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Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill

Volume 681: debated on Thursday 1 October 2020

Proceedings resumed (Order, this day)

          Considered in Committee (Order, this day)

[DAME ROSIE WINTERTON in the Chair]

Before I ask the Clerk to read the title of the Bill, I should explain that although the Chair of the Committee would normally sit in the Clerk’s chair, in these exceptional circumstances, in order to comply with social distancing requirements, I will remain in the Speaker’s chair, although I will be carrying out the role not of Deputy Speaker, but of Chairman of the Committee. We should be addressed as Chairs of the Committee, rather than Deputy Speakers. Excellent.

Clause 1

UP-RATING OF STATE PENSION AND CERTAIN OTHER BENEFITS FOLLOWING REVIEW IN TAX YEAR 2020-21

I beg to move amendment 1, page 1, line 10, leave out from “State” to the end of line 15 and insert—

“shall lay before Parliament the draft of an order which increases each of the amounts referred to in subsection (1) above by a percentage no less than—

(a) the difference between the general level of earnings at the beginning of the period under review and the general level of earnings at the end of that period, or

(b) the difference between the general level of prices at the beginning of the period under review and the general level of prices at the end of that period, or

(c) 2.5%,

(none) whichever is the greater.”

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to up-rate the benefits to which this Act applies in accordance with the “triple lock” of the higher of increases in prices, increases in earnings or 2.5%.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 2, page 1, line 23, at end insert—

“(2C) No draft order laid before Parliament under section (2A) above may be made in the form of the draft until the Secretary of State has laid before Parliament a report containing an assessment of the impact of its effect on levels of poverty.

(2D) The assessment required by paragraph 2C shall, in particular, consider the impact on levels of poverty in—

(a) Scotland, and

(b) Wales.”

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament an assessment of the impact of the up-rating on levels of poverty, including in Scotland and Wales.

Amendment 3, page 1, line 23, at end insert—

“(2C) No draft order laid before Parliament under section (2A) above may be made in the form of the draft until the Secretary of State has laid before Parliament a report containing an assessment of its impact on persons not ordinarily resident in Great Britain, including the impact of exempting any such persons from entitlement to up-rating increases granted by the order.”

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament an assessment of the impact on those overseas pensioners whose pensions are frozen in accordance with Government policy.

Amendment 4, in clause 1, page 1, line 23, at end insert—

“(2C) No power may be exercised under this or any other Act so as to exempt persons not ordinarily resident in Great Britain from entitlement to up-rating increases granted by an order made by virtue of section (2A) of this Act.”

This amendment would ensure that this up-rating applied to all overseas pensioners, including those whose pensions have previously been frozen in accordance with Government policy.

Amendment 5, page 1, line 23, at end insert—

“(2C) No draft order laid before Parliament under section (2A) above may be made in the form of the draft until the Secretary of State has laid before Parliament a report containing an assessment of its impact on those affected by the changes in the state pension age made by the Pensions Act 1995 and the Pensions Act 2011; and that assessment shall, in particular, consider the impact on women born between 6 April 1950 and 5 April 1960.”

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament an assessment of the impact of the up-rating on those whose state pension age was changed by the Pensions Acts 1995 and 2011, including in particular the group known as the “WASPI women”.

Clause stand part.

Clause 2 stand part.

It is good to see that social distancing is being applied at all times. It was remiss of me not to welcome the Pensions Minister back to his place. I did send him a private message, and thoughts of him and his wife and family are very much with us all in this House. I do welcome him back.

These are five non-controversial amendments, which I hope— [Interruption.] We seem to have a laugh already from the Minister. I do not know why. He has obviously not read these non-controversial amendments. We have tabled some probing amendments and look forward to his response.

The first amendment is a theme that was picked up on Second Reading by the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), which is to ensure that the triple lock is applied in legislation. The Government would have to give an explicit commitment to maintain the triple lock for the year ahead. The amendment seems to speak very much for itself.

Amendment 2 asks for an assessment on poverty, which again was picked up on Second Reading. It is certainly our view that the Government are overseeing some brutal benefit cuts, which have exacerbated poverty, and we require a proper impact assessment of the proposed uprating and the impact that has on poverty levels in each of the devolved nations.

