
In the last Parliament, we had a commitment to 2 million apprentices, which we have met, and in this Parliament we have rightly identified an even more ambitious target. It will be tough to get there, but it is right to have such challenging targets. I have spent, as I am sure have all hon. Members, a lot of time meeting the young apprentices who are doing things that I have absolutely no idea about—advanced engineering, all sorts of complex things with computers. They are on the first rung on the ladder towards their brilliant careers. They will all go on to huge success.
Across the economy, this Government have now delivered record employment—2.7 million more people are in work than when we came to office in 2010. That is not just in London or the south-east, as has sometimes been seen in previous strong economic performances; it is in every single region of the country. In my town of Swindon, 8,400 more people are in work, which is greater than the number who currently go on a weekly basis to see Swindon Town bravely fighting the relegation battle. Thankfully, with the victory at the weekend, we have got a bit closer to achieving the objective.
There are now 865,000 fewer workless households, and youth unemployment is at its lowest since 2005. In Swindon—I know that people are keen to know how well we are doing—youth unemployment is down by 69.2% since 2010, which is a fantastic achievement. The Government have rightly introduced the national living wage so that we are looking at a wage of about £9-plus by 2020. That will help 6 million of the lowest earners to have a pay rise and to share in the proceeds of the strong economic growth that we have delivered. The increases in the personal tax threshold have taken the 3.2 million lowest earners out of paying any income tax at all, and we are continuing to raise that threshold to £12,500, after which it will be index linked, making sure that the lowest earners will never return to the point of having to pay income tax again.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, based on his expertise as a former Minister. We share something in common, in that our towns and cities of Swindon and Peterborough are, unfortunately, the two largest conurbations in the UK without a university that was created from the beginning. Does he agree that, in that respect, it is important to build on apprenticeships, with university technical colleges, for instance, so that young people who are not of an academic bent can be persuaded to pursue a technical and vocational education, which is so important for our future economy?
I thank my hon. Friend for that powerful intervention. He is a real champion for his constituency. On his point about universities, my Swindon constituency benefits from having a huge influx of graduates, so we benefit from the network of local universities within striking distance of Swindon, which is why our area has seen such strong economic growth.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of university technical colleges. My constituency had one of the first UTCs—a £10 million facility in Swindon. It has had its teething problems, but the principle is fantastic, because it is identifying the people who would ultimately be doing advanced engineering and technical work, giving them a real focus on that. They are working with local businesses, which can help to shape the curriculum to fill the skills gaps that can be identified in the local economy. This means that young people will have the best chance of having a career at the end of their education.
The challenge with university technical colleges is how to attract the best and most able students for that type of education at the age of 14. Not unsurprisingly, schools, which are all judged by league tables, are not always brilliantly keen to encourage their most able students to transfer, because it will have a detrimental effect on their place in the league tables. I would urge the schools Minister to consider having a dual score in the league tables, whereby the student remains attributed to the original school, but the results can be shared with the UTC. That would get around the disincentive facing schools if they lose some of their best students. It will give them the opportunity to say, “Look, they are doing great; but they can do even greater with that type of specialist education”. Undoubtedly, apprenticeships and UTCs are making a huge difference.
Not everybody has the opportunity to walk straight into work. As a society, we therefore have a duty to make sure that our jobcentre network is at its most able to support people. I was not the Minister responsible for jobcentres during my time in the Department for Work and Pensions but we had a lot of joint meetings and I got very excited about the need to refresh our jobcentre network. I had been on a number of visits and I was fundamentally depressed when I saw the 1960s and 1970s concrete structures and the security guards who are, understandably, needed. Let me imagine, though, that I am going to a jobcentre. I am almost certainly nervous, and I am then greeted by a security guard in bleak surroundings. There is no celebration of the successes, and no highlighting of those who have faced the same challenges that I fear but know that I must overcome.
I also visited a Shaw Trust community hub that helped a number of people who were a long way away from entering the workplace. There were bright colours and great furniture. This security guard had a different uniform to show that he was a welcomer: as soon as people arrived they were made to feel special, were congratulated on taking this step, and were made aware that he was there to be their anchor throughout the process. It was a real hub of activity. I could see nervous people coming into the building, but as soon as they met the guard they were at their ease, keen to engage in the process and fulfil their potential.
I am delighted that the Government have rolled out this system. When I visited the Swindon jobcentre a few weeks ago, I was not sure what to expect. I was greeted by senior members of staff, who told me excitedly that although the jobcentre had a budget of only about £3,000, they had painted the walls, changed the furniture around, changed the way the entrance worked, and provided work stations so that people could use computers to look for jobs independently after receiving support from the staff. Those staff members were excited because those improvements had transformed their morale and engagement among those with whom they sought to work.
The staff were then keen to talk to me about the difference that universal credit was making by simplifying what had been an incredibly complex benefits system. Under the old system, involving about 167 benefits, it was necessary to be a nuclear physicist to work out what people were or were not entitled to. All too often, through our casework, we would discover that, because of the complexity of that system, our constituents were missing out on support to which they should have been entitled.
Everyone supports the idea of a simplified single benefit that enshrines the principle that the more people work, the better off they will always be, and removes the ridiculous 16-hour cliff edge that prevented people from progressing from part-time to full-time work, to the frustration both of employers and of those whose circumstances were changing and who wished to build up their hours. Crucially, real-time technology now allows people with fluctuating health conditions to have a minimum income. As the condition goes up or down, the system automatically kicks in, so that people no longer constantly have to reapply and experience complicated bureaucracy when they want to focus on dealing with their health challenges and with remaining, or progressing, in work.
Often it is the simplest things that make the biggest difference. Another exciting development is that, for the first time, there are named work coaches. When people arrive at the jobcentre, they do not just need direct help with their search for work; there are a number of other challenges that they may need to navigate, such as securing childcare or additional training. The named coach will help them through that process, giving them significantly more time to concentrate on looking for the work that they would like. The coach will stay with people when they start work, which will also make a huge difference.
Many of us, looking back on our careers, will realise that we were probably driven mostly by our parents encouraging us to make progress—encouraging us not to be complacent; encouraging us to push ourselves—but that is not a given in life. When I was at school, it was a given that many people had no interest in going to work. That was a shame, because they were brilliant people, and with the right encouragement they could have made huge successes of themselves.
Often, people—especially those who have been out of work for a long time—will enter work, but on the lowest wage. Sometimes they will then stagnate, and will not have the confidence to kick on to higher levels. Let us suppose, for example, that I have been out of work for a long period, and have secured work in a supermarket. I am determined to make it a success, so I turn up every day, work my hours diligently, and stay there. Now, however, the named work coach would contact me and ask, “How is it going?” I would say, “For the last three months I have turned up every day and worked as hard as I possibly can.” The named work coach might say, “Have you thought about asking to become the supervisor?” The reply would be, “I’m too shy to do that.” The named coach would say, “No problem,” and then ask the supervisors and managers in the store, “Is he ready to take that step up?” Therefore, the coaches help people to progress in the workplace.
It is great that we have 2.7 million more people in work and that we have introduced the national living wage, which has helped the 6 million lowest earners to get a pay rise, but the next challenge, as we move close to full structural employment, is to ensure that there is support for in-work progression, so that everyone can not just get a job but fulfil their potential. By working hard, they can then progress through those organisations.
I want to come back to the subject of the debate, intergenerational fairness. My hon. Friend has made some points about working issues. Does he agree that for those who have retired or are working but are due a pension a key issue is not only intergenerational fairness but fairness between people who own and run companies and who have responsibilities to people in pension schemes? The news today is a good example of how this place can help to secure the best outcomes for those who are promised pensions in a not very rich retirement world.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I am always at a loss to understand why he is not a Minister. He is one of our most able MPs. In the debates that I have attended, time and again, he is so thoughtful. I had a brilliant time visiting his constituency as a Minister to see the great work that he had done to help to promote apprentices, before it became fashionable and all of us started to campaign for more apprenticeships. He is always ahead of the curve. Rightly, his intervention highlights that we have to look at people of all ages and at the opportunities. I was an employer myself, so I understand the responsibilities to staff in respect of pensions and other benefits and career progression. As ever, he makes a powerful point.
