[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the state pension age for women.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, for the first time in this Session. I thank everyone who has contacted me prior to this debate and all those raising awareness of the issue. I also thank Members for their support for early-day motion 63, which is in my name.
It is a testament to the importance of the issue that though I have been a Member of Parliament for seven years, I have never seen so many MPs in Westminster Hall. Nor have I seen so many people in the Public Gallery. Many others cannot get in. I will be disciplined in my remarks, as you have requested, Sir Edward.
I have been told by Government Members that the proposal in my early-day motion is unrealistic and that no Government would agree with its aims.
I can remember this issue being raised when I was shadow Pensions Minister at the start of the previous Parliament. The situation has been going on for so long, and the Government are doing nothing. Does my hon. Friend agree that they are simply slamming the door in the face of the 1950s women?
Absolutely. I am grateful for that intervention. If I may develop my argument, there clearly is an opportunity, particularly given the new parliamentary arithmetic, for the Government to do something and put right a wrong and a glaring injustice. Judging by the fact that early-day motion 63 has been signed by Members of every party, there is cross-party support for such a solution.
Most people would agree that it is about time the matter was resolved. In the previous Parliament, before the general election, we had a lot of debates about it. I asked the Minister then responsible to meet a delegation to discuss it, and they refused. Does my hon. Friend not think that that is a disgrace?
Yes, I do. I understand that any pension changes will always be difficult and contentious, but in this case there has been a clear injustice.
My hon. Friend is right that there is an opportunity to put this injustice right. The Conservative manifesto said:
“We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality.”
The Government have an opportunity to put their money where their mouth is so far as the 1950s women are concerned.
That is absolutely true. It is widely accepted that many of those affected by the Pensions Act 1995 did not receive adequate notification. As such, they did not have enough time to plan for their retirement.
It is really good to see my hon. Friend back in good health; I think everyone here would agree. Does he agree that if the Government can find £1 billion to prop themselves up, they can find the money for these women who have contributed to their families, our communities and our economy over so many years? If they can find £1 billion simply to save themselves through a pact with the Democratic Unionist party, they can find the money for these women.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, there is an opportunity, given the apparent support for such a solution from a substantial number of DUP Members and Conservative Members who were members of the all-party group on state pension inequality for women.
I thank my comrade for giving way. There is this mystical letter that so many women are supposed to have received about their retirement age, but I have not met one constituent who received it. The Government say that they do not have enough of a timeframe, but does he agree that many women in this country did not have enough time to prepare for this issue?
I am grateful for that intervention, and I was just about to come on to that point. These are not just my opinions; the former Pensions Minister Steve Webb said the same things. He said:
“I accept that some women did not know about it, and not everybody heard about it at the time.”
In fairness to him, he said that
“it was all over the papers at the time”.—[Official Report, 13 October 2013; Vol. 568, c. 54WH.]
However, I do not think that is good enough. The Government have failed to contact anyone affected by the pension increase.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Order. Mr Morris, you can see how many people are trying to get in. You have been very generous taking interventions, but the more interventions we have, the longer your speech and the fewer people who will be able to get in. It is entirely up to you, but you may not want to be too generous with interventions.
Thank you, Sir Edward. I will give way one more time.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Would it not be reasonable for women facing a change in pension age of up to five or six years to expect a direct letter? The responses are, “You could have asked”, and, “We had a leaflet”, but why would women ask when they thought they knew what the retirement age was?
That is an excellent point, well made.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I think the right hon. Gentleman will have heard the admonishment from the Chair, so I am afraid I will have to be disciplined.
Go on, let a Tory in!
Go on then, I will. I am generous to a fault.
I am very grateful, and I am aware of the Chair’s advice. I have to declare an interest, in that my wife is one of the women who have been affected. She feels incandescent with rage. She had no correspondence whatever, exactly as the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) said.
My second point is that, as I am sure many of the ladies have found out, the website of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is incoherent. I was on it on Sunday morning, and the information that people get is contradictory. I hope the Minister will do something about it.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I hope that the Minister is taking due note of it. When a large delegation of women adversely affected by the changes came to see me, I checked the HMRC website, and a lot of the information is out of date, even on the number of people affected. I think that 2.4 million was the number originally quoted, but it is now generally accepted that the number is 3.5 million.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will give way just one more time.
My hon. Friend is very generous. Just to place the numbers in context, is he aware that more than 4,000 women in the Jarrow constituency alone have been robbed of their thoughts of a happy retirement? That has been stolen from them by a Tory Government, who are more willing to give a £1 billion bung to the DUP to save their necks in government than they are to look after people who have worked for a lifetime just to be happy in retirement.
Absolutely. There is a moral argument and a factual argument. I hope the Minister and his advisers will go away and reflect on the debates that have taken place—not just this debate in Westminster Hall, but the number of debates in the previous Parliament where the arguments were soundly put.
I find it difficult to understand how in any other circumstances the House would not consider this issue of inadequate notice—or, indeed, no notice—to be a case of maladministration. Various Members have raised that issue. Had any other public body failed in such a way, whether that was a Government agency or local government, there would rightly be demands for support and compensation for those affected. Those are legitimate demands, and I understand that they have been made collectively on behalf of the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign in a joint letter to the Department. I hope the Minister will comment on that.
The decision to accelerate the increases in the state pension further compounded the failings, with an impact on the same cohort that had already been failed by the 1995 Act. Age UK research found that some of the people affected, who had not been aware of the 1995 legislation, now face waits of up to six years more than they had been expecting before they can access their pension.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will give way one more time. [Laughter.] It is like the last gala plate.
My hon. Friend is making a very good speech. To take up his point, it is the human cost that matters here. Some of my constituents have told me that they have taken up, or plan to take up, caring responsibilities and are facing real financial difficulty—and once someone is over 60 it is difficult for them to get a decent job as well. Those are real issues and the Government need to take those points on board. It is about time that the Government listened and found a way forward, rather than burying their head in the sand.
I am grateful for that intervention; indeed, every constituency is affected. I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr Hepburn) said that 4,000 women are affected in his constituency; almost 5,000 are affected in my constituency of Easington. The women deserve both recognition of the injustice that they have suffered and some kind of financial help to alleviate the poverty that many of them are now suffering. I know that we are short of time, but I have heard some harrowing stories from women who have worked all their lives and now, through change of circumstance, have found themselves in the dire situation of having to sell their homes. They are facing enormous financial pressures because of changes in legislation that they were not aware of. That really needs to be put right.
The Labour party intends to extend our commitment to pension credit to hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable women. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) will go into a little more detail about exploring the options for further transitional protections to ensure that all the women have security and dignity in old age.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way, Sir Edward, but just because it is the Minister.
I accept that I am to be brief, Sir Edward. I want to clarify the hon. Gentleman’s position. I looked at his blog from June 2016, which maintained that the Pensions Act 1995
“timescales were such that they gave sufficient time for people to plan”.
The impression from that blog is that the hon. Gentleman had no criticism of the Act. Is that still the case?
I do not think that is necessarily a fair reflection. The changes were accelerated in 2011 and, for the record, I do not think that women were given adequate time. In fact, they were not given individual notification that the legislation had changed, and I think that Parliament and Government had a duty to notify all those affected at the earliest opportunity.
