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Pensions (Extension of Automatic Enrolment) (No. 2) Bill

Volume 831: debated on Friday 14 July 2023

Second Reading

Moved by

My Lords, I am delighted to sponsor the Bill before the House today. It brings to fruition the hard work of dedicated colleagues across the Chamber, who have advocated tirelessly for the improvement of workplace pension coverage and adequacy, especially for younger workers and low earners.

I thank and pay tribute to my honourable friend Jonathan Gullis MP, who championed the Bill in the other place and saw it through its stages there earlier this year. His hard work paved the way for the Bill to come to us today and has been praised fulsomely, with cross-party support welcoming these improvements to retirement provision for millions of our fellow citizens. I also pay tribute to my noble friend the Minister, who I am very pleased to see today, and to my honourable friend the Pensions Minister in the other place, Laura Trott MP, and the department officials who have done so much work and are supporting the Bill.

The Bill has two main objectives: first, to pave the way for extending auto-enrolment to workers under the age of 22, the current minimum age for automatic enrolment to a workplace pension; and, secondly, to allow the Government to abolish the lower earnings limit of the qualifying earnings band, which will increase the overall amounts being saved, as pension contributions under auto-enrolment will be calculated from the very first pound of earnings rather than from £6,240, which is the case now.

Auto-enrolment into workplace pensions has been a celebrated success, bringing 10.9 million more people into pensions since the programme started in 2012, with 2.2 million employers complying with their duties and an extra £33 billion being invested in pensions in 2021, relative to 2012. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, for the seminal work she contributed in the Pensions Commission in 2008, which led to auto-enrolment in the first place.

It is now time to move on to the next stage of this successful programme. In 2017 there was a year-long major review of the policy, which recommended, among other things, the two measures put forward in the Bill today. The aim is to allow the Government to help improve people’s private pensions. There are several benefits of extending auto-enrolment to workers under the age of 22: it will improve inclusivity and will give younger generations longer to benefit from the power of compounding long-term investment returns, giving them a chance to build bigger pension funds. It can also simplify the administration of workplace pension schemes, which will save money and reduce the risk of errors if a minimum age is no longer in place—although that will be determined in due course by regulations.

The Bill should also help lower the likelihood of 22 year-olds opting out of an employer pension scheme, which is the risk at the moment, as their take-home pay suddenly falls due to pension contributions starting to be deducted as they pass their 22nd birthday. It is expected that 600,000 private sector workers aged 18 to 21—and, as I said, there could be more if the age is somewhat lower—could benefit from these measures. I hope that the consultation for regulations will include not a minimum age of 18 but a removal of the limit altogether, so that every worker, even those who leave school at 16 and start work at that age, can start a pension.

There are also significant benefits from removing the lower earnings limit, the other important strand of the Bill. Employer contributions for lower earners who want pensions will be significantly higher as a result. Currently, those who are under 22 also have to request to join their employer pension and do not benefit from the powerful behavioural nudge that sees those over 22 automatically enrolled into the pension scheme. While younger workers can ask their employer to join, the estimates suggest that only 32% of those eligible workers are actually paying into a pension at work—far less than the nearly 90% of eligible workers over 22, who are building a pension at work after being auto-enrolled.

There will also be the opportunity to help people to start the pension habit earlier, establishing even more clearly the principle that workers in this country can expect their employer to cover tax, national insurance and pension for them. This Bill will therefore particularly pave the way to help underpensioned groups, including lower earners, women, people from ethnic minorities, the disabled, multiple job holders, young workers and those in the gig economy.

Helping to narrow the gender pensions gap is an issue that many of us across this House have been exercised with for some time and is another reason to support these measures. Of course, this alone will not close it entirely. The ABI estimates that, at the moment, the average woman aged 65 has a pension pot worth just one-fifth of the value of that of a man of the same age. Due to lower-paid work, lower lifetime earnings, interrupted careers and more part-time jobs, women have always lost out on this earnings-related private pension system. By ensuring that all their earnings are used to calculate contributions in future, even lower-earning women will build much bigger pensions. Instead of someone on, say, £10,000 receiving contributions on just £3,760 of her earnings, she will—once this Bill and subsequent affirmative resolutions are hopefully passed—be able to receive nearly twice as much again, as the full £10,000 will be used to calculate her and her employer’s contribution. This means that, instead of receiving £300 a year into her pension, it will be £800 a year.

