I beg to move,
That this House calls on the Government to commit to maintaining the state pension triple lock in financial year 2023-24 as promised in the Conservative and Unionist Party manifesto 2019.
I hope not to detain the House long, because the proposition before it this afternoon is very simple: we are asking the House to stand firm in instructing the Chancellor and the Prime Minister to honour the triple lock promise and uprate the state pension in line with inflation for the next financial year. The motion should not be controversial; indeed, every Member should be able to endorse it in the Division Lobby this evening.
The reason we have tabled this motion is that pensioners deserve certainty that the promise of protection offered by inflation-proofing the state pension will be honoured. Let us remind ourselves of the facts. Pensioner poverty is up by 450,000 since 2010. Prices in the shops are up. Energy bills are up. The Office for National Statistics found that between June and September this year 3.5 million pensioners had already been forced to spend less on food and essentials because of the soaring cost of living. Over half of pensioners are cutting back on gas and electricity in their homes, and Age UK has projected that 2.8 million older households are set to be in fuel poverty this winter—1.8 million more than in previous years.
Did my right hon. Friend read the reports in The Times that the Government are in fact going to follow our example and to confirm that they will increase the state pension in line with inflation? Does he agree that the Minister could intervene now and save us several hours debating these issues by just confirming that the Government do in fact intend to do that?
I have read not only The Times but the 2019 Conservative manifesto, which committed Conservative Members to maintaining the triple lock, so I look forward to their joining us in the Division Lobby this evening—[Interruption.] I look forward to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Gary Sambrook) joining us in the Division Lobby.
On the topic of manifestos, the new Prime Minister tells us that we do not need a general election because the 2019 manifesto gives the Conservative party a mandate. If that is the case, Conservative Members should not break their promise on the triple lock, and the hon. Member should join us in the Lobby this afternoon. Indeed, those in his marginal constituency will be watching carefully to see which way he votes later.
I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman, who by the way—and I do not want to lower his reputation on his own Benches—is a friend of mine, has given way. He knows very well that today is not about a lasting decision by Government but about political theatre. When we vote this afternoon, we will not be voting for what happens in practice; we will be voting because Labour has chosen to try to make political capital out of a difficult issue. I simply say to him that if the Government were to propose breaking that promise, they would not have my support, and they know that, by the way. I would stand by the triple lock. But will the right hon. Gentleman just answer this: was he not the adviser to the former Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown, who awarded pensioners a 50p increase?
On the latter point, the right hon. Gentleman will recall that the state pension rose by over 50% under the last Labour Government and has risen by around 40% under this Government. I do not want to make an enemy of the right hon. Gentleman, because I know that he agrees with me; I read his comments in the Daily Express yesterday. Indeed, I suspect that he will agree with probably 90% of my speech—so much so that I was tempted to email it to him in advance of this debate, but I did not want to be removed from the Front Bench.
Let me make a bit of progress. The real-world impact in our constituencies of cutting the state pension again means more and more pensioners turning to food banks and more pensioners shivering under blankets in cold, damp homes, putting themselves at risk of hypothermia. It means more pensioners cutting back, at a time when they have already had to swallow a real-terms cut in the state pension of around £480. Breaking the promise on inflation uprating for next year amounts to a further real-terms cut in the value of the full state pension of £440. We are talking about a £900 cut, around £37 a month in the fixed incomes of Britain’s retirees; a cut in the fixed incomes of groups of the population who cannot easily earn a wage; a cut in fixed income when one in three relies solely on the state pension; and a cut that is punishing at the best of times, but is more devastating when prices are rising and energy bills are increasing.
Does the shadow Minister agree that we are talking not only about a cut, but about the uncertainty that the Government have created over the weeks, with their U-turns upon U-turns? Pensioners do not know whether to trust this Government and they have no certainty, even despite what has been reported this morning.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a broader point here? A couple in their 70s in my constituency have contacted me to say that they are concerned about their pensions for themselves, but that they also care for members of their extended family who have physical ailments, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. As the costs of that care are increasing, the impact of reducing their pensions becomes a massive factor. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Government abandon their triple lock promise and inflict this real-terms pensions cut, that will have a knock-on effect on some of the most vulnerable people in our society?
My hon. Friend has described with great eloquence the real-life impact that this cut will have on our constituents. Although I do not know the particular circumstances of the family she refers to, they may well be reliant on other social security payments, and we have no clarity from the Government about whether they will also be cut in real terms.
We are on a roll: three games we have won in a row.
Some people believe that retired people live a wonderful life, but the reality is often much bleaker: less heat, less food and making the most out of a meagre income. Does the shadow Minister agree that the Government must honour those who have paid tax and national insurance contributions over their lifetimes? Now is the time to support them, when they need us.
My friend and fellow Leicester City fan makes his point with the same force and precision as Youri Tielemans putting one in the back of the net against Everton at the weekend. He is absolutely right.
Let me make a bit of progress. A cut in the pension will also disproportionately hit retired women, who rely on the state pension and other benefits such as pension credits for more than 60% of their income. This £900 cut in income is for those who have worked hard all their lives, who have paid their dues and who, as my mum would say, have paid their stamps.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. I am sure he knows that half of all Leicester pensioners live in the most deprived 20% of the country, and one in five live in the most deprived 5% of the country. They are frightened for their future and will feel betrayed by Conservative Members if they do not walk through the Lobby with us tonight.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, given that the Government are making their announcement about the triple lock next week and that it takes effect in April, it is therefore irresponsible to suggest that pensioners will face the sort of cuts that he is talking about? We should just wait for the announcement.
I do not know if the hon. Gentleman was in the House about three weeks ago, but that was when the then Conservative Prime Minister committed from the Dispatch Box to maintain the triple lock. If the hon. Gentleman wants to stand up for the 21,000 pensioners in the Wantage area who are set to lose £425 from a real-terms cut, he should vote with us in the Lobby this afternoon.
Let me make a bit of progress. A £900 cut in income, around £37 per month, is punishing at the best of times, and it is a cut for people who feel they have paid their dues—people who, like my mum, feel they have paid their stamps. It is a cut for those who have worked all their lives and who often live now with a disability or in ill health because of their hard work. Whether because of the hard, unyielding occupations that they may have worked in, they might live with chapped hands, sore backs and sore knees. They deserve a retirement of security, dignity and respect. It would be a betrayal of Britain’s almost 13 million pensioners to cut the pension a second year in a row, and this House should not stand for it.
Why has the triple lock been in the Chancellor’s crosshairs? It is because Conservative Members presented, cheered and welcomed the most disastrous Budget in living memory. It was a Budget so reckless and so cavalier with the public finances that it crashed the economy with unfunded tax cuts, sent borrowing costs soaring, gave us a run on pension funds, and forced mortgage rates to ricochet round the money markets, costing homeowners hundreds of pounds extra a month, and now they want us all to think it was just an aberration—that it was all just a bad dream; that Bobby Ewing was in the shower all along. But for the British people it remains a real nightmare, and now the Government are expecting pensioners to pay the price. Well, we will not stop reminding them of the Budget that they imposed on the British people.
In recent days, ahead of this debate, I have been inundated with messages from Britain’s retirees saying that that price is far too high. This was what Hilda wrote:
“We believed that with the triple lock in place, our state pension would keep pace with wages and inflation…This government cynically dismantled the triple lock and threw state pensioners under the bus”.
This was what Mary wrote to me:
“I am in tears of frustration and anger…Not all pensioners are well off. I for one am really struggling”.
This was from Patrick, who is aged 73:
“How can a responsible government minister welch on a promise?”
That is the crux of the matter, because every Government Member stood on a manifesto in 2019 that made a clear promise to the triple lock.
Six months ago, the Prime Minister, when he was the Chancellor, told us from that Dispatch Box that the promise of inflation-proofing the state pension would be honoured for the next financial year:
“I can reassure the House that next year…benefits will be uprated by this September’s consumer prices index”.
He went on:
“the triple lock will apply to the state pension.”—[Official Report, 26 May 2022; Vol. 715, c. 452.]
Those were the Prime Minister’s words six months ago. He tells us that we should not have a general election because that 2019 manifesto gives him a mandate, but he will not give us a straight answer to a very simple question: will he honour the promise he made from the Dispatch Box six months ago? So much for his promise to restore “integrity and professionalism” to Downing Street.
A year ago, the House debated breaking the triple lock. The then Pensions Minister, now promoted to Minister for Employment as Minister of State—I congratulate him of course, and I am pleased that he is back in the Department after a brief period away—last year justified cutting the state pension, telling us it was only for one year. Just a year ago, on 15 November 2021, he said:
“The triple lock will, I confirm, be applied in the usual way for the rest of the Parliament.”—[Official Report, 15 November 2021; Vol. 703, c. 372.]
So what has changed?
I repeat that this is political theatre and, for those in doubt, whatever the vote is today, it will have absolutely no impact on the legislation whatever. I just want to know if the right hon. Member is aware of the very good House of Commons briefing on the triple lock, which compares the basic state pension with average earnings over the last 30 years. The low point of it was between 2000 and 2008, when it went down to 16%. That is the lowest the basic state pension has ever been compared with average earnings, and who was in power at that time? It was the last Labour Government. In fact, the previous Conservative Government and successive Conservative Governments have been more generous on the basic state pension compared with average earnings than the last Labour Government.
If we want to go down memory lane, a previous Conservative Government broke the earnings link and that is why we need to keep the triple lock, so it builds up its value. The reason those inflation upratings were so low is that we had inflation under control under that Labour Government; we had not lost control of it. We introduced the minimum income guarantee, which the Conservative party voted against, and we introduced pension credit, which the Conservative party opposed at the time, in order to improve the incomes of the poorest pensioners. We brought pensioner poverty down and it is increasing again under this Tory Government.
As I have said, the then Pensions Minister said that the triple lock would
“be applied…for the rest of the Parliament”.
I was sceptical about that. We have these debates across the Dispatch Box and he will recall my scepticism. He is always very noisy on the Front Bench and, when I was asking questions, he was shouting at me and said, “No, we’ve committed to the triple lock. You shouldn’t have to worry.” I asked the then Work and Pensions Secretary, the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), and she told me at the time:
“I am again happy to put on record that the triple lock will be honoured in the future.”—[Official Report, 21 March 2022; Vol. 711, c. 99.]
That was in March 2022 from that Dispatch Box, yet here we are with the prospect of another real-terms cut in the pension on the table again. Breaking such a promise two years in a row in a cost of living crisis is surely unacceptable.
That brings me to the new Work and Pensions Secretary, who of course prior to his elevation just a month ago, when real-terms cuts to the pension and other benefits were raised, led the charge at the Tory party conference. He undermined the position of the then Prime Minister and the then Chancellor, telling Sky News it was
“one of those areas where the Government is going to have to think again.”
But of course this morning, he did not repeat his line that the Government should think again, because now he is saying we have to wait until next week’s emergency Budget. So we have a U-turn on the U-turn. In fact, the Conservative Twitter account is still saying:
“We will protect the Triple Lock”.
The Conservative Twitter account is still repeating what the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), told us from the Dispatch Box three or four weeks ago. So it is a U-turn on a U-turn on a U-turn, and it makes us all dizzy just watching it.
After all this Conservative party triple lock hokey-cokey, today is a clear opportunity for Conservative Members to finally tell us where they stand. Today is an opportunity for Conservative Members to finally end the uncertainty, finally end the mixed messages and finally end the worry for millions of pensioners who have seen their state pension cut while their cost of living soars, and confirm that the pension will not be cut next year. The uprating of the state pension is crucial to millions of today’s pensioners, but it is also about protecting the incomes of tomorrow’s pensioners. It is about ensuring that the state pension recovers its value relative to wages. Given the move away from final salary schemes, it means certainty for tomorrow’s pensioners as well.
In the name of today’s pensioners and tomorrow’s pensioners, Conservative MPs should offer us certainty. Our retired constituents have worked hard all their lives, contributed to national insurance and served our communities. They deserve security and dignity. As the former Conservative Pensions Minister Baroness Altmann warned this week:
“Short-changing pensioners during a cost of living crisis should be unthinkable...Snatching protection away this year could be the biggest betrayal pensioners have ever known.”
I could not put it better myself. Ministers should stop dithering. They should reject the cut in the state pension and support our motion in the Lobby tonight.
Can I open by saying that it is a pleasure to at last stand opposite the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) in debate at the Dispatch Box? We have heard a lot of sound and fury from the Opposition Benches, but not much illumination and light. Indeed, the entire speech was predicated on a perceived answer to the question that he has put in the motion—namely, that we will short-change pensioners in some way—and that is far from necessarily the outcome we will see.
The right hon. Gentleman’s speech started pretty well—he read out the motion and so far so good—but it was on the intervention of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), who claimed him as a close friend, that he started to go down hill and lose his politics bearings. I should just correct my right hon. Friend, who I think was being over-harsh on Gordon Brown by suggesting that, in 1999, Labour put up pensions by 50p. It was, of course, 75p—a full 50% more than he suggested.
I am immensely grateful to my right hon. Friend for correcting the record. I did say we were friends and I was trying to be generous to the right hon. Member for Leicester South, but adding the extra 25p would have come as cold comfort to the pensioners who suffered under Labour. We should remember that the triple lock was a Conservative policy, which is why we must stand by it.
I am actually quite offended by the idea that this is theatre and knockabout because my constituents do not see that way. Can I bring some facts to this debate? The Labour Government took 1 million pensioners out of poverty. This Government have put half a million into poverty. Does the Secretary of State not feel that this is just outrageous, and that he needs to make it clear today that the promises of his manifesto will be fulfilled?
I will of course come on to the issue of the impact of the Government’s huge commitment to pensioners over the years on issues such as poverty that the hon. Lady has raised. However, may I begin by saying that I am slightly surprised the right hon. Member for Leicester South should have come forward with this motion at all? He was present at departmental questions just a few days ago, when the question about what the Government would do in respect of the triple lock, and indeed the uprating of benefits, was put on many occasions to me and my fellow Ministers, and we gave a very clear, rational and sound response. It is that a fiscal event will take place soon—on the 17th of this month—and, as he will know, it is completely out of order for Ministers under those circumstances to start giving a running commentary on what is expected to be included in that fiscal event. Indeed, in the event that he was in my position, stood up and pre-announced measures that were coming forward in the Budget, he would rightly be required to resign from his position. No doubt that is something that, in my case, would please him no end, but I am afraid I am not going to give him that pleasure.