On the point about the abuse of procedure inherent in the non-notification of those affected, is my hon. Friend aware that the WASPI women are now seeking legal advice from Bindmans as to whether the non-notification was improper and indeed an abuse of procedure? Would the money not be much better used by the Government to settle this case, over which they have procrastinated disgracefully?
I am grateful for that very pertinent intervention; it gives the Minister an opportunity to find a solution. I am not sure what the cost of a collective action would be: HMRC suggested £2.4 million; the real figure is probably £3.5 million. If all those cases of maladministration were found against the Government, we could be looking at a huge settlement. Given that the Prime Minister seems to have discovered the magic money tree, perhaps a few leaves could be brought down to mitigate the effects for those who are worst affected.
In this new Parliament, it is my intention to work with all Members, irrespective of party, to secure justice for the WASPI campaigners. As I mentioned before, the arithmetic has changed. It would have been difficult to secure meaningful changes to help the women affected without the support of the Government in the last Parliament. However, we now have that opportunity.
I have received the names of those Members who signed the WASPI pledge and there are 20 Conservative and Democratic Unionist party Members in that number. That is a significant number, for people following the maths—I see the Government Whips here. I am confident that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North will outline the Opposition’s position and the support Labour would offer to the women affected by the changes. However, in this Parliament, the extent and scope of any changes, transitional arrangements, bridging pensions or compensation depend upon those 20 Members from the Conservative party and the DUP. I would say to those 20 right hon. and hon. Members that they hold the balance of power on this issue.
I urge the Government to take a pragmatic approach. I am concerned that, to date, the Department for Work and Pensions has failed to provide an adequate and substantive response to the letter from Bindmans, the legal representatives of the WASPI campaign, which my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) raised. That has highlighted the maladministration by the Government—
Order. The hon. Gentleman has now been speaking for 15 minutes. As a courtesy to his colleagues, will he please come to a conclusion?
I urge the Government to acknowledge their error, provide all those affected with some level of compensation, and provide those worst affected—those who are waiting six years longer than they had planned before they receive their pension—with some support to bridge the gap between 60 and 66.
I end with a quote from the DUP manifesto. I must confess that in all my days I never thought I would quote from the DUP manifesto; this may be my one and only opportunity to do so. It says that they would
“support an end to the unfair treatment of women pensioners.”
Alongside the Conservative MPs who have signed the WASPI pledge, we have the numbers to change this policy. I ask the Minister to take this opportunity, secure the change that is needed and provide dignity in retirement for all the women penalised by the changes.
Order. In view of the very large number of hon. Members wishing to take part and my intention to try to call as many as possible, I must now impose a two-minute limit on speeches.
I am grateful to be called so early in the debate. I have 4,000 women in my constituency who are affected by this issue, and I have met many; I am sure other honourable colleagues have done the same. I will have to rattle through my speech. I am sorry not to be as eloquent as I would like on their behalf.
It is a complex picture. Not only do my constituents feel that they were not given adequate information about how to plan their future, but they feel cast on the heap, so to speak, now that they are having to look for jobs. Their experience in the jobcentre has been abysmal. People who have been in senior positions are being given advice on how to dress and present themselves at interview and update their CV. There is nearly 0% unemployment in my constituency, so their chances of getting a job are pretty remote and they are finding it incredibly dispiriting to have to take part in that process.
I would like to mention Daphne—I will not give her second name—who has been instrumental in bringing the issue to my attention in St Albans. What she says reflects the position of many women, and I am actually a WASPI woman as well. She says that generations ago, people did things differently. Daphne started work very young and was only informed of the pension age change in October 2012, two and a half years before she was due to retire. She is married to a man five years older. She says that this was not how she planned to spend her retirement—scraping around trying to get a job, being advised by people at the jobcentre who have absolutely no idea how to get her a job, and feeling a sense of injustice that she was given so little time to plan.
That is the nub of it for the WASPI women. They accept that there should be equalisation in pension age, but what they do not accept is being given a matter of months to turn their lives around—to turn around their future plans with their spouse or partner. They do not accept not having some comfort in their retirement, so that they can live the life they thought they had planned for and had made all the preparation for.
The fact that those letters did not arrive, desperately needs to be looked into by the Minister, and something should be done to redress the imbalance.
I am grateful for the opportunity to join other hon. Members in speaking up for these women, who have worked hard all their life, working to a presumed retirement date, only to see the Government move the goalposts at the last minute, giving them little or no notice and, as we have heard, causing real financial hardship.
This is the first such debate in this Parliament, but it is just the latest in a long line of debates, questions and lobbies calling on the Government to right this wrong. It is necessary now because, up until now, there have been no positive messages from the Government, no mention in the Tory manifesto and no mention in the Queen’s Speech.
The WASPI women I have spoken to made their voices heard clearly in the general election by lobbying candidates, and voting for candidates who listened and committed to fight this huge injustice. The Government should not and cannot take these women for granted any more. Their voice will be heard and needs to be heeded. They are women who have sacrificed their careers for caring; who were unable to take up suitable workplace pensions, often due to unequal pay in the past. Many, because of ill health, are not able to work the extra years the Government now expect of them. That is illustrated by a constituent who asked me to raise her case and sadly died recently. At the age of 62, she had to give up work after 45 years after a long battle with cancer. She had a demanding job, and she just could not continue. The change meant that she was denied more than £38,000. She was unable to enjoy her retirement and was very worried about the financial hardship that that meant. That shows the real human impact of this Government policy. That is just one voice, but I ask the Minister to listen to the many thousands like her and work to find a solution to end this hardship and right this wrong.
Here we are again: it is déjà vu all over again. I am delighted to see so many people supporting this debate, as they did for so many of the debates we had in the previous Parliament. I welcome back some of the longstanding supporters of the campaign, and I particularly welcome new conscripts to the campaign and longstanding Members newly converted to the campaign—partly, I am sure, by the fantastic campaigning efforts of the various WASPI campaigners during the general election, who got people to sign the pledge. I pay tribute to them again.
It is essential that we all keep united on this important campaign. I speak as a co-chair of the all-party group on state pension inequality for women. I and the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), who co-chairs it with me, pledge that we will be re-forming the group shortly, to ensure that the WASPI women’s voices are heard loud and clear in this place until we get justice for them.
It is worth reminding ourselves that the state pension system is founded on a contributory principle. It is not a state benefit, for which no prior commitment is involved. Yet that group of women, who have been paying national insurance contributions over many years in good faith and have fulfilled their end of the deal, face being short-changed retrospectively. That is the nub of this injustice.
There is an unfair, disproportionate burden on women born in the 1950s. We have heard so much about the poor communication—they were not made aware of what they were going to face—and the promise of transitional arrangements that have still not materialised, despite various Ministers saying they would. In my view, that represents a breach of trust for those hundreds of thousands—indeed, millions—of women who worked hard, did the right thing and did their bit all their life. The problem is more widespread than we were ever led to believe. It threatens real hardship for many of our constituents now—not at some stage in the future, but absolutely now.
