House of Commons
Wednesday 7 October 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
I have regular discussions with my Cabinet colleagues, including the Chancellor, on all aspects of how the UK Government continue to support Scotland’s economy. The Chancellor recently announced a package of measures that will continue to support jobs and help businesses through the uncertain months ahead.
At the height of the biggest economic downturn this country has seen in our lifetime, the UK Government stepped up and protected nearly 1 million Scottish jobs through the job retention scheme and the self-employment income support scheme. Does the Secretary of State agree that those measures show that the UK Government have done everything possible to support people’s livelihoods across the entirety of the United Kingdom?
I note that the Government’s latest package of measures for the self-employed slashes their support from 70% of income to just 20%. And that is only for those who are eligible—many self-employed people have not received any help at all from the Chancellor. How many self-employed people in Scotland have fallen through the financial safety net, and what is the Secretary of State doing to help them?
The hon. Lady will know that we have brought in a new set of measures, as she said. There is the self-employed support scheme and the new job retention scheme. We have made a cut in VAT for the tourism and hospitality sector, and introduced the kickstart scheme. The self-employed income support scheme was a broad scheme. By definition, in a broad scheme it is inevitable that some people will sadly miss out, but I would say that in Scotland 283,000 grants were given, which came to some £777 million of support. The scheme now continues for another six months.
Many hard-working people in Hertford and Stortford are set to benefit from the introduction of the job support scheme, offering employers and workers a transition from furlough. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this job-saving measure will have the same impact north of the border, and that Scotland shares in this Government’s focus on jobs, jobs, jobs?
Businesses across Scotland, particularly in the hospitality, tourism and culture sectors, are still closed or nowhere near back to any sort of normality. With additional restrictions being reintroduced as cases have rocketed in Scotland, things are only going to get worse for those sectors. The high-profile case of Cineworld is the latest in a very large number of hammer blows to Scottish jobs. The Government do not seem to see that the health and economic responses to covid are one and the same thing. What message does the Secretary of State have for workers on the precipice of losing their jobs and business owners on the verge of losing their viable businesses, or is it simply the flippant response, as the Chancellor said yesterday to the culture sector, that they simply have to retrain and get new jobs?
In this pandemic, the Chancellor has been very clear that he cannot save every business and every job. The hon. Gentleman mentions Cineworld. Independent cinemas were supported through the culture fund to the tune of £97 million in Barnett money. As I said, sadly we know we cannot save every business. Retraining programmes and the kickstart scheme are being put in place, and we have reduced VAT for hospitality, leisure and tourism to 5%. To protect the Scottish economy, I encourage the Scottish Government to make the restrictions coming forward as local as possible.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State, but the reality on the ground is that the Chancellor’s measures simply do not go far enough to protect jobs. The employees and businesses in the sectors hardest hit will need more support, and what they are getting from the Chancellor’s announcement is less support.
Another area critical for jobs is the Scotch whisky industry. This week marks one year since the United States announced a 25% tariff on Scotch whisky. Figures from the Scotch Whisky Association show that that has led to a devastating 32% drop in US Scotch whisky exports, costing a massive £360 million. Given the thousands of jobs in the industry that this supports, rather than the Secretary of State just telling us that he will raise the issue again with the International Trade Secretary, what is he actually going to do to encourage the US to lift the tariffs on Scotch whisky, or is this just another example of what his new Scottish Conservative leader describes as the Tories not caring about Scotland?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very serious issue not just for the whisky industry, but for biscuits and cashmere. I am pleased that biscuits are now off the tariff carousel. The Boeing-Airbus dispute has been many years in the making. It is unfair. It is harmful to both industry and consumers. However, in the trade talks that have opened up with the US, we have now got agreement to have a bilateral discussion—in other words, not using the EU negotiators anymore—with the US. The good news I can tell him is that we have moved to a new phase. The Secretary of State for International Trade this week is starting discussions to try to resolve this problem.
I very much welcome the fact that 11,000 or more of my constituents have benefited from the furlough scheme. Covid is changing our economy. We therefore need to focus on creating new sustainable jobs. That is why it is even more important that we press ahead in the south of Scotland with the borderlands growth deal. Will my right hon. Friend agree that we need renewed impetus into the deal, in particular into delivering the mountain bike innovation centre of Scotland in Innerleithen?
I thank my right hon. Friend for the invaluable work that he did in bringing the borderlands growth deal to fruition. I am also delighted to inform him that the business case for the mountain bike innovation centre was delivered by the Borderlands Partnership only yesterday. It obviously has to go through further assessments in the usual way, but I am well aware of and support the initiative, because mountain biking in what is a very beautiful part of Scotland is an incredibly popular sport, and it is locally a very popular initiative.
Knowing as we do the negative consequences that the delay to the autumn Budget will have on the Scottish Parliament passing its budget, will the Minister tell us if he made his Cabinet colleagues and the Chancellor aware of these negative consequences, or was he himself unaware?
We have had one Budget this year in March. That was slightly delayed and, at the time, the then Finance Secretary in Scotland, Derek Mackay, said that that was going to be disastrous for Scotland and that it would be unable to set its budget, but that was incorrect. The Finance Secretary was able to set her budget, and the message goes out now from the Treasury, as it did then: if she has any problems setting her budget, Kate Forbes should come forward and talk to us.
I say to the hon. Lady that I do not agree that there are negative consequences. The Chancellor and I have had discussions on this matter. I make it quite clear that if Kate Forbes has any questions on setting her budget, she should come forward and ask us. The offer was made to Derek Mackay when he made similar cry-wolf stories back in March, when there was a delay, but no questions were asked and nothing came forward because they had all the information they needed to set their budget.
The Union connectivity review announced by the Prime Minister will improve transport infrastructure across the country and bring jobs and investment to Scotland. I assume that Scotland’s two Governments will work together on this ambitious programme, so will the Secretary of State outline what response there has been from the Scottish Government so that the two Governments work together to deliver jobs and progress right across the country?
The Union connectivity review, which is being led by Sir Peter Hendy, who I met yesterday, is a really important initiative for Scotland and the whole United Kingdom, and it will create very exciting opportunities. However, I am concerned that Transport Scotland has been told by the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, Michael Matheson, not to engage with the review, and I urge Mr Matheson to think again and to ensure that his officials take part. It cannot be in Scotland’s interest for the SNP to play politics with an issue that is so important to our economic future.
The Secretary of State says that the job retention scheme is a great example of their Union, but according to his boss, the ever-cheerful hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), the Westminster Tories are not interested in their Union anymore. He says:
“The case for separation is…being made more effectively in London than…in Edinburgh”.
Is his boss right? Are the Westminster Tories full of defeatism about their Union? And if they do not care about their Union, why on earth should the Scottish people?
First, the new leader of the Scottish Conservatives cares deeply about the Union, and that is something that we cannot say for the Scottish nationalist party. But I would go further: he was making the very clear point that Westminster should not devolve and forget. Huge sums of money and support go to Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom, and he was just pointing out that Departments in Whitehall should stay focused, stay connected and follow up on those funds.
The Secretary of State and his colleagues are given to chest-beating about the tremendous amount of revenue flowing to Scotland to get us through the pandemic—every penny of it, of course, borrowed. Will he tell me and the people of Scotland why those borrowing decisions are better made here than they would be by the people of Scotland in Scotland, and why we are habitually brow-beaten into being grateful for a service that we never asked for?
Autumn Budget: Devolved Administrations
I have regular discussions with my ministerial colleagues and Scottish Government Ministers on economic and fiscal matters. The Treasury has made an unprecedented up-front guarantee to the devolved Administrations, guaranteeing that Scotland will receive at least £6.5 billion in additional funding this year on top of its Budget 2020 funding.
Last year’s delay to the UK Budget saw knock-on delays in the Scottish Government and local government being able to set their own budgets, with the result that many local authorities were forced to separate setting their council tax rate from settling their revenue budgets. Given this year’s delay, which has united devolved Finance Ministers in condemnation across these islands, would the Minister like to take this opportunity to apologise for the further uncertainty and risk that his Government are about to inflict on local and national Government in Scotland?
First, I repeat the point made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that we have heard this “cry wolf” story before from the Scottish Government. The fact of the matter is that, as well as the guaranteed minimum funding for this year, the Chancellor has asked the Office for Budget Responsibility to provide forecasts next month. Together with the spending review, which will happen this autumn, that will give the Scottish Government plenty of certainty in setting their budgets.
This is just the disrespect agenda in action. The Tories never really wanted devolution anyway, and now they do not really give a stuff about whether or not it works properly. If they do not think that people in Scotland should not be in control of their finances, why will they not give the Scottish Finance Minister the information she needs to be able to set the budget properly? If they will not give her the information she needs, why not just give her the power to set our budget properly, without any recourse to Westminster at all?
I shall make a number of points in response to that. First, the Scottish Finance Minister is very welcome to contact me and explain why she has underspent the budget every year since the SNP has been in control of the Scottish Government. I have already explained in reply to the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) that there will be plenty of information. The evidence is in the fact that this year we have guaranteed a minimum spend in addition to the usual budget of £6.5 billion. Only the separatists could call that a small amount of money.
The Scottish Government’s budget has been boosted by £6.5 billion to help to deal with the coronavirus. That is a true mark of the importance of the four nations working together. However, it was revealed last week by the Scottish Government’s Finance Secretary that £500 million of that has yet to be allocated. Does the Minister agree that the Scottish Government should be prioritising that funding to those people most in need in Scotland just now?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and it is not just last year: as I said earlier, in every single year since the separatists took control of the Scottish Government, they have underspent their budget. It may come as news to the House, but under the fiscal framework agreement, which was made between the Scottish Government and UK Government, underspends can be transferred between fiscal years.
This week is Challenge Poverty Week in Scotland. Statistics show that almost a fifth of people in Scotland are living in relative poverty after 10 years of a UK Conservative Government and 13 years of an SNP Government in Holyrood. This should bring shame on both parties. Councils are critical to looking after the most vulnerable in society, yet they have seen their budgets slashed in recent years. It is not just the Tories who enjoy cutting budgets. The SNP has disproportionately cut local government funding since 2013-14, taking almost £1 billion out of those budgets. Will the Minister press the Chancellor to consider the impact of his economic policies on poverty in Scotland, and while he is at it, in his conversations with Scottish Ministers, will he ask them to stop disproportionately cutting local government budgets in Scotland?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. When we recover from the coronavirus period, we will, to coin a phrase, build back better. To that extent, I have involved the Equality and Human Rights Commission in Scotland in my regular meetings with business groups and others in Scotland to ensure that all parts of Scotland can flourish once we emerge from this. He is also right to highlight the fact that the centralising separatist Government in Scotland suck powers and money from local authorities in Scotland. I have met representatives of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and they are deeply concerned about this.
The UK Government’s decision to end the job retention scheme at the end of this month will throw tens of thousands of Scots into unemployment. What effect does the Minister think that will have on poverty levels in my constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran and in Scotland as a whole?
The job retention scheme was the right intervention at the right time and has supported tens of thousands of jobs in Scotland, but across the world it is right that we move to more targeted measures of support. The job retention scheme was just one part of a whole suite of policies and support that we are putting in place and that will help to support Scottish businesses and employees in the months and years to come.
Strengthening the Union
The Government have always stressed the importance of the Union. The UK is a family of nations that shares social, cultural and economic ties that, together, make us far safer, more secure and more prosperous. As we have seen throughout the covid crisis, it is the economic strength of the Union and our commitment to the sharing and pooling of resources that has supported jobs and businesses throughout Scotland.
The Government are committed to their levelling-up agenda throughout the UK, as part of their plan to unleash the power of our Union. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK shared prosperity fund is an opportunity for our UK Government to be more ambitious in their pursuit of spreading the benefits of being part of our Union? Will the UK Government show their funding in the same way as EU funding has been prominently displayed?
Yes, I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Not only will the shared prosperity fund help, but thanks to the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, the UK Government will be in the place of the EU—where the EU previously spent money in Scotland and other parts of the UK, the UK Government will do that. The Scottish National party has a serious objection to that. It is a strange ideology from the nationalists that they object to money coming from the Great British Government but are quite happy to take it from the EU.
I welcome the launch of the new UK Government trade hub in Edinburgh, which will not only strengthen the Union but help to support Scottish businesses so that they can thrive internationally. Does my right hon. Friend agree that expanding the export of world-famous Scottish products, such as Scotch whisky, will help to give our economy a much-needed boost as we recover from the coronavirus across the whole UK?
Darlington is the birthplace of the modern railway. Stronger railway links between Darlington and Scotland will be vital for the success of our internal market. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the independent Union connectivity review, led by Sir Peter Hendy, which will look at how we can improve our transport infrastructure to bring our communities closer and level up access to jobs and opportunities?
I absolutely will. The Union connectivity review will explore ways to build back better. As I said, I met Sir Peter Hendy yesterday, and it is extremely disappointing—it is worth making this point again—that Transport Secretary Matheson has instructed his officials not to engage in the review, to the detriment of Scotland and her economy.
Covid-19: Support for Businesses
I have regular discussions with my ministerial colleagues, including the Chancellor, on all aspects of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in Scotland. We have taken substantial action to support the economy from the shock of covid-19—for example, more than 65,000 businesses in Scotland have benefited from more than £2.3 billion of support through Government-supported loan schemes.
Productivity rates in Scotland are some of the very best in the UK. Does my hon. Friend agree that the vital extra support going to Scottish companies at this time, as he just mentioned, plus the extra £6.5 billion that the UK Government have made available to the Scottish Government, means that Scottish business will be well placed to help to lead a UK-wide recovery?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Let me just quantify the support that we are giving on a per capita basis: it is around £1,200 extra for each man, woman and child in Scotland. He is absolutely right that Scottish business is in a good place. I have regular meetings with many companies that are putting forward very innovative schemes that we are supporting through the city and regional growth deal package to help us build back better when we emerge from this crisis.
Covid-19: Response Throughout the UK
An effective response to covid-19 does indeed need to be a co-ordinated response across the UK. On 25 September, the UK Government and the three devolved Administrations published a joint statement on our collective approach to responding to covid-19. We reaffirmed our shared commitment to suppressing the virus to the lowest possible level and keeping it there while we strive to return life to as normal as possible for as many people and businesses as possible.
I raised this matter with the Secretary of State for Health yesterday, because of local concern that people in the south of England were being asked to travel to Inverness for covid tests. That is why I am concerned about the level of co-operation between the two Governments. May I press the Minister further to give me specific examples of co-operation between the two Governments?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Like me, although on a much larger scale, he has a rural constituency—I believe it is one of the largest rural constituencies, if not the largest. Pooling resources and using the strength of the UK economy enables the UK Government to support jobs and businesses, but the decision making on public health of Ministers in those devolved Administrations has been fully respected. There are examples of UK-funded measures that have been delivered but managed locally by the devolved Governments: we have six UK-funded drive-through testing facilities; four, or five as I believe it is, walk-through testing facilities; and up to 22 mobile testing facilities, some of which have been used to effect in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
Covid-19 has been rising rapidly in many parts of Scotland and, indeed, across much of the north of England, including in my own constituency, leading to the introduction of tighter restrictions. Given the impact that these restrictions are now having on the economy, particularly on those hardest-hit sectors, will the Minister ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to revisit his previous refusal to continue the furlough scheme with a sectoral-based approach in those nations and regions of the UK that are worst affected?
The UK Government have provided a host of measures to support tourism and hospitality businesses throughout this crisis. As well as the job retention scheme, which has already been extended to the end of October, new measures announced in the Chancellor’s winter economic statement include the new job support scheme, the extension of the very welcome reduction in VAT to 5% for hospitality and tourism, the deferral of VAT and other tax payments and greater flexibility in the paying back of Government-backed loans.
Covid-19 Restrictions: Tourism and Hospitality
Both public health and tourism policies are devolved to the Scottish Government. However, I and my Office are in regular discussions with both the UK Government and the Scottish Government to identify sectoral issues in Scotland due to lockdown restrictions and co-ordinated areas of UK-wide support to the sector.
Scotland’s tourism and hospitality industries have been hammered by the coronavirus restrictions and by the impact on international travel. What specific discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Chancellor on providing additional sector-specific support to these industries?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State described earlier the ongoing discussions not just between the Scotland Office and the Scottish Government, but between the Scotland Office and other UK Departments, including the Treasury, on a wide range of issues, including the impact on the tourism sector. Tourism is one of Scotland’s most important industries. This Office and I have spoken regularly with businesses and industry bodies in the past few months, and they have outlined their concerns and also their desire to reopen and to stay open as the best way to stimulate recovery.
Scotland’s drinks industry has been hit hard by the US tariff on Scotch whisky as a result of the US-EU trade dispute. What discussions has the Secretary of State or the Minister had with the International Trade Secretary on this, and will the Secretary of State use his new position on the Board of Trade to stand up for Scottish industry?
The very short answer to that last question is: yes, of course. In response to the earlier part of the hon. Lady’s question, I can say from personal experience—having worked as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department for International Trade for a while—that the Secretary of State for International Trade is fully committed to getting a deal and removing those tariffs. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland said earlier, the discussions have moved on to another phase in which bilateral discussions, outside of the EU negotiation team, will be taking place.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Next month, a book that I have written, called “Ayes and Ears: a Survivor’s Guide to Westminster”, will be published. Part of it covers Brexit—and, yes, by inference, everyone will be in the book. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the last general election was not fought on how political parties might handle the coronavirus pandemic, but was categorically about ensuring that the result of the 2016 referendum is implemented in full? Will he confirm that he intends to see that happen?
This is a crucial moment if we are to gain control of the virus, yet for eight days nearly 16,000 positive tests were missed by the Government. That means that about 48,000 contacts were not traced. As of yesterday, thousands had still not been reached. Does the Prime Minister accept that this very basic mistake has put lives at risk?
This is certainly a problem that we have fixed. The computer glitch and error to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman refers has been addressed. All the 16,000 people he refers to have, in fact, got their positive test results and should be self-isolating. As soon as we became aware of the missing data, we brought in 800 people to chase up those index cases, and we continue to chase their contacts. I think it will be for the reassurance of the House and the country that the missing data points do not, now that we look at them, change in any way our assessment of the epidemiology—the spread of the disease. That is why we continue with our package to suppress the virus not just nationally, but locally and regionally.