On the autumn statement coming on 17 November, which is next week, it is accompanied by a full forecast from the Office for Budget Responsibility. Is that not the responsible time to talk about the uprating of pensions and benefits? It is irresponsible of the Opposition to bring this forward ahead of the full OBR forecast.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his first Department for Work and Pensions debate. Surely he is not suggesting that the current Prime Minister was irresponsible when he said last May that the triple lock would be honoured for next April. Will he confirm that, if the triple lock is not honoured for next April, it will be almost without precedent, going back 50 years or more, for the state pension not to be uprated at least in line with inflation?
I welcome the question from the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee. As a former Pensions Minister, he will know that, in the situation we are in at the moment, right hard up against a major fiscal event that is about to set out major tax and spending decisions, it would simply not be right, as I have said on countless occasions, for any member of the Government to prejudge and pre-empt the measures that the Chancellor will be coming forward with.
The Secretary of State talks about prejudging, pre-empting and following due process, but he knows that, if the Department was intending to suspend the triple lock, his officials would already be preparing the relevant legislation, as was brought forward by then Pensions Minister, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), when the triple lock was last suspended. In the interests of being transparent and following process, can the Secretary of State see whether those officials have been instructed to draft that legislation?
That is simply an ingenious way—I congratulate the hon. Member—of asking precisely the same question. I have noticed that Members do that in this House from time to time, sometimes quite effectively.
The process is extremely clear. I have a duty under legislation to assess the triple lock and the uprating of benefits and, taking into account the September CPI figures and the average wage increases in the preceding period, and in conjunction with the Chancellor—because these decisions have a major impact on the Department’s annual managed expenditure—to come to a decision. That process is ongoing and will be concluded by the 17th, when the hon. Member will have the answers to all the questions he asks.
Let me focus on part of the central charge from the shadow Secretary of State regarding what this Government have or have not done for pensioners over a long period. As has been pointed out by Conservative Members, the triple lock was brought in under a Conservative-led Government in 2011. As to what has happened to the pension in that intervening period, the basic state pension has increased by £2,300, outperforming inflation by £720. We spend £110 billion a year supporting pensioners through the pension and £134 billion if we take wider measures into account. That is more than 5% of the entire output of the economy dedicated to supporting our pensioners.
Talking of wider measures, pension credit can be worth up to £3,300 for individual pensioners, and it can open the door to many other benefits such as free NHS dental treatment and other cost of living measures. There are 800,000 people in the UK, many of whom will be in Birmingham, Northfield, who could claim pension credit but do not. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to encourage as many people as possible to claim pension credit?
That is a truly constructive intervention because, as my hon. Friend points out, not everybody who would be qualified for that benefit has applied. About 70% of those who we believe are eligible receive pension credit, but 30% do not. My hon. Friend the Minister for Employment did an extraordinarily good job in June in encouraging people to sign up to pension credit, through the campaign that the Department launched, and I believe there was an increase in take-up of 275% due to his efforts. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Gary Sambrook) is right: this is important not just for the benefits that we think of, and the credit itself, worth £3,300, but in terms of recent measures that the Government have announced, the £650 of support, which is available to pensioners only if it is unlocked by access to pension credit. It is an important credit to apply for.
The £650 cost of living grant to those on pension credit is great, and would have been a great incentive to get that other 30% to 40% to sign up for pension credit. We know that some people feel that they should not do it, and we need to persuade them. Unfortunately, however, unless someone applied successfully by 19 August, they can no longer get that £650. My campaign to extend that deadline to 31 March has been running for a couple of months, and I have had some positive responses. Will the Minister consider meeting me to talk about the possibility of extending the deadline to the official end of winter, so that we can convince people to take it?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention and I recognise the solid and important work that she has done in this area. I can correct her, and hopefully please her, by saying that the deadline is 18 December, because pensions credit can be applied for three months retrospectively, which would bring it into the reference period for the £650 payment.
The 19 December deadline only allows people to get £324. I will be getting my constituents to sign up for that on the basis of the £324, but I am asking whether somebody who applies until the end of March can get the whole amount of £650, which is a bigger incentive than £324.
The key point my right hon. Friend is stressing is that a huge amount has been done consistently by this Government to help pensioners since 2011—innovations that the Opposition opposed at the time or certainly did not come up with, including benefits for women who can claim pension years when they were bringing up children, and auto-enrolment with 20 million new people. I hope that the one-off payment my right hon. Friend just alluded to will be valid for a bit longer, and there is the increase of £3,200 per pensioner on the state pension alone. Does my right hon. Friend agree that today’s debate is largely designed for the Opposition, and about the shadow Minister who was behind the 1999 75p increase—[Interruption.]—trying to park his tanks—
The hon. Lady asks from a sedentary position why poverty is going up, and I will come to poverty in a moment. There is no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester is right: for a long time the Government have stood up for the interest of pensioners as one of our prime priorities, and we know why. Many pensioners are particularly vulnerable. When economic conditions are difficult—as they are at the moment—it is hard for them to adjust their economic circumstances, to re-engage with the workforce and so on, so it is important that we have that duty.
I turn to poverty. Since 2009-10, 400,000 fewer pensioners are in absolute poverty—before or after housing costs—and the proportion of pensioners in material deprivation has fallen from 10% in 2009-10 to 6% in 2019-20. Over the much longer sweep since 1990, relative poverty has halved, but there is still more to be done.
Does the Secretary of State accept that poverty analysis figures lag real time and that poverty figures are going up? We only have to look at how an estimated 6.7 million households are in fuel poverty. Will he remember that when he stands at the Dispatch Box and talks about figures coming down?
In a moment. That is a difficult situation, largely visited upon us through a major pandemic that shut down a substantial proportion of the economy, followed by a war between Ukraine and Russia. That, of course, has had a huge impact in terms of inflation, the cost of energy and people’s bills. It is only right that we are honest with the public and honest in the House about the ramifications of that situation. On 17 November, we will see some difficult choices brought forward by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on both tax and spending. We have to understand why that is. They will be brought forward because the country must demonstrate that it will live within its means and act fiscally responsibly. As a consequence, we see bond yields and interest rates softening, which will be good for mortgage holders, good for businesses who are borrowing and good for the servicing costs of the Government and their national debt.
Those hard choices must be made, but within them the Government have a core mission to look after the most vulnerable. Those who say that we do not do that are simply wrong. The evidence bears out my statement. The £650 cost of living payment that we have discussed is there for pensioners through pension credit and is there more widely for 8 million low-income households up and down the country. There is the £300 payment to all pensioner households. There is the £400 reduction in fuel bills, which comes through the bills themselves. There is a £150 reduction for those living in houses in council tax bands A to D—many of them will be pensioners—and a £150 payment to those who are disabled. That is on top of the household support fund administered by local authorities, who perhaps have a better grip of local need than those at the centre, which was recently expanded by £500 million to over £1 billion. Of course, there is also the energy price guarantee holding average fuel bills for the average family at £2,500, saving £700 across the winter. All those measures and more are clearly indicative that the Government care about those who have the least and are there to protect them at every turn.
Going back to what the Secretary of State said earlier, one would think that before covid and the war in Ukraine everything was hunky-dory and there were no problems at all. The reality is that the cost of living crisis is not recent but a result of 12 years of Conservative austerity. [Interruption.] If only Conservative Members got so outraged about pensioner poverty. When he talks about the hard fiscal decisions that will have to be made on 17 November, does he understand that my pensioners in Belvidere are shocked that the Government are not doing enough while lifting the cap on bankers’ bonuses?
I am surprised by the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. When a pandemic comes along and contracts the economy by a greater level than at any time since about 1709—the year of the great frost—and a war breaks out that has a huge impact on energy costs in electricity, oil and gas, very few of our constituents up and down the country would not accept that those have been major contributors to the inflation and other challenges that we face. Only yesterday, the International Monetary Fund stated that about a third of economies in the world will be going into recession. We are not an outlier; we are right in the middle of the pack of nations who are suffering the consequences of the events that I described.
The Secretary of State has been telling us that the Government are committed to protecting the most vulnerable and looking after pensioners, but that will ring hollow to pensioners in my constituency who are devastated at the squeeze on public services. They see libraries closing—places they rely on as social hubs where they can go and interact with people—and the local authority having problems providing the social care that they need. Those issues really affect them. I know that they do not come under his Department, but will he commit to speaking to the Cabinet about them?
The hon. Lady raises a perfectly legitimate concern. We are all concerned about public services, and certainly those of us on the Government side care deeply about public services, but we must be honest with the British public in saying that times are extremely difficult and there will be some tough decisions.
The hon. Lady shakes her head, but economically there are really three choices: we can either raise taxes, cut spending or borrow more money. The Labour way, we know, is to borrow, borrow, borrow. Unfortunately, we all know where that leads. [Interruption.] The shadow Secretary of State needs to calm down. He is getting a bit excited. What we need—
I will not.
I respect the fact that the right hon. Member for Leicester South brought forward the motion and, to the extent that it underlines the absolute importance of standing up for our pensioners, I welcome it. Government Members will always be there to support pensioners. We always have been in the past, we are now and we always will be.
I will pick up some of the Secretary of State’s comments. He started off by trying to claim that there was not much illumination from the shadow Secretary of State’s speech, but we got absolutely no illumination from his speech, either. There is still no clarity on what the Government are going to do. As I said, it is just not adequate to say, “It’s irresponsible to come forward and provide clarity on what is going to happen on the triple lock.” The Secretary of State kept talking about being honest with the public, so he should be honest and tell us what will happen with the triple lock.
The Secretary of State attacked Labour with the old trope about Labour doing borrowing. I am sure that, not that long ago, he was backing the mini-Budget that was all about borrowing to give tax cuts to the rich. That was economic madness. Does he want to come back to the Dispatch Box and apologise for that?
I am happy to support the motion. It is simple and, as it references the Tory manifesto, it should win the entire House’s support—hopefully without the chaos that we witnessed in the Opposition day debate about fracking. I note that that was also the day when the former Prime Minister was questioned at the Dispatch Box by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford); she did her 55th U-turn and said that she would protect the triple lock, so it should be easy for the Government to further confirm that, rather than holding on to the line about waiting until next week.
Last year’s breaking of the triple lock cost each pensioner £520 on average during the cost of living crisis, and the Red Book shows that it will take £30 billion in total from pensioners by 2026-27. At least uprating the state pension this year in line with September’s 10% inflation rate would give certainty of income to its recipients.
However, we should also look at the reality. If the triple lock is reinstated and pensions are uplifted, we are actually almost celebrating not cutting pensions in real terms in the Budget. That is how desperate things are. If that is the measure of compassionate conservativism—not making further cuts to pensions—then it shows the reality of where we are with this Government.
In terms of inflation in the here and now, we know from the Office for National Statistics that tea is up 46%, pasta is up 60% and bread is up 38%. The price of budget food in supermarkets is up an astonishing 17% in the year to September. On energy costs, the average bill, based on the previous cap, was £1,100 a year just a year and a half ago. Now, with the so-called energy guarantee, we are supposed to be pleased that bills are now, on average, £2,500 per year during the winter period.
For the Energy Prices Act 2022, the Government’s own figures estimated that energy bills would go up on average to £4,400 without the support package. That is almost 50% of an average state pension. Given that it is perfectly obvious that pensioners are more likely to use more energy than an average household, it is not just the triple lock that needs to be reinstated; we need this Government to come forward with confirmation of what the future energy support package will be for those who need it. The Secretary of State talked about protecting the most vulnerable. Well, they need to know what is happening with energy going forward as well.
In Scotland, average usage already means that bills are in the order of £3,300 per annum even with the current energy support package, so for people on fixed incomes it really is unaffordable.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is telling it like it is for people in their homes just now. He is talking about energy costs. That does not include those people, including pensioners, who live off the gas grid and are therefore paying far, far more than those he is quoting.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. The £100 payment to those off gas grid is almost an insult, because it does nothing to help them fill their oil tanks.
In a similar vein on inflation, petrol prices are still massively up compared with recent years. I drive an Insignia, which is not a huge car, but last week it still cost me over £100 to fill the petrol tank. That is clearly unaffordable for those on a fixed income, and it would account for 55% of one week’s full pension.
When we look at the UK in the round, we see that it is one of the most unequal countries in the world. Unfortunately, that inequality continues during retirement. The Gini coefficient shows that the UK is 14th out of 14 north-west European countries. It is the same for the S80:S20 quintile share ratio; when we compare the ratio of the poorest to the richest, the UK has by far the worst ratio and is again 14th out of 14. Scandinavian countries—all small, independent countries—lead the way on these measures.
Poorer pay and lower incomes for those struggling also means that later on in life they are less likely to have private pensions and so are reliant on the UK state pension. Again, the UK state pension fails in comparison with those of other countries. When we look at the proportion of earnings derived from state pensions, the UK sits 30th out of 37 OECD countries. I understand that there is an argument that it can be good to move away from dependence on state pensions, but the UK is clearly among outlier countries near the bottom of the pile, and way below the OECD average. Many people are using occupational pensions and capital as sources of income, but that increases inequality in pension age for those without access to such means.
If we look at the UK’s flat pension rate and compare it with other countries that pay a flat rate—Ireland, Denmark and the Netherlands—we see that the UK rate is again lower and fails in comparison. If we look at state pension expenditure compared to a country’s GDP, we see that the UK is again way below the OECD average and is ranked 28th out of 38 countries. Ministers might say that those measures can be somewhat subjective, but the UK trails in each one, so there is a common theme. One other measure is the replacement rate that compares all sources of pension income versus previous earnings. On this measure, the UK, with an average over 10% less than those of the EU27 and the OECD, is ranked 19th out of 37, so still in the bottom half of the table.
As I have stated, this means that inequality in the UK continues into retirement and the UK has the 12th highest pensioner poverty rate out of 35 countries measured by the OECD. What that means, if we turn that around, is that in terms of disposable income to support a standard of living for those aged 66-plus, the UK is ranked 24th out of 35 countries, while Iceland, Denmark and Norway occupy the top spots. Ireland is in eighth place. And those statistics are based on comparisons before the UK broke the triple lock and the link to earnings last year. It is absolutely critical that the triple lock is restored. Independent Age emphasises that:
“With more than 2 million pensioners already living in poverty and the cost-of-living crisis hitting hard, we know people are being forced to make impossible choices on how to cut back to be able to afford heating, electricity and food”.
One additional income support measure is pension credit, but we know that take-up levels are still too low—the Secretary of State acknowledged that. Previous research commissioned by Independent Age estimated that full take-up of pension credit could lift 440,000 older people out of poverty. So when will that be tackled by the Government? The unclaimed £4 billion in pension credit could make the lives of hundreds of thousands of pensioners more bearable. It is also money that would then be recirculated within local economies as it is spent on vital household needs.
Does my hon. Friend think that banks have a role to play? Given that the vast majority of pensioners receive their pension payments from the Department for Work and Pensions into their bank accounts, banks have the ability to identify where payments are coming from and the amount. Does he agree that there is an opportunity for banks to play a role in promoting pension credit?