This problem is not going to go away. I hope that, with a new Minister and a new Secretary of State, we can have a new start and a clean break, and that we can recognise this injustice and do something about it at long last.
The 1950s women have faced challenges and disadvantage throughout their working lives. Those women—I include myself among them—started work before the Equal Pay Act 1970 came into force, and they predated the principle of equal pay for work of equal value. They regularly experienced harassment and discrimination in the workplace, and they frequently had to resolve to accept low-paid, part-time jobs because flexible working was not then available to them. They are the group of women who, because of a lack of childcare provision and paternity leave, gave up work to raise children, which not only affected their personal occupational pension, if they were lucky enough to have one, but their future earning capacity.
The Government’s decision to accelerate state pension age equalisation is the most recent affront to that group of women, who, despite facing such adversity, have contributed all their working lives and deserve a decent retirement, built on solid foundations of stability and certainty. Unfortunately, the gross unfairness of the Government’s decision, combined with their inability to communicate properly the changes they introduced, has robbed that group of women of the capacity to plan their retirement with certainty and to make informed decisions. They have not been given the time needed to adjust to their new circumstances.
The Government must now act to address that intrinsic unfairness by introducing transitional arrangements for those women. Everyone agrees that the retirement age for the state pension should be the same for men and women. That is not the question. It is not equalisation that is so unfair; it is the pace of the changes and the way the Government are bringing them in, along with the indifference shown towards those affected. That needs to be resolved without delay.
We have had this debate many times previously, and it is unlikely that much that is said today will be new. In the previous Parliament, the Work and Pensions Committee report highlighted some of the issues that the WASPI campaigners themselves raised. Among them is the key problem of communication and the lessons that can be learned from that—in particular, that all those who will be affected by future state pension age changes should be given much longer notice of them, and that there needs to be a much better communication programme to ensure no one has reason to say that they did not know when their state pension would arrive.
There are the real issues of equality and European law, which some people have overlooked—in particular, to do with the Pensions Act 1995. There are also real issues, sometimes under-emphasised by some of my colleagues, about the costs to the DWP, which are estimated to be about £30 billion, with a further cost to the Exchequer of about £8 billion from reduced tax and national insurance contributions. That is a completely different sum of money from, for example, the additional funding given to help mental health in Northern Ireland.
Earlier, the hon. Gentleman referred to communications. How can it possibly be right that when I wrote to women in my constituency whom I identified might be affected, many wrote back and said that was the first time they had ever been told by anybody? That is the injustice of the situation. [Applause.]
Order. I know this is a very important issue, but I am afraid it is a custom of the House that the Public Gallery has to remain silent. I apologise.
I understand the point the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is making. That was covered in considerable detail in the report of the Work and Pensions Committee, which was chaired by his colleague, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field). There are claims both ways on that. I suspect that there were definitely people who did not know, but perhaps not quite as many as has been suggested.
Let me come on to the Opposition parties’ proposals. In the first debate in this very Chamber some time ago, which, as the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) should know, was as well-attended as this one is, I warned the WASPI campaigners that they were in real danger of being led up the garden path by Labour and the Scottish National party. I note that, in 2016, the Labour party said it would commit £860 million to extend pension credits. That was reduced in its manifesto to £300 million, alongside a line that said:
“Labour is exploring options for further transitional protections.”
After two and a half years, I would have thought that it would have come up with some result from its explorations, but there is none so far. The Scottish National party, which simply said in its manifesto:
“We will also continue to support the WASPI campaign”,
now has the devolved powers in Scotland to give additional discretionary sums of money to those affected.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will not take any further interventions. There are many people who want to speak.
My strong recommendation to the Minister is this. He is a new, capable Minister, and I know he has looked at this issue. He should focus on what extra support he and the Government can give to those women who are still in work longer than they otherwise expected to be. In particular, he should spell out more about what the Government’s strategy for “fuller working lives” involves. Meanwhile, he has in his in-tray two important issues to look at, which affect other pensioners: the fact that there are real issues for people who are getting net pay and not benefiting from their employer’s contributions, and those people with too little to get over the hurdle to get the pension at all—
Order. Time out, I am afraid.
Let me correct the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). If he reads section 28 of the Scotland Act 2016, he will see that the Scottish Government are prohibited from doing anything about pensions or relating to age.
The key issue is communication. The Work and Pensions Committee said that people should have 15 years. The Government said, “Well, you did. It changed in 1995”. But they wasted 14 of those years by not informing women. They only started to write to women in 2009, one year before the first batch of women found that their pension age had changed. Many only discovered in 2011, when they were informed of the second change, that they were being hit by a double whammy.
The problem, as I mentioned earlier, is one of communication—an article in the Financial Times is not an acceptable way to inform women such as me, born in the 1950s, that our pension age is changing. HMRC and the DWP can certainly find us when they want to, so I would have thought they could send a personal letter. The idea that we should have to ask for our pension age is ridiculous when we have known what it was for our whole lives. The Government owe those women a duty of care; those women who have suffered the gender pay gap, raised children and cared for the sick—
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will give way.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way—
Order. The right hon. Gentleman has to approach the microphone. Strictly, under the rules of the House, he should be sitting before he stands. I know it is difficult, but he has to be near a microphone.
I was sitting.
I apologise, but he must speak into a microphone.
I am very grateful. Is it not part of the problem that all those women who have given up much of their adult lives to caring responsibilities then face real discrimination when seeking work at this age? They are therefore left in unacceptable poverty.
Those women have also faced discrimination while they were working. As a Member said earlier, they have been in poorly paid jobs—part-time or flexible work was not available. Women still occupy the bulk of low-paid jobs; women have faced and suffered 86% of all the austerity cuts since 2010. Those women have paid and paid and paid, and some of them are losing almost £50,000 of pension in the move from 60 to 66. That is utterly unjust. The Government could correct it. They should sit down on a cross-party basis to work it out, to deliver some justice, fairness and dignity for the WASPI women.
This is a simple question of justice, of fairness and of righting a wrong that has been done to women of the 1950s generation. I was born in the 1950s—many in the Chamber will not remember them—and women did not work. We were told that we would have to rely on our husband’s pension.
Later, when we went into work, given the opportunity, we were told, “You’re working part-time; you cannot enter a private pension agreement.” We did not work not because we did not want to, but because there were no employment opportunities for working women. Some women could not be in teaching if they were married in the early 1950s; they had to give up work.
Now, those same 1950s women are called—I find this quite offensive—the “sandwich generation”: we are the ones looking after grandchildren and our elderly parents. At the same time, we are having to give up work because our pension is not there. Too many women are now living in poverty. Too many women, when they can get work, are having to accept zero-hours contracts, temporary jobs and low pay, no matter what their qualifications or skills base.
It is wrong that a generation of women have been treated in this way, ignored by Government and not even communicated with—the contempt that that generation of women have had to cope with all their working lives has been exacerbated by this Government. It is time for justice for the WASPI women.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on bringing forward this debate at a convenient and appropriate time.
Last October, I presented a petition signed by 2,249 Waveney residents in support of the WASPI campaign. At the same time, Waveney District Council unanimously endorsed that campaign on a cross-party basis. The general election campaign, when I was knocking on doors, confirmed for me that this a very real problem for many women who face serious hardship. It will not go away.
