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State Pension Age: Women

Volume 653: debated on Thursday 31 January 2019

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amanda Milling.)

I am grateful for the opportunity once again to raise the ongoing issue of state pension inequality for women born in the 1950s. I thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate in the light of the current judicial review, which has put the brakes on complaints brought by these women and given the Government a “get out of jail free” card on taking any further action.

As with any judicial review, this one will take time, and if the Government appeal the decision, they will be kicking the can further down the road. This back and forth through the legal system will not allow us to hold the Government to account and get any solutions for these women.

I am struck by my hon. Friend’s comment that the judicial case prevents the Government from taking any action. From my point of view, the Government have deliberately taken no action whatsoever ever since the 1950s women began complaining about state pension inequality.

I thank my hon. Friend for her contribution. As parliamentarians, we are all extremely frustrated. I believe that these issues need to be clearly and comprehensively addressed by the Government, which was why I asked the Leader of the House a couple of weeks ago for clarification on the ambiguity. Given the legal challenge in the High Court, I asked how parliamentarians could continue to discuss and make representations in this House on behalf of their constituents and, more importantly, whether the Government would respond on this very important issue.

Does my hon. Friend agree that our constituents look to us and to this place to get action, and that the Government’s leaving this situation to be dealt with in the courts shows a failure of the political process? The WASPI women—the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—should not have to go to court to have their voices heard.

That is exactly the situation we are in, and it is really sad—it upsets me, and it is frustrating. My constituents ask me what is being done, where we are and what we are doing, and this debate is an opportunity for the Government to respond to those questions.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing the issue to the House for consideration. She has been proficient and active on this case. With 5,800 women in my constituency being out of pocket, many of whom are in manual labour jobs, my concern is that we are seeing a generation of women discriminated against and we seem to be achieving nothing for them. These women were told to expect something and they prepared their future financing around that. I am left wondering just what they did to warrant this treatment. Does she agree that this is nothing short of a disgrace?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. Gower has approximately 5,600 women in this position, so we are talking about a similar number. Before I came into the House, I was always thinking that I had to plan for the future and that I knew what was coming. I was disappointed that I would have to be a classroom teacher until I was 67, because that is a very hard job. I understand the issues associated with pension inequality—we need to be equal—but the nub of this issue is that people did not have the time to prepare.

My hon. Friend is being empathetic and humane in her statement. There are nearly 6,000 WASPI women in my constituency, one of whom—a nurse called Sue—has been told she has to work another six years. The situation would be manageable if the Government were not so entrenched in their position of not agreeing to transitional arrangements. Does my hon. Friend agree on that?

I do agree, as I have been knocking on doors and met people who are in nursing and teaching, as I was. These people in physical jobs had planned to take retirement at the age of 60, but now are in a position in which they have to continue, and doing so is no mean feat. I feel that the Government have robbed the 1950s women of their pensions and their futures, ripping families apart and forcing more people into poverty as a result.

Before I say any more, I must pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). As co-chair of the all-party group on state pension inequality for women, she has worked tirelessly across party, and behind the scenes, with other members of that group to put together a private Member’s Bill. I remind Members that although our proceedings seem very adversarial when we are in the Chamber, we do work together, because we want the best for our constituents. At the same time, however, we do want to hold the Government to account and to have our questions answered.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. If there were a free vote tomorrow, there would be an overwhelming majority in this House in favour of justice for the WASPI women. This is an opportunity for me to put on record the absolute support and solidarity of the Scottish National party for everything that she is saying. I know that many of us, including my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), who is in the Chamber, will be marching with the WASPI women in Glasgow on 23 February precisely for that justice.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution, as it reinforces my point that we are here to get the best for our constituents.

The private Member’s Bill would go some way to supporting the women who have been hit the hardest. It asks for a review to establish the costings for a compensation scheme. I know that that is not exactly what everybody wants, but my question to the Minister is this: what will happen when my hon. Friend’s private Member’s Bill has its Second Reading, which is scheduled for 8 March? Will the Government commit to fully responding to the Bill, or will it also fall victim to their can-kicking?

