I beg to move,
That this House calls on the Government to improve transitional arrangements for women born on or after 6 April 1951 who have been adversely affected by the acceleration of the increase to the state pension age.
Madam Deputy Speaker, may I wish you and everybody else in the Chamber a happy St Andrew’s day for tomorrow? With your forbearance, I will just remark that today is the 50th anniversary of the mighty Hibernian football club defeating Napoli—with Dino Zoff in goal—5-0 at Easter Road, ensuring that they went on to the next stage of European football.
I am delighted to open the debate and to move the SNP’s Opposition day motion calling for mitigation for women born in the 1950s. We are here in support of the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign and its efforts to secure fairness for women affected by the acceleration in their retirement age. I am saddened that we are having yet another debate on this issue, but the fundamental fact is that the Government should have taken action to mitigate the increase in women’s pensionable age. There must be action. The 3.8 million affected women have waited simply far too long for effective mitigation.
The right hon. Gentleman will recall that we both called for action well over two years ago when he and I were our parties’ respective pensions spokespeople. Does he share my deep frustration that we have still had absolutely nothing?
I welcome that intervention, and I certainly look back fondly on the period when he and I were holding the Government to account. When the evidence is before us that the women did not get appropriate notice and that the acceleration is happening so quickly, it is an absolute outrage that we have had nothing from this Government.
This is an important debate on an important issue—I also attended the debate in Westminster Hall last week—but does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it is wrong to say that the Government have taken no action? In 2011, they ensured that no one waited for an extended period beyond 18 months.
I have heard about spinning, but let me deal with the facts. The hon. and learned Lady refers to the fact that the Government brought in the Pensions Act 2011, but that increased the acceleration. To say that the Government have mitigated the situation is a distortion of reality, and Government Members should stop spinning and tell the 3.8 million affected women the truth: the pensionable age is increasing by three months per calendar month. That is the reality. The Government should be utterly ashamed of trying to argue that they have mitigated things, which demonstrates that some Conservative Members simply do not get what is going on.
The tragedy is that it falls to us to speak for the individuals who have suffered. I have a constituent in Dolgellau who was born 24 hours too late and now has to work for an extra two years and three months. The change has led to individual tragedies.
I am grateful for that intervention; I cannot really add much to what the hon. Lady says, because she demonstrates the ridiculous nature of the situation and why the Government must listen.
I will take one more intervention, but then I must make some progress.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who knows that I support this cause. Although I cannot be here for the rest of the debate due to its late start, if there is a vote, I will certainly support this innocuous motion. The measures taken in 2011 actually benefited men just as much as women, but this is very much a women-focused injustice. Some 33% of men approaching retirement expect to rely on just a state pension, but the percentage for women is as much as 53%, which is why this issue is so important to them and to all of us.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important intervention. He has been resolute on this matter over the past couple of years, and I know that the women are grateful for his support; I hope that he will be back for the vote later on. I am glad that he referred to the motion in front of us, because we had a choice of all sorts of things to lay before the House today, but the motion is laid in such a way—simply calling on the Government to put mitigation in place—that all the Members of Parliament who have shown support for the WASPI women can support it. Now is our only chance to show that we can stand up and do something for those women.
I know that many Members want to speak, so I will make some progress and let people in later.
This is about women who have paid national insurance in anticipation of receiving a pension and have been hit with the bombshell that their pension was being deferred—in some cases by up to six years—with only 15 months’ written notice. Members should dwell on that. They were looking forward to retirement, but they received a letter telling them that they were going to get as little as 15 months’ notice of an increase in their pension age. Can anybody on the Government Benches defend that? Will anybody stand up and tell the House and the public that giving someone 15 months’ written notice of an increase in their pension age is acceptable? Is anyone prepared to do that? If so, I will happily give way.
We recognise people’s concerns about the notice, but to rectify the situation requires public funds. In a previous debate, the right hon. Gentleman said that his party’s position was to pay for that from the surplus in the national insurance fund. Is that still his party’s policy?
Well, there we are. Given the opportunity to defend the indefensible, we again get spin. Let me make things absolutely crystal clear. The national insurance fund is sitting at a surplus in the region of £30 billion, and that surplus has been generated by the women who have paid national insurance. All that we have asked for is that the women be given what they are entitled to receive. A pension should be seen as a right, but the Government have changed the terms and conditions of that right without consulting those who have paid in for a pension. As many of the campaigners have said, “We paid in, you pay out.”
This campaign is at the heart of SNP policy. We have long fought for the Government to rectify the shambles and give the WASPI women the pensions they rightfully deserve. I speak on behalf of SNP Members when I say that we will never rest until justice is delivered for the women affected. The Government have failed time and time again to address the injustices of a lack of notice for the acceleration of the state pension age. There is an opportunity today for the Government to admit that effective notice was not given of an increase in pensionable age. The process of increasing pensionable age must be slowed down.
The right hon. Gentleman is speaking with his customary passion on this issue, which he says is at the heart of Scottish National party thinking. I am not an expert on devolved powers, but my understanding from reading the legislation is that the Scottish Government have the powers to rectify this issue if they so wish. He chastises the Treasury Bench for a lack of action, but we have seen no action from Holyrood that could give a lead to the Government.
There we have it. Does anybody here think the Scottish Government have power to introduce pensions? [Hon. Members: “No!”] I will tell the House why: it is because we do not have the powers. It is about time that Conservative Members stopped creating the impression that we have that power.
Let me be absolutely crystal clear. Power over pensions is reserved to Westminster. There is a bit of a clue, because pensions are paid out of national insurance. I would love the Scottish Government to have control over national insurance. Let me make it clear that if we had control over pensions in Scotland, we would make sure that the WASPI women in Scotland got what is rightfully theirs.
The Scotland Act 2016 does not preclude the right hon. Gentleman—
Pensions are reserved.
I agree entirely that pensions are reserved, but discretionary payments could be made by the Scottish Government. Why have they not done so?
There is a very simply answer. I have respect for the hon. Gentleman, as he knows, and he should go back and read the 2016 Act, because it is crystal clear that we cannot introduce new benefits, nor can we introduce payments based on age. The fundamental point that needs to be made is that we are talking about the state pension in the United Kingdom, which is a reserved matter. It ill behoves any Conservative Member to try to create the impression that the people of Scotland and elsewhere have powers that we do not have. If Conservative Members want the Scottish Government to have the powers to fix this, then give us the powers. Give us control over pensions and we will fix it tomorrow.
The right hon. Gentleman has asked us to tell him what powers the Scottish Government have to help in this situation. Well, under section 28 of the Scotland Act they can create a new benefit, and they can make that argument on the basis of, but not because of, old age—the Department for Work and Pensions has accepted that argument. Further, section 26 allows the Scottish Government to make short-term payments to people who need them,
“to avoid a risk to the well-being of an individual.”
The Scottish Government have the powers. They choose not to use them. [Interruption.]
The hon. Gentleman should—[Interruption.]
Order. I want to hear the right hon. Gentleman. I was about to try to quieten down the House in order that I might be able to hear him, but I realise that most of the noise is coming from those behind him. He is making an important speech, and those behind him are trying to support him, but they are being a bit noisy about it.
The simple fact is that the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government do not have the ability to introduce new benefits based on age. What is really important, and the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson) should reflect on this, is that this is a failure of UK Government policy. Nobody can get away from that. Are the Conservatives in Scotland really saying that the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government should again clear up the mess left by this Conservative Government? The Scottish Government have already spent £400 million mitigating the worst effects of Tory austerity.
That is the reality—[Interruption.] I see the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) chuntering. Maybe he could answer this question. Was he one of those who signed the WASPI pledge? Did he say to his voters that he would stand up for the WASPI women? If he is true to his word, he has to come through the Lobby with us this afternoon, or his words will be shown to be meaningless and a fraud on the people of his constituency.
I am concerned that the right hon. Gentleman is not willing to listen to Government Front Benchers. I am sympathetic to the WASPI women, of whom there are nearly 10,000 on the Isle of Wight, but the reality is that the he can do something about it, but he will not. He is not taking interventions because he would rather score political points than fix this problem.
That is pathetic, absolutely pathetic, because it demonstrates well and truly that the hon. Gentleman has not been listening. I have listened to Government Front Benchers in debate after debate in which they have been given the opportunity to do something about this. We introduced costed proposals in the last Parliament. The Minister, like countless Ministers before him, wants to sit on his hands. He wants this issue to go away, and I can tell him that this issue is not going away.
I will make progress before giving way again.
The Government have an opportunity today to do something about it. I remind the House that 250 Members of Parliament have presented petitions on behalf of WASPI women. That is 250 Members of Parliament who I expect to go through the Aye Lobby tonight. There is no point signing a petition unless they are prepared to go through the Lobby, otherwise they have duped the WASPI women. I trust that no Member would wish to do that.
Our motion is a simple one. It calls for mitigation. It is written in a way that allows all Members of Parliament to recognise the injustice that women born in the 1950s are facing, and it allows the Government to bring forward proposals. Let me state at the beginning of this debate that if parliamentary democracy means anything, the House must divide on this motion. The Government must either support mitigation, which we are calling on them to do, or they must have the guts to vote against it.
Now is the time for Members on both sides of the House to signal that we need to put mitigation in place. Let us stand up today for 1950s women, because I believe parliamentary arithmetic is on our side.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way one more time.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He and I have been involved in a lot of debates. I think the Government can find this money. It is no good their trying to blame the Scottish Parliament. This is a UK issue, full stop. I assure him that I will be backing him in the Lobby today.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I hoped he would be backing me, and he has been resolute on this issue over a long period of time. He is absolutely right; we can find money on the magic money tree for Northern Ireland and, as I said in the Budget debate only last week, we found £70 billion for quantitative easing last year. A £70 billion cheque was written for the Bank of England to put into the financial markets, so do not tell us that the Government cannot find the money. Of course, the answer to the question is that the money is there because the national insurance fund is sitting on a surplus.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I must make some progress. I will not take interventions for a while.
The moment has never been so opportune for Members on both sides of the House to come together to do the right thing and to call for this long-standing error to be corrected. Conservative Members made a pledge to the WASPI women as recently as June 2017. Scottish Tory Members—I will not name them, but they know who they are—signed the WASPI pledge before the general election and claimed to be prepared to act against party orders on the issue. There has been a deafening silence from them on this matter since the election, and the heckling has gone.
The House might be interested to know that, in the constituencies represented by Scottish Conservative Members of Parliament, a total of 84,000 women are affected by this Government’s legislative changes. I ask this question of the Scottish Tories, in a friendly spirit, particularly to those who supported the WASPI women during the campaign: will they have the courage to join us in the Lobby this afternoon, or will they turn their backs on the 84,000 WASPI women in their own constituencies?
I flag up to them page 62 of the Scottish Conservative manifesto, which states:
“We will also ensure that the state pension age reflects increases in life expectancy, while protecting each generation fairly.”
So, today, Scots Tories, do the right thing.
The nub of the matter is that people are living longer and contributions were calculated on the basis of people not living so long. Although I sympathise with what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, the debt burden would be increased on our children and grandchildren, and that is grossly unfair.
I am stunned. [Interruption.] I am speechless, because we should put that out in a leaflet. We are not talking about tea and sympathy; we are talking about WASPI women having to rely on benefits, and they are going to get nothing from the hon. Gentleman—that is crystal clear. It is obvious where he stands on this issue.
Today, these Tories should deliver the generational fairness they promised in their manifesto. I sincerely welcome the backing of some 37 Conservative MPs who expressed support for WASPI women during the general election—37 Tory MPs signed the pledge. We will be watching this afternoon, as will the WASPI women, and these MPs will be expected to do what they promised in the election campaign and stand up for the WASPI women. That support stretches from the Tory Back Benches across to the Benches of the Democratic Unionist party—to our friends from the DUP. Page 9 of the DUP manifesto contained a pledge to protect pensions, with the announcement that the DUP would:
“Support an end to the unfair treatment of women pensioners”.
