[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered bus passes for 1950s women.
Thank you very much for chairing the debate, Sir Christopher. You and I have known each other a long time, and this is probably one of the last debates in which I will take part in the House of Commons. I thought that I might end my political activities by raising an issue that is very important to about 4 million women in this country. But I should make it clear right at the beginning of the debate that providing bus passes would not be a substitute for putting right the wrongs in relation to these women’s pensions; it would only ease the situation for them.
Everyone in this room will know of the tireless campaigners fighting for justice for the nearly 4 million women born in the 1950s who are affected by the pension changes. They are particularly active in Coventry, but are also active nationally, and I will take this chance to congratulate them on their work so far, because it has been a long, hard road for many of these women. Many have written to me, describing how helpful a bus pass would be to them. I recognise that every little helps, but a free bus pass would not be the solution to the issue as a whole, as I have already stated.
The pension changes were rushed through the House, and the impact of the legislation has been colossal. It gave those affected no time to plan for their retirement. Women who were expecting to retire in a few years began to wind down at work, working fewer days, or left their career entirely, knowing that they could afford to take time off, as they would soon be in receipt of their state pension—or so they thought.
I appreciate all the work that the hon. Gentleman has done on this issue; I have often been with him in the Chamber. He is making a very important point. Does he agree that the cost of providing bus passes would be negligible, but they would make a difference to a lot of WASPI women—Women Against State Pension Inequality? The reality, however, is that the Department for Work and Pensions needs to be investigated by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, because of its lack of adequate communication all those years ago, in the 1990s.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. As I understand it, a number of WASPI women or women born in the early 1950s have submitted complaints and given evidence to the parliamentary ombudsman, but we do not know the outcome of that yet; we will have to wait and see.
The state pension is not a benefit, or a lottery win that people get once they retire. The state pension is the return of money that people—in this case, women—have paid into the system throughout their working life. The worst-affected women have lost out on tens of thousands of pounds and will retire six years later than they expected.
Last month, the High Court was sympathetic to the 1950s women, but ultimately ruled that they had not been discriminated against. However, the pace at which the changes have taken place certainly puts them at a particular disadvantage compared with men. These women have already suffered considerable inequalities and, in some cases, sexism in the workplace. They would have entered the workplace in the 1960s and ’70s. At that time, women were openly discriminated against. They were refused promotions and refused adequate pay for skilled work. In some cases they were refused maternity rights, and in other cases those rights were non-existent. Those factors mean that many of these women are already at a financial disadvantage.
My hon. Friend is a true champion of this cause. Does he agree that it is a great irony that many of the women who are suffering hardship as a consequence of the pension inequality will themselves be working in organisations such as bus companies, when they should be benefiting from a free bus pass from them?
I fully agree. The factors that I have set out mean that many of these women are already at a financial disadvantage. The Conservatives’ changes to the state pension age only add to that.
The WASPI women have put up an excellent fight against the injustices, but the Government have refused to admit their mistakes or address the problem. The May Administration and now the Johnson Administration have refused to compensate these women for the money that they have lost out on. I note that the Prime Minister, when he was campaigning to be Prime Minister, acknowledged that there was an injustice there, and that it should be put right, but so far we have seen no action. Instead, we have a general election. It will be interesting to see what he does afterwards.
My hon. Friend is being very generous about interventions. He is making an excellent case. Does he agree that one of the biggest injustices was that this was supposed to be a gradual change, yet in reality it is a cliff edge? People either get the bus pass or they do not. Many people are having to wait five years for something that, if they had been born a few months earlier, they would have got automatically. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a problem?
It is a problem, but an additional point is that central Government could fund the bus passes and not leave that to local authorities. We all know that at the moment local authorities are cash-strapped, to say the least. I will not go down that road, but I emphasise that the Government should compensate local authorities for the bus passes.
My hon. Friend is making a very sound, thoughtful and definite call to Government, of whatever hue, to do something to ameliorate these things now. Obviously, there are issues to do with misinformation and all the rest of it, but does my hon. Friend agree that one thing that this Government could seriously consider—there are precedents for this in other areas—is the proposal from the Opposition Benches to return eligibility for pension credit to the state pension age timetable of the Pensions Act 1995, but with the qualifying age continuing to increase to 66 by 2022? Hundreds of thousands of women would benefit from that offer. I am thinking of the WASPI people who have come to see me in my Blackpool constituency and who have been on low incomes or had to dial down their work to support an aged relative. Of course, eligibility for pension credit takes them into other areas of credit. That would be a modest but very significant improvement on their position.
