Consideration of Lords amendments
I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is engaged by both Lords amendments. If the House agrees to either Lords amendment, I shall ensure that the appropriate entry is made in the Journal.
Up-rating of state pension and certain other benefits following review in tax year 2021-22
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.
The Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill is a one-year Bill by reason of the pandemic. Last year, as you will be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, we changed the law for one year to increase state pensions by 2.5% at a time when average earnings had fallen and consumer price inflation had increased by half a percentage point. If we had not taken this action, state pensions would have been frozen.
This year, average earnings growth is estimated to be unusually high, distorted by the cumulative effects of a natural economic reaction to the coronavirus pandemic and the response to the supportive measures introduced by the Government to protect livelihoods. The figure for average weekly earnings from May to July—the measure used for uprating earnings-linked benefits—has grown at 8.3%, which is over two percentage points higher than at any time over the past two decades. Recognising this covid-related distortion, the Government are setting aside the earnings link for one more year, 2022-23, and continuing the double lock of at least inflation or 2.5%. The triple lock will be applied again in the usual way for the basic and new state pensions from the following year.
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that we remain committed to the triple lock. This is a one-year-only Bill. This will be a continuation of the policy that the Government introduced as part of the coalition in 2010 and have continued to pursue on an ongoing basis since then. There is no intention to change that.
I will make some progress.
It is right that I address these Lords amendments, Madam Deputy Speaker, because, as you rightly outlined, they engage financial privilege in that they interfere with the financial arrangements made by the elected House of Commons. That alone, I respectfully submit, is sufficient reason to disagree with the Lords amendments. However, it is also right that I address directly the point that was made by the House of Lords that invites the Secretary of State to measure earnings as if they were not actually growing by 8.3%. I assure the House that there is no robust way of calculating them as if they were not.
The independent Office for National Statistics has responsibility for producing economic statistics to the highest possible standards. ONS experts investigated whether it was possible to produce a single robust figure for underlying earnings growth that stripped out impacts from the pandemic, and concluded that it was not possible. Alongside the actual earnings growth figures, the ONS suggested a possible indicative range of 3.6% to 5.1%. These figures do not have national statistics status. Indeed, the ONS itself includes heavy caveats on the issue and advises caution in approaching it. The Bank of England also cast doubt on identifying a figure that could be relied on. The ONS said:
“There are a number of ways you can try to strip out these base effects, but no single method everyone would agree on. We have tried a couple of simple approaches…Neither approach is perfect…Our calculations of an underlying rate are there to help users understand base and compositional effects, but…there remains a lot of uncertainty about how best to control for these effects.”
It said that the statistics therefore “need to be” treated “with caution”.
We believe it would be reckless in procedure and in law for this or any other Government to set a precedent for uprating benefits or pensions using a methodology that is not robust and for which there is no consensus. That is why the Government have decided to suspend the earnings link in this year of exceptional and anomalous earnings growth. Instead, we decided to apply a double lock underpinned by the established consumer prices index published and approved by the ONS. This approach was also recommended by the Social Market Foundation and other commentators, and very strongly by this House on Second Reading, Report and Third Reading. That is the legislation that this House passed to the Lords, and that is the legislation I would urge this House to send back to the Lords.
I remind the House that over the two years of the pandemic the Government will have ensured that the pensions covered by this Bill will have increased by much more than prices, by reason of the 2.5% increase last year and the link to CPI this year. In those circumstances, I commend this House to reject the House of Lords amendments and agree that we proceed with this one-year Bill by reason of the pandemic.
Whatever else could be said about the House of Lords, it is a place that genuinely contains a great deal of expertise on the subject of pensions. We are fortunate to have that expertise in Parliament and we should be prepared to listen to it. Having studied the exchanges in the Lords, I feel that the Government’s positions on this matter have not held up well under scrutiny, and the debate has moved on considerably since we last discussed it here.
Labour will therefore vote to accept the amendment put forward by the former Conservative Pensions Minister Baroness Altmann, which was well argued and handsomely carried, but which also most closely reflects our own position on these matters. That is to say, we accept, as I have said clearly and repeatedly, the Government’s case that the true figure of earnings growth in the UK is not 8.3%. It would be absurd to maintain that that is what is happening to our constituents’ wages right now. Labour supports the triple lock. We believe the Government’s manifesto commitment should be binding and that the connection to earnings in the uprating decision for this year should remain.