The Bill provides regulation-making powers to amend the automatic enrolment framework set out in the Pensions Act 2008. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will be required to carry out a public consultation on the proposed use of these powers to lower the minimum age and abolish the lower earnings limit, with the findings having to be reported to Parliament before regulations are made. It is promised, I believe, that the consultation will be later this year, so I do not think that we will have to wait too long. All noble Lords will therefore be able to consider and vote on the detail of the proposals for secondary legislation before they become law. I hope that noble Lords will therefore be able to support these enabling measures in the Bill today.

Colleagues across the House may have concerns about bringing more people into pensions and increasing contributions for lower earners if they are going to be put into pension schemes that administer tax relief by the net pay system. However, the Treasury has announced a new system, which will make top-up payments to low earners in met pay schemes—many of whom are women, of course—to address the net pay and relief at source anomaly. This is planned to be introduced for contributions from the 2024-25 tax year onwards, so should time well with the start of measures provided for in this Bill, following the laying of regulations. I am therefore delighted that the Bill before us today will set us on the path to the next successful chapter—I am sure—in the story of automatic enrolment. It will bring undoubted benefits of pensions savings to younger people and to those hard-working, lower-paid workers, including women with caring responsibilities, who deserve the opportunity to build a more secure retirement for themselves and their families.

As the Government have promised, this measure will be in place—or the intention is that it will be in place—by the mid-2020s. Of course, there is more to do, including extending auto-enrolment to workers with earnings in any one job below £10,000 as well, but that can be covered elsewhere, and to the self-employed. However, these measures are an important start. I welcome the improvements, and I hope that noble Lords across the House will do so. I commend the Bill to noble Lords.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, on sponsoring this Bill. It is in very capable hands. We have heard from her a powerful assembly of the arguments in support of the Bill, which I think people would struggle to second-guess in any way, so I congratulate her.

I welcome the powers that the Bill gives to the Secretary of State to extend the coverage of auto-enrolment to younger people and to remove the lower-earnings limit from the qualifying earnings band. The Secretary of State retains the discretion as to when and to what extent to reduce the lower age limit and the extent to which and over what time period it will reduce or repeal the lower earnings level threshold.

The Government have indicated that they are supportive of this Bill. Can I therefore push the Minister a little to give an indication of when they will implement changes? Presumably it is not intended that the powers given to the Secretary of State will sit and gather dust. It is, after all, six years since the review of automatic enrolment and we are only 18 months away from the mid-2020s—the date by which the Government committed to introducing changes, including the changes provided for in this Bill.

The Bill provides for the Secretary of State to carry out a consultation. I therefore take the opportunity to highlight a few issues relating to younger people and extending auto-enrolment to people below the age of 22. The regulator has been very active and effective in identifying and addressing negligent employers who seek to avoid their employer duties. However, in lowering the age for auto-enrolment, the regulator will have to monitor that the change is working to the benefit of most young people. Many young workers aged 18 to 21 may, because of training, higher or further education commitments, or the types of work available to them, be working irregular hours, part-time or earning more flexible incomes. There is a significant rise in students working out of economic necessity, and younger people from lower socioeconomic groups may be in less secure employment; we saw their vulnerability in this regard during the pandemic

Employers have up to three months from commencement of employment to enrol a qualifying worker. Even then, for those who work irregular hours or earn flexible incomes they need not be auto-enrolled until the first time that they earn over the earnings trigger, which is currently £192 a week or £833 per month. It will be important to monitor for any emerging labour market behaviours that could undermine the intent of this Bill to benefit young people, such as restricting the earnings or hours of younger workers so they do not qualify for auto-enrolment; not paying younger workers through payroll; or pressuring them to opt out.