That is a very good point. I agree with my hon. Friend that that is an ideal way of managing that. I urge the Secretary of State to take heed of that intervention and work with banks and other organisations to try to increase pension credit take-up.
In terms of pension policies, of course I have to refer to the WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—scandal and the fact that the Government are still not moving forward on fast and fair compensation, given that the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman found there was maladministration. The PHSO made it clear that the Government do not have to wait for the end of its investigation to take action to remedy this injustice.
There is also the frozen pensions scandal, whereby whether your pension gets uprated or not is arbitrary, depending on which country you reside in. It is also scandalous that the UK Government have yet again rejected offers from the Canadian Government to enter into reciprocal arrangements. I urge the Secretary of State to reconsider that and engage in meaningful talks with the Canadian Government.
All those aspects show that the state pension in the UK is not the safety net we are told it is. It shows clearly that the Better Together mantra of staying in the UK to protect pensions in Scotland was a cruelly false premise. Indeed, with private pensions nearly collapsing after the Tory mini-Budget, that claim looks even more ridiculous. It also shows that when Gordon Brown, at a Better Together event, said:
“Our UK welfare state offers better protection for pensioners, disabled and the unemployed”,
he was, frankly, lying.
Order. I fully appreciate that and the hon. Gentleman is technically correct, but I take the view that anyone who has been a right hon. Member, and held a most senior position in this place, should be treated with respect even after they have left. A different form of words would therefore be appreciated.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I respectfully say that his comments were misleading because, as I have outlined, the UK pension is not as good as it is made out to be and is one of the poorest in north-west Europe.
Moving on, it is little wonder that the Scottish Government have been publishing papers comparing the UK to comparator countries for an independent Scotland. Scotland has a lower pensioner poverty rate than the rest of the UK at present, but we want to do much better than that. We want to match or better the comparator countries, reduce inequality during working life, and allow a more dignified and enjoyable retirement for all. We no longer want to be left here hoping, yet again, that Westminster will make the right decisions on such measures as the triple lock. We want to do things for the betterment of the citizens of Scotland.
This is my first Opposition day speech in a while and I welcome the opportunity to speak on an issue that is so important for Torbay. It will perhaps be unlike some of my previous speeches in that, first, I am not following the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and secondly—I see the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), on the Front Bench—this will not be quite as thorough an analysis of the issue as some have occasionally enjoyed from me on a Friday. It is a particular pleasure to see the Secretary of State on the Front Bench; I know that he will be a doughty champion for our beautiful county and its people, and that he will ensure that the most vulnerable are protected.
Turning to the motion, it is fascinating to see the huge enthusiasm from Labour Members for our 2019 manifesto. I cannot remember the same enthusiasm three years ago, when they were not that enthusiastic to have a general election in the first place. This measure was a key part of the pledges that we made. We have heard some knockabout today, but we have to remind ourselves that the pension triple lock was introduced in 2010 and not before. For the 13 years prior to that, pensions had been linked to the rise in inflation and in prices, rather than the position adopted under the triple lock.
We know why we introduced the triple lock. As has been referred to, the inspiration came from the 75p increase some years earlier. It aimed to give a clear sense of the direction in which state pensions would go. It would either be in line with prices, as was done previously, or earnings—by reinstating a link to those—or it would be a minimum of 2.5%, providing clarity for those looking ahead to their retirement. As that was done in a simple way, it meant that pensions would be protected against price shocks and that they would keep pace with earnings as they went up. Since 2010, the level of the basic state pension has gone up by £2,300.
The measure also has to be seen in the light of other changes, such as the end of opting out and the introduction of the new state pension, which is clearer about what people will get when they retire. As has been touched on, it allows more years in which, for example, someone is bringing up children to count towards the state pension. The changes were about making what people have clearer and simpler so that they can plan in their retirement.
That was very welcome in Torbay. Those commitments were probably a reason why a seat that was held by another party for 18 years is solidly Conservative again. Most pensioners and those who vote in Torbay are realistic people. They recognise the impact of the pandemic last year and the odd outcomes it produced for earnings—for example, in the previous year when earnings went down, and last year when earnings jumped up. The double lock was therefore introduced for one year last year, using the CPI rate for the increase in the state pension.
Some people say, “If inflation was good enough to be the rate of increase last year, it should be good enough this year, not least given the impacts we are seeing on prices.” I accept that there is a need for balance and the Secretary of State’s point that he cannot pre-empt what will be said next week. We cannot have a running commentary in the run-up to a fiscal event, with a different Department every day ruling something in or out, or putting something in or out. I take his point, but those of us who are not on the Front Bench can make our comments more freely about the outcome that we would like next week.
On the position in Torbay, the Secretary of State was right to highlight other benefits and support that is being offered to pensioners. The second cost of living payments are starting today, not just for pensioners; I think 16,300 families in Torbay will start to get that payment, taking the total up to £650. Members have rightly touched on the energy price guarantee, which helps to cap the price being paid for energy. On top of that, there were such things as the council tax rebate earlier this year. Councils have discretionary funding to apply that to those in band E and above when they have particular pressures. Therefore, when we discuss the triple lock and the state pension, we have to consider some of the other support. Of course, I have not mentioned the £400 per household energy bill discount from which pensioners will innately benefit.
It is interesting to hear people making comparisons with other countries and talking about wanting to emulate some of them. I would be interested to hear whether SNP Members would like to emulate the situation in many European countries whereby, although the position on the pension might be different, pensioners have to pay certain medical charges and there are social care levies applied to pension income and taxes that would not be paid here. Certainly, many services that are provided free at the point of use and point of need under the NHS are charged for in other jurisdictions. If we make comparisons and say we want to emulate other countries, we need to be conscious of what we are arguing we should emulate. We can do more to help people to get pension credit.
The hon. Gentleman made the point in his speech that he was looking to emulate the packages given to pensioners in other countries. If he wants to emulate them, he should look at what those packages include, such as charges for medical services and tax rates that we do not charge here. The council tax rebate of £150 did a lot for my constituents. As for whether that applies in Scotland, that is a devolved matter.
On the triple lock, the rise in prices has hit many people. Many people over the state retirement age are unlikely to have the type of options that others may have to meet some of the rising costs. It is therefore vital that we look to honour our pledge to them. I accept that that pledge cannot be made immediately today, but I look forward to hearing further clarity on that next week.
About £4.7 million of pension credit went unclaimed in Torbay last year. That could have gone to some of the poorest households in the bay. When the Minister sums up, I would be interested to hear about the Government’s thoughts on that issue, particularly when so much data is available. The era of people filling in paper forms or going to a post office with a pension book is long gone. The vast majority of that is done through electronic means. This is about what could be done to fill the gap so that more people can get the support to which they are entitled, not least because once someone is assessed as being eligible for pension credit, it opens the door to a range of other benefits and support.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the work done by Loughborough University that was commissioned by Independent Age? It stated that if everybody who was entitled to pension credit claimed it, that would cost an extra £2 billion. I understand that that is a lot of money, but it also stated that the extra cost to the NHS and social care now is £4 billion, so if we could find a way of making sure that everybody got it, we would put more money into the Treasury’s coffers.
I do not recognise the statistics from that report, but I welcome the overall thrust of that argument. When we as a Parliament have decided that we want people on a low income to receive a particular type of support, we want them to be able to get that.
I was interested to hear the suggestion that the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) made about working with banks. An institution that might be slightly easier to work with is post offices, where many people on lower incomes go to collect their pension and do other banking. The Secretary of State, who represents the rural constituency of Central Devon, will be aware of people going to post offices to withdraw the exact cash amounts that they need. Cashpoints mostly operate with multiples of £10 or £20, which may be difficult for someone who has to budget tightly for their bills and spending, whereas at a post office counter they can withdraw amounts literally to the penny. That allows very precise budgeting for those who need it.
This is a welcome debate. I must say that I am interested to hear Opposition Members’ comments on who they expect to oppose the motion. We may hear one of those suspicious shouts of “No!” that are not followed by anyone showing up to vote in the No Lobby.
Pensioners in Torbay put their faith in this Government back in 2019. I believe that they put their faith in a manifesto that offered them a positive choice, and I continue to believe that that is the right basis for us to move forward. I hope to hear next week that we will honour that commitment to them.
Order. It will be obvious to the House that a great many Members want to speak this afternoon, but we have limited time. I intend to conclude the debate at about 4.30 pm. I hope that imposing a five-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches—not immediately, but after the next speaker—will give everybody who wishes to speak the opportunity to do so.
I call the Chairman of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster). I thank him for the help he gave me when he was a Minister, and I agree with what he says about pension credit. I think the key is probably for local government to work more closely with central Government, because local councils have the pensioner income data to work out whether pensioners are entitled to pension credit. If we could improve co-operation, judgments could be made much more automatically.
I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) that this debate is happening only because of the catastrophic Government blunders in September. Before then, there was no issue; there was a very clear commitment from the then Chancellor, who is now Prime Minister, that the triple lock would be honoured. Unfortunately, what happened in September has created the very difficult situation that the Secretary of State rightly described.
It is important to remember that there has already been a big real-terms fall this year in the value not only of the state pension, but of working-age benefits, which were increased by 3.1% in April when inflation was at nearly 10%. That was justified at the time on the basis that that is how the usual uprating formula works: pensions and benefits are uprated in April by the rate of inflation in the previous September. The then Chancellor acknowledged that the effects would need to be addressed next April, so he gave an assurance in May that the same formula would be applied again for next April’s uprating. We now know that pensions and benefits will be uprated by 10.1%, which was the rate of inflation in September.
On pensions, as we have been reminded, there is also a Conservative manifesto commitment. As I said in my intervention on the Secretary of State, if the promise on pensions is not kept next April and pensions are instead uprated by less than the rate of inflation, it will be almost without precedent.
Since 1977, there has been a statutory obligation, defined in a variety of ways, to uprate in line with inflation. It has been honoured every year since then except 1986, when the rate of inflation was 1.1% and the decision was made to uprate the state pension by 1%—0.1 percentage points less. Apart from that, there has been uprating by at least the rate of inflation every single year. To depart from that approach now, on the scale that has apparently been considered recently, would be absolutely without precedent in 50 years. In November 1980, inflation was at 16.5%; the state pension was uprated by 16.5%. In April 1991, inflation was at 10.9%; the state pension was uprated by 10.9%.
It is clear why there has been that commitment all the way through: because people who have given a lifetime of work and have retired from working have already made their contribution, so there is nothing that they can do to make up the difference if the value of their state pension falls. I think we all recognise that there is an obligation on the state—a social contract—to maintain the value of the state pension. That contract should not be breached as a result of the Government making catastrophic errors in their management of the economy in September.
The considerations with working-age benefits are different. They have also been sharply reduced in real terms this year, but over the years they have frequently not been uprated in line with inflation. As a cumulative result, according to the Library, they are now at their lowest level in real terms in the 40 years since 1982-83. Trussell Trust food banks gave out 2.1 million emergency food parcels in 2021-22; they gave out 60,000 in 2010-11. They have reported that demand in August and September this year was 46% higher than last year. Why is the economy failing so many people? How many more are the Government willing to push into destitution?
The annual family resources survey has started to collect data on food insecurity to get a handle on what is going on with food banks. We now have results for the first two years, 2019-20 and 2020-21; the Secretary of State and I had an exchange about them at Work and Pensions questions recently. Food insecurity among universal credit claimants fell from 43% in 2019-20 to 27% in 2020-21, reflecting the £20 universal credit uplift introduced in March 2020, just between those two financial years. Now that that has been taken away, food insecurity will have shot up again. We will have to raise the level of universal credit to address the current mass dependence on charitable food banks.
It is a great shame on us all that so many people are dependent on charitable food banks, and the numbers are still rising. We certainly must not fail to uprate social security, universal credit and pensions in line with inflation in April, because otherwise there will be yet another big surge in demand. That is why it is so important for the Prime Minister to honour the promise that he made as Chancellor.
There is one more uprating we need that cannot be ignored. The benefit cap was introduced in 2012. At the time, it was based on the level of median earnings. It has never been uprated. It has changed only once: in 2016, it was reduced. Its value has lost any connection with the earnings level to which it was supposed to be linked when it was introduced. If it is not uprated next April, whatever level of uprating is decided on, thousands more families will crash into the cap for the first time and many will have to start going to a food bank to keep themselves alive.
It is time to recognise that mass food bank dependence is not inevitable. We can turn back from this. We can do much better than this. In the decisions announced next week, we must—at the very least—not make things worse.
It is an honour to follow the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms). I was brought up in the area that he represents, and I have fond memories of his part of the world. Let me also welcome the Secretary of State to his place, and, indeed, welcome the whole new Front Bench.
As we all know, our country finds itself in an incredibly difficult economic position, and I look forward to the Chancellor’s fiscal event next week. My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson), in an intervention earlier, made an important point about why the slight delay was required, namely to ensure that we have the OBR figures that Members in all parts of the House have requested during previous debates on our finances.
My party has a strong record of supporting older people, and I hope that that record will continue: we need it to do so now more than ever. One of the highlights of our Government over the last 12 years has been auto-enrolment for employees in small companies, which means that 88% of eligible employees now have savings pots that they would not have necessarily been encouraged to have before. During the pandemic, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks)—now the Prime Minister—took the necessary steps to keep our economy afloat, but those decisions came at a cost. In the wake of that spending, coupled with the awful Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine, we now face a cost of living crisis. Sacrifices must be made. The Chancellor has some extremely difficult decisions to make, the results of which we will hear in nine days.
Given the cost of living crisis, and notably the hike in energy bills, it is more important than ever to protect the most vulnerable members of our society, and I am grateful to the Government for the work they are doing to support pensioners at this difficult time. As we enter the colder months, I am particularly proud of their commitment to help keep energy bills as low as possible and the additional support that is specific to pensioners, including the £300 winter fuel payment.
Like many of my colleagues, I have received countless items of correspondence from constituents pleading for the triple lock to be retained, and I trust that that decision will be made in nine days’ time. I hope that the Chancellor will continue the good work that he is already doing, and I look forward to our honouring the commitments that we have historically made in our manifesto. I agreed with the right hon. Member for East Ham when he said that when people have done the correct thing before, we should ensure that we protect them as much as possible. We should always seek to incentivise good and indeed best behaviour, and I hope that next week’s statement will demonstrate that that is being done.