This is not just a technical issue; it is a human issue. The attempted reassurance by the Prime Minister just does not wash. In Greater Manchester, some of the missing cases date back to 18 September. That is two and a half weeks ago. There are three very serious consequences: first, it is now much harder to reach the contacts of the 16,000 people after so long; secondly, even if they are contacted successfully, for many the self-isolation period has already expired; and, thirdly, important decisions on local restrictions were made using the wrong data. Some £12 billion has been invested in this system, and yet a basic Excel error brings it down. No wonder it has been described as “intergalactic” incompetence. Why, at this crucial moment, did it take so long to catch this error and address it?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman cannot have it both ways; he cannot call it a human error and a basic Excel error. Let me just remind the House and the right hon. and learned Gentleman of what I just said. The crucial thing is that, yes, of course there has been an error, but the data points—the cases—that we are looking at do not change the basic distribution of the disease. It is very important for people to understand that. That is really what he was, I think, trying to drive at. Although the cases are considerably up across the country this week on last week, the seven-day statistics show that there are now 497 cases per 100,000 in Liverpool, 522 cases per 100,000 in Manchester and 422 in Newcastle. The key point there is that the local, regional approach combined with the national measures remains correct, I think, because two thirds of those admitted into hospital on Sunday were in the north-west, the north-east and Yorkshire. That is why, I think, that approach continues to be correct.
The Prime Minister says that it does not alter the basic distribution, yet thousands of people have been walking round when they should have been self-isolating. It patently has an effect on the basic distribution.
If this was an isolated example, I think the British people might understand, but there is a pattern here. On care homes, protective equipment, exams, testing: the Prime Minister ignores the warning signs, hurtles towards a car crash, then looks in the rear mirror and says, “What’s all that about?” It is quite literally government in hindsight. Today it is 100 days since the first local restrictions were introduced. Twenty local areas in England have been under restrictions for two months. Prime Minister, in 19 of those 20 areas, infection rates have gone up. In Rossendale and Hyndburn they have gone up tenfold. Yet all the Prime Minister has to say is, “It’s too early to say if restrictions are working.” But it is obvious that something has gone wrong here, so what is he going to do about it?
As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, we are continuing to provide support, with £5 billion of support for the north-west and north-east for the lockdowns—the extra restrictions—that they are experiencing. We will continue to support all areas across the country that have to go into local measures. Two weeks ago, I set out that strategy. I said that we would go forward with the national measures such as intensifying the rule of six—making sure that we reinforced the rule of six. Two weeks ago, the right hon. and learned Gentleman supported it. In fact, I think he went on the Nick Ferrari show saying, “I support the rule of six—yes I do.” Yet last night the Labour party abstained on the rule of six. He asks what we are doing to enforce local measures; he cannot even be bothered to get his own side to support them himself.
For the Prime Minister’s benefit, let me take this slowly for him. We support measures to protect health. We want track and trace to work. But the Government are messing it up and it is our duty to point it out.
Let us get back to the questions—because these are not trick questions; I have the figures here, Prime Minister. In Bury, when restrictions were introduced, the infection rate was around 20 per 100,000; today it is 266. In Burnley, it was 21 per 100,000 when restrictions were introduced; now it is 434. In Bolton, it was 18 per 100,000; now it is 255. The Prime Minister really needs to understand that local communities are angry and frustrated. So will he level with the people of Bury, Burnley and Bolton and tell them: what does he actually think the problem is here?
The problem is, alas, that the disease continues to spread in the way that I described to the House earlier. The figures that the right hon. and learned Gentleman gives are no surprise, because they are fundamentally a repetition of what I have already told the House. What we are doing is a combination of national and local measures which one week he comes to this House and supports, and from which, the next week, mysteriously, he decides to whisk his support away. He cannot even be bothered to mobilise his own Benches to support something as fundamental as the rule of six, which he himself said only three weeks ago that he supported. He cannot continue to have it both ways. Does he support the rule of six—yes or no?
Yes. But if the Prime Minister cannot see and hear local communities when they say that the infection rate has gone up tenfold under restrictions, and he does not realise that is a problem, then that is part of the problem.
There is a further cause of anger—[Interruption.] Prime Minister, if you actually listen to the question, we might get on better—which is the lack of clarity about why particular restrictions have been introduced. For example, in the Prime Minister’s own local authority of Hillingdon, today there are 62 cases per 100,000, yet no local restrictions, but in 20 local areas across England, restrictions were imposed when infection rates were much lower. In Kirklees, it was just 29 per 100,000. Local communities genuinely do not understand these differences. Can he please explain for them?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has heard from me and heard repeatedly from the Government why we are bringing in differentiated local restrictions. I have just given the figures for the north-east and the north-west. I wish I could pretend that everything is going to be rosy in the midlands or, indeed, in London, where alas we are also seeing infections rise, but that is why we need a concerted national effort. We need to follow the guidance. We need “Hands, face, space” and people to get a test if they have symptoms and to obey the rule of six. I think it quite extraordinary that the right hon. and learned Gentleman just said that he personally supports the rule of six while allowing his entire party to abstain.
The Prime Minister cannot explain why an area goes into restriction, he cannot explain what the different restrictions are and he cannot explain how restrictions end. This is getting ridiculous. Next week, this House will vote on whether to approve the 10 pm rule. The Prime Minister knows that there are deeply held views across the country in different ways on this. One question is now screaming out: is there a scientific basis for the 10 pm rule? The public deserve to know and Parliament deserves to know. If there is a basis, why do the Government not do themselves a favour and publish it? If not, why do the Government not review the rule? Will the Prime Minister commit to publishing the scientific basis for the 10 pm rule before this House votes on it next Monday?
The basis on which we set out the curtailment of hospitality was the basis on which the right hon. and learned Gentleman accepted it two weeks ago, which is to reduce the spread of the virus. That is our objective. That is why we introduced the rule of six, which again he supported only two weeks ago, yet last night the Opposition abstained and today they are withdrawing their support for other restrictions. What kind of signal does that send to the people of the country about the robustness of the Labour party and its willingness to enforce the restrictions? That is not new leadership; that is no leadership.
We are taking the tough decisions necessary, imposing restrictions—which we do not want to do—locally and nationally to fight the virus to keep young people and kids in education and to keep the bulk of our economy moving. At the same time, we are getting on with our agenda—our lifetime skills guarantee and our green industrial revolution—by which we will take this country forward and build back better.
This week is Challenge Poverty Week, and I would like to thank all the organisations across Scotland and the United Kingdom that are helping families through the most difficult of times. Their dedication and commitment should inspire every single one of us in the fight to end poverty. With mass unemployment looming, having the right social security measures in place to help families over the long term is vital. The Chancellor has so far refused to commit to make the £20 universal credit uplift permanent, which means that 16 million people face losing an income equivalent of £1,040 overnight. Will the Prime Minister now commit to making the £20 uplift to universal credit permanent?
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s support for universal credit, which the Conservative party introduced. I am proud that we have been able to uprate it in the way that we have, and we will continue to support people across the country, with the biggest cash increase in the national living wage this year. The result of universal credit so far has been that there are 200,000 fewer people in absolute poverty now than there were in 2010. I know that he was not a keen supporter of universal credit when it was introduced, but I welcome his support today.
One of these days, the Prime Minister might consider answering the question—it was about making the £20 increase permanent. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has painted a clear picture for his Government: strip the £20 universal credit uplift away, and 700,000 more people, including 300,000 children, could move into poverty, and 500,000 more people could end up in severe poverty—more than 50% below the poverty line. The Resolution Foundation has called the £20 uplift a “living standards lifeline” for millions of families during the pandemic. Challenge Poverty Week is a moment for all of us to take unified action against poverty. The Prime Minister has an opportunity here and now. Will he do the right thing, will he answer the question, and will he make the £20 uplift permanent?
I do not want in any way to underestimate the importance of what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. It is vital that we tackle poverty in this country. That is why this Government are so proud of what we did with the national living wage. We are putting another £1.7 billion into universal credit by 2023-24. If that does not give him the answer he wants, he can ask again next week. We will continue to support people and families across this country, and we will continue to spend £95 billion a year in this country on working-age welfare. But the best thing we can do for people on universal credit is to get this virus down, get our economy moving again and get them back into well-paid, high-skilled jobs—and that is what we are going to do.
I thank my hon. Friend, who represents a constituency that I once fought for—he represents it well, but I do not think I fought for it very well. I know the A483/A5 connection well, and Sir Peter will certainly look at that scheme and many others in his Union connectivity review.
The Prime Minister is passionate about the Union, as am I, and I welcome the review of connectivity within the Union. Does he agree that, while it is good to consider connectivity across the Irish sea, it would be devastating to Northern Ireland to have barriers to trade in the Irish sea? In the remaining days of the negotiations with the European Union, may I urge him to hold firm and to commit to protecting Northern Ireland’s place within the internal market of the United Kingdom by ensuring full and unfettered access for businesses that trade in either direction and for the consumers who benefit from Northern Ireland being an integral part of the United Kingdom?
The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right, and I am sure his words will have been heard loud and clear by our friends in Brussels, but just in case they have not, of course we have the excellent United Kingdom Internal Market Bill to prevent such barriers from arising.
Yes, I can indeed confirm to my hon. Friend that, in addition to the particular support that he mentions, we are directing another £160 billion of support for business and local authorities and business improvement districts, and I am more than happy to congratulate The Only Way is Melts, by Tracy in Radcliffe.
It is very important that students should return to university in the way that they have, and I want to thank the overwhelming majority of students for the way that they have complied with the guidance, complied with the regulations and are doing what they can to suppress it. Clearly, there are particular problems in some parts of the country, which we have discussed at length already, and we will be pursuing the measures that we have outlined to bring them down in those areas, and I hope that the hon. Member will support them.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of the conference and exhibition industry. I think it is worth about £90 billion to this country. It is of massive importance. It was a very difficult decision to take to pause conferences and exhibitions. We want to get them open as fast as possible. Of course, they have had a lot of support, as I indicated earlier—the £190 billion package is there to help businesses of all kinds—but the best way forward is to get the kind of testing systems that will enable not just conferences and businesses of that kind but all types and even theatres to reopen and get back to normality. That is what we are aiming for.
That is simply not what the Chancellor said. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has already provided £1.7 billion of support for the creative culture industries and for sport. The hon. Member is right, by the way, to identify the massive economic value of those industries, and that is why we are supporting them through these tough times. That is why we are working to get the virus down and get our economy back to normal as fast as we possibly can, and I hope that he will support our strategy.
I thank my right hon. Friend, and we are committed to protecting areas such as the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty. I understand that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is considering each of the recommendations in Julian Glover’s review, and following the correct procedures. I hope my right hon. Friend will acknowledge—I hope she knows—that the Government are also leading the way globally in protecting biodiversity, habitats and species, and that is what we will be doing at the G7, and in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow next year.
I share the hon. Lady’s feeling about the loss of jobs, and the potential loss of jobs, and it is wretched that we have to do this. We have already allocated £2.6 billion to the north-west, and Knowsley in particular has had £12 million, and Liverpool another £40 million. We will continue to provide support across the country, and to put our arms around jobs and livelihoods in the country, as we have done throughout this pandemic.
Yes, indeed. We are building a new hospital at Basingstoke and North Hampshire Hospital, and there will be a major refurbishment at Royal Hampshire County Hospital in Winchester. We will continue to support Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust as it develops its plans, including with local infrastructure such as Alton Community Hospital.
The hon. Lady is entirely right to raise the issue of support for hospitality. In areas that face tougher restrictions we will continue to do whatever we can to provide support. She will be familiar with the big package that we have already brought in. I think that the Opposition really need to decide whether they are in favour of the plan to reduce transmission to bear down on the virus or not. If they are, I am afraid that they must recognise that there are consequences of that plan.
I thank my hon. Friend, because it is indeed part of our plan to fuel a green economic recovery that we put £14 million from the Getting Building fund into Peterborough to accelerate the delivery of a key new educational and research facility. We are giving Peterborough another £1 million of accelerated payment for investment in capital projects to enable it to build back better.
That is exactly what this Government were elected to do in 2019. We were elected on a manifesto not just to build 40 more hospitals—now 48—and put 20,000 more police on our streets but to unite our country and level up across our country, and unleash the potential of the whole United Kingdom. That is what we are going to do.
There is abundant brownfield space across the whole UK, and I speak as someone who used to be the planning authority for London, and I know whereof I speak. The opportunity is there. In many cases, the restrictions are caused by cumbersome planning procedures, but they are also caused by the inability of young people to get the mortgages that they want to buy the homes that they want. That is why we are bringing forward fixed-rate mortgages for 95% of the value of a property to help young people on to the property ladder. We are going to turn generation rent into generation buy.
Virtual participation in proceedings concluded (Order, 4 June.)
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On Monday, I suggested that you and your office had denied me a speaking slot in the debate we were discussing. I had of course put in the request late, and owing to the new rules that do not allow on-the-day requests, it was not down to your office’s discretion whether I could speak. I want to make sure that it is clear for the record that no slight on my part was meant towards you at all.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Since the end of summer I, like many other Members of the House, have tabled a series of questions to the Health Secretary on issues that are important to my constituents. It is now way past the five sitting days for most of those questions and I am still waiting for a response. A question on 8 September was about when the Health Secretary had met families who had lost loved ones during the pandemic, and another on 15 September was about how private sector contracts are letting down people in Luton North who need covid tests. I also asked about data on the number of people who are trying to get tested in Luton North; for the Health Secretary to give evidence for the 10 pm pub curfew; about targets for this year’s flu jabs; and about the track and trace app.
These questions were all asked in good faith and I know that my constituents are keen to know the answers to them. It is our job as Members of Parliament to hold the Government to account, but getting a straight answer out of the Health Secretary is almost as hard as getting a test at the moment. Will you therefore please advise, Mr Speaker, on how we are supposed to get answers from the Health Secretary to straightforward questions when he will not reply to letters, will not reply to our questions and, when he is in the Chamber, accuses Members of using divisive language when we just raise our concerns?
This comes on the back of what was said yesterday. I am getting very frustrated, and Members of Parliament are rightly getting frustrated, by the very late arrival of answers to questions—and in a lot of cases, Members are still waiting for them. It is totally unacceptable. We are the representatives of the electorate. We must get this message through to the Department. The hon. Lady’s frustration is shared. That is the worst part: this is not an isolated case.
I would say, however, that there are other ways; the hon. Lady could write to the Procedure Committee to explain her frustration. In the end, this affects all Members, not those on one particular side. That is the big issue. The people we represent want the answers. I would suggest that the hon. Lady writes to the Procedure Committee, but in the end the responsibility lies with the Department of Health and Social Care. It is for the Secretary of State to ensure that his Department is more proactive in the answering of letters. I understand that he may have a lot of questions put to him, but in the end—bring the extra staff in—they must be answered. I will ensure that this issue is taken up again with the Leader of the House, who I know is as frustrated as the hon. Lady’s good self and me.
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish minimum standards regarding searches and assessments of risk for solicitors and licensed conveyancers acting on behalf of purchasers of residential properties; and for connected purposes.
The main aim of this Bill is to help protect people who wish to buy a house—sometimes their first home—from being exposed to risks that currently are not sufficiently visible or understood at the point of purchase. The Bill does not propose radical changes to the conveyancing process; nor, indeed, does it propose changes to the development control system, although some may argue that that might be desirable to further de-risk the process for homebuyers.
I will set out two examples to illustrate the types of difficulties faced by homebuyers. Both are real cases of people who have been let down by a system that has not kept pace with an industry that has become increasingly cut-throat. The system does not offer enough consumer protections for people who are about to make possibly the single most important investment of their lives, while the transaction itself is mired in documents and legal complexities that are rarely fully understood.
My first example is of a developer who purchases land and applies for planning permission, which is granted subject to conditions. Those conditions are wide ranging and set out requirements of the developer in order for them to receive final planning certification at the end of the development. One such condition may be that soil sampling is undertaken to establish whether any contamination is present; another may be that properties must not be occupied until planning conditions have been fully satisfied.
That developer set up a limited company for the sole purpose of the development and started marketing the site almost immediately. Some properties were sold off-plan; some were sold when the buildings were largely complete. When the final plot was sold, the developer immediately liquidated the company. That means the legal entity that sold the properties no longer existed.
It became apparent immediately that a significant number of planning conditions had not been met: no soil sampling, no preventing of owners from occupying, and no top coating of road services or pavements to bring them up to council adoptable standards. Drainage was not connected properly, and the new homeowners had a huge list of unfinished works and complaints about poor standards of work.
At that point, the homeowners turned to the council for help, in the expectation that it would have the ability, as a local regulatory body, somehow to fix things. It transpired that any regulatory liabilities relating to the properties transferred to the property owners at point of sale, and that if the council chose to enforce breaches of planning, it would have to pursue the new homeowners.
It is important to note that the current system places no requirements on local planning authorities to pursue developers to evidence compliance with planning conditions. The expectation is that a developer will want final planning certification, but that is all it is: an expectation. What if a developer does not care about obtaining the certification? Their objective is to build, sell and maximise profit. So here we are; we have just purchased a property in good faith following the advice of the conveyancing solicitor—who, by the way, was recommended by the developer—and the property does not have planning permission. Certification costs could be extremely significant, and we have no recourse to the developer because they no longer exist as a legal entity.
My second example is probably more widespread than my first, and I suspect that similar examples may be present in several MPs’ casework folders. Imagine we are very keen to buy a property. At the point of purchase, our solicitor handling the conveyancing might highlight the fact that there is a contract for maintenance of green spaces on the estate—grass cutting, hedge trimming and so on—as well as that those areas do not belong to any of the properties and the cost is about £100 per year. Do we still want to buy the property? Of course we do. That is not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, and if it means securing the property of our dreams, of course we will pay it.