There is also a need to be sensitive to how the national minimum wage aligns with the £10,000 earnings trigger. Currently, an 18 to 20 year-old on the national minimum wage of £10.18 an hour and working 18 hours net would not qualify for auto-enrolment. That may therefore exclude a very significant number of young workers being targeted by this Bill. A 20 year-old young mum on the national minimum wage and working 18 hours a week would not qualify for auto-enrolment if it were operating today. With the removal of the lower earnings limit from the band of earnings and access to tax relief, it means that she would lose £900 going into her pension scheme in that year. So there is therefore a sensitivity around that link between hours on national minimum wage and the auto-enrolment of younger people.

The Chancellor’s estimates for improved returns over the working life of pension savers, from greater investment in illiquids and private equity, were predicated on the assumption of saving from 18. That is four years more of saving than is currently provided for under auto-enrolment. There need to be reforms made by this Government before the Chancellor can rely on estimates based on such an early age as 18.

Eligible workers, contrary to everybody’s expectations, have a lower opt-out rate than older workers, so it will be important to monitor the opt-out rates for 18 to 21 year-olds to ensure that that positive trend we are currently seeing is not undermined—that trend being the high number of 22 year-olds remaining in when they are auto-enrolled.

Finally, ONS recent figures reveal that just over 15% of young workers change jobs, compared with 5.1% of employees aged between 35 and 49, so the Government need to push ahead with their small pots solution, because for young people that solution will be very important to the efficiency of managing their savings and for it to benefit them over their working lifetime. I hope the Government will push ahead with the better deal for young people that the Bill—again, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann—will provide.

My Lords, I join my noble friend Lady Drake in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, on bringing this important Bill before us today. I still struggle to get my head around the idea that a government policy requires a Private Member’s Bill to bring it in: it seems a bit odd to me, but then most of the Bills this morning seem to have been in line with government policy. I suppose that is because you have a chance of getting legislation through only if it has government backing. But this is government policy and the Government have promised to introduce it. They did not say when, so their tardiness is being pre-empted by the Bill.

I am going to say some things which may seem a bit grouchy, but I do support the Bill and I am not suggesting any amendments: I think it should be put on the statute book as quickly as possible. It is, of course, an enabling piece of legislation; it is just the first step. We are going to have the regulations and there is some suggestion that we are going to have a consultation later this year. We are a bit overburdened with consultations at the moment—I think there were about five earlier this week—on crucial issues in the pensions area, so I hope there will be some understanding of the capacity issues in dealing with all these areas of policy.

The Bill does two distinct things: it increases the contributions that everyone who is automatically enrolled has to receive in their pension: it affects everyone, right up to the ceiling. It is not in any way targeted at the lower paid, but it has a much bigger impact on the lower paid, of course, because including the extra £6,000 for someone on £18,000 has a much bigger proportionate effect than for someone on, say, £30,000 or £35,000. So, proportionately, it is aiming at those on lower levels of pay. It also brings in those who are between the ages of 18 and 22—my noble friend Lady Drake dealt with this in detail.

Nevertheless, while both those things seem like good things, I do have concerns. There is a general concern that this might be seen as solely what we need to do in order to address what I think is currently the biggest problem in pensions policy, which is the gender-based pension gap that the noble Baroness referred to in her introduction. It is because of inadequate pension provision and of course it affects primarily women, hence the gender gap. We could spend a bit of time discussing the DWP errors and the differential impact that they are having on women, but we will leave that to one side today. However, the two key issues there are low pay for women and continued gender discrimination in employment.

The second concern is that caring tends to be the responsibility of women. There is, perhaps, greater sharing now than there was in the past, but it is still overwhelmingly women who have caring responsibilities, and this has an impact on the pensions that they accrue.

What solutions do we have to those issues? I am afraid that I must disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, about the impact this will have on the pensions gap. I think it is irrelevant to the pensions gap and hence is a diversion from what we should be doing. My crucial point on the pensions gap, and where the Bill misses the point, is that we cannot solve the problem of the inadequate pensions received by women, people on low incomes and people with caring responsibilities by making them save more money. It is not the answer to the pensions gap to rely on people having greater savings, because their resources are just not there. We have to look at other ways of providing support to eliminate the pensions gap, and I really do not think that market-based funded pensions are that solution. We have to look at the solution through improvements to the state scheme. Clearly, the state has a bigger role here. In that sense, this Bill is a diversion and raises concerns in my mind, even though the measures in themselves are worth supporting.