The Prime Minister recently appeared on the front page of The Times beneath the headline “State can’t fix all your problems”. While that may be true in the absolute sense, I think that the British people are right in making two basic assumptions. First, they rightly assume that the state will not make life harder, and secondly, given that the very essence of politics is priorities, they rightly expect their welfare, financial security and basic dignity to be the prime concerns that govern our actions in this place and the Government’s actions across Whitehall Departments. On both counts this Government have failed miserably, and have done so for 12 long years. In response to today’s motion, they have a golden opportunity to be unequivocal in stating that the triple lock on pensions is here to stay and will be protected.
I have been inundated with emails from pensioners in my constituency expressing a mixture of anger, fear and despair at the removal of the triple lock. A 70-year-old woman has described sitting in her living room with only candles for heat because she cannot afford to pay her energy bills. That is unthinkable. Does the hon. Member agree that the Government must consider the full impact of removing the triple lock on our most vulnerable?
I entirely concur with what the hon. Lady has said. My inbox, like hers, is full of emails giving examples similar to that of her 70-year-old constituent, from people who are choosing between heating and eating.
Why is it so important for the triple lock to be protected? The answer is quite simple. Our elderly people are suffering under this cost of living crisis, and have been suffering under Tory austerity for much longer. Pensioner poverty has been on the increase since the first half of the last decade: this is not something new. It is now widely reported that the number of pensioners living in poverty has topped the 2 million mark, including an extra 200,000 more poor pensioners in 2021 alone, according to the Centre for Ageing Better. That is a figure that should bear the hallmark of deep shame for any Government, and not least for a Prime Minister who was in No. 11 while the problem was becoming worse. Pensioners are falling into debt for the first time in their lives, with all the anxiety that that brings in later life.
Is the hon. Member aware of a report on the triple lock that I mentioned earlier, produced by the House of Commons Library? It shows that as a proportion of average earnings, the basic state pension is now higher than it was at any time under the last Labour Government, and that is a result of Conservative policy.
I refer the hon. Member to the response from my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) to that very point, which I think was more than eloquent.
It is good, decent, working-class pensioners who are suffering, along with many more who may be asset-rich yet cash-poor. People who have worked for many decades are being denied the basic dignity of living free from fear. In the north-west region alone, nearly half a million pensioners are living in some form of poverty, including too many in my own constituency. Inflation is due to start falling; the Government know that. We already know that it would not be right to scrap the triple lock, nor would it make for sound economics—especially at this moment—to hit pensioners in the pocket with a real-terms cut in their incomes. People need support now, rather than the drawbridge being pulled up. The shift of wealth from working and middle-class households upwards has never been as great, and those inequalities are borne out in the way we treat our older people.
When Ministers hold great offices of state and lecture the British people about tough choices while dishing out billions in failed public sector contracts to their friends, removing the cap on bankers’ bonuses and increasing the cost of mortgages to pay for unfunded tax cuts for the few, it is particularly galling that the Government cannot come out and unequivocally back our pensioners today. If they can prioritise all that in times like covid and during these economic headwinds, the very least they can do is walk through the Lobby with the Opposition today. The last thing that our pensioners need now is uncertainty, and I urge all right hon. and hon. Members to join us in the Lobby this afternoon.
Some Members might say that I have something of a vested interest in this motion, given that I represent the oldest cohort of residents in the country. I will say more about that in a moment. I have often stood in this place over the last year and called for the triple lock to be restored, but before that debate is had, I think it important for us to remember why we are having this one. It is important to put on the record again that it was this Government and the then Chancellor, now our Prime Minister, who intervened to provide what were widely deemed to be some of the most comprehensive packages of support not just in this country but in the world to look after the livelihoods of people up and down the land so that they could cope and get through the period of the pandemic financially.
At the time when the Office for National Statistics was considering figures that would make it possible to generate the triple lock uplift last year, it was abundantly clear that a statistical anomaly resulting from people coming off furlough and returning to normal wages had created a bump which meant that, while we were in the grip of a pandemic and did not know quite where the virus would go next, it would be simply unfair not to make a one-off decision to revert to the double lock. We on this side of the House understood that, and I dare say we reluctantly accepted it, but we just did that. It was a year ago on 15 November—which I would just add is my birthday—when I said, on the record, “woe betide us” if we let our pensioners down again. So here we are once more, and in just nine days—that is, two days after my birthday—we will again be listening to the autumn statement that comes along. As my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford said, it is absolutely right that we consider this in conjunction with the OBR report rather than prejudging the event that will take place in nine days’ time.
This is quite some statistic that I am about to give the Secretary of State. Across England and Wales, we in North Norfolk are the oldest local authority with the highest percentage of the population aged 65 and over—33.4% of my population. That is 15% higher than the national average. One in three of my constituents is over the age of 65, and in the last decade alone that figure has increased by 17.8%. So I am not just standing up here and saying this; it really does matter to my constituency, because 27.8% of those constituents are retired, and that alone is roughly double the national average. Even further than that, 4.8% of my constituents are over the age of 85.
The argument has already been made that with inflation running at 10%, it is unfeasible for people who are on a fixed income, and certainly those who are 85 and over, to go out and earn their way out of a difficult set of bills, even though the Government have enormously supported them with many interventions to help them at this difficult time. The Prime Minister has stood at the Dispatch Box and said many times that he will protect the most vulnerable and that he will be fair and compassionate. I believe that he will be; he certainly was during the pandemic when he was Chancellor. So I do believe that in just nine days’ time the right decision—the moral and ethical decision—will be made, that the triple lock will be returned and that the one in three constituents I represent in North Norfolk who are affected will get what they have paid into all their lives.
Everyone deserves financial security in retirement and should be able to rely on a decent state pension, but currently around one in six older people is living in poverty and over the last decade pensioner poverty has risen by almost half a million. People in Erdington, Kingstanding and Castle Vale have been contacting me, worried about the impact the cost of living crisis is having on their finances. Many older people in my community are facing tough choices between heating and eating and they simply cannot afford a real-terms cut to the already limited state pension and pension credit they receive. One of my constituents, an 87-year-old living with significant health issues, said to me:
“I am careful now about the electricity and try to use the microwave instead of the oven. I haven’t put the heating on because I am frightened of the cost.”
This is not a new issue. Pensioners across my community were struggling to make ends meet in the spring and summer, yet the Government have still failed to clarify their position. Despite winter now being just around the corner, we are now seeing a summer of Tory chaos coming home to roost. The Conservative Government made a manifesto commitment in 2019 to maintain the triple lock. This would have seen the state pension rise with inflation every year of the current Parliament, but conflicting statements from Ministers about where cuts might be made are hugely worrying for many across the country, and the prospect of another round of devastating austerity is looming large. My constituents need clarity, reassurance and stability to help them to manage through this crisis.
The Prime Minister has claimed that his Government are compassionate, but we are yet to see any compassion for the most vulnerable, older people in our society. The public deserve to know what options Ministers are considering, with reports that they may again refuse to apply the triple lock to pensions in the future years. If this does happen, it would be yet another breach of their 2019 manifesto commitments. Up to 850,000 older people in the UK do not receive the pension credit they are entitled to, and older people on low incomes are falling through the cracks.
If the Government are serious about supporting older people, they should now commit to targeted financial support for those in later life. We all have an interest in ensuring that older people in our communities live in dignity. The 13,000 pensioners in Erdington, Kingstanding and Castle Vale will be over £900 worse off if the Tories break their promise on the triple lock. Across the UK, older people are being overlooked and the Government must now step in and give them the support they need to stay warm and safe this winter.
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate. We have heard some great speeches today about the importance of the triple lock and the pension. One thing that unites the whole House is the need to look after the most vulnerable in society, and this Government have done that over the past three years and over the past 12 years: they have always put the most vulnerable at the heart of everything they have done. They introduced the triple lock in 2011, which in itself put the most vulnerable at the heart of things to ensure that there would be no more of the insulting 75p rises that happened under the last Labour Government.
This Government decided that we needed to look after our pensioners, but why are we having this debate today? Some would say it is because of the Labour party’s political games and its impatience to wait nine days. Nine days might seem like a long time to Labour Members, but it really is not if we are to get the right sort of information from the Office for Budget Responsibility. Some might say it is a political game to create noise and scaremonger pensioners, but I do not believe that; I think there is genuine concern on both sides of the House about looking after the most vulnerable. That is why I say that people can rest assured that this Government have stepped in and will step in.
One of the reasons we are here today is what the Government did to step in and help people during covid, when £400 billion of Government money was spent to help people to keep their jobs, to help the most vulnerable and to help some of the poorest and the eldest. Now it is right that we are looking at all aspects of how things are financed. There is no such thing as a magic money tree, and we need to review everything. Nevertheless, those on fixed incomes, especially pensioners, are some of the most at risk from our rising inflation. We have to be sensible about this.
When I give speeches in my constituency, I always say to people that the best way to deal with inflation is to get better jobs, good jobs, which is why I have organised three job fairs already this year and have more lined up. We want to get more people in Rother Valley into jobs, which is why our rate of unemployment is significantly lower than the national average. However, I appreciate that pensioners cannot do that, because they are on a fixed income, and although I would like to see more older people in work—they offer many benefits to the job sector—most people on pensions are reliant on fixed incomes and inflation hits their savings hard. They cannot make sacrifices on food and heating, and they cannot make sacrifices on their necessary transport, so it is important that we stick with them and look after them. However, I am not a Government Minister—[Interruption.] I know; it’s a shame—so I do not have to say that I am not going to back the triple lock. I back the triple lock, because I think it is incredibly important. I also know that the Ministers on the Front Bench are listening to the conversation. They cannot say what we want them to say, because they have to wait, but they are listening intently.
Pension credit is incredibly important to my constituents and to constituents across the country. This pension top-up is a vital lifeline, worth up to £3,300, and it is a great initiative introduced by this Government. Unfortunately, take-up is not nearly as high as is needed or as it should be. I urge Ministers to listen carefully and to try to get more people to claim the money owed to them—it is their money and it is ringfenced for them—because this Government have put in the money to help the most vulnerable.
Finally, auto-enrolment is probably the biggest success of the past 12 years of Conservative Government. We have already heard that 88% of people now have an auto-enrolled pension. This is not one-off help for pensioners; it will revolutionise how people of my generation and my children’s generation access their pensions. Pensions are a long-term, fundamental benefit and, frankly, we probably will not need to have this conversation in 30 or 40 years’ time, because the auto-enrolment scheme introduced by this Government will have solved the long-term problem. We have had this problem for decades and, over the past 12 years, this Government have provided long-term help. The triple lock provides medium-term and short-term help, and I hope it is retained—I am sure it will be—but the auto-enrolment scheme is one of the best out there, and I hope the Government expand it to self-employed people and continue to emphasise auto-enrolment.
In a speech earlier this year, the Prime Minister said:
“I believe that a wealthy and civilised country should offer older people dignity in retirement.”
I completely agree but, from the dozens of emails and letters I receive, it is clear that the elderly are facing anything but the dignity they deserve. Doreen from Hall Green told me:
“We will go hungry and cold, and this is what we get for working from 15 years old and paying into the system.”
Maureen from Wakefield city centre told me:
“We either live in warm homes and struggle to feed ourselves…or turn off the heating.”
It is truly shocking to hear these stories in 2022.
Voters took the Conservatives at their word when, in 2019, they committed to the triple lock. Since then it has been U-turn after U-turn, whether on income tax, fracking or their disastrous mini-Budget, and it is hard-working families and the elderly who are paying the price. More than 17,000 pensioners in my constituency could be £915 worse off overall compared with what the state pension would have been if the triple lock were fully applied in 2022 and 2023—of course, the triple lock was broken last year, too.
This matters a lot in Wakefield, where incomes are below the national average and where in parts of my constituency, even back in 2019, 26% of older people were living in poverty. That number must have risen dramatically during the pandemic and during the cost of living crisis, and it will only rise further if pensions do not keep up with inflation. In an area where long-term illness rates are high, it terrifies me to hear Age UK saying that older people are now risking their health by switching off their heating and essential medical equipment because they worry about the cost and because they fear that worse is to come.
Our older generation raised us, taught us, served us and cared for us, and in return it is only right that they should have the security they deserve in retirement. Their ask is simple. As Doreen says, they have paid into the system all their lives, and they want to be assured that they can continue to afford to live with dignity. That is why I will stand with our pensioners and support the triple lock by proudly voting for the motion this afternoon.
It is wonderful to see Labour, the Conservatives and the SNP, and the Liberal Democrats at one point, so united not just by a successful Conservative policy but by a Conservative manifesto commitment. It is delightful to speak in a debate in which the Opposition are calling for the Government to support their own manifesto commitment.
Another thing that unites the House is that we all support dignity in retirement and financial security in old age. The Government have an absolute duty to support pensioners and to reduce pensioner poverty. Pensioners, as various Members mentioned, are on fixed incomes. During a cost of living crisis, as we have at the moment, they cannot go out and get a second job, work extra hours or demand that their boss gives them a pay rise. They have to live on their state pension or their occupational pension, which is why I am so grateful for all the measures that the Government have introduced during this cost of living crisis, including the energy price guarantee, the £300 winter fuel payment, the £150 increase to the warm home discount and the £400 energy bill support scheme for all homeowners. Pensioners and those on means-tested benefits will also receive an extra £650 of cost of living support.
All those measures are very welcome, but this debate is about not the Government’s emergency tailored support but the state pension. At what level should it be? Should we keep the triple lock? These questions have been at the centre of a political tug-of-war for a decade. In recent times, as I mentioned in my interventions, the state pension has been at record lows as a proportion of average earnings. Under the last Labour Government, it went down to around 16% of average earnings between 2000 and 2008—that is the lowest rate of the modern era. Various colleagues mentioned Gordon Brown’s offer to increase pensions by 75p a week in 1999, which is a derisory amount.
The whole House has spoken in praise of the triple lock, which was introduced by the Conservatives and has been a manifesto commitment ever since. I point out to the Opposition Members who deride the Government’s track record that, actually, the state pension is now far more generous than it ever was during 13 years of Labour Government. Labour’s state pension increases were initially by inflation only, which led to the 75p increase, and then in 2002 Gordon Brown introduced an increase by either a 2.5% upper limit or inflation. Labour never brought back the earnings link, which first came back in 2011 when we introduced the triple lock.
The triple lock has worked well. Since 2012-13, pensions have gone up by 2.5% four times, by earnings three times and by the CPI rate three times, which shows that the triple lock does kick in. Since 2010, we have increased the state pension by £2,300, which is 31% more than if the state pension had increased by just earnings or inflation—that is £720 more. As a result, the basic state pension as a proportion of earnings is at its highest rate for more than 30 years—higher than at any time during the last Labour Government. The new state pension is now 25% of average earnings, a historically high level.