The all-party parliamentary group on state pension inequality for women, which will be re-formed shortly, will I am sure play its role in finding a solution. I ask the Minister, whom I know well, to consult and consider with his ministerial colleagues and to come forward with proposals to start a process to find a solution that is fair, fully considered and affordable.
I call Chris Bryant.
I had not asked to speak, Sir Edward, but if you force me to—
I call Mary Glindon.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on securing this debate.
Five thousand women in North Tyneside are affected by the changes to the state pension age and many of them have contacted me about the acceleration of their state pension age. Women in this age group went straight into work after leaving school, so by the time they reach their state pension age they have already worked more than the 35 years expected for a full state pension. They have at least 39 to 44 qualifying years and have paid more than their fair share of contributions, but are losing at least three to four years of pension entitlement.
Does my hon. Friend agree that those women who did not contract out of the state scheme but remained in it are disadvantaged against those who did contract out, in that a pension can often be drawn early if it is a private pension that someone contracted out to, but a state pension cannot be drawn out early?
Quite right—I have nothing to add to that.
My point is that the Treasury is making quite a saving. One of my constituents, who worked until she was in her late 50s and gave up her job to look after her father—who had dementia—thought she could manage because she thought that she would get her pension at 60, but she found she was unable to claim her pension. She then had poor health herself and was forced to claim employment and support allowance with the support of her GP. That claim was denied and, despite ill health, she now has to work two cleaning jobs to support herself—that is a disgrace.
I feel both sorry for and angry on behalf of the 5,000 women in North Tyneside and the other millions of women who have been cheated of their pension entitlement by the coalition Government and this Tory Government. I hope that the Minister will disagree with his predecessor, who claimed that going further than the Government have already gone could not be justified.
Our welfare state began on 5 July 1948. On 5 July 2017, I say to the Minister that a commitment by him to further transitional arrangements for those women would be a fitting birthday tribute to that great institution.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I had a very long speech—but that will now become a very short speech.
I want to make one particular point. I was a personal finance journalist, writing about pensions, for about 15 years; also, my mother is one of those affected by the changes. She was informed about them, but she found out relatively late, and I have many constituents in the same position.
I accept and genuinely believe that over the past 13 years—remember, the Labour Government saw through the majority of this—Governments have fallen down on the job of informing people directly, as they should have done. There was some discussion in the personal finance press—I know that because I used to write about it—but now Labour are coming along and saying, “Everything is terrible under the Conservatives”, or whatever. They were in charge for 13 years during the period in question.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not give way, I am afraid, as I am short of time.
My other point is that the current state pension arrangements will have to rise as well. When we meet those issues in the future, we have to get them right because this country is heading for an enormous black hole. The figures are frightening—absolutely frightening. People talk about £30 billion here, £30 billion there, but the reality is that if the Opposition parties want to form a Government in the future, they will have to accept that the pension system in this country needs continued radical reform. If they do not do so, and continue grandstanding, taking on policies and ignoring their own past errors, that is not going to do any good whatever.
In 2003, the Turner commission report—
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am sorry, I cannot—I did not give way to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) either.
In 2003, the Turner commission report was born out of cross-party consensus on pensions. That has broken down. Going forward, we need a bit more co-operative work so that it does not happen again.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on once again securing a debate on this important matter. He has already stated the reasons why the policy is so unfair: the lack of adequate notice given to the 3.5 million WASPI women and the lack of opportunity to make contingent plans for the future in the face of such injustice. More than 4,000 women are affected in Haslingden and Hyndburn.
Catherine Vernon is one of more than 4,000 constituents in Weaver Vale affected by this issue. The only garden path the WASPI campaign led me up was to election victory and the removal of the Conservative Member for Weaver Vale. Do the maths: the majority of the former MP was 806; I had 4,400 very powerful WASPI women. I want to thank them for their campaign and I hope they continue to shake this place up until they get justice.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Many people want to raise concerns. This debate has been thrashed alive. I will turn to some of the comments that my constituents have made to me.
Jennifer Smith, aged 63, works as a nurse on night shifts and does not see why she should run around an extremely busy ward while her pension has been moved back. Kath Talbot, also in her 60s, has described the change as a six-year sentence and says it is heartbreaking to watch her plans go up in smoke because she has to use savings to get by. Elaine Walker, aged 62, has worked all her life, but is now disabled. On top of the changes to pensions, the Government have also cut her benefits. Joanie Fraser, aged 62, worries about an uncertain future for her and her friends, who simply cannot cope with further demoralisation after more than 45 years of hard work.
Sylvia Cottam, aged 63, wrote that she is undergoing chemotherapy and worries whether she will receive her pension if she stops work for good. Helen Grace wrote that she has had to take medication because of the stress of this change. She works in early years but said she would not have chosen that career if she had known about the pension equalisation. She and Julie Sanderson both want to emphasise the problems of means testing and the so-called transitional arrangements of 18 months. Helen Brewin says the very least that the Government could do is to look at the effect it is having on people in their 50s. Thousands of women are suffering. Finally—time is short, and I want to allow other people to speak—Wendy Critchley wrote to point out that the 1950s women were brought up in an age when working hard was encouraged. How have we ended up with such injustice?
The Government need to step up now and implement clear transitional arrangements for the women that remedy the situation they face. Their financial situation is insecure and the Government need to recognise that.
As other Members have observed, we have had many debates on this subject so it is fair to say that the WASPI campaign has been a success in raising its profile. However, the only measure of success that hon. Members and campaigners will judge things by is a change in Government policy.
Is it not the case that because of the arithmetic of this Parliament, the Government will have to come forward with a proposal? That is absolutely clear. The only question is whether it is a derisory one. The Minister needs to understand that point before he comes up with his inevitable offer in the near future.
My hon. Friend is right that there is an arithmetical inevitability about this matter. That is a tribute to the WASPI campaign and the way in which campaigners focused on people who stood for Parliament and gained their support. Given the timescales and the people we are talking about, the sooner something comes forward, the better, because the women cannot afford to wait another five years until the end of this Parliament. I urge the Minister, as my hon. Friend has suggested, to come up with proposals sooner rather than later.
As we have seen following the election, Ministers have changed their minds on a range of matters, so why should the WASPI campaign be any different? Anyone who has spoken to campaigners cannot help but be moved by the compelling case that they make. I have met many of them and they have told me about how they have been affected. Many have received little or no notice at all about changes to their pension age, forcing them to reconsider retirement plans or, worse still, rejoin the jobs market some time after they thought that they would not need to work again.
I have heard from constituents who volunteered to take redundancy to save the jobs of younger colleagues on the false assumption they would receive their pension at an earlier date. They deserve better. It is no longer acceptable when we hear the Government say that change is unaffordable. As we have heard from various Members already today, we need only to look at what has happened in Northern Ireland in the past week to know that where there is a political imperative, money can be found.
I will not give way any more.
What about the cost in unintended consequences? Constituents have told me that the position they find themselves in now has had a detrimental impact on their mental health. That has a cost to the public purse as well. If the moral and financial arguments are not persuasive, perhaps the Minister will reflect on the message that this sends out not only to the WASPI women, but to everyone.