There are also practical issues that need to be addressed if we are to extend auto-enrolment. First, we have to resolve the problem of small pots. The Government have issued a further consultation. I thought that we had consulted almost to death on this issue, but we got another consultation paper on small pots earlier today. The new and dynamic Pensions Minister says:

“I am setting out a decisive way forward built around the multiple default consolidator model”.

That is perhaps the correct approach—it moves away from the pot-follows-member model that previously had support—but this debate has been going on for 10 years or more, ever since the birth of auto-enrolment. We have to address the problem of small pots and we need to do it soon, so increasing auto-enrolment must go along with sorting out the problem of small pots.

The other issue that needs to be resolved, particularly for younger people, whose earnings will tend to be low and may be outside the tax regime, is that of net pay. I was going to say something about that at Second Reading of the Finance (No. 2) Bill, but unfortunately I could not make it. However, they are important issues and, in this context, I stress that the small pots issue needs to be taken more seriously by the Government. It was discussed in Committee in the House of Commons and various points were raised. I do not believe that the Government have yet totally resolved these issues—the need to make sure that people know that net pay tax relief will be there.

The Government’s proposal is to start, in effect, two years in the future, but I cannot see any sound reason why we should not go back to 2023. There is the whole process of individuals being able to object to whatever assessment is made and additional technical issues which I will not detain the House with today. There are a number of issues with net pay that need to be addressed. So, okay, let us go ahead, let us expand auto-enrolment, but unless at the same time we resolve the other issues of net pay and small pots, it will not have the impact that it should have. To come back to my prime point, let us not believe that this is going to resolve to a significant extent the biggest issue, which I believe is the gender pensions gap.

My Lords, I thank the knowledgeable noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, for bringing this Private Member’s Bill to the House and the usual cast of knowledgeable speakers we have in every pensions debate—the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, the noble Lord, Lord Davies, and, in due course, the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock. It is very much déjà vu; we come back to this again and again. I also thank the Minister for mentioning this morning my mild contribution to the Child Support (Enforcement) Bill. We are always grateful for acknowledgement of our modest support and information, and the Minister was particularly helpful on that issue. I was not in my place because I did not know that we were going to make speeches.

I support this Private Member’s Bill to amend the Pensions Act 2008 to give the Secretary of State powers, as has been said, to extend pensions automatic enrolment to workers from age 18 rather than, as now, only 22 and to increase contributions so that pensions savings are based on all earnings up to just over £50,000 per annum rather than only over the lower earnings limit, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, of £6,240 per year. It is great that this Bill is being progressed. I would like to pin down the Minister on a timetable—when will the changes take place? Even if they cannot be made immediately, we need a firm timetable so that people can plan. The whole idea of pensions is to plan for the future, and having no fixed timetable is not useful to those looking to do so.

When I was a local councillor, I had advice cases galore. One of the nicest things about coming to this House is that those advice cases almost dry up. However, earlier this year by accident I got an advice case, relevant to this debate, from a woman who was a nurse for many years. She retired, took a pension and then came back to work. On her payslip every month, there was a pension deduction; so, when she retired a second time, she looked for the secondary pension that she had contributed to and found, to her amazement and mine—I checked this with our Minister at the time—that the money had been deducted but had not gone to a pension at all. She should have been aware of it, but she was not, as on the payslip there was a deduction for a pension. After my and others’ intervention, the end product was a return of contributions rather than a pension. The relevance of this very rare advice case is that, when contributions are deducted, everyone will be auto-enrolled and therefore that deducted money would be a pension scheme.

