I beg to move,
That this House notes that the e-petition 110776, Make fair transitional state pension arrangements for 1950s women, has attracted more than 150,000 signatures; and calls on the Government to bring forward proposals for transitional arrangements for women adversely affected by the acceleration of the increase in the state pension age.
I want to start today’s important debate by saying how lucky I am to come from a family in which there have always been such strong and hard-working women—my mother and grandmothers, and now my wife and daughter. If there is one thing I have learned from all of them, it is that no one should ever try to pull the wool over their eyes—to take them for fools—because I guarantee they will always be found out.
That is a lesson the Tories really should have learned back in 1991—when they first started planning to equalise the pension age for women with that for men—because that is precisely what has happened: they have been found out. They have been found to have failed in their duty to inform women properly about the changes that were planned. They have been found to have left hundreds of thousands of women ill-prepared for a decision that would see the worst affected lose up to £36,000 in pension payments. They were found to have compounded their error in 2011, when a further delay to the pension age—to 66—was rammed through with barely two years’ notice. In the words of their current Pensions Minister, they have been found to have “pulled the rug” from under 2.6 million British women. Today, Labour will speak for those 2.6 million women and demand that the Government tell us what they plan to do to make amends.
Before we get too party political about this, it can indeed be said that an individual notice should have been given back in 1995. However, shortly after that, Labour came in, and there were perhaps a dozen Labour Pensions Ministers during all of Labour’s time in office. We are 20 years on. Can the hon. Gentleman not accept that we all have lessons to learn? An individual notice should have been sent out by at least one of those Governments—by the Conservative Government or the Labour Government. The hon. Gentleman had an opportunity to do that over all those years.
With respect, I did not have an opportunity because I was not here at the time. The hon. Gentleman is right that successive Governments have lessons to learn from this sorry affair, but the truth, as I intend to spell out, is that a change was first mooted in 1991, and the then Tory Government made no substantive efforts between 1991 and 1997, when they left office, to offer people a proper notice. Thereafter, the Labour Government did attempt to do that, and I will enumerate exactly the ways we tried to make amends. However, the problem was compounded by the coalition Government’s actions in 2011. If anybody has lessons to learn, it is the Conservative party, which has the greatest responsibility for these changes, and which now has a duty to make amends.
I will make some progress if I may, and then I will give way.
These things started back in 1991. That was when the Tory Government first consulted on their intention to shift the state pension age for women to 65 from 60, where it had been since the 1940s. Then, in the 1993 Budget, the Chancellor formally stated his intention to make this move, and he legislated for it through 1994 and 1995. The Pensions Act 1995 stipulated that the pension age would rise by five years during the decade from 2010 to 2020. That meant that women born between April 1950 and December 1959 would have to wait between one month and five years more before they could draw their pensions.
One would have thought that such a massive change—the biggest change to women’s pensions in half a century—would have been communicated with great care and, in truth, fanfare, but it was not. Some of the women concerned were as young as 39 at the time, so it is unlikely that they were looking carefully at the financial papers or paying much attention to the Government’s scant efforts to tell them about the changes.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, in 2004, the Work and Pensions Committee found that three quarters of women between the ages of 45 and 54 at the time were aware of the changes in the 1995 Act? I accept that there were mistakes by parties on both sides of the House in terms of communication, but three quarters of women knew 12 years ago about the changes.
I am pleased to swap stories about what people knew at the time, because the truth is that the question asked in that 2004 survey by the then Labour Government, who were concerned that the previous Tory Government had not made proper provision for women, was, unfortunately, not as straightforward as it should have been. Other surveys—five or six—from academics and others in the pensions world found that about 70% to 80% of the women involved did not know that the changes were taking place. It is no surprise they did not know, because the Conservative Government at the time spent very little money advertising the change. There were a few adverts in the newspapers, and letters were available to individuals if they requested them, but many did not.
That is an extremely common experience for MPs, because the letters sent out in 1995 by the then Tory Government were neither use nor ornament. I have got one here that was sent to a woman on 13 June 1995. This letter has five pages, and not one of them mentions that the pension age is going to rise to 65. In fact, every single page refers to the fact that the state pension age for women is 60. The final page offers the extraordinary suggestion that
“a form inviting you to claim your State Retirement Pension will be sent to you”
“months before you reach 60.”
This happened in the very month that the Bill that became the 1995 Act was going through this House under that Government. That is a measure of what a desperately poor job they did of informing people.
I have lost count of the number of constituents who have contacted me to say that they had absolutely no idea about these pension changes and heard about them on the radio or the TV. Fortunately, we are raising the profile of this issue on the Government’s behalf. Is it not insulting of Government Members to suggest that these women are wrong, or lying, or that there is something wrong with them, when ultimately it is the Government’s responsibility to communicate these changes?
It is wrong, it is insulting, and it compounds the more fundamental insult that women who, by and large, have smaller pensions because they had lower earnings throughout their entire lifetime while bearing a burden for the rest of us, have been told that they cannot access their pension. That is the real insult that we should be worried about.