What is not discussed with sufficient clarity at the point of conveyance, if at all, is that the small print of the maintenance contract will state that contract owners can increase the price as and when they wish, and there is virtually no recourse within the contract for poor workmanship or lack of clarity. The fee of £100 per year may soon become £500 per year, and the grass cutting may be once a year instead of once a month. These areas remain unadopted by local councils—something that I find a little too convenient. How would you feel, Mr Speaker, if you paid an even higher council tax for services you did not receive, compared with a neighbour around the corner who pays less and gets more?
Usually, when a service is not rendered, one may choose not to pay. That cannot happen here, because these contracts state that a charge will be placed against the property, so it cannot be sold without payment. Furthermore, homeowners cannot complain to anybody, because an unresponsive contractor is virtually unaccountable and has plenty of legal cover, while homeowners are usually bounced around from contractor to subcontractor to developer in a never-ending merry-go-round.
Those two scenarios are real. The same thing has happened in Dudley and to other people from the Black Country whom I have met. People find themselves financially exposed. The system is being gamed by unscrupulous developers and contractors, because it is not transparent enough to shine a light on the potential risks to people when they are buying a property. People might feel that the very fact that a solicitor is handling the conveyance means that they are sufficiently protected. They employ a solicitor not just to carry out due diligence for them, but to highlight any potential downsides. That is not happening with enough robustness, and that is why I propose the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
That Marco Longhi, Nicola Richards, Gareth Bacon, Sir John Hayes, Peter Gibson, Jamie Stone, Sir David Amess, Lee Anderson, Paul Howell, Ian Levy, Jim Shannon and Sally-Ann Hart present the Bill.
Marco Longhi accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 November, and to be printed (Bill 193).
Pension Schemes Bill [Lords]
I beg to move, that the Bill be now read a Second time.
Pensions are a fundamental part of everyone’s future. They offer security later in life and can provide much-needed investment to help to build the sustainable future we need. This Bill delivers on our manifesto commitments to legislate for a new style of pension scheme, establish pensions dashboards and tackle those who try to plunder the pension pots of hard-working employees. It creates a new style of pension scheme that has the potential to increase future returns for millions of working people while being more sustainable for employees and employers alike. The Bill has consumer interests at its heart. It strengthens protections for savers by extending the Pensions Regulator’s sanctions regime—prison for pension pot pinchers will, I hope, deter reckless bosses from running schemes into the ground.
The Bill transforms the way people get information about their retirement savings, bringing pensions into the digital age by allowing people to see all their pension information in one place, at the touch of a button. Importantly, it will ensure that individual savers can be told exactly how their pensions will be affected by the increases in the global temperature and what their scheme contributes to carbon emissions.
Through the Bill, the UK will be among the very first countries in the world to put climate change reporting for pension funds into law. That is a crucial step in meeting the Government’s net zero ambition. It will ensure that pension funds play a leading role in the decarbonisation agenda.
My constituents in Norfolk are passionate about climate change. They want to have safe and sustainable investments for the future. Can the Secretary of State explain how they will be able to invest sustainably and safely, and how the Bill will help them with that?
My hon. Friend has one of the constituencies with the highest number of pensioners in the country, but for his future pensioners this is an important Bill. It will bring transparency for the first time about what is happening with individual investments. This Government are not in favour of trying to force divestment of different elements of fossil fuels and similar—I am conscious that he has Bacton in his constituency. But the Bill is about making sure that the trustees—effectively, the way in which pension funds will be used—are clear about how they can contribute to ensuring that we tackle climate change and how their investments can play a part in making that happen.
This unprecedented period that we have been experiencing has shown more than ever the need for financial resilience but also the need to focus on future resilience. Helping workers to achieve greater financial resilience for themselves for the long term is a crucial part of our economic recovery. Improving the financial resilience of the public is a personal priority for me and I am proud that the Bill is designed to help pension savers across the country. The Government have already taken action to ensure that there is support for pension contributions under automatic enrolment in the coronavirus job retention scheme. How important that policy is to us is demonstrated by the fact that we will be paying for pension contributions for kickstarters.
There are five parts to the Bill. Parts 1 and 2 set out the regulatory framework for new collective money purchase schemes, also known as collective defined contributions or CDCs. Interest in the CDC schemes is growing, as both members and employers look for options beyond the more traditional choices currently available to them to build long-term resilience. The schemes will provide employers with a new way of providing a pension where employers and employees can work together to deliver mutually beneficial outcomes.
The schemes will enable contributions to be pooled and invested, to give members a target benefit level. Investment risk is borne across the membership, rather than by individual members, delivering a good income in retirement without the cost of guarantees and without placing future liabilities on the employer. The Bill will ensure that the schemes are well run and we will require good member communications, so that members understand how their scheme works, including the risk-sharing features of CDC schemes, and that benefit levels may fluctuate.
Part 3 strengthens the powers of the Pensions Regulator. That fulfils our manifesto commitment to tackle those who think they can plunder the savings of hard-working employees. No more. The Bill introduces criminal sentences, so that the worst offenders could end up in jail for seven years, ensuring that those who play fast and loose with hard-working people’s pensions face justice. These important measures introduce the power to issue civil penalties of up to £1 million, as well as creating three new criminal offences for individuals found to be acting wilfully or recklessly.
Some concern has been expressed in the other place that the scope of the powers is too wide and might deter people from becoming trustees. Let me reassure hon. and right hon. Members in this House and the other place that our objective is not to stop or interfere with routine business activity, or to deter people from becoming trustees. We have been clear that businesses must be allowed to make the right decisions to allow them to develop and grow. These new laws underline the importance of being trusted with the stewardship of members’ retirement savings and ensure that people’s hard-earned financial resilience is protected.
Our objective is to provide a sufficient deterrent to make individuals think twice before acting in a way that puts members’ savings at risk. The key point is that the Bill makes it crystal clear that an offence is committed only if the person did not have a reasonable excuse for their behaviour or for engaging in that particular course of conduct. It will be for the regulator to prove that the act was not reasonable. The Pensions Regulator will publish specific guidance on these powers after consulting with the industry.
Part 4 of the Bill delivers on our manifesto commitment to legislate for pensions dashboards. The world of work is changing, and people now have an average of 11 jobs in their lifetime. Pension savings built up during this time are often with different providers, and many people struggle to keep track of their pensions and find it difficult to make informed decisions about their retirement. The provisions in the Bill will bring pensions into the digital age and help individuals to make informed decisions about their financial futures. Pensions dashboards will provide an online service, helping people to reconnect with their pension pots, enabling them to find lost pensions and allowing them to view all their pension information, including the state pension, in a single place.
I welcome the Bill, and part 4 in particular, including the bit that my right hon. Friend has just outlined about pension dashboards. It is such a minefield for our constituents to find all this information in one place, although people can do so very easily, for instance, via the HMRC dashboard in respect of tax. The Bill talks about compelling schemes to participate and to provide good quality data in a timely manner. Could she just expand on that compulsion? What exactly does that mean in legal terms?
The Bill will require the pension schemes to provide all the data that they have available, so that it can be brought together to provide that information. I am conscious that this is further data, which may take a little time to come together, but this has been worked on for some time and we have made careful progress with the industry to get to this point. If my hon. Friend has any more detailed questions, my excellent Pensions Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), will be able to pursue this either in later interventions or in Committee.
We welcome this part of the Bill in particular. We support informing savers about their savings landscape, but one concern we have is that the amendment in the Lords that allows for the public dashboard to be bedded in for a year before commercial dashboards come in could be removed in Committee. Can the Secretary of State confirm now that she has no intention of watering that down? If that were to happen, it would be met with the vigorous opposition from the Opposition.
Our aim is to empower consumers through dashboards and the Government believe that they are best served through multiple dashboards. Of course we have listened carefully to the concerns expressed in the other House as well as in this place. We are still on Second Reading, and I think it is fair to say that we will be considering the contributions carefully and that any matters that may need to be looked into further can be considered in Committee.
I welcome the Bill, particularly the part that my right hon. Friend is referring to at present. Sometimes, when people have multiple pensions with various pension schemes, they wish to put them into one pot, or two or three pots, rather than having to deal with so many. When that happens, some pension schemes seek to charge administrative costs when passing the funds on. Is there any mechanism to ensure that those administrative costs can be kept to a reasonable level, rather than being extortionate, which would ultimately impact on the pension pot for the individual?
My hon. Friend is right to say that dashboards could encourage more people to consider consolidating their pension pots. There is guidance out there, and the Pensions Minister assures me that we are continuing to review the costs and charges that can happen in that regard. There is an element of administration cost that comes with such transfers, but I can assure my hon. Friend that we are on the side of the consumers who are saving to ensure that their money goes as far as possible for their future.
The Bill sets out the legislative framework for dashboards and makes provision to compel pension schemes to participate and provide good-quality data in a timely manner. The Pensions Regulator and the Financial Conduct Authority will be responsible for ensuring compliance by schemes. In the other place—this is perhaps covering a little of what has already been said—we introduced Government amendments to make it crystal clear that there will be a public dashboard, which will be overseen by the Money and Pensions Service. As I have already shared with the House, we want to ensure that we increase people’s engagement with their pensions, so it is important that the dashboards are accessible to as many people as possible. Some 52 million UK adults have pensions savings, involving over 40,000 schemes. That is why I believe that having multiple dashboards is the best option, ensuring people can easily access information to manage their financial affairs for today and tomorrow.
Part 5 covers a range of policies. Clause 123 and schedule 10 introduce new provisions with regard to scheme funding. Most sponsors and trustees work well together and use the flexibilities of the current scheme funding regime reasonably, but good practice is not universal. The scheme funding provisions seek to help trustees of defined benefit schemes to improve the way they manage scheme funding and investment. They will also enable the pensions regulator to take action more efficiently to safeguard members’ pensions and to mitigate risks to the Pension Protection Fund.
Climate risk is a key worry and concern for many people in this country. The Government are resolute in how we want to help to tackle emissions to achieve our commitment to net zero by 2050. The Bill will make the pensions system greener and support the commitment to get to net zero by 2050. Clause 124 contains regulation-making powers to require scheme trustees and managers, for the purpose of managing climate-related risks, to take climate change goals, including the Government’s net-zero target and the Paris agreement temperature goal, into account. The clause enables regulations to be made mandating pension schemes to adopt and report against the recommendations of the taskforce on climate-related financial disclosures. This will ensure that occupational pension schemes take into account climate change and the response to climate change in the Government’s risk management and investment strategy, and report on how they have done so. Such measures will ensure that occupational pension schemes take climate change into account and require that trustees disclose progress to their scheme members and the public.
Climate change is one of the defining challenges facing the planet for this and future generations, and the trillions invested in pension funds worldwide offers an enormous opportunity to build back better, greener and sustainably. I am extremely proud that we are at the forefront of efforts to effect real and lasting change. These pension measures are among the first of their kind on the international stage.
Does the Minister agree that the responsibility for pension scheme trustees goes further than just reporting having a strategy? Once they have invested, they need to engage and to monitor their investments to ensure they actually comply with their obligations to try to drive through that performance change.
I understand exactly the point my hon. Friend makes. My understanding is that the Financial Conduct Authority is changing its guidance or approach to make sure that asset managers are also getting on board. We are trying to ensure that asset managers, as well as trustees, are aware, so we have that collaborative arrangement to make sure we can make progress on this important use of pension funds.
One big concern people have relates to scams. Clause 125 further protects savers from falling victim to unscrupulous scammers when considering transferring their pension pots. The measures allow us to place conditions on a scheme member’s right to transfer their pension savings to another pension scheme. This will protect members from pension scams by giving trustees of occupational pension schemes a level of confidence that transfers of pension savings are made to safe, not fraudulent, schemes. Regulations will proscribe the circumstances where there is a high risk of a transfer to a fraudulent scheme and could require scheme members to obtain information or guidance before transferring.
I welcome this measure in the Bill, reflecting changes in the other place. As the Secretary of State said, the intention is to require, in certain circumstances, savers to take advice before they move their pension savings into what might be a scam. I wonder whether she agrees with me that we should go further and allow trustees to prevent a transfer where it looks as though the savings are going into a scam.
I know that the right hon. Gentleman and his Select Committee are looking at this matter carefully, and I appreciate that he has been in discussions with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who I believe wrote to the right hon. Gentleman yesterday. It is certainly an issue on which we want to continue to work to identify circumstances that could raise red flags, and legislate to enable trustees to act when they appear. The powers in the clause are broad enough to cover some of the scenarios about which the right hon. Gentleman is concerned.
I welcome the intervention from the Chair of the Select Committee. During the passage of the Financial Guidance and Claims Act 2018, the SNP tabled a number of relevant amendments that may well have covered some of these problems, which are a hangover from pension freedoms. Would the Secretary of State and the Minister be willing to look at some of those amendments again in Committee to make sure that some of those issues, particularly in respect of advice and guidance, are tied up?
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has just told me he will share with the hon. Gentleman the letter that he sent to the Chair of the Select Committee. Generally, pensions legislation has broad support across the House, in recognition of the fact that these are long-term decisions, so of course the Government will look carefully at any amendments in Committee and any points made by the hon. Gentleman. We want to make sure that, going forward, we have conference in the long-term objectives of the changes that the Bill will bring in.
In conclusion, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary who is passionate about pensions, exceptionally assiduous and, in my humble opinion, the best Pensions Minister we have had in a very considerable period of time. I hope the House will agree that having safer, greener and better pension schemes is good for our constituents, as we encourage people to invest in themselves today to prepare for a comfortable retirement, and help to make them better informed about how their money is growing and being used for them and the planet. I commend the Bill to the House.
I am grateful to be called to speak in this Second Reading debate. Since I became the shadow Secretary of State earlier in the year, I have been carefully following the progress of the Bill in the other place and am pleased that it has finally reached this House.
First, I record my sincere admiration for and thanks to my colleagues in the other place—noticeably Baroness Sherlock, Baroness Drake and Baron MacKenzie—for their laudable work in carefully and thoughtfully amending the Bill.
In opening the debate for the Opposition, I shall outline our perspective on the Bill as it stands, as well as addressing the three areas—protecting people, protecting pension schemes and protecting the planet—in which Labour would like to see further amendments made as the Bill progresses. However, let me say clearly at the outset that my colleagues and I broadly welcome the Bill. We have been in dialogue with the Government for some time about its contents and the issues that it covers, and I am grateful to the Pensions Minister for his time this week on a number of matters. We will therefore not oppose the Bill today.
My message to the UK’s pensions industry is that it should have confidence in the strong commitment that exists across the House of Commons to a pension system that is sustainable, sufficient and able to meet the challenges of an ageing population. Although we broadly support the measures in the Bill, we believe there is more to be done to create the robust system that we want. As the Bill progresses, we will seek to make those arguments in the usual way.
A new piece of pensions legislation is always an important step. Personally, I am fascinated by pensions, but I appreciate that not all people feel the same way. For many people, retirement feels like a distant concept. The understandable financial pressures that many families experience—especially at the moment—make longer-term considerations harder to contemplate. Even in better times, talk of defined contributions or lifetime allowances can cause some eyes to mist over. I feel strongly, though, that we will not be able to address the major public policy questions we face without getting people of all ages to make a genuine connection between their future prosperity and happiness and the pension plans that they are making today.
The connection I mention is essential because the outlook for today’s young people is drastically different from that in years gone by, and that has become even more critical in the light of this year’s events. We already know that the combination of student debt, higher house prices and—most of all—the impact of the 2008 global financial crisis and the austerity that came after it has meant that for the first time there is a generation of British people who might not be better off than their parents. That is why in last week’s debate on the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill I made the point that the triple lock is not just about the level of the state pension for existing pensioners but about how we index the state pension so that it keeps its value for future generations who are not yet retired. We also have to make sure that we have a complementary system of occupational provision in which people have knowledge and control of their savings, with strong regulations to protect consumers’ interests, and in which people can easily comprehend how the decisions they make will affect their retirement plans.
All that brings me to the contents of the Bill. First, I want people to know that their pension savings—their assets—will directly contribute to the future they want for themselves and their family. I am immensely proud of the work that my Labour colleagues did in the other place—much of it behind the scenes—to put climate commitments for pension funds into UK legislation for the first time ever. This is not just lip service, but genuine commitments, formalising the requirements of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures and enshrining a commitment towards the Paris agreement for trustees and managers of occupational pension schemes. That is fundamental to tackling the climate emergency and it is a vital contributor to the health of pension funds. The long-term prospects of fossil fuel companies have implicit risks and it is only right that those risks are taken into consideration as part of the financial responsibility that schemes have towards their members.
The UK should be leading the way on green finance, but we have been slipping behind internationally in recent years. I want to explore ways that we can go even further to achieve that goal. The connection between people, really thinking about where their money is invested, is a key component of helping them to become more involved and more informed about their financial future overall.
The Bill also contains the blueprint for the pensions dashboard, one of the most long-awaited policy initiatives in history. We want to future-proof that dashboard, so that one day people can see in black and white an easily understandable measure that tells them how exposed to climate risk their retirement portfolio is. I know that the industry wants to make sure that we learn to walk before we start to run, and that the creation of the dashboard in itself is no small proposal, but I want us to be as ambitious as we can. Frankly, there is no time to waste when it comes to the climate emergency.
That takes me to my second point, on protecting people. For too long, there have been cases of unscrupulous people using the complexity of the pensions industry to exploit those using it. The dashboard, in particular, has a vital role in making information transparent and easily accessible. That includes making sure that it has the capacity to clearly spell out to people what their fees are and who they are really paying, and for what. One of the very good amendments in the other place was to protect the dashboard from private transactions for a fixed period, and I am disappointed that the Government seem not inclined to keep that.
When consumers are presented with the new information that the dashboard will provide, we would prefer to have a moratorium on how products and new services are sold and marketed until people get used to having ready access to this information. In the wake of, for instance, volatile markets brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, it would be very easy for people to panic and make decisions that might not be in their long-term interests. We want to look at how we use the Money and Pensions Service to best mitigate this, especially when it comes to transfers.
Small pension pots, as has been mentioned, continue to be a major problem. How we can use the dashboard to easily consolidate those pots with minimum hassle and cost has to be on our minds. The dashboard will bring a sense of immediacy and transparency to that, but we need to make sure that people make their decisions when they are fully informed.