I agree with my hon. Friend on those credits, but I think that what he refers to can only be an interim measure. We have to look at the longer term and putting the injustice right. Interim measures are all right, provided that they are not permanent. When they become permanent, we perpetuate the injustice, frankly.
That is why today I call on the Government to give these women the small compensation of free bus travel from the age at which they were meant to retire before the 2011 changes. Right now, bus passes are given to those in receipt of their state pension at the discretion of their local authority. I have just said that there should be adequate funding, and I once again draw hon. Members’ attention to that point.
The Government must provide the necessary funds to ensure that all 1950s women can enjoy a free bus pass. This concession is small, and by no means replaces the tens of thousands of pounds that 1950s women have lost. However, constituents have written to me to describe the benefits that it would bring them. Many of these women are now unemployed, living off savings or supported by their spouse—and that is not to mention the women who are widows and do not have a spouse to support them.
This is a really important issue for WASPI women. All we are asking for on their behalf is a bus pass. It seems to me that there are comments attacking the older generation now. People want to take their free TV licence off them, for example. The WASPI women are suffering financial hardship. These people have worked and paid taxes all their life. They do not ask for a lot, and I fully support the provision of free bus passes to the WASPI women.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s amazing contribution, and thank him for his tutelage. I wish him all the best in his retirement.
On the point about working-age women who will not get this benefit at the age when they expected to get their pension, many of those women, including in my constituency, still have to work, because they have no other option, even though they may work in manually intensive jobs and suffer from disabilities. They cannot walk great distances and they do not drive, so they rely on public transport, which is a cost to them. They have to work for extra years. Surely this would help them, and is better than letting them suffer further financial detriment while the fight for justice goes on.
I agree wholeheartedly. For women who are isolated, live on their own and do not have children, the bus pass is a means of communicating with the outside world. Without it, they find themselves trapped at home, friendless in some instances. People living on their own is a major issue in this country.
There are 8,000 WASPI women in Plymouth, but many doughty campaigners will not get a free bus pass, even if the Minister agrees to one, because they died before they received pension justice. A lot of WASPI women in Plymouth need medical attention, and public transport is their only way of accessing it. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister could do a good deal for the WASPI women in the general election by assuring us that they will get a free bus pass? That would be a step towards getting pension justice.
I agree. We could go a step further. I do not know if the Minister has any input on the Conservative manifesto, but if he has, my hon. Friend has just given him a good idea to put in it. Free travel around their towns and cities would allow 1950s women to save a great deal of money on travel while in the limbo period between their working life and the point at which they will receive their state pension.
There are many benefits to bus passes for pensioners. A bus pass combats isolation and tackles loneliness, as I have mentioned. The cost of childcare is so high that many 1950s women in Coventry South and across the nation have become daytime carers for their grandchildren, and in some instances they care for their spouse, too. A free bus pass would allow them to give their grandchildren meaningful and exciting days out. In my constituency, these women will benefit from taking the bus pass to medical appointments, as my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) just mentioned, to avoid astronomically high hospital car park charges. Car park charges are another big issue; they affect not only the WASPI women, but medical staff. At some hospitals, the staff have to pay their own car parking charges, which has an impact on their salary.
Everyone will benefit from giving the 1950s women free bus passes. Pensioners’ cash-spending power is a powerful tool in combatting the loss of high street stores and banks. The use of buses ensures that services remain in place and of a good standard. Public transport is important for tackling air pollution caused by cars.
In summary, I call on the Government to provide local authorities with the necessary funds to ensure that the 1950s women, who have been treated so badly, receive the small concession of a bus pass at the age at which they were due to retire before the 2011 changes. The Government do not seem interested in providing that. However, when the Minister replies, I am sure he will tell us that he is putting the idea in his manifesto. While the Government refuse to compensate the 1950s women, I hope that they will afford the 1950s women the small compensation of a bus pass. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
On behalf of all hon. Members, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on what is perhaps the last debate he will initiate in this House. He has been a faithful servant in this place since 1992. I have had the privilege of serving on Select Committees with him. I know he has also served on the Panel of Chairs. Along with other hon. Members, I wish you a very long, successful and happy retirement.
Thank you, Sir Christopher, for the chance to serve under your chairmanship. I echo your justifiably warm comments about the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham). It is a pleasure for me to make my first appearance as the newly created Minister for the Future of Transport, but it is also a real pleasure to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman. In my 10 years here, I have seen the quality, calibre and tenacity of the representation that he has given to the people of Coventry South. I am aware that this may be his last debate. He has given 50 years of public service, including as a city councillor leading the council and as an MP since 1992. Whoever returns in December, this House will miss the hon. Gentleman for his contributions.