Automatic enrolment is a genuine success story. It has not got to the end yet, as pointed out by noble Lords, but making these changes to auto-enrolment, which were recommended in the 2017 independent AE review, and extending its scope will mean that more people have an adequate income in retirement. As has been mentioned, broadening auto-enrolment will be of particular benefit to under-pensioned groups: women, ethnic minorities, younger people, multiple job holders and gig economy workers. The Government committed to bring forward these changes in the mid-2020s, so it is welcome to see that they are serious about hitting this target by backing this Bill and finding parliamentary time to allow these reforms to take place.

However, I echo the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Davies. I still cannot get my mind around why we have a succession of Private Members’ Bills—this is not the only one—to bring forward legislation, rather than the Government bringing forward a more comprehensive Bill on pensions. But this is the way it is being done and I heartily support it.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, for introducing this Bill and all noble Lords who have spoken. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, is right: we are a select band. However, we are none the worse for it. It is always interesting, and I learn something every time this particular band gets together, so it is a joy to be back here today.

I am grateful for the briefing we had on this matter and for some excellent paperwork supporting the Bill. As noble Lords have observed, it is a little strange: Private Members’ Bills must come from private Members. On some, however, the Government smile more readily than they do on others, and if they smile readily, the passage can be eased through both Houses. That is what we have today, so I am grateful that the Government have smiled on this one and I look forward to hearing the Minister talk about it at more length shortly.

I start by celebrating auto-enrolment itself as one of the great public policy successes of recent years. As the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, said, its origins lie in the work of the Pensions Commission set up by the last Labour Government, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Turner, and on which my noble friend Lady Drake and the late and greatly lamented Sir John Hills served with such distinction. The coalition Government implemented it in 2012, and there has been growth in the number of people saving for a pension as a result. We can all celebrate that. However, it is clear that pensions adequacy remains an issue; noble Lords have raised a variety of questions, from the gender pensions gap to people in multiple jobs to the gig economy—all of which need addressing. While this tiny Bill cannot do that, hopefully the Minister can give us a nod to show us which way the Government are thinking when it comes to addressing these problems.

This Bill would enable the extension of auto-enrolment in two directions. It would amend the Pensions Act 2008 to give powers to the Secretary of State to make regulations to do three simple things: to reduce the lower age limit at which eligible workers must be automatically enrolled or re-enrolled into a pension scheme by their employers; to remove the lower earnings limit—the LEL—from the qualifying earnings band so that contributions are calculated from the first pound earned; and to change the requirements of the annual review of the qualifying earnings band. As we have heard, the Government will have to bring forward a consultation, which I hope they will do soon. I look forward to hearing some tips on when that might happen. They would then have to bring forward regulations. This is only a permissive Bill, but it would enable the Government to fulfil some of the commitments they made in the 2017 review of auto-enrolment to introduce changes in the mid-2020s.

As we have heard, the Bill does not specify a new lower age limit, but the Government have previously committed to reducing the limit from 22 to 18 and the Explanatory Memorandum says that this is the policy intent. Although this is a Private Members’ Bill, the EM was produced by DWP, so presumably that makes it a government policy intent. Just for clarity, though, can the Minister confirm that it is the Government’s intention to reduce the lower age limit to 18? Is it also the Government’s intention to use these powers to remove the LEL from the qualifying earnings band? Maybe that is obvious, but it is always good to have these things on the record. Any indication on timing that the Minister could give us would also be helpful.

If these measures were introduced, while they would not solve all our problems, they would bring significant numbers of people either into the orbit of auto-enrolment or the possibility of employer contributions, including: those who are below the current qualifying age limit of 22; those who earn above the trigger point of £10,000 but are getting employers’ contributions only on earnings above the lower earnings limit who could then get them from the first pound; and those earning below the trigger point but above the LEL who are able to opt in but who, in future, could then get employers’ contributions from the first pound.

The impact assessment did a fine job of using the available data to model what could reasonably be modelled. It played around with likely participation and savings rates in various directions and concluded at para 5.18 that if in force in 2022-23, the combined proposals would increase total pension saving by £2 billion. Of this, £0.9 billion would be paid in employee contributions, £0.8 billion would be paid in employer contributions and £0.2 billion would be paid in income tax relief on employee contributions.