The state pension is part of the social contract that the Government have with the people of this country. It is an important part of the state’s guarantee to people that if they pay their taxes they will be looked after in their old age or when they fall ill or otherwise face misfortune. If people do not trust the Government to deliver on that promise, we are heading down a road that we will come to regret.
First, I want to make clear the commitment in our manifesto; the proposer might find more enlightenment and balance in our manifesto than he does in his own. Our manifesto has committed us to continue this campaign and to continue giving the support that we afforded in the previous Parliament.
The issue is one of fairness. People have already said that the main problem is not that the pension age should be changed, but that when it is changed people ought to know that their circumstances have changed. The issue does not concern only one Government, but a range of parties. Perhaps it does not do any good to point fingers here today, but the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives and the Labour party have all been in power during the time when information should have been given, but was not. As a result, many people have found that their pension age has been substantially changed and they are left without any provision for their immediate needs.
We are not wedded to any particular outcome. First, we have to recognise that there are some fiscal restraints. Having said that, some suggestions have been put forward, all of which would help to address the problems faced by those who first face an immediate loss of income and secondly have no provision made for filling the gap that has been caused. During this Parliament we will work with the Government and use whatever influence, however minimal or maximal, to try to get a solution. It will inevitably have to be cross-party, but the solution must help to address the problems faced by people who bear no responsibility for their problems, but had them foisted on them.
The WASPI campaign has been hugely effective and I congratulate the campaigners. They have been especially effective in my constituency and in my party, and we are steadfast in our support for them. As we have heard, millions of women have worked hard but have had their lives totally disrupted. They are angry and they are not going away. Often they face unemployment with little hope of getting a job that is well paid, especially in a constituency like mine, which is a low-pay area. That is a poor reward for long years of work.
We do not oppose equalisation of the state pension age. Everyone says it is the way that it has been done that shows such disregard and indeed contempt. The Minister knows that it has long been the case and that it is argued on all sides that such profound changes require at least 10 years’ notice. For example, the House might be interested to know that most recently the Cridland review published in March this year recommends raising the age to 68 over a two-year period between 2037 and 2039, 20 years hence.
My hon. Friend is completely right to point out the despicable way in which women born in the 1950s have been treated. Does he agree that women in Wales are disproportionately affected by the administration of the changes?
It is not just in Wales that that happens, but in other deprived areas of the UK—the north-east and south-west.
The Government claim to be making the changes in response to increases in life expectancy, but life expectancy varies significantly from region to region. Wales will be particularly hit. In some parts of England newborn babies might now expect to live to the age of 87, but in parts of Wales they might expect to live to just 76. Payments in might be equal, but payments out vary enormously. I urge the Government to phase in transitional state pension arrangements for all WASPI women. That requires a bridging pension and compensation for those affected, to cover the period between the age of 60 and the new pension age.
The voices of the women who have been so badly treated must be heard and heeded. Otherwise it might seem that the Minister believes that accepting unfairness and keeping quiet is just a girl’s job.
Today’s attendance is testimony to the depth of feeling on the issue, and the Minister will know how passionate I and my colleagues are about such a grave injustice. I am sure that his predecessor left him a health warning about my personal passion on the issue. I need say nothing more about it, because my colleagues have been saying it for me. However, I feel compelled to say that the Government have betrayed the women. They have stolen their security and shattered their dreams. Without the time to prepare and make the necessary alternative arrangements, many women born in the 1950s have been left in financial despair. They do not ask for special treatment—merely for respect and fair play.
In the recent general election all my Labour candidate colleagues, most of those in the current Opposition parties and, indeed, some Conservative candidates signed the WASPI pledge. I believe I saw that on many Twitter accounts, including that of the hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones), who showed support for the west WASPI campaign. I applaud those who made that brave move. Now is the time for the Government to respect their colleagues, if not the WASPI women, and to do the right thing. The women have suffered for too long. The injustice must stop now. It cannot be allowed to continue.
The WASPI women are angry and the Government are mistaken if they think, as I suspect they have thought up to this point, that if they hold firm the women will get bored—that they will be broken or beaten in the face of intransigence and give up. They will not give up. Even if they wanted to, they cannot. It is not a matter of pin money, but money to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. It is about being paid the pension to which they are entitled, so that they can have some kind of dignity in their retirement. They are not asking for a handout. They are not even asking for a hand up. They are asking for what is rightfully theirs—for what they should be able to expect.
The women have every right to be angry. Any fair-minded person who knows anything about the issue must surely be angry on their behalf. The delay to their pensions effectively deprives them of, potentially, tens of thousands of pounds. It is a travesty and must be addressed. Let us not forget that an attack on their pensions is ultimately an attack on the pensions of us all. The contract between the governed and the governing lies in tatters.
If the Minister feels that the Government have painted themselves into a corner and that retreat is difficult, I say this: there is courage and strength in admitting being wrong, in doing the right thing and in giving the women their due, not because the parliamentary arithmetic demands it but because it is right. I urge the Minister today to make the right choice and right a terrible wrong—to pay the women what they are owed, so that we can start to have a serious, mature and grown-up discussion about the future of state pensions. No one is opposed to the equalisation of state pensions. That is the way forward and I urge the Minister to start walking that path today.
I have yet to meet anyone who does not agree that the WASPI women are in a terrible position, and that the failings are the Government’s, not theirs. It is hard to dispute the idea that not enough energy or resources were put into informing the women of the changes early enough for them to prepare psychologically and comprehend what the rest of their working life and their retirement plans would be.
Approximately 5,000 of the affected women live in North West Durham, and I have not met many who have been able to save. They now live in hardship. What an indignity that is, after they have served their communities through their labour for so many years—to end their lives in poverty. I do not think that it is disputed that adequate notification was not given. The DWP’s own research said that six out of 10 women expected to reach state pension age earlier than they will do.
My hon. Friend is right on that point. There are 4,000 WASPI women in Leigh and they have had to set up their own group to support other women who are affected by the changes. From the time they found out what they had not initially been made aware of, the issues have been ongoing.
My hon. Friend is right to point out that when the state fails people will organise.
I have witnessed what is happening at first hand. My mam only found out about her pension changes because of the WASPI campaign and I saw her disappointment, worry and anger that after working from the age of 13 she had to work more and more, and was robbed of nearly £40,000. For those women, who have not had enough time to prepare, who have had inadequate correspondence from the DWP and who through no fault of their own have ended up in poverty, the right thing to do is to compensate those who have already reached state pension age and provide a bridging pension for those who have not, in humble recognition that, as other hon. Members have said, it is not a benefit—it is rightfully theirs.
As other hon. Members have recognised, in the past couple of weeks we have seen that, when the political will is there, money can be found quickly to remedy a problem. I urge the Government to apply the same urgency to the present situation. There are many lessons to be learned from what is happening, but there is no justification for not putting it right. I want pension justice for those women now.