My constituency is affected by the pension changes. It defies the stereotype of Norfolk as the playground for the golden Range Rovers from Chelsea to go to the coast. Mid Norfolk is a low-income, largely blue-collar, rural constituency. I well appreciate and understand the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised, and the importance of concessionary fares on public transport and these pension reforms.
I want to set the scene by reminding everyone why these reforms were necessary. First, they reflected changes in average life expectancy. When the pension system was created, life expectancy was decades younger than today, when it is going up by about a year every decade. These are substantial changes to our workplaces and in the demography of our nation.
Changing the state pension age was a difficult but, in my view, necessary decision. It was necessary not least because we had to deal, in 2010, as a coalition Government, with the horrendous Budget deficit that we inherited. To remind those who are not familiar, the Government at the time were borrowing £1 of every £4 they were spending. Some very tough decisions had to be made. It is worth remembering that these changes were part of recognising some incredible and welcome changes in the workplace of modern Britain. Women now rightly enjoy—it is long overdue—the chance to fulfil careers based on equality in the workplace and to work long, healthy lives, and to enjoy the opportunities that have been dominated by men for too long. That is part of what the reforms were about. However, I totally accept, as I have with my constituents, that where there is a change or threshold in any benefit, concessionary travel or pension situation, there will be people who are caught at the margins or the cut-off point. That is what has happened in this case.
I would not be doing my job if I did not point out that women who reached the state pension age in 2016 will have received, on average, more state pension over their lifetime than women ever have before. Furthermore, if we had not equalised the state pension age, women would be expected to spend on average more than 40% of their adult lives in forced retirement. There are two sides to this coin.
On the suddenness of the change, although many women in my constituency were surprised in 2010-11—as I am sure they were in the hon. Gentleman’s—the changes have been coming. The Pensions Act 1995 included plans to increase the women’s state pension age from 60 to 65, to align with men. The Pensions Act 2011 moved the state pension age for both men and women to 66. As he signalled, the High Court ruled in favour of the Government in its judicial review ruling of 3 October.
There may well be an appeal, but I obviously cannot comment on it. I simply make the point that the appeal will be against the ruling in favour of the Government.
On concessionary travel, we all know that for many people the concessionary bus pass can be an absolute lifeline, providing access to work, public services, healthcare, education and, particularly in rural areas, to the very fabric of community and the fabric of active and healthy societies. That is why the Government continue to support concessionary bus travel to the tune of £1 billion a year through local authorities in the UK, to try and ensure that no older or disabled person in England is prevented from travelling by bus for reasons of cost alone. However, I accept that we must go further, and I will set out shortly what the Government will do.
As the Minister knows, one of the challenges with bus passes is that there is a bit of a postcode lottery: they vary between cities and rural areas. In the spirit of positivity that the Minister spoke about, will the Government make any proposals to ensure that people get the same level of bus pass across the piece, so that WASPI women in rural areas will not suffer more than they would if they lived in London?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very interesting point; will he drop me a line about it? As he knows, I am a champion for rural areas and tackling rural inequality, and I will be looking at what we need to do in our new bus package, which I will describe shortly, to ensure that rural areas do not suffer.
In April last year, we announced a change in the legislation to protect the concessionary travel scheme in its current form so that it can continue to provide free travel for eligible older and disabled people for years to come. I should point out that equalising the age difference between men and women removed the anomalous situation in which non-disabled citizens of working age received free bus passes.
To mitigate the effect of the state pension age changes on the people worst affected, Parliament has already legislated for a £1.1 billion compensation package, which reduced the proposed increase in state pension age for more than 450,000 of the hardest-hit men and women. That means that no woman will see her pension age change by more than 18 months relative to the 1995 Act timetable. I accept that that does not deal with all the issues that the hon. Member for Coventry South raised, but for me that is really important. Some of the constituents I have spoken to are among the most seriously affected, and the idea of the package is that it will help at least to substantially mitigate the impact on them.
In addition, the Government are committed to improving the outlook for older workers. We are helping many of the people who had planned to retire but now work, to get back into work, including by removing many of the barriers that they may face. To enable older people to work for longer, as many want to, we have reformed the legislation to remove the default retirement age, which means that people are no longer forced to retire at an arbitrary age. We have also extended the right to request flexible working to all with 26 weeks’ continuous employment, which means that people can propose and discuss a flexible working requirement to suit their needs.