My hon. Friend is right that it is completely insulting to suggest that proper notice was given, because the truth is that it was a botched job from start to finish. We know that because the current Conservative Pensions Minister in the House of Lords says so. She says quite clearly that
“until recently, many of these women were expecting to receive their state pension at age 60, since they were unaware of the changes made in 1995”.
The Government are damned out of their own mouths.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that there are a lot of women like Jayne Manners in my constituency, who assumed she was going to retire at 60, is now disabled, and has no ability whatsoever to make up the difference for the six years she has lost because of these changes?
My hon. Friend is making a very good speech. Increasing numbers of women in my constituency have been coming to my surgery and writing to me about this, many of whom I have known for many years because I was born and bred in the constituency. I am absolutely convinced of their sincerity and that they knew nothing about this because of the lack of notification. We saw earlier at Prime Minister’s Question Time the Prime Minister’s complete lack of understanding, or even care, for these women.
My hon. Friend is of course entirely right. He will know, because he was part of the previous Labour Government, that we tried to improve this set of circumstances. We conducted the survey that showed that there was a worryingly low level of understanding. Between 2004 and 2009, the then Labour Government instituted several million-pound advertising campaigns and sent out 800,000 personalised letters to the affected women, such as the one I have here, which, in stark contrast to the Tory letter I cited, says on the first page that the addressee will be affected by the change in age from 60 to 65.
The reality is testified to by many of my hon. Friends and by the brilliant women of the WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality—campaign, whose tenacity and truth-telling we should pay tribute to right across this House, because they speak for hundreds of thousands of women who did not know that they were in the firing line.
Of course it has, because historical inequalities existed then and persist now. The gender pay gap affects women. Women often do not have the full stamp because of their caring duties, and that is why it is doubly unjust that they should now be asked to pay a price in their retirement.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this generation of women are doubly disadvantaged, because many were at work before the Equal Pay Act 1970 came into force and had to take low-paid part-time jobs because of lack of childcare, and the Government are now heaping insult upon injury in disadvantaging them again in retirement?
My hon. Friend spoke with great eloquence in the recent Westminster Hall debate after a petition of 155,000 signatures was brought to this place, with more signatures from the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) than anywhere else in the country—a magnificent job by the women of Leigh.
I will quote once more the current Pensions Minister, who said:
“Across the country I’m hearing from women who are enduring that sudden sickening realisation that their destiny in retirement is not in their own hands—this is not about fairytale luxury retirement villas, this is about affording the basics.”
That is the view of the current Pensions Minister, and the Government cannot run from it.
I would like to challenge the figure that was quoted by a Member on the Government Benches. The Opposition spokesman might have the correct figure, but the figure reported from the Department for Work and Pensions investigation in 2004 was just above 40%, not 75%. Surely, given such a cataclysmic change, every single one of these women should have had a simple letter on the doormat in 1995.
The hon. Lady is entirely right. Even if 40% of women were unaware, that is 40% too many. As I said, five or six other surveys were done by academics and those in other institutions that suggested that 80% of women were unaware that they were going to be affected, so the reality is that the number was far greater.
The scale of this problem only truly started to dawn on people when the Government decided to double down on their calamity with the Pensions Act 2011.
My hon. Friend is about to come on to the injustice of the 2011 Act. Is not the real issue not only that these ladies have been hit not once but twice by an increase in their state pension age, but that no transitional arrangement was put in place? Is that not why it is absolutely right that we support the Labour motion to get the Government off the fence and provide these ladies with the transitional arrangement they deserve?
This House and Government Members would do well to heed the words of my hon. Friend, because, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), he has been the doughtiest campaigner in this House on behalf of these women. He speaks the truth when he says that Members from across the House should back our motion to provide transitional protections for them.
The 2011 Act not only broke the Government’s promise that the pension age for women was not going to rise until 2020, but broke the promise that no rises would occur without at least 10 years’ notice, because the women who suffered the double blow were given just two years’ notice. The former Pensions Minister, Steve Webb, has described that decision as an ill-informed “mistake”. He tried to make up for it in office, and secured some mitigation for 300,000 of the women who were due to see their state pension age go up by more than 18 months. The Minister on the Front Bench will no doubt mention this shortly, telling us that it cost £1.1 billion, but I bet he will not remind us that his predecessor was looking for £3 billion in order to offer these transitional protections. I suspect he may only say sotto voce that half of that £1 billion went not to women but to men.
I support the motion, because I support the WASPI women and I support transitional arrangements, but I have to say that the hon. Gentleman is making it more difficult for me and for colleagues to vote for the motion by making the matter so partisan. Thirteen years of Labour government did not help the situation. May I therefore suggest that in the spirit of the motion, which I support, he could give more details of what those transitional arrangements should be, so that we can at last start the dialogue that the Government should have started some time ago to see whether there is a middle way and a compromise to help the women who desperately need it?