Before my hon. Friend finishes his speech, on a positive note, does he agree that it is important that we have done everything we can to remove the badge of shame in the way we treat disabled people who want to work, and that the Disability Confident scheme, with which he was very much involved at the Department for Work and Pensions, is going from strength to strength, so that more disabled people, who should not be put in the shadows but allowed to fulfil their potential are able to do so in the employment market?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I know that he personally supported the Disability Confident campaign. I am coming to that, if he can hold on for a few more seconds.
Another thing that the staff at the jobcentre highlighted was the great initiative of the school advisers from the jobcentre going into schools, starting to identify those who would need help at an earlier stage and working with them to prepare them for their final day in education and to have a smooth transition. Staff are very excited about the early stages of that initiative. I am delighted that the small employment offer, a pilot that I introduced, is making a difference in getting more businesses to engage directly with the jobcentres, which are now a hub of activity, creating more potential vacancies for those who are still looking for work.
As a former disability Minister, it would be remiss of me not to talk about the additional opportunities that have been created for disabled people. On all the visits I ever did, the most passion I saw from people was when I played my favourite game, which was to ask anyone I ever met, “You are the Minister—what would you do?” I was always looking for good ideas. Without a shadow of a doubt, the most passionate, enthusiastic and engaged cohort of people I talked to were young disabled people who wanted to have exactly the same chances and opportunities as their friends. These were highly talented, often highly educated, brilliant young people, but not all employers had the confidence to consider offering them an opportunity. Nearly always, the employer just needed to make a relatively small change and they would benefit. As an employer, by accident—I am not looking for a halo—I employed people with a disability and it made a huge difference. Therefore, I welcome the fact that over the past three years 600,000 more disabled people have gone into work and that the Government are committed to delivering the disability apprenticeships. Those are real opportunities, predominantly for that younger generation.
I welcome this report, but I urge everyone to remember: it is not them versus us. We have a duty to do our best by people of all ages. I very much hope the Government continue their good work in this area.
Order. I have not yet suggested that Members limit the length of their speeches, because it appeared that we had plenty of time, given the number of Members who had indicated that they wish to speak. Such is the interest in the debate now, however, that there are more Members wishing to speak than there were an hour ago. They must have been prompted by the last two excellent, thoughtful speeches. As a result, I now ask Members to take 10 minutes or less. That would be helpful in allowing everyone an opportunity to speak.
It is a pleasure to follow the eloquent speech from the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson). The report on intergenerational fairness by the Work and Pensions Committee, under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), raises some interesting points. The UK Government have built an economy that offers no long-term security for future generations. The Scottish National party’s vision of economic development is, however, built on the idea of inclusive growth based on equal opportunities, a fair and inclusive job market and a safe, secure future for the younger generation.
I know you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will find it hard to believe that I am not a millennial, but I am apparently a baby boomer. To make my contribution more authentic, I shall use personal examples of what has happened either to me or to others of my generation. According to the report, my fellow pensioners and I are in danger of breaking the intergenerational contract, in that my state pension—which I will always assert is not a benefit but a contract between me and successive Governments—and those universal pensioner benefits that I receive come at too high a cost for today’s working-age population.
I shall pause for a moment to consider the WASPI women, who have been treated abominably by this and previous Governments. Many of them have been required to wait far too long for their pension, which will come later than they were told, and this is causing them serious hardship. I was fortunate to be born when I was. I paid national insurance contributions until I was 60, and I continue to pay PAYE on my salary. I contribute to the national Exchequer. Indeed, over my lifetime, I have paid in more than I take out. I am happy for my fellow pensioners to be paid what they deserve, even if they have been unable to contribute as much as I have done. In Scotland, there are many more folk like me.
I welcome the report’s conclusion that it is not the fault of the baby boomers that the economy has become skewed in their favour. This echoes a point made by the hon. Member for North Swindon. We should not be allocating blame. Believe me, Madam Deputy Speaker, there have definitely been times in my life when the economy was not skewed in my favour. Some people in the Chamber will remember 16 September 1992, and I certainly cannot forget that day. Two years previously, I had taken out my first mortgage at a rate of 7.5% and, after numerous increases on that day I found myself laughing hysterically on my drive home from work. I had just found out that the interest rate was now 15% and that it could rise even higher. Actually, it is not exactly true to say that I was laughing hysterically. I had stopped worrying by that point, because I figured out that no one else would be able to pay their mortgage at that rate either, and that my house would be repossessed and my three children made homeless only after the building society had repossessed the homes of all the people whose names began with the letters A to E.
The economy was definitely not skewed in my favour when the then Chancellor Gordon Brown’s change to dividend taxation in 1997 sounded the death knell for defined benefit pensions. For many of my generation and for future generations, that has had an ongoing effect. After his decision, pension schemes became unable to reclaim the tax credit on dividends. Regular dividends are hugely important to overall investment returns, so having a significant chunk taken out of them at a stroke blew a huge hole in the schemes’ finances, and the vast majority of them were frozen and closed to new entrants.
Speaking at his party conference in 2009, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) said:
“Gordon Brown’s disastrous tax raid on pensions heralded the start of the age of irresponsibility.”
He also said that a Conservative Government would
“reverse the effects of Gordon Brown’s pensions tax raid and get our country saving again.”
However, the right hon. Member for Tatton abolished the dividend tax credit altogether in 2010, making it impossible for him to reverse Mr Brown’s raid by making the credit reclaimable in future. Thus, we now have the rise of money purchase schemes, which means that pension values are even more subject to the variations of the stock market. Indeed, many people of my generation suffered after their defined benefit pension schemes were frozen, and the money purchase schemes that they were forced into did not even hold the value of the contributions subsequently paid in. In one case, a pensioner and his employer paid in for more than 10 years, but he received less back when he retired because the market was at its lowest point on his retirement date. All generations will feel the effects of those calculated moves as they move towards retirement age.
When addressing working-age challenges, it is important to be mindful of generational gaps. It is the protections offered by the triple lock to the state pension that protects pensioners in their old age. With inflation set to rise further, the protections must be retained while we address the stress on younger generations. While the triple lock remains in place, we need cast-iron guarantees that it will not be abandoned after 2020.
The hon. Lady is making a captivating speech. None of us wants to make changes to the triple lock, but there must be some recognition of what the country’s finances can afford. That recognition must be balanced against the security for pensioners.
There certainly is recognition, but I totally disagree with some of the ideological truths held by those on the Government Benches. We have to look after pensioners just now and pensioners in the future. Indeed, Age UK told me to refer to the Pensions Policy Institute, which calculated that a younger person with lower earnings has a 63% chance of achieving an adequate retirement income if the new state pension is increased by the triple lock, but that could fall to 36% if it is linked to earnings. That is about future generations, not just me and my generation. Other parties should be united with the SNP on future protection. Notwithstanding the report’s importance, we must be clear that addressing the challenges for working-age individuals does not mean deprioritising the safeguards for future pensioners. The way to tackle intergenerational fairness is through inclusive growth, ensuring that all generations can live in security in retirement.
The report also looks at universal pensioner benefits such as winter fuel payments, which are not index-linked and have dropped in value over the years. The Committee’s opinion is that universal benefits should not be off limits when spending priorities are set by future Parliaments. However, some commentators have said that the cost of removing them from better-off pensioners could be more than the benefits themselves.
I have granddaughters and I might have grandsons one day, too—who knows? I want things to be better for them. I would like the UK Government to look closely at what can be done to improve matters for them. As I said, the UK Government have built an economy that offers no long-term security for future generations. The SNP’s vision of economic development is to build on the idea of inclusive growth based on equal opportunities, a fair and inclusive jobs market, and a safe and secure future for the younger generation.
The Scottish Government are building a safe and secure future for future generations. They believe that a fair and inclusive labour market that provides sustainable and well-paid jobs is key to a more equal society and a more resilient economy. To achieve intergenerational fairness, we need to tackle the legacy effects of the economic recession, such as youth unemployment and in-work poverty. The Scottish Government are ambitious in their aim to reduce youth unemployment and are now implementing the Wood commission’s recommendations through a youth employment strategy. Scotland has been a strong advocate of collective action at EU level and has supported initiatives such as the European youth initiative.
I might run out of time, but I will swiftly talk about home ownership and housing costs, which the Scottish Government have done a lot to improve. The Scottish Government will build 50,000 affordable homes, which will help the younger generation, and passed the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016 to create simpler tenancies that offer stability and security to the 700,000 tenants who call the private rented sector home. The Act improves security for tenants, contains comprehensive and robust repossession grounds and includes an opportunity for local authorities to implement rent caps.