Previous UK Budgets have introduced some fairly punitive cuts to social security—certainly the most punitive in recent memory—and we are starting to see an active reversal of reducing and fighting poverty. The Social Metrics Commission report, which was referred to at an earlier stage, notes that prior to the outbreak 14.4 million people in the UK were already living in poverty, including 33% of children, 22% of all working-age adults and 11% of pension-age adults. The largest employment impacts of covid have been felt by those in the deepest poverty, with many at risk of falling deeper into poverty as a result of job losses, reduced hours or reduced pay. We have tabled amendment 2 to provide for that impact assessment.

Amendments 3 and 4 deal with the issue of frozen pensions. UK pensioners deserve a full uprated state pension, wherever they choose to live. Due to the historical arbitrary bilateral agreements between the UK and other countries around the world, some UK pensioners who live overseas do not have their state pension payments uprated every year. That means that their pension is frozen at the level at which they first received it for the rest of their lives abroad. As of August 2019, that affected over 5,110 UK pensioners, who we believe are being adversely affected by the UK Government’s frozen pension policy. Pensioners who have paid the required national insurance contributions during their working lives in expectation of a decent basic pension and retirement find themselves on incomes that fall in real terms year on year. Pensioners will now face ending their days in poverty because they choose to live in the wrong country, in most cases without any knowledge of the implications of their choice for their pension.

In our view the state pension is a right, not a privilege. UK pensioners who have paid their fair share of national insurance contributions should not have to suffer simply because successive Governments have failed to establish bilateral agreements with certain countries. Therefore, we are asking that amendments 3 and 4 be agreed. I also refer hon. Members to the frozen pensions campaign, of which many hon. Members are members.

Amendment 5 relates to 1950s-born women, an issue that I am sure the Pensions Minister would be disappointed if I did not mention. As a previous Speaker of this House advised in 2015, persistence is not a vice. The amendment would require the Government to publish an assessment of the impact of uprating on those whose state pension age was changed by the Pensions Acts 1995 and 2011, including in particular 1950s-born women, or WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—women, as they are known.

The numbers of ’50s-born women and men claiming working-age benefits has rocketed, and they should have been receiving their state pension. This is a double whammy, with those with occupational defined-contribution pensions to fill the gap being squeezed even further. Those claiming benefits find themselves having lost Government support in many cases, excluded either due to gaps in national insurance contributions, because of low-paid, precarious work, or because of other parts of household income. We are very aware of the history of 1950s-born women and the inequality they have faced throughout many parts of their lives. They now find themselves discriminated against on the basis of so-called equality, while those losing their jobs or seeking work are being further disadvantaged by an unequal playing field and a shrinking job market.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to our amendments.

I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for tabling these amendments, which I would describe as probing amendments to have a wider conversation—perhaps “uncontroversial” is too dramatic a description of what we are discussing today.

On amendment 1, to be fair, the Government have given a clear indication in the opening remarks to this debate of their direction of travel and their commitment to the triple lock this year. It is perhaps worth putting on record the figures from the Library, because I see so much commentary on social media and in the press about affordability. As the Minister said earlier, rounded to the nearest billion, this year this country will spend £102 billion on the state pension—not benefits for pensioners, but the state pension. If we had not operated triple lock from 2011, but had just a double lock of prices or earnings, that figure would be around £100 billion. No one would describe a couple of billion pounds as an insignificant amount of money, but in the context of the UK pensions bill it is 1.2% less. If we had no lock and had simply increased the state pension by earnings since 2011, the bill would be £96 billion, which is £5.5 billion less. However, the crucial point is that that is in the context of the worst earnings growth over the last decade that this country has really ever seen—certainly the worst in modern times. Crucially, that would have meant pensioners becoming worse off, because pensions would not have kept up with prices—something that I think no one here would have been happy to see.

I think we all have to acknowledge that the UK state pension is relatively low by international standards. I am not taking a cheap political pop, and it is appropriate to say that the system is obviously much better when we consider it alongside the NHS, because in some pension systems people have to cover their healthcare costs, and we also have top-ups such as pension credit. The overall system is also clearly much better when we factor in private pensions. However, our basic state pension is relatively low compared with other countries. For instance, a typical woman retiring today will still look to the state pension for over half her retirement income. That is a significant point to bear in mind.

