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Gender Pension Gap

Volume 692: debated on Monday 19 April 2021

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

I am delighted to have secured this important debate on the gender pension gap, which stands at a shameful 40.3%—more than double the gender pay gap of 17.3%. That is truly shocking, and I hope that the debate will both highlight this terrible inequality and perhaps persuade the UK Government to take some fairly straightforward measures to address it if they are truly committed to pension justice and equality.

We are all aware of the justifications for women’s state pension age being raised, but equalising state pension ages is very different from pension equality. We could simply throw our hands in the air and exclaim that women have always had lower pensions than men, and that is just the way it is, but it need not be this way. It is simply unacceptable that all types of pension provision—whether state pensions, workplace pensions or private pensions—inherently discriminate against women. If they choose to do so, the UK Government could tackle this and thereby tackle the poverty that too many women face in old age. This can wait no longer, as an increasing proportion of women are simply not able to rely on their partner’s income in retirement, and nor should they be required to.

I congratulate my hon. Friend most sincerely on securing the debate. The average woman in her 20s in the UK will have to work almost 40 years longer than her male counterpart to build up the same pension. Indeed, a female saver can expect to have £100,000 less in retirement savings thanks to time taken out of the workplace to raise children. In the previous debate, the Government spoke an awful lot about levelling up. Does she agree that, if the Government are serious about levelling up, the first thing they could do is tackle the injustice of the gender pension gap?

Absolutely. I know that the Minister will be listening intently, and I hope he will take away the reasonable and straightforward suggestions that I will make this evening, so that we can truly level up in the way that the Government say they want to.

Women born in the 1950s—WASPI women, or Women Against State Pension Inequality—have suffered hugely as their state pension age was accelerated, giving them insufficient time to prepare for retirement. Despite the clamour of outrage, the Government have refused to do anything to address the hardship caused to the women affected. I wish I could say that that policy decision was the only one that targets women in retirement. I wish this was the only measure I could find that has transformed retirement into a time of financial uncertainty and fiscal pressure for women. Sadly, it is a mere continuation of policy choices that have contributed to—indeed, exacerbated—the gender pension gap under which too many women now labour.

The hon. Lady, myself and others in this Chamber have supported the WASPI women the whole way through. Does she agree that there is not only a legal obligation but a moral obligation to deliver for them and that the WASPI women in our constituencies who have contacted us deserve to know that the battle has not ended for them?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is impossible, in all conscience, to have any debate about pensions and not mention the plight and difficulties into which the WASPI women have been thrust. Indeed, it would be remiss not to mention them and to pay tribute to the dignified campaign that they have fought and continue to fight.

Let us take pension credit as an example. The uptake of pension credit is only around 60%—a matter that I have raised repeatedly over the years in the House, urging the UK Government to do more to improve uptake. Doing so could play an important part in helping to close the gender pension gap, since women are much more likely to need to rely on pension credit, which is additional support for the poorest pensioners, as their lifetime earnings tend to be lower than men’s. However, the so-called triple lock on state pensions does not apply to pension credit. This means that the poorest pensioners, who tend to be women, do not have the same income protection as those pensioners who are better off.

In addition to this gender penalty, the very lowest earners, who we know tend to be women—I keep saying it because it bears repeating—are excluded from building credit on their state pension. Those who have a job earning below the lower earnings threshold get no credit for their state pension at all, and that applies even if a person has more than one job. This exclusion disproportionately hits women hard as they are more likely to be in part-time work. When the Minister gets to his feet, I hope that he will explain why this stubborn inflexibility in the national insurance system has not been addressed and when we can expect this pitfall—that is what it is—to be removed, as it contributes to the impoverishment of women in retirement. The lower earnings threshold should be abolished so that all workers can claim credit for state pension, no matter the level of their earnings.

The gender pension gap is exacerbated in all sorts of sneaky and labyrinthine ways, some of which most women do not know about due to the arcane nature of the system. The UK Government could fix many of these problems almost at a stroke; why this has not happened is curious.

For example, even if a woman is not currently in paid work, if she claims child benefit for a child under 12, she will get national insurance credit towards her state pension, and is treated as though she has contributed to national insurance while she claims that child benefit, when her state pension is calculated. Even if her partner’s earnings deem her ineligible for child benefit, she needs to apply in order to get national insurance credit. Who knew?

If a woman finds out subsequently about this rather silly and pointless method of gender discrimination—well, too bad. She cannot backdate her claim. In addition, research has shown that huge numbers of women simply do not know how child benefit claims affect their state pension calculation. And who could blame them? It would be fairly simple for the UK Government to address this by allowing all women who are looking after their children to claim state pension credit. Why not? What is the obstacle to this change, which could play a part in reducing the shameful gender pension gap?

Let me turn to the issue of temporarily leaving the workforce to look after children adversely impacting on a woman’s pension. Workplace pensions discriminate against women, who tend to earn less and to have interrupted careers, meaning that they are active in the workplace for fewer years than men. This means that their workplace pensions are lower, as well as their state pensions. This could be mitigated if the Government introduced a family carer’s top-up, whereby the Government would pay the equivalent of the employer’s contribution—at least at the level of minimum wage—into women’s pensions if they are taking time out as carers. This would equate to around £820 per year and would boost pension outcomes for women by 20% if they took 10 years out of the workforce to undertake caring responsibilities and return to the workforce thereafter. Importantly, research shows that this could close half the pension wealth gap that is created by taking time out of work to care for others—so far, so good.

It was always traditionally the case that women were forced to leave company pensions if they married or switched to part-time working. I have lost count of the number of WASPI women who have told me that they were forced out of occupational pension provisions when they married. However, we know that women also tended to be less likely even to be offered an occupational pension in the first place due to the types of jobs women traditionally did. Again, we have inherent bias against women’s workplace pensions.

We also need to remember that some workplace pensions do not aggregate women’s pensions following maternity leave. Not merging periods of pension service means that women have a reduced pension when they retire, relative to their male counterparts. Surely it cannot be beyond the wit of this Government to regulate pension provision so that women’s pension rights can be preserved whilst caring responsibilities are attended to?

If this litany of how women get a raw pension deal and suffer institutional bias seems to be long, I am afraid it is set to become longer still, because we have not yet considered auto-enrolment. This much-heralded programme to ensure all employers provide workplace pensions leaves out, ignores and simply does not take into account millions of women.

How can that be? It is actually very simple. Those who earn less than £10,000—again, disproportionately women of course—do not benefit from auto-enrolment and therefore do not benefit from their employer’s pension contribution. Again, it does not matter if someone has two part-time jobs, because if each pays below £10,000, they miss out on auto-enrolment and the employer’s contribution to the pension.

New research from the Pensions Policy Institute shows that almost half of single mothers are currently ineligible for auto-enrolment—almost half. Does the Minister think that is acceptable? What will he do to persuade his Government to remove the £10,000 earnings limit for auto-enrolment so that the threshold can be reduced to the very first pound earned? When one considers the part that that measure alone could play in helping to reduce the gender pay gap, I can think of no good reason not to do it.

If that was not bad enough, those who are auto-enrolled into their workplace pension are often forced to pay an additional 25% for their pensions if they earn between £10,000 and £12,000. Again, that situation tends to affect women disproportionately and is due to the type of pension an employer may use, which operates on a net pay basis. That means that the employee has to pay extra to their pension provider instead of receiving the tax relief they could have in a different type of pension scheme, such as a relief at source scheme. Sadly, it seems that most employers use the net pay scheme, so contributions are collected before tax.

However, if the relief at source scheme were used, women would benefit from an additional £8,000 in their pensions over their working lives. We have, quite frankly, a disgraceful situation in which women, who are most in need of help in building up their pension pots, are forced to pay more, usually without knowledge of how they are being financially penalised. If we want pension equality, why are the Government not legislating so that employers and pension providers ensure workers are enrolled into schemes that will qualify for tax relief?

If, after all that, a woman finds herself widowed, her late husband’s life annuity will probably not provide her with any income, meaning that after the shock of being widowed many women are thrown into poverty, financially unprotected. Similarly, if a woman is divorced, she may find herself in poverty in retirement. Indeed, she is more likely to do so. It seems clear that there are institutional, inherent, ingrained and unfair barriers to women being able properly and fairly to build up a pension pot that will offer them protection from poverty in their later years.

The obstacles, problems and barriers have been set out clearly tonight, and the Minister has been listening to the potential solutions. I urge him to respond to each barrier and to indicate what his Government will do to address the shocking and unacceptable gender pension gap that exposes women to poverty and hardship in their later years, because it does not have to be this way.

It is my mission as pensions Minister to make the UK pensions system safer, better and greener. We are doing that in a variety of ways, ranging from our world-leading climate change and environmental, social and governance reforms, which positively impact pension investments, to taking tough action on scams and unscrupulous bosses, and through our work to make pensions simpler and more easily understood with dashboards, and to tackle inequality.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) on securing this important debate. This Government, like previous Governments, recognise that this is an important issue—one that we remain committed to addressing. It is one of the key drivers of the automatic enrolment reforms and the 2016 new state pension reforms, both of which help to address the issue raised. Through automatic enrolment and the new state pension, we are enabling more women to build up pension provision in their own right, reducing historical inequalities in the pension system.

With respect to the hon. Lady, I submit that automatic enrolment has been a genuine game changer in workplace savings. It has happened over the past nine years, but the work has been done by successive Governments, including a Labour Government, who set up the Turner commission. Automatic enrolment was commenced by the coalition Government in 2012, before the original blueprint was fully rolled out by this Conservative Government in 2018-19. Savings of 8% are now the norm, and 10.5 million employees have been automatically enrolled by more than 1 million employers.

Overall workplace pension participation for eligible employees has increased by 44 percentage points since 2012, reaching 86% in 2019. It has been especially transformative for women, low earners and young people, who have historically been poorly served by or excluded from workplace pensions. The proportion of women participating in a workplace pension reached 86% in 2019, which is double what it was in 2012. Some 79% of low earners now save into a workplace pension, which is more than double what it was in 2012. Finally, 85% of young people now save into a workplace pension, which, again, is well over double what it was in 2012.

I do not think anybody in this House would quibble with the fact that automatic enrolment has been a success story, but the point outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran is that the £10,000 trigger in place discriminates against women. Why do the Government have such an objection to making sure that the trigger kicks in at the first pound, rather than waiting until £10,000, which is so disadvantageous to women?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, because I am coming to that specific issue. He will be aware that we conducted a review of automatic enrolment and that we are committed to implementing its findings by the mid-2020s. We intend to remove the lower earnings limit, which will benefit low earners, and for the first time everyone will get an employer contribution from their very first pound of earnings if they are enrolled or opt in. That will improve the incentive to save, especially for women and those individuals working part-time in multiple jobs. In addition, the review also proposed extending eligibility to those aged 18, which will support younger people with the opportunity to start saving earlier for a more secure retirement. Clearly, there is a benefit in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. In the constituency of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for example, 7,000 people are currently automatically enrolled, and thanks are due to the thousands of employers who are supporting them in that process.

While the Minister is talking about auto-enrolment, will he say whether he has any concerns about the issue I outlined about the employer using the net pay basis, instead of the relief at source scheme, so that tax relief can be earned?

The hon. Lady raised the RAS—relief at source—issue, which is a legitimate one. It is a matter governed by the Treasury. Obviously, I speak for all the Government, so I can try to address that point. She may have missed it, but in the Budget the Government announced a call for evidence on pensions tax relief administration, in line with the Conservative Government’s manifesto commitment to review comprehensively relief at source tax arrangements. The call for evidence is now closed and the Treasury is continuing to analyse the responses to it. The Treasury will, in the usual way, respond and publish its response shortly. Although the hon. Lady legitimately and rightly raises a matter that, to be fair, is also in the Conservative party manifesto as an issue to be addressed, the Treasury is addressing and has the matter in hand.