I call on DUP Members to deliver on their pledges made to the WASPI women.
I am disappointed at the tone that has been set in this debate. Despite the fact that we have a motion that could command widespread support, the tone of the debate has not been as I expected. Let me make something clear: we made a manifesto pledge on this issue, and the reason why I am here as my party’s spokesman is that we do support this and we will go through the Lobby on it. However, the WASPI women would be better served if we had a debate that was not divisive and not about point scoring, because there is no party—whether Labour, the Liberals or the Conservatives—that has not caused some of this problem.
I am grateful that DUP Members will be going through the Lobby, but let me point out that we are trying to set out the facts of the arguments in this House. These women have for too long been let down by politicians, so let us use the opportunity we have today to give them the result they deserve. Thanks to freedom of information requests, we learnt that the Department for Work and Pensions only began writing to women born between April 1950 and April 1955 in April 2009, and did not complete the process until February 2012. So it was writing to women to inform them about changes in legislation that go back to 1995 but it did not start the formal notification period for 14 years. Taking 14 years to begin informing women that a pension they had paid into was being deferred is quite something. Can we imagine the outcry if a private pension provider was behaving in such a way? There would be an outcry in this House and, no doubt, legal action. When we consider that entitlement to a state pension is earned through national insurance contributions, where many women have made contributions over 40 years, this is stunning.
A woman born on 6 April 1953 who, under the previous legislation, would have retired on 6 April 2013 would have received a letter from the DWP in January 2012 with the bombshell that she would not be retiring then—she would be retiring in July 2016. That is three years and three months later than she might have expected, and this is with 15 months’ notice. That is what Conservative Members have been defending, and it is no wonder the WASPI women are insulted. We are talking about 15 months’ notice before what they thought was a contract they had with the Government was simply to be ripped up.
A pensions White Paper published in December 1993 stated:
“In developing its proposals for implementing the change the Government has paid particular attention to the need to give people enough time to plan ahead and to phase the change in gradually”.
Not much there that I would disagree with, but when you accept the need for people to plan ahead, you need to write to them and tell them.
I am secretary of the all-party group on state pension inequality for women, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. A serious point for WASPI women is the number of women in their 60s who did not receive a letter. Their pensions were deferred until they were 63, even though they should have received them at 60, but they were not told at the time of those deferments that they should have received them three years earlier. This is another scandal about how the DWP has not been honest in those letters. Does he agree that that is something else the Government should be looking to address?
Again, I am grateful for that intervention, and the hon. Gentleman is correct in what he says. This is yet another clear example of why there is absolutely no excuse for not collectively taking action today. We have a choice: we can recognise the injustices that the women have faced or we can sit on our hands and do nothing. This is about morality. It is about doing the right thing. The Minister can look up to the skies, but it is not going to remove the problem for him. I do not want to wait until the end of the debate and then get another 10 minutes of ignoring the reality of what is going on. We have had that for too long and it has to stop—it has to stop today.
The intent was there in the 1993 White Paper, but it was 2009 before any formal letters went out. Then we have the issue of phasing this in gradually. What we are dealing with is an increase in a woman’s pensionable age by three months for each calendar month that passes. It is simply scandalous that a woman’s pensionable age is increasing so rapidly. It is indefensible and it is not within the spirit outlined in the Government’s White Paper in 1993.
In October 2002, while giving evidence to a Select Committee, the DWP suggested that the role of the state was
“to provide clear and accurate information about what pensions will provide so that people will understand how much they can expect at retirement before it’s too late to do something about it.”
How does “before it’s too late to do something about it” equate with 15 months’ notice? How can the Minister, and how can anyone who is not going to support our motion today, support that lack of notice? It has gone quiet now, has it not?
The right hon. Gentleman has to find a way to pay for this and he did say that he would still use the national insurance fund. Ruth Kelly, the then Financial Secretary to the Treasury, said the following in 2003:
“The national insurance fund provides security for those contributory benefits. It is ring-fenced and cannot be used for other Government expenditure.”—[Official Report, 21 October 2003; Vol. 411, c. 231WH.]
The hon. Gentleman is going to have to do better. Of course this is ring-fenced—it is for pensions. Pay it out! That is what the Government are being asked to do. As I was saying, no formal communication took place until 2009 and the task was not completed until 2012. The DWP has to take responsibility for this failure to communicate and, crucially, for the lack of time that women have had to prepare for an increase in their state pension age. Rather than recognising that women deserved to be communicated with directly, the DWP issued leaflets headlined “Equality in state pension age”. Can anybody in this Chamber remember them? No, I do not recall seeing them either. That is no surprise, as DWP-commissioned research in 2004 highlighted that only 2% of respondents mentioned that they had been notified of changes to their pension age via a leaflet. That is the responsibility that the Government took to inform people. Frankly, it is an insult that the Government at the time thought that changes that affect a woman’s retirement age could be delivered with a leaflet. That was an abdication of responsibility and we have to take responsibility for that. We should all receive an annual statement from the DWP on our expected entitlement, just as we do from private pension providers.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I apologise to my hon. Friend, but I have to move on because of the time.
The failure to communicate was highlighted by a 2004 DWP report called “Public awareness of State Pension age equalisation”, which stated that only 43%—less than half—of all women affected by the increase in state pensionable age were aware of the impact on them. If the Government accept that women were not informed in a timely manner and therefore did not have time to react, why do they not accept their responsibilities? I am watching the Minister and he is looking away. He is not interested because he simply does not want to hear the facts. When will he accept his responsibility for the WASPI women and engage in a constructive manner?
The Government sent out 17.8 million letters on automatic state pension forecasts to men and women between May 2003 and November 2006 but—wait for it—the letters did not contain any information about state pension age. You simply could not make this up. What they did say was:
“If you want to know more about the changes to State Pension age, please see Pensions for women—Your guide… See page 10 for details about how you can get a copy of this guide.”
That, Minister, was no way to convey information. What should have been communicated was accurate, clear and transparent information. It was yet another failure to do that by the Minister’s Department—another massive failure to communicate from Government. What is he going to do about it? Nothing.
On 23 November 2016, in answer to a written question I submitted, the previous Pensions Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) stated:
“The Government has committed not to change the legislation relating to State Pension age for those people who are within 10 years of reaching it. This provides these individuals with the certainty they need to plan for the future…We recognise the importance of ensuring people are aware of any changes to their State Pension age”.
I welcomed that statement, but that recognition of the need to ensure that people are aware of changes was not afforded to 1950s women. If that statement from the previous Minister in 2016 is to have any credibility, the current Minister has to accept that the women affected were not given that courtesy and the Government need to correct that today.
I shall set the socioeconomic scene in which female pensioners find themselves under this Tory Government. Only 52% of women are adequately saving for retirement, compared with 60% of men. Female pensioners have a net weekly income that is approximately 85% of that of their male counterparts. More than two thirds of pensioners who are living in poverty are women. In August, the Institute for Fiscal Studies revealed that the increase in state pension age has left 1.1 million women £50 a week worse off. The IFS looked into the Government’s reform of the state pension, which was needed to account for a longer-living population, and found that the move to increase the eligibility age for women from 60 to 63 meant that income poverty rates were “pushed up substantially” from 15% to 20%. That is just as a result of the increase in the pension age from 60 to 63. Is the Minister going to defend that? Are the Tory MPs from Scotland, bearing in mind their constituents, going to defend that? There has been an 8.7% rise in the chance of a woman aged 60 to 63 being in absolute poverty.
In my constituency of Ross, Skye and Lochaber, there are 5,400 women who were born in the 1950s and are affected by the changes to the state pension age in 1995, 2007 and 2011. Throughout Scotland, the figure is a staggering 347,000. New freedom-of-information figures have revealed that although almost 4,600 maladministration complaints relating to WASPI women have been received by officials at the DWP, only six investigations have been concluded. The process of dealing with the complaints has taken so long partly because the DWP has only three staff members dealing with the complaints. Three staff members dealing with 4,600 complaints—that is how serious the Government are taking this issue. The delays have been so long that the pensions ombudsman has now forced the independent case examiner to streamline the process. What a farce! That is an indication that the Government simply do not take their responsibilities to the WASPI women seriously—another let down from this Government for 1950s WASPI women. The Government have a commitment to the WASPI women and should stop playing fast and loose with their rights.
In a Westminster Hall debate on 5 July, the Minister talked about employment or retraining opportunities for 1950s women, stating—wait for it—that the Government had “extended apprenticeship opportunities”. There we have it: women who in some cases have worked for more than 40 years can go on apprenticeship schemes. Later in his speech, the Minister claimed:
“I realise it is not going down well”.—[Official Report, 5 July 2017; Vol. 626, c. 143WH.]
It is little wonder, because 1950s women do not want apprenticeship schemes; they want their pensions.
Women born in the 1950s do not want to be pushed on to benefits, but that is what is happening. Between August 2013 and August 2017, the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance or universal credit across all ages fell by 42%. We welcome that, but the number of 60s-plus women claiming a benefit rose by 9,500—a 115% increase—while the number of women aged over 60 claiming employment and support allowance increased by 121,000. That is a massive increase of 413%—that is the reality of the sharp increase in the state pension age for women. The reality is that women are being denied their pension and this Government are forcing them on to benefits. The Minister has been ridiculed by, among others, the Financial Times, in which he was described as one in
“a line of pensions ministers with no interest in pensions”.
He certainly has no interest in women’s pensions. Today, the Minister must start to take an interest and do the right thing by putting mitigation in place.
It is nothing short of a disgrace that the Government found no remedy for the WASPI women in last week’s Budget. The Chancellor stood at the Dispatch Box and extolled the virtues of spending billions on Brexit, but he failed to address the injustice faced by female pensioners. Transitional measures to mitigate the issue would cost significantly less than the UK Government’s £30 billion figure. Last year, independent research commissioned by the SNP showed that the cost would be £8 billion. We can find billions for Brexit and billions for Trident, but not one penny for our pensioners, who are treated with contempt by the Government. It is bitterly disappointing that the Chancellor did not use the Budget to support the WASPI women. Once again, it falls to the SNP, by securing this debate, to be a voice for this campaign in the House and to press the UK Government to do the decent thing. They have got it wrong—admit it and fix it now.
Order. Before I call the Minister, I should warn Members who wish to take part in the debate that time is of course limited. In order that they might tailor their proposed speeches accordingly, there will be a time limit of three minutes.
Since world war two, we have seen a dramatic change in life expectancy. We are living longer, staying healthier, fighting diseases that previously would have killed us and leading a more active lifestyle, regardless of age. Faced with demographic pressures and increased life expectancy and costs, successive Governments have acted. We must be realistic about the demographic and fiscal challenge that these changes create for us as a society.
Taking forward-looking action is critical to protecting the long-term sustainability of the state pension not only for today’s taxpayers, but for future generations. In July, the Government published their first review of the state pension age, which sets out a coherent strategy targeted at strengthening and sustaining the UK state pension system for many decades to come. It accepts the key recommendations of John Cridland’s independent review, which consulted a variety of people and organisations, including the Scottish National party—the bringing forward to 2037 to 2039 of the increase in state pension age from 67 to 68.