First, let me congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. There are 30,000 WASPI women in Birmingham and they are Birmingham’s best. They helped Birmingham and Britain, and they deserve justice and not to have their plans for retirement completely jeopardised by the Government’s shameful behaviour thus far. Does she agree not only that they deserve justice in terms of transitional arrangements, but that everyone should do everything they can, and that if Andy Burnham can introduce free fares in Greater Manchester for WASPI women, Andy Street can do the same in the west midlands?

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. Loneliness and mobility are big issues for all people. I feel very strongly about loneliness in particular. Women need to be mobile, whether to continue work or to achieve further training. As my hon. Friend points out, if that is the case in Manchester, it should also be the case in the west midlands.

As I have said, the campaign is not about scrapping the equalisation of the state pension age, but about the way in which changes were implemented. It was unfair, and women are now suffering. Letters about pension age changes were only sent out 14 years after the Pensions Act 1995. Those 14 years would have allowed women to make alternative plans. Having a year’s notice or five years’ notice—

Or even no notice at all—my hon. Friend took the works out of my mouth. That is just not acceptable and we have to keep fighting for change.

My hon. Friend is making an impassioned, compelling and informed case. We have all had letters from people complaining not necessarily about what has been done, but about the way it has been done. I had a letter from Christina Fitzgerald, who has osteoarthritis, which makes it difficult enough to work as it is. One would think the Government would learn from their mistakes, but is my hon. Friend as scandalised as I am by the fact that only last week they snuck out another change for WASPI women? For people of mixed-age couples, from here on in, it will be only when the younger one reaches pensionable age that either of them will be allowed to claim their pension credit. Is not this yet another case of women having banked on something only to have the rug ripped from under their feet by this awful Government?

My hon. Friend makes a good and compelling point that I shall talk about in a moment. The UN special rapporteur on poverty said that the 1950s women were just “ill-prepared” to adjust. That is the injustice.

When I think about funding a compensation scheme, I think about the money paid into national insurance. Just as an indicator for the House, the national insurance fund accounts show an increase of nearly £2.3 billion in 2017-18, taking the fund to a total of £24 billion paid into the national investment account.

Does my hon. Friend agree with the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, who said of another group who lost their expected pensions to which they were entitled—the Equitable Life victims—that we should act because

“it is the right thing to do”?—[Official Report, 20 March 2013; Vol. 500, c. 941.]

Is not that at least as true of the WASPI women?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, because that is exactly the point. This is so wrong and we have to make sure that we do something about it. It is just unexplainable that we have women experiencing such hardship. What explanation can the Government give for not restoring to these women what is rightfully theirs, having paid their stamp, and for creating a huge problem for many by forcing them into poverty? What could the Government do to fund or reimburse these women? The Government evidently have access to their money and could do something.

I remember listening to the Minister in a Westminster Hall debate proposing a way forward for women who found themselves in dire straits without a job. He suggested that women take up an apprenticeship and retrain, find new skills and get a job. If only it was that easy! The challenges of finding employment are not made any easier by the fact that being an older person has its own challenges.

It is worth putting on record that that suggestion was so offensive to many of the women who have worked their entire lives and have already trained and gained qualifications. To suggest that these women go back to being apprentices was such a slap in the face after the way they have been treated time and again by this Government.

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. That is exactly where we are, and it is just wrong. The Women and Equalities Committee commissioned—

The hon. Lady is most gracious and kind in giving way. This is a very important point. Many people in my constituency are employed in manual labour, which means that, as they get older, they have disabilities, arthritis and other such issues. Does she agree that it is not realistic to expect those people to retrain? What they really need is their pension—and probably in many cases some sort of disability living allowance or an attendance allowance because of their disabilities.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very valid point. When the Women and Equalities Committee took evidence from people about the difficulties they face in finding work, we found that employers need to make sensible adjustments in order to keep older workers. Can the Government guarantee that that is being done? It is recognised that ageism remains—