Of course, this is all dependent on assumptions about opt-out rates. Paragraph 8.10 of the impact assessment tells us:

“Between 4 and 5 per cent of employees who are automatically enrolled opt-out”.

It goes on to say that another 5% of employees who are auto-enrolled and start saving

“then make an active decision to stop saving whilst continuing to work”.

Paragraph 8.11 says that

“around 10 per cent of employees who are automatically enrolled either opt-out or actively cease saving in the first year”.

However, much of the participation data behind this was from the ONS’s annual survey of hours and earnings in 2020, which was of course before the cost of living crisis hit. Does either the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, or the Minister know what work has been done to assess whether this opt-out rate has changed or is likely to change in the current economic climate?

A number of other important questions have been asked by Members from across the House. As my noble friend Lady Drake said, it will be important for the Government to confirm in some detail when and how they will address the net pay issue. I hope that the Minister will be able to give both my noble friend and the House an assurance that the Government have plans to monitor and address any poor practices that might emerge among employers trying to stop young workers benefiting from auto-enrolment in the way this Bill and the Government envisage. I would also be grateful if the Minister could give the House any more information about the way in which the Government are engaging with key stakeholders, in particular employers, trade unions, consumer bodies and especially young people themselves.

Having raised these issues, I want to make it clear that the Opposition fully support this Bill, despite its limitations. My thanks go to all involved, including the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann. I also thank Joshua Osborne, a University of Sheffield student who was on a placement with me last week, for his work in preparing important information on this Bill. I thank all those who have spoken today and carry on supporting the important issue of pensions in our society. I wish the Bill well.

My Lords, I am pleased to add my support to my noble friend Lady Altmann’s Bill. This legislation would bring into workplace pensions more younger people, women and those in part-time work, including workers not already benefiting from an employer pension contribution. My noble friend eloquently set out further detail of the Bill, its benefits and its beneficiaries.

The Government are committed to building on the success of automatic enrolment to date with a stronger, more inclusive savings culture for younger people. The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, was right to remind us of some of the historical context. My noble friend’s Bill would expand the automatic enrolment framework, which was one of the most radical reforms to the pensions landscape since Lloyd George enacted the first state pension nearly 120 years ago. This Bill builds on the undoubted success of workplace pensions and sits firmly within the political consensus established by the independent Turner commission, on which the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, served, as has been mentioned, and which set out the road map for these reforms in 2005. I add my name to those who have paid tribute to the noble Baroness in this respect.

I want to move straight on to the subject of small pots, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Davies. I hope that I can help in providing some answers because I agree—he is right to raise this issue—that the growth of deferred small pots is a huge challenge for the workplace pension market. We know that it acts as a burden on providers, reducing the value for money that pension schemes can provide and negatively impacting retirement outcomes for their members.

I assure the noble Lord and the House that the Government are taking decisive action to address this issue. We are consulting now on our ambition to deliver a framework for a default consolidator approach, which will enable a small number of authorised schemes to act as consolidators for deferred small pots in order to provide greater value for money for their members. In this way, we are working to address the current and future stock of deferred small pots. I note the comments made by the noble Lord today in this respect; we would very much welcome his contribution to the consultation if he has not already given his views, as I suspect he may well have done.

I turn to some of the points made by my noble friend Lady Altmann and the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock. We had an interesting, brief debate on the lowering of the age limit, which we reckon is about right at 18. The Bill provides for regulation-making powers to reduce the age for AE, rather than setting a specific number. This has been done to avoid pre-empting the statutory consultation. We do not wish to close off our ability to respond openly and thoughtfully to stakeholder proposals.

The 2017 review found 18 to be the appropriate minimum age for automatic enrolment. The current minimum of 22 has failed to keep pace with changes elsewhere, such as to the national minimum wage. The lower age also aligns with the entitlement to social security benefits, such as universal credit. Moving to 18 is seen as an effective way to embed the habit of workplace pension saving for young people as they start work for the first time. Indeed, the Government’s commitment for young people below the age of 18 in England and Wales to remain in education or receive training and employment through apprenticeships has resulted in a decrease in 16 and 17 year-olds in the labour market. Workers aged 16 and over will still be entitled to opt in to AE and receive an employer contribution if they choose to save into a workplace pension.