In her remarks, Baroness Altmann made it clear that she was not proposing a specific uprating figure by proposing this amendment. That is important. It seems to me that all Conservative MPs could vote for this amendment, honour their own manifesto commitment, and still address the problem of how the pandemic has distorted the earnings data. It would just require the Government to effectively make an assessment of whether real wage growth is higher or lower than CPI inflation, and, if higher, use that figure.
When we last held a debate on this in the Commons, the Government said that that would not be legally sound, but the Lords debate knocked that down fairly easily. As Baroness Altmann said, for a judicial review to occur, the figure the Government used would have to be found to have been brought about by the Government acting irrationally. That is something we can never rule out with this Government, but it should be more than possible to avoid that. If I may say so, one of the reasons the Government lost this vote so badly in the Lords was their tendency to rely on short-term, inconsistent arguments to bounce from one day’s headlines to another’s.
The hon. Gentleman criticises the Government for not coming up with a solution, when he is unable in any way to come up with a solution or figure himself, as are the Office for National Statistics, the Bank of England and all other reputable organisations. In fact, the House of Lords did not come up with a figure, so what, pray, if he would enlighten the House, is the precise figure that he would see pensions increase by?
With respect, the Minister just needs to listen to this point. He stands at the Dispatch Box and, like all Ministers, tells us that black is white. For instance, when the Government reacted to the crisis of their own making—when we saw the pumps run dry and the shelves go sparse—they claimed to the country that this was a secret masterplan towards a high-wage economy that they had had all along. Now, we are having to see the Minister and the Government tie themselves in knots again, because he has been sent here to make the case, which we have heard him put very well, that the figure is too distorted and therefore we need this primary legislation, yet—and this is the problem, Minister—according to the Prime Minister, wages are up, workers have never had it so good and that is why the Government can cut £20 a week from universal credit. They are making two completely opposing arguments. We do not even know whether the Government believe that wages are rising faster than inflation. I politely say to the Minister that they cannot expect to have it both ways.
I will repeat a number of points that colleagues may have heard me say before, but I feel they need to be repeated in light of some of the media comments on the Bill. The uprating of the state pension is relevant to millions of pensioners in this country, but it is wrong to present it as an issue of intergenerational unfairness. That is because these decisions are also fundamentally about how we ensure that the state pension is indexed and retains real value for people who are in work today when they come to retire. This Government have been grossly unfair on people of working age, but frankly that is due to the burden of taxes they have inflicted on workers, rather than through the operation of policies such as the triple lock.
I hope the Minister took on board the comments made about pensioner poverty in this House and the other place. The Government’s use of what they call absolute poverty, which in reality is a measure of poverty relative to a fixed line in 2010, is unsatisfactory because not only does it ignore the statistical evidence, which is that pensioner poverty is now rising after it fell considerably under Labour, it also limits a serious debate on the drivers of that rise. The big picture is that the OBR predicts that as a country we will be spending an extra £6 billion a year, year-on-year, on pension-age benefits every year up until 2024-25. That is the year that the forecasts in the welfare trends report go up to, so it will likely continue to rise after that. Pensioner poverty is going up as spending rises substantially. We should be having a much more substantive debate about that, looking at housing costs, energy prices, food and access to good financial and investment advice. The way in which the Government present their own progress means that any real wage growth over the last decade allows them to claim that poverty has declined, so when the Minister says that 200,000 pensioners have been lifted out of poverty since 2010, the reality is that that is a very poor level of performance compared with all previous Governments. Poverty is always relative, because it is a measure of whether someone has the means to live a fulfilling life in the society of which they are a member. That is not just a left-of-centre viewpoint, but one that until recently was accepted by Conservatives, too.
However, to return to the matter at hand, the House of Lords has sent us an amendment that should genuinely command the support of the whole House. It requires the Government to maintain the earnings link in their manifesto promise, while still making allowance for the pandemic. This Government have dragged politics through the gutter in recent weeks, with stories of sleaze, corruption, contracts for donors and second jobs from Caribbean islands. I could go on, but the point is that public trust in this place matters. When the Government muddy our democracy in the way that they have, they cannot then turn to the public and ask voters to simply take them at their word. For public trust to return, the first step has to be for the Government to keep their promises. Today, Labour will therefore support the amendment that would allow the Government to keep their promise on the pensions triple lock.