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way because, otherwise, I might have been the only person not to interrupt her, and I do not want to feel like the odd one out. As the other co-chair of the all-party group and a signatory to the Bill, which shows that there is cross-party agreement on this, may I say that I agree with much of what she says? Will she just emphasise that many of us, over many years, have been trying to get changes to the way in which these formulas have been calculated, but that there is real urgency now for women who are facing very serious hardship? Certain measures could be taken to alleviate that obvious hardship without having to change the whole formula of how we address the injustice that most of us agree has befallen a small group of 1950s women.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution and for the massive amount of work that he has been doing on the APPG with my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East. It is imperative that the Government look after those women who are hardest hit, and do so as soon as possible.

Ageism remains a significant problem and is affecting people’s ability to continue working into later life, despite long-standing laws against age discrimination. Discrimination in recruitment is a significant problem and the public sector is not leading the way in the retention of its older workers when it really, really should be. With that in mind, what actions have the Government taken to minimise ageism in the recruitment process? Let us be honest: when I think of some of the women in Swansea who have to carry on working, they will, unless they are still in their job, be left having to claim universal credit although they have worked all their lives. That can be an overwhelming and humiliating experience for many. Does the Minister think that the fuller working lives strategy is working and what aspects of the Women and Equalities report have the Government implemented?

I also wish to know what the Government have done to measure the wellbeing of this particular group of women? I think I know what the answer will be. Will the Department undertake a study to analyse employment levels among women born in the 1950s, the type of work they undertake and the levels of poverty for this group of women?

Surely there is also an historic injustice here. If the women who were born in the 1950s were growing up in the 1970s, they would have been unable to go into a shop to get credit, or to rent a television, because those shop owners would have insisted that the male partner, or the father of that person, sign something to make sure that they could get those things. There really is an historic injustice in the way in which 1950s women have been treated by society.

That highlights the tragic state of our nation and how we have been treating women over the years. We have made great advances but, again, it is this group of women that has been hit the hardest.

There are different issues facing the women who are hit by these changes, and there are a number of movements that represent them. WASPI is the most recognised campaign, but all of them are directing their complaints about maladministration to the parliamentary ombudsman, rather than following the route of a judicial review like the BackTo60 women.

I have a number of constituents who have tried to contact the Department, but have not successfully received a response. This just adds insult to injury. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government need to ensure that people get full responses to their inquiries?

When people write to complain, their correspondence has to be recognised, responded to and acted on. It is an absolute disgrace if that is not happening.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

It is all right; the hon. Lady has not done anything wrong at all, although some hon. Members look puzzled. We have reached the moment of interruption, so I must call the Whip to move the Adjournment again.

Before I do so, let me take the opportunity to make a not very exciting announcement regarding a correction to the results of yesterday’s deferred Divisions. In all cases, there was one more Aye vote than previously announced. In respect of the Question relating to consumer protection, the Ayes were 310 and the Noes were 268. In respect of the Question relating to financial services and markets, the Ayes were 310 and the Noes were 261. In respect of the Question relating to floods and water, the Ayes were 311 and the Noes were 267. In respect of the Question relating to radioactive substances, the Ayes were 310 and the Noes were 265. The results of the Divisions were obviously not affected. I am sorry that I had to interrupt the hon. Lady’s debate to make that announcement, although the real reason for the interruption was for the Whip to move the Adjournment again. The hon. Lady will not lose any time from her debate because of these procedural matters.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amanda Milling.)

We all know that not all aspects of state pension inequality are the same, which is why I was shocked by a letter from the Minister published yesterday by the Work and Pensions Committee. The letter states that the Department has concluded that the issue in the judicial review does have an impact on the ongoing complaints. But when so many of these complaints are different, will the Government tell us what aspect of the complaints make them incompatible with the judicial review? Do the Government intend to clarify what part of the grievances can be taken forward or is this just another classic exercise of kicking the issue into the long grass, hoping that the women will go away once they have their state pension, and vanish into thin air?