The other element of this, sadly, is pension scams. Regrettably, George Osborne’s pension freedoms, exactly as was warned of, have been a watershed moment for fraudsters, who have taken advantage of such a significant change in the rules. As the shadow City Minister and now as the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, I have been made aware of some truly dreadful stories. I remember one especially bad case where the victim not only lost their pension to the scam, but was then pursued by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for many years for the tax payable on that money, because they had accessed it under the age of 55, even though they had been under the impression that they were moving it to a legitimate investment for nowt. That is the kind of scam that absolutely ruins lives, and the penalties and action taken against fraudsters should be severe.
We should also take pride in the fact that there have been several substantial successes in pensions policy in the last few years. Auto-enrolment is a prime example of that—a hugely successful policy begun by the last Labour Government. Thanks to auto-enrolment, by March 2019 more than 10 million people had been auto-enrolled in a pension scheme, according to figures from the Pensions Regulator. Of course we want people to be more engaged in their pensions, but default options that are easy to set up and straightforward to contribute to are essential.
That brings me to my final point, on protecting pension schemes. What that means is ensuring a strong infrastructure so that we have a well-protected and well-functioning system. First, we will urge the Government to retain the cross-party Bowles amendment inserted in the other place. We do not want the regulation to work in a way that unnecessarily closes defined-benefit schemes that would otherwise be open for new members, and that is what we are worried will happen if open and closed schemes have to meet the same investment and maturity profiles. That is why we believe it is wrong to treat open and closed schemes in the same way, but that is another issue we intend to explore further in Committee.
Big challenges demand big answers, and that is why Labour supports the introduction of collective defined-contribution schemes as a potential way to get a better deal for workers than traditional DC schemes might offer. In doing so, we are mindful of the arguments from other countries about the need to ensure intergenerational fairness in those schemes, but we believe that those safeguards can be built in.
However, one area where we feel the Bill is silent is the creation of pension superfunds. These are very large funds of capital intended to consolidate several smaller DB schemes and run them as one large fund on a for-profit basis. Many are advertising substantial returns to potential investors. That is potentially an extremely significant development, and we do not believe it is appropriate for the Government to leave it in the hands of the Pensions Regulator to rule on this matter. The Government know the concerns that we have raised, and concerns have also been expressed by the Governor of the Bank of England and many people in the industry. I do not understand why these measures are not in the Bill, and the Opposition plan to push the Government again for more answers on this in Committee.
We believe that the measures in this Bill are important and worth while. We want well-managed, sufficient and sustainable pension provision that addresses long-term needs and is intergenerationally fair, and we want to begin the process of allowing savers to be much more engaged and in control of their assets. While the Bill does not give us everything we want, it makes solid steps towards that goal, and it is our belief that it deserves to have its Second Reading today.
First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and, in particular, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), on their long-standing commitment to improving security for all our people in older age. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham has shown over a lengthy period his commitment to securing older age for all in our country.
I would like to make four brief points, which I hope my hon. Friend will take into account as this excellent Bill continues its passage through both Houses. First, I would like to talk about the safety of pensions. There is no doubt that auto-enrolment has been a huge success for many, but Ministers will be aware that some people—particularly those on low pay—have been auto-enrolled into a pension scheme and found, when they tried to get information on their investment, that the company handling their pension is, in fact, a bogus firm.
I vividly recall a constituent coming to see me at my surgery. He was a delivery worker on fairly low pay. He was concerned about his auto-enrolled pension and wanted to know what was happening to his assets. He was trying to get an answer from the administrator for that firm and was simply told that the assets had decreased in value. When he tried to find out more, the firm would not engage with him. It was incredibly difficult for me, as someone who is quite familiar with the asset management sector, to get on to the ombudsman on his behalf. It was very difficult to get answers out of anyone. I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that we have the ability to clamp down hard on scams of all sorts, including by those who provide auto-enrolment schemes, and to enable people who may not be at all familiar with managing assets and their own investments to seek redress where necessary.
My second point is about the structure of pensions. I completely agree that the dashboard concept is a great idea. There is no doubt that it will transform people’s ability to hang on to all their small pension pots from the various jobs they have had. Most people these days have several jobs during their career, not just one or two, and it can be a case of people looking in the back of a drawer and trying desperately to remember the name of the company where they worked for six months. That is why we end up in a situation where lots of people have lots of little pots that they never manage to lay their hands on. I ask my hon. Friend, as he considers the next steps for pensions, to consider properly the potential for creating a lifetime pot that follows the worker. Obviously, that would be a radically different approach to the pensions dashboard that enables people to keep track of all those pots, but, actually, when individuals try to consolidate a pension, quite often the transfer value of that pension is considerably less than the pay-out value if they hang on to it. That is often why one pension pot will try to hang on to a person as one of its members and stop them going somewhere else. In my view, it would be worth while looking at a pot that follows the individual that they then keep paying into wherever they work throughout their career.
In 2014, which seems like light years ago now, I was City Minister and I was very proud to be working with George Osborne, who was Chancellor at the time, to introduce the pensions freedoms. I heard what the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) said about that being an opportunity for scammers. I completely agree that some of the measures that have been put in place have really helped with that, and that, indeed, there have been some major problems. However, I do not agree that we should not have brought in those measures, because the ability of many people to then get a decent amount of money on retirement was quite life-changing for them. It enabled some to have a great holiday. It enabled others to help their children buy their first home, or to pay off their own mortgage to give them greater security as they went into a lower income in a later stage of their life.
At that time, back in 2014, we also upgraded the Pensions Advisory Service, so that people could get good advice on how best to manage their own pension assets. In my view, this has been a positive change, but there is still a very low level of understanding of pensions among members of the public, so for many, making decisions about what to do with their pension freedom or with any kind of investing is a really worrying time. That leaves them open to crooks and scammers. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister what conversations he has had with the Secretary of State for Education about adding an applied practical element to the maths GCSE that would educate young people on issues such as pensions, mortgages, car finance schemes, and, yes, student loans. What more can be done to enable people to familiarise themselves better at a younger age, so that it is not such a mystery to them as they reach the shockingly old age of people like me—
Exactly, Mr Speaker—at least. I was referring to people who are starting to have to think seriously about these issues.
My fourth and final point is about investing in decarbonisation. It was fantastic yesterday to hear the Prime Minister talking about our ambition to be world-leading in clean growth. That was, in fact, the No. 1 priority that I set out for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy when the Prime Minister first took office last year. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister are determined to help our pensions system contribute to the excellent action on decarbonisation that the Government are already taking. I totally agree with them that this multibillion-pound sector can be a real force for good, and investing in the green economy can play a part in helping us to level up across the UK.
I just want to pick up on those points. The right hon. Lady is making some powerful arguments, and I commend her for that. She will probably have picked up, as I did the other day, that Exxon Mobil has been surpassed in terms of the value of its business by a Florida-based renewables company. When we consider that that was the origin of the Rockefeller Foundation wealth, it just goes to show that had we invested in some of those organisations earlier and provided encouragement, through tax or other fiscal incentives, for pensions to get into that sector, we would have done extremely well.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We should highlight the excellent work of some of the traditional high-carbon emitting companies of the past, which are really transforming themselves to become the renewables companies of the future. Some of the announcements made by BP, for example, have been incredibly welcome, especially those that show its determination to reduce its carbon footprint and to become one of the best and greenest companies of the future.
So I agree that by encouraging pension funds to invest in greener industries, we can help to improve our green economy and thereby level up across the UK and create hundreds of thousands of jobs. May I therefore ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister what conversations they have had with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy about the Government’s proposed reforms to corporate governance and audit? There is no doubt that audit reform could provide a much greater focus on what businesses are actually doing to improve their carbon footprint, and corporate governance changes could improve the incentives on company directors to prioritise carbon reduction and protecting the environment. With improved transparency and information about company performance, it will be considerably easier for pension fund managers to make investment decisions that will build security for us all in older age as well as protecting our planet, which is a top priority for so many people right across our economy.
Once again, I welcome this very important Bill, which I think is going to be quite transformative. I hope that my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend will take my comments and suggestions in the light in which they are given, which is to try to improve and build on the excellent work that they have already done.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), who made some very interesting points that we would want to listen to, and that highlight why, on such an important issue, it is so important for Government to listen to Members across this House and work constructively on this very important piece of legislation.
The SNP broadly supports the Bill. There are key elements that we wish to see advanced, but also areas we hope to work on with other parties to help to improve. I am grateful to the Pensions Minister for his time over the past number of weeks, and in the previous Parliament, in keeping me up to date with the Bill. Similarly, I am pleased that the two main Opposition parties have been able to work together so constructively on these matters. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), in particular, for his approach, and look forward to maintaining that collaboration into Committee stage. I also echo the message to the pensions industry from the shadow Secretary of State. We engage regularly with it, as I am sure he does, on UK pension policy areas—and also, obviously, on looking towards pensions post Scottish independence. We are happy to see the Bill as it has arrived from the Lords advance into Committee, and we will not oppose its Second Reading, but I wish to lay down a few markers for the UK Government.
First, I want to set out our view on the key measures in the Bill. Parts 1 and 2 provide for the framework to operate and regulate collective defined-contribution schemes. There is great support for this from the Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union. Like the shadow Secretary of State, I would be keen to have an assurance that while CDC schemes are worthwhile projects worth pursuing, they should not be a replacement for good DB schemes. We also support part 3, which provides greater powers for the Pensions Regulator that we hope would be a deterrent to any future BHS-type moment happening again.
We also support part 4, as it provides the legislative framework for the pensions dashboard—the digital platform that will enable people to see all their pension savings in one place so that they can make better decisions and informed decisions about their retirement plans. Part 5 pulls together a number of other provisions that we support—specifically clauses 123 and 124—and other areas such as climate change reporting. It is incumbent on all of us to do what we can to address the climate emergency, so we welcome these measures.
We support these measures because we see them as helping to take important steps to encourage lifetime savings and provide greater clarity and protection for people dealing with their pensions. However, we do not want the UK Government to attempt to row back on improvements to the Bill that were made in the Lords, and particularly on providing the public dashboard, with a bedding-in period, before commercial dashboards arrive. Baroness Drake’s amendment, at least, should stand. I hope the Minister will confirm, as the Secretary of State was unable to do so, that he has no intention of removing it or watering it down in Committee. We do not oppose commercial dashboards. We understand that they will be coming and they have an important part to play. We just want the UK Government to invest properly in marketing and embedding the public dashboard as the first port of call for people to seek impartial information on their pensions. If commercial dashboards are allowed to take off at the same time as the MaPS dashboard, I fully expect the usage of the MaPS dashboard to be lower than it should be. It will be a huge missed opportunity to engage and inform people about their pensions in an impartial way. If the Government are serious about empowering and informing people about their pensions—I hope that they are—they will accept the Bill as it stands in this area.
We feel that compromise can be found to resolve any concern the Government may have about the wording of amendment 71, which was tabled by Baroness Bowles, to ensure that open schemes can be treated differently. I am willing to work with the Minister on clause 123, but urge him not to remove it altogether. That would have major implications for open schemes—a point on which my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) will elaborate in more detail later.
It is true that the Government enjoy a majority in this House, but they should not abuse that. I think that the Minister will today find unity on the Opposition Benches for protecting the amendments made in the Lords, some of which were supported by Conservative peers and former Pensions Ministers. I hope that he will be willing to work constructively, as he has been doing up to now, and as he went out of his way to do when we were first looking at the Bill in the previous Parliament, when the Government did not have the support of such a majority behind them. Matters such as those contained in the Bill should see consensual working. I hope that he will agree and listen to what he is hearing, not just from Opposition Members but from stakeholders across the industry, about protecting these amendments.
What the Bill sadly does not do is address a series of pensions injustices. The 1950s-born women are still waiting for justice, but we may have someone who is able to help. He said this:
“I have made several representations already on behalf of my own constituents who fall into this category. And I must say the answer I’ve got back from the Treasury is not yet satisfactory. But I will undertake—if I’m lucky enough to succeed in this campaign—to return to this issue with fresh vigour and new eyes and see what I can do to sort it out… But you know obviously the Treasury raise some stupefying sum that they say will be necessary to deal with it. I’m not convinced that’s necessarily true. Let’s see what we can do.”
The Member of Parliament who made that commitment last year is now the Prime Minister. Surely, the Pensions Minister will be keen to work with his leader to lobby the Treasury to honour that promise. The least it could do would be to organise an impact assessment to better understand the detriment suffered by 1950s-born women and work on recompense from there.
Another area of injustice I would expect to be discussed in Committee is plumbers’ pensions schemes. My hon. Friends the Members for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) and for Gordon have been working hard on this, to their credit, and I look forward to further discussions in Committee.
Another long-standing area of campaigning for the SNP has been on the creation of an independent pensions commission. I believe that there is sympathy for such an idea in the official Opposition, and the Minister may have considered this matter in the previous Parliament. We want to see a standing pensions commission that would ensure that injustices such as those suffered by the WASPI women are not allowed to happen again. We also feel that it would take the political sting out of difficult issues needing wrestled with. We accept that such a broad standing commission may be outwith the scope of the Bill—unless the Government were willing to propose it, of course—but we hope that it could be considered in the longer term.
We also want to see much greater speed applied to the roll-out of auto-enrolment to people on lower incomes and younger people. Although we wholeheartedly support automatic enrolment, far too many have been left behind and still cannot benefit from this important measure. Now, more than ever, we need the UK Government to be more ambitious. We have called for them to lower the age threshold for auto-enrolment to 18 so that young people can benefit from saving early for retirement, remove the lower limit for the qualifying earnings band so that contributions are payable from the first £1 earned and expand contribution rates beyond the 8% statutory minimum. This would recognise the importance of starting a savings habit early, given the powerful impact that early career contributions can have on the size of retirement savings. Saving from the first £1 earned would be simpler and help low-income workers to save more.
The Association of British Insurers notes that by reducing the lower age limit to 18 and removing the lower earnings limit, a further £2.5 billion could be saved. The UK Government’s failure to act on this at speed is disproportionately affecting women. Again, the ABI reports that the average pension pot for a woman at 65 is one fifth of a 65 year-old man’s and that women receive £29,000 less state pension than men over 20 years. That deficit is set to continue, all else being equal, closing by only 3% by 2060. Extending the coverage of auto-enrolment further by reducing the earnings threshold to the national insurance primary threshold would bring 480,000 people—mostly women—into pension saving, so further delays would be unacceptable. The UK Government should set a clear timetable for their plans on the expansion of auto-enrolment.
For people to get the most out of their savings, we need strengthened consumer protections and measures to boost confidence in the pension system. Pension freedom reforms were introduced in April 2015 by the Government to allow people to draw on their pension pots early, potentially resulting in future financial hardship for them. The introduction of pension freedoms muddied the waters further for individuals trying to understand their pensions. We voiced our opposition to the reforms at the time, highlighting that they could result in people transferring out of their pension to their detriment, and we have been shown to be correct.
It is clear that the UK Government have not put in place adequate safeguards for older people who are opting to free up funds to ensure that they will not end up in a desperate financial situation later. A pension pot should be looked at as deferred income, not a cash machine, and those with less money are more vulnerable to economic shocks in their personal finances, as well as potentially being more vulnerable to scammers who give misleading or false advice for a fee. Many people have since been given unsuitable financial advice to transfer their valuable DB pension pots into less suitable and less secure DC schemes, leading to growing compensation payments from the Financial Ombudsman Service and the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. The issue may represent a large mis-selling scandal, the full scale of which may only come to light in time, but as we fast approach an economic impact from coronavirus, I suspect that time might not be too far away.
Age UK notes that the introduction of the freedom and choice reforms in 2015 led to new opportunities for scammers, perhaps most notably people transferring out of their DB scheme, but also by people charging very high fees and selling unregulated investment opportunities to DC savers. We support measures in the Bill that will provide greater protection and reduce scams, but we hope to be able to tie up some more loose ends from pension freedoms when the Bill moves into Committee.
Given the challenges faced in so many areas, it is also disappointing that the Bill does not address pension taxation or having a more equitable spread of the benefits of the UK Government’s investment in pensions tax relief. It also does not address the issues regarding superfunds, and we hope to be able to return to those areas later as well.
In conclusion, we support this Bill’s Second Reading. As I have said, we will work with all parties to protect the Opposition amendments secured in the Lords, and we hope to be able to advance our own amendments, working with others, to make a decent Bill with necessary measures even better. Let us work together to make the most of this opportunity for current and future savers.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate on this excellent Bill, and I think that I echo most of the remarks we have heard so far by saying that there is nothing in the Bill really to oppose. It leaves most of us looking for things we would like to add to the Bill, rather than being upset with anything that is already in it.
Much as the Opposition spokesman said, there are some key challenges for pensions, and I will address how the Bill tackles those challenges. The three challenges I generally look at are how we can increase people’s engagement with what their pension means, how much they need and what they are likely to have in their retirement; how we can increase the number of people who get a decent pension in retirement, rather than just some small amount of money; and how we can protect what people have actually saved. The Bill makes progress on all three, but the key thing is engagement.
If we can get engagement right, people will understand how important the issue is, what it means and what some of the risks, consequences and benefits are. Through that, we can probably get people saving more, and we can help stop them being a victim of a scam or making a bad choice when they get to retirement.
It is tempting to think, because we have 10 million more people saving for pensions through the great success of auto-enrolment, that we have fixed the engagement problem, but the opposite is true. Auto-enrolment has not been such a success because people have engaged; they just have not chosen to opt out, and that was the whole basis for the inertia that was the reason for the adoption of auto-enrolment. We need to do more to engage people to make them understand exactly what all this means and what their retirement will look like if they carry on saving as they are.
The pensions dashboard is a key component. If we can get that right and people can go on to something and find out how much they have saved, find out what pension they would get from that, find out perhaps what ideally they would have saved by now and what their shortfall is, and then get some ideas for what action they should take over the rest of their working life and how to close that, then we can genuinely improve the outcome people will have from their saving.