What we need for all generations is hope for the future and robust policies that do not pit one generation against another. My children and grandchildren do not begrudge what I have earned and paid for, and I want the best for them, too, but I have grave misgivings about their life chances under this Tory Government. Theresa May has indicated that the UK could follow down a road of deregulation.
Order. The hon. Lady is fine for time, but I am sure she meant to say, “The Prime Minister.”
Yes. I beg your pardon, Madam Deputy Speaker.
A tax haven-style economy would deny opportunities and security to millennials and the generations to come. Finally, to pursue a deregulated tax haven charter is not only a futile race to the bottom that will affect businesses and harm the economy but a clear admission that the UK Government have not learned from mistakes made during the 2008 financial crisis and, more recently, the Panama papers.
The Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), in a typically assured and authoritative speech, began by saying, absolutely rightly, that intergenerational fairness is a huge issue. He said that the Select Committee, of necessity, had to focus on the particular area of the triple lock—it is a pretty big and important area—but that the issue is much broader than that.
Intergenerational fairness, or generational justice if we want to call it that, is not a brand-new concept, but it is gaining in political salience. It is an idea whose time is coming, if it has not already come. That is partly because of the changing demographics of this country, which underlie the Select Committee’s decision to consider the triple lock. We have had what some people call a “demographic time bomb” ticking away, and successive Governments of every stripe have had to deal with the arithmetic logic that that means for our fiscal future. There is an impact on the state pension, other state benefits and many other facets of our Government finances.
The concept of generational justice therefore provides us with an incredibly useful new moral prism through which to view our spending decisions today. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) rightly said that it is extremely rare for Governments since the second world war to run a budget surplus. By and large, we have outspent ourselves as a nation—it does not matter who has been in government. We have overspent. We have been Mr Micawber, spending today and hoping that something will turn up tomorrow. That cannot go on because the notion of generational justice is increasingly in people’s minds, and rightly so.
We need to ask ourselves the moral question: if we are spending on things today that just help our lifestyle, how can it be fair on our children and grandchildren? If we borrow to support that spending, they are the ones who will have to pay for our lifestyle today, which cannot be right or fair. We will have to justify that to them when we, in turn, come to claim our state pension or state benefits.
I am a little more generous than my hon. Friend, because I would say that there are a few occasions when it is justified to borrow more than we receive in tax revenue, particularly where we are borrowing to spend on things that are then going to be enjoyed by our children and grandchildren, as they are going to be able to use them. People in this country today benefit from the investments our predecessors made in railways and roads. We, in turn, are investing in digital infrastructure, which our children and grandchildren will be able to use. Those things last and will yield a benefit to not only us, but future generations. The moral prism that this new concept brings means that we can then start to distinguish between things that our children and grandchildren will be able to use for their own benefit, as well as for ours, and things that only we benefit from—things that subsidise our lifestyle today. That is the new moral prism, and we would not have heard many people in this Chamber or elsewhere in our national debate talking about it even five or 10 years ago—they certainly would not have been talking about it 20 years ago.
That is the new concept, and it is extremely powerful and important for us. Let us suppose we start to view things through that lens and start to apply the same kinds of fiscal and financial discipline that an independent pension fund would apply to its liabilities. Let us suppose we try to value the financial liabilities inherent and embedded in the state pension and the state benefits system, just as the trustees of the Rolls-Royce pension scheme or any other private or occupational pension scheme would. What happens if we then apply those actuarial calculations to the liabilities—to the cheques we are all collectively in this place writing on our own behalf and the costs that we are therefore imposing on future generations? We find that those actuarial liabilities look, feel, sound and are economically the same as a gilt, a Government bond, a long-term liability—and I suggest strongly that it is only generationally just that we should also treat them the same. If we apply those calculations, the Government’s balance sheet—the public’s balance sheet—and the Government’s overall commitments start to look very difficult indeed.
That is not a comment on the current Government or on the previous couple of Governments, either the coalition or Labour. This is a comment on the way this country has been thinking and behaving since the second world war—since we founded the welfare state. If we add those actuarially calculated liabilities on to what we normally call the national debt—the stock of gilts; the stock of Government bonds in issue—we do not just get the figure of about 90% of GDP that is projected for the national debt. That level already gives people like me a nosebleed, thinking about the altitude we are going to be operating at in due course. The strain on our Government balance sheet is already high, but we do not just get a figure of about 90% of GDP as Government debt; depending on which external valuations and assessments we choose to believe, we get a figure that is somewhere between 350% and 400% of GDP.
It is time we started being honest with ourselves, not just across the aisle here in this Chamber, but as a society and as a nation, about the scale of the cheque that we are asking our children and our grandchildren to cash on our behalf. It means that the Government’s finances are a great deal more brittle, fragile and exposed to external shocks of the kind we suffered in the 2008 banking crisis than we have been willing to admit to ourselves. We have been a high-rolling economy of that kind since we first invented the welfare state.
The Select Committee Chair rightly pointed out that we could react in a number of different ways to this inconvenient truth—for example, by raising taxes or by ignoring the problem; he mentioned that, but I think his tongue was firmly in his cheek when he did so. I would like to offer for consideration one alternative that he did not mention. The only way we can deal with the generational injustice of charging our children and grandchildren for the liabilities we are building up under the state pension and state benefits system is to switch from the current pay-as-you-go system. That is a gulpingly large financial commitment, but it is also I am afraid unavoidable and inescapable once we have accepted that we have been kidding ourselves about the scale of the public liabilities that this country has been writing for itself for the past 50 years or more.
The only way to move from a pay-as-you-go system to a fully paid up system, which is what we already demand from the occupational schemes that we look at with some degree of envy and approval—the occupational schemes are held up by many as the apple of the pensions eye—is through a very slow and steady process. It would clearly be generationally unjust the other way around not only to charge the current generation of taxpayers the cost of supporting the pay-as-you-go system, in which we all pay for the current pensions liabilities, but to ask us to build up a fund to afford the future pensions liabilities so that we can wipe out the generational injustice. We would end up paying twice, which would be a generational injustice of a different kind and scale.
I make this point, then, to all those present and to everyone listening more widely: if we are serious about generational justice and about trying to make sure that we do not expect our children and grandchildren to fund our pensions and benefits, whatever we may need if we get sick or are out of work—those vital parts of our lifestyle—we need to make a long-term commitment to deal with their inheritance as well. Families do this all the time—they make commitments on behalf of their children and grandchildren. As a nation and as a society we need to start to be honest with ourselves about the size of the burden we have been and are placing on future generations, and about the fact that the generational time bomb is starting to impose ever heavier burdens. The only solution—to be approached slowly, carefully and over a very, very long timescale—is to make the commitment to switch from a pay-as-you-go system to a fully funded system, so that we can look our children and grandchildren in the eye and say, “We did not ask you to pay any more for our lifestyles.”
Order. Right, let us try for nine minutes or less.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) on introducing this important debate on intergenerational fairness—or social mobility, as it may also be called.
We are, of course, not the only country dealing with longevity, which is a positive thing. I am the shadow Minister for the far east. China is, of course, the most populated country in the world, and its large, ageing population has created a massive question mark over how to proceed. We are therefore not the only ones questioning how the best policies and ideas might be brought forward.
Let us not forget that pension credit is one benefit that is under-claimed. When I meet older folk in my advice surgery, I am always surprised by just how many pensioners are living in poverty. One part of my constituency is one of the most well-to-do areas while the other part is one of the poorest. People in Wood Green live 10 years longer than my constituents in Muswell Hill—I think I have that the right way around. The important thing is that in just one constituency there can be a 10-year difference between the ages at which people pass away.
Members will have seen headlines today saying that people will have to work until they are 71. We know that a feature of older age is the scourge of loneliness. Many people might be quite well off but, in the end, it is the loneliness that is fatal for them. As we think about these intergenerational issues, we should consider the wonderful, cross-party memorial project for our former colleague, Jo Cox, which is all about dealing with loneliness.
Let me turn now to younger people. This dovetails nicely with our previous debate on productivity, because we know that if we had more effective childcare, many more working-age parents would be able to earn and make those steps in the workplace that the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) mentioned in his speech. Many women missed out on career opportunities because the childcare was simply not there when they needed it. That in turn meant that they were not able to get the pay increases that would have enabled them to have a better pension, and so it goes on.