I am a member of the Work and Pensions Committee, and insisted that a letter went to the Minister to ask about the number of cases. Does it shock the hon. Lady that 2,505 cases were closed automatically as a result of the High Court decision? That is a real concern because a lot of people will not know the issues around the judicial review, and, as she says, this might very well be separate from the complaints about maladministration that were reported to the Independent Case Examiner.

This is a huge issue. Where do these people stand now? That is the problem. People are busy; they are working, looking after grandchildren and running around the place. We all know what I mean. My mum is currently rushing around after my 14-year-old. Life happens. When people get a response, how do they react to it? This is why the groups of women who support each other on social media are giving each other a shoulder to cry on and a listening ear. They are a force to be reckoned with and I thank them for their work.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; she is being very generous with her time. There are 8,500 WASPI women in Plymouth, but they are dying. Justice delayed is justice denied, and many WASPI women are dying in poverty before they get justice and the pension that they deserve. The fight must continue in order to give the people who are still alive justice, as well as all the women we have lost.

I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. I completely agree with him.

Can the Minister provide a rationale as to why the independent case examiner has closed these 2,505 cases, and say precisely why they were closed? Knowing this, the women would be able to work out which aspect of their case they could proceed with. Otherwise, how are they going to know what to do next? How many of these complaints could have been answered before 30 November, and why does it take so long to deal with them? Now they have just been filed somewhere, and that is simply not good enough.

I would like to raise my concerns about the recent written statement on the pension credit update of 14 January. Written statements are often seen in this House as a way to bury bad news, and these further changes to the pension credit rules appear to put strain on lower-paid women. Can the Minister confirm that the effect of this change will be to debar a pensioner of either gender from claiming pension credit until their partner also attains state pension age? This measure, if brought in on 15 May, will slash the income of couples affected who can claim pension credit in future by up to £7,000 a year, in the worst cases, compared with the current rules. It is also worth noting that many of those caught by this policy change are likely to be women born in the 1950s, who will have been hit by this double whammy and rightly feel especially aggrieved. I hope that the Minister can give further clarification on this point.

I want to give a personal angle. I am very proud of my constituents. A year ago, I held a meeting on this issue in Mumbles, with over 300 women attending. As I have mentioned, approximately 5,500 women in Gower have been impacted by the pension age changes. Since then, they have held a few meetings and set up the Pension Justice for Swansea Women group, which includes all the other local constituencies. I could talk all day about the cases of women across Swansea who have had their lives turned upside down. I know women whose projected state age pension had been part of their divorce settlement. Then, when the goalposts changed, they had to go and find work and be financially worse off. These are women who have had to find low-paid and unskilled work to make ends meet—and, as I have said, they were lucky to even find that job. I know many women who have caring responsibilities, including one who looks after her grandchildren so that they do not go into care and cannot find a job to fit in with school hours.

As my hon. Friend knows, I was a nurse, and I am of the WASPI age too. A lot of the people I worked with had worked long and hard all their lives, as care assistants and housekeepers as well as nurses. They did not earn enough money to save anything. Now the goalposts have moved and they cannot retire, but they are too old to do that really hard, physical work. It is terrible—shameful. Yet we hear a lot of warm words about looking after our NHS staff.

Order. Let me give a little bit of advice to the hon. Lady. She turned her back on the Chair, and that means that she cannot be properly heard; and she cannot go on speaking when she has sat down again. It is not a silly, old-fashioned rule—it just works better if everybody looks the right way and stands up to speak. It is simple.

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, because it is true. When people are doing physical jobs that they have done all their lives but now have bad knees or a bad back and are suffering, it is impossible.

Women are busting a gut to keep their families together. These are women I know like Pauline and Gaynor in Swansea who consider themselves to be better off than others but who, when they tell me their own stories, bring me to tears. That is why I do not want to let the Government off the hook. As parliamentarians, we cannot allow this Government to hide behind a judicial review.