The challenge we have with the pensions dashboard is that we will get those improvements in behaviour and the outcomes we want only if people actually go on the dashboard on a regular basis and find the information they need. I would be more sceptical about how advantageous a stand-alone MaPS dashboard would be, because I have a horrible feeling that if we write to people and say, “Here’s your logon and here’s your password,” some people might log on the first day and think, “This is great—it’s really useful,” but would they remember it existed next year, the year after, when they get to their mid-life MOT time and when they get to their retirement? For a whole load of people, that envelope will never get opened, or would go in a drawer and basically just be gathering virtual dust.
We need to get that information to where people are managing their finances—whether their banking app or whatever else people are using. I am not too precious about whether there is a one-year gap before we open up that data, but I think for this to work and to get the advantages we seek, we need to get it further than just one dashboard that people might look at if they remember it exists and they can find their password and their username. That is not how this will really work.
I would not support having two-way functionality. The dashboard has be about sucking out data, not a transactional dashboard. I would hate the idea that someone could go on the dashboard, click a button and do something to their pension after a few beers on Friday night. That would be a crazy thing to get into. The model we have of a dashboard that sucks out data when it is asked for it is the right one. However, we need to get people using it, not just have it gathering real or virtual dust.
The challenge we do really need to address on pensions is how we get people from saving a pretty small amount of money, which will not get them the quality of retirement that they think it will, to saving the amount that they need. That is where collective defined contribution schemes can play a really important part, if they are used as an improvement to DC, not as a weakening of final salary schemes. I think that we would all encourage employers who do want to give their staff the best possible pension to think about whether they can move from a DC to a CDC to give their staff a far better outcome.
The Secretary of State called my hon. Friend the best Pensions Minister in living memory, and I think here that is indeed true. Steve Webb may claim that prize, as perhaps the longest-serving Pensions Minister in living history, but this Minister will not just bring on to the statute book a dream of defined ambition or a third way, but actually see schemes in this space, and it will be a real achievement if we can get these schemes operating.
My only caution is that it when we are selling the advantages, we should be clear that there is no magic. There is no employer guarantee here. The reason why someone gets a much higher pension from this is that the people who, sadly, die earlier in their retirement will in effect be paying for those who have a longer life to have a higher pension. That has always been a feature of defined benefit schemes and it is a feature of annuities, but we should not let people think that somehow this extra pension comes from nowhere. People should understand that they will not have their own pots to pass on to their family if they are one of the ones who, sadly, dies young. At times, the marketing of these has been a little bit over-optimistic about what the benefits of the improved investing strategy or the reduced costs are, when most of the increased pension actually comes from the collective risk sharing.
It is a pity that the Bill has not looked at how we can expand the scope and rates of auto-enrolment. I understand why that has been done, and I know that we have set a mid-2020s timetable for further increases to the rate and changes to the age or the scope of earnings. However, the fact that we have seen opt-outs be far lower than we thought does create the scope to bring forward some of those changes in trying to get people much higher than the 8% savings ratio and nearer to the 12% that we think they really need, or to at least the 12% that we think they really need.
My final area of remarks is on how we protect people and protect what they have saved in relation to scams. There are clearly welcome measures in the Bill, but we possibly could look at how we can go further to make sure that we are putting every tool out there that can possibly be there. We heard evidence at the Work and Pensions Committee this morning from pension scheme administrators, and there is the awful situation where they suspect that the transfer being asked for might be a scam, but they cannot be absolutely sure. They have a duty to make such a transfer, but can we find a way to allow them to delay the transfer a little while so the member can have some more information and a bit of time to reflect and make absolutely sure that that is what they want to do before they go ahead? That sort of change in emphasis in relation to the powers would be really helpful in this situation.
We also need to go further in ensuring that, if people cannot afford advice, they at least take guidance from Pension Wise before they take fundamental decisions. Last time a pensions Bill came before the House—there is one every few years—amendments were tabled to try to make accessing pension guidance if not compulsory, as close to compulsory as we could get. It was suggested that before money was moved, there should be a release code from Pension Wise, to say that the person had taken guidance. The compromise at that point was to get the regulator to go away, do some work, and put measures in place to try to include that nearly mandatory use of guidance. Regrettably, however, the regulator has been incredibly slow, and three years have gone by without us seeing a great deal of action. I hope that this Bill will be clear that that is what we expect the industry to do, and the regulator should put that in place and monitor it.
We want everyone who has saved for decades not to make a horrible mistake at the last minute, and to take that free guidance. Such guidance has huge support and receives overwhelmingly positive feedback, and there is no reason for someone not to take high quality free guidance before risking thousands of pounds that they have saved. I accept that we cannot make that compulsory, but it should be as close to that as possible.
On pension consolidators, the idea of consolidation for weaker, smaller defined benefit schemes is attractive, and I welcome the market moving in that direction and the regulator’s approach so far. However, given that pensions Bills do not come before the House that often, I wonder whether we have missed an opportunity to put some of those rules on a statutory footing. Normally, I would not want the Government to include a clause that allows them to make secondary legislation, as that is not great for parliamentary scrutiny, but I wonder whether the power to introduce such rules could have been included in the Bill, should the regulator start to believe that regulation alone does not have the force or impact that we need. We would not want one of those consolidators to get any kind of market share if we are not sure that it is improving the situation for members, rather than making it worse.
Finally—I asked the Secretary of State about this—the pensions industry can be a huge force for good, and thanks to auto-enrolment it is investing billions of pounds every year. However, it should not invest passively, or just put money in, leave it there, and see what happens. When we have scandals, or corporate failures or disasters, we frequently see that large investors in some companies have not been playing an active role in ensuring the high standards that they should have expected. We must send out a loud and clear message that, where pension schemes and their asset managers are sizeable investors in some of the largest and most significant businesses in our country, we expect them to play an active role in the stewardship of those companies, and not just leave it to others. That is essential if the climate change measures in the Bill are to work. We should not just expect a report every couple of years.
I hesitate to interrupt my hon. Friend’s flow, but there is an ongoing consultation on illiquids and consolidation. I endorse what he says about stewardship. He will no doubt be aware of the consultation that closes this week, which specifically encourages active stewardship regarding the management of large funds as he describes.
I am grateful to the Minister—perhaps he will submit my views to those consultations. This is about a behaviour change. It is not enough for us to just put rules in place; we need such behaviours to become the norm for large pension schemes that are investing huge amounts. That needs to be part of the behaviour; otherwise, we will have yet another report that gathers dust and that nobody really reads. Members and savers expect such measures. They want their money to be invested well—ethically, and in businesses that will improve the climate outcome. That would be good for pension schemes and their members, and companies need to take such measures seriously.
As has already been widely said, there is much to welcome in this Bill. Some important changes were made in the other place, and I pay tribute to the work that it did. I also appreciate the efforts that the Minister has made to work with my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, with me and the Work and Pensions Committee, and with others across the House to secure broad support for the measures in the Bill.
Pensions dashboards should be an important step forward in enabling savers to understand their pension position, allowing them more readily to make good decisions in planning for retirement. The Select Committee, under its former Chair, Frank Field, to whom I pay tribute, said in 2018:
“The case for a publicly-hosted pensions dashboard is clear cut”
“consumers want simple, impartial, and trustworthy information.”
In 2019, the Committee observed:
“A non-commercial pensions dashboard will be a welcome, if overdue, additional tool to provide transparency to individuals and help them plan how they use their pension funds.”
We have heard that it was agreed in the other place that the dashboard provided by the Money and Pensions Service should be up and running for a year, and the Secretary of State should report to Parliament on its operation, before other commercial dashboards are set up, and that commercial dashboards should not have facilities for engaging in financial transactions. Like others, I hope that those changes stay in place.
The former Committee reported in 2016 on defined-benefit pension schemes in between reports that it published on the BHS and Carillion scandals, and its recommendations at that time are reflected in the new powers provided to the Pensions Regulator in this Bill. The Committee recommended, for example, that the Government should consult on proposals to give trustees powers to demand timely information from sponsors, and I welcome the new offence created by the Bill of “knowingly or recklessly” providing false information to trustees.
The Committee also highlighted, in 2018, the attractions of collective defined-contribution pensions. I echo the observation of the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), whose contribution to the Select Committee I am grateful for, that the pooling of risk offers better pensions than standard defined-contribution saving and avoids the large potential liabilities that have made defined-benefit schemes less popular than they were. I welcome the legislative framework provided in the Bill, and I hope that this new model will be widely taken up.
However, I want to focus my remarks on the issue of pension scams, echoing a number of points that have already been made. As we have heard, the Select Committee has started an inquiry on pension scams, which the Secretary of State referred to. That is the first strand of three in an assessment of the pension freedoms five years on from their introduction by George Osborne.
Losing one’s pension savings to a scam is devastating. The Select Committee has heard of lives that have been ruined by scams—of people who have worked hard all their lives and were looking forward, as they were entitled to, to a comfortable retirement, finding suddenly that their savings have all been stolen; husbands not daring to tell their wives what has happened, or of the shame or dread of the future that they are suffering.
We do not know the scale of this issue. Many scams are never reported, partly because people are ashamed of what they have done and partly because they know that the chance of ever retrieving any of the money is slim. There are grave concerns about the effectiveness of Action Fraud in investigating and ensuring the pursuit of scams, given the low rate of success in retrieving scammed pensions.
The pension scams industry group, to which I pay tribute, estimates that scams could account for anything between 0.5% and 12% of all transfers out of employer pension schemes in the last five years. If we take the middle figure—say 5%—that would mean that over the last five years £10 billion of pension savings have been stolen. There are certainly well-informed reports of named individuals living in the lap of luxury in homes in exotic locations around the world on the proceeds of pensions out of which they have defrauded hard-working savers.
I am bound to say that these awful problems should have been foreseen when pension freedoms were introduced five years ago. Indeed, as I remember well, they were foreseen, but the coalition Government did not adequately prepare for them. I do not know why—they should have done, but they did not. Charles Randell, chair of the Financial Conduct Authority, said at the 2020 annual public meeting of the FCA that
“the manner in which the pension freedoms were introduced leaves a number of lessons to be learnt, including about the importance of coordinating changes in government policy with regulatory and industry preparedness and the speed with which major changes are introduced.”
He was absolutely right—those things were not done, and thousands of hard-working people have had their lives ruined as a result.
The pension scams industry group has thought long and hard about this, and the pensions industry has every incentive to worry about the reputational damage that it suffers as a result of the impact of scams. If people cannot trust what will happen with their money they will not save. The industry group has identified red flags to assist in establishing whether the destination for a proposed transfer is likely to be a scam. It has suggested three main flags, any one of which, most people would agree, should mean that the transfer should not go ahead: first, if the receiving scheme is on the FCA warning list or some other internal list of schemes, entities or individuals of concern; secondly, if advice on the proposed transfer has been provided by firms or people who do not have appropriate regulatory permissions; and, thirdly, if the provider or self-invested personal pension operator is not registered with the FCA. The industry group has identified a number of other flags that may not in themselves show that the transfer ought not to go ahead, but do suggest that further checks need to be made before it does.
As I mentioned in my exchange with the Secretary of State, an amendment to the Bill was tabled in the other place to ensure that if a proposed transfer raised red flags it should not go ahead until the saver had taken financial advice. The problem graphically reported by the pension scams industry group is that only about a quarter of would-be scam victims would be deterred from proceeding after receiving advice telling them not to do so. The scammers win people’s confidence—they become their friends, as we heard in the Select Committee this morning. The scammers tell people, “Yes, they will say that, but that is because they do not want you to move your money.” People trust scammers until the moment they find their pension has gone.
I want to table a proposal enabling trustees to refuse to make the transfer altogether if one of the major red flags is raised. In my view—and I know that other Members support such an amendment—the statutory right to transfer conveyed in pension freedoms legislation should not apply in such cases. We heard this morning from scheme trustees not only that they had an obligation to transfer even if they knew perfectly well that the destination was a scam but that if they did not do it quickly enough they would be fined for not getting a move on under the arrangements that are in place. It is hard to argue that the statutory right of transfer should apply, for example, if the destination is a firm that is listed on the FCA warning list. If the trustees of a scheme know that a particular transfer is going to a firm that is on the warning list, they should surely not have a legal obligation, as they do at the moment, and will still have under the Bill, to hand the money over to crooks if the saver has taken advice but still, despite that advice, wants to go ahead. If the receiving firm is a above board, it must show that to the FCA and get itself off the warning list.
I am grateful to the Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee with whom I have had, I think, three separate meetings over the summer specifically to address this point. Clearly we are all keen to ensure that clause 125 and the powers within it address the issues that he rightly raises and that are of concern to fellow members of the Select Committee.
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that I wrote to him yesterday and have given evidence in a more detailed document to the Work and Pensions Select Committee. With his permission, I will put both those documents in the Library of the House, so that all colleagues, including the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), have an opportunity to be aware of them. I am very happy to continue working with the right hon. Gentleman, and he will be well aware that the view of my Department is that the matters he raised can be addressed fundamentally by clause 125. The FCA has particular views of the red-flag list warning list point, but I am sure we can continue the dialogue.
I am extremely grateful to the Minister for those points and for the work that he has done, the responsive way that he has looked at the issue over the past couple of months and for the information that he has now provided. I will be very keen to hear from the Pensions Scam Industry Group whether it feels that the proposal that the Minister has now tabled will meet the points that it has been raising. However, I am grateful for the progress that we have been making on this issue and that will no doubt be further explored in Committee in the weeks ahead.
The determination by the pensions ombudsman in 2015 allowed trustees to decline a transfer request when there were concerns about a scam but the Hughes v. Royal London court case in 2016 overturned that determination and established that the trustees do have an obligation to go ahead even when they know the receiving scheme is a scam. That must be changed, and I am very encouraged by the Minister’s point that he believes that it will be possible to bring forward regulations under the Bill as it stands to have that effect. It is important that that change is made.
Mr R complained to the pensions ombudsman about the decision of the London Pensions Fund Authority and Newham Council, which is my local authority, to allow him to transfer his pension to the Gresham pension scheme. That transfer went ahead and he has lost his entire pension valued at £64,000. He has been awarded £1,000 in compensation since then. His view now is that the trustees should have refused to make that transfer but, under the 2016 Hughes v. Royal London decision, the trustees are legally obliged to go ahead with the transfer in a case of that kind. I think Mr R is right that the transfer that he requested should have been blocked by the trustees, and I very much hope that in future that will be possible. Very few people would today argue that the pension freedoms should be repealed but pension savers are entitled to expect protection. The change that I have described is designed to provide it.
My final point has been touched on by the shadow Secretary of State. Clause 123 was amended in the other place. As the Minister knows, there is very strong support for the amended clause on the part of current defined-benefit schemes, such as the railways pension scheme and the BT scheme, that remain open. If that amendment were to be removed, those schemes fear that they would be treated unfairly by the regulator and in the same way as schemes in very different circumstances. Their future would be threatened as a result. It could be the final blow for private sector defined-benefit schemes. There is great nervousness about the Minister’s intentions on that clause, as he well knows, and about the fact that if he removes the amendment, he may make those schemes unsustainable. I wonder if, in closing the debate, he might comment on his intentions on clause 123.
It is a great pleasure to follow the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee. This is an incredibly important debate because we know that our population is growing in age. By 2024, it is projected that 24% of our population will be over the age of 65, and in my constituency, 31% of our population is already over the age of 65. One of the key challenges that we face in this place is determining the best way to ensure that older people have safety, dignity and comfort in their retirement. They have paid their taxes, contributed to our economy and raised the next generation. But let us be clear: ultimately, the surest way of ensuring that people have safety and security in their retirement is through economic growth. No pension fund reform will be as effective if we do not have economic growth, because through economic growth, people earn more money and save more money
It is clear that our pension system simply has not progressed to meet the needs of a modern economy. That is why I warmly welcome the Bill for its clarity for pensioners and the protections that it brings. I would like to focus my speech on the dashboard provision, which is one of the most interesting aspects of the Bill, and I have three points to make: first, on why I believe the dashboards are needed; secondly, on concerns from the industry about the commercial provision; and thirdly, on concerns about the cost to pension plans.
In terms of why the dashboards are required, pension provider LV= estimates that a typical worker in Britain changes job every five years. As the Secretary of State said, a British person today can have as many as 11 jobs throughout their career, going from job to job and collecting pension plans along the way. It is hard to keep track of those pension pots, and people forget or lose them. The Pensions Policy Institute has outlined that around 1.6 million pension pots, worth a staggering £19.4 billion, are lost today. That works out at around £13,000 per lost pension plan. By 2050, it is estimated that there may be as many as 50 million lost pension pots.
These dashboards are incredibly important because, as the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) rightly pointed out, an additional 10 million people have been put into workplace pension plans in the last eight years alone. To ensure that all pension pots are included in the dashboards and to harness the very best of British FinTech, we need a commercial provision, and that brings me to my second point.
While some in the industry have suggested that commercial dashboards open pensioners up to mis-selling, I put it to the House that this mistrust is unfounded. I looked at Denmark and Israel, which both have pension dashboards alongside commercial transactions, and not once has there been a case of mis-selling. We have one of the greatest financial regulators in the world in the Financial Conduct Authority, and I have tremendous faith in its ability to ensure that mis-selling does not occur.
Thirdly, I want to address the comments made about cost to pension plans by others in the industry. A dashboard is only as good as the data put into it. I would expect pension plans to already have their house in order and to have been practising data hygiene for many years. Anybody who has worked in a senior position in the investment industry, as I have, will know that data science is one of the fastest growing parts of any business today, and not least pension or investment businesses. Those businesses should have been practising strong data hygiene for many years. I think we can all agree that the many benefits that are brought to millions of pensioners up and down our country, across these lands, will far outweigh any cost to pension plan providers.
I also want to highlight—it was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) who is no longer in his place—the provision to compel pension providers. I want to emphasise it, because I think it is under-appreciated just how important that is. If we look at what happened in Denmark and Sweden, which had a voluntary provision to provide data, it took between 10 and 13 years for those dashboards to be fully operational and fully comprehensive; if we look at Australia, which had similar provisions to this Bill, it took a fraction of the time. That is an under-appreciated point that deserves recognition.
To address that point, the Government were clearly waiting for the industry to volunteer the provision of the data to create a pension dashboard, but upon that not being done on a voluntary basis, it was inevitably the conclusion of both industry and advisory bodies that we should proceed to compulsion. Hence, the Bill, following consultation, requires such data to be provided. I accept the international examples as totally correct, and that is why we are proceeding as we are.