The former Prime Minister Tony Blair said, “Education, education, education,” because he knew that better jobs would bring in more tax receipts. That is why it is so important that education is central to what we do in this place. It is a great pity that we are seeing the first real-terms cut to schools in 30 years. As the places that educate more than 90% of our children, state schools have to be at the forefront of what we do. The latest cut is very regressive indeed.
A cut of 50% to further education can only lead to a lowering of educational attainment and reduced opportunity within the general population. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) is now calling for something similar to working men’s colleges because of the lack of an opportunity to learn. When I go to my advice surgeries in Wood Green library, I am always delighted to see how many adults there are learning English, maths or another subject to give them that golden bit of education that will get them into a good job.
Let me turn briefly to the matter of university fees. The other day, a lecturer at London Metropolitan University, which educates nurses, told me that the average nurse now comes out of university with a debt of £54,000. If a nurse has a starting salary of £24,000, it is quite obvious that it will take them a very long time to pay off that debt, and they will end up as a victim of these intergenerational issues that we are debating.
Working-age families face increasing travel costs when commuting to work, as well as higher energy and telecoms bills. If three or four children in a family each have a mobile phone, things are much more expensive than when each house had just one landline, but phones are not considered to be a luxury anymore—they are just something that we need for our work. Many working-age families are therefore treading water, and some are even going backwards.
On the psychology of universal goods and services. I want briefly to relay an experience that I had as a council leader. As a council, we wanted to do something for older folk, so we introduced a £100-back scheme. I received the most interesting thank you letters—not that council leaders receive many of those; the letters are usually the opposite. People said, “Thank you. I am just over the benefit level. I have worked all my life, and it feels wonderful to have this recognition from the council. This £100 will help me to have a holiday or a day out.”
We know that the freedom pass, the concessionary travel scheme for older Londoners, is greatly cherished. I would like many more travel concessions for the regions. The fact that people cannot get on a bus in their village so that they can go shopping in the local town holds back our high streets and the economy enormously. A Labour Government would almost certainly address that issue. The NHS is, of course, a very popular universal service. If we followed the reasoning we have heard in several Members’ speeches, we would assume that targeting everything is the right way to go, but we know that universalism works.
Housing is the big divide between the higher and lower value areas of the country. People who want to take up a job in a high-value area such as London, Oxford or Bristol face difficulties because of the astronomical cost of renting. The best investment the state can make is in bricks and mortar—as we know, because every other wealthy investor is doing that. The average local authority home costs £100,000 in capital to build. If that cost is paid back at a rate of about £150 a week for a family, it is soon made up over a 10-year period. Social housing is a wonderful investment. In fact, housing in general is a wonderful investment, and the wonderful thing about housing stock is that it is there forever to use and let out again.
In conclusion, Madam Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] Oh, Mr Speaker, you have slipped in unannounced; it is so unlike you to be so quiet.
My first point on social mobility was simply to reiterate that pension credit and benefits for pensioners are often under-claimed. We should not assume that everybody over the age of 65 is doing very well. My second point was about the increasing pressures on working families. There is a desperate need for affordable childcare, and people face increasing costs of commuting to work alongside flatlining wages or household debt, which is creeping up again, so we need to watch the situation carefully. Government investment in education and housing is the way forward. I hope that we will learn much more from the report of the Work and Pensions Committee, which is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead, but we must not forget the complexities of the situation.
As far as I can see, there are four more would-be Back-Bench contributors. I should have thought that we will need to start the Front-Bench wind-ups no later than 6.30 pm. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) might want to make a two-minute wind-up.
No—well, the wind-ups should certainly start no later than 6.30 pm.
This has been an excellent debate, which was brilliantly introduced by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) and has included thoughtful and intelligent contributions from all hon. Members.
This debate is about poverty, wealth, the accretion of assets and life chances. My grandmother, Kathleen Woodman, was one of 13 children born in County Wexford in Ireland. Eleven of those children died of tuberculosis before Kathleen was taken to England in the late ’40s to live out the rest of her life. I mention that because it is impossible not to remember that the reality of life for so many of our fellow citizens for so many hundreds of years was brutal, grinding poverty. We have come an enormous distance. I say to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead that, yes, there is much to be done, but we have done a great deal to right the wrong of the grinding poverty that afflicted so many people over so many years.
It is important to remember that the modern welfare state was debated after Lloyd George’s 1909 people’s Budget, which brought in social insurance, pensions and the pre-Beveridge foundations of the welfare state. For that reason, we ought to recognise that we have gone in the right direction over the years. To use another statistic, it is impossible to believe that 44% of the world lived in absolute poverty as recently as 1980. In 2015, that figure was 9.6%. We have done an enormous amount—through technology, science, innovation and advances in healthcare—to lift the burden of destitution, misery and poverty from our fellow man, and we should accept the importance of that.
I will confine my remarks to the specific issues raised in the report. The debate between the so-called millennials and the baby boomers does not have to be acrimonious and adversarial. None of us can do anything about the societal change inherent in it, which is essentially demographic. The number of over-85s will double in the next 25 years, and that is a fantastic piece of news. As recently as 30 years ago, people worked incredibly hard—often in manual work. They reached 70 and had a few years tending their plants or their budgie, and then they fell off their perch. That was the reality of our life then. People now are richer, happier and healthier, generally speaking, than they have ever been, and that is a good thing.
It is also true to say, though, that we have not always done the right thing in response to that significant demographic change. To go back to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), we have made some policy mistakes. We had a fetish in the 1980s and 1990s for university education—academic education. We did not consider the importance of technical and vocational education to young people who were not necessarily academically gifted. We drove the target of 50% of 18-year-olds going to university, which is great if someone goes to Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge, but not if they go to a less prestigious university and end up earning £7.50 an hour in a call centre, with £40,000 of student debt. We have to really consider whether we made the right decision. For instance, we turned polytechnics, which did a great job in providing technical education for young people, into universities. Was that the right thing? We are doing our best now to ameliorate those issues by, for instance, creating university technical colleges and a brilliant apprenticeship programme across the country, but I am not sure that is enough.
Housing is an important issue, and it was raised by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West)—I think she got her figures the wrong way round, unless Muswell Hill has gone downhill a lot since I last visited it, compared with Wood Green. It is absolutely right to point up the issue of older people, who are, in any case, better off, hoarding capital assets and, particularly in the planning system, preventing younger people from having what they themselves had. When someone who wants to buy a home has to be 37 years of age and to have something like £25,000 for a deposit, that cannot be right, and it distorts the system. We must build more homes, release more land and liberalise the planning system to address the specific issue of housing and intergenerational fairness.
We have to look at the triple lock, and we need a national debate about it. I am indebted to the Resolution Foundation for the paper it produced last year—“Stagnation Generation: the case for renewing the intergenerational contract”—and for the work of Lord Willetts, among a number of people. It is scarcely believable that the Resolution Foundation could say:
“Millennials are at risk of becoming the first ever generation to record lower lifetime earnings than their predecessors”.
That is the political inheritance we are potentially giving to people who are under 30 at the moment.
Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that we should reform pensions tax relief to enable younger people to save more? Three quarters of pensions tax relief goes to higher earners, who are often older. If we reformed it—moving to, say, 28p or 30p in the pound—lower-income people would have more bang for their buck.
I absolutely agree. In terms of fairness and social equity, that is an excellent fiscal policy, which we should look at.
As the Select Committee report said, we also need to look at the information gap. We need qualitative and quantitative data on what goes in and comes out across both generations. We need to publish that analysis and study it independently.
We need to look at universal pension benefits, such as the winter fuel allowance. With demographic change, it is inevitable that we need to make sure we marshal our public resources in the best way we can. We need to look at a smoothed earnings link—a nuance in terms of prices-related indexing of benefits to pensioners. Life expectancy is increasing and health outcomes are getting better.
It is not that we have not done a good job, with automatic enrolment, changes in tax allowances, the national living wage, record employment of 74.6%, apprenticeships, and real incomes now rising by 2.6%. As we have heard, the number of those not in education, employment or training is reducing. Youth unemployment in my constituency has seen one of the biggest falls in any constituency in England—about 70%. Work means wealth. Work is the biggest determinant of getting out of poverty. Albeit that it might be low-paid and low-skilled work at the beginning, it is the No. 1 determinant of breaking the cycle of intergenerational welfare dependency. It is hugely impressive that the Government have taken 865,000 people out of workless households since 2010, although obviously they need to do more.