I am grateful to the Speaker for granting this Adjournment debate, because the frustration of the 1950s women is unabated. Today they are here, they are watching online, and they are listening to us intently. The strength of feeling is real. The clip of me on my Facebook page asking the Leader of the House a question two weeks ago had 1,300 shares and hundreds of comments and likes—from across the United Kingdom, not just Gower and Swansea. No amount of can-kicking and hiding behind sub judice will make these excellent and committed women go away. This is an opportunity for the Minister to give some clear answers, do the right thing and restore faith, which I hope he will do.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on securing the debate. It is an opportunity for me to address some of the points that she raised, as far as I can, given that a judicial review is ongoing. There are obviously a number of key drivers behind the decision to make these changes by successive Governments, dating back well over 25 years. It is important to briefly restate them before I turn to her points.

This change was part of a wider trend towards gender equality. The decision was taken partly as a result of European and equality legal cases in the early 1990s relating to occupational pension provision. Life expectancy and state spending were also key factors in the changes to state pension age. Following the passing of the Pensions Act 1995, the actual and projected growth in the pensioner population continued faster than anticipated as a result of increasing longevity. As a result, it was clear that a state pension age fixed at 65 was no longer affordable, fair or sustainable.

The Labour Government between 1997 and 2010, and the hon. Lady’s predecessor who was the Member of Parliament at the time, took action in the form of the Pensions Act 2007, which introduced an increase in state pension age to 66, 67 and 68 for men and women. Further changes were brought in under the Pensions Act 2011, which accelerated the equalisation of women’s state pension age and brought forward the increase in men and women’s state pension age to 66 to complete by 2020.

The Pensions Act 2014 brought forward by eight years the increase in state pension age to 67 to complete by 2028, and introduced regular, independent reviews of the state pension age—the first of which was published by John Cridland in 2017—to ensure that the system remains fair, sustainable and affordable for taxpayers. It cannot be overstated how much life expectancy was one of the key drivers of the decisions of the Labour Government between 1997 and 2010, the coalition Government between 2010 and 2015, and the Conservative Government since then.

I thank the Minister for giving way. I recognise the point he is making with regard to the equalisation of pensions between genders and increasing life expectancy, and we are all grateful to be living longer. But does he recognise that these mainly working-class women did manual and physically oppressive work, often starting at the age of 15, and they are not sharing in the benefits of longer life expectancy because of health inequalities? Does he recognise that inherent unfairness?

There are a number of points to be made, and I will try to address them. There are two key issues to look at: life expectancy as a nation, as assessed by the Office for National Statistics or reviewed independently by John Cridland, and healthy life expectancy. In terms of general life expectancy, after the second world war, a girl born was expected to live to 81 years and a boy to 77 years. By 2019, those figures had increased by more than 10 years for newly born girls and by more than 12 years for boys, to 92 and 89 years respectively. The hon. Lady made a point about healthy life expectancy.

I accept those points. That was specifically reviewed by John Cridland on an independent basis, as ordered by Parliament, in 2017. His report, a copy of which is in the Library, addresses those points.

I will make a couple of points on Cridland’s report before I come to the issue of period life expectancy. Cridland sets out the figures on the first page of his report. In 1917 only 24 people reached their 100th birthday. In 2016 6,000 did. The expectation is that by 2015 56,000 people will reach this milestone. He estimates that by approximately 2047 life expectancy could be 98 for women and 95 for men. Given that when the state pension was introduced in 1908 it had a retirement age of 70, only one in four people were expected to reach that age and life expectancy thereafter was nine years, there has been a dramatic improvement in life expectancy.

I will move on to the particular point about healthy life expectancy.

I had prepared specifically for the south Wales example. I do not have the north-east examples, but they are broadly analogous. I may be able to provide the north-east examples before I sit down. The Office for National Statistics releases period life expectancy by local area of the United Kingdom, but not by parliamentary constituency, as I explained earlier to the hon. Member for Gower. Life expectancy at birth in Swansea is 77 for men and 82 for women, but it has increased for both men and women in that area since 2001 and 2003 by two years. It has increased in every local area of the UK over the same period. In the hon. Lady’s region, life expectancy is 17 years for men at 65 and 20 years for women, and this has increased again since 2001 and 2003.