The Lords have sent us a very reasonable set of measures, and frankly I see no logical reason not to support them if we want to protect the link between earnings and pensions. If the Government are unable to do so, they should admit what is really going on: they are using the pandemic as a smokescreen to scrap the triple lock and pocket the savings. They should cut the obfuscation, keep their promises and vote for the Lords amendments.
As the MP for North Norfolk, which has some of the highest numbers of older people in the country, you can understand, Madam Deputy Speaker, why I want to speak briefly in this debate. First, we have come back to basics. I was a finance director and a chartered accountant before I came into this place, so I have a reasonable grasp of statistics, and it is fair to say that this Government have, to the tune of around £400 billion, safeguarded the country through a pandemic that no one ever expected. Not only that, but the national debt sits at some £2.2 trillion, so it is understandable that we are sitting here this evening being extremely careful and prudent about what we do with our public finances.
The electorate, as we have seen many times before, will forgive a Government many things, but they will not forgive a Government being reckless with the public finances. We have to understand that, much as we would like to increase pensioners’ pay, every 1% increase costs the Exchequer a billion pounds. To put that in perspective, with an increase of some 8% to 9%, we are looking at an increase of some £8 billion to £9 billion. I can therefore see entirely how that would sit when we have to look in the eye of a prison officer, a police officer, a teacher, a firefighter or any other public sector worker who has seen their pay frozen for the past year. That is the real context. It is about fairness and a statistical anomaly caused by the dip, coming off furlough on to 100% pay and when the ONS statistics were taken. It has given rise to this one-off statistical anomaly.
What the House of Lords has proposed is sensible, and I took that to the Secretary of State to ask whether we could do something to still honour the framework of the triple lock, while ensuring that we have a sensible parameter to measure it by. The answer that came back was exactly the same as the one the excellent Minister just gave: we need a robust metric. We cannot just move the goalposts and cherry-pick a point in time because the argument does not fit at the moment. Many of my constituents have written to me about this issue, and when a detailed reply has gone back to them, a great number understand why we have this one-off double lock.
In summing up, I say two things to the Minister. First, woe betide us if we do not honour the triple lock next year. We have some of the best public finances recovery in the G7, as the Chancellor said the other week, so we must get back to giving our pensioners the pay increases they absolutely deserve, because they have paid in all their lives. Secondly, it would be wonderful to go into the next election with the resounding message that our pensions are good, honest pensions that people have earned all their lives, at a level that people can be proud of compared with Europe. Too often, our pensioners feel that is not necessarily the case. I would like the Minister to ensure that we put our pensioners at the front of the queue as we come out of this pandemic. I wholly understand what he has said this evening. I will be rejecting the Lords amendment, because it is sensible to maintain the public purse in the best possible way at a time like this, so that our country can rebound from where we are at the moment.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), who spoke about the risks of throwing a billion pounds about here and there. I know he was not in the previous Parliament, when the Government were propped up by the Democratic Unionist party, but I recall them having no great difficulty finding a billion pounds down the back of the sofa. Indeed, I think the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was worth about £100 million, which is probably more than Messi.
Unlike the Minister, I am glad to see the Bill back in the House this evening, because the amendments passed by their lordships give the Government an opportunity to perform a U-turn with ermine grace and charm. Before it went back to the other place, the Bill as originally drafted facilitated the British Government breaking yet another manifesto commitment, namely the pensions triple lock, which I remind the House all parties in this Chamber committed to at the election fewer than two years ago. Thankfully, the Bill was amended in the other place, and I am grateful to Baroness Altmann for Lords amendments 1 and 2, which seek to restore the earnings link.
As we are relatively short on time, I will not go over some of the meatier issues that I outlined on Second Reading, including the Government’s repeated breach of their manifesto commitments, the worrying trends in pensioner poverty, pension comparisons with OECD countries and the—at best—disappointing lack of action on pre-existing equalities that are baked into our pension system. In speaking in favour of the Lords amendments, I will outline why the SNP continues to vote to respect its 2019 election manifesto commitment and why the Budget has changed things, which may result in more Opposition Members voting tonight than on Second Reading.