Alongside those significant legislative reforms, we have been successfully challenging negative perceptions about older workers through a major programme, Fuller Working Lives, which is led by the Department for Work and Pensions. We have appointed Andy Briggs as the business champion for older workers, to spearhead the Government’s work to support employers in retaining, retraining and recruiting older workers, to actively promote the benefits of older workers to employers across England, and to influence them both strategically and with practical advice. I am not being pat when I point out that the hon. Member for Coventry South is a walking embodiment of the agility, impact and leadership that people can provide in their senior years. There are many people in this country who have a lot to give, in Parliament and in society, and we want to help and encourage them.
There is strong demand and competing claims for concessionary fares. There are many calls on the Government for extensions to the statutory concessionary bus travel scheme for important groups, including young people in search of work, jobseekers and carers, as well as those who are affected by the changes in the state pension age. Each of those groups may have a different and engaging case for access to cheaper travel, but if the Government are to protect the current scheme, which costs £1 billion a year, we must ensure that it is financially sustainable. With that in mind, I will shortly announce, as part of my reforms in my new role, a series of changes to the way in which we tackle demand-responsive bus travel in rural areas.
Concessionary travel legislation gives all local authorities in England the power to introduce local concessions in addition to their statutory obligations, so that authorities that have a particular problem can deal with it. I am delighted that that has happened in the west midlands, which includes the constituency of the hon. Member for Coventry South: the West Midlands Combined Authority, led by its excellent Mayor, Andy Street, has introduced a women’s concessionary travel scheme that gives free off-peak bus and tram travel to women who live in the west midlands and were born between March and November 1954. More than 9,000 women across the region are set to benefit. Lest anyone should think that I am being politically partial, let me say that a similar scheme has been put in place by Mayor Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, and that schemes that offer free bus travel to residents aged 60 and over exist in London and Merseyside. Local leaders can, and in some cases do, put additional measures in place.
I am grateful that the Minister has set out the fact that that can happen, and that it is a good thing when it does. Has he considered carrying out a cost-benefit analysis, looking at the benefits to society from giving WASPI women the free bus pass that he so praises in the west midlands and in Manchester?
I am grateful for that excellent question. In my new role I am looking, not just at that issue, but at the costs and benefits of widening access to bus and public transport for people in areas where it can tackle disconnection and help to drive up productivity. In my constituency, and possibly in the hon. Gentleman’s, many communities are quite cut off and isolated from the very exciting areas that are creating jobs and have zero unemployment. Cambridge is 40 miles down the road from Mid Norfolk, but I have many constituents who cannot get there, so they cannot get those jobs. As part of my role, I am looking at the cost-benefit ratio for the Treasury of having better travel, better training and better skills.
The Government have committed to seriously transform bus services across the country for the first time in a generation. I therefore welcome, as I hope colleagues across the House will, the announcement of our £220 million package, “A better deal for bus users”. Whatever else one might think about politics in this country at the moment, I welcome the fact that we have a Mayor as Prime Minister—someone who not only gets buses, has designed them and paints them in his spare time, but deeply gets the importance of public transport and interconnected transport for modern connected places. That is, in no small part, why we are introducing our major bus reform, with £50 million to deliver Britain’s first all-electric-bus town or city; £30 million in extra bus funding, paid directly to local authorities to enable them to improve bus services and restore lost services; and £20 million to support demand-responsive services in rural and suburban areas.
On the point that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) raised a moment ago, as Minister for the Future of Transport I am working actively on whether we can take a more intelligent place-based approach. When we look at a county—Norfolk, in my case—or a city, instead of asking how best to spend our money on subsidising bus services, we should ask a different question: “How best can we help the people in this area who need help to get to work or to get access to public services?” I am absolutely sure—indeed, I have seen it working—that by using digitalisation or simple telephone demand systems, we can make it easier for people to log on and signal where they need to go the next day, and we can ensure that we provide for a mixed economy. Whether it is for two or three people in a car-share, 10 people in a minivan, or 20 or 30 people on a bus, we can do much better in using technology to provide smarter public and community-based travel and support services.
I genuinely thank the hon. Member for Coventry South for raising this important matter, for the chance for us all, at the end of this Parliament, to signal that we need to get this right, and for allowing me to highlight what the Government are doing to get it right. As this Parliament winds up, I congratulate him on his very, very distinguished parliamentary career.
Question put and agreed to.