Will the Minister explain to the House the potential debt impact on future generations of spending up to £39 billion reverting to the 1995 timetable, as well as of Labour’s plan to freeze any increases in the state pension age, which would cost hundreds of billions?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I recognise that he has more than 25 years’ experience of working in the pensions industry through his previous journalistic work. The reality is that if the Pensions Acts 1995 and 2011 were to be revoked, it would cost well in excess of £70 billion. If we were to follow the path set out in the Labour party manifesto, which would keep the state pension age at 66, it would cost approximately £250 billion compared with the itinerary set out by the independent review commissioned by the Government and produced by John Cridland.
The Cridland review is very clear on that point. It says:
“In 1917 King George V sent the first telegrams to those celebrating their 100th birthday. 24 were sent that year. In 2016 around 6,000 people will have received a card from Her Majesty the Queen. In 2050, we expect over 56,000 people to reach this milestone.
Three factors are at play here: a growing population; an ageing population as the Baby Boomers retire; and an unprecedented increase in life expectancy. A baby girl born in 2017 can expect to live to be 94 years and a boy to be 91. By 2047 it could well be 98 and 95 respectively…The world of the Third Age is now a very different one, in which those lucky enough to get the State Pension will on average spend almost a third of their adult life in retirement, a proportion never before reached.”
It was clear that the Government had to act.
Can the Minister tell us what specific help Jobcentre Plus is able to give older women to help them to retrain or to reskill to find age-appropriate work? That is a question that a number of older women often ask. What specific help is out there for them?
Having visited his local jobcentre, my hon. Friend will be aware that a great deal of assistance is provided by the job coaches. However, help comes not just from job coaches and jobcentres but from local job clubs, which I am sure exist in his constituency, as they do in mine; from individual flexible working arrangements; and from jobs fairs, which a number of colleagues have mentioned. I have done three myself, culminating in the last one in September, which was highly successful. There is also all manner of private sector support on an ongoing basis.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way in a moment, but first let me address the issue in relation to Scotland. I was surprised that the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) refused 10 times to give way. If I were him, I would say that he was frit, but I will not go down that route.
In addition to the substantial support that the UK Government are providing, which is worth £50 billion across the country and 6% of GDP, the Scottish Government now have significant new powers available to them to tailor welfare provision to people in Scotland. Although pensions remain a reserved matter, the Scotland Act 2016 has given the Scottish Government the ability to use a wide range of new welfare provisions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson) correctly set out the provisions of section 28 of the Scotland Act. There are of course section 24 powers as well. I refer all colleagues, on both sides of the House, to a letter written to my predecessor by Jeane Freeman, my opposite number in the Scottish Government. She says that the power under section 26
“is limited to providing help with ‘short term needs’, and those needs must require to be met to avoid a risk to a person’s wellbeing. That would not readily allow assistance to the majority of women most affected by the acceleration of increase in their State Pension Age. Their needs and the risks to their well-being would have to be assessed individually.”
There is an acceptance in that letter that, as Scottish Conservative colleagues have said, the powers are there. Those powers commenced on 5 September 2016. It is up to the Scottish Government to determine how they will use those powers, but—
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am asking for your guidance about what we can do, because the Minister, perhaps inadvertently, is seeking to mislead the House. It is absolutely crystal clear in the Scotland Act 2016 that the Scottish Parliament is not in a position to introduce benefits by reason of old age. That is quite clear, and the Minister should be truthful with the people of this country. He should stop blaming the Scottish National party and the Scottish Government for a responsibility that solely lies here with Westminster.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I will first answer the original point of order. First of all, of course the Minister is being truthful. Secondly, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) knows that this subject is a matter for debate.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was just going to observe the contradiction that it is impossible to, as the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) said, “inadvertently seek” to mislead the House. One either misleads the House seeking to do so or not.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that helpful advice. I suggest that we move on, because time is very limited and we do not want to delay the debate further with continuous points of order.
I fully understand, and I will move on, but I will make one single point in reply to the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber. I specifically read the letter of 22 June from Jeane Freeman, quoting what she said. When the right hon. Gentleman criticises me, he should be aware and conscious that he is criticising someone from his own party.
Regarding the point of order, does the Minister agree that the argument can be made that people under the age of the retirement age of 66 are not in old age? The Scottish Government have already been in correspondence with the Department for Work and Pensions, and the DWP has accepted that very argument. The Scottish Government have the powers, they just do not use them.
The reality of the situation, given the motion facing us today, is that one has to ask what the Scottish Government are doing. My hon. Friend is entirely right.
The issue dates back to 1995, when the Government legislated after two years of debate and consultation to equalise the state pension age in order to eliminate gender inequalities in state pensions. There had been welcome increases in life expectancy, and there was an anticipated increase in the number of pensioners in the years to come.
Will the Minister give way?
I will give way for the last time. I am conscious that 20 Members wish to speak.
I have come through an apprenticeship on how this works. The Minister made a point about jobcentres, but he is actually closing half of Glasgow’s jobcentres. I have a question for him about life expectancy—I asked him this 10 days ago in Westminster Hall, so he has had 10 days to find out the answer. Can he tell me the life expectancy in Glasgow East?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, without a shadow of a doubt, life expectancy has increased in all parts of the country and in all socioeconomic groups over the past 30 years. I refer him to the Cridland report, which accepts the situation that has existed for the past 30 years, and the change that has been made.
Developments in policy have included the Pensions Act 1995, as well as the Pensions Act 2007, passed when the Labour party was in power. It is a shame that the Labour party is now scrapping the fiscal prudence that it seemed to demonstrate with the 2007 Act by now revoking its desire to increase the pension age beyond 66. Under the coalition, action was taken in the Pensions Act 2011 to increase the pension age as a result of enhanced life expectancy.
Will the Minister give way?
Will the Minister give way?
I will not give way any more, because I am conscious that 20 Members wish to speak.
Automatic enrolment was introduced in 2012 on a cross-party basis after a considerable amount of time. The important point is that the overall participation in workplace pensions of eligible female employees in 2012 was 58% but, following the introduction of automatic enrolment, the figure increased to 80% in 2016. For males, the figure increased from 52% to 76% in the same period. The private sector has seen the largest increase in participation in workplace pensions, and there was no gender gap in participation rates in 2016.
In the circumstances, I would respectfully point out that the key choice a Government face when seeking to control state pension spend is whether to increase the state pension age or to pay lower pensions, with an inevitable impact on pensioner poverty. The only alternative is to ask the working generation to pay an even larger share of their income to support pensions.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am not going to give way again—I am so sorry.
While increasing longevity is something to be celebrated, we must also be realistic about the demographic and fiscal challenges it creates for us as a society. Since the early 2000s, it has been widely recognised that we face big questions as a society about how we ensure economic security for people in retirement, while maintaining fairness between generations.
The Pensions Commission found in 2005 that a state pension age fixed at 65 was no longer sustainable or affordable. Between 2007 and 2014, three separate Acts of Parliament were introduced, each responding to changes in life expectancy by changing the state pension age. At the same time, the state pension has been increased, between 2010 and 2017, by £1,250 a year for an individual who is on a full state pension.
So with increasing financial pressures, as I have described, we cannot change a policy that has been implemented for over 22 years and supported by all three major political parties. The Government have to ensure that the costs of an ageing population are shared out fairly, without placing an unfair financial burden on future generations.
I despair, because having stood at this Dispatch Box, led for the Opposition in Westminster Hall debates and worked on the Pension Schemes Bill, with the matter before us taking centre stage, I have spoken about this issue, like a lot of other Members, many times. However, it is not the Scottish National party that I blame for that, nor is it members of the Labour party, and it is definitely not the ’50s-born women who have been energetic, consistent and strong in pushing this issue.
The Conservative party is the reason we are debating this topic yet again, but we know that many Conservative MPs pledged their support for these women by making speeches, by taking up photo opportunities, and by becoming members of the all-party group. A few months ago, I stood here and highlighted the fact that there were no fewer than 37 of them. Among them are the hon. Members for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), for Salisbury (John Glen), for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones), for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), for Colchester (Will Quince) and for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan)—that is just nine of them.
This weak Government continue to stick their head in the sand and hope that the issue will go away. I do not know how many more times I or anyone else has to say this to the Minister: the issue is not going away.
I am frustrated and impatient that we are yet again debating this topic when the Government could do something to fix the problem right now. I do not understand the politics of why the Government refuse to address it. They angered the older generation during the general election, and look what happened: their huge predicted majority failed to materialise, and now they are hanging on by the skin of their teeth.
My hon. Friend is making a very good case. As a 1950s woman, I am extremely sympathetic to the 4,000 WASPI women in my constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that what the Government have failed to understand is that some of these women have been working since they were 15?
That is most certainly the case, and the Government need to understand that. My wife herself has been working since that young age.
For some reason, the Government persist in pushing huge numbers of ’50s-born women into financial difficulty and distress. It is time for the Government to put their pride aside and do what is right.
I thank my hon. Friend for acknowledging the financial plight of many of these women. Women in my constituency have been forced to sell or remortgage their homes, and to spend the money they had set aside for retirement now so that they can exist, which will increase the poverty they experience in retirement. That has not been acknowledged at all by the Government.
Indeed it has not, and I am sure we will hear many such examples in the debate.
I have heard stories from numerous women affected by the changes of their desperation and fear—and it is fear—about how they will cope in poverty as they wait even longer for their state pension. Does the Minister understand how difficult it is for a woman in her 60s to retrain and gain employment? The job market and the skills needed in today’s workplace are very different from what they were 40 years ago.
My hon. Friend is making powerful points. Does he agree that the Government have an opportunity to act while the ball is in their court and before the collective action for maladministration compels them to act?
That is the case, and I will refer to that matter later in my speech.
We have a system that does not help older people to retrain and get back into meaningful employment. The welfare system has been torn to pieces, disabled people have been humiliated through repeated assessments, and the state pension is becoming increasingly difficult to access.
The Labour party has laid out the approach that we would take to reduce the strain on vulnerable and struggling women. We would extend pension credit to those who were due to retire before the increase in the pension age. That would alleviate the toughest circumstances, and restore the faith and dignity that many people feel they have lost. It would provide support worth up to £155 a week to half a million of the most vulnerable women affected by the increase in the state pension age. We have also proposed allowing those who have been affected to receive their state pension up to two years early at a reduced rate, to give women the choice over what works best for them.
I have a great deal of sympathy for the women concerned, but the issue is how we pay for this—I know that is not something the Labour party tends to concern itself with a great deal. I would support taking money from the overseas aid budget to provide transitional arrangements for these women. Will the shadow Minister show his concern for these women by agreeing to that, or does he put overseas aid ahead of the WASPI women?
We know fine and well that as GDP goes down, the amount of money spent overseas also reduces. The poor overseas also need support. If we need to find this money, we can start by looking within British budgets.
Why do the Government not look at our proposals? Why do they not give these women some hope? We heard from the Minister that the Government’s position is that they will not make further concessions, but I urge him to go back to the Secretary of State after the debate and persuade him to think again.
Earlier this year, the Secretary of State said that he and the Department for Work and Pensions would look into individual cases of hardship. We know from a freedom of information request that the DWP has concluded just a handful of complaint investigations relating to the ’50s-born women campaign, although more than 4,500 complaints were received. Will the Minister update the House about the progress on those complaints?
Is not the real problem demonstrated by my constituent who wrote to me a fortnight ago? She was born in 1954, has been in insecure, low-paid work, and has no access to an occupational pension or savings. The Government must address this issue.
I said a few minutes ago that we would hear many examples of the plight faced by ’50s-born women, and that is yet another one.
Although I agree that this mess was created by the Government, I want to touch on the Scottish Government’s social security powers. I know that there have been some heated exchanges on this subject already. The SNP says that it cannot act to resolve the issue in Scotland because pension provision is reserved to the UK Government. Although that is true, the Scotland Act 2016 gave the SNP Government powers to top up social security or to create new social security policies. The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) denied that they have the power to introduce new benefits based on age, so will the Minister commit this afternoon to publishing a clear paper outlining exactly what the Government believe the Scottish Government can and cannot do with their powers. Perhaps that would make the matter clear once and for all.