There is no doubt that the triple lock is expensive, which is why we are having this debate. We spend more than £100 billion a year on state pensions, which is £7.9 billion more than if the triple lock had never been introduced by this Government. We clearly have an economic black hole at the moment, and we need to work out where the money comes from. I am very supportive of the triple lock, and I was elected on that manifesto commitment. I know all my colleagues are very supportive of the triple lock, but I am also not a Minister, so I am free to speak out in support of the triple lock. I fully appreciate that the Government are going through a budgetary process for the autumn statement, so they cannot say, “Yes, we support this.” They have to look at everything in the round and make sure that we live within our means. As a result, I fully support the Government’s position of not stating their position on the record at the moment. We will hear the autumn statement next Thursday, and I look forward to the Government’s pronouncements.
I would also like to quote the Prime Minister’s first speech from the steps of 10 Downing Street on 25 October, only a few weeks ago:
“I will unite our country, not with words, but with action…This government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level. Trust is earned. And I will earn yours.”
Well, I am not sure how long those promises have lasted. It is certainly clear that the Prime Minister is avoiding a general election. In truth, he can claim no personal democratic mandate to be Prime Minister. He bases his authority on the Conservative manifesto on which he and his colleagues were elected in 2019:
“the mandate my party earned in 2019 is not the sole property of any one individual, it is a mandate that belongs to and unites all of us.”
By “us”, I think he is referring to members of the Conservative party. He continued:
“And the heart of that mandate is our manifesto.”
The Prime Minister bases his legitimacy on the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto, so may I remind the House of what it said about the triple lock? Many Opposition Members have already said this, but let me do it again for the sake of completeness. It said:
“We will keep the triple lock, the winter fuel payment, the older person’s bus pass and other pensioner benefits”.
The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne) said he was gratified that Labour Members were supporting the Conservative manifesto. Can I tell him that the Conservative party was not alone in making those promises? In fact, 626 hon. and right hon. Members of this House, including myself, were elected on a manifesto commitment to maintain, retain and protect the triple lock. So it is in order for us to make reference to that.
Other colleagues, including the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), referred to the relative position of the UK. The UK has one of the least generous state pensions in the developed world, as is demonstrated by the OECD figures, which show that the UK spends less on old age pension benefits as a proportion of GDP.
In April, when the Prime Minister broke the Conservative party manifesto pledge, the state pension increased by only 3.1% instead of the 8.3% due under the triple lock. That has cost someone in my constituency on the new full state pension £487 a year. I am sure Conservative Members are going to be concerned. I lived through the days of terrible pensioner poverty and I felt that the last Labour Government went a long way to address that, through not just the basic state pension, but the supplements introduced by Gordon Brown and others.
I would be terribly embarrassed if my Government’s legacy was one of pensioner poverty. However, the groundwork for poverty has been laid by the current Government; those foundations have been laid over the past 12 years. It has left groups such as the WASPI—I know that the Minister and others do not like to hear that term—cohort of working women born in the 1950s and 1960s in desperate hardship through no fault of their own.
Fifty of the UK’s areas most at risk in the cost of food crisis have been identified and not surprisingly the north-east and my constituency are among the worst affected. This year, our communities will see the introduction of “warm spaces” to help those who are unable to heat their homes because of spiralling energy costs. Our Government and the economy are failing to meet the most basic needs—food and warmth. A real-terms cut to the state pension, alongside soaring energy and food costs, will force many more pensioners into poverty. So I urge Conservative Members to do the right thing, back their own manifesto commitment and vote to retain the triple lock.
Today’s motion is curious because, next week, we will get the decision on this issue, but let us leave that aside for a moment. Last year, I spoke in a debate on the triple lock. At that point, we had the highest level of basic state pension in relation to earnings in 34 years. At that point, it had increased by £2,050—it is now £2,300. Along with auto-enrolment, that has been one of the most significant policy decisions taken by this Government not just in pension policy, but in domestic policy much more broadly. We now have more than 19 million people auto-enrolled in workplace pensions, which is a fantastic achievement. But of course we do not just support our pensioners via the triple lock, generous though that has been. We know that pensioners spend a higher proportion of their money on energy, and there they have had a £400 reduction. They have had an energy price guarantee, which will save, on average, £700, and a winter fuel payment topped up by a pensioner cost of living payment, worth up to another £600.
We have to think about the poorest pensioners and not just think about pensioners as one big group. There we see a further cost of living payment of £650. We see cold weather payments if the temperature of their homes drops below a certain level. Underpinning both those things, we see pension credit. We have to get more people to claim it who are eligible for it because it is worth on average £3,300, which is yet more support. Time and again, both on the triple lock and on the other support the Government give, they have been very generous and constantly thought about how best to support pensioners.
When it comes to Labour motions and Labour Front-Bench speeches, I look for what is not there as much as what is. The motion is specifically about keeping the triple lock for the coming year. As I say, we will get the decision next week. The motion does not say where to get the money for that, but let us leave that to one side for now, even though it is several billion pounds. More importantly, it does not say anything about what should happen beyond that. I listened carefully to the shadow Secretary of State to see what his view on future pension policy might be, but I am afraid that I did not hear much. That is notable because week in, week out in this House what we are hearing from the Front Benchers is, “The next Labour Government will do this” and, “The next Labour Government will do that” but we did not hear that today on pension policy.
Pensions are the second highest category of expenditure after health, so a party that hopes to form a Government ought to have a view about what it wants to do on pension policy that is not just, “We will continue Conservative policies” or “We will support all the expenditure but we will not support any reductions in other areas.” I hope that in his wind-up we might hear from the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), for whom I have a lot of time, what Labour’s view of pensions might be. If the answer is, “We would have to look at the finances to understand what we will do” that is precisely what the Government have been doing to form their decisions next week.
When I talk about poverty in this House—let us be clear that that is what we are talking about today—I usually refer to the fact that some 40% of our children in the north-east live in poverty. Not for them will be the grandparent trust fund or gift of tens of thousands of pounds for a deposit to buy their own home, and not for them the holidays or trips to theme parks with grandma and grandad—some of the things that many children in our society enjoy and even expect. That is because huge numbers of our pensioner generation, who have worked hard all their lives, are struggling to get by. It is only because they make sacrifices that they are able to ensure their grandchildren get a gift on their birthdays or at Christmas.
The state pension is the largest source of income for most older people. For some, particularly women, it is their only source of income. Meanwhile, the number of pensioners living in poverty has been rising since 2013, with the figure exceeding 2 million last year. What kind of society are we that allows our senior citizens to simply exist through their later years, rather than enjoy their reward for decades of service to our country? Is it not a great sadness that those self-same pensioners are more likely to be in ill health after a life of struggle?
Pensioner poverty is a disproportionate risk, affecting 34% of private tenants and 29% of social rented sector tenants, compared with 12% of older people who own their home. In April, the state pension increased by 3.1%, instead of the 8.3% due under the triple lock formula, costing someone on the full new state pension a real-terms income drop of £487 a year and someone on the full basic state pension £373 a year. Some Conservative Members may say, “Well that’s only £10 a week.” But Labour Members know the value of £10 to a struggling household. Energy bills typically make up 6.6% of weekly spending for the over-75s, compared with 4.2% of weekly spending for households of all ages. Without certainty from the Government over whether they will be protected, those constituents are having to enforce their own cutbacks.
Then there are those not in receipt of the full state pension. Around 1.4 million older people receive pension credit—a vital top-up for people on the lowest incomes. If pension credit is increased only by earnings, rather than inflation, an older person living alone could be missing out on a further £400 a year, rising to more than £600 for a couple. Is there no end to the dependency of this Government on those with the lowest income to pay for the mess of the past 12 years? With people choosing between heating and eating, there is an impact on public health, therefore putting even more pressure on our overstretched NHS workforce.
Reinstating the triple lock is a practical choice. Even so, it leaves the UK’s level of spending on older age benefits below that of comparable countries. According to the latest OECD figures, at 7.1%, the UK spends less on old age benefits as a proportion of GDP than the average of 7.7%. Why is that? We are one of the richest countries in the world, but, sadly, what we see is the gap between the rich and the poor widen year on year.
Time and again, Government MPs say that their latest Prime Minister has the 2019 mandate to remain in power. That mandate includes the promise to retain the triple lock, as did ours. Now Conservative MPs can pick and choose which of their promises they will keep and which they will not. The pensions promise has been broken once. Can Conservative Members really believe that any little credibility that they have left can be retained if they break it again?
At a time of challenges at home and abroad, it is vital that we support our pensioners through this winter. I understand the concern that is felt by many people across the country, and I am grateful to the many constituents across Guildford and Cranleigh who have chosen to share their circumstances with me. My office will do all that it can to support any constituent who reaches out for support in the coming months.
This compassionate Conservative Government have not stood by when it comes to supporting those in need. Since 2010, the Government have increased the state pension by £2,300, giving pensioners dignity in retirement and ensuring that their buying power has kept pace with inflation. It is important to note that, had the state pension solely risen with inflation, it would be £720 lower than it is today.
I am also grateful to this Conservative Government for simplifying the state pension regarding the years spent at home for women raising a family, ensuring that they are better off. I chose to spend 16 years at home raising my children and that sort of policy impacts someone like me. These reforms mean that more than 3 million women will, on average, be £550 better off per year by 2030 than they would have been under the policy that we inherited from Labour. The years spent raising a family will now count in full towards the new state pension. As colleagues have already mentioned, automatic enrolment has helped millions more people save for retirement and that is something of which we should be very proud.
I look forward to hearing from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in due course on the findings of his annual review of the state pension. I am confident that he will make the right decision that protects and supports our pensioners. I am also looking forward to the Chancellor’s autumn statement. It is only nine days away and I can exercise patience in waiting to have that alongside the full OBR forecast. He is no longer in his place, but I worry that the Christmas presents of the shadow Secretary of State will not survive until Christmas day without being picked up, felt and shaken about. It is not long to wait. At least I hope he will get some Christmas presents this year.
Although it is important to highlight the bigger picture, the unprecedented support that the Government are providing this winter cannot be ignored. First, I welcome the introduction of the energy price guarantee, which today—this very minute—is providing certainty to pensioners with their energy bills. I welcome the fact that the Government have gone further, and that pensioners are eligible to receive up to £850 of additional support. That support comes from a further payment as part of the winter fuel payment, the £400 discount on energy bills as part of the energy bills support scheme and the £150 council tax rebate for eligible properties.
Starting today, many households who claim the qualifying means-tested benefit, including those on pension credit, will receive their second instalment of the cost of living payment. In Guildford, 6,800 families are eligible for that payment. There are many ways that the Government are supporting those in need this winter: income support with pension credit; increasing the warm home discount; and delivering cold weather payments, to name just a few.
Locally, I welcome the support that is being provided by the Conservative-run Surrey County Council to help those who need it the most. I understand that all households will receive a cost of living directory of support that outlines the assistance that is on offer this winter. If anyone is in need of advice or help, I urge them to reach out. This Conservative Government will always support the most vulnerable in our society and I am confident that that commitment will endure.
Like so many of my colleagues, I have been overwhelmed by the number of constituents who have been in touch with me over the past few weeks. They are terrified about the consequences of the triple lock being scrapped—terrified because of what they are reading in the newspapers. One article in The Times today says that the Bank will raise interest rates again. Another article tells us that food price inflation will cost shoppers another £682 a year. Such headlines should be taken very seriously.
The cost of living crisis and soaring inflation are pushing food and energy prices to unprecedented highs. The decision to suspend the triple lock last year cost someone on the full new state pension £487 a year, and someone on the full basic state pension £373 a year. With inflation set to exceed 8% this year, pensioners are already facing a significant real-terms fall in income. We do not need a crystal ball to see where this is headed: the most vulnerable pensioners look to be plunged further into poverty.
The Cabinet seem to have wiped their memories of their involvement in the previous Government, and indeed in the Governments of the past 12 years, but let me remind them of the fact that it is not only the disastrous mini-Budget of a few weeks ago that has brought us here, but pensioner poverty, which has been rising for a decade.
The hon. Member said that it was terrifying that we may not have the triple lock. I agree that it is terrifying not implementing a Conservative policy. She said that she wanted to remind the Government of what has happened. Let me remind the Labour party, which has been criticising Government policy, that we have systematically, over the past 12 years, had a far more generous state policy scheme than we had under 13 years of the last Labour Government, when we only had inflation or 2.5%, and we never had the triple lock.
The hon. Member’s intervention misses the point by quite a margin, because pensioner poverty has been on the rise regardless.
The promise of this society is that we support everyone not just to survive, but to thrive. The Government seem to believe that pensions are some sort of nice extra, but that is not the case. The UK’s state pension, which is one of the least generous in the developed world, is seen as something for which pensioners should be grateful. No, they should not be grateful, because they have paid into it.
The audacity of the Government is clear. In the midst of a cost of living crisis, the like of which we have not seen for decades, they turn around to people who have paid their taxes and earned a decent retirement and tell them that, instead of the state supporting them in their retirement, they will plunge them into poverty. Breaking the 2019 Tory manifesto commitment to the triple lock for the second year in a row will leave more than 18,000 pensioners in Gower, on average, £905 worse off. Those are the statistics for my constituents.
When my constituents write to me asking how they will pay their bills this winter, how they will put food on the table, and why they are paying the price for Tory economic incompetence, what would the Minister tell them and what would she have me tell them?
I was going to make reference in my speech to Conservative Members saying that this debate was a stunt. It is not a stunt; it is a political lever. This is an Opposition day—this is what we do in this place. I ask the hon. Gentleman please to correct the record.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention; it brings to mind a number of the interventions and speeches from Labour Members talking about pensioners’ fears as they consider the outcome of the triple lock decision. Surely this debate, called by Labour, does not reduce fear but increases it, and that in itself is wholly irresponsible. It is scaremongering.
I am surprised that Labour wants to draw attention to pensions policy, because the Government’s activities over the last dozen years put Labour to shame. Let us look at pensions more widely, because pensioners get income from multiple sources. We have the state pension, but there are also private and company pensions, individual personal savings and other state benefits in addition to the pension.
I will focus first on auto-enrolment. Under Labour, members of the public increasingly just could not afford to save for their retirement—either that, or Gordon Brown’s famous tax raid on pension pots simply made it not worthwhile to save for a pension. If we look at the data, during the 2000s private sector pension membership declined. In the year 2000, 47% of people had private pensions, but by 2012 that had fallen to 32%—a decline of 47%. By changing from an opt-in to an opt-out system, auto-enrolment, brought in by the Conservative-led Government, transformed pension saving in this country. In my view, it was perhaps the single most important intervention of Government policy over the past decade.