The Minister will have familiarised himself with the House of Lords Official Report, but in the interests of completeness and for the benefit of Hansard, I remind the House of what Baroness Altmann said on the cost of living crisis, which affects all the constituents we seek to represent in this House. She reminded the other place of the Government’s view that
“the 3.1% figure would still protect against rises in the cost of living.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 November 2021; Vol. 815, c. 1140.]
She quoted the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) who said that that figure
“will ensure that pensioners’ spending power is preserved and that they are protected from the higher cost of living”.—[Official Report, 20 September 2021; Vol. 701, c. 86.]
However, the goalposts have moved, and the fiscal outlook is much bleaker. The Chancellor conceded in the Budget that inflation in September was already at 3.1% and would rise further. The Office for Budget Responsibility has gone further, predicting that consumer prices index inflation will reach 4.4% next year. It went on to say that inflation
“could hit the highest rate seen in the UK for three decades”,
which the House will know is about 7.5%. In reality, the Bank of England’s chief economist is forecasting 5%. To be blunt, the facts have changed and the Government must now change their position at least to reflect the fiscal outlook, if not to respect their manifesto commitment.
Pensioners across these islands are not immune from rising energy and food costs, and we know that inflation is biting hard for some of the most vulnerable people in our constituencies as we approach a harsh winter. Last month, energy bills rose by 12%, and food bills have also risen, so the Government must think again.
The 12% figure is not reflected in Northern Ireland, where energy prices have risen by some 30%, and the cost of living has also risen by 20%. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, for that reason, we must support the Lords amendments for the pensioners?
I will avoid going into energy policy in Northern Ireland, given previous actions, but the hon. Member is right to place that on the record. His constituents in Strangford should be grateful to him not just for making that point but for backing the Lords amendments when we come to the Division.
The Red Book suggests that, by scrapping the triple lock, the Treasury will save £5.4 billion in 2022-23, £5.8 billion in 2023-24 and £6.1 billion in 2024-25. The Chancellor is clearly balancing the books on the backs of pensioners who continue to get a raw deal from a pensions system that they have paid into their whole lives. I caution the Minister that that is an electorally courageous move for a party that has generally enjoyed higher levels of support among pensioners. Indeed, I will be particularly interested to see how our Scottish Conservative colleagues try to sell this latest broken promise to the electorate north of Coldstream.
The SNP wholeheartedly opposes the British Government’s triple lock betrayal and urges the House to support the Lords amendments. There may be a couple of hundred extra MPs in the Division Lobby with us tonight compared with the last time the House looked at this in September, but we know that the Tory Government will use their majority to plough ahead and vote down their lordships’ amendments regardless. My constituents in Glasgow East will therefore conclude once again that the House does not work for pensioners and it certainly does not work for Scotland. The only way to do things differently is with the normal powers of independence, and I suspect that this tawdry Bill will only hasten that cause further.
In my intervention on the Minister, I asked if it remained the Government’s intention that the value of the state pension should, over time, at least keep track with earnings. He declined to confirm that it did, so it may be that the Government’s policy has changed. Ever since Adair Turner’s pensions report was published in 2006, Government policy has been that the state pension should keep track with earnings, not just with prices as was previously the case. I suppose we must conclude that there has been a change in approach.
The Minister did indeed say that in response to my intervention, but that does not answer the question. The question was: do the Government intend the value of the state pension, over time, at least to keep track with earnings? I was hoping that he would reaffirm that. I do not think that is controversial—it is a policy long held by the Labour Government, the coalition Government and this Government—and I hoped that he would say that that was still their intention, even though in the current year, for reasons that we all understand, the value of the state pension will fall significantly behind the increase in earnings.