Labour has made a commitment to extend pension credit and provide early access to a state pension, but we cannot deliver that because we are not in government. Therefore, there has to be a challenge to our SNP colleagues: use your powers to help women north of the border and, if they are insufficient, chat to the Government, because they believe you do have the powers.
I do not think that anyone on the SNP Benches feels the need for any clarification, because it is already there. We all remember vividly how it was the Conservatives and—it is unfortunate I have to say this, because I am not trying to make a party point—the Labour party that made sure that we did not have power over pensions.
Nobody suggested that the Scottish Government had pension powers; we are saying that they could use social security policy. I suggest again that the Scottish Government chats to the UK Government. I think they just need to get their heads together and talk rationally, but I would rather the UK Government published a paper spelling out the position.
I do not want to keep having to stand here debating this issue. I do not want us to give false hope to the ’50s-born women who are fighting, because it is their livelihoods we are talking about. I want the Minister to do something—to reach out across the Chamber and work for a real solution—to demonstrate that the House is listening to the residents of this country.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am nearly finished. Before I conclude, I would like to ask the Minister what the Department is doing in relation to the legal challenge from the WASPI campaigners, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris). Has the Minister made contingencies for the day when the courts rule against the Government, as they may well do, and order that ’50s-born women be compensated? What is happening in relation to that?
Although we support the motion, I think that the House needs to be able to vote on a motion that will be binding on the Government.
I will answer two of the hon. Gentleman’s points. First, the Government do not believe that there has been maladministration by the Department for Work and Pensions in relation to the legal claim by Bindmans, and that includes in the 13 years when the Labour party was in power. Secondly, with regard to his assertions about the Scottish Government, the situation is as I said when I cited the letter of 22 June from Jeane Freeman, my opposite number in the Scottish Government.
I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention, but he knows as well as I do that the decisions of successive Governments are overturned in the courts time and time again, and the then Government end up having to pay for it.
I want to see before the House a motion that actually means something, and that is binding on the Government to deliver some of the relief that these women desperately need. We will continue to look for that opportunity, and then we will call on the supporters of ’50s-born women, from both sides of the House, to vote for that relief and make something happen.
We have debated this matter on numerous occasions. It is important that it is not used for the purpose of political expediency, because many people are experiencing serious challenges. We must listen to them and seek to address their concerns in a way that is responsible and financially prudent, but also just and fair.
I have received a great deal of correspondence over the past two years from constituents who have graphically highlighted the challenge that they face. When many of us presented petitions in the Chamber last autumn, I was in second place behind the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for the number of people who had signed, as the Waveney petition was signed by just under 2,250. It was also endorsed unanimously by Conservative-run Waveney District Council.
The impact of the changes is being felt disproportionately in areas of the UK where there has been a tradition of women going out to work—whether in factories, agriculture, fishing, food processing or clerical posts—often part time and not on high salaries. The changes are affecting a lot of women and their families in Lowestoft in my constituency, although many of the businesses in which they worked are no longer there. There used to be, for example, numerous jobs in the fishing support industry and the Sanyo television factory, to name but two.
I acknowledge the challenges that the Government face in addressing those injustices and in coming up with a fair and affordable solution that complies with equalities legislation. I urge them to look carefully at that. There are two private Members’ Bills before Parliament that propose a review of the pension arrangements. One is promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and the other has been presented by the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). I am a supporter of the latter Bill, and I urge the Government to consider carrying out a full, proper and meaningful review. For that reason, I will not support the motion tonight, because I do not believe that it provides the evidence base that we need to find a fair, affordable and just solution.
As I have mentioned, this issue disproportionately affects specific parts of the country. I thus ask the Government to carry out research to establish the extent of this problem and to come up with a fair and affordable solution that addresses the pockets of the country in which there is a real issue.
The last time I spoke on this matter, I said that I welcomed the opportunity to make another contribution on the WASPI issue, but that was over 18 months ago, and I do not welcome having to make this argument again. It is absolutely ridiculous that this Government have refused to help these women, whose only crime is to have been born in the 1950s. Although the original mistake goes back to 1995, Governments of different persuasions have been culpable. We can sit here and squabble all day about who has done what and who is most to blame, but the problem is in the here and now. The reality is kicking in for 6,200 women in Paisley and Renfrewshire North, and for more than 3.7 million women and their families across the UK, so it falls to this Government to fix the mess.
I do, however, welcome the opportunity to pay tribute to the WASPI campaign once again. All these women are asking for is fairness. This is the 11th time that their plight has been debated in this House, and we have had many ministerial responses, which have ranged from the incompetent to the ridiculous and everything in between. I was hoping for a better speech from the Minister given the arithmetic of the House, the natural majority in favour of transitional arrangements, and the—to say the least—precarious position of this Prime Minister and this Government.
I have had discussions with Conservative Members and overheard conversations about this issue in which Members have conceded that this has been bungled. They accepted that many women affected by this reform were only told about the changes 14 years after they made, but said it was just too darn expensive to do anything about it. However, times have changed. The Chancellor has found his magic money tree, with £1 billion for the Democratic Unionist party and £3.7 billion for Brexit preparations—a billion pounds here and a billion pounds there: before you know it, it is real money. We have had billions for wasteful spending and cash for votes, but nothing for these women, who have paid into the system all their lives.
With inflation rising faster than at any point in recent years, many of the women affected will face further burdens in relation to their cost of living. It is now more vital than ever that they are supported, which is why SNP Members will not stop until justice is done. The Chancellor’s Budget was a huge missed opportunity to deliver protection for the WASPI women. As he continues to shirk his responsibility, I hope that the Scottish Tories, who were keen to support the WASPI campaign while seeking election, will vote with their consciences, rather than rubber-stamping the line sent to them by the Whips Office.
In conclusion, I want to echo the words of the former Member for Foyle, Mark Durkan, who has been a great loss to this House. In an impassioned contribution in one of our previous WASPI debates, he said:
“If we fail to pass this motion, we will be saying that those women are an acceptable casualty on the way to equality, and we cannot accept invidious treatment in the name of equality.”—[Official Report, 7 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 503.]
Equalising the state pension age between men and women is a principle about which the UK Government, the WASPI campaign and I am sure all of us in the Chamber agree. However, there is rightly concern about the unfair and disproportionate impact of the 2011 reforms on women born in the 1950s, and this concern is shared by Members on both sides of the House.
Some 5,200 women in my constituency are affected. Since the general election in June, as Members might imagine, I have been meeting local women who are affected by the changes and who, in some cases, have had to change their retirement plans radically because they were not made properly aware of the changes made by 1995 Act.
One constituent I recently met was employed by NHS Grampian for 39 years. She worked hard and full time for her whole working life, with no maternity leave and no long-term sick leave, until in 2014, during her last few years of work, she had to take a couple of months off for health reasons—first due to cancer of the womb, and subsequently cancer of the bone marrow. She requested retirement, and she was 60 on 1 December 2016, but because of the changes to state pension policy, she is not receiving a state pension, even though she paid in, in full, during her 39 years of working. This has caused her great strain and worry, and she is naturally concerned about her finances.
Last Friday, I met a 61-year-old constituent who expected to receive her state pension in 2016. She also contributed through national insurance for more than 40 years. When she received her first letter about the age changes from the DWP back in 2013, she was in full employment and good health, but her circumstances changed in 2015, when she was made redundant and diagnosed with breast cancer. I am thankful that my constituent has made a recovery following successful treatment to date, but she finds herself with no income, and the downturn in oil and gas in Aberdeen has made it very difficult for her to get even a job interview. At the moment, therefore, she has to rely on the very pot of savings that she worked hard to build up.
I wanted to highlight my constituents’ cases as a reminder that the state pension system is founded on a contributory principle. It is not a welfare benefit. Those cases show that this group of women have done the right thing. They worked hard all their lives and paid their dues in good faith, but now they face being completely short-changed. That is not fair.
We have heard a lot of bluster from SNP Members, but let us be clear that the Scottish Government have the powers to make a change. Their record clearly shows not only their incompetence, but their refusal to use those powers. Let us be absolutely clear: my constituents know that I will make their voices heard loud and clear in this place.
Here we go again: another day, another debate on the injustice facing the 1950s-born women as a result of the pension changes. More than 3 million women have lost out because of the changes to pension law, and more than 3,000 in my own constituency of Swansea East have been unfairly treated by the changes to the state pension.
Does my hon. Friend agree that many of those women have worked in manual jobs since they were 15 years of age—some of them since they were 14—so they deserve fair play?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. These women have been the backbone of our country and they have been betrayed by this Government.
What is really scary is how many women do not realise that they have been affected. Yet this Government are still not listening. They have betrayed these women, stolen their security and shattered their dreams. Without the time to prepare and make the necessary alternative arrangements, very many women born in the 1950s have been left in financial despair.
On shattering lives, the life expectancy for women in my constituency is among the shortest on these islands. This is a brutal attack on their end-of-life progress, especially if they are living with a short-term condition that will come to a brutal end with no pension from the Government.
It is cruel—there is no other word to describe the current state of play. These women have fought tirelessly for justice, but appallingly their cries for justice are falling on deaf ears.
I think that most people are aware of my passion for the campaign. Like the 1950s women, I am not going to give up. I know that they are not going to give up, either, so none of us is going away. And do you know what? The problem isn’t going away either.
These 1950s women have been inexcusably disadvantaged by the handling and communication of the changes to the state pension, and some women will be as much as £40,000 out of pocket. These women have paid into the system since the 1960s. They paid in with the expectation that they would retire with a state pension at 60, but due to an abysmal lack of correspondence they find themselves severely out of pocket. They have not been given enough time to make alternative arrangements, and as a result very many are facing dire financial hardship.
Obviously, this is a UK-wide issue, not one that applies only to women in Scotland. The women I have spoken to are not looking for the kind of crisis grants that the Scottish Government can deliver. They do not want to go begging. They actually want what they are due.
I do not want to get involved in the argument about what the Scottish Government can and cannot do, but I agree that this matter affects all women, regardless of their nationality.
Many in this House stand by these women. I call on the Government to make a commitment to look again at this gross injustice, to discuss a productive and constructive way forward for the women affected, and to listen to what we are saying.
Not all women are fit enough to work. Some women who are expected to jump through hoops before they can receive unemployment benefit do so risking their own physical and mental health.
I am going to make progress.
The reality is that these women are desperate. I have women affected all over the country calling my office every day, letting me know that they have had to sell their belongings and that they are relying on family, friends and food banks just to exist. I understand that this might not be comfortable to listen to, but it is the reality. These women are only asking for compassion, for fair play and, more importantly, for respect.
I will continue to call on the Government to stop burying their head in the sand and to do the right thing by these women. My private Member’s Bill is due to have its Second Reading debate in April. It states that these women need reasonable, transitional arrangements to allow them not just to enjoy retirement, but to survive it. So many Members across the House agree that these changes to the state pension age are unjust and unfair, and that these women have been robbed of their pension. When will the Government recognise the mistake they have made with the 1950s women? These women will not be ignored.
Over the past two and a half years I have met many constituents who have been directly affected by the various changes to the state pension age. Listening to them, it is impossible not to feel every sympathy, given the circumstances in which many find themselves. If I suddenly found out that I would not be able to retire at the age I had expected, I am not sure that I could say how I felt—actually, I probably could, but I fear my language would not be parliamentary.