I also want to touch on pension tax relief. The Government recognise the different impacts of the two systems of paying pension tax relief on pension contributions for workers earning below the income tax personal allowance. This picks up on some points raised by my noble friend Lady Altmann. We have announced a new system that will make top-up payments to low earners in net pay schemes, many of whom are women—I think that she made this point—to address the net pay relief at source anomaly. The Treasury has confirmed that this will be introduced for contributions from 2024-25 onwards. In 2025-26, we estimate that up to 1.2 million individuals, 75% of whom are women, could benefit from top-ups worth on average around £50 each year. The Office for Budget Responsibility assesses that the cost to the Exchequer could be between £10 million and £15 million per year.

My noble friend Lady Altmann also raised the issue of low earners, as did one or two other Peers. The AE framework has an earnings trigger that is set at a level that aims to bring those individuals for whom it pays to save into pension saving automatically. The Secretary of State must review this trigger each year to help to make sure that it remains appropriate. As my noble friend mentioned, currently the trigger is set at £10,000. However, if an eligible worker earns below this amount, they can still choose to opt in to a workplace pension if they want to save, as mentioned earlier. The Bill is the essential first step to allow the expansion of AE. The Government are clear that these measures are the best route to enabling low and medium earners to save more, with more workers benefiting from the employer contribution to help them to build their retirement savings.

I will now move on to a few general comments about pensions and, indeed, the state pension, which was alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Davies. I hope that I am not going too far in terms of his remarks, but hopefully this will set the scene a bit. I reassure the House that we believe that the state pension remains the foundation of the UK pension system. In April 2023, the state pension saw its biggest ever cash increase, rising by 10.1%, so that the full yearly amount of the basic state pension will be over £3,050 higher in cash terms than in 2010.

Workplace pensions sit on top of that foundation, helping to maximise individual retirement saving. This is an approach guided by the work of the independent Pensions Commission, which made clear the importance of reinvigorated private saving to help individuals to achieve their retirement aspirations. The Government continue to support the success of automatic enrolment, which has seen 10.9 million workers enrolled into a workplace pension since 2012, with an additional £33 billion saved in real terms in 2021 compared to 2012.

I move on to a more substantive point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Davies—I think that he mentioned it twice—which is what we are doing to reduce the gender pensions gap. As he will know, the pensions gap is a complex issue tied to the labour market, the pensions system and demographic differences, but one that the Government take seriously. We remain committed to implementing the 2017 review measures, which will disproportionately benefit lower earners, including people working in multiple jobs, who are predominantly women.

Going back to the basic concept of automatic enrolment, AE came along at a time when the UK was towards the very bottom of the OECD league tables on retirement saving. A radical reversal has taken place in the past decade putting us close to the top, with the UK now having the largest pension market in Europe. I pay tribute to those, some of whom are in the House today, for their efforts to make this happen.

In the private sector, workplace pension participation for eligible employees has increased from 42% in 2012 to 86% in 2021, representing a 44 percentage point increase. As my noble friend Lady Altmann said, it has been especially transformative for women, low-earners and young people. Her Bill would enable the Government to build on that success and deliver the expansion of AE.

There are a couple of other questions I want to answer—actually, about three—particularly from the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, from the noble Lord, Lord Davies, and from the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, on timing, which is a very fair question. The Government are committed to making progress in implementing the 2017 review measures, including lowering the age for being automatically enrolled and reducing the lower earnings limit so that pensions contributions are payable from the first pound of earnings, in the mid-2020s. We have always been clear that implementation of these measures and the timing must be done in a way and at a time which is affordable, balancing the needs of savers, employers and taxpayers, with a suitable lead-in time for implementation. I am afraid that that is as far as I can go on that, but as soon as I have any further detail I will certainly let the House know.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Drake and Lady Sherlock, are right that we need to look at any opt-out rate with great care in monitoring, and I reassure the House in that respect. The noble Baroness, Lady Drake, raised a very important point about AE enforcement. The regulator has a statutory duty to enforce compliance with employer AE duties. Employers must provide information about AE to each eligible employee, including their right to an employer contribution. If a worker has concerns about whether their employer is complying with the law, they can report their concerns to the regulator in confidence—as I suspect noble Lords will be aware.