What a difference a few months can make in politics. At the start of June the Prime Minister told us that there is no magic money tree. At the start of July the UK Government could magically find £1 billion to save her career—at least for the short term. Of course, if things do not go to plan it is helpful to have a safety net to fall back on. That is a luxury that many women have not been given, since the UK Government unfairly and unexpectedly changed their pension rights. Those women are often forced to accept low-paid and insecure work because some employers are unwilling to take on workers who are close to retirement age. The resulting financial hardship has forced some to sell their homes. Others have developed health problems, or have had aggravations of existing long-term health conditions, because of the stress and anxiety of their situation. Too many still face an uncertain future.
It is estimated that around 3,900 women have been affected in my constituency. Local campaigners such as Elizabeth McQuarrie have done a tremendous job of making sure that the issue is not brushed aside by the Government. If it were not for our local WASPI campaign many more women would be caught out by the pension changes, some of whom stand to lose £35,000 over five years. If the UK Government can find £1 billion to help save the Prime Minister, why have they not devoted a single penny to helping the 2.6 million women affected by unfair pension changes?
Affordable solutions are available. An independent report commissioned by the Scottish National party outlined five options that the UK Government could take to mitigate the impact of the changes. The research found that for £8 billion over five years we could return to the original timetable set out in the Pensions Act 1995. It concluded that the money could come from the national insurance fund, which is predicted to have a surplus of £30 billion by the end of 2017-18.
The women of the WASPI campaign have fulfilled their part of the bargain by being productive citizens, some of them having worked since they were 15 years old. Now it is time for the UK Government to honour their side of the contract.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for bringing another debate on this important issue. In the short time available to me I want to make a couple of points. First, the Government have set a dangerous precedent by breaking a contract with the people of this country. What does that say about what will happen in the future?
Those women have been cheated. I resent—and I am sure they do too—the implication that the Government cannot afford what they seek, and that the women are asking for Government spending. There is a contract, which the women entered into with the Government, in good faith. They worked hard, they paid in and they reasonably expected that, at 60, they would be able to collect their pensions. As many Members have said, there was no desire to fight equalisation, but there is a right of fair notice. Many of my constituents found out—some of them on their own initiative—only six weeks before their 60th birthdays that they would not be able to retire at 60 as they had expected. This is not about them fancying putting their feet up but having to work a bit longer; many women are having to continue working in physically demanding jobs when they clearly are not fit to do so.
Julie, a nurse in my constituency, relies on her income to support herself. She has worked in the NHS for 47 years. She recently experienced ill health. She thought she could just stagger on in what is a very physical role, but she now has to work for another three years. She got no notice whatever.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, although it is crystal clear that this is a state error, only women are having to pay for that fault of the state?
Absolutely. Women cannot pay the price of the financial deficit in this country. Those women, who have worked hard, deserve to get what they are entitled to.
I spoke to another woman in my constituency who works in a foundry doing heavy physical work. She said she drags herself to the bus station at the end of the day and she is in bed at 7.30 pm so that she can get to work the next day. She thought she could stagger on for another 18 months until she was 60. Now, she finds she has to work extra years. Not working is not an option for her; she cannot choose not to work. She is not qualified to do anything else. She is 61; who is going to employ her to do anything now? This is unacceptable. Those women were not notified. The very least the Government could do is make transitional arrangements so there is at least a semblance of fairness and those women are allowed some sort of dignity in retirement.
I am grateful for Members’ co-operation. I am sorry for the short time limits, but I think we have got everyone in. We now pass to the winding-up speeches. I call Mhairi Black.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I was going to congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on bringing this subject to the House again, but I actually find myself wishing that he had not, because I cannot believe that we are still debating it. I am absolutely scunnered with banging on about the injustice to this group of women. The fact that we have to have another debate is an absolute disgrace and says a lot about the Government and their priorities.
We are at the stage where these debates are almost scripted for me. I know exactly what is going to come back from the Government Benches and, like most people here, I know what I am going to say. We have heard the Government argue, “Well, the 1995 Act gave 15 years’ notice. That is exactly what the Turner commission recommended, so what is the problem?” Let me say it as clearly as possible: the problem is that nobody knew about these changes. The first letters were not sent out until 2009—14 years after the changes. To put that in context, I have been alive only eight years longer than that. That is 14 years in which consecutive Governments sat on their backside and did nothing, and the Government are now complaining that women are—quite rightly—angry that they never knew about the changes.
The thing is that the Government did not tell us about this issue with their hands in the air and say, “Aye, you’re right, sorry. We got that a wee bit wrong.” The information came from the hard-working women behind me in the Gallery through freedom of information requests and constant letters to the Government. The Government have been nothing but obstructive and downright stubborn the whole way through this campaign and since the issue was raised—so much so that the SNP actually went away and re-did its own work. We used our own money to commission our own report, which shows that this issue could plausibly be sorted and the legislation could at least be amended a wee bit.
All it would take is £8 billion spread across five years. That is a substantial amount, but as was said by the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham)—I had the pleasure of serving with him on the Work and Pensions Committee—the idea that the Government will genuinely stand in front of everyone here and say, “We can’t afford it,” is quite frankly laughable. It has been pointed out many times that they found £1 billion for a deal to cling on to power, but they say they cannot find the money to give women the pensions they are due.
My hon. Friend is a very reasonable person; let us see whether we can help the Government. We know that the national insurance fund has a surplus of £30 billion. Let us lay to rest the myth that there is a black hole. The Government Actuary’s Department’s own figures suggest that that fund will remain in surplus until at least the mid-2030s. May I suggest to the Government that they use that surplus? Women have paid in to the fund; let us make sure they get their pension, and let us do it today.
Not surprisingly, I agree with that statement. I heard some muttering from the Government Benches about how that is a lot of rubbish. Let me just say this: if that is a lot of rubbish in their heads, they should bring their plans forward. They do not get to criticise other parties’ plans when they have not even bothered to come up with their own.
Like I say, the debate is almost scripted, because I know that the Minister will say at some point, “We did look at this in 2011 and we did make the concessions at the time.” I guarantee that the Minister will say that. Let my reply be this: that is not how the world works. That is not how society works. If citizens come to them with a time-sensitive problem and say, “This still isn’t working,” it is the Government’s job to listen. It is not the job of the Government to look back and go, “We talked about that a couple of years ago, so I’m afraid there’s no movement there whatsoever.” If that is the case, I am looking forward to the next time the Army needs new funds, the next time this Parliament needs doing up, and so on. The idea that we cannot afford it is ridiculous.
Fundamentally, the worst part of this whole issue is that these women are targeted. The Government like to sit back and act as though these women are just unfortunate casualties of austerity and say, “Our hands are tied; we can’t do anything.” That is not the case; they are targeted. These are women who have suffered pay inequality and social inequality all their lives. We even heard earlier that women were told to use their husbands’ pensions. Society has changed a lot since then. What are we doing for these women now? And what about lesbian couples—women who are in equal marriages with other women? Are they just expected to bear the brunt? [Interruption.] It is not even a double whammy; it is a quadruple whammy at this point.
I am amazed that I feel the need to point this out. These women are blameless. They are guilty of nothing. They have done nothing wrong other than, for instance, not reading the back pages of the Financial Times in 1995. The only other two things they are guilty of are being born in the ’50s and being women. The Government do not get to plead that this is all in the name of equality; when only women are suffering under their definition of equality, it is time for them to reassess that definition.