Before I conclude, may I be a little disobliging to the Scottish National party? The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), who is an excellent representative of her constituency, was rather churlish in the partisan point that she made. If we are talking about ideology, perhaps she can explain the £2,000 gap per head in public expenditure as a result of the Barnett formula, as between my constituents and hers. I will leave that in the air for her to think about.
My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) made a superb speech. In fact, we do not have an approach where we just put money in a biscuit tin and take it out when we are 68 or 70—we have a pay-as-you-go system. We must have a national consensus and a proper debate on this issue, because we cannot kick it into the long grass any longer. As I said at the beginning, grinding poverty, destitution, ill health and hidden mental illness are all things that we never want to go back to. The system we have is a price we are paying for a civilised society.
I want to avoid seeing this as an issue of young versus old. I am conscious that there is a huge variation in the incomes of pensioner households, with some relatively affluent and others struggling to get by. I recognise the dangers of too much means-testing among elderly people, and particularly the risk that it can lead to people going without despite genuine need and entitlement.
However, I am also aware that this is not a great time to be young. Average household income, which has been rising for every successive generation since 1910, has stopped rising for those born in the 1980s, who are the first generation to start their working lives on an income lower than that of the previous generation. This younger generation will also do less well on pensions, both through the lack of access to defined-benefit schemes and the age at which they will be entitled to a state pension. It is true that, as we have heard, auto-enrolment will help, but it is hardly generous, and it will require a steady rise in employee contributions over the coming years. I would like the Government to take a good look at pension tax relief. In response to the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), I would like to see what can be done to incentivise those on lower incomes and at the early stages of their working lives to save in a pension pot. That would be a better use of public money than a generous relief for those who have already built up a healthy and, in some cases, quite substantial pension pot.
We need to think about how hard it is for young people to get on the property ladder and the proportion of their already limited income that so many are forced to pay in rent and other housing costs. The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that homeowners spend about 15% of their income on mortgage payments, which is about half the amount that renters are forced to spend in this country.
I was struck by a proposal in the report of a recent British Academy-IFS roundtable on intergenerational fairness, which suggested that one answer to the double dilemma of accommodation costs for the young and of the social care crisis would be to encourage a model of co-habiting with older people. That might provide benefits of increased companionship and new understandings between generations at a time when the idea of the extended family has all but ceased to be a feature of our society and so many people feel isolated. The arrangement could also afford a measure of care and have a positive impact on wellbeing. It might also help those who are property-rich but cash-poor. If costs could be set at a fair and realistic level, it might offer some hope to those whose accommodation costs mean that they have no prospect of saving to get on the property ladder.
I support the Chairman and other members of the Work and Pensions Committee in calling on the Government to come clean about their future plans for the triple lock, which I honestly do not think is sustainable. I do not want an election campaign to be fought on a false bidding war for pensioners, only to be followed by a harsh U-turn shortly afterwards, as we have already seen with tuition fees and expectations on social care.
I am aware that many pensioner groups will oppose what I have to say. I have already had a hard time from the West Midlands Pensioners Convention for being a member of a Committee that could dare look at this issue. I am also aware that Labour Front Benchers are currently committed to maintaining the triple lock for the whole of the next Parliament, but I ask them to look again and see whether there is a better way to both protect pensioners and hold the Government to account on their vague plans.
There are two problems with the triple lock. First, it has a ratchet effect, which means that it demands an ever greater share of GDP when we have seen no income growth in working-age households for the past 10 years. Secondly, the triple lock creates a trade-off that means that the state pension age will have to rise above 70, which means pushing it above average life expectancy in some of the poorer parts of the country. In some parts of Birmingham, average male life expectancy is already 70.4 years and healthy life expectancy is as low as 53 years. In many parts of the country, average life expectancy and healthy life expectancy are even worse. We have already seen the problems caused by the rising pension age for Women Against State Pension Inequality, a group that I think should get transitional help.
I wonder what the risks will be if we pursue a policy of an ever-rising pension age. A better alternative would be to link the state pension to average earnings, but with added inflation protection in periods where price growth exceeds earnings. I ask my party’s Front Benchers to think about that. As a politically acceptable sweetener for such a change, it might be worth considering replacing the hugely expensive 2.5% component of the triple lock with a pledge to set a different cap on care costs and more support for social care.
We have to accept that workless pensioner incomes—that is, those of people who are fully retired—have grown more rapidly than those of any other group since 2001. Today’s young workers are set to be net contributors to the welfare state over the course of their lives, while the baby boomer generation, as we have heard, will be net beneficiaries. I want honesty for the future, fairness for current and future pensioners, and sustainable and affordable plans for the challenges that lie ahead.
It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), who is a very good member of the Select Committee on which we both serve. I will echo one of his key arguments, which is that we need to reform the triple lock and other pensioner benefits and to use the savings for adult social care and the NHS, given how much of those savings would go to those who are pensioners.
The key word used by the hon. Gentleman was “honesty”. We must level with the British people about the financial situation we are in. The way to look at it is to ask: if we had a blank canvas today, what would we keep of what we have now? No one starting a pensions system today would come up with the triple lock. No one would suggest a winter fuel allowance, costing £2.1 billion, which is paid to everyone regardless of their income or their national insurance record. In my view, no one would suggest a free bus pass, which costs £1.2 billion. No one would even suggest the £10 Christmas bonus, which Ted Heath introduced in 1972, costing £124 million at Christmas, at a time when the NHS is in crisis and needs more funding.
The essence of my argument is that 2020 is way too late. To have such a date is to use an arbitrary political timetable to enforce policy, at a time when the national interest requires us to look at the state of adult social care and the NHS and to find the money needed for them in a fair way. To me, the proposition that we are about to put more money into adult social care and the NHS but that none of it will come from existing pensioners is extraordinary. We have to look at pensioner benefits and the triple lock.
When it comes to the triple lock, we must remember that by 2050 the number of pensioners—the number of people over 65—will not be 10 million as it is today, but 19 million, which is almost twice as many. Look at the pressure our services are under today, let alone when there are almost twice as many pensioners. If we keep the triple lock, it will cost an extra £15 billion by 2050. My view is that we should recognise that the most vulnerable pensioners—those who need help from the state the most—are in the care system or in the NHS and in need of care.
I think we should look very hard at the winter fuel allowance. I would capitalise it for a year to invest in remediation measures, provide help with heating and so on, and move people on to more competitive energy tariffs, and then I would wind it down and spend the money on the care system, because that is what pensioners need, particularly in the winter.
We should look at the free bus pass. We could put a nominal charge on the pass and allow pensioners to travel at peak time. According to my county council, that would be a huge saving. It is actually what many pensioners want, bearing in mind how many do not take advantage of the free pass, which costs the Exchequer £1.2 billion a year.
I have to add that we should look at free prescriptions. In England, we say that we pay for our prescriptions, but 90% of prescriptions in England are not paid for, because so many of them go to the over-60s. The cost of free prescriptions in England for the over-60s is £4.8 billion. I recently went to a pharmacy in the beautiful village of Clare in my constituency. Most of the over-60s there are relatively well-off and probably own their properties outright—of course, there are pensioners there who are not well-off—but the fact is that they receive free prescriptions while many far less well-off people of working age do not. That is the sort of moral issue we must talk about.
What would I use the savings on? People should be as open and honest about this as I and our Committee have been prepared to be.
My hon. Friend is slaughtering sacred cows in such a steady fashion that I am wondering whether he is also considering looking at free BBC TV licences. Is that an expense we cannot afford?
My understanding is that the BBC will be asked to pick up the tab for that shortly, which I think is fair enough.
As I say, none of us would introduce such things today. They were political measures that bear no relation to contributions to the national insurance system or to the incomes of the recipients. That is the sort of politics we simply cannot afford today. Instead, we should be prepared to look at these measures, and use the savings to support a fair deal for those who have assets and need the care system, as well as to support those in the care system who cannot support themselves. Raising money to support the care system offers the possibility of another aspect of intergenerational fairness. The care sector is desperately short of staff and too many are badly paid. If we raise the money to support the social care sector, which will not be hit by the robot employment era, we have a way to give better paid work to young people and to provide a better career structure to those who might otherwise be on relatively low pay.