The figures speak for themselves: now, 75% of employees are regularly saving and benefiting from tax-free employer contributions. I used to be an employer before coming to this place, and I employed hundreds of very young people—typically 18 to 25-year-olds. We had a company pension scheme and, as a responsible employer, I tried to persuade them to start pensions, but the take-up was very low. The impact of the change to auto-enrolment was amazing, and that has been backed up by our company contributions. It is a wholly beneficial thing and it has reversed the roles.
The other point worth making is that this is Conservative values in action. Not for us the state’s putting its arms around people and being wholly responsible for individuals’ futures; we want to see people’s being helped to take responsibility for their own futures, with the state there to help the most vulnerable, and that is exactly what the Government have done in this case.
It has also been mentioned multiple times that the state pension was not a Labour idea; it was instigated by the Conservative-led Government. The right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) is no longer in his place, but I sometimes wonder what conversations in the Treasury were like in 1999, when he was part of Gordon Brown’s inner circle. Presumably, the debate was, “Do we raise the pension by 75p or 50p, or shall we push the boat out and increase it by £1?” It is rich for the Labour party to start lecturing the Conservative Government, whose policy the triple lock actually is, given its own lamentable record on pensions. Labour has nothing to teach us here.
My hon. Friend has made some interesting points, and I think this debate has been useful to remind the Chamber that the triple lock is our policy. Given the point he has just made, and continuing the Christmas theme, does he agree that Labour attacking our track record on the state pension is a bit like Scrooge attacking Father Christmas for not being generous enough?
I will let that intervention speak for itself, but I entirely agree with the sentiment behind it.
Since 2010, because of the Conservative triple lock, pensions have increased by £2,300 in cash terms and by £720 in real terms. There will come a point when the triple lock will need to be reviewed; because of its statistical ratchet effect, there will come a time when we should properly remove the triple lock to maintain balance between the various cohorts of society. To date, however, it has been a powerful tool to raise pension values above those Labour lows in the 2000s that we have heard about.
In addition to the triple lock, Labour also ignored the problem of people’s—overwhelmingly women—child-rearing years not counting towards the state pension. I am delighted that, again, it was the Conservative Government who stood up for women and for the family and the importance of child-rearing, so that now raising a family counts towards the new state pension. More than 3 million will now be £550 better off as a result.
I have a minute and a half left, but I will not use it all, because others have set out the long list of additional benefits devised by the Government to assist with the cost of living crisis caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We Conservatives recognise that pensioners are particularly vulnerable because they are on a fixed income, but there has been an additional £300 for winter fuel payments, the £400 discount on energy bills, £150 for affected council tax payments, and £650 additional means-tested support, as well as the additional payment for those with disabilities—and the list goes on.
On the triple lock, we will have to wait and see for nine more days, but even without it pensioners have been looked after by this Government. As the Prime Minister has repeatedly said, and as his record shows, all decisions taken by this Government will be compassionate and will look after the most vulnerable in society.
As I said in my intervention on the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), we all in this House, as the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) said, have supported the triple lock. However, we need only google “Daily Mail” and “triple lock” to see that in recent days Government Ministers have been on the news saying things to suggest that it is under threat. On the Government side, it is clear that there is a desire among Back Benchers for the triple lock to stay, but I do not think it is very fair for pensioners to have to wait and do this hokey-cokey to hear what is going to happen.
In February 2021, when this House considered the Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2021, the then Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), spoke in favour of that year’s triple lock increase as
“upholding our commitment to the country’s pensioners”.—[Official Report, 9 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 186.]
We know that by September of last year the Government had turned their back on that lock, implementing a double lock only. The hon. Member for Easington reminded us that that uprating of 3.1% means that when we discuss maintaining the triple lock now, it is not about keeping pensioners up to speed with the cost of living; they are already behind the cost of living as a result of that earlier U-turn.
We were told that the downgrading was just for one year. I said then that I was wary of trusting that the Government would keep that promise, and it increasingly seems that pensioners feel that way too. Many have said that this feels like a broken promise, and we are seeing different Ministers here giving different views. I know we are supposed to now wait nine days, but I do not accept that this is not a debate we should be having.
As the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) said, Opposition days are given to the official Opposition and the third party so that they can hold the Government to account. We are Opposition MPs; that is our job. When we are hearing from constituents about their anxieties regarding the triple lock and the energy price guarantee, it is right and proper that Opposition time be used to debate such issues. I must also say that I have also been present in this Chamber when the Government have tabled motions designed to trap the Opposition. This debate is part of what we do; it is part of how we oppose and how we get answers from the Government.
Away from politics, I want to pick up one message from a constituent who says:
“My wife is 80 and disabled and I am 81 and act as her full-time carer. We receive our bills for both gas and electricity on a monthly basis and the last 2 months have seen them triple-fold…keep in mind that these were summer-time readings. God only knows how we are to fare as things continue in this manner. Once again I plead with you to help in whatever way you can to save the Triple Lock.”
The Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association, in its paper “Five Steps to Better Pensions: Time for a New Consensus”, highlights that pension inadequacy is an increasing issue. The state pension makes up the majority of most people’s retirement income, and given how sluggish wage growth has been in the last 15 years, it is now harder for people to make adequate pension savings. It is important that we keep the state pension to protect current and future pensioners from poverty. As the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) said, it is a social contract, and that is true for private pensions, too. We all know that there is not a pot—as a Scottish MP representing a UK party, I know there is not a pot—but we do put into pensions and national insurance on the understanding that when it comes our time to draw down, we can do so. We need to ensure that we do not break that social commitment and that social contract.
I conclude by saying that I believe firmly that the triple lock is about intergenerational fairness. If we devalue our state pension, we are also letting down young people and people of working age. Some of those of almost pension age will have seen the value of their pensions fall as a result of the recent economic turmoil, and for those people a state pension will never be more vital. For young people and people of working age, keeping the state pension viable now for those not retiring for decades to come is the right thing to do. Younger people face so many difficulties—on the housing ladder, and with increasing rents, the lowest levels of social mobility and insecure employment—so we need to ensure that we keep a pension for them to look forward to in the future.
I finish by turning to the words of Muriel, another of my constituents who has written to me. She asked:
“How are we to survive without being able to depend on our Government to do the right thing by us?”
Those are words for us all to keep considering.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain). It is also a pleasure to see the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott), in her place, and I congratulate her. I also thank the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) for his tub-thumping support for a Conservative policy. There is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents.
There is never a bad opportunity to talk about this Government’s inestimable record when it comes to helping pensioners. Instinctively, everyone on the Government Benches wants to ensure that those in receipt of state pension get the best possible deal from the Treasury. Many of us will already have made representations to the Chancellor in one way or another, and I am pretty sure he will be making pensions a priority come the 17th.
At a time when every one of us, especially those on low and fixed incomes, is feeling the pinch as a result of the perfect storm caused by Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine and the economic shock of covid, it is right that we continue to support the most vulnerable with the limited resources we have available to us. That is why I am proud that this Government have introduced the triple lock, when no such innovation was ever introduced by a Labour Treasury. A lot of us have already mentioned Gordon Brown’s generous increase of 75p a week back in 2000. That was at a time when Labour was borrowing like it was going out of fashion and spending like a drunken sailor in a brothel. It caused so much offence that one pensioner wrote Gordon Brown a cheque to return the 75p. Gordon Brown cashed the cheque.
It was this Government who responded to the current economic challenge with the energy price guarantee to keep bills as low as practically possible. This Government provided up to £850 of additional support to most pensioners in the face of rising energy costs. This Government increased the warm home discount to £150 and extended eligibility by a third to 3 million of the most vulnerable households. Since 2010, the state pension has increased by £2,300. That is £720 more than if it had just been uprated by simple inflation alone. We have brought in automatic enrolment for workplace pensions, so that more people have extra support in their old age.
This Government take pensioners seriously. We do not treat them as tools in a now all too predictable cycle of gamesmanship that we get with every Opposition day debate. I can practically see the paid content on social media already, with a black and white photo of each of us and a misleading statement underneath, and I can see the emails coming in tomorrow morning from frightened pensioners who want to know why we have done this terrible thing we have been accused of, and that they reckon we are going to do. It is absolutely shameless, but all too predictable.
The Opposition know there is a statement coming in a few days’ time, on the 17th—as my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) had to get his birthday in, it is actually five days after mine—but that means nothing to the Opposition, as there are games to be played and points to be scored. The truth is that poverty figures show that there are 400,000 fewer pensioners in absolute low income after housing costs than in 2009-10. There are 1.2 million fewer people in absolute low income before housing costs than in 2009-10 —that is 200,000 fewer children, 500,000 fewer working-age adults and 400,000 fewer pensioners. That is in part because of what we have done as a Government to increase participation in private pensions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) mentioned, under the last Labour Government, the actual participation rate went from 47% down to 32%. Under this Government, thanks to auto-enrolment, that is now around 75%.
When the economic truths are complex and difficult, we deserve better than the glib sixth-form politics of the Opposition. The Chancellor is absolutely right to take the time to finalise his spending decisions as part of the autumn statement, so that we can take a compassionate Conservative approach to target our cost of living support to the most vulnerable.
The truth of the matter is that we know why we have not heard anything from the Opposition: they do not have a plan. The Prime Minister made the point at Prime Minister’s questions last week that you cannot oppose a plan if you do not have a plan. We have not heard a bat squeak from the Opposition about their policies for the next election. We know that the Leader of the Opposition has already binned all the pledges he was elected on, so we have no idea what the party stands for. I will wait for the Chancellor’s statement on the 17th, and in the meantime, I will be talking to and working with colleagues to ensure we put the case for the people we have the privilege of representing, because that is what they deserve: MPs who put them first, not politics.
As I was leaving my office to come across to the Chamber, I received an email from a couple in their late 70s that said:
“We need you to protect the triple lock for our wellbeing.”
This debate and this decision about the triple lock matter to pensioners in Barnsley. By threatening to break the triple lock, this Government are instead turning their back on older people, just when times are harder than ever. Indeed, alongside working families, pensioners are already struggling with the spiralling cost of living. One constituent in her sixties told me that she sat shivering as she wrote to me about not being able to afford heating. Another, aged 98, got in touch having received an energy bill of £3,700 for the next 12 months. In the context of this storm of energy bills, inflation and food prices, the Resolution Foundation has said that any cuts to pensions would be disastrous. After their reckless mini-Budget and the economic crash that followed, this Conservative Government are forcing older people to pay the price for their own economic incompetence, despite promising to protect them.
Indeed, the 2019 Conservative manifesto vowed to keep the triple lock in place, saying that under a Conservative Government, pensioners could be confident that they would receive support, security and the “dignity they deserve”. We have seen time and again that instead of keeping to their commitments, this Government prefer to U-turn, backtrack and break their promises. Certainly for many people in Barnsley East, it will not be the first time that the Government have gone back on their word regarding pensions.
During the last general election, the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) made a categorical promise to retired mine workers that their money would be returned. To date, the Government have taken £4.4 billion from the mineworkers pension scheme. A cross-party Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee report concluded that the Government should not be in the business of profiting from miners’ pensions and should end the 50:50 sharing arrangement. A Labour Government would do just that.
This Government should stop taking money from miners’ pensions, and they must recommit to the triple lock to keep vulnerable pensioners above the poverty line. As we live through the worst cost of living crisis in modern times, the Government must stop making older people and working families pay the price for their reckless economic decisions.
What a treat to be the tail-end Charlie on the Government Benches, and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) and the very thoughtful speech from the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), which shows that on the substance of the policy we all hope to hear announced on 17 November, there are few differences among the Members of different parties in this House. It is worthwhile, particularly with my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott) in her place—I warmly welcome her as the new Pensions Minister, and earlier she was sat beside the former long-serving Pensions Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman)—just to run through how and why we are where we are.
The truth is that the story starts in December 2010, five months after the coalition Government were elected to take over from the previous Labour Government of some 13 years. The then Pensions Minister, the former right hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate, Sir Steve Webb, introduced it by pointing out that the first thing he was doing was reintroducing the link between the state pension and earnings—something that Labour had unfortunately failed to do during its 13 years in government. It was wrong to do so, and he was right to reintroduce it, but he went further, with the full support of the coalition parties, and linked pensions to a new triple lock of earnings growth, inflation or a minimum of 2.5%. That promise was part of ensuring that we would never again see a weekly rise in pensions of just 75p, which has been much alluded to today. No one should ever underestimate the impact that that had on pensioners around the country.
Can the hon. Member confirm that the triple lock was introduced as the result of a commission that was appointed by Gordon Brown, and Gordon Brown was the one who set up the reasoning behind and the institution of the triple lock, but it was the Government after him who actually introduced it?
No; I am sorry, but that is a historical rewriting of facts that does not wash. Gordon Brown was Chancellor and then Prime Minister for all those 13 years. He had many, many opportunities to reintroduce the link to earnings and spectacularly failed to do so. With apologies to the hon. Member, I do not accept that. It is true that a lot of consultation went on at that time, but the fact is that the coalition Government reintroduced the link five months after coming into government. That is important, because the link is responsible for today’s state pension being worth over £720 a year more than inflation, which was the link under Labour. The whole point of the triple lock was that Labour’s policy was inadequate and had to be corrected by the new coalition Government.
Indeed, on 17 February 2011, at the first social security benefit uprating after the triple lock was introduced—the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) will be interested in this—what did Labour Members do? They abstained—all of them except for 11, who voted against the uprating. Those who voted against included the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who was shadow Chancellor at the time of the last Labour manifesto. Not one Labour Member, including the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), voted in favour of the uprating that came from the triple lock. They were wrong not to do so.
There was, of course, more to it, because the basic state pension has risen considerably, and as Sir Steve Webb put it then, the strengthening of pension credit enabled the Government to
“focus resources on the poorest pensioners.”—[Official Report, 8 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 310.]
As he pointed out at that time, when both you and I were here, Madam Deputy Speaker, this is ultimately about
“a more appropriate, consistent and stable basis that is fair to individuals and the taxpayer.”—[Official Report, 8 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 311.]
We come to the issue today. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor have both highlighted that in their decisions to be announced on 17 November, they will act fairly and compassionately. I have no doubt that they will, and for the avoidance of doubt, that does imply, to me, maintaining the triple lock—no Minister can possibly anticipate what might be announced in the future, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State rightly explained.
Over the last 12 years, the record of this Government is that they have introduced the triple lock and the important new policy of auto-enrolment for almost 20 million people, whereas Labour’s legacy is the 75p a week increase. That was not done while the right hon. Member for Leicester South was an adviser to Gordon Brown, but he has two more issues to face when the announcements of 17 November are made. In the Labour party’s 2019 manifesto, it committed to £58 billion for the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign group. I have warned that group time and again that it will be led up the path and nothing will be delivered. The shadow Secretary of State needs to answer on that, and he also needs to answer on what Labour’s policy will be on universal credit, which it pledged to abolish in its 2019 manifesto. For today, I agree: let us keep the triple lock.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I commend my colleagues on the shadow Front Bench for bringing this debate to the House. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), though I fundamentally disagree with most of what he said, but there we are; that is what Opposition day debates are all about.