As a teenage boy in the early 1990s, I probably did not pay as much attention to women’s pensions as many other people did, but I do remember the announcement in 1993 that the state pension age would have to be equalised upwards. There was widespread publicity at the time, through the media and the leaflets that have been referred to. None the less, it is clear that many women, for one reason or another, were genuinely unaware of that. As late as 2012, 6% of the women affected still expected to retire at 60, despite the Department for Work and Pensions having sent out 11 million leaflets and letters. However, that was significant progress since 2004, when just 73% of the women affected were aware of the 1995 reforms.
Clearly there are solid reasons why successive Governments here and in many other developed economies have been increasing and equalising the state pension age. The fact that even a relatively small proportion of people affected were unaware of changes that will have such a large impact on their retirement raises broader issues about how public authorities communicate pension matters, and Government at all levels need to consider that.
The truth is that the state pension age will not be reduced to 60—arguably, that would be illegal under anti-discrimination legislation—so we must look at what can be done not only to help those women born in the 1950s back into work, but to help all those who will find themselves working later in life. I hope that the Government can come up with further suggestions on what support can be provided.
When people ask me what it is like at Westminster, I often observe that I live in a parallel universe from the Tory party—I am sure its Members feel the same about me. We all inhabit a political bubble, but let me recall some of the concerns I have heard from Tories recently: whether Big Ben is going to bong, whether Clerks in the House are allowed to wear wigs, whether it is credible for MPs to ask questions in the Chamber without wearing a tie—these are some of the things that have concerned Tories recently. I have also heard them say that when they visit jobcentres people tell them, “It’s great being on universal credit. When I’m on universal credit, I find work”. They do not see the irony that they are meeting these people in the jobcentre. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), said that WASPI women should be able to get apprenticeships, and the Chancellor recently said that there were no unemployed people. They have also said that the majority of people knew about the changes to the pension age. They live in a different world from me.
What exactly is wrong with a 65-year-old woman taking up an apprenticeship? I am not talking about all women, but why would the hon. Gentleman deny any woman the chance to work at 65?
That is a nonsense argument. I would hope that that woman would not get paid the apprenticeship levy. The Government have a shocking minimum wage for apprenticeships. The hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) stood up during the Budget debate and said that the people of Taunton Deane had thousands of pounds more in their pockets. It really is a different world.
People on universal credit struggle as their debts increase. Food bank usage is up. Only this month, a British Medical Journal study estimated that up to 120,000 deaths in England and Wales could be attributed to the Tory austerity policy since 2010, and people over 60 are most at risk. This only touches on the world that some of the WASPI women inhabit: having to sell homes and downsize to survive; mental health problems associated with the stress; the humiliation of seeking jobs; marital pressure and break-ups; just living with the daily anger and disappointment at being let down by the state and a Government who refuse to listen.
In a previous SNP Opposition day debate, the then Secretary of State challenged our £8 billion costed proposal to reverse the Pensions Act 2011. He said that we need to look at the longer-term horizon and that it would cost £30 billion to 2025. Well, just a few months later, the Tories trooped through the Lobby following the Budget and voted for £30 billion of tax cuts, including £23.5 billion in corporation tax giveaways. So even if it would cost £30 billion, it could have been found, and it was there in the last Budget. The Budget, which has just been passed, contained a £3.2 billion stamp duty tax giveaway that will only increase house prices, £3.7 billion for Brexit preparations and an additional £7 billion for a national productivity fund. I welcome that money, but it shows that the magic money tree exists and that money can be found whenever the Tories want it.
We have heard the argument that the state pension age equalisation is all because of the bad EU—it is EU rules that have forced it upon us—yet I have not heard one of the mad Brexiteers in the Government come to the Chamber and say, “One of the benefits of leaving the EU is that we can reverse the 2011 Act”. They have never said, “Let’s stick it to the EU, take it on and give these women what they deserve”. It is high time they gave them what they deserve, and it is high time the Government started listening.
I agree with the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood). The WASPI campaigners are very passionate and tenacious, and one obviously sympathises with those who, having saved all their lives, feel they were not given adequate notice. Obviously there is a legitimate grievance there, but the point is that, as parliamentarians, if we decide to go through a Division Lobby and vote for something—to join a cause, to jump on its bandwagon—we must have a credible, funded policy to stand behind, otherwise we are selling snake oil. Once again, we have it from the SNP. It stills says we can use the national insurance surplus. I will read out a few more written answers about the ability to use the surplus, which is their policy for saving the WASPI women.
In March 2008, the former Minister Mike O’Brien said:
“Any surplus of NICs over social security benefits in any one year…is not…an extra resource available to spend.”—[Official Report, 5 March 2008; Vol. 472, c. 2605W.]
In February 2009, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer
“what assessment he has made of the merits of using future national insurance fund surpluses to fund an increase in the state pension.”
That was Labour’s policy at the time. The right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), then a Minister, replied, on behalf of the Chancellor of the Exchequer,
“Any increase in the basic state pension has a cumulative impact on Government spending going forward. The Government consider the short-term use of the surplus on the national insurance fund in this way to be unsustainable in the long term.”—[Official Report, 10 February 2009; Vol. 487, c. 1852W.]
That is not least because it has been in deficit and it is cyclical. I think that any of us who claim to support the WASPI women must say which line of taxation, or which line of expenditure, in the Red Book we are prepared to use to pay for this.
I am afraid that the position of the Scottish National party is so obviously partisan and unaffordable that it does the WASPI campaign no favours, but for all that, there are women in my constituency who were not notified and who are clearly experiencing hardship. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be far more constructive to consider sensible, affordable measures, such as the early draw-down of bus passes, which could help to address the genuine need that exists?
Of course there are measures that we can consider. My point is that unless we can identify specific lines of tax or expenditure to pay for them, the money will simply be borrowed and paid back by future generations.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I should be delighted.
I have heard a lot about how no one is coming to us with a plan for what we can do. As I said earlier, we came up with a plan, and we think we can argue for it. If the hon. Gentleman disagrees with it, he should come up with a plan himself. There have been umpteen debates, and we have been waiting for months—years—for the Government to come forward with some kind of proposal, because the 2011 proposal clearly is not good enough.
I think the hon. Lady is missing the point. I am not saying that to my WASPI campaigners. I am not full of righteous anger, so high on my high horse that my ears pop, like the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford). If we are to go out on a limb to that degree, we must have a credible policy. We must be able to say, “This is how we are going to pay for it.”
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I do not think that I should give way again, but I will, because the hon. Gentleman was very generous to me. However, others wish to speak, so I shall wind up my speech immediately afterwards.
We have tabled a very straightforward motion that asks the Government to introduce mitigation measures. The hon. Gentleman has asked for costed proposals, but we gave him one last year in the Landman report, on deferring the increase in women’s pensionable age. It would have cost £8 billion. That is one option. We have done our work; the Government have not done theirs.
I gave way to that intervention, so I shall now wind up my speech, because others wish to speak.
Given that £8 billion is a huge amount of money, it is necessary to identify a specific area of taxation or expenditure—other budgets, as an Opposition Member has said. Until people are prepared to do that, we cannot say that a policy is available to fix this. We are just jumping on a bandwagon.
I am grateful to the SNP for securing this important Opposition day debate, and appreciate the opportunity to speak in it. Like every other Member, I have been contacted by numerous WASPI women in my constituency. We all know how much of an impact this has had, and we all know just how upset, frustrated and deeply angry many WASPI women feel.
Before I go on to ask the Government for transition payments, let me point out that we are all culpable. One of the things that I have found so interesting while sitting here listening to all the different arguments is the element of amnesia. Every political party that is represented in the Chamber now is culpable because of the WASPI issues: the Conservatives, the Labour party and possibly, it appears, even the SNP. I do not know that for sure, because I am not a Scottish MP or a Scottish constituent, but I do know that, during the passage of what became the 1995 Pensions Act, the Tories did not tell people what was happening right at the beginning. In 1999 and then in 2001, 2002 and 2003, Labour did not engage in the mass communication that would have warned the women of what was coming—and I hold my hands up as a member of the coalition Government. I do not think that we gave enough information in 2011, when we changed the retirement ages. So the first thing I want to say, despite all the Sturm und Drang in the Chamber, is that I think we have let WASPI women down. End of.
Secondly, I feel that the Government should give serious consideration to finding some transitional money. As a number of Members have pointed out, many of these women, particularly those who are in menial and artisan jobs, will not be in the same physical shape in their early sixties as someone who has not done a backbreaking job for 40 or 45 years. I do believe that the Minister and the Government understand the strength of feeling, the passion, the anger and the exceptional frustration that so many WASPI women feel.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is totally unfair that these women are not paid their pension when they have a full contribution record, and that instead they are being made to work beyond a time when they are able or are forced to rely on insecure benefits that are too low?
That is an important point about the many years of contributions and of back-breaking jobs.
I return to the fact that we are all culpable; we know that in this Chamber— Conservative, Labour, coalition and, according to the Conservatives and Labour, the SNP as well. I do not say—because I would be lying to my constituents—that we are going to cancel the new retirement age and take it back to 60; anyone who says that knows they are telling whoppers, and that that is not going to happen.
I am going to continue.
If there are Members who honestly say that to their constituents—well, I am not going to cast any slurs on anyone in the Chamber. This is having a shocking impact in some parts of the country and on many WASPI women and I believe that the Government have a duty to find some additional money to assist with the transition period. That is the right and the honourable thing to do, and I believe that the Government must find that money. If they do, a lot of WASPI women will, possibly through gritted teeth, accept that transition money and move on with this challenging age change. Without that, however, the anger and the sense of justifiable unfairness will increase, which will leave a real scar for a heck of a lot of women born in the 1950s who have contributed not just to the greatness of our nation, but through the children, grandchildren and families that have made our country what it is today.
I urge the Minister to go to the Chancellor and ask him to find an element of transition money that will at least allow the WASPI women to have the funds, not just to make up for losing the six years, but to cover the money that this has cost so many. I urge the Minister to find a way; find some transition money, make a difference, and do it now.
This is an important cause that affects thousands of women on the Isle of Wight, and I have had the pleasure of meeting my WASPI representatives on several occasions. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his words on the issue; he knows I hold him in high regard. The Government have done good work on pensions and in many other areas that have improved the lives of pensioners.
My hon. Friend talked about the importance of fairness. In justification of the WASPI women, they would say that the current system is not fair to them, and it is difficult to argue against that point. I have heard many stories of hardship from WASPI women on the island, many of whom found out at a very late stage of the day that their pensions would be extremely negatively affected. These are not spendthrift people; they are people who have either raised families or worked hard and paid into the system over many years. It pains me to read stories of hardship from them.
My concern for the Government is that a pensions Bill might force this issue, and I believe that, on the grounds of fairness and common sense, moving in some way to rectify this issue now would be better than being forced to do so later. So if there is a way of putting in place transition payments or a mechanism can be found to alleviate some of the worst problems faced by the WASPI women, who are an admirable cause, the Government would get my full support. I know my hon. Friend the Minister cares about this issue very much.
Given the likelihood that the Government will eventually have to change their position, would it not make sense for a good Government to ensure that financial provision was being made for that eventuality now?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am making that point as well. Clearly, voting either way is not going to change things today, but I hope that the Government will consider this matter in the light of any pensions Bill that is introduced later.
We recently heard from the Chancellor about how he had buckled under the immense lobbying pressure of his 13 Scottish Tory colleagues. That pressure supposedly made all the difference to his scrapping VAT payments for Scotland’s police and fire services. Perhaps the half-baked baker’s dozen could have another word in his ear to prove that they understand this situation and that they care about the WASPI women and are seeking to achieve justice for them. If the UK Government make no changes, this will simply show that the Scottish Tories are not as influential as they are made out to be, or that they simply do not care about the plight of the WASPI women. The hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson) spoke as though he truly understood the problem, but will he follow us through the Lobby, or was it all just empty rhetoric?