I want to finish on the key point made, in an excellent speech, by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose). I strongly agree with him on the issue first raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) in relation to the basic pension plus in April 1997 that we should move to a funded system. All our constituents who are pensioners will make the point, “Why should you take this stuff away from me when I have paid into this all my life?” And quite right. Pensioners come to my surgeries worried about having low interest rates on their savings when council tax is going up. They are affected by that. I accept that many of them are not wealthy. In fact, many are struggling. I accept that, but the root of the problem is that we have a pay-as-you-go system. We have vast freebies, such as prescriptions, and nobody feels any link to them. My hon. Friend is right that this is about the contrast between a Government who would be doing the right thing, even though it is not popular, of building towards a funded system, and those in the past who have given out vast freebies at the expense of future generations. The former is the model we should move towards. It may not be popular, but I think the public know that tough decisions have to be made. We should not shy away from them. If we want inter- generational fairness, we will have to have a little bit of intergenerational honesty.
It is a great pleasure to join the debate at this late stage, a debate introduced in a sense with the very good news about BHS pensioners. Many of us serving on the Select Committees chaired by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) and the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) share the enthusiasm for that result.
On intergenerational fairness, let me start by putting the case for the prosecution, as it were, which was laid out in more detail in the Select Committee inquiry that I and many other Members here today were involved in. The Committee effectively said that the UK economy is skewed. We focused on some key elements: house prices; life expectancy; the burden of looking after the old financed by the young; the triple lock on pensions; and the implicit social contract between generations that we felt had become skewed. That triggered two or three specific recommendations, in particular on the new state pension tracking earnings and doing away with the triple lock.
The factual evidence behind the case for the prosecution is highlighted in the figure that the value of the full state pension as a percentage of average earnings is now the highest it has been since the late 1980s. However, there is of course more to it than that. Some of the points I would like to highlight include the fact that spending on pensioners as a percentage of GDP is falling. That is partly due to a growing economy, increases in the state pension age and the fact that the triple lock applies only to the basic state pension and new pensions. The statistics, therefore, are not always helpful in terms of anticipating the future. One other point is that there is a strong feeling among some of us that the basic state pension needed to increase quite sharply, particularly between 2010 and 2020, because it had fallen behind strongly in the previous decade. Everyone will remember the business of the 75p increase under a previous Government. This is, therefore, not quite as simple a proposition as it first appears.
Among our pensioners today are those who served this country in extremely difficult times, including world wars and other conflicts. Many were brought up in very difficult circumstances in a world far removed from the conditions that most people today can imagine. There is then the matter of the young. The young have always faced challenges; their challenges have just changed over time. One hundred years ago people leaving school at the age of 18 were facing extremely different challenges, many of them on the western front. My own grandparents, as young people, met shortly after the carnage on the Somme, where my grandfather had been severely injured. The woman who became his wife was nursing him. Although the challenges of today are considerable, we should not underestimate those of the past.
One of the ironies of our leaving the EU at this stage is that we are just beginning to adopt a more European approach to the homes we live in and to rent them for much longer, as they do on the continent. In a sense, the Government have recognised that in their ambition to create more social housing available for rent.
Other points have been well made, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), who articulated much of what many of us feel about the National Citizen Service, which has so far cost about £1.2 billion—that is not on any balance sheet, of course, in terms of intergenerational fairness—apprenticeships and youth unemployment, which is at its lowest for 12 years, and the openings and opportunities in universities and further education colleges.
In that regard, I hope that the former right hon. Member for Havant, in his current role as chairman of the Resolution Foundation, when he is being provocative from that platform, does not try to set pensioners, those of working age and the young against each other, for that could be extremely counterproductive, as I will go on to set out. [Interruption.] Of course, things can be done to improve the balance in the relationship. Some of those were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), and we could look at a double, not a triple lock.
I can see that you are agitating, Mr Speaker, so I shall finish. In our efforts to make sure that the costs of old age do not cripple the future generations paying for them, we should never forget the hugely positive role that so many pensioners, grandparents and great grandparents play, looking after children and sharing their love and wisdom with their families, especially where the parents’ own relationships have broken down and the children are often being guided by their grandparents. In many ways, older people are always helping out and passing on knowledge. Let us never forget that.
The Resolution Foundation wants to analyse the balance of fiscal contributions and withdrawals. It is right that that should be done by that foundation and not the Government. Let us not forget, however, that incredibly sensitive issues are at stake, some of which emerged as moral issues during our discussion of the Assisted Dying Bill. We do not want to end up inadvertently setting generations’ interests against one another. At the end of the day, let us be mindful of what many in the House believe and the late Jo Cox articulated brilliantly: what we all have in common is so much more than what divides us, including across generations.
Hon. Members might have heard me talk before about my issues with the estimates process. I do not agree that we should do them in this way and I think that the Government should seriously consider the reforms recommended by the Procedure Committee in respect of how we deal with them. We should be allowed to discuss and scrutinise them at length.
That said, I want to talk specifically about the intergenerational fairness report—it works quite nicely that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) are the SNP team on this. I want briefly to touch on my story and then talk about some of the issues that people my age face. My grandparents were part of the silent generation mentioned in the report, my parents were at the tail end of the baby boomer generation, I am a millennial and my children are of the generation called “the latest”, which I think is sometimes termed generation X, but I am not sure.
My grandparents are still alive and have spoken to me about their story and the hardships they faced. In my family, we have faced all the issues discussed in the report. Those issues that people my age face differ from those faced even by relatively recent generations. There are issues with precarious jobs and the gig economy. It has not been talked about a huge amount today, but it is important to note that there is no longer the job security that some people had in previous generations. Young people cannot expect to walk into a job and still be there in 20 or 30 years. They walk in wondering if they will still be there in six months, given the precarious nature of contracts these days.
Another thing that has not been discussed is the fact that people my age are delaying having children, which stores up even more problems for the future demographically. What we should have been doing is having more children 20 years ago; now the problem is exacerbated even more because people are pushing having children later into adulthood. This is causing a problem, because we will not have the working-age population to support us. I am not going to be able to retire for another 38 years, which is when I will hit state pension age. By that time, I will have been working full time for about 49 years. Other people of my age are in the same situation.
Let me touch briefly on housing costs. In 1990, around the time that my parents were buying houses, the average housing cost in Scotland was 2.4 times the average income. By 2010, it was 3.7 times, so buying a house is much more difficult for this generation than it was for previous generations. One of the biggest problems that I see coming through my door is the lack of council housing. That issue can be firmly placed with the Thatcher Government and the right to buy. That is absolutely and unequivocally the reason for this problem.
I was a local authority councillor for a long time before I became an MP, and almost everybody who walked through my door had concerns about the lack of council houses. In 2004, 2005 and 2006, Scotland saw six council houses built across the whole country in that three-year period. Since then, we have cancelled the right to buy, and the number of council houses being built in Scotland is back to being more than 1,000 a year. It is not high enough—I would like to see us building more—but we are getting there. We are trying to dismantle the legacy of the Tory right to buy that has caused such a huge problem for this generation.
Let me briefly touch on how to fix the problem. I have touched on social housing. “Inclusive growth” is really important. It is one of those buzz phrases that are talked about. What inclusive growth means is not just sitting down to work out how to grow the economy; it is about sitting down to work out how to grow the economy so that everybody benefits—not just the people at the top of the pile. When we are thinking about how to grow that economy, we need to start by thinking about how it will benefit the people at the bottom of the pile who need it the most. That is what this Government have been lacking in their thinking about economic growth.
We need to have more children, but as I said we should have started doing that 20 years ago, and unfortunately we did not. What we need to do is ensure that we keep having the level of immigration that we have had. We should not have these attacks on immigration, particularly in respect of people who are coming here to study, for example, who then give us the benefit of that study by working in our economy, generating and paying taxes. It is important that people come here to study and then contribute to our economy. In many cases, they go back to their country, having paid taxes here, which is great and helps to support our older generations.