Fundamentally, Governments should look after their people. When their people are coming to them and saying there is problem, it is their job to fix it. Let me put a little reality into this. I got an email today from a WASPI woman. I cannot remember where she is from—it is somewhere in England. She told me that her friend committed suicide after seeing the general election result because she could not face what would happen to her. Citizens are committing suicide over an issue that could be solved just like that—an issue that the Government could do a U-turn on at any given moment.
The Government managed to fork out a magical £1 billion to cling on to power; they must really want the job of having to fix these things. When they can find £1 billion for self-interest, they do not get to claim that money is the reason they cannot help.
The Government quite rightly dropped their manifesto pension plans—two of them in total, I think—because they saw how damaging, unworkable and unpopular they would be. That was wise. In actual fact, I have a bit of respect for them for being able to go, “Aye, we got that wrong, guys, so we’re pulling back. We’re listening to you.” I say, I hope for the last time: just drop one more plan. Realise that this issue is cross-party and affects people from different backgrounds and different areas. These are people’s mothers, aunties, sisters and cousins. Please do the right thing. Do the job of the Government—fix the problem and start looking after people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank my hon. Friend and north-east England colleague the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for securing the debate, and I thank everybody who has contributed this afternoon. Speaking of north-east colleagues, I also congratulate the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) on his promotion to Pensions Minister—it appears his jockeying for position in the political world has finally paid off. I was pleased to have a good—even friendly—working relationship with his predecessor, the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), and hope for the same with him.
We can start that right here with a friendly offer from the Opposition to work together across the House to deliver much fairer transitional arrangements for the much-wronged 1950s-born women, who saw their pension age accelerated by several years with little or no notice. The Minister is in a strong position to deliver change. All of us on the Opposition side, including the Government’s allies in the DUP, back the ’50s-born women’s cause. My hon. Friend the Member for Easington spoke of the 20 Conservative and DUP Members who have signed the WASPI pledge, but it gets even better. There are 37 MPs on the Government Benches who have supported the WASPI campaign either through membership of the all-party parliamentary group or through election pledges; others have done so today. That is enough to provide a majority in the House of those who want to see action taken to alleviate the difficulty faced by the most vulnerable women, now in their 60s. I am sure that each and every one of those Members will want to report back to their constituents that they have fulfilled their promises. It is quite a list, and I would love to share it with the Minister if he wants it.
I have spoken for the official Opposition on ’50s-born women more than half a dozen times since I accepted my role nine months ago, with other parties throwing their weight behind some form of support for the women who have been affected by these changes. Still—perhaps just until today—the Government have stuck their collective head in the sand. Yes, we now have a new Secretary of State and a new Pensions Minister—and, as has already been said, even a new Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones), who is a declared WASPI supporter, having signed one of WASPI’s pledges to
“do all he can to work for a solution if elected”.
He could not be better placed to influence change for the better. Perhaps now the Government will take positive action and introduce new measures to reduce the strain on the most vulnerable women and men who have been affected by these increases in the state pension age.
I have heard from numerous women affected by the changes, and heard stories of their desperation and fear about how they will cope now that they have to wait even longer for their state pension. Does the new Minister understand how difficult it is for a woman in her 60s to retrain and gain employment? The job market and skills needed in today’s workplace are a different world from that of 40 years ago. What we have is a system that does not help older people retrain and get back into meaningful employment, a welfare system being torn to pieces, disabled people being humiliated through repetitive assessments, and now a state pension that is becoming increasingly difficult to access. Once again it is Labour, and others, who are standing up for the vulnerable. It is Labour calling out the injustice that ordinary people face, and Labour is the loudest voice demanding action. I know what the Conservatives are doing: they are trying to ignore the issue in the hope that the years will pass, the number of women affected by this measure will drop, and they will get away with leaving older people to struggle for many years to come.
We heard during the election that there is not a magic money tree—others have referred to that—but whenever the Government need funds to support their aims, they find it. There is no magic money tree, but they found that £1 billion to which others have referred to secure that deal with the DUP, to keep Theresa May in No. 10. That is just the up-front cost. The DUP will be back for more and Northern Ireland will get the priority investment that areas in the rest of the country also desperately need. I would never recommend selling out to the Tories, as the Lib Dems did in 2010, but I can understand our 10 DUP colleagues, striving to do the best for their communities with their £1 billion deal. I am sure many other MPs have wondered what they could do to help their constituency if they had their own £100 million magic money tree. It should not be about one versus the other. We must make investment where it is needed and protect the most vulnerable. Just as communities in Northern Ireland and elsewhere need a lifeline, so do ’50s-born women, many of whom are destitute.
The Labour party laid out its approach to reducing the strain on vulnerable and struggling women, which is to extend pension credit to those who were due to retire before the pension increase. That would alleviate the toughest circumstances and restore the faith and dignity that many feel they have lost. Extending pension credit would provide support worth up to £155 a week to half a million of the most vulnerable women who have been affected by the increase in the state pension age. We are continuing to look at other ways to ensure that those who need support receive it, but we need the Government to get on board and work with us. If the Minister would like a conversation about how we can deliver a cross-party approach to secure fair transitional arrangements to the most vulnerable ’50s-born women, I will be pleased to meet him. The general election result delivered a verdict that the Conservatives no longer have the full confidence of the country to govern. That strengthens the case for a joint approach in this case.
I have a number of questions for the Minister. Has he had any discussions with the new Secretary of State about the plight of ’50s-born women? Do they accept that many women had little if any notice of the change in their pension age, and that those women ought to be recompensed in some way? Will he and the Secretary of State agree at least to a review and then change their policy, offering at least the most vulnerable women something to get by on? That is what it is about—getting by.
Previous DWP Ministers wanted to help these women, but they had the Treasury doors slammed shut in their faces. In these very different days of unstable Government, I hope the Minister will now be able to assure the House—including those 37 Members of his party—that he takes this matter seriously and that he will work with us and others to deliver a fair and meaningful solution to this problem and, above all, win some friends and make himself the Government champion for these very wronged women.
We are from different sides of the political fence, but the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) and I are united by one key thing: we have both beaten cancer. I would like to start by saying how pleased I am to see my fellow tumour survivor back in his place. I wish him well with his future treatment. He can imagine my joy when, on day three of my new job as Minister for Pensions and Financial Inclusion, I was told that he had secured a debate on women’s state pensions—the first debate I would have to answer here in this House.
Will the Minister give way?
Not yet, no—I am not going to. All of us here, as constituency MPs, have met women who have been affected by the state pension age rises. I have met them ever since my election as Member of Parliament for Hexham in 2010, and during the passage of the 2011 Act. Whether they are affiliated to the WASPI campaign or not, I have seen them in and out of my surgeries, like all colleagues have done. Like many, I have answered correspondence on the issue. I make it clear that I will be delighted to meet the all-party parliamentary group when it is re-formed, as I am sure it will be, and will be in a position to sit down with them to discuss their ongoing situations.