I thank the Minister for the personalised data for Swansea on life expectancy. While all of us will not disagree with the principle behind state pension equality, can we have an inquiry into the state of the nation—the state of the 1950s women currently in the United Kingdom, by area, including the north-east, so that we know what the impact has been on working women from mining families and similar backgrounds to mine in Swansea? For me, that would be a useful inquiry to have the results of.

With respect, the point about individual cohorts and the deprivation point are answered in the Cridland report—an independent report published in March 2017. I was going to come to the hon. Lady’s specific point about the assessment by the Women and Equalities Committee and address the point about difficulties faced by older workers and their ability to get employment.

The Government are committed to improving the outlook for older workers affected by the state pension age and removing the specific barriers. Some of this has involved taking practical action such as changing legislation. Other aspects involve a culture change. The latest figures show that employment rates for older workers have been increasing, with 10.3 million workers aged 50-plus in the UK. That is an increase of 1.3 million in the past five years, and 2.3 million in the past 10 years. The number of workers over 65 has now more than tripled, from 0.4 million 20 years ago to 1.3 million now.

The specific work changes have been removal of the default retirement age, and extension of the right to request flexible working to all, meaning that people can discuss flexible working requirement to suit their needs.

Bear with me. I will try to answer the point made by the hon. Member for Gower and then I will let the hon. Lady question me.

In October 2018 the Department for Work and Pensions published the “Economic labour market status of individuals aged 50 and over, trends over time.”—a catchy title. Those official statistics provide analysis of the headline measures that the Government use to monitor progress on the fuller working lives programme. The hon. Lady specifically mentioned the programme, which was published a couple of years ago. As for data, the estimates of paid hours worked, the weekly, hourly and annual earnings of UK employees by gender, and full-time and part-time working by age group are already publicly available. They are published as part of the Office for National Statistics’ “Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings” statistical bulletin, which can be found online.

Is there any impact assessment or data concerning young women who can no longer go back to work because their mum, auntie or grandma is having to find a job, so they cannot take up the job that they want because their mum, for example, can no longer provide free childcare?

I can only refer the hon. Lady to the specifics that I have given: the Department for Work and Pensions’ assessment, “Economic labour market status of individuals aged 50 and over”, which contains the official statistics that we use for the fuller working lives programme, and the survey by the Office for National Statistics. I do not have a specific answer to her specific question, but I expect a consideration of that point to be within the ambit of the work that those two organisations have done.

May I finish this point? Then I will, perfectly properly, allow the hon. Gentleman, who is a member of the Select Committee, to intervene. I am keen to deal with the issue of the judicial review, which I have not yet addressed.

We have appointed Andy Briggs as the business champion for older workers. Along with the Business in the Community Age at Work leadership team, he spearheads the Government’s work in helping employers to retain, retrain and recruit older workers, actively promoting their benefits to employers throughout England, both strategically and by means of practical advice.

I will now give way to the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens).

I am grateful to the Minister. I will be brief, because I want to hear what he has to say about the judicial review. Is he saying that it is Government policy, as well as his view, that there is a difference between an individual’s working life expectancy and an individual’s life expectancy?

I shall try to respond to the hon. Gentleman’s question in writing in order to be specific, but my understanding is as per the Cridland report, which was fundamentally adopted by the Government. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the reviewers assessed the position on an individual, independent basis, having heard copious evidence, travelling all over the country taking representations from trade unions and devolved Administrations and producing in the fullness of time, a very comprehensive report.

Let me now turn to the complex issue of the judicial review. Members will be aware that the High Court has ruled that a judicial review on these matters will go to a full hearing. The case is listed to be heard in the Divisional Court on 5 and 6 June. It would clearly be inappropriate for me, or any other Minister, to comment further on live litigation.