Finally—I know I am tight for time—as a millennial, I am not happy with the situation that people my age are facing: I am not happy with the precarious nature of the jobs market; I am not happy with expensive housing. However, I do not believe that we should take things away from the people who are currently pensioners in order to fix that. What we should do is to grow the economy inclusively, ensure that there are better workers’ rights and ensure that companies spread their wealth so that everything is not just divvied out to shareholders who already have lots of money. We should ensure that there is a fairer and more balanced economy, rather than taking things away from pensioners who have worked for so many years.
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate on behalf of the Opposition. I need to extend the apologies of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), who I believe is doing media rounds following the news about BHS that we heard this afternoon.
I am a baby boomer, too. My girls are millennials. Many of the things that have been discussed today have been described up and down the country. How lucky I was to be able to go to university without the debt that my girls—and many other young people—are experiencing, and to be able to afford a mortgage in my late 20s, before we had our first daughter. My daughters simply do not have that opportunity. Their debt will be around their necks for a long while, and they are not in a position to buy their own homes, although they both work incredibly hard.
I absolutely agree with the premise of the Select Committee’s report—we do need to address the inter- generational inequality that is being experienced throughout the country—but I differ with it on the solutions. The report suggests that the state pension triple lock should be targeted for expenditure savings. According to the OECD, the basic state pension was one of the world’s lowest after the Thatcher Government broke the link between earnings and uprating in 1980. That led to a long decline in the value of pensions, which the last Labour Government strove to restore.
Although there have been positive efforts to ensure that the new single-tier state pension is fairer and of wider benefit to members of the current generation, there are problems with it. Over the course of their retirement, those in their 40s will be £13,000 worse off than otherwise, those in their 30s will be £17,000 worse off, and those in their 20s will be £20,000 worse off. A continued above-inflation rise will not only benefit those who are retiring now, but will be enjoyed by generations who are to retire. That is one of the central reasons for Labour’s commitment to maintaining the triple lock beyond 2020. I know that we differ from the Government in that regard, but underpinning our decision is the issue of inequalities within generations. We must not trade off the inequality of one generation against the poverty of another.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will excuse me if I do not. I am incredibly pressed for time and I have already had to cut my speech considerably.
The Select Committee recognised that those who look solely at the intergenerational picture can lose sight of important inequalities within generations. It is important to protect the triple lock and universal pensioner benefits while making different choices to support other generations. The Labour Government made great strides—about 1 million pensioners were lifted out of poverty—but one in seven have remained in poverty since 2010. That level is still much too high, and it should worry us. That is not acceptable in one of the richest countries in the world, and we must do all that we can to ensure that the trend does not rise again. That extends to our commitment to the triple lock and universal pensioner benefits, and our commitment to act immediately on the fate of the 1950s WASPI campaigners. We are committed to ensuring that every older person has dignity and security in retirement.
What are the other choices that we believe should be made? Three specific policies could immediately help to address intergenerational imbalances in a way that would not deprive one generation while supporting another. First, we want to introduce a real living wage, based on what people actually need. After evaluating the effects of the national living wage that has been introduced, the Living Wage Commission said that it failed to meet the basic needs of low-income households. Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that without significant policy change, real wages are likely to remain lower in 2021 than they were after the recession. Seven years of austerity have consistently failed to deliver pre-recession wages. The decline in the value of wages has been driven by what the Office for National Statistics has described as an unprecedented decline in productivity —unprecedented since world war two. At the same time, prices of basic household goods and services have risen dramatically.
That long squeeze has been coupled with repeated attacks by this Government and the coalition Government on income support provided through the social security system. Many Members have mentioned the issue of in-work poverty: 7.4 million people—one in eight—are living in poverty, including children. I beg to differ with the point that work is the route out of poverty. Four out of five people in low-paid work will still be in low-paid work 10 years later. Taken together, those dynamics have really impacted on standards of living.
Labour has therefore committed to intervene. At our party conference last year, the shadow Chancellor announced that he would introduce a real living wage of £10 an hour. That is what is anticipated will be needed in 2020. The second step is to invest in social and affordable housing. I mentioned my own experience and that of my daughters. It barely needs repeating that the rapid acceleration in house and rental prices, which is a direct result of the failure of all Governments, but especially this Government, to build social and affordable housing, is a key driver of the declining standard of living among those of working age. It might indeed be the fundamental dynamic driving intergenerational disparities.
The consensus is that we need to be delivering 200,000 homes a year, 80,000 of which should be at affordable social rent levels, if we are to keep up with household formation and address poverty levels. Last year, unfortunately, the Government got nowhere near that. Rather than raiding the state pension, the Government should invest in socially rented housing, or allow councils to replace stock sold under the right to buy. That would have a huge impact on intergenerational unfairness, as the Work and Pensions Committee recognises.
The third policy intervention to address the inter- generational imbalance is widening access to auto-enrolment saving. It is a testament to the previous Labour Government that 10 million additional workers are estimated to be newly saving or saving more as a result of auto-enrolment. A total of £17 billion of pension savings has been put away by low-income workers. However, 37% of women workers, 33% of workers with a disability and 28% of black and minority ethnic workers are still not eligible for auto-enrolment. That must be addressed in the review that will be undertaken. We will be pushing hard for that, as the Pensions Minister would expect.
We respect the hard work that the Work and Pensions Committee has put into producing its report. We broadly agree with its analysis, but we believe that there should be a different emphasis and different policy solutions to address the intergenerational inequalities that exist.
Having learned a word from you earlier today, Mr Speaker, I can say that hope we have all learned from the sagaciousness of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), the Chairman of the Select Committee, who started the debate. I am indebted to you, Mr Speaker. At least I have got that on the record—and many other words I have learned from you.
I seriously thank all Members, on both sides of the House, for their contributions, particularly the members of the Work and Pension Committee who spoke. I appreciate the comments that have been made about the Pensions Regulator securing the settlement with Philip Green. I am very pleased about that. It is good for scheme members, and it will bring peace of mind to the 19,000 BHS pensioners who have endured uncertainty following the company’s collapse. I commend both Select Committees for the work they have done on that issue. I also commend the Pensions Regulator and its staff, who have worked very hard and done everything we could have expected of them.
This has been an informative and timely debate. Recent evidence shows that pensioner poverty is at a near record low, which is a good thing for a Pensions Minister to be able to say. We have seen a dramatic fall in the percentage of pensioners living in poverty from 40% in the early 1970s to 14% in 2014-15, but I hope that I never give the impression of complacency. Poverty is poverty, and there are still far too many pensioners living in poverty.
Intergenerational fairness is an easy thing to say. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) talked about his grandparents, and I also come from a generation whose parents knew poverty. They knew unemployment, they knew the war and they knew poverty—[Interruption.] I beg your pardon, Mr Speaker; I was trying to be sagacious in my comments. I was about to mention my mother, who has a photograph of you on her mantelpiece.
We were brought up hearing people say, “You don’t know you’re born, you lot. You’re so lucky.” And we were a lucky generation. One aspect of the luckiness of my generation, as was mentioned by many Members, including the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), is that we were often the first generation to go to university. I want to make it clear that the answer to intergenerational fairness is not to make pensioners poorer; it is to concentrate on building the economy, building extra houses, and having better quality education and apprenticeships. All those things have been described eloquently by many Members, in most cases in what the Americans would call a bipartisan manner. I am pleased to be part of that debate.
The labour market is the strongest that it has been for years. The employment rate is at a record high, and in the past year we have seen nearly 300,000 more disabled people, over 200,000 more women and over 150,000 more black and minority ethnic people in work, so the signs are pretty good. Rightly, there is cross-party consensus that achieving lower levels of pensioner poverty is a worthy objective. Who would say that it was not? I recognise the valuable work of the Work and Pensions Committee in promoting such issues. It almost goes without saying that we want to ensure that pensioners are treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve in retirement. Anyone in the House, and in the country, would say that.