As I hope I made clear in my intervention, I think it is entirely reasonable not to increase the state pension by 8% this year; I completely understand the case for not doing that. It looks as though we will get an increase of around 3%, in line with CPI. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who spoke for the SNP, talked about the likely rates of inflation, and, depending on increases in prices and earnings next year, it is quite likely that the state pension will never catch up with earnings unless there is a catch-up initiative of some kind. The Lords amendments would provide such a mechanism. If there is not a catch-up at some point, that would be contrary to the Government’s long-held intention that the state pension should at least keep track with earnings. The fact that—as the Minister has now told the House twice—it will get back in line with the triple lock next year does not solve the problem, because there is a significant backwards move this year. Will there be a catch-up initiative at some point? It looks and sounds as though there will not.
Keeping the value of the state pension going up in line with earnings was a key pillar of the new pensions framework set out in the report by Adair Turner and his fellow commissioners John Hills and Jeannie Drake, published in 2005 and 2006. The settlement’s key elements were that the state pension should keep track with the increase in earnings over time, and auto-enrolment. It was accepted by the Government then and by every Government since.
The importance of that needs to be spelled out. It is not just about being more generous to pensioners and helpful to older people. It is important because it ensures a sound foundation for pension saving, so that people auto-enrolled into pension saving through that successful initiative, which we have all celebrated, are not being encouraged by the state into a bad deal. If the value of the state pension will no longer at least keep track over time with earnings, some people will be better off spending their money now, rather than saving into the pension pot that they are being auto-enrolled into, and later relying on the means-tested safety net of pension credit.
If the state pension slips behind earnings, modest pensions accrued through auto-enrolment will become worthless, because those who claim them in due course will not get above the means-tested threshold and they will still have to depend on pension credit for their income in retirement, and the fact that they have saved into a pension will do them no good at all. That will be a growing problem if the level of the state pension is allowed to slip behind the increase in earnings.
If that does happen, people who are looking forward and saving but are going to end up with fairly modest pensions should instead spend the money at the time they earn it, rather than save it in a pension that, in the end, is not going to take them above the means-tested threshold and so will not give them any additional income. That is why what the Minister is arguing for is such a threat to the success of auto-enrolment. Auto-enrolment will no longer be a sound basis for pension saving if the level of the state pension is allowed to drift below the level of earnings.
People must be able to trust in the state pension under the policies of the Government. They have been able to do so up to now, and now they will not. That raises a pretty fundamental question about the future of the Government’s pensions policy. There is a real danger in allowing, almost by sleight of hand albeit for reasons that we all understand and sympathise with, the state pension to fall permanently behind the increase in earnings and weakening the pension framework that, as far as we all know, is still the basis of the Minister’s policy.
We should not allow that to happen. We need either a measure, and the Minister needs to reassure us that there will be, such as a catch-up initiative to make sure that the state pension over time—not this year, but by next year or the year after—will keep track with the increase in earnings, or the House needs to accept the amendment agreed with a significant majority in the other place, because that keeps the pension framework in place and keeps it effective. There is a real worry if there is a significant falling behind. If there is a 3% increase in the state pension at a time when earnings have gone up by 8%, that will be a one-off 5% fall in the state pension behind the level of earnings. Depending on what happens to earnings growth, which will certainly not carry on at 8%, and on inflation rises next year, that fall could well be locked in for good and the pension framework will have been weakened.
I hope that I have made it clear why this is actually quite important. It is not just about whether we are being generous enough to pensioners. The question is: are we keeping in place a robust and reliable framework for pension saving based on which people can plan with confidence for the future?
May I say that we in the Opposition, and I think Members on both sides of the House, take pride in the expertise of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms)? Time and again, as Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, he has warned the House —both sides of the House, at times—about the approach that needs to be taken if we are to have a stable social security and pensions regime. I pay tribute to the work he does.
I am an ardent advocate of the coalition Government’s policy on the triple lock. That seems somewhat ironic, given the history of this policy, but I am. The historical background is that I was a total opponent of Mrs Thatcher’s breaking of the link between pensions and earnings. To be frank, the state pension still has not recovered from breaking that link. I was elected in 1997, and at the end of Conservative rule in 1997 the basic state pension would have been 50% higher in value if Mrs Thatcher had not broken the earnings link in 1980.