My point was that the regulator is doing a good job on enforcement, but very young people are quite vulnerable, and I was just saying that it needs a new lens brought to enforcement activity.

Absolutely. Again, I provide reassurance that we are very much alert to the issue and we shall be sure that we monitor it and keep the House updated.

The noble Lord, Lord Davies, raised the important subject of carers, and I have a couple of brief answers for him. The Government recognise the valuable role of carers and that they are disproportionately women. Where carers are working, if eligible, they will be automatically enrolled into a workplace pension, or they can opt in. The expansion of AE will see all those participating get an employer contribution from their first pound of earnings, and that will help to improve the incentive to save for those who are in lower-paid or part-time work, including carers.

Finally, to touch on consultation, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Davies, and others, the use of the Bill’s powers would be subject to a statutory consultation requirement and the affirmative procedure in both Houses to gain consensus on the implementation approach and timetable, so that the measures can be introduced in a way that is affordable for all parties, as mentioned earlier. This is a crucial point. While we are all rightly keen to build on the success of AE—and many Peers call for more and faster change, hence the questions on timing—the approach needs fully to take account of the impact of these measures on employers, workers and the Exchequer in a way that makes the changes both beneficial and affordable for all. To clarify, we intend to consult in the autumn with employers, payroll and delivery partners throughout the supply chain to get the implementation approach and timetable right before changes are introduced.

I again thank my noble friend Lady Altmann for taking the Bill through and for helping more people gain the benefits of retirement saving. I judge from the mood in the House that it shares my view of the importance of the Bill and the positive and sensible way in which it would allow for the future expansion of automatic enrolment, which I believe is an ambition we all share.

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords and to my noble friend for their contributions to this excellent debate. I have just a few brief words.

The noble Baroness, Lady Drake, expressed her concerns about younger workers perhaps being off-payroll. She is right in the warnings that she has put on record, and about the issue of the national minimum wage for a part-time female worker, for example, who might still be excluded because of the £10,000 trigger. Indeed, the issue of small pots will grow as a result of these measures. I know the Government will look at ways to solve that. I urge my noble friend to proceed with the measures currently under consideration and the consultation.

The noble Lord, Lord Davies, is absolutely right to raise the issue of the gender pensions gap, which I think all noble Lords who have spoken will have concerns about. He is right that more women being on low pay means that fewer women will have as good pensions as men, but I hope he might be persuaded that the fact that we will be taking earnings contributions from pound zero will make a difference. It might be a small one, but it will make a difference in the right direction to the gender pensions gap. As I said, someone on £10,000 per year, who is more likely to be a woman than a man, will suddenly have £800 going into their pension instead of £300. That will help to build a better amount over the long term, but he is clearly right that more can and should be done.

The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, is right that there is more to do on auto-enrolment, but I appreciate the welcome for these measures. I also welcome him to our merry band of pension Peers. As he pointed out, it is always the same individuals across the House.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, is right to celebrate the success of auto-enrolment. She asked about the opt-out rate. As far as I am aware, the DWP published some research in August 2022 which suggested that there was a slight uptick in the auto-enrolment opt-out rate for newly enrolled workers, rising to 10.4% from 7.6% in January 2020. In contrast, for the workers who stopped contributing once they were in, there was actually a reduction to 3.1% in August 2022, down from the figure of about 5% that she mentioned. As a previous Pensions Minister, Steve Webb, has written, the auto-enrolment programme so far seems to be remarkably robust, but we clearly had not had the worst of the cost of living crisis in 2022. This needs to be monitored, but I am pleased that the DWP is doing that.

My noble friend the Minister is right to say that the Secretary of State can review the trigger each year. Therefore, there is a potential for those earning below £10,000 a year to also be included at some point.

I thank all noble Lords who have spoken today.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.