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) said that she expected me to speak only about the 1995 Act, the 2011 Act, all the transitional arrangements and so on. I accept, and she will understand, that I have to make the case on those matters, not least because of what has been said, but I want this debate to be done in a different way. I want to say two things at the outset.
If individual Members of Parliament have specific cases where they feel their individual constituents are affected by state pension age changes and find themselves in financial hardship, whether they are people who have to reduce their hours because of sickness, disability or caring responsibility, I and the London DWP team will look into those individual cases. As Members pass them on to us, we will do what we can to provide assistance, whether that is understanding of the availability of carer’s allowance, housing benefit, tax credits, income support, employment and support allowance or other benefits. However, the essence of what I want to address the House on is this.
Will the Minister give way?
No, I will not. It is not the Government’s position that we will make further concessions by the 1995 or 2011 Acts. The fundamental point—at this point I really wish to address the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South—is that the Government have done a massive amount on a progressive basis to get people back into employment or retraining in their pre-pension years.
First, we created, and we have now extended, a network of older claimant champions in all 34 Jobcentre Plus districts in the country. The champions work with Jobcentre work coaches to provide advice and best practice on skills provision, digital and social support and job-search support, which leads into the “Fuller Working Lives” strategy issued by the Government on a cross-Government basis in February this year.
Secondly, we have committed massively to lifelong learning. The reality is that more than 200,000 people aged over 60 have entered further education since 2014-15. [Interruption.]
Order. Everybody else was heard in silence, so let us please listen to the Minister.
Thirdly, we have also extended apprenticeship opportunities—one of the best routes into skilled employment—for people of all ages and gender. For example, in England in 2014 to 2015, 12% of those starting apprenticeships were aged over 45.
Will the Minister give way?
I am going to set out these matters; please bear with me. In the 2017 Budget, the Chancellor allocated £5 million to increase the number of returnship schemes. We are working with employers across the public and private sectors to understand how returners can be supported back into permanent employment, building on successful examples run by companies such as Centrica.
I realise it is not going down well, but the point I am trying to make is that the Government are actually doing a significant amount to address the individual difficulties for those persons attempting to enter the labour market. Last year, the Government appointed Andy Briggs, CEO of Aviva, as the dedicated business champion for older workers, to spearhead work with employers on a business-to-business basis. I met Mr Briggs two days ago. He is clearly passionate about his mission to persuade employers to increase the number of older workers they employ by 12% by 2022. [Interruption.]
Order. The Minister is entitled to give way or not.
On a point of order, Sir Edward. Did the Minister just say that women aged 64 could go on an apprenticeship course? I could not hear because of the noise. Perhaps he could clarify that.
The hon. Gentleman is very experienced and knows that that is not for me.
In May 2017, Mr Briggs launched the “Commit and Publish” campaign, challenging employers to monitor the age of their workforce and publish figures by the end of 2017. A significant number of companies have already bought into that, including Aviva, Barclays and the Co-op. I assure colleagues that I will be assisting Mr Briggs in pursuing that campaign with all the rigour that I brought to my campaign for the introduction of the living wage.
In February 2017, the “Fuller Working Lives” strategy was launched on a cross-Government basis. I urge colleagues to read it, because if we are frank, an assertion has been made in the debate that the Government are doing nothing to try and encourage persons who are prior to pensionable age into employment. There are a number of different matters, which I have set out, and those are particularly set out in the “Fuller Working Lives” strategy.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not, because I have a lot of points to make. The strategy aims to increase the retention, retraining and recruitment of older workers, and bring about a change in employers’ perceptions and attitudes—surely something that we would all endorse and wish for. We know that many people approaching the state pension age want to continue working or would like to be in work, and we have changed the law to abolish the default retirement age. I do urge colleagues to read the strategy.
After extensive debate, the 1995 Act changed the 55-year-old status quo by equalising pension ages for men and women at 65, with that change taking place between 2010 and 2020, depending on age. That statute was debated at length, and the changes were then the subject of widespread advertising, debate, leaflets, letters and 16 million state pension forecasts.
I am not here to criticise the 1995 to 1997 Conservative Government, nor the 1997 to 2010 Labour Government; I suggest that they made real efforts to communicate the change passed by Parliament in 1995. I rely in support of that on what the hon. Member for Easington said when he wrote of the 1995 Act in his blog in June 2016:
“The timescales were such that they gave sufficient time for people to plan for their new circumstances, and legislation was already in place that would have seen the equalised State Pension Age rise…in gradual stages”.
I ask the Minister to recognise that the issue was not the timescale; everyone agrees that 15 years is enough time. I was trying to highlight in my blog that the individuals were not given notice.
With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, the whole thrust of what he said in June 2016 was that there was no objection to the 1995 Act, due to the passage of time. He has now changed that position. I am only pointing out that the 1995 Act had a 15-year time limit. He knows full well that that is the case, and that that was his position at the time.
Sixteen years later, the coalition Government changed the approach in the Pensions Act 2011. The change was in a context where the impact of the post-war baby boom years is clearly still being felt. The number of pensioners is going up dramatically; notwithstanding any of the changes made by the 1995 and 2011 Acts, there will be around 25% more pensioners in 2050 than today. That is an extra 4.5 million pensioners compared with now.
Life expectancy has increased massively. In 1940, Government policy making indicated a retirement age at 60, and our forebears looked at a life expectancy of three score years and 10. Those days are long gone. A girl born today has an average life expectancy of 93. Those changes in life expectancies are significant, and the reality cannot be ignored. It is not ignored, and is set out in greater detail in the Cridland report, which looks at the future situation in relation to long-term pension age changes.
Will the Minister give way?
I have a minute and a half to finish, so I will culminate on this point. In 2011, there was extensive debate on those changes in the House of Commons. The matter was debated on a number of occasions between February and November 2011 in both the Commons and the Lords. Subsequently, the Department for Work and Pensions and the coalition Government made efforts to notify those affected, with 5 million letters sent out and a range of information provided, to make individuals aware of their state pension age.
I will make three final points. In relation to the transitional provisions, it is the case that the position was different in the original 2011 Act. Following extensive parliamentary debate in both the Commons and the Lords, that Act was changed such that no woman affected by the 2011 Act would have to wait more than 18 months from the date that they might have been expecting their pension. For some, the time will be much less. I also make the point that the new state pension introduced in 2016 is better and much more generous for many women than that which existed under the old system.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington on securing the debate. It is not the Government’s proposal to repeal or ameliorate the 1995 or 2011 Acts, but I accept that we must do all we can to assist everyone affected into retraining and employment, and to provide support if that is not possible. The commitment to provide support is clear, unequivocal and ongoing.
I thank all Members from all parties and on both sides who have attended the debate and spoken with such passion on behalf of WASPI women. In defence of the Minister, who is a good and honourable man, I hope he will have a chance to reflect on the arguments that have been made and the passions that are running high, and apply the principles of natural justice to the women affected by these changes. As a nation, we owe a debt of honour to the WASPI women, many of whom are now in ill health, who have paid their contributions and who are not looking for apprenticeships at age 64 but for some recognition of their contribution—sometimes over 44 or 45 years or more. I ask the Minister to discharge his responsibilities; otherwise, the people may discharge this Government.
Question put and negatived.