From 1997, I prepared alternative Budgets to the new Labour Budgets. Gordon Brown had a sense of humour about that, and when I was on a platform with him recently—when I was the shadow Chancellor—he said, “Actually, he’s always been the shadow Chancellor,” because I was producing alternatives to his Budgets. In every alternative Budget, I put forward the restoration of the link between earnings and pensions. I did so because the breaking of that link had undermined the progress we had seen until then in improving the state pension and lifting pensioners out of poverty. That is why I was a strong supporter of the triple lock when the coalition Government introduced it. Despite a decade of the triple lock, however, the basic state pension would still be 37% higher if the earnings link had been maintained. That means that today a single pensioner on the basic state pension would be £2,662 a year better off, and a pensioner couple would be £4,277 a year better off, if the link had not been broken by Mrs Thatcher all those years ago.
According to figures on pensioner poverty from Age UK, there are 2.1 million pensioners living in poverty in our country at the moment, up from 1.6 million in 2014—a 30% increase. What is interesting about this, and not shocking to some in this House, is that the majority of pensioners living in poverty are women. In addition, pensioners from black and Asian communities are about twice as likely to be living in poverty.
What I find interesting are some of the individual examples we can bring to the House about what this means. I remember that, the last time energy prices rose, I had a constituent who used her bus pass to stay on the bus all day to keep warm. Such stories about the reasons why people were living in such fuel poverty were not uncommon. I remind the House that this year fuel bills are increasing on average by £139 and they are expected to rise again next year, so I predict that we will have more of our pensioner constituents going cold this winter and, if we are not careful, in future winters as well, especially as, as has been said, inflation is now likely to be 4% and some are even predicting 5%.
I just wonder what this row is all about, because I support the amendments. I would have given the 8%, because I do not believe that people should break the principle of a manifesto commitment in such circumstances and I believe the additional top-up would have worked. However, the Altmann amendment is moving towards a 5% increase and the Government will award a 3% increase, so the difference we are talking about—this is the argument—is about £2.75 a week. Even if we went to the full amount of the 8%, there would only be an additional £7 a week between the 3% and the 8%. Are we really having a row in this House about robbing pensioners of £2.75 a week? I just find it unbelievable that we can even contemplate that.
I have seen the range of costings, but I have examined the DWP estimates on the effect of the Altmann amendment. They said it would cost £1.3 billion in ’22-23; that was in comparison with the uprating with prices. I was in the House a few weeks ago. We are arguing about an additional £1.3 billion for pensioners. Actually, a £25 billion corporate tax break was given away by the Chancellor in the Budget. It will be £12.5 billion next year.
On the issue about calculations, the Office for National Statistics estimate of earnings growth in the period from May to July was, as the Minister said, anything between 3.6% to 5.1%. The argument now is that these figures are not robust enough. We have had example after example in this House of the Government plucking figures out of the air.
The Minister also said there is not sufficient consensus, but if the Conservative party agrees, we can build consensus. When I was in local government, we always looked for a rational decision. We always used the Wednesbury principles: take into account all relevant factors and dismiss all irrelevant ones. If we were to come to a decision tonight in terms of the Wednesbury principles of rational behaviour, it would be on the basis of a choice between arriving at a statistic that is completely agreed by everyone, and leaving pensioners in poverty next year and not being able to afford their energy bills.
It just does not cut the mustard. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) referred to the calculation when the Government wanted to buy off the Unionists in Northern Ireland. Figures were just plucked out of the air. The level at which pay awards are being imposed at the moment across Departments has no rational basis in the work or productivity of the individual workers.
This is a question of whether we are in favour of pensioners living in dignity in this coming period; whether we can ensure they can turn on the heating and have some decent quality of life; and whether we can, not lift more pensioners out of poverty, but prevent more from falling into poverty. That is what this decision is all about and that is why I support these amendments. It cannot be right that we are cutting taxes to corporations and introducing tax breaks, yet at the same time we are preventing pensioners from having a basic decent pension.
I hear the Minister’s reassurances that this is for one year only. I have been in this House too long though. We have been promised something for one year only and then suddenly it has become permanent. That is the big fear out there—that actually there will be another special circumstance next year and the year after, and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham pointed out, we will lose the commitment given a number of years ago that there would be the continuous link with earnings so the pensioners of this country would share more equitably in the wealth within our country. That is why I support these amendments.