The right hon. Member for Birkenhead acknowledged that pensioner poverty had been hugely reduced over the past decade, but he and his Committee are right to look at the long-term alternatives. He said that budgetary matters are important. We cannot talk about the triple lock or any other system without considering the amount of public expenditure involved. I am sure everyone would agree that the Government’s commitment to the triple lock is an invaluable element in addressing the issue of pensioners living on a low income. As a result of the triple lock, the value of the full basic state pension as a proportion of average earnings is at its highest since the 1980s. Since 2010, the triple lock has given current pensioners, more than 1 million of whom rely solely on the state for their income, up to £570 a year more than if their pension were just uprated by earnings. As I and others have stated, that was why we introduced the triple lock in 2011, and it is why we have committed to continuing it over this Parliament. It has protected the income of millions of people.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am sorry, but I do not have time. Normally I would be happy to give way.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) eloquently pointed out, we have to be careful about creating a burden for future generations by spending money today. He made an interesting, eloquent speech, and I hope to discuss his moral prism with him on many other occasions, within the Chamber and without. Achieving for the pensioners of today does not preclude us from ensuring a good deal for the pensioners of tomorrow. The Government are determined to build a country that works for everyone. The coalition Government took some difficult decisions to put the welfare system on a sustainable footing while still protecting the most vulnerable. It is important to remember that, since 2010, the Government have focused on reducing the deficit and getting public spending under control in order to protect future generations from unpayable public debt. It is important that that is recognised, and it fits in with what my hon. and right hon. Friends have been saying.
There are clear signs that we are prioritising the sustainability of this country’s pension provision. In the limited time available, the best example that I can provide, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth, is the success of auto-enrolment, which the Department is currently reviewing. I am pleased that more than 7 million people have come under auto-enrolment which, I should say—the hon. Lady will jump up to say it otherwise—was introduced by a Labour Government. It was started through a cross-party arrangement and it has received cross-party support, but the hon. Lady is right to question the Government about the review, which we have been open about, because many categories of people have not been included. As for intergenerational fairness, the early success of auto-enrolment is a good sign for people who will be retiring in many years to come. They will be able to calculate their state pension plus their auto-enrolment workplace pension and get a clear idea of what they need to retire on. I am also pleased to say that the level of opting out is low at the moment, but that is not a cause for complacency.
While several hon. Members made this point, I want to highlight what my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) said about apprenticeships and UTCs, which are crucial for the future. As the Prime Minister’s apprenticeship adviser when the pledge for 3 million apprenticeships was made, I am pleased to say that the Government are on course to meet that target. We have all seen in our constituencies how important that is. Prosperity often comes from skills, but skills come from not only university but the alternatives to university. I am pleased that that is becoming something real, not just a political promise.
The Government’s approach to intergenerational fairness is based on ensuring that there is economic prosperity and security for working people at every stage of their life, including in retirement. The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), who I respectfully say is from my generation—[Interruption.] Okay, I know that I look a lot older than her, but I think that we are from roughly the same generation. She eloquently made the point that our generation has not had a one-way bet. I, too, remember when interest rates shot up—I was also driving and thinking about my mortgage—so I understand her point perfectly. I agree that we cannot say, “It is all right for us lot but it is not good for the next lot,” because life goes up and down. The Government have to take all that into consideration.
The Government are committed to improving productivity and innovation, which we all agree is to the benefit of everyone in society. We are acting to boost productivity, which is crucial to raising living standards, by investing in infrastructure, supporting job creation and reforming the markets.
I conclude by emphasising that Governments have to look at the whole picture. State pensioners and private pensioners are part of that picture, but achieving real intergenerational fairness for everybody—that is what we all want and it is why most of us stood for election—involves ensuring that people have long working lives, get prosperity from working, enjoy their work, and save for their future. It is for the Government to guide them, from the day they start work until the day they retire, on saving for their prosperity in the future.
Question deferred (Standing Order No. 54).
[Relevant documents: Third Report of the Work and Pensions Committee, Intergenerational fairness, HC 59, and the Government response, HC 964.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2017, for expenditure by the Department for Work and Pensions:
(1) further resources, not exceeding £767,617,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 946,
(2) further resources, not exceeding £1,000, be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(3) a further sum, not exceeding £1,290,930,000, be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Mark Spencer).
The Speaker put the deferred Questions (Standing Order No. 54(6)).
Supplementary Estimates 2016-17
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2017, for expenditure by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs:
(1) further resources, not exceeding £420,838,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 946,
(2) further resources, not exceeding £61,363,000, be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(3) a further sum, not exceeding £100,109,000, be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.
Department of Health
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2017, for expenditure by the Department of Health:
(1) further resources, not exceeding £8,716,216,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 946,
(2) the resources authorised for use for capital purposes be reduced by £1,193,967,000, as so set out, and
(3) the sum authorised for issue out of the Consolidated Fund be reduced by £1,038,424,000.
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2017, for expenditure by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy:
(1) further resources, not exceeding £10,699,285,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 946,
(2) the resources authorised for use for capital purposes be reduced by £10,543,207,000 as so set out, and
(3) the sum authorised for issue out of the Consolidated Fund by reduced by £13,871,178,000.
Department for Work and Pensions
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2017, for expenditure by the Department for Work and Pensions:
(1) further resources, not exceeding £767,617,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 946,
(2) further resources, not exceeding £1,000, be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(3) a further sum, not exceeding £1,290,930,000, be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament. —(Andrew Griffiths.)
The Speaker then put the Questions on the outstanding Estimates (Standing Order No. 55).
Estimates 2017-18 (Navy) Vote A
That, during the year ending with 31 March 2018, a number not exceeding 35,470 all ranks be maintained for Naval and Marine Service and that numbers in the Reserve Naval and Marines Forces be authorised for the purposes of Parts 1, 3, 4 and 5 of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 up to the maximum numbers set out in Votes A 2017–18, HC 968.—(Andrew Griffiths.)
Estimates 2017-18 (Army) Vote A
That, during the year ending with 31 March 2018, a number not exceeding 107,930 all ranks be maintained for Army Service and that numbers in the Reserve Land Forces be authorised for the purposes of Parts 1, 3, 4 and 5 of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 up to the maximum numbers set out in Votes A 2017–18, HC 968. —(Andrew Griffiths.)
Estimates 2017-18 (Air) Vote A
That, during the year ending with 31 March 2018, a number not exceeding 35,130 all ranks be maintained for Air Force Service and that numbers in the Reserve Air Forces be authorised for the purposes of Parts 1, 3, 4 and 5 of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 up to the maximum numbers set out in Votes A 2017–18, HC 968. —(Andrew Griffiths.)
Estimates, Excesses, 2014-15
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2015:
(1) resources, not exceeding £3,174,237,000, be authorised to make good excesses for use for current purposes as set out in Late Statement of Excesses 2014–15, HC 948, and
(2) resources, not exceeding £31,228,000, be authorised to make good excesses for use for capital purposes as set out in Late Statement of Excesses 2014–15, HC 948. —(Andrew Griffiths.)
Estimates, Excesses, 2015-16
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2016:
(1) resources, not exceeding £175,116,000, be authorised to make good excesses for use for current purposes as set out in Statement of Excesses 2015–16, HC 948, and
(2) resources, not exceeding £115,855,000, be authorised to make good excesses for use for capital purposes as set out in Statement of Excesses 2015–16, HC 948. —(Andrew Griffiths.)
Supplementary Estimates 2016-17
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2017:
(1) further resources, not exceeding £68,191,322,000, be authorised for use for current purposes, as set out in HC 946, HC 951 and HC 1001,
(2) further resources, not exceeding £10,800,390,000, be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(3) a further sum, not exceeding £10,688,929,000, be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament. —(Andrew Griffiths.)
Estimates 2017-18 (Vote on Account)
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2018:
(1) resources, not exceeding £225,981,577,000, be authorised, on account, for use for current purposes as set out in HC 925, HC 947, HC 952, HC 966, HC 988 and HC 1002,
(2) resources, not exceeding £28,732,085,000, be authorised, on account, for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(3) a sum, not exceeding £228,401,528,000, be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund, on account, and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament. —(Andrew Griffiths.)
Ordered, That a Bill be brought in upon the foregoing Resolutions relating to Supplementary Estimates, 2016-17, Estimates, Excesses, 2014-15, Estimates, Excesses, 2015-16, and Estimates 2017-18 (Vote on Account);
That the Chairman of Ways and Means, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr David Gauke, Simon Kirby and Jane Ellison bring in the Bill.
Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill
Presentation and First Reading
Jane Ellison accordingly presented a Bill to authorise the use of resources for the years ending with 31 March 2015, 31 March 2016, 31 March 2017 and 31 March 2018; to authorise the issue of sums out of the Consolidated Fund for the years ending 31 March 2017 and 31 March 2018; and to appropriate the supply authorised by this Act for the years ending with 31 March 2015, 31 March 2016 and 31 March 2017.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 147).