I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that and, again, I welcome the provision to compel pension providers. It allows the dashboards to be as effective as possible as quickly as possible.
Finally, let me address clause 124, requiring pension fund managers to include climate change risk. Again, I would expect pension fund managers already to be incorporating climate considerations in their investment process—climate change is clearly a risk for all pension pots. I am disappointed that we have to include it in the Bill, but I welcome it none the less and highlight how it emphasises, once again, this Government’s commitment to green finance.
It would be remiss of me, however, to stand up in this Chamber without mentioning my long-standing call to the Government to issue a Government green gilt, which would help to raise literally billions of pounds to fund some of the announcements that have been made this week. That would follow Germany, Netherlands, France and many countries around the world in tackling UK pension fund assets, some of which—many of which—have already been funding other countries’ bond issuances around the world. I would welcome any comments that the Minister has on that point.
In conclusion, this is an excellent Bill. I welcome the clarity that it brings to pensioners, as well as the powers for the regulator that will give a lot of comfort to many. It will clearly help bring our pension system into the modern world.
Pensions are often the biggest pot of money that anyone will have. They hold the promise of future financial security and are hugely important to millions, but they are also complex and more needs to be done to support people in understanding this crucial topic. Increasing choice through pension freedoms has had a big downside, in particular for those moving out of defined-benefit pension schemes.
In 2017, the British Steel pension scheme was being reconfigured. Steelworkers were being circled by pension sharks to encourage pension transfers. One steelworker family from Blaenau Gwent was approached by a rogue financial adviser while they were away at their caravan on a family holiday, and he sweet-talked them into a bad deal. Such rogue advisers are often propped up by completely unregulated introducers, who are still not being properly investigated by the Financial Ombudsman.
Our Parliament’s Work and Pensions Committee, in its report on this long and sorry tale, concluded that steelworkers were “shamelessly bamboozled” and that the industry’s response has often been “too little, too late”. It is a scandal that continues to have a devastating impact on steelworker families in my constituency and on thousands more across the country. The case study shows a slowness to respond by regulators. Predatory behaviour is all too common, and more action is needed to tackle it. Rates of genuine criminal enforcement against rogue advisers is low, and advice to steelworkers remains confusing, so it is vital that the Bill brings forward the protections that should have been in place for steelworkers three years ago.
I welcome the Bill’s commitment to strengthening the powers of the Pensions Regulator when it comes to enforcement and penalties; that is overdue. However, I think the Bill still leaves consumers vulnerable to being ripped off through a new market that could be created by the dashboards that have been mentioned. If the Government reject Labour’s amendments in the other place, I urge them to provide some answers to the following key questions.
Has the Minister had conversations with the FCA and other agencies about putting in place proper measures for the regulation of any new dashboard market? The FCA, in particular, seems more concerned about what happens in the City of London than what happens in the kitchens of consumers across our country. What accountability measures will be put in place to ensure that regulators protect and prioritise consumers first? People who have issues with their pensions too often face an alphabet soup of different agencies and regulators. What steps will be taken to ensure that regulators’ responsibilities are clearer for the consumer?
The Government say that this Bill will ensure that pension schemes are fit for the future. To make sure that that is the case, they must also reflect on the mistakes that have been made in the past. Protecting consumers must always be our top priority. The British Steel pension scandal may have been unique to the south Wales valleys and other steel towns across our country, but the issues that it represents can equally be found in our country’s suburbs and cities. I hope that the Government will learn the lessons of the recent past and ensure that consumers and pensioners are protected for the future.
The measures in the Bill could transform how we view and engage with pensions, and I welcome the huge progress that that represents. Pensions are technical and complicated, and decisions about saving for our future, and about what to do with all our savings, are incredibly important. Naturally, the Pensions Schemes Bill is incredibly detailed and technical, but its overarching aim is clear: it is about protecting and empowering consumers.
Today I will talk about the tension that arises between giving savers the power to make the best choices, while protecting them from those who seek to scam or exploit them. Across quite a lot of what we do in politics, and in many of the decisions that we make as a nation, there is a tension between supporting free choice in decision making and ensuring that there is a safety net and some degree of protection.
Changes to workplace pensions and the introduction of pension freedoms has meant that individuals now take more decisions about, and responsibility for, their pensions. Free choice and autonomy are dependent on several things, however, including access to the correct information and the ability to understand it; freedom from coercion, either implicit or explicit; and not being duped by scammers. The Bill rightly focuses on those areas.
On access to information, the introduction of a pensions dashboard will lead to real improvements in accessibility and consumer confidence in planning for retirement. For too long, finding out about and understanding one’s pension and savings has been excessively complicated, and information has been inaccessible. The measures in the Bill to require pension funds to provide data represent a huge step in addressing the issue. To achieve the maximum benefit, however, we must work to ensure that full state pension data is included, as well as a means of tracking all small pension pots that an individual may have accrued.
As many hon. Members have said, gone are the days when people had a job for life. Most of us will do many jobs throughout our careers, and I suspect that those in the House are very mindful of that. That leads to people having many small pension pots, adding further complexity and confusion to planning for retirement. The ability to track pension pots and bring all that data together will give individuals the information and the power to make the best decisions for themselves.
It is not sufficient for the information simply to be there; people have to want to access it, know that it is there and be able to use and understand it. Not everyone will have the confidence or ability to review their pensions data. Arguably, those who are most engaged with their pensions are those who need the least support. We must therefore ensure that, alongside the pensions dashboard, communication to individuals is clear and that support around it is available to help everyone to build confidence in their ability to manage their financial affairs. Probably for most people at the moment, thinking about their pensions in 20 or 30 years’ time and delving into planning for the future is the last thing on their minds, but it is a crucial thing that all of us must do and do early on. It is how we get that message across and ensure that when people think, “You know, I’m going to see where I am at and have a think about how much I’m saving,” there is an easy route to getting that information, processing it and starting to make sound financial decisions.
Of course, when people go on that journey, out come the crooks. Sadly, when it comes to scamming, there are many crooks in the world. The Work and Pensions Committee heard harrowing evidence of the scale and impact pension scams can have on people’s lives; in some cases people lost their life savings just as they were planning to retire, with no ability to get back into employment to recoup them—the worst possible situation. We know that in times of economic stress, such as the current pandemic, the rate of scams increases. I therefore especially welcome the additional powers for the regulator, the greater sanctions on employers or trustees who do not fulfil their obligations, and the measures in clause 125 to protect individuals from scams. The ability to introduce conditions on a member’s right to transfer their pension means safeguards can be added to prevent money being sent to scam accounts, but the scammers will not go away and we must strive to do more.
There is clearly a difficult balance to be struck between enabling an individual’s freedom of choice and protecting those who may be vulnerable to exploitation. The Bill introduces many positive changes and safeguards. It will improve access to data and improve confidence. It also lays the foundation for a vast improvement in how we can engage with pensions and savings, but I remain concerned about those who are vulnerable to exploitation. I therefore urge Ministers to continue to explore ways to identify those who are most vulnerable to exploitation, to crack down on fake webpages, to pursue international crime gangs who are responsible for a lot of such offences, and to work closely with industries, charities and the social care sector to ensure that we can protect and support those who are most at need. People should be able to choose to do what they want with their pension and plan for their future free of the threat of being a victim to a pension scam.
Diolch, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to contribute to this very important debate, which I think has revealed quite a refreshing amount of consensus on both sides of the House. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer). I agree with many of the points he made in relation to the measures in clause 125.
The Bill represents a welcome step to ensuring the security and responsible use of UK pension schemes. I particularly welcome clause 124, which addresses the vital issue of climate change: the risk it represents to our long-term socioeconomic security and the role pension funds can play as key levers in the decarbonisation effort of our economy. Wales has a proud record on sustainability and climate change mitigation. A commitment to sustainable development is written into our de facto constitution and we were a world leader with our Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. I know the Minister is aware of the groundbreaking work undertaken at the Centre for Alternative Technology, which is located in the constituency of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams). There is also groundbreaking work undertaken on my side of the Dyfi estuary. In particular, Aberystwyth University boasts the world-leading Centre for Glaciology, while IBERS—the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences—and Aberinnovation campus conduct crucial work into climate change mitigation.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting on the record my knowledge of mid-Wales and support for so much of what is taking place there. I would be delighted to join him and visit the two institutions in his constituency and in that of his neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams), when we are allowed to do visits in future.
That is a very kind offer from the Minister and I will take him up on it.
Achieving net zero emissions will undoubtedly be a difficult and expensive challenge, yet, as the past few months have shown, the state, with its unrivalled ability to borrow and invest, can effect unprecedented change to our society and economy quite rapidly when there is a desire or need to do so. With around £3 trillion invested in UK pension schemes, pensions represent an equally transformative source of investment and could support our decarbonisation efforts.
I welcome the requirements in the Bill for pension schemes to assess their exposure to climate change risk. Those requirements are necessary and well overdue. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s estimate that climate change could eliminate up to 30% of the world’s total manageable assets, along with the fact that the vast majority of UK pension schemes currently do not take climate change risk into account, offer sufficient justification for the introduction of the requirements.
Closer to home, in 2019 Welsh local authority pension funds still had more than £1 billion invested in fossil fuels. That means not only that the pension holders are exposed to future climate change risk, but that the funds are—indirectly at least—undermining collective efforts to decarbonise the economy. I therefore urge the UK Government to consider how they can better work with the Welsh Government to encourage the use of pension wealth to realise decarbonisation and productivity improvements across the four nations of the United Kingdom.
The opportunities are there. In recent years, vital projects such as the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon have gone unrealised, while the UK Government have proven themselves unwilling to finance key aspects of our carbon transition in Wales, including improvements to the Welsh railways. Simply put, we have an opportunity to make pensions work better for Wales, to achieve our climate targets and to meet our international commitments.
I welcome the Bill’s increased powers for the pension regulator and the greater urgency for funds to consider climate change risk, but the Bill could go one step further. The finance sector has already taken welcome steps not only towards divestment but in advancing the environmental, social, and corporate governance agenda. The UK Government could bolster those efforts by amending the Bill so that all default funds are required to reach net zero by 2050, at the latest. That would stimulate green investment, as well as industry development, including better reporting standards and stewardship, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) earlier.
Pension funds have a pivotal role to play in decarbonisation—from influencing companies’ boardrooms to invest in a green transition, to protecting pension holders from the risk of climate change. For too long, their transformative potential as investors in that regard has been underutilised, so I welcome the Bill, and particularly clause 124, and hope that the Government can consider strengthening it further so that pension schemes play an even greater part in achieving our vital climate change targets.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) and to hear about all the fantastic work that my former university is doing in the green sector.
This is an important debate. We are talking about something that is often overlooked and under-discussed: the bedrock of people’s futures. The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) summed it up well when he said that this is not about financiers in the City of London; it is about people in their kitchens. It is about people in Tredegar or Tipton—their futures and their livelihoods. It is about making sure that they have a sustainable future for their retirement, and the Bill is vital to ensuring that that can continue.
For people of my generation, in their ’20s, pensions are not something we really think about, to be honest. As my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer) summed up well, quite often the issue is information. As the data shows, many people now have numerous jobs. As my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies) pointed out, some people have up to 11 jobs in their lifetime. It is about the slip in the drawer—the final notice that people get when they leave but then forget about it, and it goes to the back of their mind.
My first point, then, is about my support for pension dashboards. It is vital that we can ensure that people make informed decisions about their futures. I support the pension dashboard provisions in the Bill, because it is absolutely right that we ensure that, as people come to make decisions about their livelihoods and their future and how they are going to ensure it is sustainable, they have the information available. It has been interesting to hear, as a member of the Work and Pensions Committee, how that work has progressed. There is still more to do in this space, though, and that is recognised across the board. Nevertheless, I think we can all agree that it is vital that savers have the freedom to make choices in an informed way.
I want to turn to scams, which has been an overarching point today, particularly in relation to protecting the most vulnerable. I have some sympathy with the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee—perhaps I can call him my right honourable friend—when he talks about the red flag approach. We have heard evidence, summed up by my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, of the disastrous effect that these scams have on ordinary working people and how people can lose their livelihoods as a result of someone who comes across as their friend and says to them, “Ignore the warning signs. Of course they are going to say that to you. Of course they are going to tell you not to do it, but it is a risk. Go on—do it.” I absolutely support, and we cannot stop, the freedom of savers to make that choice because I am fundamentally of the view that the person who knows best how to run their own life is the individual themselves, but ensuring that the safeguards are there is vital. I am heartened that the Minister is in a listening mood on this point and I hope that, as the Bill progresses, that listening mood continues. I am sure, from his comments today, that it absolutely will.
We have heard today some interesting evidence about what happens when the scams are finished. The right hon. Member for East Ham made a really good point about Mr R, who lost all that money and now has £1,000 compensation. When it comes to recovery funds and compensating people who have lost out, it is difficult. Ultimately, a lot of the time we are hearing that people are still left in absolutely dreadful positions, so I am heartened by the Minister’s approach. I look forward to hearing, as the Bill progresses and work continues, about the work that the Government will do more widely on this point, because that does not stop here with this Bill. We have all acknowledged that work to protect consumers from these scams and discussions with regulators will carry on as we continue.
I am supportive of and really heartened by the regulatory enforcement and the increased penalties, increased sentences and custodial sentences that are in place. That is absolutely right, because it is important that people cannot be seen to be allowed to get away with this, and they should not be. We need to support consumers who, at the end of the day, are relying on us getting this right.
I briefly want to touch on the point about climate change. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), who is not in her place, made the point about ensuring that we encourage funds to invest in new green technology. Green technology is going to be a vital part of what I call the “industrial flourishment”, particularly in an area such as mine in the Black Country. I am really fortunate to have in my area groups such as the midland housing group that has been pioneering fuel cell—battery cell—technology some 23 years before it has actually been used, and it is investment in technologies such as that that will power through the economic revival as we come out of this pandemic and crisis.
I want to keep my comments relatively brief today, because we have had some fantastic, very well-thought-out contributions. Broadly, I am really happy with the cross-party support for the Bill. I definitely think that there are some probing discussions to be had as a result of the debate today, not least on scams and how we protect some of the most vulnerable consumers. In communities such as mine, particularly in areas such as Wednesbury, Tipton and Oldbury, we have some of the most vulnerable individuals who rely on some of these schemes. They are not wealthy people. They are not people who can ignore their pension pots. They are people ultimately who rely on their savings to get them through their later life, so we need to make sure that we protect my constituents in those areas, and I look forward to working with the Government particularly on that point.
This is the first time that I have seen the Pensions Minister since his sad loss. I just want to say that it is very good to see him back in the Chamber.
I start with clause 123. Like others, I think that schemes that remain open to new members should be treated differently from those that are closed. It is important that this is reflected in the legislation and in the Pensions Regulator’s codes of practice. Schemes that are open to new members have different needs and I hope the Minister will consider supporting the amendment that was put forward in the other place.
If these defined benefit schemes are treated the same as closed schemes, they will simply become unaffordable. They do not have the same de-risk needs that the regulator is seeking to tackle for closed schemes. In fact, the White Paper itself acknowledged this, as it acknowledged that they would have reasonably longer-term objectives. One very good example—in fact, an almost perfect example—is the railway pension scheme, which is a shared cost arrangement, with a 60:40 split between employer and member. Huge hikes in contributions would simply make this scheme unaffordable for both employers and members and it is worth remembering that, however much we think that defined benefit schemes may be on the way out, they still account for over 20% of the UK pension sector, so it is important that we try to look after them.
There is another unintended consequence. There is a danger that, if we go down this route, we could end up with the Pensions Regulator virtually setting pension policy, rather than simply regulating it, because it would be their actions that would determine how pension policy unfolds in the year ahead. I am not against the regulator, but everyone here will know that it is a body that has in the past come in for criticism. There is a danger here that, if it were to adopt too cautious an approach, partly through a desire to protect its own interests, it may well end up acting against the interests of people who are investing in pension schemes. I do not think that the regulator is seeking to do that or that the Government are seeking to do that: it may be an unintended consequence of giving this power to the regulator to treat these schemes as if they are the same thing. It will end up directly influencing policy in relation to defined benefits schemes in a way that I do not think anybody here really wants. My point is simple: we should do everything that we can to ensure that one of the consequences of the Bill is not to dismantle and effectively force the closure of perfectly viable existing open defined benefit schemes. I hope the Minister will reflect on that.
I welcome part 4 of the Bill relating to the dashboard. I agree that the first dashboard should be a single non-commercial product, hopefully hosted by MaPS, but I also welcome a choice of platforms with the establishment of commercial dashboards, which need to be properly regulated. I am not so sure about the timescale—about whether there should be an absolute timescale before one is established and others can come along. It seems to me that that might be an issue about personal choice and demand to some extent. There does seem to be some evidence that particular age factors will influence who will use what type of dashboard. There may be other characteristics that would influence that. There is a possibility that a relatively small number of people might use a MaPS dashboard, which is a persuasive argument for at least encouraging some sort of choice and variety in the field. It is also important that the state pension is included in the dashboard. That, for me, is a given.
In terms of the green agenda, I welcome what the Bill offers, but there is a persuasive argument for saying that default pension funds should support Government net zero targets. There is about £3 trillion invested in UK pensions, and that could make a real difference in achieving low-carbon investment. The Economist Intelligence Unit estimates that climate change could wipe $43 trillion off the global economy—about 30% of the world’s manageable assets. So trustees pursuing net zero targets would inevitably be respecting their fiduciary duty to protect members’ interests if they were to go down that road. It is not about a choice between being green and their members’ interests: it is about recognising what the green challenge is and how we could use those assets to get much closer to what the Government are seeking.
The hon. Gentleman is making some very good points that I would like to add to as someone who has dealt with many of our country’s pension funds. There is a disconnect between what the pensioners and the trustees believe: they would like to see much more investment in climate change initiatives and funds, but most of our pension funds are advised by a handful of consultants who are often a blockage to investment in, for example, ESG—environmental, social and governance—funds. Does he have any thoughts as to how we unblock the consultants aspect of this?
That is a good point. I think surveys have been undertaken that show that younger people from the 25-plus age group—there is an age divide in this—are much more concerned about where their pension investments go. As with most other things, if you are putting the money in, you should have a voice in where it is directed. That seems perfectly reasonable.
Let me try to clarify the legitimate point raised by the hon. Gentleman and also the flipside in terms of the argument by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies). The Department for Work and Pensions has driven pension trustees forward to embrace ESG and the path of net zero, and asset managers have been lagging behind. I want to put on record the good work done by the FCA, which I accept has been criticised legitimately in the past. Only last week, Chris Woolard and his team specifically issued guidance that accelerates the asset managers to put them on a parallel path to the pension trustees so that we basically ensure that the original investor, and then the actual manager of the money, are working off the same hymn sheet.
I am grateful to the Minister and acknowledge the points that he has made. I just think that there may be permission to go a bit further in this regard, and that is the point that I want to emphasise.
I support directed advice, particularly where there is any question of a scam. I welcome a power for trustees to intervene. I am happy to support the proposal from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms). In my view, it might be better to give the Money and Pensions Service a role in offering limited advice rather than just the guidance so that we try to bridge the gap between guidance and advice. The fundamental difficulty seems to be that, unless people have a particularly big pot and can afford advice, they are denied it, and guidance is not sufficient to protect them or steer them in the right direction. There is an argument for something to bridge that gap, and it might be worth looking at a role for the Money and Pensions Service in doing that.
Finally, I want to go back to where I started and share my concerns that the Bill might be giving too much power to the Pensions Regulator. I was not entirely convinced by the Secretary of State’s comments at the outset. There is a legitimate fear that clause 107 has the potential to criminalise a much wider group of people than can possibly be necessary or sensible. I ask the Minister to look at that again and see if we can be absolutely certain that the net has not been cast too wide.
I welcome the Bill, which is a milestone in the country’s journey to a safer, better and greener financial future, in which more people are saving for their old age. I echo the warm words spoken by the Secretary of State about the work of the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman)—the Pensions Minister—who has a true passion for improving the future not only of his constituents in Hexham but of all our constituents.
This has been an incredibly well-informed debate and I hesitate to add anything, but I do want to bring my perspective, as someone who used to work on the dark side as a pension fund manager, and to make the obvious point that there are three main things that ensure that people have a good pension in old age. The first is starting as young as possible. I was interested to hear Members arguing about starting as early as 18. I certainly think that the Government should seriously consider such a provision, if people meet the earnings criterion. The second thing that makes people’s pensions better over the long term is tax breaks and employer contributions. The earlier that people can pay in the maximum before tax that they are allowed to and get the employer matching that amount, the better off they are going to be in retirement.
The third thing that makes people better off through their pension is lower charges. This subject has not yet come up during this debate, but it is incredibly important to put on the record. The charges in this incredibly competitive industry, in which the UK leads the world, can vary dramatically. I hope that the powers in the Bill will enable our constituents to see much more clearly on their pensions dashboard what they are being charged and for what. As someone who used to work in the industry on the receiving end of the charges, there is no question but that the compounding effect can have a meaningful impact on the final outcome of people’s pensions.
Will the Minister comment in his closing statement on the charges that the National Employment Savings Trust levies on our constituents? NEST is the body that was set up because, through auto-enrolment, there will be some very small and uneconomic pots that the industry will not want to take on. I recall from my time on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions that NEST itself charges really quite vicious amounts to people who are putting their money into a NEST scheme. I seem to recall that it was something like 1.8% up front and then an ongoing annual charge of 0.3%, which sounds low, but is not actually that competitive these days. Despite that, I understand that NEST has not been able to make enough money to repay the loan that the taxpayer gave to establish it. I would be interested in an update and in the Minister’s thoughts on how we can ensure that people who are using NEST do not end up paying particularly onerous charges.
Let me turn to climate change risk. The Treasury Committee, on which I serve, is currently doing an inquiry into green finance, and it is clear that the UK has a huge opportunity to make the most of our leadership—not only on climate generally, but also as a financial centre—to be the go-to place for green finance, green investment and green bond insurance. I heartily endorse the call of my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies) for the UK to show the way not just by being the place where other countries come to issue green bonds, but by being the country that issues green bonds itself to invest in greening our economy.
I want to highlight something that we heard clearly in evidence this week. The former Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has repeated that the cost of climate risk is not being priced into our stock market. There is quite a significant risk that investments in some large companies that form a large part of the index in this country—we should bear in mind how much investment goes into indexed funds—are held as assets that could end up being trapped in value.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what she is saying, but on what Mr Mark Carney has said, she will be aware that he is a member of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures. Under the Bill, the UK will be the first G7 country to bring that into statute. The advantage of that is that the very aspect that she has highlighted as a problem—FTSE 100 companies are not aware of what the risk is from climate change to the way in which they do business—will be tackled, as they will now be forced to disclose that on an ongoing basis to the wider market and individual consumers with pension investments. I believe that the issue raised by Carney, the Treasury Committee and others is addressed in the Bill and the consultation that accompanies it.
I welcome what the Minister says, and I did not want in any way to undermine the provision in the Bill and the incredible progress that it represents on our journey to a greener financial future. I welcome those steps wholeheartedly, but I wish to highlight that those risks, although disclosed, will be there. Many of our constituents, every month in their payroll, put investments into index-based funds in which those risks are inherent. It is incumbent on us all to recognise that that could be a big driver of UK returns, given that a significant portion of the index consists of carbon-based industries in the UK.
I make that point, and I make the point about charges, because the pension dashboard will play a vital role in showing people what they are paying for those returns in an environment where interest rates are virtually zero, where the index has quite a lot of climate-affected assets, where charges can be as high as those from NEST, the state-backed provider, and where investment returns could be lower for a protracted period as we recover from the pandemic. It is worth flagging the fact that giving information on charges in particular and the way in which they compound over a lifetime will be a powerful part of the very many welcome changes that we can see in this excellent piece of legislation.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) set out earlier, there is a great deal in the Bill that the SNP can welcome, including pension dashboards, allowing trustees to take cognisance of the environmental impacts of the investments under their control, legislation to help avoid the unsuitable transfer of funds and allowing the Pension Protection Fund to continue. Those are all good and welcome improvements to the regulatory and administrative landscape in which pensions operate.
When it comes to dealing with pensions—as Members have said, in many cases, that is the most significant investment that many of us make—it is crucial that we are aware of unintended consequences. As a cautionary tale, I remind Members of what happened when the ability of funds to benefit from advance corporation tax was removed. While Treasury coffers have swelled as a consequence, that sounded the death knell for many excellent final salary pension schemes. Those on the Treasury Bench may not care terribly much for that comparison, but it is the sort of cautionary tale with which we would wish to approach this to make sure we are doing our level best to avoid similar mistakes arising from past legislation and the present legislation, and it is on that note that I wish to focus my remarks.
The first issue I wish to concentrate on is one addressed by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) in relation to clause 123 and funding requirements for defined benefit schemes. It is obvious why we would all wish to be assured that schemes are funded to meet the liabilities they have, but if we are to insist on being able to demonstrate that too rigidly, there is a very grave risk that the resulting investment policy that needs to be enacted will become so conservative that it focuses on meeting current liabilities at the expense of delivering future benefits for members within the scheme.
Obviously, that could mean a change in investment strategy away from equities to secure but potentially lower yielding investments, such as bonds, fixed interest investments, property infrastructure and similar, rather than balancing that mix with other types of investment, which might be expected to deliver higher returns over the longer term, and that danger is very real. Paragraph 210 of the consultation the Pensions Regulator is undertaking says:
“We consider that trustees’ focus should be to ensure the security of members’ accrued benefits rather than to ensure the provision of future benefits.”
An estimated 21% of defined benefit scheme members in the UK belong to schemes that are still open to new members, and if the approach that seems to be favoured by the Pensions Regulator is followed for schemes that are open to new members, then as surely as night follows day, scheme investments will begin to ossify in favour of those preserved benefits, at the expense of the ability of these schemes to absorb new members, and that is something that will slowly be closed off to the detriment of those potential new members.
Clause 123 recognises the difference there needs to be in an investment strategy between schemes that are closed to new members and those that remain open. I do not believe that it is or should be the intention of guidance to close down such schemes to new members, but I think that is a danger this will have. Enshrining in legislation the ability of trustees to reflect the characteristics of the schemes that they manage in their investment strategies would help to avoid such an adverse and presumably unintended consequence. I encourage the Minister to ensure that such a clause or something that has similar effect is included in the final legislation.
The second point on which I wish to focus relates to something that is not addressed in the Bill at present. It relates to the treatment of multi-employer industry pension schemes, and I would like to cite the example of the Plumbing & Mechanical Services (UK) Industry Pension Scheme. I state for the record my interest as a member of the all-party group on plumbers’ pensions. For Members who are not familiar with it, this scheme is an industry-wide occupational scheme that provides defined benefits. It has over 35,000 members and has, over its life to date, had about 3,500 employers involved in the scheme. The scheme opened in 1975, and it closed to future accrual of benefits from the end of June 2019, with about 350 employers participating in it at that point in time. One of the issues here is the size of the scheme relative to the remaining employers, many of which are small businesses.
Employer debt legislation contains a number of statutory easements, which are available to many employers facing a section 75 debt under pension legislation—the Pensions Act 1995—when they close their businesses. However, those statutory easements do not cover all situations, such as where an employer has retired or has ceased trading, where the overall amount of the liability in relation to the scheme is small in comparison with the scheme’s size or where an employer has triggered a section 75 debt prior to the closure of a pension scheme to future accrual. In this particular instance, the trustee has been able to apply some existing easements allowed for in legislation, but there are a number of particularly sensitive cases where easements cannot be applied. As a result, individuals face personal bankruptcy, and companies that would otherwise be financially viable face being forced into insolvency.
I want to go into further detail about this case. The trustee currently has 72 employers to consider pursuing for payment where existing easements may not apply. Of those, 43 are incorporated and 29 are unincorporated. Of the 29 unincorporated employers, 20 have retired, and the existing statutory easements cannot apply where the employer has ceased trading. In these cases, there is no ongoing business, but because those employers were unincorporated, they have personal liability to the scheme, which means that their personal assets can be seized by the trustees and used to settle the employer’s debt to the scheme. The trustees advise that, under section 75, these 20 employers collectively have a liability to the scheme of £7 million. Even if each of those employers was made personally bankrupt, only a fraction of that £7 million is likely to be recovered.
I spoke this morning over the telephone to a member of a small local plumbing business in my constituency. He had written to me at the start of the year, and I will give the House a flavour of what he said, because his experience is sadly not untypical. He said:
“I am approaching retirement age, but retiral will trigger my section 75 debt as the law stands at the moment. My father started our employees on the… pension scheme almost forty years ago, long before it was mandatory to have a pension scheme. When I told him about this section 75 issue, my dad burst into tears and said ‘What have I done to you’. I said it was not his fault as he was only doing what he thought was a good thing for our employees by entering them into a pension scheme. Surely after almost 40 years paying into the scheme, all the payments that were due, it can’t result in me losing my house, my office building and my own personal money, which is by no means substantial, and being declared bankrupt.”
There are two methods that could be used to address that, and my party will table amendments on this in Committee. One is the introduction of a trustee discretion to allow trustees not to pursue a section 75 debt when it is below a de minimis threshold. The other is the alteration of deferred debt arrangements to permit employers in a scheme closed to future accrual to apply for a deferred debt arrangement, providing they meet other statutory tests.
That is exactly the sort of thing that I mean by unintended consequences, because I cannot believe for one moment that anyone would have deliberately set up a scheme or put in place a law of that nature with these sorts of outcome in mind. I hope that my party’s amendments in Committee will be accepted and incorporated, because the Bill provides the best opportunity that many will have to get these issues resolved and ease that burden on their minds.
On the whole, this is a good Bill, and we find much in it to support. It gives opportunities to improve the pensions and retirement savings landscape, and I hope that the Government will remain open to further suggestions on how the Bill might be improved as it progresses and heed the warnings, so that we can avoid these unintended consequences.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson), who made a lot of important points. It is also a pleasure and a novelty for me to speak without a time limit, but I will try not to test the House’s patience too much.
This is a very important Bill that delivers on our manifesto commitments and has consumer welfare at its heart, and I am glad that it largely enjoys cross-party support. I welcome the speeches from around the Chamber. I particularly welcome the fact that colleagues from the 2019 intake are speaking in the debate, and I see that there are another three of them yet to speak. Either we are not as young as we look, or we have taken the advice to heart that it is never too early to start planning for retirement.
As a member of the all-party parliamentary group on pension scams and someone who has a general interest in these matters, I am pleased to speak in favour of the important work that the Government have been undertaking. This important legislation will benefit members of the public and help people to plan for their future. It will have an important impact on people saving into pensions for their retirement and ensure that reckless bosses cannot gamble with people’s savings. It will transform the way that people get information about their retirement savings, and it will empower the Pensions Regulator by making it tougher and making its guidance clearer.
We have come a long way on pensions in the last decade, and particularly on automatic enrolment, which most colleagues welcome, but in some ways, we are still in the 20th century. Some pension schemes still provide once-a-year statements. That might well reflect the view that pensions are a long-term investment, and we do not want people to panic as their value goes up and down week by week, but when those statements are frequently being sent to old addresses, it is a problem. People have an average of 11 jobs throughout their career, and with automatic enrolment, they are now likely to have nearly as many pension pots. We really need to bring this into the digital age. At present, these information failures make it harder for individuals to get a holistic view of the pensions they are building up, even if they have the help of a financial adviser. Control over our pension provision, which is often our largest financial asset, is hugely important, and the pension dashboards will be a huge step forward for consumers.
Just to pick up on something my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) said, making charges more visible to everybody would be a huge benefit, because sunlight is often the best disinfectant. It will drive out schemes that are not competitive and push people into better-value schemes. Also, the recent reforms we have made mean that individuals can choose to bear more responsibility for risk and decision making, so it is right that they should have access to the information they need to make those informed choices. That will let them plan better for retirement and enable them to have good financial wellbeing as they get older.
I have heard the concerns from the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) and others about the dashboards, but I would say to him that I think regulation and legislation in all fields must go where the consumer is. A paragraph from the Which? report of February 2018 on dashboards states:
“It is clear that even if the government was to decide that there should only be a single government-run dashboard, other private sector dashboards would continue to develop outside of the regulated market. These may rely on screen-scraping or other potentially unsecure forms of transmitting customer data. They would even be able to screen-scrape data from the official government-run dashboard. If there were any problems with private sector dashboards then the consumer would have no easy method of obtaining redress, as they would remain outside regulation and outside the remit of the Financial Ombudsman Service”.
I cannot really put it better than that. Private sector dashboards are inevitable. Indeed, there are commercial products out there are already, looking at consolidation and so on. Drawing on my own experience in FinTech, these private sector solutions are likely to be more innovative and more responsive to consumer needs than the Government-driven solution.
I take what the hon. Gentleman says, and I do not disagree. I understand that commercial dashboards are coming; that is not where the dispute is. What I and others across the House are looking for is for the Government to invest in and have a period to allow the Money and Pensions Service dashboard to bed in as the default position for consumers to go to, where they know they can get trusted impartial information about their pensions, and then to allow the commercial dashboards to go from there. That is the very reasonable position that the Lords took, and I think that we should agree to it in Committee. I ask the hon. Member to reflect on that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I ask the Minister to comment on that in his summing up, but I reiterate that we have to go where the consumer is. I understand the point he is making. We need clear supervision and a robust regulatory framework, as provided for in the Bill, and we need a non-commercial service, but we have to be realistic: people are going to go to these services first, and they are already springing up. We cannot be constantly trying to catch up. In this regard, I note the earlier intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), who is not in his place at the moment. These dashboards will encourage consolidation, and that may or may not be a good thing in specific cases, so we must continue to ensure that consumers have access to appropriate advice and that any administration fees are reasonable when consolidation takes place.
Turning to scams, in recent years there has been a significant increase in the number of members of the public being scammed out of their pensions. The FCA and the Pensions Regulator report that in 2018, 180 people reported to Action Fraud that they had been victims, losing on average £82,000 each. A total of nearly £31 million has been reportedly lost to pension scammers since 2017, according to complaints filed with Action Fraud. I therefore welcome the measures in clause 125.
To personalise the scams issue for a moment, a couple of my Newcastle-under-Lyme constituents contacted me about their experience in this area earlier this year. They have had to make very unwelcome changes to their retirement plans as a result. They, together with thousands of others, were convinced by commission-driven sales people to move their money into a scheme called Dolphin Trust, which is now called the German Property Group. The Minister might be aware of the scheme. It was set up to buy derelict listed German buildings in prime locations and redevelop them. In many cases, pension holders who invested were told, by unregulated salesmen who were paid up to 20% commission, that they would almost double their money if they left their savings in the scheme for five years. The scheme was often recommended by independent financial advisers, who advised their clients to invest via a self-invested personal pension.
As the House can imagine, the results were not as advertised. I thank the Treasury for its help with this case so far, but I would welcome further engagement with the Minister when that is possible. My understanding is that this specific case is currently with the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. That is the real human impact of retirement scams on people in my constituency, and I am sure in the constituencies of Members all around the House. I understand that the Government have already taken measures against so-called introducers, but I welcome the measures in clause 125 to strengthen consumer protection. As the Secretary of State put it in her opening speech, we need to have the option of
“prison for pension pot pinchers”.
I want briefly to touch on another couple of the elements of the Bill. I know that postmen and women, in particular, in Newcastle-under-Lyme will welcome the provisions enabling the introduction of collective defined contribution schemes. These have cross-party and industry support, and unions including the Communication Workers Union, as well as Master Trust and other pension providers, have expressed a desire to see more people benefiting from the advantages and risk-sharing that collective defined contribution schemes can bring. I think that that is broadly welcomed across the House. I will also mention the good work being done so that we use our pensions for the good of the planet, and the requirement that the Bill puts on trustees and managers, with a view to securing effective governance over the effects of climate change, and publishing information. That is not being prescriptive; it is about informing and empowering schemes and individuals to make decisions.
In conclusion, I pay tribute to the Minister for his passion for this subject and his willingness to engage with us. I also echo the remarks of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) about the Minister’s personal tragedy earlier this year. The sympathy of the whole House is with him.
As a financial planner for many years, I confirm that for a large majority of the UK population the topic of pensions is something to be avoided and put off to a later date. Looking at the sparseness of today’s call sheet and at the Benches around me, that seems also to be the case for many right hon. and hon. Members. Many UK pensions involve complicated borrowing and are hard to understand, and we cannot all be pension geeks like me and the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds).
In April 2006 we went through pension simplification—a misnomer if ever there was one. That was about the time that I was becoming involved in pensions, and if what came out of pension simplification is simple, I would have hated to have worked with what came before. This does not need to be complicated. Pensions are the simplest of things—they are an investment with a tax-efficient wrapper around them. People save for their retirement, with tax benefits as an incentive to do so. It is no more complicated than that.
Other industries have adapted and evolved to suit new technologies as they come up. The banking industry is a great example of that, and it has embraced new technological advances such as online banking. More than 76% of people in the UK now use online banking regularly, compared with just a third of people back in 2007. Just as the banking industry developed to meet the needs of modern society, it is now time for the pension sector to do the same and move into the 21st century, and the Bill seems to be the first step in doing just that.
A recent YouGov survey found that three in five workers have no idea how much they have saved in their pension, and more than a quarter of working age people with a pension say that they never check what is in it. Given the United Kingdom’s increasingly ageing population, it is more important than ever that individuals plan for the future and protect their savings, but currently, there are barriers to doing that.
As I have said in other debates in the House, my main reason for being involved with the Conservative and Unionist party is one of empowerment, and of enabling people to take control of their lives, make better decisions, and shape their own futures. Once again, I am proud to be a member of the party that empowers people to have the freedom and knowledge to make informed choices about their life, and form the retirement that they want and deserve.
The Bill enables people to make better decisions about their pension by giving them access to their pension savings in one place. Like other hon. Members, I support the idea of the pensions dashboard, which will make it much easier for people to see information about their pensions online. By having all their savings in one place, people will be more likely to keep track of them and engage with their pension pot, allowing individuals to understand their pension savings and make better choices along the way.
I remain cautious, however, because a little information can be a bad thing, and I worry a little about individuals who would benefit from professional advice trying to take complex decisions on their own, rather than seeking a properly qualified financial planner. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) said, on average people have 11 jobs in their lifetime, and under the current auto-enrolment regime, they may have a different pension pot each time. It is therefore hard for people to monitor and keep up to date with their pension savings, to say nothing of the millions of people who have lost track of pensions from jobs they had decades ago.
The Minister and I have had many conversations about pension tracing, and I remain hopeful that because pensions have always been logged by a national insurance number, there is potential within the new dashboard system for a way to proactively inform individuals about pensions that they might have and not be aware of, without them needing to know the details of a job that might have been some significant time ago. According to the Association of British Insurers, 20% of adults admit to having lost a pension pot. The actual figure will be much higher, because some people will not even realise that it has happened. Research suggests that there is almost £20 billion in forgotten pensions; recovering that would be a massive boost for pensioners in these difficult times.
Mr L, for example, visited my office a couple of years ago wanting to access his £50,000 pension to clear the remaining balance of his mortgage and give him a little comfort. After a bit of investigation, we uncovered that he actually had £260,000, and we made a new plan not only to clear the mortgage but for him to retire seven years earlier than planned. That can be a transformative process to go through.
If we want to encourage people to engage with their pensions and their retirement plans, their pensions data needs to be readily available and we need to give them the right to choose how they engage with it, whether that is online, through an app on their phone, through the Money and Pensions Service or, indeed, via their own provider. The right to choose has already been extended to other areas of people’s financial lives. With the creation of a pensions dashboard, that right will finally be extended to pensions, and people will have the freedom to make their own decisions about their future.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s plans for ensuring that data on multiple pensions cannot be viewed by competitor providers and that people’s personal information remains protected from predatory sales practices. I have some sympathy with the points made by the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) and others that the MaPS platform should be primary, but I recognise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme just mentioned, that innovation often lies in the hands of private firms, normally to the benefit of the consumer.
Moving on from dashboards, the existing pension frameworks—defined-benefit and defined-contribution schemes—can create significant risk and cost for employers on one hand, and do not provide the most predictable retirement income for scheme members on the other. In addition to the dashboard, individuals in some circumstances will be provided with greater freedom of choice through the introduction of collective defined-contribution schemes, which are a better, more affordable and more reliable alternative for both scheme members and employers.
Under those schemes, savers in a company can pool their money collectively in a single fund that pays an annual pension income. By addressing the binary nature of UK pension legislation, the Bill will give individuals greater opportunities to invest in a variety of schemes that benefit them and their needs. As risk is shouldered collectively across the membership rather than by individual members, collective defined-contribution schemes will lead to greater stability and security. That is just another measure that shows that the Government are listening and working with the needs and views of both the industry and our constituents.
Let me touch briefly on charges and costs, which others have mentioned, and sound a note of caution that I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will heed. For many years, there has been a huge focus on costs and charges in pensions, and I worry that it is sometimes skewed the wrong way. I have seen a number of clients over the years who have transferred pension funds into options with much lower charging structures, only to see significantly lower growth. Something with a 1% charge that delivers a 5% return is a much better option than something that has a 0.2% charge but returns only 3%.
I am pleased that the Bill will strengthen the powers of the Pensions Regulator so that members of pension schemes have increased protection for their savings. That gives a fresh set of dentures to a regulator that previously may have lacked a little bite, and it is a welcome reform. Although TPR performs an incredibly important role in protecting workplace pensions and building people’s confidence in retirement saving, there has been a significant change in the industry since its creation in 2005, and it is time that it had some more authority, so I am glad that the Bill will update its role and powers so that it is fit to meet the needs of pensions in the 21st century.
The regulator will have greater powers to deter reckless behaviour, such as extended information-gathering powers, and new civil and criminal sanctions will be introduced. If we are to encourage people to save in their pensions for their future, it is right that they should feel confident that their savings will be protected by a robust regulatory structure. The measures in the Bill will build important trust in pension schemes and put consumer interests first.
Ultimately, the Bill showcases the heart of the Conservative and Unionist Government’s values: empowerment, freedom and choice. It will give people the freedom to make informed decisions about their future, the ability to choose where to save their pension and the confidence to make the right decision about their future and retirement, knowing that it will be protected, and I am pleased to support it.
In closing, may I also take a moment to say on my behalf—and I am sure, on behalf of hon. and right hon. Members from all parts of the House—how pleased we all are to see my hon. Friend the Minister at the Dispatch Box after his recent tragic loss? I know the whole House was devastated to hear his news, and we hope that he and his partner are doing well. Others have paid tribute to his passion and assiduity in preparing the Bill, and I add my voice to their praise.
It is an honour to follow the self-confessed pension geek and guru that is my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts). I hope that when I come to draw my pension, it is revealed, as in the story of his constituent, that it is actually five times greater than I ever expected it to be. I am sure it was all down to the wonderful advice that was given.
If I wrote a headline for this Bill, it would be something along the lines of, “If you want to save the planet, start a pension.” That would chime very well with my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), who is encouraging young people to start a pension, as I am myself, but in a roundabout way, this Bill does just that. While the thought of pensions may give rise to a tendency for many to glaze over and think about things another day, this piece of legislation is a welcome move. That is proven by the wide base of support. As the Minister has been roundly thanked, I will applaud him and add my thanks, because this is a really great piece of legislation.
While I cannot profess to having the same level of knowledge as some Members in the Chamber today, I was in a former life a finance director, and I recall feeling some dread when auto-enrolment first arrived. I remember bemoaning the scheme, which at the time was more expensive to administer than the meaningful contributions that an employee would pay in when the rates were so low. How those cynics were wrong, including me, because its success speaks for itself. We now have more than 10 million workers in an auto-enrolment scheme in this country. People did not opt out when the contributions increased. Nearly 90% of eligible employees participate in a workplace pension now.
With an ageing population, the need to save for one’s retirement is in anyone’s view vitally necessary, much like many of the constituent parts of the Bill. Auto-enrolment has created inertia to save. It trusts people to think about their retirement, but the next stage is to bring back control—this is why the Bill is so good and important—so that people know what they have and where it is. As the old saying goes, “If you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it”, and for that reason I wholeheartedly welcome the implementation of the pension dashboard in the Bill.
It is a common fact—we have heard it many times today—that people lose control of their pension pots. People move jobs many times throughout their career. We have heard it is about 11 times on average, and there is some £20 billion in pension pots that people no longer necessarily know the location of. The dashboard is a progressive and necessary step in continually improving our pension system and empowering people to know what they have and where it is, not to mention beneficial for pension companies and contributors given that we are always told how small pots are not the most beneficial or economically efficient. What is more, the Bill gives clarity, transparency and support to help make people make informed decisions.
I welcome clause 125. We have heard time and again of the dreadful and immoral scams to which people have sadly fallen victim. For many, pension savings are their largest financial asset. If someone falls victim to a scam, their loss can be just shy of £100,000. Adequate restrictions to protect consumers with a layer of due diligence and a red flag are a sensible brake, which will help to avoid such repercussions.
I welcome the introduction of collective defined-contribution schemes. CDCs create a collective pot from which everyone who owns and shares the fund can benefit, and we are already hearing welcoming noises about that. The Bill provides legislation and the regulatory framework for new collective money purchase schemes and, as such, it helps to widen the desire for alternative collective arrangements.
But back to saving the planet. Clause 124 represents a hugely significant step, and it is in tune with the speech that the Prime Minister gave yesterday. Climate change continues, quite rightly, to take centre stage in so much of our legislative agenda. This is the first pensions Bill ever to mention climate change. Pension trustees must now consider climate change as financially material to members’ investments. Under the regulations of the taskforce on climate-related financial disclosures, schemes must consider the response to climate change as both a risk and an opportunity in their governance risk management strategy, and they must publish that information.
When we think of the billions upon billions invested in pension funds, we can see that allowing pension schemes and the market to embrace the green agenda will enable people to put their own savings into helping us to achieve net zero. Perhaps for the first time ever—even if we never quite thought we would say this—saving for our retirement can now be seen as saving the planet as well.
I will not be speaking for as long as I did yesterday in the Adjournment debate. I will just say a few words about the Minister, who is a great neighbour. He is the sort of neighbour that an MP would want to have next door, and he is always incredibly helpful and friendly. I echo the words of some of my hon. Friends about the tragedy that he and his wife, who are both personal friends of mine, have suffered. I wish them all the very best for the future. I add my name to the tributes that the Secretary of State paid to him in his role as Pensions Minister. He has been superb in government for many years. Whether he will continue in that role or be elevated—I hope he will be—who knows? He has certainly been great in his job.
I pay tribute to some of my hon. Friends from the 2019 intake who have made contributions. My hon. Friends the Members for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies), for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) and for Delyn (Rob Roberts) have a huge amount of personal experience in this area, and it is great to see that expertise being brought to the Floor of the House.
For many people, the two major contributions that Parliament and the Conservative Government have made to their lives will probably be the long-term positives of the last 10 years of auto-enrolment and the raising of the threshold at which people start to pay income tax. Those are probably the two largest financial measures of which they will feel the effects over a long period of their lives. The Bill builds on a lot of that great work.
The CDC scheme in part 1 is a welcome measure. I am glad that it has union support, and I know that Royal Mail workers in my constituency are looking forward to benefiting from it. On strengthening the powers of the regulator, from my conversations during the last few months with Members on both sides of the House about pensions issues that have affected their constituents over many years, it is clear that any such strengthening will be welcomed. I am glad to see that in part 3 of the Bill.
On part 5 of the Bill, we can all welcome the extra choice and empowerment delivered to our constituents by the introduction of the green initiatives that other hon. Members have mentioned.
I know that part 4 and the dashboard have been the subject of much debate today. I have had 11 jobs in the past five years, never mind a lifetime, so I very much welcome the proposal. However, I hope that the voters of Durham North West will change the habit of a lifetime and keep me in place for many years to come.
An aspect of auto-enrolment is that people go into it when they are aged 22 or earning over £10,000 a year. Many of my constituents start work at 18 and it would be good to see their circumstances considered if not necessarily by this Bill but in future, so that young people contribute as soon as they enter work. I started work at 16 and can only imagine the extra pension pot that I would have—maybe even as large as the one that my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn mentioned—if I had contributed from an even earlier age. When people start contributing early, those contributions have the greatest cumulative effect. I hope that, when the Government think of people in constituencies like mine who go straight into work at the age of 18, they will consider introducing measures that make saving from the earliest point possible even easier.
The Bill is forward thinking and builds on a lot of the good work done by Members in all parts of the House over the past few years. It strengthens protections for people and provides clarity, particularly in the proposal for a dashboard. As someone with many pension pots that I have now managed to amalgamate, I quite understand that this is an important step in the right direction for those who change jobs frequently or who are in different sorts of temporary work. I welcome the Bill.
First, I express my thanks to Members of the other place for introducing the Bill and for their work in bringing it to its current form. Clearly, much expertise and scrutiny have been brought to bear.
Secondly, I want to acknowledge that life expectancy is increasing and that that is good news. It also brings challenges and that is a good problem to have. Older people may now need a pension income that will last for 20, 30 or even 40 years and we should welcome that. As I said in the debate last week on the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill, the triple-lock guarantee for pensions has never been more important. It is clear that many working-age people, and especially younger people, are not saving, and are simply unable to save enough, for their retirement. Final salary pension schemes, such as defined-benefit schemes, are increasingly closing to new entrants. This will mean that the state pension will become an increasingly important source of retirement income in the future. That makes this Bill and its consideration of how best to manage workplace pension schemes even more vital. As a result of the work in the other place, there is much to welcome.
I have had a number of jobs over my time in employment. I cannot beat 11 in five years but, at the last count, I am currently a member of four different pension schemes—both private and public sector and both defined-benefit and defined-contribution schemes. It is clear that, as work changes and more people move from employer to employer, such circumstances are more likely, and I welcome the Bill’s acknowledgment of this increasing reality for many.
I will restrict my remarks to a small number of areas. Other Members have outlined the details of parts 1 and 2 and the proposal to introduce collective defined-contribution schemes and collective money purchase schemes to allow savers to take advantage of market highs and avoid the lows. It makes sense to offer a more balanced alternative to having all the risk lying with either the sponsoring employer, as in defined-benefit schemes, or with the employee, as in defined-contribution schemes. The cross-party employer and employee support outlined in the Government’s consultation reflects that and, having outlined the importance of ensuring inter-generational fairness last week, I highlight the Lords amendment to clause 27, which would provide that, whenever the pensions regulator issued a notice requiring a scheme to submit a supervisory return, it must include a requirement that the trustees assess the extent to which the scheme is operating in a manner that is fair to all its members. I seek a response from the Minister on that amendment and on the steps that the Government are taking to ensure that such fairness is there from the outset of any CDC scheme.
On part 4, like many, I welcome the creation of dashboards that will allow people not only to see their current pension provisions all in one place but even find pensions they potentially did not know that they had. That is currently estimated to be one in five people. The burden of responsibility for risk-taking lies increasingly with the individual. They have more flexibility, but they need to have as much information as possible made available to them so they can make the best possible decisions and be protected from the scams that many Members have mentioned.
The recommendation for dashboards dates back to 2016, and I am disappointed that it has taken until now to see concrete measures. Further details on timescales for dashboards would be appreciated. In addition, I am interested in hearing from the Minister about the DWP proposals to allow a pension to follow an individual from job to job. Given the increasing responsibility of individuals, that is one way to ensure that people understand their entitlements, save accordingly and, potentially, reduce their dependence on the state pension in future.
On part 5, I want to highlight, like many, clause 123 and the amendment accepted in the other place relating to the treatment of open and closed defined-benefit schemes. I understand that the Pensions Regulator is concerned that the failure and subsequent cost to fund DB schemes is becoming a risk, but a great many DB schemes are still open. For them, being forced to de-risk would mean that they would not be able to continue to afford paying out as high a pension to their members.
In other words, DB schemes would be forced to make less risky investments, such as on Government bonds, which means that they would create less of a return on their investments, but still be required to pay out the same amount. Given that Government bonds and other low-risk investments will have very low rates for the longer term, as a result of covid, the risks to such DB open schemes’ viability becomes even more stark.
Yesterday, like the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), I met executives of the railways pension scheme. They explained that closed schemes have a fixed end point in sight. They need readily available assets to pay pensions, and they invest in lower risk assets by default. Open-to-new-member schemes are more balanced, with new members replacing older leavers. Such schemes’ needs and objectives are fundamentally different, and they do not need to sell assets. Primary legislation is needed to recognise the different characteristics, and I hope that the Minister will indicate whether that will be supported in Committee.
Finally, the Liberal Democrats welcome clause 124—it is a welcome step—and the Minister’s comments on asset managers earlier. Beyond covid, the climate emergency remains the biggest future challenge to the UK. As I said at the outset, there is much to welcome in the Bill, but I echo the comments of the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), that it does not address previous pension injustices, including the persistence of a gender pension gap and the situation experienced by previous members of the plumbers’ pension scheme—like the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson), I am a member of the APPG and have affected constituents. I hope that those situations will be looked at further in Committee.
Those who built Britain deserve nothing less than security and dignity in retirement. Pensions is not an easy policy area. It requires, on the one hand, careful long-term planning and management of the public finances and, on the other, the role that we play in this House in laying down the statutory framework for pensions. That is why, in government, Labour sought to establish consensus.
We introduced the Pensions Commission, which charted a new direction for United Kingdom pensions policy. Chaired by Adair Turner, it gained widespread agreement to reforms that, even at the time of the establishment of the commission, had been regarded as unthinkable. The lasting legacy of that was auto-enrolment, transforming the lives of millions, with 10 million more people now saving into a workplace pension.
I now turn to the Bill, with that spirit of constructive engagement in mind, and with a number of questions arising out of today’s debate. I begin by thanking the Pensions Minister for his outstanding work in carrying forward so much of the Bill. He is highly regarded across the House, as we heard from the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) and others.