Like many people in Newport West, including those who have written to me about this issue in recent months, I believe that everyone deserves financial security in their retirement. It is a long-standing feature of our contract with the people that the cornerstone of that security is a decent state pension, and it must be a properly indexed pension, because that is how we ensure it keeps its value for future generations of pensioners in Newport West and across the United Kingdom.
I note that Government Members were elected on a manifesto commitment in 2019 to keep the triple lock, so today should be easy for them and for all of us. The Opposition support a triple lock on pensions, and the Conservative party suggested that it did in 2019, so today should see a unanimous vote in support of the motion. Ministers and Conservative MPs need to be held to account on their promise, and today provides an opportunity to do just that.
I was elected in April 2019, and in my first few months in this place, it was clear that Conservative Members supported Labour’s intention to continue the triple lock across future years of this Parliament. I am determined to keep making the case to Ministers on behalf of those Newport West residents who have been in touch in recent weeks and months. One such constituent, Christine Kemp-Philp, wrote to me and told me this:
“As a full time family carer since 1991, having given up a good career to care, and with my caring responsibilities becoming more and more difficult, I am myself disabled and a pensioner, and am finding less and less help available. With the cost of living going up and the threat of our pensions going down in real terms, I am worried for our future.”
It is important to acknowledge that the UK state pension is relatively low by international standards, and there are important differences between those who qualify for it. For example, I went back and read some excellent research from Age UK in 2020, which highlighted that 34% of private tenants and 29% of social rented sector tenants lived in poverty compared with 12% of older people who own their home outright. In addition, 33% of Asian or Asian British and 30% of black or black British pensioners were living in poverty compared with 15% of white pensioners. This is a problem for real people, who are losing real money and having to pick up the consequences.
I am also grateful to my constituent Dennis Bellew, who shared his story with me. He wrote:
“I am 77 years old…It is important to me that the government keep their promise of protecting the pension triple lock. Times are difficult for me at present and I shudder to think what it would be like if this promise was not kept. With old age comes the worsening of my asthma, arthritis, diabetes and lack of mobility, in these ailments I am no different from the thousands of pensioners in the U.K. How would I be able to keep my head above water with the ever increasing energy and food bills. Life is tough for us pensioners at present, please do not make it worse by allowing the government not to keep its promise.”
That is why I am speaking in this debate.
The Government need to consider what the current crisis means for the 1950s WASPI women affected by the change to the state pension age. I urge Ministers, as I did in Work and Pensions questions last week, to find an opportunity to bring forward more support for those women in Newport West and across the country, and to set out what immediate action could be taken and when. The treatment they have received has been disgraceful, and I have repeatedly spoken out and called for action.
I look forward to meeting the new Minister, the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott), and eagerly await her response to my letter confirming the meeting she agreed to. As Labour calls for a pensions system that is sustainable, sufficient and able to meet the challenges of an ageing population, I urge all colleagues to support the motion today and to give our pensioners the dignity in retirement they so richly deserve.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) and the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham); they are both my friends. I was glad to hear the hon. Member for Gloucester refer to Steve Webb, who I thought was a fine Pensions Minister and deserves credit for his work in bringing in the triple lock in the first place. My party has always pressed—as well as we can from this small part of the Bench—for pensions to be linked more to earnings, which, on the whole, would ensure that pensioners were not continually in poverty, and the triple lock does that to an extent.
Around one in five people in Wales lives in relative poverty. Pensioners are among the groups hardest hit by the jump in energy and food prices, and there are severe long-term consequences to being unable to afford food and heating. Public policy, social policy and health policy in Wales are very much geared towards the concept of wellbeing rather than the separate headings of health, benefits or whatever. That is the thrust of policy in Wales, but the severe consequences of being unable to afford food and heating very much militate against it. The income squeeze is also preventing some people from engaging in social activities, which are crucial for wellbeing. The cost of those activities might be small, but they are often the first things to go when people have to economise.
As has been said, the UK spends below the OECD average on state pensions, which compare poorly relative to average earnings. The UK also compares poorly on the net replacement rate, which I do not think has been mentioned. That measures pensions as a percentage of previous earnings, and the difference is quite significant: for mandatory pensions at least, the UK stands at 58.1%, the OECD is at 69.1% and the EU is at 70.8%.
As a number of Members on both sides of the House have said, the triple lock ratchet has been very effective, and abandoning it will trap some older people in persistent poverty. That would make the case for a fundamental review of the state pension even more pressing than it is now, and such a review must be aimed at eradicating pensioner poverty.
Meanwhile, auto-enrolment to pension credit should be introduced, and mechanisms for doing that—using the Post Office or perhaps banks—have already been suggested. That would be a way of providing direct financial support and a gateway to further benefits and support. In Wales, it would mean immediate financial relief for more than 70,000 households who are eligible for pension credit but who do not claim it at present.
I want to refer briefly to two pension scandals—“scandals” is the correct term—both of which need immediate action. I will not go into any detail about the plight of WASPI women, as that has been referred to already, but the Government really should set out the steps they will take to compensate 1950s-born women.
The second scandal, which has not been mentioned and which has been pressing for many years, is the plight of former Allied Steel and Wire workers, who lost their livelihoods and their pensions when the firm went bankrupt in 2002 in very distressing and suspect circumstances, which I will not go into now. Under the financial assistance scheme and the Pension Protection Fund, any money paid in before April 1987 was not fully inflation-proofed, and many ASW pensioners have been severely impacted, with some receiving only half the value of what they are actually owed. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) asked what that meant in real terms, the response from the DWP was that it would be too costly to find out. Well, the ASW pensioners are actually paying that cost, and the response from the DWP was a disgrace, so I press the Government to look at that case yet again.
I was quite alarmed by some of the comments from Conservative Members about why we are discussing this issue—some even described this debate as theoretical, while others said it was irresponsible to discuss this issue. My response to that is that we should ask the millions of pensioners who are affected whether it is worth discussing this issue and whether this debate is irresponsible or worth while.
The pension triple lock is vital to the wellbeing of millions of retired people across the country. I speak on behalf of pensioners in my constituency, and I would like to express the absolute importance of the Tories not breaking their manifesto pledge to protect the triple lock pension guarantee. Just three weeks ago, they were stating that there was a commitment to maintain the pensions triple lock; now, the Prime Minister refuses to guarantee that it will remain in place. That is understandably causing uncertainty and distress to millions of pensioners.
By now, we and the public are used to the Tories continuously going back on their word. That is why they cannot be trusted to run this country or to look after the interests of pensioners. The cost of living is already rising rapidly because of the economic mess that they have got us into. That crisis has been engineered in and delivered from Downing Street.
Pensioners rely on the state pension to help them make ends meet, no matter how difficult that is. The fact that the Government are even considering putting that minuscule security blanket in danger is ridiculous and incredibly scary for pensioners who need the triple lock in order to live a simple life. Many pensioners are not eating properly or putting the heating on in order to make ends meet.
I know only too well the concerns that many pensioners have. I recently received a letter from a constituent who has retired. He said:
“I am afraid in these dire times. My outgoings are exceeding my incomings. It is getting worse daily and utility bills are rising again. The future looks very bleak. No one mentions the pensioners. It seems we are being brushed under the carpet”—
that has certainly been the case with the way some Conservative Members have responded to this Opposition day motion. The hopelessness and fear that that person expressed to me is shared millions of times over.
The pandemic and the cost of living crisis have hit our most vulnerable the hardest. We cannot allow more pensioners to be pushed into poverty because of the outrageous decisions of this incapable Government—a Government whose decisions are, in reality, costing lives. Pensioners are frightened and living a reduced quality of life. They are distraught and living in severe uncertainty because this Government cannot keep their priorities in check.
The Prime Minister claims that the Conservative party is a compassionate party, but his actions speak louder than his words. The Tory manifesto clearly promised that the triple lock would be protected. Now, the Prime Minister is considering not only breaking another promise but breaking all the pensioners across the UK.
Many residents in Wirral West have written to me and spoken to me about their extreme anxiety about the cost of living crisis and what they see as the Government’s lack of commitment to maintaining the state pension triple lock for the next financial year. They are desperate for certainty and they need help.
I note the Secretary of State’s remarks about the forthcoming fiscal event, but surely he or the Minister can give some comfort to retired people who are anxious about this issue. They need that reassurance because there has been so much turmoil in the Conservative party—turmoil that has been accompanied by numerous policy U-turns. It is vital that the Government retain the triple lock, as it was a Conservative party manifesto commitment and must be honoured.
As we know, last year the Conservatives broke that commitment. At the time, the Government said that they
“can and will apply the triple lock as usual from next year for the remainder of this Parliament, in line with our manifesto commitment.” —[Official Report, 7 September 2021; Vol. 700, c. 185.]
It is therefore vital that they keep their word. People are struggling with the cost of living crisis, which has been made far worse by the chaos that the Conservative Government of just a few weeks ago brought to the financial markets with their mini-Budget. Through sheer recklessness, their policy choices sent mortgage rates soaring, brought the pensions industry to the brink of collapse and crashed the economy.
Despite the comments that we have heard from the Government today, pensioner poverty is an extremely serious and live issue. This year’s “State of Ageing” report by the Centre for Ageing Better found that almost one in five people over the age of 65 were living in poverty in the 2019-20 period. That is 2 million people. Age UK has said that malnutrition is a growing risk for older people, and that if the UK Government fail to raise the state pension and benefits in line with inflation, they will plunge many people into a genuinely desperate situation. Pensioners are struggling with soaring food prices and increased energy costs.
I would like to share with the House some of my constituents’ experiences and fears, because they have asked me to represent their concerns. One woman who is in her early 80s has written to me to say that she suffers from a number of health issues, including rheumatoid arthritis. It is vital for her to keep warm, and even though she is cutting back on using the heating, her energy bills keep rising alarmingly. She says:
“It’s hard to imagine where it will all end.”
Another constituent told me that she and her husband are currently struggling with a huge increase in the cost of living and out-of-control heating bills. They sit at night with blankets wrapped around themselves, as they cannot afford to put on the central heating. Their fuel bills have increased to more than £270 a month, and they are worried that they will go up again next April. Another constituent whose partner has a number of long-term health conditions has said that she is
“petrified to put the heating on and the hot water is only put on once a day for a short period.”
She is really concerned that her partner’s health will get worse because they cannot heat their home. One woman in her mid-70s told me that she worries every day about heating and food. She asked for the triple lock to be protected simply so that she and other pensioners can afford to live.
It is clear that the triple lock on the state pension must be maintained for my constituents and for people across the country. It is about dignity and security for older people and about protecting them from poverty. I also ask the Minister to set out what action her Government will take to encourage greater take-up of pension credit. The Government must do the right thing and come forward today with a commitment to protect the triple lock.
We all know that this is an alarming time for our constituents, as we face a winter of soaring energy, food and necessities costs, but it is even more so for pensioners on a fixed income. In the past few weeks, we have heard Tory Ministers giving their out-of-touch solutions for the cost of living crisis: “Get a new job,” or, “Work more hours”. That is patronising and unhelpful advice for desperate people of working age, but it is even less helpful for the elderly.
The number of pensioners in poverty has risen by almost half a million in the last decade, and now the Conservatives will not even commit to maintaining the pensions triple lock. They have already broken and back-tracked on so many of their 2019 promises that they have no mandate for what they are doing, but I warn them that if they abandon this commitment as well, the pressure for a general election will be unstoppable. With rising prices, hits to private pensions and the crisis in the NHS and social care, pensioners face a triple whammy if the triple lock is lost.
In recent weeks, I have been alarmed listening to the experiences of my elderly constituents, who, during my regular doorstep surgeries around Warrington North, have reported to me that not only are they not turning the heating on, as they are frightened of the cost, but that their estates have been going dark early in the evenings, as even keeping the lights on is becoming too expensive for too many. That is not just in the central six wards of Warrington, which have historically faced higher levels of deprivation, but even in our ostensibly more affluent areas, such as Rixton-with-Glazebrook, Culcheth, Woolston and Croft, where incomes and rates of home ownership are higher, and which we would not typically associate with fuel or food poverty. That pain and anxiety is being felt right across the board by our elderly residents in Warrington.
I want to draw the House’s attention in particular to the mineworkers’ pension scheme and the report published last year by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, on which I serve. We noted that the 1994 scheme’s sharing agreement allows the Government to keep 50% of any surplus from miners’ pensions. Since then, the Government have received over £4.4 billion from the scheme without contributing a penny, while former miners receive an average pension of only £84 a week, leaving them dependent on the maintenance of the state pension. This is intolerable. We made a clear cross-party recommendation that the scheme should be reviewed and the £1.2 billion reserve fund be given back to pensioners immediately. No progress has been made in the past year. I urge the Minister to get this done. Retirees in coalfield areas such as mine deserve better, and righting this wrong will be a huge boost at a most needed time.
As one of the younger Members of this House, I can report that many of my generation despair of ever receiving a state pension worth the name. They may think that this is a debate that does not affect them and is just another example of the Government taking from the young and poor to give to the elderly and wealthy, but they are wrong. If we do not fight for pensions to be protected and maintained now, we really will not have a worthwhile income in retirement tomorrow. The real-terms impact of a cut now affects future retirees even further—in cumulative lost interest in every future year—than the impact on pensioners today. I want to see social security for old age for people like me, born in the 1990s, and younger, not see it wither away now. This is even more vital as house prices have prevented many young people from stepping on to the housing ladder, so we will be carrying debts and mortgages to an older age. The way we challenge generational unfairness is by doing more to tax accumulated wealth, particularly wealth that is hoarded rather than invested.
The whole country knows that this Conservative Government have crashed the economy. They know that the Government are desperately looking for soft targets to make cuts, but there are not any more after a decade of failed austerity. The Government cannot be allowed to use this as an excuse to desert their triple lock promises as well. Old and young, we will be watching closely to see how Conservative MPs vote today on this basic issue of generational fairness and giving people the reassurance they need at this difficult time.
A number of Conservative Members have asked why we are having this debate today, and given the events over the last few weeks, I agree we should ask why we are having it. It is because only a few weeks ago the Prime Minister said he was “totally committed” to protecting the triple lock for pensioners. Subsequently, we have had Ministers refusing to answer direct questions: “Will you protect the triple lock?”—“Well, it’s under review.”
As I say, only weeks ago the Prime Minister said he was “totally committed” to the triple lock, so I suspect another reason we are having this debate today is that the beauty contest in the summer, with very bold statements, has left a number of areas now under review, and that does not give us any confidence at all. The Government took a huge gamble in September and made a complete mess of it, and that is why we are here today. Unfortunately, there is a chance that pensioners and less well-off people will pay the heavy price for the mistakes that were made.
In April, the state pension rose by 3.1%; it should have been by 8.3%. A number of Conservative Members have spoken about the party that protects the triple lock, but it was broken last year and it is in real danger of being broken this year. Last year, that left pensioners £487 worse off. This year, if the same applies, that will be another £480. We have heard Conservative Members talk about covid, and I accept that the Government stepped up and delivered support for many across this country. We have heard about the war in Ukraine, which is a terrible situation. Putin’s war is absolutely terrible. However, these facts were of course known before the Prime Minister gave that total commitment to the triple lock, so what happened in that period of time?
In Blackburn, 13,694 pensioners will be left £900 worse off, right in the middle of a cost of living crisis. We know that pensioners are particularly vulnerable in the energy crisis. What is the sense of giving support for pensioners to brave the energy crisis—only partial support, because they will still pay £1,000 more than they would have done—and then to take it back with the other hand?
Pensioner poverty has been on the rise since 2013, despite the broad statements from Conservative Members. The facts speak for themselves, and this information can be checked. More than half a million pensioners across this country are living in poverty, and we should hang our heads in shame at that, given the wealth this country actually has. The triple lock has been so important in holding back those numbers, and not only do we not want them to increase, we want them to be drastically reduced. These people have worked all their lives and deserve better. They have been penalised for mistakes made by members of the Government.
Is the Minister concerned about breaking the triple lock? I would like an answer to that. What assessment has he made, should he break that promise, of the potential for pensioners dying in poverty? How many Conservative Members agree with what the former Chair of the Conservative party said, which is that people should work more hours and go for better jobs? Tell that to pensioners. The Government made this promise for good reason, and Conservative Members stood on that promise to ensure that older people have the security and dignity they deserve. What has changed? Does the Minister still believe that voters deserve security, dignity and peace of mind in their old age? Will he accept that a second year cut or change to the triple lock is not acceptable?
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Kate Hollern). My constituents of Enfield North simply cannot afford, and do not deserve, to pay the price for this Government’s mistakes. The Tories have crashed the economy, and now pensioners could be paying the price. As Members across the House have said, people who have worked hard their entire lives rightly expect security in retirement, and the only reason that the Government are considering not protecting the triple lock is due to the mess they have pushed our economy into.
The economic crisis created in Downing Street means that, in addition to the triple lock, every pledge made in the summer leadership contest is now under review. In my constituency, abandoning the 2019 Conservative manifesto commitment to the triple lock on state pensions for a second year in a row could leave almost 13,000 pensioners £900 worse off on average. The past 12 years of Tory mismanagement have left more and more of my constituents in poverty. Over the past decade, pensioner poverty has risen by almost half a million people. Since 2015, Enfield has risen from being the 12th to the 9th most deprived London borough, and since 2021, homelessness has risen by 250%. One in three workers in Enfield is paid below the London living wage, and one in five workers is low paid. Now, the Government are considering enforcing an average cut of £408 next year on pensioners in Enfield North, if the triple lock is broken again when pensions are uprated in April.
How can pensioners in Enfield North and around the country ever trust a word the Conservatives say when the Prime Minister just weeks ago committed to the triple lock? When the then Chancellor suspended the triple lock last year, he promised to reinstate it the following year. He now refuses to give certainty to pensioners, leaving them wondering whether they will be betrayed yet again. However, trust is not the issue here—we all know we cannot trust this Government. They tell us that they are doing something one day, and the next day it is gone. Pensioners in Enfield North tell me that they are already struggling with soaring food and petrol costs. Pensioners are already staying on the bus all day just to keep warm, and they are terrified of turning their heating on this winter, due to the costs that will incur.
A 73-year-old constituent wrote to me this week, concerned about how they will manage their Raynaud’s disease this winter, after receiving a large bill for their consumption and the rocketing cost of living. Pensioners should not now pay the price for Tory mismanagement of the economy. The Government must commit to keeping the triple lock, and not keep my constituents, and pensioners across the country, waiting. My constituents deserve not just to survive this winter, but to thrive, and that is why I will be backing the motion today.
I am pleased to close this important debate for the Opposition. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) said, it is about a simple and very important question: will the Government honour their manifesto pledge to millions of pensioners—13 million, many of whom have no income other than the state pension? As we have heard, the Government failed to raise the state pension in line with the triple lock last year and, to make matters worse, pensioners face in effect a £900 cut to their income if the triple lock is ignored this year.
The state pension matters enormously and, so far, the Government have failed to give pensioners the reassurance that they deserve. As my right hon. Friend said, this should not be a controversial question; it should simply be something that the whole House can agree with, yet that request for simplicity, clarity and reassurance at a difficult time has been met with a lack of understanding. I hope that the Minister in responding will think again, treat pensioners with more respect and reassure them that the Government will stick with the triple lock. The uncertainty of the last few weeks has put pensioners under terrible stress. That should never have happened. The Government should now reassure pensioners. As food and fuel bills soar, the very least that Ministers can do is give the simple answer that they will keep the triple lock in this difficult situation.
The debate has been an important opportunity for Members from across the House to remind Ministers of their duty to pensioners. Powerful arguments have been made for openness and clarity. We have heard that, at a very difficult time, pensioners and others on fixed incomes are under real pressure. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) reminded the House that pensioners face a desperate situation with bills rising and called for clarity. The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who is in his place, stressed his support for the triple lock and the importance of the state pension to many of his constituents. He also called on the Government to do much more to encourage pensioners to claim pension credit.
The Chair of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), made some excellent points, including that the Government, sadly, made a series of serious blunders in September. There has already been a big fall in the value of state pensions and the Government gave an assurance that pensions would be uprated. That was a manifesto commitment. He also gave us historical context, going back as far as the 1970s. Pensions have been uprated over a long period. Further, he went on to make the telling point that there is a social contract between people in work, the Government and pensioners.
Other Members made excellent points. The hon. Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra) called for the triple lock to be retained. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) made a powerful speech in which she talked about the importance of protecting the most vulnerable and the Government’s duty to do that on behalf of society as a whole.
There was a huge number of other contributions, which I cannot refer to in great detail. However, in summary, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mrs Hamilton) made an excellent speech, the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) spoke, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Simon Lightwood) also spoke powerfully. The hon. Members for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne), for Wantage (David Johnston), for Guildford (Angela Richardson), for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew), for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) and for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson) spoke, as did my hon. Friends the Members for Easington (Grahame Morris), for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) and a number of others.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) made a fascinating and important point about the miners’ pension fund and the need for the Government not to take money out of it. The hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) spoke, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones). The hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) made an important point about ASW, the issues with the Pension Protection Fund and those pension funds that got into difficulty before the PPF was set up. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali) made some powerful points as well, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), who pointed out the pressure on pensioners from the cost of living crisis.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Kate Hollern) made some powerful points, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols), who talked about pensioner poverty rising, affecting half a million people. Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark) spoke eloquently about the need for security at this time.
Time is pressing. Today’s debate has been full and frank, and I hope Ministers will now respond with the honesty and transparency that pensioners deserve. As my hon. Friends and Members from across the House have said, this is a very important issue. The Government made a manifesto pledge and, last year, Ministers broke that pledge. Pensioners across the country are now facing unprecedented levels of inflation, particularly in food and fuel. Given that, it is vital that Ministers keep the triple lock and that they reassure pensioners of their intentions before the financial statement at the end of this month. Quite simply, pensioners have waited for too long, suffered too much uncertainty and put up with far too much stress for the Government to do anything less.
It is, as hon. Members have mentioned, the first duty of Government to protect the most vulnerable. I hope the Minister will now offer clarity and reassurance for millions of people across the country.
I thank all hon. Members for their valuable contributions to the debate.
Since 2010, pensioner incomes have gone up, absolute pensioner poverty has gone down and we have corrected the historic inequalities towards women in the state pension. That is a record that we on the Government Benches can be proud of. The decision on how to uprate state pension for this year is taken by the Secretary of State at the same time as the uprating decision on all benefits for those of working age and over state pension age.
The Minister is repeating what the Secretary of State said earlier about pensioner poverty going down. The reality is that it is down only on old statistics. Pensioner poverty is increasing. Fuel poverty is increasing. So will the Government update the House on what the true figures on poverty are in the UK?
We absolutely recognise that this is a very difficult time for pensioners. That is why we put a substantial package of support in place, which I will come on to later.
The Secretary of State set out, when opening the debate, that the results of his uprating review will be announced alongside the autumn statement on 17 November. To nobody’s surprise, I will not be pre-empting the outcome of that review today. However, reflecting the debate this afternoon, it is important to highlight how pensioners have been supported since 2010.
The yearly amount of the basic state pension has risen by over £2,300 in cash terms, rightly highlighted during the debate by my hon. Friends the Members for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne), for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson). Average weekly pensioner incomes have increased by 12% in real terms and as a result absolute pensioner poverty has fallen by 400,000 since 2010.
We are forecast to spend over £134 billion on benefits for pensioners in 2022-23. That amounts to 5.4% of GDP.
We have been absolutely clear about our record since 2010. I have been clear that I cannot pre-empt the decisions of the Secretary of State. The point is that we on the Government Benches have put plans in place to help pensioners this winter. We are not waiting until next April.
My hon. Friend, on this as with so many other things, is absolutely right. I will make some progress now on my speech.
At the heart of the 2016 reforms we made to the state pension was a correction of some of the historic unfairness in the previous system, particularly for women, the self-employed and lower-paid workers.
I am just going to make some progress, I am sorry.
That means women no longer need to rely on the pension contributions of their husbands, and it is more generous to those who spend time looking after their children, as my hon. Friends the Members for Guildford (Angela Richardson) and for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) pointed out. As a result, more than 3 million women stand to receive an average of £550 more a year by 2030.
I am sorry, but as I said, I will make some progress.
Under the state pension, outcomes are projected to equalise for men and women by the early 2040s, more than a decade earlier than they would have done under the old system.
The other important pillar of the 2016 state pension reforms was automatic enrolment. That was raised by my hon. Friends the Members for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra), for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford), for Broadland and for Heywood and Middleton. Automatic enrolment into workplace pensions has had a transformative effect on pension-saving participation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland pointed out, private savings for pensions went down under Labour.
Over 10.7 million people have been automatically enrolled into a pension by more than 2 million employers in every sector of the economy, seeing an additional £33 billion saved into workplace pensions each year compared with 2012. Automatic enrolment has helped many previously under-represented groups to begin pension savings, such as low earners, young people and women.
I will make a bit of progress; I have been quite generous on interventions.
We know that the coming months will be tough for everyone, but especially for pensioners. I thank all hon. Members who have raised cases on behalf of their constituents. The Government fully understand the difficulties that pensioners will face this winter and will stand by those in the most need. That is why the Government have made substantial support available for pensioners struggling with the cost of living this winter. As my hon. Friends the Members for Wantage (David Johnston) and for Gloucester (Richard Graham) pointed out, we have not heard much from the Labour Front-Bench team today about what their plan would be for this winter.
We have a plan that includes the £650 cost of living payment for those on pension credit to help with the rising cost of living. There is a £400 reduction on energy bills for all domestic electricity customers over the coming months and the £150 council tax rebate received by 85% of all UK households. Those on state pension will also receive an increased £500 winter fuel payment if they are under 80 or a £600 winter fuel payment if they are 80 or over. In total, that will mean that all pensioners receiving the state pension could receive up to £850 of additional support in the coming months and that pensioners on the lowest income who are claiming means-tested benefits will receive up to £1,500.
I will make a bit of progress and then come back to the hon. Gentleman.
Pension credit was raised by a number of Members, including the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mrs Hamilton), my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley and the hon. Members for Arfon (Hywel Williams) and for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood). My predecessor—the Minister for Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman)—put in a huge amount of work to increase awareness of pension credit. We have seen a significant increase in the number of claims, peaking at a 275% increase year on year during pension credit awareness week in June. We know, however, that only seven out of 10 people who are eligible to claim it do so. That means that £3,300 of additional support is not being claimed by around 850,000 households. Clearly, it would make a significant difference if even some of that money—totalling £1.7 billion—made its way into the pockets of the poorest pensioners.
The benefit of pension credit is that, as many Members have mentioned, it passports to an array of additional support, even when a person’s entitlement is very small. A pension credit recipient will receive a TV licence if they are over the age of 75 and get access to housing benefit and council tax support. The second half of the Government’s cost of living support—worth £324—will also be paid to all pension credit recipients. However, time is running out for those who have not yet claimed pension credit. The crucial date is 18 December. If someone claims pension credit by then and is eligible for the maximum three-month backdating, they will receive £324 of support to which they are entitled. It is therefore essential that all of us here urge our constituents to visit the pension credit page of gov.uk or to call the number listed to check eligibility of claim.
On automatic enrolment, the right hon. Member for East Ham and my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay raised an interesting idea. From the information that I have, the Government do not have the data to be able to do it, but I will definitely explore further the point about local government and what more we can do with data.
The Minister spoke about the extra support for pensioners—I think she said it was £850. Does she realise that that does not even cover the increase in the average energy bill, which has gone up from £1,100 to £2,500? More importantly, what does she think energy bills will be when the Government’s support ends come April?
That does not include the energy price guarantee.
As the Secretary of State set out to the House and as I said at the start of my speech, we cannot pre-empt the fiscal statement, but it is the Conservatives who have increased the state pension, it was the Conservatives who introduced automatic enrolment and it is the Conservatives who have reduced absolute pensioner poverty. This Government have always protected and will always protect the most vulnerable: that has been our track record since 2010, and that is what we will continue to do.
That this House calls on the Government to commit to maintaining the State Pension triple lock in financial year 2023-24 as promised in the Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto 2019.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Given that the House has just endorsed our motion opposing a further real-terms cut in the value of the state pension, and given that every Conservative Member who spoke endorsed the sentiment of our motion opposing a further real-terms cut to the state pension, could you advise me on how, should the Chancellor of the Exchequer ignore the will of the House next week, we could bring back this motion so that those Conservative Members who spoke out do not need to sit on their hands and could vote with us for their own manifesto commitment?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving notice of his point of order—he is such a gentleman. The House has clearly expressed its opinion today but, as he has rightly pointed out, there will be a financial statement on 17 November. We will wait to see what that financial statement says. I am absolutely certain that, should the Chancellor not do what the House has expressed, the right hon. Gentleman will be back at the Dispatch Box forthwith.