Can you imagine, Madam Deputy Speaker, what would happen if MPs born in the 1950s were not made aware of major changes to their pensions that resulted in their not receiving them until years later? If we debated that—and we would—the House would be full to the gunnels. MPs would be filling every single seat, and the steps in between. How quickly would this House find a political solution to that problem? How quick are we to vote ourselves a pay rise? That is the benchmark that the Government should be judged by. On behalf of the 5,700 WASPI women of Inverclyde, I want to tell the UK Government that we will keep on bringing these debates to the House, that we will continue to raise the issue in the press and that we will not go away until there has been a resolution to the plight of those affected by these pension changes.
The momentum of the WASPI campaign has not weakened. Next week, my office will host a meeting of the Inverclyde WASPI group as it maintains its work on attracting new volunteers and making sure that the affected women have access to advice and support. The campaign has already raised more than £100,000 to fund an initial legal campaign, and the Minister must surely be aware it is now too well organised and well funded for him to continue dismissing its concerns. According to the campaign, 196 Members have committed themselves to assisting it. This should be seen as a signal that the UK Government need to begin a dialogue with the WASPI women and that they have to start that dialogue now. The women are being very reasonable in asking for this opportunity. There may be many small steps along the way to achieving a solution, but the UK Government should see sense and take this first step willingly, rather than being dragged along by the undeniable force of public pressure. It is not too late for this Government to do the decent thing and make amends for this ill-advised, poorly administered and damaging policy.
It is a great honour to speak in the debate on this important issue on behalf of the many WASPI women of Chelmsford who have been to visit me, especially the lovely Cheryl Lucas, who speaks with great calm and compassion on the issue. I have deep respect for them and for the situation they find themselves in. Many of these women have worked for many years and paid their taxes and national insurance contributions. They have told me how they had made plans based on the expectation that they would retire on a certain date, only for that date to be changed. Some of them genuinely feel that they were not consulted or made aware of the change of date. Others had retired early in anticipation—
The hon. Lady is putting her case very well. Is this not why it is such an insult to suggest to older women that things will be fine if they go out and get an apprenticeship?
Let me carry on with my point, because I would dearly love to help the WASPI women in my constituency who find themselves in this situation.
I look at the statistics, and as a mathematician, I remember looking at life expectancy a few years ago. My mother is 30 years older than I am, and my daughter is 30 years younger than I am. Of my mother’s age group—those born in 1937—6% will live to 100. For my age group, 16% will live to 100. In my daughter’s age group, it is 26%. We are all living longer, and we all therefore need to work longer. That is why successive Labour and Conservative Governments have been right to take measures to change the pension age.
I have thought about what more we could do to help the women who have been affected. If we give them additional financial or tax benefits, what then do I say to women like me who were born in the 1960s? Why should a woman born in 1959 get an additional benefit, but not the woman born in 1960? I have championed equality all my life, so what do I say to the men when the women get an additional benefit? What do I say to my daughter’s generation, who are struggling with student debt and struggling to get on the housing ladder? They can see that they may never have anything like the workplace pensions that we have had.
The jobs that the WASPI women have been doing in the past may often not be jobs that they want to continue doing into their 60s and may not suit them, which is why it is so important that we champion opportunities for some of our older workers—people in their 50s, like myself, and people in their 60s. We should go out and tell employers that these women are fantastic and can really add value. For those who have genuine problems, we must be faster in getting support to them. I was contacted by a WASPI woman just this week who has cancer and needs support, so we need to be quicker. I understand why the Government cannot write a blank cheque, but please let us find some support.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford). The WASPI situation is a stain on this country. Were it not for the decisions made by others, these women would perhaps never have thought of turning to politics or of organising, lobbying, shouting and screaming. People such as Ali Wallis and Pat Milligan from East Lothian are organising and seeking justice for the WASPI women. Some 6,000 women in my constituency are being organised and assisted to follow the four-stage process not to seek their pension, but to seek a maladministration review of how information was not given to them. They meet in my constituency office to plan how to identify the other affected women in the area, and I must pay tribute to my predecessor George Kerevan, who aided and assisted the WASPI women so eloquently.
I must point out that the WASPI campaign’s aim is not the equalisation of pension ages; it is about the transitional state pension arrangements for women born in the 1950s. The campaign recognises the longevity of our population today. The campaign is about the transitional provisions. In March 2016, the Work and Pensions Committee concluded that the communication
“has been too little too late for many women, especially given increases in the state pension age have been accelerated at relatively short notice. Many thousands of women justifiably feel aggrieved.”
Among the 6,000 affected women in East Lothian, those aged between 60 and 62 will see their household incomes fall and income poverty will increase due to the changes. Women who were born in the ’50s have paid so much into our system, and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, which should be extended to all those nearing pension age or receiving a state pension. Perhaps the Government should take this opportunity to write to the women to set out the situation. If the Government are unable to offer any financial compensation, they should at least point out the maladministration steps that could be taken so that the matter can be investigated.
We stand up in this place for the people who struggle to have a voice. The WASPI women do not have that struggle, but they seem to struggle getting the Government to listen to them. We must honour the women who have contributed so much to our society, listen to what they are asking for and give them the respect that they so rightly deserve.
I welcome this debate—[Interruption.] Excuse me. I would have welcomed the opportunity to put far more points on the record had the leader of the SNP not taken almost 40 minutes with his opening remarks. This is the first debate in this Chamber—[Interruption.] SNP Members may want to hear what I have to say.
This is the first debate in this Chamber in which I have been able to articulate the views of WASPI women in Moray, and I would have appreciated a little more than three minutes. Our previous Westminster Hall debate was secured by the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) in early July, less than a month after I was elected to this place. I had not made a maiden speech and, again, there was a very restrictive time limit. Having previously met Moray WASPI women, I told them that I would not contribute to that debate, and they understood, yet the SNP put out a press release criticising me for it. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) said:
“Douglas Ross must do the right thing for these women”,
despite these women believing that I was doing the right thing for them.
The SNP press release led to comments on social media calling me an “effing snake,” a “little twerp” and a “disgrace to humanity.” In direct response, another message said:
“I think Guy Fawkes had a good idea.”
The SNP has done a lot on this issue, but I agree with the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) that, despite the wording of the motion, the words from the SNP today do not try to encourage more people to support the motion.
I support the 6,400 women in Moray who are affected by this issue. They all agree on the need to equalise the state pension age, but the biggest issue for me and for them is the lack of communication from Governments of all parties. It is because of that lack of communication that I signed the pledge before the election, and I support the pledge now.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) made a valid point about 53% of women relying on the state pension, compared with a far smaller proportion of men.
I offer my hon. Friend some refuelling, because the SNP would benefit from listening to his wise words. Just because we are from a different party, it does not mean that our commitment to the cause is any less. Does he agree that one suggestion that would show willing—it came up in the Budget for other generations—is for the WASPI women at least to be given back their bus passes? That would help them, and it would be a start to showing our recognition that there is a problem we need to address.
I agree with a lot of what my hon. Friend says, both now and in previous debates on this issue.
More can be done. There is a lot we can discuss and debate, and I have put myself forward to be a member of the all-party parliamentary group on state pension inequality for women. I signed a pledge before the election, and SNP Members have criticised me every day since I have been elected for not honouring that pledge.
I return to the earlier remarks by SNP Members and by the hon. Member for East Antrim. People can be convinced not by shouting them down every time but by trying to get them to go along with us.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am just finishing.
A constituent contacted me after the last efforts by the SNP. She said, “I just wanted to say I am disappointed at the media response to your support of WASPI in Moray. I do hope your support for us continues and we don’t become victims in the backlash.” I believe WASPI women are already victims—victims of decisions in this Parliament by both sides—and, because they are already victims, I say in the calmest possible way to the SNP that, despite the actions of SNP Members in this debate, I believe the wording of their motion is sensible. If the House divides tonight, I will be joining them to support their motion.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross). In my short contribution, I intend to furnish the House with a few examples of the 5,500 women from Airdrie and Shotts who have seen their state pension entitlement cut at short notice. If the Government will not listen to Members on both sides of the House, perhaps they might listen to our constituents and their taxpayers.
My first constituent wishes to remain anonymous. She worked for 43 years and has never been out of work. By the end of 2013 she was exhausted from her work and decided to retire. She knew that she had not yet reached her increased retirement age of 62, but she and her husband calculated their finances and felt that she could and should retire at that time. So she handed in her three months’ notice and it was not until a financial adviser, provided by her employer, visited her home that she found out she could not retire until she was 65. By that time, someone else had been offered her job and she just had to make do, all because of the lack of notice.
The next case is that of Christine Rennie from Airdrie. All her working life she had expected to retire at 60, in 2015, but she was given no notice that that was to be extended until 2021. Mrs Rennie has Crohn’s disease, which is managed by injections into her stomach. The Crohn’s reacts to cold weather, and part of her job as a classroom assistant is playground duty—it does not take me to explain the issues at stake there. Like so many other women in this era, she gave up work to bring up her family and returned to part-time work, with no access to a private pension. She will rely financially on her state pension to retire and she needs it now.
Finally, Ellen Connelly from Airdrie was due to retire aged 60 in 2014, but will now have to wait until 2020, when she turns 66. Highlighting the communications problems once again, Mrs Connelly says she only found out about the state pension age rise via the GMB union magazine. Had she been given proper notice, she would have had the time to find a new job, rather than having to work as a nursing ancillary until she is 66. A lack of notice makes it almost impossible for her to do anything other than continue in that demanding role.
The few cases I have highlighted will not even be the worst examples in my constituency, never mind the rest of the country. They are not the worst we have heard today; they are just a random example from the dozens who have contacted me and will doubtless have contacted others. Every one of these women has had their life turned upside down as a result of the incompetence and intransigence of successive UK Governments.
In conclusion, we all have ladies in our constituencies born in the 1950s who have been impacted by the changes to the state pension age, but there is one thing that does separate us today. Later, some of us will recognise, respect and represent these ladies, and we will be separated from those who will chose to try to ignore them once again. I know where I will be, and that will be in the Lobby backing my WASPI women.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. As time is short, I will focus on a few key issues. I cannot support the motion for a few crucial reasons, the first of which is that the SNP has not clarified its own domestic position adequately to the House. We have heard that there have been many debates on the issue, and the Minister has clarified that there are powers available in the Scotland Act 2016, passed by this House, so I ask SNP Members to consider why the SNP has not addressed this itself in Scotland. Is it simply because it faces declining popularity in Scotland, as reflected in our having more Scottish Conservative MPs?
We all have met WASPI women in our constituencies, and I have spoken to women who have been affected. I am very much aware that these women have been working hard since they were 14 or 15 and have often borne the brunt of caring responsibilities. They have brought up families, and they definitely feel a sense of injustice.
Surely this is about justice, about doing the right thing for WASPI women and about Conservatives joining Opposition Members on the issue. The 31 Conservatives who claim to be supporting the WASPI women—and rightfully so—should join us in the Lobby. Let us have some justice and some proper transitional arrangements.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but the basis of the claim in the motion is that nothing has been done, and that is simply not the case. This Government have already allocated more than £1 billion to help women. We have heard this morning from the First Secretary of State that the pension age will be equalised by next year. Although I accept that there are women who feel a sense of injustice, this motion is not the way to deal with it. Let us instead look at what the Government have done to improve the lives of older people up and down this country, including in Scotland.
The investment in the NHS has meant that we have seen people receiving better healthcare, enabling them to live fuller active lives, which means participating in the workforce for longer. I was surprised to hear that it might be an insult for a woman aged 65 to be offered an apprenticeship. I know women of 65 who find that a great opportunity—why write off women just because they are 65? The idea does not apply to all women—no one is saying it does—but research shows that when women take up such opportunities at the age of 65, they report increased satisfaction. We all know that participating in the workforce is one of the best ways to improve mental health and a whole range of other outcomes. I reject the suggestion that it is insulting. Government Members like to think about how we can create more opportunities for our people to participate and live fuller lives, at all stages of their lives. It is incumbent on Members from all parties to recognise that and support it.
We need to look into some of the statistics that Opposition Members have made claims about. Having read some briefings, I do not recognise some of the statistics on maladministration, an issue that the Minister addressed. We need to be honest about the communication programme and the fact that women have been able to plan for their retirement. The crux of my argument is that there is no suggestion that the SNP proposal is costed, and I dispute the figure put forward by its Members.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am sorry but no, I will not. I need to finish.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. This is important. I pointed out earlier in the debate that the SNP published the Landman report last year and it was fully costed. The hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) has made an error by saying that our proposal has not been costed. It has been costed precisely and she should recognise that.
That is not a point of order, it is a point of debate, and it has simply reduced the time available for other people to speak.
Research has suggested that it might cost £36 billion to implement the proposals. When I speak to WASPI women in Redditch, how am I supposed to say to them, “Let’s not spend money helping your children and grandchildren”—
It strikes me that some of us in this House might do well to remember that our retirement might be a decision made by the electorate, who have every right to know when they can retire. They would know, were it not for the way in which the House passed legislation in 1995 and 2011 that changed the state pension age for women born in the ’50s and then failed to communicate that effectively.
The changes to the state pension age affect women such as a constituent of mine who recently came to me to tell me that although she had planned for her retirement for almost 30 years, she now found herself having to do two part-time jobs just to remain solvent. This is a woman who had worked all her life, paid her national insurance and saved for her retirement, and she now works as a cleaner and, as a result, suffers from arthritis. Her life today is very different from the one she anticipated. That she finds herself in this situation is not her fault but is down to the Government’s mismanagement. She was offered voluntary redundancy a couple of years before her anticipated retirement age. She calculated that with two years to go she could use the redundancy money, as well as her savings, to see her through, but she then discovered that she actually had to wait for the best part of a decade to retire. She has now used up her redundancy money, her savings have been whittled away, and she has those two jobs.
My constituent is not alone. Some 6,000 women in my constituency alone have been affected, and almost 3 million women throughout the country have been drawn into this unjust pension trap. Our constituents, in some cases our friends and members of our families, have been pushed into hardship, even poverty, after a lifetime of work. What is most galling is that the women who come to me, like so many others, have no quibble with the need to equalise the pension age with that of men. As has been said already, the issue is how it has been done. A situation has been created in which women born in the 1950s who, for the most part, worked all their adult lives, paid their national insurance and tax—paying for our education service and national health service—and planned for their retirement are now asked to wait.
During the general election campaign, an elderly person told me that they felt they were being punished by the Conservative Government for growing old. It is difficult not to agree with that today. One thing about this debate that has disappointed me has been the political point scoring between one side of the House and the other. Perhaps it is more important for all of us to rise above that and work to do something to reverse this monstrous injustice; otherwise, the electorate may well offer us all early retirement.
I congratulate the Scottish National party on selecting this topic for its Opposition day debate. It is one on which I and many other Members—too many to mention them all—have been working. However, I do wish to mention the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for the sterling work that he has done, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black), and my hon. Friends the Members for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) and for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), who have raised this issue time and again and have worked hard to encourage Members from all parts of the House to speak in the debate. I agree with the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) that the motion has been carefully crafted to allow anyone to support it—both Government and Opposition Members—and I urge everyone to do so.
If the Government do not take this opportunity to resolve the issue, I remind them that we will have another big debate on this matter in the Chamber on Wednesday 14 December, and I encourage all Members to come along. I say to Ministers: please do not think that you will get off the hook. If this new Session of Parliament has taught us anything, it is that the Government have been prepared, on more than one occasion, to cover their eyes and ears to pretend that suffering is not happening—on universal credit, employment and support allowance, personal independence payments, food banks and now on WASPI. While I have the attention of Ministers for a very brief period, I therefore want to tell them some of the reasons why they should act.
Does my hon. Friend and neighbour agree that 5,500 women in Hartlepool have been victimised by the Department for Work and Pensions, and the consequences have been devastating? They have been robbed of the happy retirement that they deserve and forced into food banks and the dysfunctional benefits system.
Absolutely. It is something that affects every Member. Often we bring up issues that affect only the north, only Scotland or only Wales. This time, people in every constituency are affected.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I really should not give way, because of the time. I do apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but you will admonish me if I give way, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I recently tabled early-day motion 63, which has been signed by 197 Members. A petition was signed by 107,000 people, which led to the granting of a debate. It will take place next week, if it is necessary—if the Minister does not concede the point tonight. May I remind him that the early-day motion has been signed by Members from every party, every nation and every region in the UK?
Every day, I receive completely heartbreaking letters and emails from women who are in dire financial hardship. Many of them have worked and paid national insurance contributions since they were 16. They now find that the deal that they signed with the Government in good faith has effectively been ripped up. We are talking about a contract and a moral obligation on Government. An unnecessary situation has been created, with a generation of women relying on food banks, selling their homes and being forced to rely on the benefits system. It is degrading, completely unfair and unnecessary.
The failings by consecutive Governments have forced these women, many of whom I have known for years because I live in the constituency that I represent, into poverty and forced them to rely on support from friends and relatives. I am totally convinced of the sincerity of their claim that they knew nothing about the increase in pension age because of the lack of notification. I therefore urge the Government immediately 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 through a bridging pension. I thank the WASPI women for their support in raising this issue.
Many of the WASPI women watching this debate may feel disappointed that instead of trying to build some consensus, we have had finger pointing, Pontius Pilate-style hand washing and rancour. It is important to note that this is not a party political issue for many women, and certainly not for those I have spoken to. It is a personal issue that has affected their day-to-day lives, so they want Parliament’s collective attention. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) has been an exception today, as he was very honest in accepting that all Administrations have played a part in this situation.
We will support the motion for a number of reasons. The first is that it is quite clear—even from successive Governments’ own admissions and from the actions of the Department for Work and Pensions—that people were not given adequate notice of the change. The Pensions Commission said that there should be about 15 years’ advance warning for such changes, but some people had less than five.
There are 4,000 WASPI women in East Renfrewshire. None of those whom I have met have an issue with their state pension age going up; they simply feel that they were not given enough notice. Is there not a broader question about how the Government communicate with individuals who face serious consequences and life changes as a result of this policy? We need to look at the communication, not just at pensions.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Even DWP research found that, especially in the lower income groups, two thirds of women were not even aware of the changes. The very fact that the practice was changed to writing to people individually after 2011 indicates that the DWP recognised that newspaper adverts and leaflets were not sufficient.
The second reason why we support the motion is that these changes have hurt people in the lower income brackets. Look at the hardship that has been caused. Research shows that the impact on people with lower incomes is five times the impact on people with higher incomes. There is an issue not only of communication but of fairness, and that has to be dealt with. Poverty among 60 to 64-year-olds has already gone up by 6.2% as a result of the impact of the changes.
We support the motion even though it has been said that it is not specific. At this stage, it is probably right that it is not specific, because a range of remedies could be introduced to deal with the issue. I accept that not all those remedies will please people—for some, no remedies will. I want to be responsible, and I understand that we cannot simply rewrite pensions history and say, “Let’s undo all that has been done.” It is too costly. But there are a range of remedies, and the motion gives the Government the opportunity to come back with ideas within the financial restraints that they face at present. Those ideas can be knocked around and debated, and we can see what impact they would have and whether they target the people who are hit most badly. But at least let us have some recognition that there is a problem caused by bad communication, and that that problem hits certain groups of people, especially those on low incomes who are coming to the end of their working lives. Let us find a way to deal with it.
I have no wish to be disrespectful to anybody in the House, but I have to say that some of the comments I have heard from the Government side of the Chamber have been unmitigated piles of mince.
The injustice that has been visited on women born in the 1950s is widely accepted by most people, except the Conservatives, who continue either to tell those women that they can seek apprenticeships—we heard that again today, justified by the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), who is not in the slightest bit embarrassed by her comments—or draw down their early bus passes. You could not make this up. Apparently, the message to WASPI women suffering hardship right now is, “Don’t worry about it. Do you know what? You’re going to live longer and you might even get a telegram from the Queen, so that’s alright.”
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No, thank you.
The message is, “Don’t worry if you’re short of money now. Don’t worry if you can’t pay the rent. One day, if you hang on long enough, the Queen might send you a wee card.”
No one doubts that people are living longer. No one doubts that we need to have pension equalisation. That is not the issue at hand today; the issue at hand is the poverty these women are living in because this Government did not give them sufficient notice to make alternative plans.
Will the hon. Lady give way on that point?
No, thank you.
That is what today’s debate is about, so Members should not come to the Chamber and talk about apprenticeships and about how we are all living longer. That is nothing to do with what this debate is about.
To add insult to injury, new freedom of information figures reveal that the DWP has received thousands of complaints relating to the WASPI campaign, yet only six investigations have been seen through to completion. Despite the so-called dedicated complaints team, thousands of women have been let down and robbed of a pension, with questions unanswered.
What about the Prime Minister’s vow to tackle “burning injustice”? I continue to wait for evidence of that. What about the Tory MPs from Scotland who pledged their support to the WASPI women but who will stand up today, give those women tea and sympathy and then go on to abstain in the vote? They are a disgrace. They should hang their heads in shame.
It is time that this burning injustice was addressed. It is time for the Government to stop giving these women a deaf ear. They should take off their brass neck and do the right thing. It is time to give WASPI women the justice they deserve.
I thought I would never hear the likes of it, but I have: the idea that the solution is for people to draw down their bus pass; or that, somehow, it is not offensive—I am looking at the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean)—to offer a 65-year-old woman an apprenticeship. That is completely out of touch with this nation, and I am offended on behalf of these women.
I want to challenge the premise that everyone is living longer. Are the poorest in this nation living longer? I would also challenge the premise that, just because someone lives longer, they should work longer and not actually live longer after their working life.
Five thousand women in my constituency are affected by this pension age increase and by the woeful and inadequate notice they received of the changes. I met those women during the general election campaign, as other Members met women in their constituencies, and they made a massive impression on me.
There are now 190 Members in this House who said they would support the WASPI women. I hope that that was not just an election gimmick—I am looking at the Scottish Conservatives. Anybody who has supported these women needs to do that now. They have to keep their contract with those women in deeds and not just words. [Interruption.] I see that the Whip has just done the rounds of the Tories, but I hope that that was not to put pressure on them. They should come into the Lobby with us.
My own mam was born in 1953 and started work at the age of 13. She worked for 47 years and thought she would get her pension at the age of 61; actually, she will get it at the age of 65 and two months. To this day, she still has not received any notification from the Department for Work and Pensions, as is the case for thousands of other women.
I can guarantee this: if these women owed the state any money—if there was any unpaid tax from these women or if there was any bill they had not paid—the Government would be on their backs. The Government would be tenacious in the recovery of that debt, and the communication would be thick and fast.
To witness the disappointment of these women is heartbreaking. Women who could not have worked any harder all their life are being made into dependents at an older age. How degrading is that? The exponential increase in ESA claimants is telling.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am sorry, but there is not time.
In our universal credit debate, I heard the argument, which I reject, that the system of monthly payments teaches people lessons. But if we apply the premise from that debate—the one about expectations and notification—the Government have absolutely failed. For these women, who have not had adequate time to prepare, who have had inadequate correspondence from the DWP and who are at no fault at all, the right thing to do is to compensate them and to have a bridging pension.
The 1950s women will not give up. They will not go away and they will not forgive this Government if their demands are not met. They do not need apprenticeships or platitudes, but they need pension justice now. Let us have a vote and let us see whose side people are really on.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me the opportunity to speak.
I only arrived in this House in June this year and on 21 November I led my first Westminster Hall debate, on the state pension age. I was grateful to the many Opposition Members who attended and spoke up for women in their area and across the country. I was even more grateful to the many WASPI women who turned up in Westminster Hall that day to hear the people who spoke. Sadly, no Government Back Bencher turned up to speak, apart from in interventions.
We cannot beat Father Time; even Big Ben suffers from old age. One day, it will be our turn to retire. As we look back, will we wonder, “If only I had listened. If only I had cared. If only I could turn back time”? If Members cannot listen to me, they should listen to the WASPI women. Members will all have had plenty of letters, emails and Twitter and Facebook messages from their constituents—their own voters; the people who sent them here to listen to and speak up for them.
I am committed to fighting for a better deal for the WASPI women not just in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, but across the whole of the UK. It is time to listen; it is time to care—the WASPI women’s time has come.
I honestly do not think that Scotland has ever been talked about as much in the Chamber as in this debate, but it is worth reminding everybody that this is a UK-wide problem created by consecutive UK Governments.
I know that it is the job of the person winding up to sum up the debate, but I have been trying to figure out a way to do that without swearing. I will start with the Scottish Conservatives. My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) eloquently said that they have a brass neck. I am happy to supply the Brasso for that brass neck—honest to God, how shiny it is! The amount of rubbish spoken in the Chamber today by those Members is appalling.
I apologise to the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) if he feels that any of my comments in a press release drew unjust criticism to him. However, my criticism is legitimate. He expresses annoyance at not being listened to, but this is the 12th time that we have had to debate this matter since I was elected. If any disrespect is being shown, it is by the Conservatives, who have refused to listen time and again.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. She would have listened to my speech, in which I said that it was not just me who was criticising the attitude of the SNP, but WASPI women in Moray, who wrote to me to express concern about the attitude of SNP Members, who do not try to get support across the aisle, but simply uses the issue to score political points. That will not achieve the right result for the WASPI women.
Right, I will go over a few points again, just to get this across. In 1995, the then Government did not write to anybody to let them know that they would have extra years added on to their pension—[Interruption.] Hold on, I’m getting there. In 2011, this Government came along and said, “Right, see that timetable? We’re going to make it a lot quicker and much more intense.” Bear in mind that no letters were sent out until 14 years after the changes were implemented. Right? Let’s go with that. Conservative Governments—and, to be fair, consecutive Labour Governments—did not pick up on this, so here we are now.
Twelve times we have debated this issue since I was elected and on every single occasion, the Government have abstained. I would like the hon. Member for Moray to tell me what he thinks I should have done that I have not done yet. Can he?
If the hon. Lady wants me to tell her what she should do that she has not done yet, it is to answer my intervention from earlier.
Oh, the hon. Gentleman is a pleasure to talk to, but I will move on.
The motion was deliberately written to make sure that it was not party political—[Laughter.] I am loving the laughter from Conservatives Members. If they want to tell me what is funny, I would suggest an intervention.
I thank the hon. Lady very much for taking an intervention. She says the motion was written so that it was not party political. I am afraid that the diatribe we have heard from SNP Members has been nothing but narrow, party political point scoring that has achieved nothing for WASPI and nothing for those affected, and is only in the interests of the SNP. The women affected deserve better.
The motion says:
“That this House calls on the Government to improve transitional arrangements for women born on or after 6 April 1951 who have been adversely affected by the acceleration of the increase to the state pension age.”
What part of that can the hon. Gentleman not get on board with?
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No, I am moving on. It is a bit rich for the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson) to talk about the attitude of SNP Members considering some of the guff that has been coming from the Conservatives, especially in the last couple of weeks.
The point is that even when we come to the House with a non-political motion—[Interruption.] I suggest you listen as well. We have had more excuses and more of the same; everybody has covered that. Let us remember that these women are guilty of nothing other than when they were born. Only women are getting affected by this. We keep hearing about equalisation, but it is a strange definition of equality when only women get targeted and are told that they are going to be left destitute.
I am coming to the end of my remarks. We are told that these women can get apprenticeships. If anybody cannot see the problem with suggesting that 65-year-olds start a new career and a new pension pot, I am sorry, but I do not know who they are talking to. To be fair to the Minister, that is an opportunity, if people want it, but they should not be forced into it. A better idea is to try paying them their pension.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No, I will not. Sit down!
In conclusion, I have to express some frustration at the Labour party. I am being very gentle on it, because I appreciate that we are all on board with this. My main difference with Labour Members is on the constitutional question, and that is fair enough. Three years ago we were told that we were better together, on the strong shoulders of the United Kingdom. We were told, “Vote no to save your pension.” It has been three years; if we are better together, prove it.
I start by thanking everyone who has contributed to today’s debate on this important issue. Members on both sides of the House have made passionate and heartfelt speeches and interventions.
A welfare and pensions system is successful only as long as it is sustainable, and as the population balance shifts from working-age pension contributors to those aged over 65, an increase in the state pension age is necessary for the welfare of all. As the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) pointed out, virtually every party in the House has either taken the opportunity to raise it, or not taken the opportunity to do something about it.
To support my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), does the Minister agree that the failure to address the issue—for whatever reason, and by whatever party—reflects badly on this Parliament in general at a time when we could do with a much higher standing in public esteem?
We have taken forward transitional arrangements. It is insulting for Members from parties that have played their part in getting us to where we are today somehow to wash their hands of the matter. I will go on to make a few points, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
Those who are able to work should support those who are not, confident in the expectation of similar support when they reach retirement. Today’s workers provide the support for today’s pensioners, and that is why it is so important that we have the right balance of the contributions that are paid in at present with the pensions that are being withdrawn, and that we adjust pension ages to maintain that balance. Women who retire today can still expect to receive the state pension for 24 and a half years, on average—almost three years longer than men.
As was outlined by the Pensions Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), the Department for Work and Pensions has communicated the timetable for changes to the state pension age since they were first set in train 22 years ago. As my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) pointed out, in response to concerns raised during debates on the Pensions Act 2011 in both Houses, we introduced the £1.1 billion concession that has been mentioned, which staggered the changes and ensured that no one would wait more than 18 months for their pensions, compared with under the previous timetable.
Any further concession would cost significantly more. It would involve asking people of working age—more specifically, today’s younger people, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) mentioned—to pay even more for it. Those outcomes simply cannot be justified.
Will the Minister give way?
I am not going to give way to the right hon. Gentleman. He made criticisms in relation to the Budget and the Chancellor, but he went on to speak for a considerable time today, taking more than 40 minutes for himself and depriving Back Benchers of the chance to have their say. I will make some progress—[Interruption.] I want to address some of the issues that have been raised by SNP Members, so if the right hon. Gentleman would like to listen, I will do so.
As has previously been stated—my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson) pointed this out—if the Scottish National party disagrees with any of the UK Government’s welfare reforms, it has the power to do something about it in Scotland.
The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) has mentioned on several occasions that the Scottish National party’s Westminster parliamentary group published a report by Landman Economics, which modelled—[Interruption.] I thought he would be keen to listen to this. The report modelled the impact of a number of options for compensating women affected by the 2011 Act. Of these, the Scottish National party’s preferred option was to abandon that Act entirely, returning us to the timetable under the Pensions Act 1995.
The SNP-commissioned report put the cost of this option at £7.9 billion for the period between 2016-17 to 2020-21. As it stands, that is simply unaffordable, but it has the double misfortune of also being wrong. The Landman report significantly underestimates the full costs of returning to the 1995 Act’s timetable. The Government estimate that the cost over that period would be about £14 billion—nearly double—and that figure includes the impact of lost revenue from tax and national insurance, which the Landman report does not fully take into account.
What is worse is that the SNP’s position applies the costs only to the five-year window between 2016-17 and 2020-21. The costs beyond this horizon are simply not included in the option put forward. If the changes we are implementing did not happen, the actual costs to working-age people would be more than £30 billion over an extended period, which is equivalent to over £1,100 per household. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would like to justify that to his constituents.
The Scottish National party has also suggested using the national insurance fund to pay for the cost of scrapping the Pensions Act 2011. However, that is not the intended use of the fund, and it is worth reiterating that today’s national insurance contributions fund today’s pensions, with an excess of only two months’ outgoing payments at any given time.
The new state pension is actually much more generous for many women, who were historically worse off under the old system. By 2030, over 3 million women stand to gain an average of £550 extra per year as a result of these changes. The acceleration of the increase in the state pension age for both women and men is necessary to ensure the state pension system’s sustainability in the light of increasing life expectancy and more pressure on public resources. In fact, by 2035, there will be more than twice as many people aged 100 and over as there are now.
Failure to act in the light of such compelling evidence would be reckless. Given the increasing financial pressure that I have described, we cannot and should not unpick a policy that has been in place for 22 years. It is simply not affordable, especially when we take into account the fact that the average woman reaching state pension age will get a higher state pension income over her lifetime than an average woman reaching state pension age at any earlier point.
It is important to appreciate the modern lived experience of later life in the 21st century, which has altered significantly since the inception of the state pension in the 1940s. Longer life, better health and continued activity in later decades are reshaping the profile and participation of older people in our society. This includes sustaining work and other economic activity as those over 60 continue to learn, earn, contribute and participate.
Contrary to the assertion by SNP Members that it is an insult to offer an apprenticeship, does my hon. Friend agree that saying that is actually an insult to women who would like to take up—
Order. I am sorry, but I think the Minister had finished her speech.
In fact, I do not think that I had quite finished, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I do not think that anybody is suggesting that older women should be forced to take an apprenticeship. No one is even suggesting that they should be cajoled or encouraged to do so, but I find it insulting that SNP and Labour Members seem to be suggesting that women over the age of 60 should be put on the scrapheap and should not be allowed to do what they want. If they want to take an apprenticeship, they should be allowed to do so.
claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).
Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.
Question agreed to.
Main Question accordingly put.
29 November 2017
The House divided:
Question accordingly agreed to.View Details
That this House calls on the Government to improve transitional arrangements for women born on or after 6 April 1951 who have been adversely affected by the acceleration of the increase to the state pension age.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. We have just had an impassioned debate, and a clear and decisive result. This House has determined that the Government should bring in mitigation for the WASPI women. I am seeking your guidance as to what we now need to do to empower the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to come to the Chamber, recognise parliamentary democracy, and put in place the Government’s plans to respect the motion that the House has passed.
I think that the most useful thing I can do is read out the written statement made by the Leader of the House on 26 October in which she updated the House on the Government’s approach to Opposition day debates. She said:
“Where a motion tabled by an Opposition party has been approved by the House, the relevant Minister will respond to the resolution of the House by making a statement no more than 12 weeks after the debate. This is to allow thoughtful consideration of the points that have been raised, facilitate collective discussion across Government, especially on cross-cutting issues, and to outline any actions that have been taken.”—[Official Report, 26 October 2017; Vol. 630, c. 12WS.]
I think that it is very clear what the Government will do. The right hon. Gentleman may well wish to question the Leader of the House further tomorrow, during the exchanges on the business statement, about when there might be a response from the Government.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Given the amount of time that Divisions on Opposition day motions take, would it be possible to issue Conservative Members with white flags to wave, rather than our having to put up with the inconvenience of a Division?
Well, that is very ingenious but, as the Speaker has said before, it is up to each individual Member to decide which way to vote, or even whether to vote.