As we have heard, when the coalition Government introduced the pensions reforms that came into effect in 2016, the triple lock was a fundamental part of the calculations for the system. The deal was that people would have to retire later and that some people would not be able to create a state pension that was as high as they could previously have done, but that everyone would get a proper index-linked pension at 67, 68 or 69.

For the sake of intergenerational fairness, I reiterate the point that the triple lock is not just about what today’s pensioners receive but about what the state pension will be by the time today’s workers retire. Too often, this is looked at as a binary choice between two groups, but that is not entirely accurate. Critically, this comes down to the Government having made a manifesto commitment to the triple lock last December, and everyone in the House should hold them to account on that. As was pointed out in the debate on Second Reading, this is the right legislation to pass today to enable the Government to fulfil that promise.

Amendment 2 deals with the uprating’s potential impact on pensioner poverty. We have already had some discussion on this on Second Reading. According to Age UK’s research in 2019, poverty levels among pensioners are lower than they were 20 years ago, but we still have 2 million pensioners in the UK who live in poverty and, worryingly, the numbers have started to edge up in recent years. Too often, we talk about pensioners as one group of people, but there are important differences among our retired citizens in the UK. People who rent, for instance, are much more likely to be in poverty in retirement. A third of private tenants and 29% of social tenants in retirement are in poverty. There are much more significant levels of poverty among black and minority ethnic pensioners. We also have a situation where older pensioners—those over 80—are much more likely to be in poverty. In future years, we might increasingly talk about different groups of pensioners because of that impact, and it would be welcome to hear from the Minister what the Government’s overall plans are. Sometimes we find it hard to get the Government to talk about poverty overall in the UK, and particularly to talk about it in relation to pensioners, so his comments would very welcome at this stage.

Amendments 3 and 4, as the hon. Member for Glasgow South West said, relate to UK citizens living overseas who are not in the European economic area, Switzerland or a country that has a reciprocal agreement with the UK. I have considerable sympathy for this point. I think that many people see their pension entitlement as being related to what they have been able to save and put into it, rather than to the country they live in, but I know that this is a difficult issue that many Governments have struggled with. I understand that there are now 500,000 people living in other countries with their pensions frozen, mainly in India, Australia, Canada and parts of the Caribbean. Again, this is something we have not had an update from the Government on for some time. I receive a lot of correspondence from constituents but also from people because of the shadow Secretary of State brief, and some of the stories are very moving. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to probe the Government on this issue, and I would also appreciate the Government being able to provide an update on the situation and tell us what the outlook might be.

Amendment 5 deals with the 1950s women—the so-called WASPI women—and like the hon. Gentleman, I have considerable sympathy and support for that campaign. As ever, it is worth stressing that this is not about a desire to return the retirement age to what it was in the past, but about what is a reasonable amount of time that a person should be given to plan for their retirement. I have no doubt that the acceleration of the timescale in the 2011 Act produced considerable hardship, and I think the Government are wrong to continue to consider this not to be the issue that it is. The latest research shows that there are 15,000 women over the age of 65 currently claiming universal credit. The Government should give more consideration to what immediate action could be taken to support this group.

One of the options that could be explored for those affected women would be to extend pension credit, alongside the possibilities of that in the Pensions Act 1995, but whichever option the Government choose, this clearly is a pressing problem that is being made worse by the pandemic. To be frank, it does feel at times that the Government just wish this issue would go away. I appreciate that, at the election, there was a significant offer from the Labour party. I have no desire at all to refight the 2019 election, but I think that it was right to raise that issue and to highlight the impact on that group of women. Certainly, when we have the next piece of pensions legislation—the Pension Schemes Bill is coming to the Commons next week—we will be pushing the Government to accelerate the plans for the publicly provided pensions dashboard, because, at the heart of this, is the fact that everyone should have clear, transparent information about what their pension entitlement is and how they can successfully plan for their future and organise their own lives and finances.

Again, I pressure the Government to consider what this pandemic means for those 1950s women and whether there is the opportunity to bring forward more support for them. I ask the Government, in responding to this amendment, to consider that. There will be further opportunities in future to recognise the strain on this cohort of women and what further measures could be done for them.