When we first debated the changes to the triple lock in September, the Secretary of State suggested we take advice from my friend the former Pensions Minister, Steve Webb—with whom I speak from time to time, the Secretary of State, who is now in her place, and the Minister will be happy to know. We usually do so when he is highlighting cases of people having lost out on entitlements due to failures in DWP systems.
As well as holding the DWP portfolio for my party, I am here to serve the interests of my constituents and I can tell Members that I have not received a single email or letter supporting the suspension of the triple lock. I have, however, received email after email asking me to fight to maintain it and pointing out that our state pension is already the lowest in Europe, with people worrying how they are going to make ends meet this coming winter.
On Second Reading, the Secretary of State told us this suspension was to deal with a one-off anomaly caused by the pandemic. I wonder whether she or the Minister actually engaged with the Prime Minister on this in advance of Second Reading, because his comments on the subject do not align with that argument. The Prime Minister has told a very different story, where quickly rising wages are not just desirable but an intended outcome of Brexit. So I have to ask: whose explanation should Parliament believe on these wage increases? Do the Minister and the Secretary of State align with the Prime Minister on this now and if so why are the Government intent on leaving pensioners behind, far too many of whom are already on or below the poverty line?
I am happy to support the Bill as it has returned to us from the other place, which has worked admirably across the Benches to find this compromise. The Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), reminded us in his considered contribution that this is not just about pensioners now; it is about the young, people who cannot get on to the housing ladder and whose wages have been suppressed. We in this place need to ensure that the decisions we make about pensions now give people the reassurance in future that there will be a sustainable state pension for them to live on. The Bill in its current form acknowledges the distortions to the labour market caused by the pandemic, but also acknowledges that inflation is rising. Under that Bill, pensioners will be able to keep the heat on and afford their weekly shop.
I acknowledge that the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) at least tried to justify the Government’s position this evening, but I note that no other Conservative Back Bencher has had the appetite to do so. There is a simple choice before the House today. I cannot support the Government’s amendments, which will cause such harm to so many.
I rise to support Lords amendments 1 and 2. The Tory Government’s abandonment of the link between earnings and pensions, smashing the triple-lock manifesto commitment, is truly disgraceful. We are told this is necessary because this year’s earnings measure is “skewed and distorted”. There are many things swirling around Westminster that are skewed and distorted, but the triple lock is not one of them. The UK Government commitment to the triple lock remains, we have been told today by the Minister, but he will understand that that assurance is met with widespread scepticism because today he is here to tell us why their breaking the triple lock must proceed.
We in the SNP tabled an amendment to this Bill requiring the Secretary of State to assess, and be held accountable on, the impact that the legislation would have on levels of poverty among pensioners in each of the devolved nations. It was shamefully voted down by the Tories, and Labour abstained, which it will have to justify to pensioners across the UK. Pensioners across the UK, and certainly in Scotland, have been watching carefully and will not easily forgive that betrayal.
This Government have not listened to pensioners and they have not listened to Members of this House who have defended the triple lock. I doubt they will listen to the Lords either, but I sincerely hope the Minister will prove me wrong.
We have been told today by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) that this would be “reckless” with taxpayers’ money. I find that insulting and wrong-headed, as will many of my constituents. What we have heard shows that the fiscal restraint we are told is necessary is being balanced on the back of pensioners, such as those in my constituency. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) about how money can always be found, and we need only look at the DUP deal to see that. Money can be found when it is considered necessary.
Politics is about choices and choosing to break promises. Hard commitments made to pensioners about the triple lock are being broken. We are watching and our constituents are watching and they do not approve. The Government tell us that wages are rising, as we have heard, and we know that inflation is rising, so what justification is there to break the triple lock—to change the goalposts in the middle of the game?
Not only are the Government breaking their manifesto commitment and doing away with the triple lock, but already pensioners—our constituents—are in receipt of one of the lowest state pensions in the whole of Europe. Does my hon. Friend share my confusion that Conservative Members often seem to think that the current state pension is an argument for the Union, as if, if Scotland were independent, it would be even worse?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that one of the so-called Union dividends is a pension that is a pithy amount compared with those in other developed nations.