I will briefly touch on the very important issue of the self-employed. We remain committed to developing effective, durable retirement solutions for the self-employed. We commenced trialling a research programme in 2019-20 to test differing approaches aimed at improving retirement savings for self-employed people, looking at the role of behavioural messages and saving mechanisms using financial digital platforms. Some of those trials were paused during the covid pandemic for obvious reasons, but the work is done such that we hope to recommence trials this summer. We are also specifically working with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to incorporate self-employed pension solutions into the Making Tax Digital programme that HMRC is rolling out, which I believe will genuinely assist the issue in relation to the self-employed.

Turning to the desire to make pensions simpler, more understandable and more practical, we are taking several measures to address that. In particular, the House will be aware of the pensions dashboard, which we took through in the Pension Schemes Act 2021. We are also driving forward the two-page annual pensions benefit statement, which will take the dozens of pages that were very hard to comprehend and make them into a simple two-page statement. We believe simplicity is key. We want all savers to be easily able to understand their pensions savings, so they can plan for the retirement they want. We believe that communications should be designed with savers’ needs in mind to encourage such engagement. Effective engagement will require a continued partnership between the various providers—the Government, the advisory community and the savers in the longer term.

I also want to outline to the House—I believe it is relevant to this debate—the pilot projects that we are conducting up and down the country on the midlife MOT. This builds on the work of the private sector, in particular Aviva and others, looking particularly at interventions between the ages of 45 to 50. Effectively, it is looking at wealth, work and wellbeing. We have committed several hundred thousand pounds to a number of pilot projects from Cornwall to the north-east and all across the country to ensure that there is a piloting of particular interventions to try to get people engaged with their pensions at an earlier stage and to see whether real differences can be made. I thank the Financial Conduct Authority for meeting me on this issue today as we try to drive forward this innovative change.

The hon. Lady also raised the state pension and a number of issues in respect of it. She will be aware that the state pension has never been higher in this country. When we came into government, it was barely £66 billion in 2009-10. It is now approximately £100 billion-plus. There is a well over £1,000 real-terms increase by reason of the triple lock. Clearly, pension credit has increased as well. She will also be aware that our reforms have seen the gap reduced between the state pensions of men and women. The new state pension system, introduced by one of my predecessors, corrects some of the historic inequalities of the previous system. Over 3 million women stand to receive an average of £550 more per year by 2030. The state pension outcomes are expected to equalise more than a decade earlier than they would have under the old system. We believe that the new state pension, introduced from 2016, gives equal value to national insurance contributions and credits, providing access to the same level of entitlement for all. There is also a comprehensive framework of credits available when people are out of the workforce, for example caring for children or elderly relatives. This will protect people’s state pension position for those periods.

We have introduced the “Check your state pension forecast” service, which I strongly recommend. There is also a desire for everyone to find out whether filling any gaps will increase their payments when they reach state pension age. In particular, that should be done in respect of gaps since 2016, because filling in the gaps, by either receiving credits or making voluntary national insurance contributions, could increase state pension.

The hon. Lady raised a number of additional points that I want to try to address. She raised the campaign on the women’s state pension age increase. Clearly, these were decisions made in the early 1990s and then legislated for, fundamentally on grounds of equality, in 1995. The notice period, I suggest, was several decades. Whatever the hon. Lady’s views or mine, this matter was then taken to the courts, and both the High Court and the Court of Appeal rejected all legal claims of the state pension age campaigners comprehensively, in highly detailed judgments.

This Government, at the same time, have raised the living wage, increased the personal allowance to £12,570, introduced free childcare, introduced the returners programme and addressed shared parental leave, and spent record sums already on universal credit, disability support and, as I say, state pension.

I thank all hon. Members for participating in this debate and showing a clear passion for improving pension outcomes for women. I believe that this Government and previous Governments have made progress. I accept that there is more to do and that closing the gender pension gap remains a priority for all.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.