I thank colleagues for their contributions and will respond briefly because I accept that these are probing amendments. I will most definitely not take up the opportunity to refight the 2019 election with the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), because, frankly, that is probably somewhere he does not wish to go.

On the probing amendment on the triple lock, this is a matter, as was rightly highlighted by the hon. Gentleman, that the Secretary of State herself was pretty unequivocal about. I also welcome his analysis and appreciation that the state pension should not be viewed in isolation, because, quite clearly, it is one element of the various supported benefits that are available—whether a national health service, free at the point of delivery, or the support that is now going through with automatic enrolment, a cross-party policy developed by the Labour party and the Turner commission. Various Ministers in the Labour Government had brought that policy forward as part of the coalition, and it was then implemented by the Conservative Government. That has clearly had an impact, as has, obviously, the expansion of pension credit, and it should be seen in the round rather than on its own in that particular context.

Clearly, the key policy has been the increase in the basic state pension and the fact that we are now £1,900 larger than we were in 2010. Clearly, this is a matter that all parties in this House are supporting on an ongoing basis. I submit with respect that it is entirely appropriate that the Secretary of State should be allowed to bring forward this legislation, as the House seems to deem fit, and should conduct the uprating review and then come back to this House, as she is required to do, and debate the matter in this House.

The issue of pensioner poverty leads me into amendment 5 in respect of the women against state pension inequality. It is unquestionably difficult to predict future poverty rates when one is assessing an impact. The Bill is an enabling piece of legislation. It is not a piece of legislation that then implements a particular policy. There is also a danger with trying to accurately predict future poverty rates, when one is looking at an individual policy and an individual part of a Bill. For example, the published predictions of the Resolution Foundation, which were cited by colleagues earlier on, suggested that relative child poverty after housing costs would increase in 2017-18 when they actually fell. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has not published projections of poverty since 2017.

Let me turn now to the other amendments submitted by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens). In respect of the assessment in amendment 3, I submit that there is a “be careful what you wish for” approach. The assessment is unnecessary and, in reality, unfeasible. The reality is that the UK state pension is payable worldwide and given that the socioeconomic conditions of each country vary enormously, it is simply unfeasible to produce a meaningful assessment of the uprating policy’s impact on overseas recipients, and—this is the crucial point—notwithstanding issues regarding feasibility, the timetable for laying a draft order for uprating does not allow for an assessment to be made. If there were to be an assessment, and the amendment was successful, the reality is that that assessment would not be made in time—by November 2020—with the consequence that the state pension would be frozen. I most definitely suggest, with great respect, that that assessment would be a negative idea for all the pensioners who are seeking an increase, potentially by reason of this legislation.

On amendment 4, this is a long-standing policy pursued by successive post-war Governments, who have taken the view that priority should be given to those living in the United Kingdom in drawing up expenditure plans for pensioner benefits. There are no plans to change that policy. The up-rating of the state pension is intended to provide support for pensioners who live in the UK.

I turn to the perennial issue that the hon. Gentleman seeks to raise—I do not diminish the fact that he wishes to raise it, as did the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde from the Opposition Front Bench—in respect of the changes to the state pension increase, which were, of course, supported for 13 years by the Labour Government when they were in power and, in fact, were enhanced by the 2007 Act. It is not the Government’s intention to amend the 1995 Act, the 2007 Act or the 2011 Act. Clearly, if the Scottish Government wish to act, sections 24, 26 and 28 of the Scotland Act 2016 give powers to the Scottish Government to intervene in Holyrood if they choose to do so. We would certainly resist any changes in this Parliament.

I take the point made by the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde about the 2019 election and the debate on that matter, but since then, there has been the Court of Appeal’s decision in respect of the court case, which unequivocally found for this Government, the coalition Government, the Labour Government and the Conservative Government, dating back to 1995 on all issues on these grounds, including notice. With respect, I believe that the matter should rest there.

The long and the short of it is that I would resist the amendments, and I invite the hon. Member for Glasgow South West, with due respect, not to press them.

I would love to say that I am shocked and stunned that the Government have not accepted any of the amendments, but that would perhaps be an oversell. As the Minister said, they are probing amendments. He will be well aware that we will return to these topics, and I invite Members of the other place perhaps to pick them up when they discuss the Bill. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Bill read the Third time and passed.