There is genuine fear that this abandonment of the triple lock will lead to permanent and more damaging actions against pensioner incomes. The state pension is by far the largest source of income for millions of UK pensioners, and the triple lock has kept that secure throughout the pandemic. To break it now, as inflation creeps up and the cost of living becomes increasingly challenging, is a shocking attack on pensioner incomes, and it is part of a wider and increasingly obvious narrative from this Government. It is crystal clear, because we have the evidence. We know that women born in the 1950s had their pension age increased with little or no notice; we have seen unacceptable state pension payment delays for new retirees, causing genuine financial hardship and suffering; we have more than 2 million older people living in poverty; and with the triple lock abandoned, many pensioners are set to be £520 less well off next year. All of that will do untold damage to pensioners.
I again urge the Government to stop attacking pensioner incomes and at least keep one of their promises to the electorate by retaining the triple lock and preventing more of our pensioners from suffering hardship in old age. There is an opportunity today to do the right thing. The Government must take this opportunity, and they must take it with good grace.
I thank all colleagues for their contributions. The factual reality of the situation is that this Government are spending £129 billion on pensioners. That is £105 billion on the state pension and £24 billion extra on the various add-ons for pensioners, including winter fuel; free eye tests; bus passes; free NHS, obviously; pension credit—I could go on in great detail. My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) asked whether the triple lock will return. I can assure him that that is the case.
On that point, it is almost as though the state pension is a charitable donation to pensioners. They paid for it, working throughout their lives, through their taxes, their national insurance—their contributions. Some of them served on our behalf in the armed forces. They paid for this; it is not some charitable donation by the Government.
There is so much that I could reply to; I could genuinely take some considerable time replying to the right hon. Gentleman. Let us start with this. During the last Labour Government, in which time the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), who is a former Pensions Minister, another former Pensions Minister who is in the Chamber, and the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) were Members, did they in any way link the state pension to earnings? Not on one single occasion over 13 years. It is this Government—the coalition Government and this Conservative Government—who have linked it to earnings.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about the state pension. That is paid for by the working taxpayer on an ongoing basis. The working taxpayer is paying more for the state pension, and it is a larger state pension than ever before; £129 billion is spent—[Interruption.] A hundred and twenty-nine billion. He does not want to hear it, because it is the largest state pension there has ever been. Thirteen years of a Labour Government, and what did they do? They never linked it to earnings. I remember the 75p increase in state pension by Gordon Brown. It is astonishing, the hubris that the right hon. Gentleman comes up with.
The factual reality is that there was never a situation where the Labour Government did anything like the coalition and Conservative Governments did. I asked the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), who represents the Opposition, to come up with a figure. You can search Hansard for as long as you like, Madam Deputy Speaker; answer came there none. There was not a single figure. The factual reality is that the Opposition have no idea how they would approach this, they have not come up with an individual figure, and they are not able to do anything—
With a view to trying to bring the heat down just a little, let me ask the Minister this. He mentioned the commitment that the triple lock would return next year. Would he be willing to put on the record that, if the triple lock does not return next year, he will resign from ministerial office?
No. I have given way once already to the right hon. Gentleman, and I have answered his point on two occasions.
The Bill is for one year only. After that, it will revert to the current legislation, and state pension will increase at least in line with earnings. The triple lock will, I confirm, be applied in the usual way for the rest of the Parliament. I would point out to the House that last year, earnings fell by 1% but we still legislated to allow state pensions to be increased by 2.5%. As a result of the triple lock, as I say, the full yearly basic state pension is £875 more than if it had been uprated solely by earnings. The increase is £2,050 in cash terms.
No. This is a two-clause Bill introduced by reason of the pandemic. The law will last for only one year before reverting. I commend the progress made by the Government on this issue, and I invite the House to reject the Lords amendments.
Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.
Lords amendment 1 disagreed to.
More than one hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the proceedings were interrupted (Programme Order, 20 September).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83F).
Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 2.—(Guy Opperman.)
Lords amendment 2 disagreed to.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83H), That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendments 1 and 2;
That Guy Opperman, Gareth Johnson, Mrs Flick Drummond, Gareth Bacon, Jonathan Reynolds, Mark Tami and David Linden be members of the Committee;
That Guy Opperman be the Chair of the Committee;
That three be the quorum of the Committee.
That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(Scott Mann.)
Question agreed to.
Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords.