House of Lords
Wednesday, 30 March 2011.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds.
Viscount Hanworth made the solemn affirmation.
Schools: Physical Education
My Lords, Ofsted’s report Physical education in schools 2005/2008 found that the overall quality of teaching in physical education was good or better in two-thirds of the schools visited, although it was more variable in primary schools. The PE and Sport Survey 2009/10 found that 84 per cent of pupils aged five to 16 participated in at least two hours of physical education per week in curriculum time.
Sorry, I thank my noble friend for that Answer.
Will the Minister give me an assurance that the Government will look at whether the type of education is of sufficiently high quality to allow people in schools to access school-age sport outside? Making a link with amateur clubs is probably the best way of keeping people involved in sporting activity after the age of compulsory schooling.
I agree with my noble friend. I know that there is research by Sport England that shows that, as one would expect, the earlier that children get involved with sports outside school thorough clubs, the more likely they are to carry on participating after they leave, and that most children, when they leave school, stop participating in an organised way. Sport England is working with the governing bodies of, I think, 34 of the national sports bodies to try to find ways of building links between school and junior clubs and to increase the number of participants going into junior clubs. More generally, I agree with my noble friend that we need to try to make that transition better so that children can carry on into adulthood and get the benefit of sport.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, will know, our general approach is to encourage schools to take responsibility for encouraging sport in school. I take her point about the importance of this particularly for girls. We have discussed before that when one is talking about sport and physical activity in schools, it is important to realise that for a range of children, maybe girls particularly, traditional competitive sport and team games are not necessarily what is going to inspire every child. However, I take the noble Baroness’s point that it is important that we ensure that provision is there for all children of both sexes, particularly children with special education needs, to ensure that they get the chance to take part as well.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Addington for tabling this Question, not Answer. He and I jointly declare an interest because we are both such finely tuned athletes. [Laughter] Well, I am; I do not know about the noble Lord.
My hope is that the quantity and quality assessment of schools physical education is relevant and ties in, first, with the Department for Education’s announced £65 million worth of funding, for two school years from 2011 to 2013, to release secondary school physical education teachers to organise competitive sports and train primary school teachers; and, secondly, with Sport England’s—
My Lords, I am not sure I can attest to the state of the physical tuning of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, but I know he is extremely knowledgeable about the whole area of sport. I have a fancy that he may have played rugby at some point in the past, so there may be others who can attest to his physical force. On the questions raised by my noble friend, I very much agree that it is important that there is an emphasis on competitive sport. One of the hopes is that, through the school games that are being organised on the back of the fantastic opportunity provided by the Olympic and Paralympic Games, there will be an opportunity to get more competitive sport into schools. I very much agree with my noble friend.
The general point made by the noble Lord is a good one. If he knows of particular cases, I would be happy to talk to him about them. Generally, I am also aware that many schools are particularly good at making their sports facilities available outside school hours to the community more generally—not just to the schoolchildren. The more that those facilities can be shared in that way, and the more that children get the chance outside school hours to participate in the way that the noble Lord suggests, the better.
My noble friend the Minister will be aware that in deprived communities there are often children who show real talent in specialised sport, and find it very difficult to access county and team clubs because of the cost of travel and so on. Will the Minister look at ways in which we might support those young people in developing their talents further?
I take the point about the need to make sure that there are opportunities for talented children, particularly those from deprived backgrounds. I know that the noble Lord speaks with great authority from his own school. I would be very happy to talk to him about any ideas he might have.
Having just come off a tennis court, I make no claims to being as well tuned as two of the previous speakers. How will the Minister ensure that all these things will happen unless we have properly trained teachers? That is my concern. Where is the quality of training as people come into the teaching profession? We need it in both primary and secondary schools.
I very much agree about the importance of training, whether it is for PE or a whole range of other areas. One of the ways in which the money that the Government have put in will help is by paying for PE teachers from secondary schools to spend a day a week out of school, perhaps working particularly with primary schools to embed best practice there as well.
Further Education: 16 to 19 Year-olds
My Lords, we are committed to raising the participation age to 17 by 2013 and to 18 by 2015. We are protecting funding for 16 to 19 learning, expanding the number of apprenticeships for 16 to 18 year-olds to 131,000 and creating more training places. We are also doubling the number of UTCs and have announced a £180 million 16 to 19 bursary fund, which will be targeted towards those young people who most need support to continue their education and training post-16.
I thank the Minister for that, as ever, helpful reply. In terms of the bursary fund, will the £70 million shortfall be arrayed on the 16 to 19 budgets that are already there? The recent AoC inquiry looked at reasons why students were not staying on in colleges and found that, for 94 per cent of colleges, the reason was access to transport. Local authority after local authority is doing away with 16 to 19 transport. Will my noble friend please look at this, because there is no point having good colleges and good courses if the students cannot get there?
From the whole range of conversations that I have had with principals and with Members in another place from all parties who have brought them in to see me, particularly from rural areas, I am very aware that there are particularly acute transport provision issues, as my noble friend says. One of the points of the new discretionary fund, unlike the current one, is that schools and colleges will be able to make provision for transport. Local authorities have a statutory duty under the Education Act 1996 to set out what provision they are making for post-16 transport. However, I agree with my noble friend that that needs to be kept under review. We need to see what local authorities are doing and how they are discharging their duty and to bear in mind the importance of transport going forward.
Does the Minister agree that, in addition to the issues that have been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Willis, one of the key issues is having teachers who understand what trades and skills are required for apprenticeships? Most employers who are very keen on apprenticeships have this dilemma, as teachers do not understand and do not take young people through this route. We have a lot of information to give them.
I very much agree with the point that lies behind the noble Baroness’s question. There are two connected issues. One is to do with trying to make sure that children and young people are given impartial and independent careers advice. I know that there are concerns that schools not only might not have teachers who have an understanding of apprenticeships and the benefit of apprenticeships but might have an interest in advising the child in a way that is in the school’s interests financially, perhaps persuading them to stay on rather than saying that they would better placed in an apprenticeship. I accept the force of what she says. I know how much work the last Government did to encourage and promote the uptake of apprenticeships, which is very much a goal that we share.
My Lords, over and above the fact that apprenticeships are centrally important in delivering high-quality education, as well as a craft training experience, is it not very much to our benefit that they provide a contribution by employers to the process of education in this age group? Is it also not very encouraging that the Government seem in difficult times to have been able to make progressive improvements in that programme?
My Lords, I am glad that we have been able to make provision for an increased number of apprenticeships both at 16 and, in the Budget last week, at post-18. I agree with my noble friend. The benefits of good apprenticeship schemes are not just for the young people on them but for the employers and the businesses; it is very much two-way travel.
I am very much aware from conversations that I have had with a whole range of sixth-form heads and college principals how much value those institutions place on entitlement funding and what is able to be taught through the entitlement funding. I know therefore that the cuts in entitlement funding are a cause of concern to them. The Government decided that the key areas that we had to safeguard were those of the core academic and educational programme. If we can get to a point where funding in sixth-form colleges, FE colleges and school sixth forms is not tied to specific activity but goes to the college and the principal can spend it with discretion, in the same way as we are trying to do in schools, that will go some way towards addressing those concerns.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the very limited bursary scheme that he announced this week will deny financial support to hundreds of thousands of young people who currently receive the education maintenance allowance, who are all, by definition, living in very low-income households, and that all the Government are doing is taking money away from students in poor families to give it to only the very poorest, which is a political choice? Before he mentions deficit reduction, does he also agree that the cost will still fall on the Government through rising unemployment, leaving aside the cost that the young people and the families themselves will pay?
I know that the noble Baroness and Peers on the opposition Benches are very concerned about education and training and have worked extremely hard to promote it over a long period and that she and others are particularly concerned about unemployment among the 16 to 18 age group. Fortunately, in the last quarter that has fallen a little, but we need to keep going on it. I understand entirely why the EMA was set up and what the moral purpose behind it was. It was paid to 45 per cent of children, which is hard to define as a targeted form of assistance. Overall we have moved from a situation where it was an incentive payment to one where participation up to age 18 is to be compulsory. As the participation age is raised going forward, the argument for a broad scheme like that is weaker. Therefore, it is sensible to concentrate the money that we can afford on those who need help the most.
My Lords, may I put it to the Minister that the apprenticeship schemes are very welcome? The young apprentices learn practical skills on the factory floor but they must learn the theory in vocational colleges. I hope that places are made available for apprentices in those colleges.
Afghanistan: Women’s Shelters
My Lords, working with the United Nations, international partners, the Ministries of Justice and Women's Affairs in Kabul and Afghan civil society, we have reviewed the Afghan Government’s draft regulation on these centres and submitted our comments and concerns to the Afghan Government. We continue to monitor this issue closely.
I thank my noble friend the Minister for that reply. Does he agree with me that the shocking case of 18 year-old Bibi Aisha, featured on the cover of Time magazine, who had her nose and ears cut off after fleeing abusive family members, shocked the world and underlined the importance of independent women’s shelters in Afghanistan? Is he aware that President Karzai presides over a country where 87 per cent of Afghan women are illiterate and one in three Afghan women experience physical or sexual violence? Given the high financial and human cost of the war in Afghanistan, how can we in the West believe that Afghanistan really is a democracy and that things are getting better for Afghan women?
My noble friend is absolutely right to highlight the appalling conditions, the tragedies and the atrocities which are inflicted on many women in Afghanistan. Her Question was about women’s shelters, which were set up some years ago and were, basically, a very good idea, but recently there has been controversy because it appeared that the Afghan Government were seeking to control them in rather draconian ways. Some very brave women raised their voices firmly in saying that this was not the right way forward. I can tell my noble friend that the Afghan Ministry for Justice, following representations from many NGOs and many Governments, including this one, are working on a redraft of the regulations and are planning not to take over the shelters but to improve them. That must be a small step forward in a potentially hideous situation.
My Lords, I am sure you are all aware of the awful conditions which prevailed for women during the previous period. Many of them killed themselves because they could not go out to find money to feed their children. What worries me is that I am not sure that things have improved a great deal. I hope that the Government are putting some other matters together to make sure that the situation of Afghan women is getting better, that they are able to earn money and that they are able to feed their children. I am referring not so much to the married women as to the single women, who are the ones who suffer most.
Yes, that is absolutely correct. I think there are some small signs that one or two things are getting better, but there is a long way to go, as my noble friend on this side has just observed. The conditions for many younger women are appalling. An estimated 70 per cent of all marriages are still forced and half of all young married girls are under 15, which opens the way for victimisation and violence on an appalling scale. It is slightly improving, as the Government are under constant pressure to observe human rights standards and have committed themselves to the United Nations undertakings. There are efforts and we are going slowly forward, but it is still a very ugly situation.
My Lords, will the Minister publish the paper giving the comments and concerns that he said in his initial Answer had been the Government’s response? It would help the whole House if he were able to do that. Can he tell us what resources are available to our embassy in Kabul to make contact with women and help to develop women’s role in civil society in Afghanistan?
Resources are available. Our officials in Kabul are involved in regular meetings and there is one going on now to see whether the women’s shelter idea can be taken forward. That is a valuable input and we will continue to do more than monitor the situation by pressing for the right solution for women’s shelters and for protection of women generally. As for the publication of detailed pressures and exchanges, I will look at that, but sometimes the full publication of these exchanges undermines the degree of trust and confidence one needs to make progress. It may not work, but I will certainly look at it.
My Lords, given the gravity of the situation and the fact that Afghan women’s rights are likely to be eroded with further conversations about the Taliban coming back into government, does my noble friend agree with the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, some months ago that the UK Government should appoint an individual, or at least get the EU to appoint an individual, to go and look at the status of women’s rights in Afghanistan and to come back and continue to keep a watching brief on that until the transition is complete?
Again, that may be an idea, but a lot is going on already, as I think my noble friend is well aware. A number of countries and non- governmental organisations and a number of extremely brave and prominent women in the cause of women—Women for Women in Afghanistan, the Afghan Women’s Movement and many others—are all conducting what my noble friend calls a watching brief. If, on top of that, the appointment of an individual would help, I would consider it, but I suspect that the problem is not so much personnel watching and monitoring as getting pressure on the Government, on officials and on the culture of the country to overcome the horrors left behind by the Taliban attitudes to women, which were appalling.
Saudi Arabia: Human Rights
My Lords, following events elsewhere in the region, there have been a few very limited protests in Saudi Arabia. However, the Government have brought in a reform process and a national dialogue initiative to keep pace with the people’s wishes. We have serious concerns about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. We have made our views well known, including through the universal periodic review process, and we make those concerns clear to the Saudis at the highest levels, just as they are frank with us on issues that concern them.
I thank the Minister for his reply. Is he aware that thousands of detainees are held in Saudi prisons, without any charge, trial or representation—some for more than seven years, and a few for more than 13 years? The Minister will be aware of the recent concerns of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in relation to the arrests of peaceful demonstrators and the use of force against them. What is the position of Her Majesty's Government regarding arms and security sales, given recent events in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain? Will the Government review arms and security exports to Saudi Arabia until they are clear that UK equipment is not being used for internal repression?
All questions on arms exports are under review, as the noble Lord may know, and we have grave concerns about the use of crowd-control equipment. Because of those concerns, a review of the whole policy and practice of Her Majesty's Government on the export of equipment that could be used for internal repression—in particular, crowd-control goods—has been commissioned and is under way. As to the noble Lord’s question on Bahrain, the Saudi forces are there to protect installations—or so it is reported to me. That may not be 100 per cent accurate, but that is the intention. The Saudis share the same goals as the Government of Bahrain, which are, of course, to have a dialogue on reform and to address the concerns of the Bahraini people. That is very different from some other countries in the region. However, it is a tricky situation that we are watching very closely.
My Lords, my noble friend will no doubt be aware that the Saudi rulers have requested their clergy to issue a fatwa, stating that all democratic peaceful protests are un-Islamic. Does he agree that turning democracy into a religious issue sends a message to 1.5 billion Muslims that democracy is not an option open to them if they wish to adhere to their religion? Does he think that Saudi Arabia, given that attitude towards freedom, can any longer be trusted to pursue peace and stability in the Middle East?
Of course, as the noble Baroness recognises, there are attitudes that we do not like and seem to go against our values and views of how democracy should work. We do not miss any opportunity—in fact we take all opportunities—to put these matters frankly to the Saudi authorities and to other countries. One has to think in positive terms; the aim is to make progress by establishing trust, rather than by dismissing the efforts of certain countries and saying that they no longer qualify to operate or to make a sensible and responsible contribution to world affairs. The positive approach is the one that pays off in the end. While I recognise many of the worries that my noble friend articulates, I believe that the approach I am describing is the best one.
These are our values and these are the points that we put to the fore in our ongoing dialogue with the Saudi authorities. Because of certain relationships of trust and our close alliance, we are in a position to put those matters forward and get a hearing for them. I cannot measure precisely the amount of emphasis, but these issues are very much to the fore in all our dialogues.
My Lords, while it is true that Saudi troops have entered Bahrain simply to guard installations, does that not mean that the forces under the control of the Bahraini authorities are released from those duties and can engage in further internal repression?
When I mentioned that a moment ago, I did say that this was reported to me. I do not know whether it is 100 per cent accurate. However, I would slightly query the logic of my noble friend’s statement that this action releases Bahraini troops to indulge in internal repression. Bahraini troops may well have made some bad moves, which we ought to condemn strongly, but the overall strategy of the Bahraini authorities and the king is to establish a dialogue and address the grievances of the people. That is in total contrast to the pattern that we see, for instance, in Libya.
It is very hard to generalise. There are reformers in Saudi Arabia who are anxious to take the country forward. There are also very reactionary people who are trying to stop them. It is the reformers whom we need to identify and support. If we do, we may be able to make progress, as, ironically, was being made in Bahrain, which was one of the few countries that had quite lively democratic elections.
My Lords, it is now 30 minutes and Question Time is finished.
European Union Bill
Order of Consideration Motion
My Lords, I raise one small point on this matter. So far on this Bill we have had Second Reading. We have also had the allocated dates for the first and second days of Committee. The date of Second Reading was 23 March and the dates for Committee will be 5 April and 26 April. The one thing that these dates have in common is that they are all Tuesdays and therefore clash with the meeting of the European Union Select Committee of this House. It strikes me as rather absurd that we should discuss the European Union Bill on all three days when it clashes with your Lordships’ European Union Select Committee. I raise no objection to this Motion, but I ask the Leader of the House whether he can look at this and make sure that we do not downgrade the work of the Select Committees in the way that these arrangements do.
My Lords, in view of what happened on the Second Reading of this Bill, will my noble friend take this opportunity to remind noble Lords of their obligation to treat with courtesy all noble Lords in this House? Will he express the hope that there will be no repeat of what happened on Second Reading, and that if the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, rises to speak, he will be listened to with patience and respect even when he expresses views that others find very unpalatable?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, raises a very pertinent matter. Naturally, when the scheduling of business is carried out in negotiation with Her Majesty’s Opposition, all matters are taken into account, including the availability of Front-Bench spokesmen and the interests of the House itself. The noble Lord has raised a matter of which, of course, the usual channels are aware, and they are taking urgent action to resolve it. As the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, has indicated, it is important that all those in this House who have an interest in the Bill and who have expertise in such matters should have a full opportunity to participate in it. I assure the noble Lord that we are taking urgent measures, in negotiation with the Deputy Chairman of Committees, to ensure that his concerns are addressed.
My noble friend Lord Waddington raised the matter of the behaviour of Members of the House. I have had representations from all quarters of the House. Noble Lords expressed concern about the asperity not of speech but perhaps of manner on the occasion of the Second Reading of the European Union Bill. This is a matter that all Members of the House will care about. Members have also expressed wider concerns about the normal behaviour in the House. Discussions will proceed, and I know that all Members have at the core of their being a devotion to the House of Lords and to its continuance as an important place within Parliament.
My Lords, is the government Chief Whip aware that in the Second Reading debate on the Bill, I was sitting where I stand now, and the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, was immediately behind me. In the whole of the debate, I detected no sign of distress or concern on his part at the way in which he was treated. It seems to me that he took it in his usual good spirits. There was a fair amount of joshing and no harm was done. When the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, made his complaint, I did not understand it.
My Lords, I understand entirely the point made by my noble friend Lord Waddington. His concern is shared by Members across the House. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, draws attention to the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, is a redoubtable person in this House who is well used to the slings and arrows of the political arena and who is able to give as good as he gets. However, the wider concern of the House is that there should be respect during proceedings, and that we came close to a difficult point that we wish not to approach again.
My Lords, I was in attendance at the debate and was concerned at the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, was treated. The fact that he was able to take it with his usual good nature should not detract from the fact that some remarks were made in a spiteful way. That is not in accordance with the traditions of the House, and nor should it be. I am sure that the little debate this afternoon will be taken note of, and that future debates on European Union matters will be a little less vicious.
Warm Home Discount Regulations 2011
Motion to Approve
Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Regulations 2011
Motion to Approve
Pensions Bill [HL]
Clause 1 : Equalisation of and increase in pensionable age for men and women
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 6, leave out “December 1953”” and insert “April 1955””
I shall speak also to the other amendments in the group. Their detail may appear a little intricate, but their effect should be clear and straightforward. The amendments provide for the retention of the existing timetable for the equalisation of state pension age of men and women at age 65, but to bring forward the increase in the state pension age to 66 for both, in stages, between 2020 and 2022. Noble Lords will be aware that the Pensions Act 1995 provides for the gradual rise of women's state pension age from 60 to 65 over a 10-year period from 2010 to 2020. Also, as part of what we might call the Turner settlement and to pay for re-linking the basic state pension to earnings, the Pensions Act 2007 provided for the SPA to increase to 66 between 2024 and 2026, and then to 67 and 68 in the subsequent two decades.
The Bill also brings forward the increase in the state pension age to 66, but it would be completed between November 2018 and April 2020. Because the increase for men cannot run ahead of women's state pension age, the Government have put themselves in a position where they have to accelerate the date for equalisation of the SPA to November 2018, thereby disturbing the settled timetable of the 1995 Act. The Government propose to move to a state pension age for women of 65 by November 2018, rather than March 2020. The acceleration for that begins in May 2016. Between November 2018 and March 2020, the state pension age will rise for both men and women to 66.
What the Government seek to do is a clear breach of the coalition agreement, which committed that the state pension age for women would not start to rise to 66 until 2020. Had it been honoured, we could have reached a consensus on the way forward. Our amendments accept an acceleration of the move to a state pension age of 66, bringing it forward four years from the current timetable, but because that does not need to start until 2020, when men and women will each have a state pension age of 65, there is no need to change and no justification for changing the 1995 provisions.
The Government’s proposals affect nearly 5 million people, about 2.6 million of them women. Of those 2.6 million, 1.5 million women will have to wait a year longer for their pension, of which 500,000 will have to wait more than a year, including 300,000 for more than 18 months and 33,000 for exactly two years. Those first affected will have just five years’ notice. Our amendments would affect 1.2 million fewer people; they would affect approximately equal numbers of men and women; and no one would have to wait more than an extra year for their pension. There would be a minimum of nine years’ notice for all those whose state pension age will change.
Before expanding on our reasons for that proposition, let me reiterate, as I said in Committee, that we do not dispute the updated information concerning life expectancy and the need to change the status quo. We further recognise that the current timetable for increasing the state pension age to 67 and 68 is unlikely to survive. Whether the Chancellor's wish for a more automatic process to update that will achieve a consensus will depend on what view is taken of such matters as fair notice periods and health inequalities.
It is also accepted that our amendment would achieve only two-thirds of the savings that the Government hope to secure by drawing the line where they have. Our proposition is the same as option 2 in the impact assessment. We will hear from the Government, as we did in Committee, that we cannot forgo the difference of some £11 billion in DWP savings, but let us put this in context. This is a net present value, not an annual figure. The DWP savings forgone on our proposition are spread over about five years and do not exceed £1 billion until 2018-19, with the differential between the two propositions disappearing in 2022-23. These are not small sums, but need to be seen in the context of a GDP which might then be some £2 trillion with annual spending on pensions and benefits of £100 billion a year. The timing of the savings is outside the Government’s deficit reduction plan. The savings are all outside this Parliament and significantly outside the one that follows.
One cannot ignore the medium or long term, particularly on pensions, but intergenerational judgments also involve assessing who is to bear the pain now. Savings to the Government and future taxpayers are pensions forgone by the 5 million individuals, the majority of them women, who are hit by these proposals. If intergenerational issues are to be judged on the basis of the number of years in receipt of state pension or the proportion of adult life spent in receipt of state pension, the impact assessment shows little difference between the Government’s position and our amendment.
We contend that any changes to state pension age have to be reasonable and fair and should not disadvantage any group disproportionately. The Government’s proposals fail this test. Women’s pension age is rising by up to two years; no man will see more than a one-year rise. Some women are being given six years’ notice of a two-year change; men are being given seven years’ notice of a one-year increase. Forty per cent of women in the age group affected by these proposals have no private pension wealth. Many who were part-time workers were excluded from occupational pension schemes until the 1990s. Women’s pension assets are only one-tenth of those of men. Women are more likely to take on caring responsibilities and to have reduced their hours of work or left the labour market on the expectation of a pension at a fixed date. Just on these issues, it is difficult to see that they have not been disproportionately disadvantaged by the Bill.
Of course, it is not possible to redress all the historic disadvantages women have endured in pension provision, but reasonable notice periods for changes to the state pension age is clearly one way of allowing maximum time to adjust. The 1995 Act gave 15 years’ notice. The 2007 Act gave 17 years’ notice. This Bill gives five years’ notice. What is reasonable notice can be judged in part by looking at attachment to the labour market. Analysis shows that women tend to leave the labour market earlier than men. In 2010, 65 per cent of women aged 55 to 59 were still economically active, but by age 60 to 64 this declined to 34 per cent. If individuals are to be able to respond to changes to their economic circumstances caused by a deferral of their pension, they need to know before they make irrevocable decisions about their employment. This assumes that individuals are in a position to mitigate their pension loss by continuing in or rejoining the labour market. We know this is more difficult for some than for others. The impact assessment suggests that ethnic minority groups in particular will be adversely affected. Analysis shows that notice for men should be at least five years and, ideally, 10 years, and for women it should clearly not be less. It will be noted that even our amendment offers only nine years, which is just on the cusp of what should be acceptable.
The Government are right to address the consequences of increasing life expectancy. The much-lauded triple lock has to be paid for, but the Government have gone about it in the wrong way and will cause great unfairness, particularly to women. This group of amendments offers a fairer alternative. I beg to move.
My Lords, first, I apologise to the House that due to a previous commitment I was not present to support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, in Committee.
As other noble Lords have said, there are a number of changes which we welcome, not least that auto-enrolment into occupational pensions will in future help more people to save for retirement. However, as we all know, both from individual letters we have received and from organisations such as Age UK, Saga, the TUC and others, considerable numbers of women are very concerned. A total of some 2.6 million women are affected by all this, and they are very concerned at the Government’s proposed acceleration of the state retirement age. To be fair, they had certainly not expected such a step.
I am sure it will not surprise the House to learn that I want to concentrate on the adverse effect that some of the Bill’s proposals will have on women, particularly on those turning 57 in March and April this year who will now have to wait until they reach 66 to receive the state pension they have contributed to during their working lives. They have had less than eight years’ notice of an additional two years without that state pension. Equally, we need, as the noble Lord has already said, to face two realities: first, that our parlous economic situation will inevitably reduce everybody’s quality of life, and secondly, the realisation that our increasing longevity means that all of us will in future have to work longer to earn a decent state retirement pension. However, we shall as well be seeing—I hope, as finance improves—far more effective equal opportunity practices available at all workplace levels for both sexes, which should mean that men as well as women can genuinely share rather more of the family responsibilities. That in particular is why I want to support the noble Lord’s amendments, for it seems to me that they have indeed faced these realities. On economic as well as longevity grounds, they do not ask for the full commitment which the coalition Government’s agreement promised to give to women to be fully honoured, but merely for a slight increase in what the Government themselves propose. For that reason, I really hope that when the Minister replies he will feel able to accept that compromise.
I have to admit that my own preference would be for the commitment to be fully honoured. In my early days as deputy chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission in the 1970s, pensions were not even perceived as pay. I am glad to say that that situation was very soon seen to be untenable.
I return to what is proposed. A total of some 2.6 million women are affected. Of those, 33,000 women born in the 1953-54 period will see their state pension age increased by at least 18 months. It is estimated that those women will lose around £10,000. We need to remember, too, that when these women were first in the workforce, there were far fewer and far less well-paid jobs available to them than there are in today’s world, especially when they needed to work part-time or flexibly when children or other family members needed care. Two different illustrative figures bring this home very starkly. Women retiring in 2009-10 had on average a state pension of £92 compared with the average male state pension of £124. For those who were lucky enough to be involved in private pensions, an average man’s private occupational savings when aged 56 were £53,000 or nearby, which is no less than six times higher than the woman’s average total of £9,000.
When we consider the just and fair thing to do in this situation, we all need to accept who bore the responsibility for bringing up the generation of healthy, well adjusted young people who are today those responsible for paying our state pension entitlement. We also have to remember that none of the savings that the Government claim to be making will be made during this period of major financial crisis. So why victimise this already exceedingly vulnerable group of women—the poorer they are, the more they will suffer—when no actual money will be saved during this Parliament and not least when, realistically, the likelihood of women in this age group finding or keeping jobs is minimal?
If you add to all that the fact that, in our move towards a unisex retirement age—it is likely to be further increased as our longevity increases—we are asking women to increase their current earlier retirement age by a huge leap of six years compared to the one year expected of men, which was lower than that of men to compensate for the handicap of women in the workplace as a result of their family responsibilities, frankly, we should all be ashamed of doing anything less than what is proposed in these amendments.
My Lords, perhaps I may respond briefly to this amendment, having spoken on these matters in Committee. It provides a convenient opportunity to differentiate comments that I might make on this amendment from those that I might make on a subsequent amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, on the impact on women. I have felt on reflection since I considered the exchanges in Committee that there is an increasing, and I think more intensely felt, acceptance on my part that we have to get on with this and therefore, in order to raise money, accelerate the equalisation of the state pension age. Because of the doctrines that we have on equal treatment, it is only at that point that we are able to effect an increase in the overall unisex state retirement age towards 66 and perhaps at a later stage further in the way that the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, reasonably accepted.
We know that we have to get on with this and that we have to wrestle with longevity, which has already knocked sideways the assessments under the Pensions Act 2007. While I am aware that we are not discussing private pensions in this part of the Bill, I happened to see some figures the other day on the universities superannuation scheme that totally struck me. They suggested that since 1973 the average pension age has gone up by 13 years. We are not dealing with a static situation; we are dealing with a rapidly exploding situation in people’s state and, where they have them, private pension entitlements on account of longevity.
Therefore, again as the noble Lord very reasonably said, this raises some interesting and rather intense issues about intergenerational transfers. Either we can redistribute this—we might both perhaps wish to return to that in a later group—or we have to consider pushing some of the burden on to today’s working population and taxpayers. It is perfectly true that none of these amendments—even on the Government’s proposed timescale towards equalisation, which I accept is rather rapid—cuts into the present deficit reduction programme, the present Parliament or the immediate outcome of dealing with the crisis.
Nevertheless, we have this inexorable march forward. If we do not do something about it now, particularly if we are anxious to give the maximum possible notice, it will not be possible to tackle the pensions problem before it overwhelms us. The only people who could end up paying for this are our children and our grandchildren through their taxes because of the pay-as-you-go system. We have to grasp the nettle now.
I do know—I was rather appalled at the estimates of costs in Committee—that the noble Lord’s amendment would cost some £10 billion a year. It is a small proportion of the savings which the Government have set out in their indication of the savings. The noble Lord is shaking his head.
The noble Lord is entirely right to correct me. I had added the words “per annum”, which are not in the calculations. However, it is still a very substantial sum, and I do not think that Governments at the present juncture can forgo that. To put it another way, they would have to find an alternative means of financing even proposals that I put forward in Committee, which we may touch on later. Those were alleged to be likely to cost £7 billion, which, frankly, is rather more than I had anticipated or indeed would be sustainable. We are into a difficult calculation, but we cannot, in the circumstances of longevity, responsibly countenance the noble Lord’s amendment as it is at the moment. However, if for some reason the figures are not as pessimistic as we thought, I would very much like to hear my noble friend’s response when the time comes.
My Lords, I have put my name to these amendments because I want to talk about the speed with which the goalposts are being moved and the unfairness between individuals that that represents. I speak as the Bishop who has had major responsibility for changes to the Church of England clergy pensions scheme and the reduction in benefits that is involved in that. I have had to present those to the General Synod and I bear some of the scars for doing so. I am under no illusions as to the difficulty of this task for the Government.
I fully accept the arguments for equalisations and those based on longevity to which the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, has just been speaking. Change is needed, but I cannot accept that this speed of change is necessary. From my own experience, from my clergy postbag, and from my postbag about the Bill, I know that the two things that potential pensioners most resent are changes to their expectations with comparatively little notice and perceived unfairness. These proposals fail under both those headings, and the amendments put forward by the noble Lord do much to mitigate that unfairness and failure.
Individuals find changes in pension planning extremely complex and difficult to implement on a personal level. Many of the women who are affected here have taken time out to care for elderly parents, having worked long enough to qualify for the full pension. They have done that deliberately and they have responsibly assessed the way in which they are approaching retirement. Now they are simply being told, with only five to seven years’ notice, that they will have to cope on existing resources for one or two more years than they had anticipated—and than they had been told to anticipate as recently as the last changes in 2007. That is actually draconian for a group of individuals, notably the women, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, who were born in that month of March to April 1954. They face an immediate two-year increase in their state retirement age. Some 33,000 women are unfortunate enough to have been born in a particular month. It is not a tiny number, although it may be a small proportion of those who in one way or another will see a reduction in their pension expectation through the timetable of the Bill. We are often exhorted to plan carefully for retirement. It is understandable that people see little point in doing so if, for some, the goalposts are then moved to the other end of the pitch. This may not technically be retrospective legislation, but in practice that is exactly what it is for a significant number of women.
It causes changes to expectations at short notice and, secondly, unfairness. The proposals as they stand create a situation in which a woman born in 1950 obtained her pension in 2010 whereas her sister, born in 1954 and four years younger, has to wait until 2020 for hers—a six-year increase in the pension age, the best part of a decade between the times these sisters receive their pensions. When we look at the figures, it is easy to see the need for change, but we must also take account of the unfairness that that creates between neighbours, family groups and work colleagues, and the tension and pressure on friendships and relationships. That is why we need to think again on the timetable. The changes in the Bill bring no additional savings until 2016. The savings do not contribute to tackling the present economic crisis. It is a matter of justice for a significant number of women that we change that timetable today.
My Lords, I, like others, very much support these amendments. I have here the coalition programme for government, drawn up 10 months ago. On page 26, it makes seven promises on pensions relating to the earnings link, the Hutton review, a review on early access and so on. I agree with almost all of them and the coalition Government are honouring almost all of them—which is great—except for one. The coalition programme states:
“We will phase out the default retirement age and hold a review to set the date at which the state pension age starts to rise to 66, although it will not be sooner than 2016 for men and 2020 for women”.
I agree with the coalition programme on that too: it is a clear and reasonable promise that was made just 10 months ago. We need to equalise, in a steady way, and that coalition commitment would have delivered that. Now in this Bill, just a few months later, that key coalition agreement promise—the one that most directly affects women, and poorer women at that—has been torn up and junked.
Whereas women before 2016 are seeing their pension age rise gradually, in steps of one year for every two years, suddenly from 2016 the rate at which their pension age is deferred extends, so that they have to wait three years instead of two and four years instead of three. From then on, half a million women will have to wait more than one year for their pension, 300,000 for more than a year and a half and 33,000—as the right reverend Prelate emphasised—for two years. It means that Susan, born in March 1953, will reach pension age at 63 in 2016. Her cousin Barbara, born a year later in March 1954, will reach pension age in March 2020, when she will be 66—one year younger, and she waits a further four years for her pension. Is that fair? Of course not. Is it necessary? The Government ran two arguments in their impact analysis and in Committee: first, given the deficit, that we need to find savings even from the pensions of the poorest women to sustain fiscal futures; and secondly, given increasing life expectancy, that we need to raise the pension age faster than anticipated.
Neither of these arguments, in my view, is valid. Given the deficit and the need to find savings—as has been mentioned by my noble friend Lord McKenzie and others today—and given that this acceleration starts in only 2016, we are already beyond the deficit period. Anticipated savings of £30 billion—virtually all from women—are not part of the four-year plan. Is it necessary, however, for longer-term fiscal stability? In the longer term, yes; it is the speed that we are objecting to and the unfairness for women dependent on the month in which they are born as to whether they get a reasonable or a very bad deal from the state. It is a lottery, my Lords. The Government, unlike the markets, should not engage in lotteries with people’s pensions.
As for fiscal sustainability, there are plenty of options, including, for example, treating pensions like ISAs—taxing them on the way out, which would save rather more money than this. As for increased longevity—the other argument made by the Government—the stats were known 10 months ago when this coalition promise was given. Indeed, the Marmot report of just last December pushes the argument the other way. As we know, the gap between men and women’s longevity is closing fast. That is good. But for healthy, disability-free years, the Marmot report shows that the difference between social class 1—the best-off—and social class 5 is 17 years. That is in a report to the Government—a difference of 17 years in healthy, disability-free life expectancy. In other words, it is poverty and not just gender that most determines healthy life expectancy.
Poorer women not only do not live so long as the better-off but have fewer years of their reduced life expectancy free from disability. It is precisely these women, and some men—those at the bottom, the poorest with the poorest health—who will be most hurt by these proposals. We will be making them poorer still. The two arguments of the Government—savings and fiscal stability, and increased longevity—are either not relevant or not new. The coalition programme, with eyes open just 10 months ago, entered into a promise that could and should be honoured.
Whom will this change hurt? Not so much the women who want to continue to work; not so much the women with good occupational pensions. Neither of those groups is so dependent on the state pension. The ones who will be hurt—the right reverend Prelate has already indicated this—are the women who all their lives have juggled part-time jobs and caring responsibilities for their children, their grandchildren so that their daughter can work, and now their own frail elderly parents.
One-third of women between 55 and 59 are not employed. Why? This is because half of them are disabled or in poor health, and over half the rest have family responsibilities including caring. They will have no other income but their state pension. It is on the backs of these women—the poorest, the frailest, and those with the heaviest burden of home care—that the Government propose to save much of their £30 billion. Such women are not going to rejoin the labour market, despite the absurdly optimistic figures in the impact assessment. Their health is not always good, their skills are out of date, and their confidence is low. Few employers will want them in the labour market. Instead, these women will linger longer on lower benefits, finally entering retirement later, poorer and more defeated than before.
Your Lordships—all of us, I hope—have always been among the first to protect such women, recognising the value of their unwaged work for their families, and recognising their vulnerability as disabled people. We know that the Government are not only forsaking a coalition agreement made 10 months ago but, worse, forsaking thousands of women who have done their best for their families and society over the years. That is not right. Your Lordships have protected such women in the past. I hope that they will continue to do so today by supporting my noble friend’s amendment.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, make a persuasive case, but I would refer to it as a persuasive case in an ideal world. First, no alternative way of saving the present value sum of £10 billion has been offered. Secondly, the real priority is to move to a much better state pension at 70—as many noble Lords have commented, entailing an acceleration in the increase of the retirement age. I was interested, turning on the radio in my car the other day, to hear various people in their mid-50s being interviewed who all said that they expected to work until 70 as a matter of course. Perhaps people are somewhat ahead of the two legislatures.
I cannot deny that there is an apparent unfairness here but, without giving offence, I hope, I point out that my wife was one of the lucky ones in getting a state pension at 60—she was just on the cusp, whereas a lot of her friends had to wait a lot longer—but I do not get one until 65 although I am likely to live two and half years less than her. Historically there has been enormous unfairness in the provision of state pensions regarding men and women. Men, who lived shorter, had to wait longer for their pensions. That is going to be ended as pensions are brought into line and made the same for both sexes, but I do not think that I ever heard people complaining on behalf of men that they were getting an unfair deal in relation to women.
One has to accept the idealistic fairness of the case, but £10 billion has to be raised and the priority for all of us is to move towards a much better pension for all at 70. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, pointed out, for the many women who will continue to work, whether to 65, 70 or 75, this will not have a huge effect; it will have a bigger effect on those women not in a position to do so. It is potentially better to deal with that problem by means of the welfare reforms that are going through than to delay the bringing together—or, in fact, the acceleration—of the retirement ages for men and women.
My Lords, I support the idea that these changes to the pension age are going too fast. There was a successful film recently called “Made in Dagenham”, which helped to bring home to a new generation of women how much the gender equality gap had changed. It pointed up the distance that women have come today from what they called the bad old days of discrimination. Look at us today, the film said; we enjoy much greater equality, and now we have the law on our side to back us up. Barbara Castle featured in the film, brilliantly played, and she was feisty in her defence of equality for women. The film assumed that the audience who saw it would feel that the story was complete and that equality was an accepted part of our society.
Therefore, it is sad to see a necessary piece of legislation going through that harps on the idea that women will just have to put up with this new piece of discrimination. Half the population of this country are highly tuned to notice what happens to women and the disadvantages that are placed on their lives. Women have more complicated lives than men, as we know; they take time out to have children, to nurse older people and to create stable households—an ideal that I know the Government hold precious. Women therefore need consideration in the pattern of their lives that the amendment seeks to improve.
Bringing in this change to the pension age is extremely important; it is evident that we are an ageing population and we will all of us have to work longer. It is the method by which we bring that about that calls for nuance. Nobody is challenging the fact that we are getting older. Nobody is challenging the fact that, as the noble Lord said, men have been disadvantaged. We do not want them to be disadvantaged; we want people to be treated fairly and equally, and we want gender-free legislation.
This legislation is not gender-free. It cannot be said too often. My colleagues on these Benches have said so already. Listen to the numbers: one-third of a million women will see their state pension age rise by 18 months. Thirty-three thousand will see it increase by two years. It is not just those women who are affected by this but their children, families, neighbours and other women. Women are very aware of legislation that goes against them. It is unfair—we can see that it is. Women are being penalised out of the blue because the Government are rushing forward with pension proposals that need slower and fairer introduction.
One of the Government’s flagship aspirations is to get people to show a greater personal responsibility. That is an excellent thing but how can people do that—how can they plan for their old age, which will take a lot of complicated financial arranging as people live far longer—in so short a time? Indeed, as people age and begin to look forward to their retirement, they formulate attitudes towards it that are hard to change. They see it coming towards them; they make allowances for the time it will give them to look after their own, by now very aged, parents. They may feel they deserve to see a reward coming towards them for a life of hardship and trouble. I know people feel this because they write to me, as they do to my fellow Peers. They complain in their letters that it is an outrage.
This is not a matter of discrimination that will go on in the way that the film showed discrimination operating in the 1960s and 1970s and earlier. We know that this is a transition and one that is important. Of course we have to move to a fairer system. We will all work to 70 and things will eventually come right. However, is it legitimate to see them coming right at the expense of a group of poor and disadvantaged women, who somehow have to be sacrificed on the altar of this speedy operation? In this case there is an alternative.
My Lords, I, too, am concerned about what the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, described as disproportionate disadvantage. I am concerned about women, the great carers in our society—the people who care about the members of their family who are perhaps more vulnerable or dependent and need extra support. They are the people who, because they care so much, are willing to give up their time and perhaps work part-time. I belonged for a period to the Standing Commission on Carers. A survey was reported to the standing commission in its first year which found that the vast majority of family carers are indeed women. It found that when women care, they are more likely to work part-time or give up their occupation, and that men who cared did so extremely well but for fewer hours. Caring was much less likely to impact on their employment hours.
This change is being made too quickly and comes too soon. I acknowledge that, on the face of it, women live longer and that it is perhaps anomalous that their current pension age is lower. Yesterday I met the carers’ forum at the Royal College of Psychiatrists. It was made up of 12 people who represent carers of sons, daughters, partners and elderly parents with different mental health conditions. Some cared for somebody in their family with a learning disability or autism. The majority of them were women. I asked them how this change, and the speed of this change, would affect people in their position. They represent carers of people with mental health conditions, and they made some very important points quite forcibly.
They said that pension equality is fine, but that perhaps it should come into effect when society is more equal—when women start getting equal pay and occupational pensions, and particularly when men begin to share the caring burden more equally. They support the right of carers to work; they recognise the role of work as respite. They wanted me to stress the importance of not underestimating the effect on carers of a rapid change in their pensionable age when they might have made decisions about caring and occupation in anticipation of an earlier pension age. They talked about the need for health and strength to be an effective carer and the insidious nature of caring—the way in which it can lead to so much tiredness and often depression. They said: “Adrenalin keeps us going when we are caring. But sometimes when our caring responsibilities end, that is the moment when we ourselves begin to experience health problems which we have been storing up during those caring years”.
These are people who have saved the country huge amounts of money through giving up their own occupation and their own time to care and support more vulnerable members of their families. I appreciate that, in a good carers strategy, it might well be that welfare reform will attend to carers’ needs. What they would have liked as carers is a flexible pension that took account of individual need rather than assuming the same age was right for everybody. However, I support these amendments. The speed of change is too rapid particularly for this very vulnerable group, who represent a significant number of people if it is true that as many as a sixth of this particular age group are at the moment affected or carers, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, suggested.
My Lords, I have not intervened in these debates so far, and I hope that I will be forgiven for doing so now. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, will welcome what I am going to say, but he will be pleased to know that I will support his amendments. So far I have left things to people who are more expert than I am in these matters, but today I want to support these amendments. It is quite intolerable that women should be required to wait longer for a proper pension provision which was, as we have heard, promised to them in the coalition agreement.
We have heard quite a lot this afternoon about the cost. It is £10 billion apparently. It seems that the Government will find that difficult to find. However, I notice that, over the weekend, our Prime Minster committed the Government and the British taxpayer to a £7 billion bailout of Portugal. When money can be found for one purpose, it seems to be there, but when it needs to be found for another good purpose, it is not there. Not so long ago, we committed this country to loaning the Irish Republic £3 billion to help to deal with its economic circumstances. This is all very well if you have the money to do it. However, according to the Government, we have not got the money to honour the promise that was made to the women of this country. That is intolerable. However, there is more to it than that. I also noticed yesterday that the amount of our contribution to the European Union in net terms has moved up from £8.3 billion to £9.3 billion. That is not just for one year; that extra £1 billion will have to be paid from now on, so by 2018 we will have paid an extra £8 billion. We could almost meet this cost from the additional money that we have to pay to the European Union budget. However, that money will be found; it will have to be found, so why on earth cannot we find money for our own women in this country?
There is another point. The coalition agreement stated that the overseas aid budget should rise by £3.5 billion—I believe by 2012. That, too, will be an ongoing commitment, year in and year out. A lot of money is being spent to relieve other people but we are not prepared to do our own women justice. I know that I might be criticised for my remarks about overseas aid. I am a great supporter of overseas aid and believe that this country has made extremely good provision in that regard. However, it has to be shown to provide value for money. Noble Lords will have noted that a much more significant figure than myself—the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson—has raised this very point. He has said, and I agree with him, that the money which is paid in overseas aid must be subject to proper control, be seen to be value for money and should not go to the leaders of the relevant countries but to the people of those countries. Those words should be taken seriously.
I certainly support these amendments. In so doing, I believe that I am supporting the women of this country. The argument that we do not have the money is a spurious one, as it appears that we have plenty of money to give to other people outside this country.
My Lords, before I say a word or two about this particular group of amendments, I want to say a few words about the opposition to these proposals as a whole and the manner in which it has been expressed. I refer to the opposition outside this Chamber, not within it. It is interesting to note the advocacy that has reached our ears from a huge number of organisations that have put a lot of effort into researching and tackling the issues before us. In any normal protest, you hear two questions: “What do you want and when do you want it?”. I suspect that the answer to the second question, which is always “now”, cannot be applied to pensions. This is the issue with which many of us are having to wrestle. How do you plan for the future? How do you anticipate the future? How do you look at the future? How do you predict what will happen in the years to come? The standard answer is, “We would not be starting from here”. However, pensions reform in this country has been very slow in coming. Where it has happened, people have realised that they should have done it a lot earlier, so there will always be change and acceleration and the interests of a future generation will always have to be taken into account. It is that future generation that we have to bear in mind in this group of amendments. As the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, said, we are talking about intergenerational issues, and that is the issue that we will have to face—a smaller number of younger people having to pay for a larger number of older people. The question cannot be avoided; we have to answer it.
In Committee there were amendments to this section of the Bill not only from the Conservative Benches, but from the Labour Benches and from us, all of which were differently phrased, but all of which sought to look at some very specific issues. It would be nice to have gender-free pensions language, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, said. We cannot do that until such time as we have equality in the pension age. We have to arrive at that point before we can have gender-free language. It would be very nice for men to be able to contribute, and perhaps there may be a way for men to contribute in the longer term, which is something that we ought to be saying at this stage for the future. We may be able to look at those issues, and the Minister may be able to suggest some avenues.
Two specific issues were raised in Committee. It is the most vulnerable who are, of course, the least vocal in our society. Perhaps that is one reason why we have had not vocal protest but advocacy protest about some of these measures. It is the most vulnerable in our society who are going to be affected—those with no private pension savings, no partner’s pension to rely on, and for whom the personal state pension is the key. They are about 14 per cent of the women in the whole cohort and this 14 per cent of women shows why it is so important to have a good single-tier pension.
I welcome the announcement in the Budget of a £140 basic state pension because that is a huge rise. Can the Minister give us some more flesh on the bones of what the Chancellor said about this? He is smiling because this is an issue that I have constantly raised with him—that the replacement should be a basic provision for all which is both gender-free and acceptable to everyone: everyone can receive it. I hope that this big increase in the basic state pension will deal with some of the issues about the most vulnerable.
Secondly, there was the issue of inequity for the group of people who were born in 1953, 1954 or 1955. These are the people for whom there will be inequitable treatment compared with other women in their cohort. We have already heard about the sister; the right reverend Prelate gave the most extreme example earlier. We need to hear from the Minister that there is a solution for these people. Given the level of interest in this matter, how will he acknowledge and address this inequity? I hope that he will acknowledge it in his response to this group and a subsequent group of amendments.
A variety of solutions were put forward in Committee, some of which we will be debating and reflecting on today, but at this stage we must reflect the fact that this set of amendments will put more taxation on our children and those who follow us. They will have to pay for that intergenerational change and it is always going to be the same as this progresses. We have to make a judgment as to what is the right amount that our children should have to pay to make this easier.
Finally, if you are trying to predict at the moment what your pension might be and when your pension age might come and you go on to the Government’s website to find out, you will still find the existing proposals. It would be worth having the website reflect more strongly that changes are proposed and give some indication of what those changes might be, so that people who will be thinking about these matters during the course of the Bill will be able to see the changes that affect them. We need transparency and I hope that the Minister will address that.
My Lords, this set of amendments puts forward the first of two alternative routes to achieving a combined retirement age at 66. We shall discuss the second route in the next group of amendments, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, and the noble Baroness for giving us a further opportunity to debate the issues that the amendments in this group raise. Let me start by saying that we are not insensitive to the impact that our timetable will have on the women who will face a much steeper increase in their state pension age than they were expecting. We also appreciate that we are asking them to make this adjustment with less notice than we would provide in an ideal world. However, for reasons that I shall explain, we are not in an ideal world, as my noble friend Lord Flight has just said. We remain of the view that, although this is a genuinely difficult decision, it is still the right one.
Yes, I will try to address that now. If we were to look for funding by asking men and women, after their pension ages were combined at age 66, to go on for a little later than 66, the sums of the adjustment—although it is not easy to do them—would be roughly £330 million a year per month. It would depend on how many years you have. I will write to my noble friend and try to spell out the figures on making that adjustment.
Let me revert to the amendment, which is fundamentally the same proposition that the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, made in Committee. I shall recapitulate why—notwithstanding the many concerns that we heard today and in Committee—we believe that we are taking the right course of action. It is common ground all around the House that we simply cannot go on ignoring the increases in life expectancy and the pressure that this puts on the state pension system now and in the future. Indeed, these amendments acknowledge that we need to move faster than the timetable that was set earlier. The impact of the upward revision in the life-expectancy projections is an extra £6.5 billion in state pension spending over the lifetime of just that cohort retiring in 2010.
As many noble Lords have pointed out, the amendment would cost the public purse upwards of £10 billion that would need to be found elsewhere. When the coalition Government came into power, we had not only to combat the huge financial debt the UK was in at that time, but put the country on a sound financial footing for the future.
I remind noble Lords that the financing of old age as a whole is the single biggest structural, long-term economic issue facing this country. We need to address the long-term costs of our pension system and ensure that we can deal with any wider economic problems that may appear on the horizon—a point made by my noble friends Lord Boswell and Lord German.
We expect public debt to be on a declining path by 2015-16, but it will still be well above pre-crisis levels. By the end of this Parliament, we will still have a national debt of £1.3 trillion. Waiting until 2020 to start moving to retirement at 66 would reduce the savings that we are looking for by a third—£10 billion off a total of £30 billion. That is the equivalent of reducing the education budget by 10 per cent over the spending review period, or one year’s capital budget for health. We have not yet heard a plausible alternative that would deliver those savings—with apologies, perhaps, to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. This is not an insignificant amount of money that we can easily pass up.
We believe it is right that those people who will benefit from recent increases in life expectancy make a contribution to the additional cost that comes from those longevity improvements. Women, no less than men, have benefited from increases in life expectancy. In three generations, projected average life expectancy at age 65 has risen by nine years for women. At the same time, women’s basic state pension outcomes have been rapidly catching up with those of men and continue to improve. In 2006, only 30 per cent of women retired on a full basic state pension. In 2010-11, that figure has increased to around 75 per cent. The projection is for it to reach 90 per cent by 2018, which is a big change-around in the support that older and retired women will get.
On the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, we have also taken action to ensure that the state continues to provide a decent income for people when they retire, with the state pension supported by the triple lock and key support elements for pensioners protected, such as free TV licences, cold-weather payments maintained at £25 and so on.
As the Chancellor has now officially announced, we will be consulting shortly on proposals for a simpler state pension, which will boost state pension outcomes further for the groups which are traditionally disadvantaged in the current system by low earnings and by interruptions, which is a point that several noble Lords have made. I have been challenged by my noble friend Lord German to talk more about the single tier. Every time we meet, I think there is more discussion on it than on anything else. A Green Paper is due shortly that contains two proposals. There is a proposal for a single-tier system, which will be looked at alongside the alternative option of accelerating the currently legislated changes to the current system—so-called flat rating.
The single-tier system would be around £140 a week and its main benefit would be much greater simplicity for individuals, which would give them a much clearer idea of how to plan ahead. It is also cost-neutral, a factor that is particularly valuable in the current climate, as I have pointed out. However, this is a complicated thing to do, and it is important that the reforms fit in with the programme of automatic enrolment and we will actively consult on the proposals. I take to heart the point about information made by my noble friend Lord German. I will take that back to the department and see how much clarity I can get.
Women retiring at 66 in 2020 should receive their state pension for 24 years on average. That is the same amount of time that we expected this group of women to receive their state pension for at the time that the pensions commission reported in 2005, when they were due to retire at 64.
Of the 2.6 million women affected by the change in state pension age, around 12 per cent face an increase of 18 months or more, and 1 per cent face the maximum increase of two years. That point was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell. Survey data show that 70 per cent of these women are still in employment. While I accept that we are asking these women to work longer, they will benefit from additional income and a potential boost to their pension savings and entitlements. In response to the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, data show that only 4 per cent of the women affected by these proposals have already retired.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, raised the issue of carers. Clearly, they are a most valuable group in society, and we acknowledge them as such. There has been a downward trend in the proportion of women who say that they are not in the labour market because of caring or domestic responsibilities—the figure fell from 10.7 per cent in 1998 to 6.9 per cent in 2010.
The data show that employment rates decline as people approach the state pension age. Currently, the average age at which women leave the labour market is two years below that of men, although it is still two years above the current state pension age for women. The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, made the point that women are less able to cushion the impact of any change. Current employment patterns for women in their early 60s are not a reliable indicator of future trends, as those women will already have started getting their state pension. It is difficult to predict with certainty how women will respond to the changes in the state pension age. I recognise that women are more likely than men to face competing demands in the form of caring and other responsibilities. Despite this, the figures show that the age at which women exit the labour market has risen steadily, from sixty-one and a half in 2004 to sixty-two and a half in 2010.
We had to act quickly to reduce the increasing costs imposed on the state pension system by the increase in longevity. It has not been possible to give a notice period similar to those given for previous increases in the pension age, but these women will still have between five and a half and six and a half years’ notice of an increase in their state pension age, enabling them in many cases to change their retirement plans.
In order to get to 66 by 2020, we have had to make some hard decisions. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, talked about our coalition plans. I point out to her in reply that the single-tier pension was also not in the government programme. Clearly, the new timetable creates a pension age gap between women born in March 1953 and March 1954, which increases from one to three years, but that is the most extreme contrast and applies only to women born in that month.
The challenge is to find a solution that balances the impact across all groups affected but at the same time achieves the financial savings that we achieve by bringing forward the increase in state pension age to 66 by April 2020. We need to ensure the sustainability of the state pension system, and we believe that our timetable strikes the best balance between the impact on individuals and fairness to the taxpayer. I therefore urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this extremely well informed debate. I entirely accept that the Minister is not insensitive to the timetable and the issues that it has raised. I note that he, too, accepts that the notice period which has been given is less than ideal. He spoke about the simplified state pension, or single-tier pension, in response to a question from the noble Lord, Lord German. I am not sure whether the noble Lord gained much comfort from what was said. Clearly, it is a good idea, but the Chancellor himself, in introducing the Budget, said that this was a long-term project, so how it will help today's debate is less clear.
I accepted when I moved the amendment that there is a difference on costings: our proposition achieves only two-thirds of the savings of the Government's proposal. Several noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord German, made the point that it is a matter of where you draw the line. The savings we are talking about are not savings today, tomorrow, next year or the year after that; they begin to accrue in a brief period until there is an alignment of the two in about 2018-19. It is inevitable, when we are talking about millions of pensioners, that the numbers will be big. That does not make them any less important. Dealing with a number in isolation is not very helpful; we need to put it in context. We also need to look at the other side of the equation. The extra savings that the Government said are borne by someone: the pensioners who are the subject of the amendment.
Several noble Lords talked about costs. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, widened the terms of the debate a little. He will forgive me if I do not answer in detail each of his points, because I do not want to lose his vote. The noble Lord, Lord German, said that costing was about a judgment: where you should draw the line. The noble Lord, Lord Flight, also raised that point. Neither we nor the Government have yet factored in any changes to our long-term cost profile that would arise from likely changes to the state pension age to 67 and 68 and wherever that leads. The noble Lord mentioned the age of 70.
Several noble Lords talked about the speed of change, including the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds. I think that the right reverend Prelate termed it a matter of justice, and that is absolutely right. He obviously speaks with some scars, as he said, from dealing with the Church of England superannuation fund. The speed of change is important. He also made the important point that the Bill is dealing with state pensions, but the changes being imposed and the extent to which they have disconcerted people do not help with general confidence in the pensions environment, which we should all be working hard to improve.
My noble friend Lady Hollis correctly focused on the coalition agreement. She made the very telling point that issues around longevity and the data that are being used to justify what the Government are doing were known when that coalition agreement was written. They are not new data. She talked about the difficulty of women who have been away from the labour market getting back into it to mitigate the effects of these pension changes.
My noble friend Lady Bakewell made the same point in a different way. She said that people formulate attitudes to retirement that are sometimes difficult to change. She also made an interesting point when she called for nuance. When you think about it, the difference between the Government’s proposition and ours is two years in arriving at 66 as the state pension age. The extra problem the Government have by doing it those two years earlier is that they have to mess with the 1995 timetable to change the timetable for equalisation. That does not arise if you do not start that move until two years later. We are talking about two years. It is not a huge gulf, but I accept it has not insignificant ramifications for costs.
The noble Lord, Lord Boswell, talked about not insubstantial sums. As he said, the numbers are inevitably going to be big. When we are talking about millions of pensioners, that will inevitably follow.
I am grateful for the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, on this amendment. She has been a doughty campaigner on pension issues. She was relaying some of the concerns that many people have had expressed to them, especially by those who are going to suffer an extra two-year wait.
The noble Lord, Lord German, focused on the interesting point that we are hearing those who are involved in advocacy. He spoke as though there was somehow a problem with that. Part of the problem with pensions generally is that they are complex. People shy away from them. That is why auto-enrolment and all those issues are rightly being addressed. We need people who understand these things and have that expertise to speak on behalf of, particularly, poorer people who are sometimes less able to deal with the complexities of these issues. The extent to which the noble Lord is relying on the single-tier pension to ameliorate his concerns about these proposals will be interesting, but I am not sure how effectively he will be able to do that.
I hope I have done justice to each noble Lord who has spoken. I do not think the debate has changed my view of where we should be heading. I am well aware that it has not changed the Minister’s. This is a very important issue. There is a lot at stake here. Hundreds of thousands of women are affected by this, and their position could be ameliorated. On that basis, I wish to test the opinion of the House.
3: Clause 1, page 2, leave out lines 3 to 6 and insert—
“6th October 1953 to 5th November 1953 6th May 2018 6th November 1953 to 5th December 1953 6th August 2018 6th December 1953 to 5th January 1954 6th October 2018 6th January 1954 to 5th February 1954 6th November 2018 6th February 1954 to 5th March 1954 6th January 2019 6th March 1954 to 5th April 1954 6th March 2019 6th April 1954 to 5th May 1954 6th May 2019 6th May 1954 to 5th June 1954 6th July 2019 6th June 1954 to 5th July 1954 6th September 2019 6th July 1954 to 5th August 1954 6th November 2019 6th August 1954 to 5th September 1954 6th January 2020 6th September 1954 to 5th October 1954 6th March 2020 6th October 1954 to 5th November 1954 6th May 2020 6th November 1954 to 5th December 1954 6th July 2020 6th December 1954 to 5th January 1955 6th September 2020 6th January 1955 to 5th February 1955 6th November 2020 6th February 1955 to 5th March 1955 6th January 2021 6th March 1955 to 5th April 1955 6th March 2021”
“6th October 1953 to 5th November 1953
6th May 2018
6th November 1953 to 5th December 1953
6th August 2018
6th December 1953 to 5th January 1954
6th October 2018
6th January 1954 to 5th February 1954
6th November 2018
6th February 1954 to 5th March 1954
6th January 2019
6th March 1954 to 5th April 1954
6th March 2019
6th April 1954 to 5th May 1954
6th May 2019
6th May 1954 to 5th June 1954
6th July 2019
6th June 1954 to 5th July 1954
6th September 2019
6th July 1954 to 5th August 1954
6th November 2019
6th August 1954 to 5th September 1954
6th January 2020
6th September 1954 to 5th October 1954
6th March 2020
6th October 1954 to 5th November 1954
6th May 2020
6th November 1954 to 5th December 1954
6th July 2020
6th December 1954 to 5th January 1955
6th September 2020
6th January 1955 to 5th February 1955
6th November 2020
6th February 1955 to 5th March 1955
6th January 2021
6th March 1955 to 5th April 1955
6th March 2021”
My Lords, I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, will be here to speak to her amendment in due course, so I am speaking on her behalf. This is not a filibuster despite the comment I have just overheard. In Committee I spoke to the suggestion that we should have a halfway house and that there should be an amelioration of the difficulties that some people will face. I have today supported the Government in the main thrust of their policy but I think that a modest change to help the few who need it would be very helpful indeed. I am now assured that the noble Baroness is in her place, and no doubt she will outline her amendment in more detail. I beg to move.
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy. I am sorry; I did not realise that people had come back into the Chamber. I hope that my amendments will be seen as both positive and fair. They represent a compromise and would ensure that, if the Bill becomes law, no women born between 6 October 1953 and 5 April 1955 will have to work for more than one extra year before they receive their state pension. This is a particularly vulnerable group which was eloquently described by the noble Lord, Lord German, in his remarks on the previous amendment.
We know that life expectancy is rising much faster than many of us had realised, and during the Second Reading debate on this Bill I accepted the argument that rises in the state pension age must take place. However, I also said that while I understand completely that deficit reduction is a priority for the Government, this legislation could have a hugely negative impact on certain women. It will have a negative impact on many women, but some groups will be particularly affected. The 33,000 who are the worst affected will face a two-year hike in their state pension age. They will not have any possible opportunity—because they will not have had notice—that will enable them, even if they could, to plan financially for this delay in getting their state pension.
This group of women will be particularly and disproportionately hit by the Government’s proposals. It will also be the second time that these women have had their state pension age changed. Many will also be totally unaware of the changes and they will not be in any way prepared for them. Many of these women, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, illustrated graphically, will be single women and women on lower incomes, who face, as we know, lower life expectancy on average. Many of them have not had a chance to accumulate any form of private pension. They will be reliant solely on the state pension. Many of these women care for older parents or younger grandchildren, and sometimes both at the same time.
Furthermore, the timetable proposed in the Bill is faster than that laid out in the coalition agreement, which promised that the state pension age would not start to rise to 66 until 2020 at the earliest. I do not think I am alone in having received many letters illustrating this point from people who are going to be caught out by this change, which would in any case not offer any immediate help in cutting the deficit, because, as we have heard, there will not be any savings until 2016, by which time the Government plan to have eliminated the current deficit.
The figures in the table I have produced have been verified by some key experts in the pension field as dealing with a particularly difficult problem. Many people I know feel very strongly about this matter and by accepting these amendments the Government could—and I hope will—demonstrate that they want to help the people most affected and worst affected by this necessary reform of the state pension age. I very much hope that the Minister will support my amendments.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, for moving her amendment, which is cognate with one that I moved in Committee. I have to say I was somewhat shaken by the Minister’s response because I do not normally go around as a fiscal incontinent. However, I accept the reproof of the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie of Luton, at my loose speech in my previous intervention on this issue when I quoted his cost at £10 billion per annum. That is of course a net present-value cost, and my cost, if I may call it that, is £7 billion per annum. Unless I have misread the amendment, the noble Baroness’s cost is very slightly more generous than mine would have been.
These are big sums but my point earlier, which I wish to talk about now, is that in making a macroadjustment—which I believe is essential and for which I established a case on which we have just triumphed—there is nevertheless a very real problem for individuals. I should say, if there is any doubt, that I have a certain background, if only because I have a household that is 80 per cent female, or was before my daughters grew up. I have no lack of sympathy with women’s issues and am well aware from the data that many women look forward to a less than generous pension and have not had an opportunity to build up the entitlement that some men have. Those are the data. We are gradually, by degrees, achieving social advance.
There is now a suggestion that, in dealing with the major problem that we have to address, we may be affecting a particular group of women very hard. We have to answer the question of how we deal with it. In terms of the overall cost of a grand architectural amendment, I can see that that would be very substantial indeed, which, as I have already indicated to your Lordships’ House, might well fall on taxpayers and the active working population of today—our children and our grandchildren. That would have adverse consequences. We have to find ways other than that of dealing with it. It is possible that one could make some slight adjustments within the system by flexing the exact provisions of the Ministers or the proposals of the Government or the proposals of the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, thereby sharing the cost between the various women who would otherwise be affected.
My concern, and it is a paradox, is that with the best intentions, as the Minister explained to us painstakingly in Committee, the equal treatment directive—I do not dislike the equal treatment of women and I do not as a matter of fact dislike the European Community—constrains us on sharing the burden with men, unless and until we have caught up to the common age of 65. The present arrangements are a derogation from equal treatment until we reach that equality of pension age which is inhibiting this process.
One way forward, which has been touched on briefly in the earlier exchanges, may be to look at something beyond the pension age of 65, or even 66, as a compensating adjustment for burden-sharing. An alternative approach would be to go for a specific targeted scheme, but there are some difficulties even with the law on that if one were to have a differential pension credit arrangement. I have asked the Minister some Parliamentary Questions on that. The cost is much lower, but it is indeed setting up a special scheme to try to sort out the problems of individuals.
If we could have a system whereby nobody went without their pension for more than 12 months, as the noble Baroness suggested, or something like that, we could reasonably argue, given the timescale—not perfect, not ideal, we have all accepted that—that that is something with which people could accommodate themselves. A doubling of their loss, or a further acceleration of the timescale, would not be acceptable.
I urge the Minister to try to find some acceptable approach, or to signal some acceptable approach, which can, within the constraints that have been mentioned, help this group of women who are seriously and significantly affected, where there is a sense of unfairness, or of harsh treatment, without as it were destroying the intentions or the efficiency of the overall change which we need to make. I hope the Minister will consider that very seriously. It is not a matter of party politics. It is a matter of a common feeling that we should try to do something. I very much hope that, one way or another, through our combined wisdom, or at least our combined persistence, we will reach an acceptable solution.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, on his amendment and I thank everyone for the very warm support that it got. Obviously, I would rather that amendment had won, but the vote was indeed very narrow. With that in mind, I would certainly want to support the proposal of my noble friend Lady Greengross, which would certainly do something along the lines that the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, was trying to achieve with his amendment.
If the Minister can find a way to accept that, it will give some comfort at least to those who feel strongly—and have shown how strongly they feel—about this issue. I hope he will bear that in mind when he comes to reply.
My Lords, I rise to speak to this amendment as someone who is certainly not an expert in pension provision; I admit to finding a lot of it rather confusing. The amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, is a very positive and useful way forward.
What concerns me is not the arguments that we heard earlier about the 2.6 million women having to wait longer than expected, the 330,000 who will have to wait 18 months or even the 33,000 who will have to wait two years to receive their pension, but the fact that, of the current pensioners who live in poverty, two-thirds are women. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has made estimates about the poverty level, which it set at around £14,000 a year, and recognises that one in four women retiring today has less than £10,000 a year to live on. We know that women earn less pay on average, while taking time out to raise children means that they earn less over their lifetime. For me, though, the inequality in savings that women have access to is a stark reminder of where many women live today. The average savings in pension schemes of women between 51 and 59 are £37,000, compared to the £54,000 that men hold.
We have heard many case studies. I am very fortunate. I employ someone who is 56 and has a sister who is four years older. Maureen will have to wait 10 years beyond the age of her sister to receive her pension. This is someone who worked for a number of years, took time out to bring up a disabled child, went back into part-time work and, with nothing impelling her to contribute to a pension scheme, made decisions to try to save money but also had to recognise that there was a huge potential loss of salary in contributing to a personal pension scheme. I fear that we are going to alienate a large group of women and penalise them for making sound family choices to stay at home and bring up children and look after them.
It may be true that we need change and need to move on. It might be true that women have relied too heavily on their husbands’ careers and earnings in setting their pension limits, but I strongly believe that women deserve to have more time to adjust to this change in thinking.
We are very sympathetic to the noble Baroness’s amendment. I congratulate her on an important contribution to this debate on an issue that the Government must address. A number of reasons have been explained, in this debate and in the preceding debate, on why that is important. Men are not being disadvantaged by more than one year, but over half a million women are. The period of notice is inadequate. Women in this age group are some of the most disadvantaged in terms of their pension provision. We have to accept that there is a contradiction with the coalition agreement. We are expecting some assurances from the Government in this debate, but we also accept that this is largely a negotiating matter with the Treasury. We welcome the announcement in the Budget of the new basic pension.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, complained at Second Reading that the Pensions Bill ignored the £140 new basic pension, and said that it was like Hamlet without the prince. Now we have Hamlet with the prince but without a script. We want to see some details of the government proposals before committing ourselves to new transitional arrangements. We know that in present value terms the amendment will cost £7 billion, but the Government need to address the problem and come back with a considered amendment during the passage of this Bill in the other House with regard to how women affected by these transitional arrangements will benefit from the new higher basic pension.
My Lords, I will be brief because a lot of the arguments were effectively aired on all sides on the previous amendment. I support this amendment. I spent many hours—I will not say happy hours—last weekend trying to find a compromise, what I would call a fallback amendment, that would address the issue that we have all identified today. That issue is the women who are seeing an acceleration in the time that they have to wait—if that is not a reverse phrase—for their pension.
The Government are proposing to accept the existing timetable to 2016 but, instead of continuing it to 2020, to collapse it to 2018, so that what would have happened over four years is happening over two. That is what is producing the problems of bunching, the unfairness, the lottery, the roulette, one sister against another, one neighbour against another and the like.
We have heard the arguments. I tried, as I said, over many hours at the weekend to find a fallback compromise that overcame the problem of bunching without taking us up to 2020, but could not find one. What the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, has done, for which she has our warmest congratulations, is none the less concentrated on the post-2020 period and reduces somewhat the period by which pensionable age would rise to 66. That produces the £3 billion of additional savings that the Government are so anxious to secure. It also protects the situation of women. It is smooth, as no woman waits more than one year for every additional year of her age. It is fair to all women. It is a compromise: we get to 66 somewhat earlier than I would like. None the less, it overcomes the basic unfairness of women having random times until which they must wait, according to the random month in which they were born. You cannot make state public policy on the basis of such a lottery. The amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, addresses that issue, compromises on the later point and makes savings. I hope it will enjoy the support of the whole House.
Like others, I am thrilled by the proposal for a new state single pension of £140. I warmly congratulate the coalition in this House and the Ministers in the other place on it. Had there been eight bullet points, I would have agreed with eight out of eight instead of seven out of seven. I do not want to put this in a way that makes the noble Lord thump the Dispatch Box, but I hope he will today restore the honour of the coalition agreement by making it clear that he can accept this amendment or a version of it. The substance of what was promised in the coalition agreement by both parties forming the Government—that women’s pension age would not rise to 66 until 2020—will then be honoured, either through this amendment or the Government’s promise to come back with another. All sides of this House could then feel well content that they have protected some of the most vulnerable women, who rely solely on their state pension for their income in retirement. We will have treated them honourably, fairly and decently.
My Lords, I echo the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, in saying that we look to the Minister to address the issue behind the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, which is that no woman’s pension age should be accelerated by more than 12 months. That is the issue that I raised in the earlier debate. It is a concern about equity. I hope that, in the architecture that the Minister may describe to us, he might find a way of answering that question. Whether it is this or some other architecture, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, just said, is not the issue at stake here; it is about the intention. It is the intention to create that level of equity that is important.
Unfortunately, I have a question for the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, when she comes to answer this debate. It is on a very technical point. This morning we took the liberty of plotting the dates in her amendment on a graph. Unfortunately, there were two kinks in the graph, which meant that it was not a straight line. I wonder whether, in the second line of the amendment, “August 2018” should not read “July 2018”; and, in the third line, whether “October 2018” should not read “September 2018”. That would produce a straight line. However, in the context of seeking agreement—and of the Government’s intention that no woman should wait more than 12 months, which I think was the intention behind the amendment—I hope that the Minister can give some support and succour to the amendment and the intention behind it.
My Lords, I will be brief. Like others, I warmly congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, on tabling this amendment, which addresses an issue of wide concern. It does not go as far as most of us would like; it raises the pension age to 66 one year earlier than we would want and one year later than the Government would want. However, apart from a couple of minor kinks, it smoothes the position so that nobody has to wait for more than 12 months. It is a considerable achievement to craft an amendment of that nature. We should be very grateful to the noble Baroness.
The issues are very much as they were previously. However, I would challenge the Minister. If the response was, “We like the look of this; we’ll try to bring something back, but we’ll do it in the other place”, then it would not be a particularly satisfactory one. The reality is that we stand a better chance of getting amendments through at this end than at the other end. What further information might the noble Lord and his team need to be able to produce an amendment now or at Third Reading? The noble Baroness seems to have given us a very good platform for moving forward.
I was not sure about the costing; the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, said that it was £7 billion. I would guess, from the Government’s point of view, that that is certainly an improvement from where we were on it. If the noble Baroness was minded to press the amendment, we would certainly go into the Lobby to support it.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, for this amendment, and for seeking to achieve a compromise position between what we have proposed and what the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, put forward—the rather more costly proposition that we were discussing a few minutes ago. No one wants to hear a rehearsal of all the arguments that we have just gone through, so I will avoid it. I thank the noble Baroness for her ingenious approach to trying to develop this compromise position. It is a real achievement that she has got ahead of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, on a weekend when she had a towel around her head.
This amendment attempts to recoup at least part of the savings that are lost by a gentler transition to 66 years for women by increasing the pension age for men to 66 years first, and then staying within the European equal treatment directive. As she explained, the amendment is intended to ensure that no women will have their state pension age increased by more than 12 months, which would place women on a similar footing to men at least in respect of the adjustment that they would need to make. Picking up on my noble friend Lord German’s teasing about the kinks, I think that we should look at the intention here rather than at the exact drafting. I am very happy to do that, although it is nice to look at the kinks if you are a little techy about the subject.
This timetable would result in deferring the point at which a state pension age of 66 is reached until 2021. However, unlike the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, in Committee, which had the same end point, her amendment would cost some £2 billion compared to his £7 billion because the increase in state pension age for men to 66 by April 2020 would go ahead as we have planned. That is why this is such an ingenious amendment.
I must now air the issue of the equal treatment directive, which, frankly, has bedevilled the whole situation and created a lot of problems in devising how we approach it. I ought to spend a little time on the directive.
Directive 79/7 deals with the progressive implementation of the principle of equal treatment for men and women in matters of social security. It provides that there shall be no discrimination on grounds of sex in relation to the benefits to which it applies. When the Pensions Act 1995 was passed, the UK legislated to end gender discrimination in the state pension age by April 2020. Any change we now wish to make needs to be considered in relation to the position left by the 1995 Act. In particular, we need to consider whether any alteration would hinder progress towards equal treatment by either increasing the present gender gap in pension age or prolonging the period of unequal pension ages. Doubtless with the first of these considerations in mind, the noble Baroness’s timetable aims to control the gap. It is certainly the case that the difference in pension ages between men and women sharing the same birth date is no greater than it would otherwise have been under the original equalisation schedule. It does, however, result in a difference of treatment between birth cohorts. I shall try to illustrate that.
At the point that the noble Baroness’s timetable parts company with the proposals in the Bill—that is, for women born from 6 October 1953—the pension age gap between men and women for that birth cohort would stand at five months. It falls to three months for the following cohort but then starts to rise again, to a year for men and women born in March 1954, before rejoining the path set by the 1995 Act, albeit at a year older. By reducing and then increasing the difference in the state pension ages between men and women, and by delaying the final point of pension age equalisation by 12 months relative to the timetable legislated in 1995, the amendments can be seen to be adverse to the progressive equalisation of pensionable age both in themselves and by reference to the Pensions Act 1995.
As I said, the noble Baroness’s proposals would still reduce the overall savings by around £2 billion. While this is significantly less than the £10 billion price tag attached to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, it is still not a negligible sum. As I have tried to explain, the issue around this amendment is the extent to which it runs contrary to the progressive equalisation of pensionable ages currently on the statute book. As structured, it risks breaching the European directive and being unlawful. Therefore, I am not in a position to support the amendment or even to make any warm noises about it or the possibility of action being taken in another place, as the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, suggested. However, this House has expressed strong feeling on this matter and the message has undoubtedly gone out loud and clear. On that basis, I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
I believe that I must respond to the Minister since I moved the amendment. I have listened to the debate very carefully and thank everyone who has spoken in support of the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross. I say to the noble Lord, Lord German, that I do not have a clue why the kinks have arisen. If I was the Minister, I would say at this point, “The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, will write to you with her responses”. I am sure that we would all like to know the answer to that.
I am very disappointed with the Minister’s response.
Although he is clearly hampered by the commitment to the directive, it does not seem to be beyond the wit of the Minister and his colleagues to devise a rather warmer response to the wish of this House that a compromise should be made. Given my experience on previous occasions, I think that it would be a good idea for the House to express its opinion on this matter. I wish to test the opinion of the House on this amendment.
Amendments 4 to 8 not moved.
9: Clause 1, page 2, line 19, at end insert—
“( ) After sub-paragraph (10) insert—
“(11) The Secretary of State may by regulations vary the provisions of this Schedule to provide for an earlier pensionable age in individual cases without loss of benefit in the event of—
(a) prolonged ill health, or(b) arduous or dangerous employment,or both.””
My Lords, I return to a notion that I raised previously in Committee, although I realise that I did not then formulate my amendment very well and I have made a change to the wording. I still hope, however, to persuade the Government that there is a serious issue here.
I agree, as I think we all do, that longevity, although very welcome, means that we have to look again at retirement ages. There must be some revision. Last year, I spoke to a briefing supplied by Age Concern about the default retirement age. Many people were holding jobs that meant a great deal to them, they did not want to retire and felt they had a great deal to contribute. That argument has largely been won.
However, I have always held the view that jobs are not all the same, and neither are people. Many are not particularly committed to their work, which is sometimes arduous and dangerous, and may not be suitable for older people who may simply be longing for the time when they no longer have to do it. It would be good to think that there would be lighter work to which such people could be transferred. Often, however, such work will not be available, and the people concerned may have manual skills but not the kind of educational background that would make it easy for them to do other work. After a lifetime in their original jobs, it may be better for them to retire and to receive the benefit that they had anticipated.
I recently received a nice letter from a lady who thanked me for what I had said in another debate on health and safety at work. It did not involve pensions, but it has some relevance here. She and her family had been trying for some time to obtain compensation following the death of her husband in a work accident. She sent me a copy of a magazine called Hazards, which campaigns for compensation for people injured in accidents at work, some of which lead to deaths. It does, however, serve to remind us that a great deal of the work that all of us depend on in our daily lives has hazards. We should not insist that the people who do it should simply go on and on. There is a case for treating them very differently from those who are committed to their jobs and want to work.
In the year from April 2009 to March 2010, 1.3 million workers reported that they were suffering from illness caused or made worse by work. It is often alleged that our health and safety at work system is the best in the world and that very few people are hurt at work. Unfortunately this is not completely accurate, although the Health and Safety Executive performs an excellent function in reducing work hazards. However, its resources are apparently being reduced, and that does not look so good. In any event, the HSE says that employers should be aware that there may be some reduction in physical and mental capacities with age and that suitable accommodation should be put in place. However, as I have indicated, this may not be easy. “Work till you drop” is not a good idea and may have dangers for other members of the workforce. I hope that the Government appreciate that there are real problems here. We are not all middle class, despite what the media tell us, and we often require people who have manual skills to work very hard on our behalf. We have a duty to ensure that they do not have to work beyond their capacity to perform their tasks, and that is the reason for my amendment. I wait with interest to hear what the Government have to say about it.
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendments 11 and 14 in this group. In doing so, I have some sympathy with the concerns expressed by my noble friend Lady Turner. These amendments address the position of the poorest men and women in the population who are disproportionately impacted by the acceleration of the timetable to achieve the equalisation of the state pension age. Under this Bill the age of eligibility for receipt of pension credit, which is targeted on the poorest pensioners, increases at the same accelerated rate. This is because, under current legislation, the age of eligibility for pension credit is aligned with women’s state pension age. This means that a particular group of the poorest men and women, who would have been eligible to receive pension credit on certain dates between 2016 and 2020 under the Pensions Act 1995, will now have to wait up to two years longer to receive their pension credit income but with little time, certainly with little capacity, to adjust.
Pension credit in 2011 is £137.35 per week for a single person, so a deferment of up to two years can result in a loss of £15,000 for those affected. Even on a deferral of one year, the loss of income is still substantial to those concerned. Amendments 11 and 14 would ensure that both men and women who are presently in their late 50s and who are likely to be the beneficiaries of pension credit do not experience the markedly higher loss of lifetime pension income that would otherwise occur. This would be done by allowing the age of eligibility for pension credit to track the original equalisation timetable set out in the Pensions Act 1995. That would mean that those eligible to receive pension credit, both men and women and their birth cohorts, would do so on the same date between 2016 and 2020 as they would have done under the original timetable. I believe that these amendments may provide a more focused mechanism than that proposed by my noble friend Lady Turner in her amendment.
There has been much debate on fiscal sustainability when assessing timetable options for accelerating or mitigating the acceleration of the increase in the state pension age, but this amendment in no way undermines long-term fiscal sustainability. The savings from accelerating the age of eligibility for receipt of pension credit do not start to flow until 2016.
However, even looked at on a long-term basis, this amendment would not undermine fiscal stability for three reasons. First, the state pension age would still rise in response to increasing life expectancy. Secondly, the reduction in savings arising from the slower increase in the pension credit qualifying age, assuming current take-up rates, would be of the order of £0.75 billion. This figure has to be seen in the context of the Government’s proposals for accelerating equalisation and the introduction of the state pension age of 66, producing a reduction in expenditure on pension age benefits of £33.4 billion. We are talking about £0.75 billion in a total savings aspiration of £33.4 billion. These amendments simply do not fundamentally challenge the Government’s plans for fiscal sustainability post-2016, which so concerned the noble Lord, Lord Boswell.
The timing of all future increases in the state pension age will be revisited, as we have heard in the Budget Statement. Adjustments in private pensions are already happening through annuity rates or other measures. The report prepared by my noble friend Lord Hutton has set the direction for the changes to public service pensions. We have seen the move from RPI to CPI. It is all these matters that will make the big contribution to fiscal sustainability of the pension system over the long term. It is not necessary to treat unfairly the poorest men and women, born in certain years in the 1950s, by having them make such a major contribution.
The Government’s impact assessment shows that men and women with interrupted careers and dependent on pension credit throughout retirement will suffer the greatest percentage loss in lifetime pension income as a result of the accelerated timetable and will lose proportionately more than higher earners. If allowance is made for the reduced life expectancy of lower socioeconomic groups who will receive pension credit, the loss can rise to as much as 10 per cent of total lifetime pension income. By way of comparison, higher earners can reduce their lifetime pension income loss to 2 per cent because they have the ability to boost their retirement income by making highly tax-advantaged contributions to their pension pot.
The economy faces challenging times. The group of poorest-income people most impacted by the accelerated timetable for pension age equalisation is more likely to have a lower life expectancy and more of it in ill health, to have a disability and to be a carer, and less likely to be able to access the labour market. Given the short notice, the people who are already economically inactive when the policy change is announced will find it very difficult to adjust to the accelerated increase in the age for receipt of pension credit and will have problems rejoining the workforce. We are supported in our view by the Pensions Policy Institute—the PPI—an independent expert in the field with no political bias. In its submission to the DWP on the accelerated increase, the PPI acknowledged that if the SPA is left unchanged:
“This may not be good for economic growth, nor is it necessarily fair to subsequent generations as they will end up bearing the cost of paying out state pensions for longer”.
However, it went on to say:
“There are a number of factors that should be considered when considering the timing of future increases in the SPA. Economic activity rates at older ages, employers’ attitudes to employing older workers and inequalities in life expectancy/ healthy life expectancy will all play a role in determining how fast the SPA could be increased without unduly affecting certain cohorts of older people in a negative way”.
The PPI suggests a number of safeguards that the Government could consider when accelerating the increase. It recognised that it is unlikely that in the short term the Government could help to improve the healthy life expectancies of those with the shortest life expectancies. It argues that the Government should consider short-term safeguards,
“to reduce the potential negative impact on those who may be disproportionately affected”,
including continuing to pay the guaranteed pension credit from an earlier date than the increased SPA. That is exactly the short-term measure that we are proposing in the two amendments.
Many low-income people in their late 50s have no prospect of adjusting to the accelerated time period, particularly those in certain ethnic groups. People of black and black British origin have the lowest levels of private pension and investment income: £46 per week compared to £155 for white people. Forty per cent of pensioners of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin, and 29 per cent of black and black British pensioners, are in the bottom fifth income group, compared with 14 per cent of white pensioners. A person from a minority ethnic group is less likely to save for retirement, twice as likely to be entitled to pension credit at the minimum age, and, in the over-50 age group, less likely to be in employment. This is hardly the group to make a major contribution to fiscal deficit reduction.
The Government's impact assessment states that,
“delaying the point at which the State Pension and Pension Credit become payable is likely to have a greater adverse impact on certain ethnic groups compared to others ... This impact is likely to be stronger for those affected by a delay in Pension Credit income of more than a year”.
Similarly, because disabled people are more likely to be more reliant on pension credit at the minimum qualifying age, the impact on them will be proportionately greater. The impact statement assets:
“However, we consider this is justifiable in the wider context of the need to ensure that the state pensions system (including Pension Credit) is to be both affordable in the long-term, and provide a decent income in retirement”.
I simply do not agree. I do not see that this group of vulnerable people has to take such a disproportionate impact. Having identified that impact, the Government have a duty at least to seek to mitigate it. The purpose of the amendments is to do precisely that: to allow the poorest, the disabled and ethnic minorities who would otherwise be in receipt of pension credit other than because they had the misfortune as a result of the Bill to be born in certain months in the 1950s to be able to receive the pension credit in line with the existing timetable set out in the 1995 Act.
This is not the first amendment in the group. Depending on my noble friend Lady Turner and on the Minister’s reply, we are minded to test the opinion of the House when the amendment is called.
My Lords, this group of amendments in effect aims to provide mitigations to the state pension age timetable. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, for giving us the opportunity to discuss the issues surrounding those in ill health and those in arduous or dangerous employment. Similarly, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, for her proposed changes to the pension credit qualifying age timetable.
The amendments were tabled with the intention of helping those people who might be described as vulnerable, as noble Lords pointed out. I very much agree with the principle that we should assist those who require additional support. However, a balance must be struck between doing the right thing for those people and making the system more complex and harder to understand when it comes to delivering that support.
As I said, Amendment 9 allows for mitigations to the proposed change to the state pension age timetable for those in ill health and those in arduous or dangerous employment. While I have great sympathy for the people these amendments aim to help, the arguments against accepting them that I set out in Committee have not changed. The changes would make the system too complex.
I will pick up a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, about the life expectancy of people on low incomes. There is good news here. Male manual workers saw a two-year increase in life expectancy at the age of 65 between the 1992 to 1996 and the 2002 to 2005 assessment periods. Women manual workers saw a one-year increase. When one drills down into the figures—I was looking at them this morning—one sees an acceleration for manual workers. Perhaps the nature of manual work is easing. In the latest period, life expectancy for both men and women improved more rapidly for manual workers than for non-manual workers. Between the 1997 to 2001 and the 2002 to 2005 periods, male manual workers saw their life expectancy rise by 1.2 years, against 0.8 years for non-manual workers. Clearly in this latest period there is very good news.
As I said, we have already made strides on the value of the state pension by introducing a triple lock. As we discussed, we are looking to reform and simplify the state pension, which has become unbelievably complex.
Perhaps I should have intervened a sentence or two earlier, but I was not sure whether the Minister had finished on the longevity point. I accept his point that the life expectancy of certain lower socioeconomic groups has also improved. However, the evidence of the Marmot review and of a recent NAO report also shows that inequalities are increasing in healthy life expectancy, and that this group is less likely to be healthy and therefore less able to re-enter the workforce at short notice in the accelerated timetable. I accept the general proposition about improving the state pension age.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Drake. We could get into a long debate here that perhaps would not be hugely valuable. The figures for life expectancy, healthy life expectancy and disability-free life expectancy are all moving up. They are moving up at slightly different rates for different people, but the general movement is in an encouraging direction. Healthy life expectancy is moving up almost as fast as life expectancy—just slightly slower.
I come back to the point about the state pension age and the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Turner. A state pension age that is different for different groups would take us further away from the goal of a new flat-rate, single-tier pension based on contributions, which is simple to understand. It is important for the state to be clear how much someone will receive in retirement, and it should be equally clear about when they can receive it. A variable state pension age will not help this. Now is not the time to bring in further complexity by introducing bespoke state pension ages for individuals.
Adding to the complexity of this concept is the problem of defining prolonged ill health or arduous and dangerous employment. It might seem straightforward to produce a list of health conditions and occupations, but our direction with welfare reform is precisely the opposite, away from categorisation of people towards individualising and looking at how they can function and what they are doing. We are looking towards assessing each person’s appropriate pension age. Then we begin to get into very difficult territory, which we will discuss under the personal independence payment and the capability assessment. I need not spell out for a third time how difficult that is.
People are working longer and are living longer and healthier lives. We need a system that takes into account recent changes. I must accept, with regret, that some people, due to ill health, have to leave work before they reach state pension age. However, it should be acknowledged that support is already available for those people. Although they may not be entitled to a state pension immediately, that does not mean that they are left with nothing. As my honourable friend the Minister for Pensions recently said, it is not a case of going from a £97 pension to zero: working age benefits will continue to be available for those whose state pension age has increased and those who are unable to work because of health problems. They may very well be able to claim employment support allowance. Support through other benefits and credits is available today and will continue to be available in future, whatever the state pension age. Indeed, the introduction of universal credit will make it much easier to see precisely what entitlements are.
We need to ensure the sustainability of the state pension system and our proposals strike the best balance between the impact on individuals and fairness to the taxpayer. I should make one slightly technical point, to which I think many noble Lords will be sympathetic. Changes to the state pension age should be made only following agreement in this place and another place. For the Government to be able to vary the provisions of the schedule through regulation is a significant power, and one which should not be treated lightly.
I turn to Amendments 11 and 14. The arguments remain the same. It is vital that our system strikes that balance. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, for tabling the amendments and allowing us to consider the role of income-related support for those over a specified age. The amendments would keep the pension credit qualifying age in line with the existing legislative timetable for women's state pension age. Their effect would be that the pension credit qualifying age would diverge from the women's state pension age from 2016, as proposed by the Bill. The amendments, while seeking to ensure that the pension credit qualifying age cannot be higher than the state pension age, also leave the door open to retaining a pension credit qualifying age below the state pension age—possibly permanently. That seems to me to be based on a fundamental misapprehension. The underlying assumption seems to be that by keeping the pension credit minimum qualifying age pegged to state pension age, we seek to attack the incomes of older people. That is just not the case. We think that, for all people of working age, the appropriate form of support is a working-age benefit.
The Government introduced the Welfare Reform Bill, which sets out the proposals for universal credit by 2016. There is widespread support for the principles underpinning universal credit—in particular, the principle that work should always pay. We should define people of working age by using the state pension age, not that of pension credit. We have used that only because state pension age has not been equal between men and women. The upper age limit for universal credit will be set at the pension credit qualifying age. That ensures that the appropriate work-focused and work-related support is targeted at those of working age. Providing an arbitrary age for pension credit which breaks the link with state pension would also compromise that important aspect of welfare reform. If it is not state pension age, when should it be?
I must correct the noble Lord, because I think that he is misrepresenting my amendment. It asks the Government only to commit to separating pension credit qualifying age from the women's state pension age for four years, from 2016 to 2020, to mitigate the impact on a particular group. It does not ask them to commit to a policy beyond 2020; that is for the Government to decide. We already have a precedent for separating state pension age from the qualifying age for pension credit, which is that of men. The amendment would not by the back door set a formula for the future; it simply provides that for a four-year period from 2016 to 2020 there is a separation to mitigate disproportionate impact. It does not require the Government to commit beyond that.
Let me accept that that is the intention behind the noble Baroness’s amendment—although when we costed it, we had to make an assumption about how we then bring it back up to pension age. We need not be technical. It is important when we debate these matters that we debate the underlying intention and not worry about precise things.
I reinforce my point: if we divorce the minimum qualifying age for pension credit from the state pension age, with the exception that the noble Baroness pointed out, the minimum age for pension credit becomes arbitrary, and people would well ask why it is at that age, not one year sooner or one year later. As life expectancy increases, more and more people will want to improve their incomes by working for longer. We should celebrate and encourage that. The amendment goes completely against that principle. We are clear that we want people below state pension age to work if they possibly can. The point of the proposals is not to take money away from people, as some noble Lords have said, but to encourage people to go on working longer, which should leave them with more income. We cannot give up on those people. They deserve our help and support in their endeavours to support themselves.
The other misapprehension is that there is inadequate provision in the universal credit for those who cannot work—people in ill health or people who have worked in manual jobs, who may not be able to continue working as state pension age increases. Again, that is simply not the case. Universal credit is intended to provide appropriate levels of support for those of working age, including those who, for whatever reason, are unable to work or have limited capacity for work.
The amendment will give no comfort to those who want to make entitlements much clearer and more transparent in an effort to ensure that they reach those who need them. It would mean providing complex and confusing information to customers. Unfortunately, it would come into place just when we are introducing universal credit, which is designed to have a pure, simple messaging to people to convince them of how they need to interact with the state. By producing this new, complicated system, we would undermine that simple messaging.
Quite apart from the messages, it would also add significantly to the complexity of the benefits system, confusing the people it is designed to help and the organisation delivering it. In order to deliver that confusion, which would obscure entitlements and potentially discourage people from working in the years before they get their state pension, the amendment would present the taxpayer with an unaffordable bill. For the financial years 2016-25, we estimate that it would be around £1.9 billion, and there would be further costs in the years to follow, depending on when it is withdrawn.
The amendment would add complexity to the system and have the effect of withdrawing valuable in-work support for people below state pension age. It would obscure entitlements for those who need them most and incur a very substantial increase in expenditure. I think I have clearly set out the rationale for the Government’s position. It is simply impractical to assume that the system will be improved by adding further complications to an already complex beast. For these reasons, I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. I think he agrees that there is a problem here, but what he is telling me is that it is too complicated to resolve in the way that I have suggested. I will read very carefully what he said about it because I got the impression that he understands that there are problems about people who do dangerous and difficult work—people on whom we all depend in a modern environment. We do not notice that they are doing it until they cease to be there to do it, and we are not expecting that to happen very soon.
I thank my noble friend Lady Drake for what she said about pension credit. It is quite clear that her amendment on pension credit is intended to deal with the less well off. In that respect, it has to do with my amendment, which is concerned with poorer people. I therefore support what she said.
On my amendment, as time goes on, we may well see, although I hope it does not happen, that if you have accidents or incidents at work, there will be pressure for changes in that respect. I do not think we have finished with the argument about dangerous and difficult work. People do not expect to have to go on working in that kind of environment without any reasonable prospect of an earlier retirement. I shall read with interest what has been said about my amendment. What my noble friend does about her amendment is, of course, entirely up to her. I think it should be supported. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 9 withdrawn.
Amendment 10 not moved.
11: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—
“Qualifying age for pension credit
(1) The Secretary of State must make regulations setting out the qualifying age for pension credit.
(2) The qualifying age for pension credit from 6th March 2011 until 6th March 2020 shall be set so that the timetable in Schedule 6 (Graduated timetable: qualifying age for pension credit) has effect.
(3) After 6th March 2020 the qualifying age for attaining pension credit shall be set at an age that does not exceed the age at which a person qualifies for the state pension.”
This amendment has been debated, but I want to restate that the cost of this amendment, based on the department’s figures, is £0.75 billion because we are looking at the period 2016-20. I am conscious of the business of the House, so I do not have the time to go into this, but universal credit does not match the generosity of pension credit for those who cannot re-enter the workforce in the accelerated timetable arising from the more rapid move to equalisation. I do not think that complexity is a defence against protecting the poor. I wish to test the opinion of the House.
Schedule 1 : Equalisation of and increase in pensionable age for men and women: consequential amendments
Amendments 12 to 14 not moved.
Clause 5 : Earnings trigger for automatic enrolment and re-enrolment
15: Clause 5, page 4, line 30, leave out “£7,475” and insert “£5,715”
My Lords, I rise to move Amendment 15 and speak to Amendments 16 and 19. The definition of the workforce who will be automatically enrolled into a workplace pension and benefit from the employer compulsory contribution and the tax relief or credit is a very important matter. The reforms captured in the Pensions Act 2008 were intended to achieve very wide coverage of the working population to facilitate them saving from a relatively early age, and for the private pension system to work for women.
Our concern with this Bill is twofold. First, Clause 5 excludes 600,000 people from auto-enrolment into a workplace pension by raising the earnings threshold a worker would need to reach, referred to as the earnings trigger, from £5,715 to £7,475. Secondly, Clause 8 gives too great a power to the Secretary of State to raise that earnings threshold and so reduce even further, by potentially some 1.4 million, the size of the working population who will, or could, benefit from automatic enrolment into a workplace pension. Amendments 15 and 16 seek to retain the earnings trigger at £5,715. The purpose of Amendment 19 is to limit the Secretary of State’s power on the extent to which he can raise the level of earnings threshold, once set, to no more than the higher of the increase in prices or earnings.
I turn to the reasoning behind our amendment. The Johnson review, commissioned by the Government on the automatic enrolment policy, concluded that the earnings trigger for a worker to be automatically enrolled into a pension should be aligned with the tax threshold, which will be £7,475 from April, and will rise to £8,105 from April next year. As we know, the aspiration of the Government is to raise it to £10,190. The Government accepted the Johnson recommendation and had committed to a figure of £7,475. The presumption of the Johnson review was that the earnings trigger would remain allied and track the tax threshold.
Although the Minister has stated that the Government will not necessarily automatically chase the tax threshold when setting the earnings trigger for automatic enrolment, Clause 8 of this Bill amends Section 14 of the 2008 Act and gives the Secretary of State unfettered discretion to do just that and increase this earnings trigger in line with the increase in the income tax threshold. Given the Government’s aspiration, if the earnings trigger chased a future income tax threshold of £10,190—in 2011-12 earnings terms—a further 800,000 workers would be excluded in any one year from automatic enrolment. Seventy-six per cent of these people would be women. Consequently, of the group targeted to benefit from workplace pension reform, 66 per cent would be men, but only 34 per cent women.
So many workers should not be excluded. Excluding a further 1 million people and losing £40 million per annum of employer pension contributions does not support the overarching objective of enabling low to moderate earners to save. It would have a disproportionate impact on those working part-time, of whom 5.87 million are women and 1.94 million are men. Recent labour market figures revealed that some 27 per cent of the workforce is now part-time. These figures also show two peaks in part-time working by women, one which straddles the 30s and 40s age group and one which is post-50. Under the provisions of Clause 8, they could be excluded from the benefit of automatic enrolment for significant parts of their working lives.
The Government’s impact assessment and the findings of the Johnson review confirm that such people should not be excluded from being enrolled into a workplace pension, notwithstanding that Clause 8 would allow that to happen. I shall repeat a quote that I used in Committee from the Johnson review. It states:
“Many or most very low earners are women, who live in households with others with higher earnings and/or receive working tax credits. These may well be exactly the people who should be automatically enrolled”.
If the threshold for enrolling people into a pension is raised to £10,190, it is not sufficient to say that the impact could be mitigated by those earning below this being allowed voluntarily to opt in. It is not credible to expect the lower paid to have to overcome the barriers of inertia but those earning higher incomes can benefit from automatic enrolment. It defies logic.
The European part-time workers directive gave many women who work part-time access to their employer’s workplace pension scheme for the first time. It would be a truly retrograde step if Clause 8 allowed the earnings threshold to rise to a level at which it introduced a barrier to so many women participating in workplace pensions. Increasingly, women approaching retirement will not be part of an ongoing relationship. They need to save in their own right. The key principle of pension reform is that it should work for women. The higher the threshold of earnings for auto-enrolment into a workplace pension, the less the reforms will work for women.
Raising the earnings threshold too high, and certainly to £10,190, affects the persistency of savings for men, too. Earnings are not static and for many workers, including men, can change significantly over their lifetime. Most low earners go on to earn more, so saving would still be very beneficial because of the enhanced persistency of saving and continuing to contribute to their pension pot over their working life. Relatively few people have persistently low earnings over their lifetime, so it is quite arbitrary to exclude them by reasons of setting a tax threshold at a high level.
In Committee, the Minister argued that the Government wish to retain the ability to raise the earnings trigger as high as their aspiration for the tax threshold, of £10,190, on the basis that £7,475 may not be right in the future and the shape of the state pension may change. If the Government proceed to accelerate the flat rating of the state second pension and integrate it with the basic state pension to bring forward a single-tier flat-rate state pension of, say, £140 in today’s terms, subject to the accrual rates and the indexing of that single-tier pension, the number of people who should definitely not be saving will become even fewer. Thus, the argument for significantly increasing the earnings trigger becomes weaker.
The Minister has argued that automatic enrolment has to be sustainable and he fears scooping up people who cannot afford to take a hit on their pay packet. But in dealing with that fear the Minister is in danger of excluding millions over time who would benefit from saving; that is, some 1 million people if the trigger is raised from £5,715 to £10,190. The Department for Work and Pensions has produced evidence to show that, for the vast majority, it will pay to save.
I do not wish to argue against changes to the income tax system that would benefit those on low and modest incomes, but it is not necessary for what may be considered meritorious reforms to the tax system to result in an unfairness or inefficiencies in the design of the private pension system. Raising the earnings trigger in line with a significantly increased income tax threshold puts barriers in the way of access to incentives to save for men and women.
In Committee, the Minister made a commitment to provide an impact assessment for the next five years up to the 2017 review and shortly afterwards. I welcome that commitment. It is very important for the Government to show that they are not amending the proposed workplace pension system so that it ceases to work effectively for women part-time workers and arbitrarily excludes workers from the benefits of auto-enrolment at particular phases of their working lives when it would still pay to save.
I have no doubt that the Minister will argue that the earnings trigger for automatic enrolment into a pension should not be set in isolation from the tax threshold. But I argue that it should because they are intended to achieve different things. What might be meritorious in a tax system does not necessarily drive what is sound in the design of a private pension system. It cannot be right that changes to the tax system intended to improve the net income position of low and moderate earners must lead to a reduction in workplace saving by 1 million or 2 million or more people because the earnings threshold for automatic enrolment to a workplace pension has been raised to a much higher level.
In Committee, through the Minister, the Government argued that, in uprating the earnings trigger for automatic enrolment, they want flexibility to consider a wider range of economic measures, that pensions law has to last for the long term and that it is prudent to build in flexibility. I absolutely agree that the issue of pensions is a long-term project, which is why stability is so important. Unfortunately, all post-war Governments in the UK have a history of making what they feel, or felt, to be good incremental adjustments to the design of the pensions system for short-term considerations. Inevitably, 10, 20 or 30 years downstream there were sub-optimal outcomes in the strategic sense and a rush around to find measures to deal with that. I worry that the ease with which the earnings threshold for automatically enrolling workers into a pension scheme could be raised so high under the terms of Clause 7 that we would thereby have another example of such an error being made in the current period, which would have a major negative effect in terms of outcomes in the future.
Amendments 15 and 16 seek to retain £5,715 as the earnings trigger for auto-enrolment. Amendment 19 seeks to keep broadly constant the proportion of the population covered by automatic enrolment by giving the Secretary of State the power to uprate the value of the earnings trigger by no more than the higher of the general level of prices or earnings and to remove his discretion to increase it in line with increases in the income tax threshold.
If there is to be a major change in the earnings trigger, which will exclude perhaps 1 million or even 2 million people from the advantages of auto-enrolment into a workplace pension, I do not believe that that should be done by an order, even an affirmative order. It is of such significance to the outcome of the pension reform programme over time that there should be a high level of awareness of the consequences. People should understand the impact and all interest groups should be involved in that decision. I beg to move.
My Lords, I strongly support my noble friend’s amendment. The Government are essentially following the proposals of the Johnson report. I see red copies of it all around the House—I am sure that noble Lords have not consulted it for the first time as we now come to debate it. Having read that report, on which, as my noble friend said, the Government are basing their proposals to lift the trigger, I was completely unpersuaded. I thought that it was thin on everything except, possibly, employers’ preferences, which, left to them, would have no doubt pushed the earnings threshold to £10,000 or more. I am surprised, of course, by such a conclusion.
The Johnson report offers two reasons for raising the earnings trigger. The first is that such low earners are involved that even without NEST they would have a very high replacement income based on their state pensions in retirement, so they do not need an additional pension such as NEST. The second argument run by Johnson, and therefore presumably supported by the Government since it was relayed by the Minister in Committee, is that such people are so low paid that the sums they would achieve are not worth while. For example, if someone is earning £7,500 and the trigger is set at £5,700, they would bring in only about £130 a year for their pension pot.
Let us look at those two arguments. My response to the first argument, about high replacement, is, frankly, “So what?”. There is nothing to say that just because you are poor in your working life, you would break some golden Treasury rule by being at least as well off if not better off in retirement. It is simply an irrelevant argument. I shall make two points in response to the second argument about the small size of the pot. First, as the Johnson report acknowledges and as the Minister has rightly told us, many women will go on to higher-paid jobs, and even small sums started early enough will be valuable and increase persistency of saving and the savings habit. If someone has not enrolled, it will be that much harder for them to do so later on when a pay rise seems to be eaten up by auto-enrolment, and it will not happen.
From my quick calculations over the weekend, even if there was only the very modest figure of £130 a year in real terms going into a pension pot, I estimate that over 30 years that would none the less allow a woman to build up a pot of £8,000 to £10,000. Given a decent state pension, it obviously would not be sensible to annuitise that pot, since it would be below the trivial commutation limit, but it would mean that she would go into retirement with a modest but useful capital sum, perhaps for the first time ever. After all—and this is the question that I would like the Minister to address—that was exactly the previous Government’s argument, which I think the current Government have also run. We encouraged people to defer taking their state pension by one or possibly two years and, with the money saved from that deferment, provided a capital sum of £10,000 to £15,000 as a pension pot, which we further privileged by ring-fencing it and protecting it from pension credit. I stand to be corrected, but I take it that this is continuing and that the Government have not scrapped it.
In other words, a few years back the consensus around the House was that we thought it important to encourage people, mostly men, to build a modest capital sum for retirement by not drawing down their state pension at the age of 65 but deferring it for one or two years. Indeed, we so much wanted this to happen that we ring-fenced those savings by not allowing them to count against pension credit taper. When it comes to NEST and women, however, we do not seem to think that the same argument runs. I disagree with that. The one argument that was not run by Johnson, but might have been valid, was the means-test trap. But even that depended on a woman’s household income and on whether she was partnered. Given the single state pension in prospect—alleluia—that problem evaporates. We are allowing women to do this voluntarily, but as my noble friend Lady Drake said so rightly, these are precisely the women for whom voluntary enrolment is least likely to happen, is the least suitable, and for whom auto-enrolment is appropriate.
I would ask the Minister to remind us why it is acceptable to encourage men to build a small capital sum by delaying taking their state pension for a year or so, even protecting it against pension credit, but when it comes to NEST and where a woman might have a similar small capital sum, apparently it is not so desirable, even though her finances may be infinitely more strained. I hope that the Government will reconsider this. The Johnson arguments are simply invalid. They may give the Government a hook to hang on, but they do not run. The Government seem to be signing up to the notion that if you are poor in your working life, it is morally acceptable to be poor in retirement. I do not accept that and neither should the Government. If they are saying that the capital sum is not worth having, since we do not allow that argument to run on the state pension, we should not allow it on NEST. On both of those grounds, I hope that the Minister will offer his favourable support to my noble friend’s amendment.
I support the proposal in the Bill that the threshold should be reviewed in line with the Johnson report. I do so particularly in the light of the reassurance given by the Minister in Committee that there is no proposal from the Government to link the increase in the thresholds to the increase in tax thresholds.
Perhaps the Minister can clarify that, and I am sure he will. I do not know what the noble Baroness is quoting from since we remain committed to raising the tax threshold to £10,000, but we do not want this particular proposal undermined.
I shall come back to a further point that I think is important. The other interesting development is the new basic state pension. I am sure that my honourable friend the Minister in the other place will have had in mind his proposals on the threshold to align with what we are now proposing for the new basic pension. That makes sense. Too low a threshold, as we discussed in Committee, gives rise to considerable administrative problems and the issue of very small pension pots. I am sorry, but they are very small. They will be insignificant in the context of the improvement we will be making in the new basic state pension.
It is all very well for the noble Baroness to shake her head, but it is extremely dishonest to encourage people on low earnings to make contributions to their pensions which actually result in a low rate of return when they come to receive the benefit. Not only will they get that low return until we introduce the new state pension, but if they were in receipt of housing benefit they would actually lose income that they would have achieved through any increased pension.
I have already allowed one intervention and I should like to move on, since this is a short debate.
Finally, it is important to understand that too low a threshold may well encourage more lower income people to opt out than would a more realistic one. For those reasons, I support the proposal set out in the Bill.
My Lords, there is clearly a lot of consensus in the House around auto-enrolment, but I am afraid that one of the areas where there is genuine disagreement—there are not many of them—concerns the right earnings triggers for it. The amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, seek to introduce a lower entry point for automatic enrolment, and we need to look at them with the amendment which seeks to cap annual rises in the automatic enrolment trigger to the higher general level of earnings and prices. Let me take a few moments to explain why it is our view that the threshold we are proposing is right and why reverting to a lower trigger would not be right. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, pointed out, we reached a recommendation on the level by leaning on the Johnson review, which considered a number of factors: earnings dynamics, family characteristics, and the replacement rate which the noble Baroness finds distasteful.
Let me explain why the replacement rate is an important factor. If you are earning a certain level of income through your working life, it does not necessarily make sense to take money out of that to have a better income later. That should be a choice for the individual—that is the theory of replacement rates. When you are looking at asymmetric paternalism and encouraging people to do things that they might not do if they thought about it harder or were equipped to make those assessments, it does not necessarily make sense to create a situation where people find themselves scrimping and saving during their working life to have a slightly better lifestyle when they are older. That might be the right choice, but it should not necessarily be something that we encourage.
If we only consider replacement rates, then the analysis done by the review shows that individuals with earnings in the £10,000 to £15,000-a-year range throughout their working life would, through the combination of the state pension and income-related benefits, receive replacement rates that are often in excess of 100 per cent. If it had been replacement rates alone that guided the setting of the threshold, it would have been set somewhere between £10,000 and £15,000. However, that clearly is not the whole story and the review recognised that. It recognised the importance of dynamic earnings, which mean that some of those who have low earnings today will still benefit from saving as they are likely to go on and earn more in the future, a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. However, even that is not straightforward either—when a person’s earnings are low there is a genuine question about whether it is right to encourage them to save at particular times when they may very well have a pressing need to use all their income to meet present living costs.
That led the review team to consider individuals’ family circumstances. These may well mean that a low-earning individual with a higher-earning partner might benefit from saving even when their earnings are low, as it would help provide a decent replacement rate for the family as a whole. In the vast majority of families with both partners working, their total earnings are significantly higher than the earnings of just one individual. Bearing all these complicated and interrelated factors in mind, the aim of the independent review was to set a threshold which maximises pension saving for those for whom saving is valuable, while minimising the number of those brought in for whom it is not. In doing this and making its recommendations, the review team struck a very careful balance.
It is simply not correct to assert that all low earners will benefit from pension saving throughout their working life due to dynamic earnings, receipt of working tax credits or the fact that they live with partners who earn more; nor is it correct to say that all low earners will not benefit from saving. That is why we have the opt-in to allow those who will benefit from saving to choose to do so. Individuals who opt in and have qualifying earnings will of course still benefit from an employer contribution.
No earnings threshold will ensure that automatic enrolment is perfectly targeted, encouraging saving among all those who need to save while excluding all those who should not—unfortunately, the world is not that simple. That is why the review team sought to identify the correct balance between all these factors. The Government accepted its findings, including the adoption of a higher earnings threshold; this was widely welcomed by stakeholders. We believe that the starting point that we have proposed in the Bill on the basis of the review recommendation strikes the right balance between ensuring that we do not encourage persistently low earners or those experiencing a period of low earnings to save, while ensuring that those who clearly will benefit are able to be automatically enrolled.
We all agree that setting an appropriate earnings threshold for auto-enrolment is absolutely central to the success of the reforms. The arguments that I have heard today and during Committee have not persuaded me that there is sufficiently compelling evidence in favour of setting a lower threshold in the Bill when this is compared with what the review team has already considered in detail in reaching its recommendation.
Let me turn to the second element of the issue: the mechanism for revaluing the automatic enrolment thresholds year on year. The aim of the independent review was to set a threshold for automatic enrolment which maximises pension saving for those for whom saving is valuable, while minimising the number of those brought in for whom it is not. In doing this, the review team recommended that the automatic enrolment earnings trigger should be aligned with the tax threshold, currently £7,475. The presumption of the Johnson review was that the trigger would remain aligned with the tax threshold, unless future action by Government resulted in a fundamental change in its purpose or the relationship between them. The Johnson review is clear about its view on the right direction of travel.
The Chancellor has now announced the personal tax threshold for 2012-13 as £8,105. It is logical that this announcement has prompted the question, which my noble friend Lord Stoneham raised, as to whether it is our intention to uprate the automatic enrolment trigger to this figure for live running in 2012. We will want to undertake detailed work over the coming weeks and months to assess the impact of aligning the earnings trigger with that threshold of £8,105. We will look in particular at whether the right balance continues to be struck in terms of who is brought into auto-enrolment using this trigger, especially with regard to low earners and women.
It is appropriate to share with the House the figures that demonstrate the impact of moving up to £8,105. It would remove around 100,000 individuals from automatic enrolment. It is also appropriate to share with the House the fact that the bulk of those are likely to be women—our figure is 79 per cent, a proportion consistent with the impact of the rise to £7,475.
It is too early to say definitively that because £8,105 is the personal tax threshold for next year this will also be the auto-enrolment trigger. However, I can say that our expectation is that we would align with this figure, unless the evidence suggested that this was the wrong thing to do. It is therefore worth my repeating here the commitment I made at Committee that as well as the uprating order being subject to an affirmative debate, we will prepare an impact assessment to accompany the uprating order for each of the first five years up to and until shortly after the 2017 review. This will give us the opportunity to explain in detail to the House how and why we are proposing to uprate the auto-enrolment trigger and inform the affirmative debates that we will have annually.
Times are changing—as we debate these issues, the Chancellor has announced not only a new personal tax threshold but a major review of the operation of tax and national insurance contributions. It is vital therefore that we retain for the long term the flexibility in the uprating power to allow us to consider a number of factors.
First, we need to consider the possibility in the future that the earnings trigger could end up being within a few pounds of the tax threshold. What if, in such a situation, having anchored in all relevant criteria under the flexible provisions and taken into account all the evidence, the impact assessment suggests that the auto-enrolment earnings trigger should be £30 or less below the PAYE threshold? In that circumstance, it would be ridiculous to have different thresholds, separated by only 58 pence a week, given the burden on employers. Our priority must be to ensure that the reforms are credible and auto-enrolment works in practice. If it does not then we risk losing employer support and the reforms will not work.
We also need a level of flexibility as we consider the overall emerging financial landscape. At this point we do not know with any certainty what level state pensions will be or where earnings and prices are moving to. This is a policy for the long term, and we live in an increasingly uncertain world. We need to retain flexibility so that we can respond to changing circumstances.
Our primary aim in setting the earnings threshold that will trigger auto-enrolment must to be to ensure that we target the right group. The work that we will be undertaking over the next weeks and months will ensure that the threshold strikes the right balance between maximising pension savings for those for whom saving is valuable, while minimising the number captured for whom it is not worth while.
The flexibility that this uprating power provides, and the ultimate decision to increase thresholds for automatic enrolment, will not sit in my hands. It ultimately sits in this House and in another place through the affirmative uprating debates and the accompanying impact assessments that I have committed to, which provide significant protection against unwanted changes. I beg the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
I thank the Minister for that detailed response. I will reflect on some of the points that he has made.
I have sympathy with the point my noble friend Lady Hollis made that, if one spends time on the evidence compiled in the Johnson review, one can see that it can be deployed for not raising the threshold as persuasively as it can for raising it. That is one of the problems. Certainly, there is some persuasive evidence in that review that the earnings trigger should not rise above the order of £7,475 in today’s terms. Even looking at that evidence and listening to the Minister’s arguments, I can understand—I may not accept—the argument that runs that if one is moving to a single-tier flat-rate pension of £140, then an auto-enrolment figure of £7,465 may be appropriate, but that does not go to chasing an income tax threshold to £10,190, which is designed to achieve something quite different.
When it comes to the issue of replacement rates or who should be smoothing their income over their lifetime, and who needs to firmly hold on to their income over their lifetime because they are not well off enough to let it go and smooth it, we have to be very careful what is said. Again, I go back to the Johnson review; most people are not persistent low earners. Their aspirations on their replacement rates will not be determined by the low earnings they may have at a particular point in time; and those low earnings should not interrupt their persistency of savings. Equally with women, one has to look at household income, because one of the principal points of the pension reforms was that they work for women. As the Johnson review itself said, they may be in a household with someone who is working full-time or earning much more; they may be precisely the people who should be saving and their period of lower earnings as a part-timer may not be at that level over all their working life. Equally, to get the desired replacement rate, one has to have persistency of saving; one will not get there on five or six or seven years of saving. If one sets a trigger for auto-enrolment which interrupts that persistency of saving when someone moves to a lower level of earnings, that is not very efficient. Also, for those on lower and more modest incomes, no reference was made to how the tax credit system can make it pay to save, providing tax relief as high as 50 per cent or 60 per cent for some individuals, which when taken with the employer contribution should not necessarily be income forgone.
We will look with interest at the impact assessment that will be brought forward in each of the next five years, because I have expressed our concerns on this issue. Flexibility for changing circumstances is often driven by short or medium-term considerations: having a successful pension system is a long-term project and it needs people to be engaged in saving over a very long period. Having expressed those reservations, and recognising that there will be an impact assessment, I am sure that others will return to this issue. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 15 withdrawn.
Amendment 16 not moved.
Clause 6 : Postponement or disapplication of automatic enrolment
Amendments 17 to 18A not moved.
Clause 8 : Review of earnings trigger and qualifying earnings band
Amendment 19 not moved.
Consideration on Report adjourned until not before 8.37 pm.
Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity
Motion to Approve
My Lords, today we are considering the draft Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity, which is largely a simplification and re-presentation of the codes which are currently in place.
It is a simplification in that if the draft is approved by this House, it will replace in a single code the two documents that currently apply to different tiers of local government in England. One such document, which was issued in 1988, applies to parish councils and suchlike bodies. The other such document is a code which is identical but includes revisions made in 2001. This latter document applies to principal councils—that is, to unitary, county and district councils, and to London boroughs.
The draft code is also a significant re-presentation, since a matter which is in the current documents is now grouped around seven principles. These principles are not new, but the draft code improves their presentation and clarifies them. I shall say more on this later.
Finally, the draft code also makes two changes of substance. The first of these is designed to fulfil a mandate from the general election manifestos of both the Liberal Democrat and the Conservative parties—now a coalition commitment—
“to impose tougher rules to stop unfair competition by local authority newspapers”.
The second change seeks to toughen up the rules on the use of lobbyists by local authorities. Before saying more about the detail, I would like to say something about the nature of the publicity code and the processes that have been followed in drawing up the draft before the House today.
In 1986 the Government enacted legislation, the Local Government Act 1986. That legislation tackled the whole question of local authority publicity. It provided for a code of recommended practice on publicity and required local authorities to have regard to such a code. The code is therefore a statutory document, so councils are obliged to consider it when taking decisions about their publicity. It is a code, though, not regulations or an order, so it does not contain binding requirements. There is an obligation to have regard to it. This means that if a council is not to be challenged successfully in the courts or by its auditor for any departure from the code, there must be reasoned and rational grounds supporting such a departure.
That is the nature of the rules on local authority publicity that have been in place since the 1986 Act. The Merits Committee has questioned just how effective such rules, based in a statutory code, can be. The evidence is that over the years successive Governments have seen these rules as appropriate and effective. There is no reason why this should be different in future with the latest revisions.
Underpinning the 1986 legislation and the codes made under it, including the revisions made in 2001, is the firm belief that good, effective communication between a local authority and its communities is key to developing the understanding necessary for a healthy local democracy. Local authorities should use local publicity, not just to keep their communities informed of the services that they provide but to encourage greater civic participation. Councils up and down the country do this and it is right that they should.
However, publicity can be a sensitive matter because of the costs associated with it and the impact that it can have. That is why it is essential that decisions about local authority publicity are properly made. The purpose of the publicity code is to ensure that this will be the case.
At the end of last September we launched our consultation on proposed revisions to the publicity code. The consultation ended on 10 November. We received over 350 responses, all of which were carefully considered before finalising the text of the draft. At the end of last year the Communities and Local Government Committee held an inquiry into our proposals to revise the publicity code. That committee concluded that it was right to have a code to regulate the production of local authority publicity and went on to make a number of recommendations.
We carefully considered the Select Committee’s conclusions and recommendations before laying the draft code before Parliament on 11 February. In parallel with that, we also published the Government’s response to both the consultation and the Select Committee’s report.
I turn to the draft code. Its content, as I have said, is grouped around seven principles. These are that local authority publicity is to be lawful, cost-effective, objective, even-handed and appropriate, is to have regard to equality and diversity and is to be issued with care during periods of heightened sensitivity—that is, during periods before elections or referendums.
In addition there are, as I made clear earlier, two substantive changes. The first is that there is now specific reference to the maximum frequency, content and appearance of local authority newsletters, news sheets or similar publications. That is to address the problem of unfair competition by taxpayer-funded local authority newspapers. Such competition can have a detrimental effect on commercial local newspapers. Local authority publicity is important but the freedom of the press is also important in providing information to the public to hold their local authority to account. It is equally important that the readers of a newspaper can readily tell whether what they are reading is part of the independent press or a publication by the council about the council and setting out the council’s message.
In its report the Merits Committee has echoed the views of the Select Committee, which suggested that the evidence of this unfair competition is slight, and has questioned why the draft code should specify a maximum frequency for publication. The Government’s position is that there is a good case for action to be taken and that the action achieved through the draft code is right. There have been consistent representations from those who should know—the newspaper industry itself—that there is an issue with certain local authority newspapers creating unfair competition. That matters. An independent press holding councils to account is an essential element of any effective local democracy. If the freedom of the press is or feels threatened, then that is not something about which we should simply agree to look at in the long term, to seek more statistical evidence about or to review in the light of further experience. It is something on which we should act now, in support of genuine localism.
The fact that the action that we are taking chimes with the practice of the great majority of councils already should give confidence that what we are doing is right. The Local Government Association’s research shows that the great majority of local authorities publish newsletters quarterly or less frequently. As a result of the consultation, the draft code suggests that parish councils can have monthly newsletters and other such publications, reflecting that in a parish such communication is often part of local community life and does not cut across the local independent press in any way. What the draft code underscores is already the practice of the majority of councils, but not all.
The second substantive change is about the use of lobbyists by local authorities. Under the draft code, local authorities should not retain lobbyists with the intention of publishing any material designed to influence public officials, Members of Parliament, political parties or the Government to take a particular view on any issue. The reason is that it is a waste of public money for local authorities to hire political lobbyists to contact Ministers and Members of this House. If a council wants to make a point to a Minister or its Member of Parliament, then all it needs to do is address them directly.
A code of publicity, with these two changes, and the streamlined and clarified presentation of the draft before us will be of benefit to councils, local taxpayers and communities across the country in ensuring that councils promote themselves in a fair and uncompetitive way. It will stop waste and unnecessary spending, and will bring about consistency between authorities in understanding the actions that they can take to promote themselves and their message. I beg to move.
My Lords, your Lordships will be familiar with the old saw about an ambassador being a good man sent abroad to lie for his country. From my short time in this House, it seems to me that a Minister in this House is a good Peer sent to this place to defend the indefensible. I congratulate the Minister on the customary charm and thoroughness with which she has moved the adoption of the publicity code.
The Secretary of State often reminds us that in his younger days he read Marx before he joined the Conservative Party; indeed, in a debate in the other place on Monday he referred, albeit not approvingly, to Lenin and Stalin. The Secretary of State’s brand of localism seems to come very close to Stalin’s democratic centralism, in as much as it seems to amount to a situation in which councils can do anything they like so long as the Secretary of State approves of it.
As the Minister has said, there has long been a code of practice on publicity. The consolidation and simplification elements are absolutely acceptable, while the seven principles are perfectly correct and welcomed by all in local government. The other points, though, particularly the restrictions on publicity and the number of publications, like so many other policies enunciated by the Department for Communities and Local Government, really reflect the Secretary of State’s own obsessions. We have had a series of pronouncements around waste collection, chief executive pay, the roles of mayors and chief executives being combined and compulsory referendums, all reflecting the Secretary of State’s somewhat unique view of the world and his determination to enforce that view upon local government in general. He seems to suffer from a political variant of that rather distressing condition, OCD, in his case the letters perhaps standing for obsessive compulsion disorder. He seems to wish to compel everyone to reflect and act on his obsessions.
The ostensible reason for the restriction of publication of communications to four a year is to protect the local press so that it can hold councils to account—a function that it certainly ought to exercise and ought to be encouraged to exercise. One might find this somewhat ironic from a Government who, if they have not bent over backwards to accommodate the Murdoch dynasty’s extension of its influence over the media, have at any rate inclined in that direction, but let us leave that aside.
I have been a member of Newcastle City Council for 44 years, 24 of those as either chairman or leader of the council. In the early days it was certainly true that the local media held the city council to account. They regularly attended meetings of all kinds and were regularly in touch with leading members of the council. Several journalists in the north-east went on to achieve national prominence, which reflected the quality of their work. However, over time—I ceased being leader of the council in 1994—the degree to which council affairs were covered dropped remarkably. Indeed, at one point I challenged the local press to do more, asking why it was not covering council activities more. In summary, the reply was, effectively, “It doesn’t sell newspapers”. The press had conducted a survey that found it was not something that sold newspapers. I understand that a commercial decision was therefore taken to cut back. Whereas for many years I would receive a telephone call from the municipal correspondent of the local press every day, by the time my term finished such calls were much less frequent. They have become less so since. Latterly, although there is some coverage of council meetings, there is virtually no coverage of the scrutiny committees—the very committees that one might have thought a local press looking to hold a council to account would attend and report, but they do not do so.
The Government complain that there is unfair competition because some councils incorporate adverts in their publications. Around one-third do not; others do. However, many of these adverts are there for the fulfilment of statutory requirements—statutory planning notices, for example. Councils will sometimes use their own newspapers as a medium for these notices because it is a more cost-effective way of publishing them. They reach every citizen, whereas local newspapers do not, and it is often cheaper to do that. In any case, is this not consistent with the oft-proclaimed belief of the Government—perhaps of all of us—in the virtues of value for money and, in the case of the Government in particular, of competition and the market?
The noble Baroness touched on the question of evidence. What is the evidence that newspapers are suffering as a result of this competition? The Select Committee stated in paragraph 44 of its report:
“Very scant evidence has been presented to this inquiry, and to previous inquiries, which would sustain the claim that local authority publications have contributed significantly to the decline of local newspaper advertising … or sales … There is no evidence of a widespread problem of unfair competition”.
It is not surprising that it should say that. Less than 1 per cent of councils publish a weekly newsletter. Less than 3 per cent publish one fortnightly. Thirty-six per cent publish a quarterly newsletter. A council with which the noble Baroness is very familiar—the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea—publishes six newsletters a year of 16 full-colour pages, which are full of information. That is perfectly correct. It would be constrained from doing so by the terms of this order. The Merits Committee said:
“The House may wish to seek a better explanation”—
from the Department for Communities and Local Government—
“of what evidence leads them to conclude that there is currently unfair competition and why … four issues a year represents the right balance between the … need to give information to local residents and the interests of commercial newspapers”.
It was interesting that the Select Committee heard from the general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, one Jeremy Dear. He said that 68 per cent of editors believed that there was less coverage of council functions than there was when he was a working journalist. He said:
“The vast majority of the stories”
in his day
“were from council meetings and council coverage. It is just not the case that there are people dedicated to doing that. Despite the best efforts of newspaper companies and journalists, they simply do not have the staff any more to be able to cover it … You see the correlation between that decline and the expansion of a whole number of different council publications”.
There are significant reasons for the decline of the local press. One of the early ones was perhaps the development of local commercial radio, itself funded by advertising. The second is the widespread use of the internet. The third—again, ironically, your Lordships might think—is the existence of free newspapers, sometimes published by the very local press that is apparently pressing the Government to impose these restrictions. Many of us take home our free copy of the Evening Standard as we leave your Lordships’ House. In the north-east, Trinity Mirror publishes a free so-called newspaper; it consists mainly of advertising. These, I submit, are much more likely to be responsible for the decline of the local press than are local council publications.
Councils often join up with the National Health Service, the police and others to provide information. Many councils reckon that this is a more cost-effective way of conveying that information. For example, the Liberal Democrat-controlled council in Portsmouth not only publishes its own newspaper, which reaches all 85,000 households in Portsmouth, but spends £970,000 advertising in the local press. Many councils continue to advertise. However, the local press in Portsmouth reaches only 30,000 of those 85,000 houses. If the council wants to reach everyone, it has little option but to distribute its newsletter more widely. Around £40 million is spent nationally on advertising planning notices alone in the paid-for press.
The code proscribes, as the Minister has pointed out, the engagement of lobbyists to influence public officials or government. I would be sceptical about the value of employing lobbyists, but it does not seem necessary for the Government to proscribe their use if a democratically elected council chooses to use that resource. Nor is it necessary for them to prohibit the production of stands or displays at party conferences to influence members or political parties—something which, frankly, I would like to see a little more of from certain political parties at present. On lobbying, it should be noted that the Select Committee suggested that a code of practice should be developed. The Government have rejected that outright.
The Select Committee concluded that it was,
“concerned that some of the changes … run counter to ‘localist’ principles and have potentially negative implications for local democracy”.
That goes to the heart of the matter before us tonight. Decisions on these issues should be made by elected councillors answerable to their electorate. It is interesting that the Minister rightly points out that the legislation requires councils to have regard to the code, which is essentially unenforceable, although a district auditor may make a report on a complaint by an aggrieved resident or, presumably, an aggrieved local newspaper in this case.
Like the Minister, I hope that councils will have regard to the code and that they will make their decisions on the basis of their judgment of the local circumstances, and not simply defer to the prejudices of the Secretary of State. They should also, perhaps, consider the following statement:
“If the Department for Communities and Local Government was truly committed to localism it would not be introducing draconian rules dictating to councils how often they are allowed to share information with residents. It is extremely disappointing that ministers have failed to make any significant amendments to the code following consultation, and appear to have ignored the advice of their own MPs. Newsletters delivered to people’s homes have consistently proved to be the cheapest way for councils to directly communicate with residents and keep people informed about local services. The Communities and Local Government select committee found there was scant evidence of council publications competing unfairly with local newspapers. Most are distributed between four and six times a year and pose no threat to the local press, on whom the growth of the internet has had a far greater impact. It is extraordinary that Government ministers have chosen to ignore this and take such a heavy-handed approach. Not only are these rules completely unnecessary, but they have the potential to harm local democracy and drive up the amount of money councils will have to spend on advertising to fulfil their legal requirements. We strongly agreed with the Communities Secretary when he said in one of his first speeches that no-one working in local government signed up to be told what to do for the rest of their lives by Whitehall”.
Those words were not my words; they were the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, the chair of the Local Government Association and long-standing associate and colleague of the Secretary of State. She was the leader of Bradford council in her day, after the Secretary of State had departed to higher, perhaps greater, things.
The noble Baroness is not in her place tonight, which I do not for a moment criticise. I warned her that I was going to be quoting her. She might feel somewhat conflicted, which I quite understand. I have no criticism at all of her. Indeed, I admire her for having the forthrightness and courage to speak on behalf of local government over this issue.
My Lords, the noble Lord’s fierce denunciation was backed by the serried ranks of his fellow Peers sitting tightly behind him. As my noble friend said, the changes in the rules on local authority publicity that affect council newspapers were a manifesto pledge, but I do not intend to argue it on that ground. I declare an interest as an ex-journalist. I am a life member of the National Union of Journalists. In my view, this debate raises something absolutely fundamental. The role of the regional and local press is to report independently on the news, to owe no obligation to any vested interest and not to take any line unquestioningly from officialdom. They need to be fair and above all they need to be independent in judgment. I do not claim for a moment that those values are always maintained, but I do claim that the regional and local press have a proud record in this country of exposing injustice and, at times, corruption. That is very much in the local public interest and should be maintained.
We deceive ourselves if we believe—slightly as the noble Lord suggested—that local councils, whether they are Labour or Conservative, have the same interest and join together in applauding the role of the free press. They want their policies to be supported, they often resent criticism, and they are not always particular in the means that they use to have their way. I give one example from my own experience in Birmingham, where I was the chairman of Midland Independent Newspapers. We published the Birmingham Evening Mail, apart from other newspapers. It was a management buyout and our policy was that the editor edited and the board simply did not get involved in editorial policy. Sadly, the Labour council objected to the reporting on local government issues and the leading articles of the editor, Ian Dowell. The result was that they withdrew all their public notice recruiting advertising from our evening paper, started their own local paper and handed out the print content to our commercial competitor. Let us recognise that not all councils recognise and appreciate the importance of free comment.
We should also recognise the development of local authority newspapers, to which my noble friend referred. These again have one main purpose, which is to promote the policies of the council in power. It has nothing to do with independent journalism. Their role is certainly not to investigate and inquire into what is going on in the local council. They would get into terrible trouble if they tried to do that. This is bad enough, but, by exploiting their local monopoly position, they attract to themselves advertising that is necessary for any independent newspaper to survive. Independent local newspapers are already impacted, but this simply puts the final nail in the coffin.
I give one example of what can happen from my own local council paper, the Hammersmith and Fulham News, which writes:
“YOUR H&F NEWS IS INSIDE THIS ADVERTISING FEATURE”.
The advertising feature—of a Thai restaurant—is spread over four pages. Inside, there are no fewer than 44 pages of houses and flats for sale by local estate agents. There is a full-page advertisement for the Metro Bank and other advertisements for double glazing and carpet companies. Perhaps this is an exception; I do not know. I hope that my local council will perhaps change its policy. The Kensington local paper—this might be the first time that we agree—actually pursues its policies in an extremely sensible manner. It does not take advertising or do these kinds of things.
Too often, councils try to take over the role of local independent newspapers but without the necessary qualification of independent judgment. They use their local monopoly power to take advertising when they cannot conceivably call that advertising council business. They certainly help to drive out of business genuine local papers and prevent new independent local papers developing. No one in their right mind would try to take on a monopoly advertiser in their own local area. Perhaps worst of all for me, an ex-journalist, they are training a new generation of public relations executives who take press releases and send them out. This country does not need more public relations people. We need a few good, honest reporters to report the news at both national and local level.
Frankly, I am amazed that the noble Lord is putting his opposition to this. I am totally amazed that he is speaking from the Front Bench on this. In the few minutes that I have been speaking, the crowds behind him have not welled up either. There seems to be a remarkable lack of enthusiasm on his own side for the case that he is putting. This is a fundamental issue. This House and this country should be about encouraging free and good local independent journalism. The council newspapers that we see at the moment are not examples of that. The Government are entirely right in the action that they have taken.
My Lords, first, I declare my interest as a member of Newcastle City Council. Our democracy is underpinned by four principles: the right to vote, freedom of speech, an independent judiciary and a free press. In the context of having a free press, I agree entirely with my noble friend Lord Fowler. The Government should not be the publisher of newspapers and—for that reason—nor should local government. This is not what governments exist for.
The Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity was introduced to prevent party political literature masquerading as official council newsletters. In my time, I saw enough of them to know that a code was necessary and that some limitations needed to be applied. I continued to support that position and the need for a code to exist. However, we should be aware that there are already restrictions in the existing code. The current one says that local authority publicity should seek to raise public awareness of the services provided by the council and the functions it performs, explaining to electors and council tax payers the reasons for particular policies and priorities and enabling them to have an informed say about issues affecting them.
As for subject matter, councils have a very wide range of statutory powers to produce and circulate publicity and to explain statutory matters to the general public, as the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, pointed out. Some of those powers relate specifically to the work of the council whereas others are discretionary, enabling the council to publicise matters which go beyond its primary responsibilities. However, in the context of localism, the drive to localism and the Localism Bill, it is very hard to see why councils should in future be restricted from pursuing a wider agenda in terms of public service provision in their localities. Indeed, councils should always seek to ensure that publicity is relevant to their functions and does not duplicate unnecessarily the publicity produced by other agencies, which of course includes newspapers.
It seems to me that the existing code is pretty reasonable, which begs the question of exactly why the changes are being introduced. Some of them we can agree with. I agree entirely with the view of my noble friend Lady Hanham on lobbyists. However, it is claimed that in recent years there has been a growth in the number and frequency of council newsletters and publications, and that 92 per cent of councils publish such newsletters. I think that that is a very good thing. I am very surprised that 8 per cent can deliver their statutory functions and not produce some kind of newsletter. In the context of localism, that is the direction of travel. If the general public do not like what is being said in these publications, they can vote out the councils at the ballot box.
I accept that some council publications have become like commercial newspapers, although I am not aware of them being issued weekly; but the vast majority of council publications are simply not like that. However, there is an issue around advertising and commercial newspapers, and concerns have been expressed about frequency of publication and content. Councils are constantly being encouraged to earn income. Therefore, it is no surprise to learn that councillors of all parties have encouraged council newsletters to accept advertising to pay for their distribution and other costs. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, reminded us, only 1 per cent of councils have a weekly publication; most print quarterly. At the moment, one-third have no advertising at all. Therefore, the jury is out on the evidence base for saying that council magazines pose a threat to the local newspaper industry. In principle, I believe that councils should not produce newspapers. However, given that £40 million is spent by local councils on planning notices, even if all councils opted for quarterly publication, it would make little practical difference to the situation. Therefore, I do not think that there is a great deal of difference between having four or six publications. I do not understand why it is deemed necessary to legislate in this way with this code.
I turn to what I think is an absurd proposal. The impact assessment contains various options, including an option to do nothing. It states:
“Option 1: Do nothing. This would mean that local authorities would be able to continue to produce free newspapers as frequently as once a week”.
In the current financial climate, I doubt that that would be practical. We should note that 99 per cent do not do so. The impact assessment says that local authorities would be able to,
“emulate the style of commercial newspapers”.
I accept absolutely the point made by my noble friend Lord Fowler in that regard. The document further states that local authorities would be able to,
“include material additional to facts about the council and its services such as crosswords, horoscopes and competitions that do not relate to the business of the authority”.
Is it really the job of the Government to stipulate in the code whether crosswords, horoscopes and competitions should or should not be published in a quarterly council newspaper? Surely the whole thrust of localism is that we should let councils get on with it.
As I say, I agree absolutely with the view expressed on lobbyists. I believe that that is correct, and I have not been happy when I have seen them being deployed—not in my own authority but elsewhere. However, I ask the Government to ensure that they follow the same practice as local councils are being asked to implement in this regard. Can we be reassured that the DCLG is not employing any lobbyists or PR companies elsewhere in the Government, given that local councils are to be banned from doing so?
I turn to “purdah” and the two rules that apply within this code, about which no proposals are coming forward. Local government went into purdah at the end of last week in connection with the local elections in England that will take place on the first Thursday of May. Central government have a purdah date, three weeks before the official polling date, of 14 April. I have never understood why central Government can make major announcements, say on project investment, only a few days before postal votes go out. That will occur this year in around the third week of April. That does not seem to be right. I propose that purdah should begin for all government agencies on the date of the publication of the notice of a poll, not on the publication of the notice of an election.
I and, I hope, my noble friends support this measure as it is contained in the coalition agreement, and it is right that we should do so. However, I hope that this matter will be carefully reviewed. No timescale is given in the impact assessment of when it will be reviewed but I do not think that it is the business of government to legislate on whether a newsletter should be published quarterly or bi-monthly. We are in very great danger of producing a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
My Lords, as a former local councillor in Brentwood, Essex, and now as a director of a newspaper company, the Telegraph Media Group—I declare an interest accordingly—I appreciate that there are two sides to this issue. Weighing them both in the balance, I strongly support the proposed code of recommended practice because of the damaging impact of some local authority publicity on the local press. I do not need to dwell too much on this because I agree almost entirely with everything that my noble friend Lord Fowler said.
I do not think that anyone in this House would disagree with the proposition that a free and vibrant local press is the cornerstone of a properly functioning democracy. Local newspapers foster a sense of local and community spirit, scrutinise those in power, help ensure that taxpayers' money is being used efficiently, and, at a time of increasing secrecy in council decision-making, help shed some light on the workings of local government. The local press is the best example we have of localism in action. People respect and trust the regional press, which, we should not forget, employs 10,000 journalists across the UK—that is more reporters on the ground than any other medium in this country—to act independently in the public interest in a way that council publications never can. I appreciate, as the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, said, that there are pressures on the reporting of local government issues. However, independent research from Ofcom in 2009 found a general increase in high-quality local investigative journalism over the past five years. That is much more the image of the local press that I have as opposed to that reflected in some of the things that the noble Lord said.
However, as with national newspapers, such high-quality journalism—I believe that it is high-quality journalism—is expensive. Working in a newspaper company, I know that even in a benign commercial climate that places a considerable burden on publishers. However, it is infinitely more difficult during a period not just of economic downturn but of structural change within the industry, the combination of which has created a perfect economic storm for the regional press over the past few years. If we value a free local press, then we have to do everything we can to ensure that it operates on a level commercial playing field. It cannot do that if it is competing with local authority publications not just for readers—we should not forget the readers in this—but, crucially, for the advertising which funds it. Using taxpayers' money to compete for that increasingly scarce revenue—none of us should be in any doubt about how difficult the advertising market is—is unfair, anti-competitive and damaging to the local press. The more frequent the publication, the more advertising spend is drained from the private sector.
A recent survey by the Newspaper Society showed that nearly half the local authorities surveyed in London publish a newspaper or magazine on a monthly basis or even more frequently, with 90 per cent of those accepting advertising. Examples, as we have heard, include East End Life from Tower Hamlets and Greenwich Time, both of which in effect masquerade as local newspapers, which raises the added issue, as has been touched on, that local people can be misled into believing that what is in effect local authority propaganda is objective and independent journalism. It is not and never will be.
The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, raised the issue of crosswords and so forth. I looked at a copy of East End Life, a newspaper which, in an investigation in 2009, the Evening Standard showed to have twice the number of pages as the independent newspaper in that area, the East London Advertiser. It is not just crosswords; it has TV listings, news items and sports pages at the back—this is, in effect, a local newspaper in shape and in displaying classified adverts. That cannot be right. I am all in favour, as a former local councillor, of local authorities being able to communicate to the public the information they need, but they have that in the A to Z of local service; the occasional, objective council publications, which will not be stopped by the code; material in public libraries; a constructive dialogue with the local media, which is so important; and, of course, websites. In a digital age, there is no end of ways for a council to communicate with people.
I live in the London Borough of Islington. Its website tells me how to claim benefits, what books are in the library, what jobs I can apply for, how to get involved in the council and so on; it is all there. I believe that the code will help correct the balance. It is a simple solution which will not stop local authorities communicating professionally, objectively and cost-effectively with their electorates across a range of issues; but it will help stop some of the unfair competition with the local press, which is so dependent on advertising, and, in some extremes, help stop the public being misled into believing that a council publication is an independent newspaper, with all the profound implications that that has for local democracy. On every count I believe that the code is good; it is good for local taxpayers, good for local democracy and good for the independent local press which is a vital part of the civic fabric of our country.
My Lords, as the daughter of the proprietor of three local newspapers in Hampshire and Surrey, I grew up with the words “threats to local newspapers” ringing in my ears. In those days, in the 1960s, as the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, says, it was from commercial radio. The threats have been talked about ever since. The threats now are from websites. I do not believe that the younger generation listening to this debate would believe that the threat to local newspapers is actually coming from council newspapers. I do not recognise the world that the noble Lord, Lord Black of Brentwood, spoke of when he said that councils are increasingly secret. Actually, over the past 20 years, when I was involved as a councillor and latterly council leader in Somerset, councils opened up their meetings considerably; they were no longer held behind closed doors. We live in a world now of much greater openness. Indeed, a lot of future exposure is likely to come through the world of the Huffington Post and WikiLeaks, not through the traditional print media.
I do feel nostalgic for print and I understand why the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, made the impassioned speech that he did. I hope that local newspapers continue to fight another day, but I am not certain that they will. Technology is moving so fast that that produced on paper is almost irrelevant. It saddens me that the Government have chosen this moment to renew a code in these terms. It extends a code that was already adequate to counter what my noble friend described so well as a situation from days gone by, when party political publications masqueraded as newspapers. That is not the case now. The code covered it, the code is complied with and councillors understand very well, as do council officials, what the code means.
I am disappointed that our Government have chosen to micromanage in this way. When we talk of unfair competition in addressing this, it seems very strange. The rest of the time we talk about competition and a free market being healthy. I understand the difference, which is that it is taxpayers’ money producing a council newspaper, but the rest of the time councils are urged to be as commercially viable as possible. However, it is not that that offends me, it is the micromanagement. Are we really going to have a code that dictates content? The noble Lord quoted competitions. I can remember my own council newspaper running competitions along the lines of, “Get to know your local area. Can you recognise where this is?”, with a photo of the local area. The next time it was published it would talk about the projects that were going to happen there. That is a competition and it certainly should not be caught by the code.
Frequency is certainly not a matter for central government; it is a matter that the council will decide according to its finances and, indeed, according to its residents’ wishes. Councils have been urged for ages to take into account their residents’ wishes, and survey after survey that my council did always came back with a request from residents for more information in a more digestible form. The public are very happy with the appearance of newspapers; that is why newspapers have evolved as they have. There is nothing wrong with a local authority taking on what is a very popular appearance and publishing its material in that form. It is not by chance that a newspaper has evolved into the form it has; it is because that is the form that the public like.
Finally, I do not like lobbyists any better than anybody else, but we need to be careful about this in the code. A lobbyist might be taken to be a person who has particular expertise in publicising a fairly technical issue. In the 1990s I remember that quite specialist help was needed to deal with what we were forced to do then, housing stock transfer. Noble Lords will be able to think of other very specialist issues now; say, flood defence and managed retreat, which you need quite specialist people to talk about. Would you not be allowed to employ them in your newspaper to write an article? So there is even a question hanging over the question of lobbyists. I wish that the Government would think again and quietly drop this proposal.
My Lords, when looking at the two Motions before us this evening, I asked myself, what it is that most council tax payers want from their council? I believe that it is the provision of good or excellent services as cheaply as possible. Taxpayers want value for money; every pound spent wisely, especially in these straitened times. I should declare that I was a local councillor for a number of years. My district council, Breckland in Norfolk, is in the top quartile for performance—indeed, it has beacon status—and it still has the lowest council tax in the country; about £60 for a band D house. As a taxpayer, that is exactly where I want it to be: it is good value for money.
The code deals with two main issues; new or tougher rules for local authority newsletters and the use of lobbyists by local authorities. Dealing with the use of lobbyists first, I ask myself the question, as a council tax payer: do I want my council paying tens of thousands of pounds to an outside firm to lobby MPs, public officials, political parties and government Ministers? The answer is an emphatic no, for two reasons. First, councillors and officers of the council already have open-door access to their MPs, Ministers and public officials. Why on earth do councils, therefore, need to pay good money to lobbyists to do their job for them? This leads me to my second point: it is a waste of taxpayers’ money, money that would be better spent in improving or maintaining front-line services.
The other issue is that of newsletters. I listened carefully to the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, and I have to say that I cannot understand the position he has taken. It does not seem logical to me. If the Minister had come to the Dispatch Box to say that all restrictions for local council publications were to be removed, I could perhaps understand the noble Lord’s position if he opposed that. Indeed, there might well be opposition from all around the House, and understandably so.
Imagine the outcome if there was this free-for-all. There would be editors’ comments, opinion pages, hand-picked letters, all peddling the politics and policies of that particular council. I, for one, would find that undesirable, as, I suspect, would the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, especially as his party controls only less than 15 per cent of councils in the country. He would rightly argue that the Conservatives would have an unfair advantage, because they currently control more than 50 per cent of councils. Some rules need to be laid down to ensure an even-handed approach.
The second issue is whether some local authorities create unfair competition for local commercial newspapers. I should stress that the vast majority of local councils publish no more than a quarterly newsletter, as has been mentioned, and the content is largely confined to making the electorate aware of the services provided by the authority, highlighting local concerns, and informing people how they might respond to them. That is perfectly right and proper. This code of conduct will not affect any of those authorities’ newsletters. Unfortunately, a small minority of councils go far beyond that, and feature TV guides, entertainment listings, puzzle pages, sporting news, commercial advertisements, and film and theatre reviews. This clearly strays into direct conflict with the commercial local newspaper industry.
For instance, Tower Hamlets Council’s newspaper employs nearly 50 per cent more staff than its commercial rival, the East London Advertiser, and it has almost double the number of pages. Think of the cost of production, which is probably hundreds of thousands of pounds, all paid for by the poor council tax payer. This money would be far better spent on front-line essential services. Greenwich Council’s weekly newspaper costs the taxpayer more than £500,000.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, conveniently talks about localism. However, is it really localism to allow councils to produce their own newspapers that will not publish any criticism of themselves, are paid for by the council tax payer who has no say in the matter, and are in direct competition with the local commercial newspaper? Or is it a more healthy localism to have a flourishing independent local newspaper that finances itself, is able to comment on and criticise the activities of the council, and allows the electorate to comment through letters? I think that I know the right answer.
I welcome the provisions introduced by the Minister. Council newsletters should be just that—newsletters, not newspapers—and councils should not pay good money to lobbyists to do a job that councils are perfectly able to do themselves. In both instances, the money would be better spent on front-line services.
My Lords, I support the remarks of my noble friend Lord Shipley. Not for me is the rarefied and glamorous world of journalism of my noble friend Lord Fowler and his successful chairmanship of Midland Newspapers, but I am someone who spent a working career in the newspaper industry as a general manager in the nuts and bolts of the industry at a national and local level—including at the Portsmouth News, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, which in my day also printed the local government newspaper.
The local press is vital for communities to speak to themselves and encourage local democratic accountability. I spent a career, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, mentioned, fending off advertisers who threatened to run their own newspapers when they were dissatisfied by some coverage in the papers. Market competition and economics normally determine the success of competitive ventures, and that is how it should be. I can understand the concerns of local newspapers, particularly if councils use taxpayers’ money, combined with their own advertising, to attract other advertising. However, it is difficult for councils to do this. Newspapers are complex products that have to be read to be effective. Local newspapers are one of the most trusted mediums in the media. Councils, frankly, are not very good at creating their own newspapers, and advertisers rarely want to be associated with their councils.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, was correct to say that the real threat to local newspapers is from the web and from underinvestment in content. I accept that there should be some guidance and restraint on unfair competition, because local newspapers have to be protected. However, we also have to accept that in some areas there are no longer any viable local newspapers, apart from free sheets, and that is a problem. It is somewhat heavy handed to insist that councils can publish only quarterly publications. A monthly limit would have been fine, because premium advertisers basically want daily and weekly mediums to advertise in and are not really interested in monthly publications. Nor are the monthly publications a real threat to the free press.
We accept that daily and weekly newspapers are under pressure and need to be protected. They need to be safeguarded, not least to allow them to invest in journalism in their local areas. Please, let us limit this measure to unfair competition and not micromanage the sort of publicity material that local councils should put out in their areas—particularly in this age of localism.
My Lords, this short debate drew to a conclusion rather more quickly than I had anticipated. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in it, including the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, for introducing his Motion in his usual calm way. It is nice to see that on the other side. We have sparred on many occasions, but we always do that, I hope, with considerable grace and good humour. Unfortunately, I do not believe a word of what he said in rejecting our Motion. As has been made clear by many speakers on this side, there remains unfair competition between local council communications and the local press. We have recognised that it is right and timely to review and simplify the code, while bringing forward two changes.
It is interesting that practically no one had anything to say against the provisions on lobbyists. We all understand that local authorities have, and should have, direct access to government. They can do that for themselves. One point was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, about specialist lobbyists on technical matters. They will not be prohibited by this, because sometimes cases have to be made on technical matters that cannot otherwise be dealt with.
Most of the opprobrium from the noble Lord, the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, was regarding the number of publications. We believe that it is right at this stage, by reviewing the code, to suggest that councils should limit the number of publications they put out and that they limit the content. Local councils have a duty to inform their residents in a neutral and straightforward way about what they are doing. They do not have to do it every month or every week. They need to do it occasionally. The Local Government Association survey made it clear that the previous code has been pretty well respected in that regard, and we all recall that the 1986 code came about as a result of some arcane and peculiar practices by local government in what it put forth to the public.
The first issue is the restraint on local government on how often it should use the taxpayers’ money to produce publications to put out its views on what is happening. The second issue, which we have debated, is whether it is providing competition to the local press. If you cannot tell the difference between a local government publication that is putting out the local government view and a publication of the local press, something is seriously wrong. Local government is not and should not be acting as a local newspaper in any way at all. I agree with suggestions that local newspapers are less than they were and that they do not provide perhaps the scrutiny that they should, but it has ever been thus. Sometimes they appeared at council meetings and sometimes they did not. I go back nearly as far as the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, so I am aware of what does happen. However, there is no reason to suggest that we should make it any more difficult for the local press than it is at the moment and that councils’ and taxpayers’ money should be spent on doing that.
I think that the case has been made by many of my noble friends as to why the way in which a minority of local councils deal with their publications should not be allowed to continue. The Government are convinced that this is the right moment to make these two changes to the code.
Some comments have been made about enforcement. As I said at the beginning of this debate, a code is a code. The local authorities have to decide whether they are going to live by the code but, if not, they can be subject to challenge by residents through the auditors. They also might have to consider whether the publicity for being challenged on this is worth the candle.
Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity
Motion of Regret
That this House regrets that the Government’s proposed amended Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity seeks to impose wide-ranging and unnecessary restrictions on what material democratically elected councils may publish for their citizens; and that this is in direct contradiction of Her Majesty’s Government’s proclaimed belief in localism.
My Lords, to adapt the phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, I rise from the serried rank of the Labour Opposition to join the noble Baroness in thanking all noble Lords who have participated in this debate—which of course will go unreported, as, alas, so many of the debates in your Lordships’ House are. It is a pleasure to be opposite the noble Baroness. As a young lawyer, I often had to appear before her father, a formidable county court registrar. I have to say that to appear before the noble Baroness is much easier and a much more pleasant experience.
The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, seemed to imply that local government did not wish to see an independent local press. That simply is not the case for much the greater part of local government, nor do local civic newspapers purport to provide independent journalism; that is not their function. Of course, local governments should not promote the politics of their council, as the noble Lord rightly said. In this connection, I am bound to quote from a recent publication by the royal borough—in fact its newspaper is called the Royal Borough. The leader of the council said:
“The Coalition Government, in its efforts to rectify the worst financial crisis since World War Two, is making significant reductions in public spending and I believe that it is right that this should happen and right that this borough should play its part in restoring public finances to balance”.
One might wonder whether that notion transgresses the policy that the noble Lord rightly advocates that councils should not promote their policies. Be that as it may, the position is much as defined by the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham. I will not, in passing, defend the activities of Hammersmith and Fulham Council in this respect or in any other, but the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, with his experience of the industry, rightly points out that the prospect of competition from civic newspapers or journals—or whatever they are called—that are published less frequently than daily or weekly, as the vast majority are, is quite unreal. With respect, we have heard nothing from noble Lords in today’s debate to provide the evidence on that, which the Select Committee pointed out was signally lacking.
The noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, asked what council tax payers would want. Of course, it is right that council tax payers and residents of an area should have the final say in these matters. They should be the judges at the ballot box of what their council does, whether it involves council publications or any other local service. As I have indicated before, surely the correct approach to these matters is the one strongly advocated by the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, on behalf of the Local Government Association. She and I are on different sides of the political fence, but she clearly represents the voice of local government. However, as we have already heard from both sides of the Chamber, since this code is not enforceable other than by complaint to the district auditor and since it is a code to which local authorities must have regard—and I absolutely endorse that—there is no particular advantage to be gained in pressing the Motion.
Motion not moved.
Pensions Bill [HL]
Clause 10 : Certification that alternative to quality requirement is satisfied
20: Clause 10, page 9, line 3, leave out “or most”
My Lords, I shall also speak to Amendment 21. The new pension arrangements that are to apply from 2012 provide a minimum level of pension contributions, based on a band of qualifying earnings, of 8 per cent, of which at least 3 per cent must be met by the employer and the rest from the employee contribution and tax relief or credit. The required minimum contribution levels are set as a quality requirement for a qualifying pension scheme. Some employers who already operate good workplace pensions base their pension contribution calculations not on earnings but on other definitions of pay such as basic pay. It has been argued that the regulation should be set so as to encourage employers with good-quality schemes to stay with them. Clause 10 seeks to recognise this by introducing an additional provision to the powers in the Pensions Act 2008 that allows the Secretary of State to set an alternative process of certification known as the alternative requirement. That will allow employers to certify that overall their schemes satisfy the quality criterion for pension contributions. This process involves setting a regulatory test which, if met, will allow employers so to certify.
Although the Government have published the test that they intend to set in regulations, the regulations are still subject to consultation, so we do not know what they will finally look like or how they may change over time. The Johnson review asserts that under the regulatory test that is proposed, 92 per cent of workers would still match the statutory quality criterion on contributions under the qualifying band of earnings. This assertion is based on the ONS survey of hours and earnings. The assertion of 92 per cent is based also on the pattern of earnings before auto-enrolment. Our concern is that after the onset of auto-enrolment, an incentive may have been created that will encourage bad employers to arbitrage between the statutory quality criterion of an 8 per cent contribution on a band of earnings and the alternative requirement, to the detriment of some workers. In a nutshell, our concern is that while trying to accommodate good employers, a compliance loophole is created for bad employers.
The purpose of the amendments is to strengthen the protection afforded to jobholders under the alternative requirement. For the purposes of the amendments, I do not seek to debate the detail of the proposed regulatory test for the alternative requirement, or even whether there should be such a requirement. I want to focus on the powers that are enshrined in Clause 10 and what must be satisfied before the Secretary of State can set the alternative requirement.
The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee refers to the Secretary of State's power to set an alternative requirement as “significant”, as indeed it is. Clause 10 prescribes the power of the Secretary of State in setting an alternative requirement, but it does not go far enough for the following reasons. In Clause 10, the Secretary of State must, for most schemes, ensure that, for all jobholders or a cohort of the relevant jobholders, the contributions paid into the pension scheme satisfy the quality criterion. However, the clause requires this to be the case only for a majority of the individual relevant jobholders—a majority being 50 per cent plus one. We are concerned that this could lead to a significant number of individual jobholders missing out on what should be their statutory entitlement. In effect, the aggregate requirement could be met by more generous contributions for some jobholders, with less than qualifying amounts, or potentially even none, for others.
The intent of Amendments 20 and 21 is to strengthen Clause 10 such that in all cases—not just most—schemes will be able to satisfy the alternative requirement only if, for no less than 90 per cent of the individual relevant jobholders as distinct from a simple majority, the amount of contributions paid under the pension scheme meets the qualifying amount. As my noble friend Lord McKenzie said in Committee, it is not acceptable that,
“an alternative requirement could allow nearly half of all jobholders”—
with a particular employer—
“to be short-changed”.—[Official Report, 15/3/11; col. GC 2.]
I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, for introducing this debate. The amendments to Clause 10 would require the Secretary of State, before making regulations on certification, to be satisfied that in every single scheme at least 90 per cent of individuals would receive contributions no less than if the scheme had satisfied the relevant quality requirement.
I fully understand that the noble Baroness still has reservations about the breadth of the Secretary of State's regulation-making power and individuals losing out under the proposed certification arrangements. The whole purpose of the reforms is to transform the savings culture by improving the coverage of and participation in workplace pension saving. To succeed, we need to incentivise employers to retain their good-quality schemes. Certification gives employers an incentive to keep their good-quality schemes by simplifying the automatic enrolment requirement. It protects members by discouraging levelling down. The flexibility provided by certification is an important counterbalance to the burdens being placed on them by automatic enrolment. Getting the balance of protection right is crucial because introducing complexity will encourage employers to level down by abandoning good schemes and individual savers will be short-changed.
To help employers plan for the reforms, I should like to put on record that employers using certification will be able to phase in their contributions gradually. That question has been of some concern to the industry and I am pleased to clear it up. I believe that employers using certification will welcome that easement to help with the administrative and contribution costs of increasing enrolment into their schemes. We recognise the advantage that such an approach would bring and so have already kicked off discussion on how we might operate phasing within the certification model. We propose to set out the detail in regulations and guidance. The plan is to consult on secondary legislation informally over the spring, with a more formal consultation after the Bill receives Royal Assent.
However, I recognise and share the noble Baroness’s concern about some individuals receiving less than the minimum contributions, for whatever reason, under the certification arrangements. In developing the certification model, we have undertaken some detailed analysis of pay and reward systems using data from the annual survey of hours and earnings. Based on that analysis, we believe that the number of people who could potentially lose out is quite marginal. If all employers were to use certification, the data tell us that around 9 per cent of individuals could experience a shortfall resulting in contributions less than if the scheme had satisfied the relevant quality requirements. Those individuals are concentrated in industries where basic pay can be supplemented by overtime and other non-pensionable income.
We are committed to finding a pragmatic solution to certification which protects individuals without alienating employers. I believe that the certification test which I have previously described is that solution. However, to address the concerns raised, particularly in relation to the breadth of the regulation-making power, I take this opportunity to commit to looking at how we can reasonably circumscribe the scope of the Secretary of State's powers without compromising his ability to deliver the certification model welcomed by employers. We will be analysing the available data sets on earnings and contribution rates to see how that can be achieved. If it is possible, I should like to return with an update at Third Reading in the shape of an amendment to be introduced in Committee in another place.
I hope that, based on the assurances I have given, the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
I note what the Minister said about phasing in contributions gradually. I was not anticipating that. He said that there will be consultation about the regulation on that point, so we will have an opportunity to look at that. I note what he said about the regulatory test. I had stayed off the detail of that test because I was focusing on the powers in the Bill.
I am grateful for the Minister's commitment to look at how the powers of the Secretary of State could be reasonably prescribed in order to address the concerns that we expressed and to return to it at Third Reading. I hope that between now and Third Reading it will be possible to sort out a form of words that would reassure us on that point. If it is not possible, I reserve the right to come back to the matter at Third Reading. On the basis of what the Minister has said this evening, I shall not press the amendment.
Amendment 20 withdrawn.
Amendment 21 not moved.
22: After Clause 13, insert the following new Clause—
“Power of trustees to allow early access to lump sums
After section 32 of the 2008 Act (power of trustees to modify by resolution) insert—
“32A Power of trustees to allow early access to lump sums
Providing that the jobholder has at least £10,000 in his or her pension scheme, upon application to the trustees of the qualifying scheme or automatic enrolment scheme a jobholder may withdraw up to 25% of the total sum accrued at the time of the application in the jobholder’s NEST.””
My Lords, Amendment 22 is on early access. I had hoped to be able to move it only once, in Committee, but I found myself caught in another pensions obligation at that time. I apologise to your Lordships.
Those of us who can afford it try during our working lives to build three tiers of savings: instant access to about three months of income; ISAs for the medium term; and, finally, a pension pot for the longer term. Some of us may feed our ISAs into our pension pot in our 50s for tax benefits. To do all that and pay off the mortgage and, increasingly, university fees will require earnings probably well above the national average. Men who can hope to have a full working life and a decent occupational pension may be able to do most of that when mortgage pressures, especially, ease off. I rather doubt that any women earning below about £22,000 could begin to.
On this issue, I am asking your Lordships to hold up the gender filter because this is, for me, a gender point. We assume that the key point about saving into pensions is to transfer income from a financially more secure working life to a more insecure and impoverished retirement. That is true for men, but it is not particularly true for women, unless they are in professional jobs. Women who are in and out of the labour market and have unpredictable and fluctuating caring responsibilities may experience more of a financial rollercoaster during their working years than in their retirement when their income, though lower, is predictable and secure so that their experience during their working life is very different from that of men. Women are far less likely to save in any shape or form, hence the need for NEST. We have already been told today that the pensions pots of men in their late 50s are six times greater than those of women.
What stops a woman saving? This is very different from any analysis that you get when you ask the same question of men. It really is. First, she cannot afford it. Her earnings may be very low, part-time or intermittent. Secondly—and this is where you get a specifically female take on it—she regards it as selfish to save. Money is needed for trainers, and she would expect to put the children’s needs ahead of her own. In any case, she rather vaguely hopes her husband is looking after all of that. Thirdly, even if she does think about saving for a pension, Tracey’s mum who did save is, because of means-tested benefits, no better off than Tracey’s aunt who did not. That is one of the reasons one is so pleased about the prospective new state pension. Finally, and this is the point that this amendment addresses, even if she could afford to save modestly into a pension, her life is so unpredictable, given what I have already said, that she does not want to lock money away that she cannot touch for 40 years. She may face divorce, disability, debt or repossession. Through almost all of that, her husband will keep working. She probably will not. She might lose her home, her husband or her health, and through all of that, she cannot touch her money in the pension scheme, even though her need now is greater by far than her need in retirement and she has no alternative savings. Far more than most men, she may need a modest pot of £5,000 or £10,000 that she can access in hard times but cannot afford to build it alongside a pension.
Why is it that people are putting more money into ISAs than into pensions, even though they are forgoing the employer’s contribution and more generous tax reliefs? It is about access. We allow better-off men and better-off women to put their ISAs into their pensions. What poorer women need is exactly the opposite: the ability to turn part of their pension, so to speak, back into an ISA. There is no product on the market which allows them to do it. We need what David Willetts and Malcolm Rifkind first floated: a lifetime savings account.
Given this Bill, how would we do it? We already allow people early access to a slice of their pension—the tax-free lump sum—even if they are not drawing the rest of their pension. How might it work? I suggest that to encourage saving, when a woman has built a pot of, say, a minimum of £10,000, she could access a quarter of it—£2,500—and I would cap that right at a pot of about £100,000 so that it does not provide work for fancy accountants. She would not be able to draw any more until she had rebuilt her pension back up to, say, £14,000, at which point she could draw a quarter of the difference between the £10,000 and the £14,000, or a further £1,000. By the time she retires, she would have drawn no more than the equivalent that she would have got with her tax-free lump sum, but she would, if she thought it necessary, have had earlier access to it.
Why? First, it would give women especially the right to a savings slice as part of NEST or indeed any occupational pension. A woman would know that for every pound she put away, 75p would be ring-fenced for a pension, and 25p would be available as a savings slice. Knowing she had that rainy day slice does not mean to say that she would draw it, or need to—but if she did, it would be much cheaper to borrow from herself than from someone else at such extortionate interest rates as would squeeze out her ability to continue to pay into a pension. Allow a woman access to a lump sum within her pension and she is far more likely to continue saving and build, eventually, a larger pension.
Secondly, the tax-free lump sum is already separate, if the saver chooses, from drawing the actual pension. Until recently it was at the age of 50, now it is at 55 that you can draw the lump sum, even though you may not take your pension for another five or more years. So no new principle is involved: there is already a disjuncture between taking the tax-free lump sum if you choose and the pension payment. No fiscal adjustments have to be made. You do not have to fret about repayment; you do not have to have judgments about what is and is not good expenditure. Why is it okay at 55 to use your tax-free lump sum to build a conservatory, but not, at 45, to save your home from repossession?
I am often told that the obstacle or objection to this is that it would cost a woman a bigger pension if she has taken her tax-free lump sum earlier, and that this is not acceptable. That might be true—if the tax-free lump sum was usually added to the pension. It seldom is. Of the 76 per cent of people who drew their tax-free lump sum, nearly half spent much of it on the car or the holiday; 39 per cent used it to pay off mortgage or credit card debts; 31 per cent spent it on home improvements; 17 per cent helped their children; and about half put some of the lump sum into other and accessible savings forms, such as a building society. So we should not be reducing the woman’s pension if she were able to draw her tax-free lump sum, but merely freeing up the time at which she may draw down a slice of it, if she needs to—possibly for expenditure on things more significant than will occur at the ages of 55 or 60.
Finally, and above all, being able to access a tax-free slice of the sum would make saving into a pension more attractive. At 22, a young graduate going into their first job would hope that by the age of 30 he or she might have enough for a deposit on a flat. At 40, she may want it for running away money, following family break-up. At any time, it might help with adaptions to the home where there is sudden disability. In the USA’s 401(k) schemes, research shows that those who could access their schemes early—in some you can, in some you cannot—ended up saving up to 3 per cent more into their final pension.
For a low-paid woman wondering whether to opt out of NEST because she believes she cannot afford the 4 per cent contribution, knowing she was also building an accessible savings pot could encourage her to auto-enrol. We should be developing a savings and pension model for those who cannot afford each of those separately—as most of us can—that best fits their needs.
There is currently a consultation paper from HMT which discusses this model, among other models, for early access. The other models—for example, loans and repayment, or channelling money into ISAs which can then be fed into pensions—have their merits, but they add to the fees and complexity and largely benefit those better-off people who can manage both savings and pensions alongside each other. I am concerned for those who cannot manage both. For women between the earnings threshold and, say, average earnings, only the tax-free lump sum model makes sense.
As I have said several times today, as have others of your Lordships, I am thrilled by the £140 proposals, which would make it safe to save. Access to a tax-free lump sum within your pension would make it even more attractive to save. There is no additional cost to the Treasury, no additional risk to the woman saver as she would not from experience have spent that tax-free lump on adding to her pension, and no increased fees because she is supposed to have a different, parallel and separate sort of product. I believe that it would transform her willingness to save in a pension. Many people in the industry tell me that with such a scheme more people would save and they would save more. I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, has performed a signal service to the House in bringing this issue to our attention. She was kind enough to refer to work done by David Willetts and Sir Malcolm Rifkind. I was privileged to be part of their Front Bench team at that time, although I cannot claim any real credit for the genesis of the thinking. As the noble Baroness said in referring to the consultation paper, it is now beginning to sink into the mainstream. I am a strong supporter of greater flexibility in this area so I am glad that she has raised it.
I have some slight reservation as to whether the issue is as gender specific as the noble Baroness feels that it is. I think that she is conceding that point and, indeed, she did not say that it was exclusively so. I can imagine situations where men, for example, perhaps have overlapping earnings and have acquired a certain pension capacity or pot. In Committee, we debated some of the difficulties that can arise as regards smaller sums. It might be quite sensible, as well as convenient, for an individual of whatever gender who perhaps is starting a business or otherwise to access that money in order to provide starting capital. It is a wider and general interest. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response to how it is going.
In technical terms—I stress in technical terms, although not in any sense to derogate from it—I have some slight reservations. First, in terms of using this Bill as the vehicle for doing it, it is premature but that is not a reason for not ventilating issues. Secondly, I am not absolutely sure—because it appears annexed to a passage of the Bill which is about auto-enrolment, although I think that the noble Baroness indicated a wider remit—whether it is simply about NEST or more general. I think that it is probably more general and it would be clearly invidious if it was NEST specific.
There is also a technical problem in the wording of the amendment. I understand the point, which was developed during her speech, that there could be some rules which would avoid moral hazard and would get one to the same minimum assured level of pension or pension pot at the end. Nevertheless, the way in which the amendment is worded it seems to me to be at least conceivable that as long as the £10,000 limit were maintained, an individual pensioner could make serial applications to the fund and draw it down to the qualifying level. I know that that is not the noble Baroness’s intention. However, it is right that we should be starting to think about this and I hope that it will be even better when we have brought it to effect.
Perhaps I may add that I think that it is a great advantage that the noble Baroness has raised this issue. I believe that if it were to be taken up it should go across all pensions. In the US, under the 401(k) plan, you can withdraw money only by borrowing it at a fancy rate of interest and you have to repay. Even with that rather unattractive mechanism, as has been pointed out, it still bears fruit. The ISA story illustrates it even more so. Let us remember also that if you take money out of an ISA you cannot put it back and continue with those benefits.
More widely, if we are going to keep the pension structure as a big area for retirement saving, it is a bad brand name which has been damaged by all sorts of things in the past 15 years. Elements need to be added to pensions saving to make it attractive to people, of which this is one of the important ones.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her amendment. I know that she is very committed to this proposition and she has enunciated it with a particular focus on gender issues, which we understand. However, the noble Lords, Lord Boswell and Lord Flight, both pointed out that it is a wider issue and one that is not just for NEST but for pensions across the board. We support the Government’s call for evidence on allowing early access to pension savings, evidence which would consider benefits to individuals and the impact on aggregate saving levels. As my noble friend pointed out, there are various policy models—loans and withdrawals, permanent withdrawals, feeder funds and early access to lump sums—which I think is the model that my noble friend is particularly focused on. But of course these have different impacts and outcomes in terms of the propensity to increase savings, or indeed in some instances, the propensity to reduce savings.
There are few data on how an early access policy might impact on individual behaviour or the pensions industry. Behaviours in other countries—401(k) has been mentioned in respect of the US—give only a limited guide to the UK. The PPI says that for real conclusions for the UK, further research within the UK context is needed. Is there an appetite for early access? Would it encourage savers to save more? What proportion of people would access savings early? These questions need to be considered in the context of other current developments—auto-enrolment, the removal of the requirement to annuitise at 75, changes to taxation, and so on. Where is the balance between encouraging more saving and reducing pensions in retirement?
We need also to think about the application to DB schemes and how that would fit. If we have something that is attractive to DC, what does that mean in terms of DB schemes? I am quite sure that technically something could be provided to work for DB schemes as well, but I think it would be quite complex.
In terms of its application, the noble Baroness focused on pension pots of £10,000. I do not know what data there are about “running away money” at aged 30 or 40; I am not sure whether I was enthused by the concept or not. How many people would have a pension pot of £10,000? When we were debating annuitisation at 75 I remember data that showed that only 5 per cent of people had pension pots in excess of £100,000. Those data may be a little old, but they are illustrative. How many people at the age of 30 have a pension pot? If you are talking about 25 per cent of £10,000, that would not pay for one year’s worth of university fees. We have to explore what the appetite would be for this and how it would work, but it seems to me that it is not altogether straightforward.
There is an issue about whether it changes the paradigm with employers. If you have something which is seen more as a saving scheme than a pension scheme, that will impact on employers’ willingness to fund. I do not assert that it would, but it is an issue that ought to be explored as part of this journey. We all know the Treasury line—I am sure that the Minister has it in his file that pensions are about long-term savings. That is why there is generous tax relief and any deviation from that should not be contemplated. I do not have to follow that line any more as I am not in the noble Lord’s position, but there is an issue about how it would impact on the tax regime for pensions. We also need to be careful about the risks of tax avoidance by these mechanisms. If someone paying the 50 per cent rate gets half of that paid on the way into the pension pot and you can get 25 per cent of it out tax free straightaway, that would seem to be a pretty good deal. Rather than simplifying the tax system, one can see the complexity of the rules that would need to be put in place to deal with that and the constant challenges there would be to those parameters.
We should thank my noble friend for introducing the amendment. I hope and believe that it is probing in nature because the time is now right for this to be fully examined and it seems that the Government are on a path to do that. However, we need more information on a number of issues before I or my party would officially be able to say that this is something we support. But it is certainly something that deserves examination for the sort of reasons that my noble friend has advanced.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, for raising this very important issue of allowing individuals early access to their pension saving. I was more or less as disconcerted as the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, about the concept of it being “running away money”, not least because I thought that if the spouses of Members of this House got to hear of it, they might take advantage as we spent night after night in this place rather than at home with them.
The noble Baroness wishes to allow individuals to access a tax-free lump sum of up to 25 per cent, before the current minimum age of 55, when they have pension savings of at least £10,000. I am conscious that this is an issue to which the noble Baroness has repeatedly drawn our attention, and to which she returned at Second Reading when she asked where the Government's consultation paper on early access to pensions had got to. I can answer that particular question; I can report to my Lords that the Government published their call for evidence on early access to pension saving on 13 December last year. It set out the available evidence around early access and some of the potential benefits and risks, and then sought further evidence from interested parties. That call for evidence closed on 25 February. Drawing on the responses to the call for evidence, we will consider the arguments for and against allowing more flexible access to pension savings, based on firm evidence, before we consider further changes to the pensions tax framework.
It is too early to say what these changes might be. However, we need to bear in mind several principles. First, the purpose of tax-relieved pension saving should be, as the noble Lord would like me to say—I have to say it—primarily to provide an individual with an income in retirement. I think 75 per cent probably makes that point anyway. Secondly, any changes to the pensions tax rules must be affordable and sustainable for the Exchequer, and not, as the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, pointed out rather vividly, create opportunities for tax avoidance. I was pretty impressed that he was able to knock up a tax avoidance scheme so quickly, but we can see where he is coming from. Thirdly, changes should not create disproportionate complexity or administrative burdens for individuals, pension providers and schemes, or indeed for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
I am sure the noble Baroness will agree with me that it is right for us to examine the evidence submitted before making changes to legislation. On that basis, I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw this amendment.
I am very grateful for the support around the House—equivocal support, perhaps, in some cases—on the significance of this issue. Of course, this is not exclusively a women’s issue by any means, and if it was attractive to anyone who wished to take it up, as far as I am concerned they would be able to do so with the agreement of their trustees. My noble friend Lord McKenzie anticipated the paragraph that we have all had to repeat—I have had to repeat, my noble friend has had to repeat, the noble Lord, Lord Freud, has had to repeat—about how pensions are designed and so on, but I tried to hold up a gender filter because I firmly believe that it is still an HMT model that is based on male working lives. However, let us not go down the route of asking why the Treasury might not understand.
When we are trying to encourage poor women—women earning possibly well below average earnings—into a savings model, I do not mind very much whether it is saving for their current life or their retirement. I do not mind very much whether it is income or capital. We get hung up on divisions that make sense in the click-in click-off world of conventional male work; the noble Lord, Lord Freud, is absolutely right, in the universal credit, to refuse to accept that simple dichotomy of “in work, out of work” and see it as a dial. The same situation applies to women in pensions. They do not have a male life, where they are in work, they contribute to a pension, they retire, they are then poor and where you have to distribute from one to another—that is not the experience of poorer women in and out of the labour market who may face more turmoil and roller-coaster finance in their working lives than they ever will in retirement.
The question is how we best encourage those women to build some protection for themselves against the contingencies in their working lives, as well as to prepare as best they can for savings in retirement. We want to do this in ways that do not either exploit their naivety or get them into oversaving at a risk to their current living expenses. The more research that I and others in this field have done the more I believe we need a simple single product—probably not called a pension, probably called something else—into which you put your money and where a proportion is ring-fenced for retirement and a proportion is available for savings. We happen to have a very easy way of modelling that based on the tax-free lump sum; the other versions that the Treasury have put out to consultation are more elaborate, possibly more adept, models but will not particularly meet the needs of this client group. We need something that is simple, understandable, attractive, affordable and fairly obvious in what it does.
I fully accept that the amendment is probably technically defective. I was of course never intending to do anything other than trying to focus the issue, given that we have the consultation paper. I was hoping to take your Lordships’ views on this so that this might in due course, perhaps, be fed into the Treasury’s response to this White Paper.
The provision is not gender-exclusive. It would not exclusively apply to NEST. I would have it available for all pensions and, again, I would not particularly get hung up about what it was used for. Nor would I worry too much about the issue of moral hazard, providing we cap the amount that people can withdraw, which is why I would not go for the 401(k) models, because too many of them run their schemes right down and that is undesirable.
I fear that too many women may opt out of NEST or—this is more likely—fail to continue in NEST when the first financial crisis of many hits them in their lives and they realise they cannot access the money and they have nothing else. At that point the contributions of those individuals will drop off like a stone. How do we prevent that? We prevent it by running the two alongside each other and produce a package for women where it is attractive to save.
We have discussed it. I am very grateful for the support and encouragement around the House tonight. With your Lordships’ permission, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 22 withdrawn.
Clause 15 : Indexation and revaluation
Amendments 23 to 27 not moved.
My Lords, it is a great pity that the Minister does not have to face the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. Some of us endured that for a couple of years. It seems to me quite outrageous that he does not have the opportunity to do so tonight.
28: Schedule 4, page 28, line 42, leave out “and (9)”
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 29 and 31 in this group.
These amendments relate to Schedule 4, which deals with the Pension Protection Fund. This is a complex area of legislation and further consideration has identified a few small changes that are needed to clarify the legislation. All of them are minor and technical in nature.
Amendments 28 and 29 remove the application of Section 143(9) when the board is obtaining a valuation for a scheme applying for a reconsideration to enter the fund. This reference is not relevant in the case of an application for reconsideration where the board’s power to obtain a valuation is discretionary. It will still apply to an initial scheme valuation or determination under Section 143 of the Pensions Act.
Amendments 30 and 31 result from changes made to Section 152 and Schedule 7 to the Pensions Act 2004, which deal with the duty of the board of the Pension Protection Fund to assume responsibility for a scheme on reconsideration and the pension compensation provisions. They simply update some cross-references to include new provisions that would be introduced by the Bill.
My noble friend Lord Freud has written in greater detail to noble Lords who have taken part in this House’s consideration of the Bill and placed a copy of the letter in the Library. I hope that with the detail in that letter and with this concise verbal explanation, noble Lords will feel able to support these amendments. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her explanation and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Freud, for his prior written communications with my noble friend Lord McKenzie. We are happy with the explanations and can see the logic of the amendments. As a past member of the founding board of the Pension Protection Fund I am deeply fond of that organisation, and anything that improves its efficient operations will always have my support.
Amendment 28 agreed.
Amendments 29 to 31
29: Schedule 4, page 29, line 9, leave out from “section” to end of line 11
30: Schedule 4, page 29, line 11, at end insert—
“ In the following provisions of the Pensions Act 2004 after “152(2)” insert “or (2B)”—
(a) section 154(2)(c) (requirement to wind up certain schemes), and(b) section 172(4) and (5)(c) (fraud compensation regime).”
31: Schedule 4, page 31, line 37, at end insert—
“( ) In each of the following after “21” insert “or 21A”—
(a) paragraph 25(1) (early payment of compensation),(b) paragraph 25(3) (as amended by paragraph 12 of Schedule 8 to the Pensions Act 2008),(c) in paragraph 25B(4) (terminal illness lump sum) paragraph (b) of the definition of “relevant age”, and(d) paragraph 28(8)(c) (annual increase in periodic compensation).”
Amendments 29 to 31 agreed.
House adjourned at 9.32 pm.