Members will also be aware that complaints of maladministration have been made about the Department’s handling of the communications relating to the state pension age changes. The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman has decided to suspend consideration of those cases until a final decision has been made in the judicial review. Separately, the Department for Work and Pensions has suspended work on the complaints until a final decision has been reached by the courts. We have sent—and are sending—letters explaining that to individuals who have sent complaints to the Department in order to ensure that they are properly informed of the suspensions, and information has been added to the website.

We have also undertaken to follow up individuals who already had active complaints in the DWP system, and to give them further information on next steps following the reaching of a final decision in the courts. It is right of course that we communicate those next steps as and when they are clear.

Matters outside the scope of the judicial review will continue to follow the normal DWP complaints procedure. Separately, the independent case examiner closed all the live maladministration complaints when they became subject to legal proceedings, as is required under its governance contract. When the legal proceedings are concluded, the independent case examiner could consider reopening the cases at the request of the Department.

The actions taken by the Department in respect of the maladministration complaints is consistent with the approach of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s office. As I pointed out in my letter to the Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee on 15 January, this approach is fundamentally consistent with any situation where the Government are subject to a judicial review, as in this case, whether in relation to their actions or the actions of another Government—I stand here defending the actions not just of this Government but of the coalition Government, the Labour Government of 1997-2010 and the preceding Government, all of whose actions are effectively the subject matter of the judicial review.

I am trying to get my head around this. The subject matter of the judicial review is not an issue of maladministration, so does the Minister not accept that there is no reason for these complaints to be on pause, as he put it?

I am conscious that I have limited time, so I will write to the hon. Lady and the Chair of the Select Committee to expand upon my answers. As I am sure she understands, I am constrained in what I can say about a live judicial review case, but I think I have set it out in quite a lot of detail. The DWP cases are currently paused, but we would aim to ensure that these complaints are completed without a complainant necessarily reapplying. That said, I will go into more detail in writing and seek to amplify my answer in respect of the independent case examiner and the ombudsman system.

I want to address briefly the point about the national insurance fund that the hon. Lady raised. It is simply not true that the national insurance fund is used purely to reduce national debt. It is financed on a pay-as-you-earn basis with receipts collected in one year used to pay for certain benefit payments, including the state pension paid out in the same year.[Official Report, 7 February 2019, Vol. 654, c. 3MC.] It is important that the working balance of the national insurance fund remain positive, as this ensures there are always enough funds to pay for these benefits and allows the Government to deal with short-term fluctuations in spending or receipts.

If the balance of the fund is expected to fall below one sixth of the forecast annual benefit expenditure, the Government will transfer a Treasury grant paid for by general taxation into the national insurance fund. This ensures that benefits such as the state pension can always be paid as necessary. It is inaccurate to suggest there is a surplus in the fund that can simply be drawn upon. The balance of the fund is managed as part of the Government’s overall management of public finances and reduces the need for them to borrow from elsewhere, so any additional spending from the national insurance fund would represent an increase in overall Government spending and, without cuts in other areas of spend or additional taxes, an increase in Government borrowing. This is a policy that has been continued by successive Governments since the 1980s, and it simply is not correct to state that, had the supplement continued to be paid at the same level as previously, the fund would have the capacity to satisfy the claim of the ladies.

I will briefly touch on the issue of pensioner poverty to make the point that, since 2010, there are 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty, which is a record low. The hon. Lady will be aware that we spend £121 billion on benefits for pensioners, including £97 billion on the state pension this year—2018-19. The overall trend in the percentage of pensioners living in poverty shows a dramatic fall over several decades, from 40% in the 1970s to 16% in relative poverty now. Clearly, more needs to be done, but the direction of travel is quite clear. Between April 2010 and April 2018, the basic state pension has risen substantially, by £1,450 in cash terms.

The fact remains that the key choice any Government face when life expectancy is increasing 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 ever larger share of their income to support pensioners. I believe that successive Governments have made the appropriate but difficult decisions to equalise and increase the state pension age.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.