I am sorry if I am bruising the hon. Gentleman’s feelings with my remarks. I am pleased that he has supported the campaign, and I know that he has been brave enough to speak in favour of it on several occasions. I am positive that a man of his resolve will not be put off by a few words across the Dispatch Box and will vote for the motion, irrespective of what I say; at least, I trust that he will. I will come on to talk about precisely the sorts of transitional arrangements that the Government should put in place.
This is the third opportunity we have had to debate this important matter in the Chamber and Westminster Hall. Notwithstanding the mistakes of the past or who made them, the Government have an opportunity to do the right thing by the women of this country. Why do they not just grasp the opportunity with both hands and deliver that for those women?
Why do they not do so? The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions occasionally comes to the Chamber to answer questions, but he has ducked out of the last five debates, and he is not here today. I have suggested before that we ought to sanction him for failing to turn up to work, and I think that may be a good idea. The truth is that the Government are not offering any further suggestions about how they might do what the Secretary of State promised in 2011. He said at the Dispatch Box that transitional arrangements would be put in place for these women, but he has not offered any such arrangements. The Government have offered nothing but defensive positions.
I hate to be partisan; it is really not in my nature. However, I cannot but draw Members’ attention to the guidance on the Whips’ note about Women Against State Pension Inequality that has been handed around to Government Members. It states quite clearly that the WASPI campaign is demanding that
“all women born after April 1951…be given their pension at age 60”
“no one will see any reduction in their income as a result of the changes to the state pension age”.
It claims that the rise in the state pension age has been “widely communicated” and states, as the Minister will, no doubt, repeat in a moment, that absolutely nothing more can be done.
On every point, the crib sheet and the Government are wrong. Women affected have lost income—the state pension income that they would have been paid under the previous arrangements. The changes were not widely communicated, as I have made clear today. The WASPI women are not opposed to the equalisation of the state pension age. Their petition, which had 155,000 signatures, said so explicitly. They support it, but they want what the Government promised: transitional arrangements.
One of the 4,100 women in my constituency affected by the changes recently told me that throughout her life a number of changes have impacted on her and the many thousands of women of her generation, such as unequal pay, the ability of employers to dismiss women because they were pregnant, and a lack of childcare. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is still time for the Government to correct that injustice and, in the interests of being non-partisan, to do the right thing and put in place transitional measures?
Will the hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to acknowledge the serious injustice suffered by women who were born in the 1950s who have been offered and have accepted retirement packages from their employers that included figures based on the assumption that the retirement age would be 60?
It is no surprise that the hon. Lady, who speaks with great erudition, has highlighted yet another injustice that women have suffered. I say again that the Government must recognise that and bring forward some suggestions. There are myriad ways in which they could mitigate the problem. There are lots of transitional arrangements that could be put in place, and I will list six of them.
The case that my hon. Friend is making is absolutely right. The point is that Governments, on occasion, make mistakes. It is not too late for Ministers to stand at the Dispatch Box, put things right and end the misery of thousands of people—not only women, but their husbands, who are equally affected financially by the impact on the household. The Government could put that right.
The Government could do so, and the Minister has five minutes or so to come up with what he wants to say to put it right. In case he has no ideas written down, I will give him six suggestions. The Government could delay the pension age increase until 2020 so that the pension age reached 66 by 2021. That option is favoured by the Pensions Minister in the House of Lords. The Government could cap the maximum state pension age increase from the 2011 Act at 12 months, which the predecessor of the Pensions Minister advocated. The Government could keep the qualifying age for pension credit on the previous timetable, which would help out some of the poorest women in that category, as Labour suggested in 2011. The Government could allow those affected to take a reduced state pension at an earlier age during the transition, as Alan Higham has suggested. The Government could extend the timetable for increasing the overall state pension age by 18 months so that it reaches 66 by April 2022, as John Ralfe has suggested. Finally, the Government could simply pay a lower state pension for a longer period throughout the pensionable age of the women affected. All those things would involve costs, but they are all ways in which the Government could act. What we need from the Government is not more carping but the will to get on and do something.
All six points, yes. They would be important for the woman who wrote to me this morning to say that she never received the letter and she only found out what was going on through her workplace pension. Unfortunately, she is now unemployed and has been for 20 months. She is trying hard to get a job, but she is extremely worried about how much longer she will have to work to make up for the lost contributions. She is in a very difficult position and has no guidance from anybody. Why do the Government not help her?
My hon. Friend speaks with passion and knowledge about the 4,000-odd women in his constituency who are affected. There are thousands of women in a similar position in all our constituencies, and my hon. Friend’s point is clear: one of the transitional measures must be put in place.
Constituents such as Mrs Cox in my constituency do not object to the principle of equalisation, but they object, as my hon. Friend is quite rightly saying, to the speed and scale of the changes. That is why his points about transitional arrangements are so important to Mrs Cox and many others. Will he also deal with the insidious evasion of responsibility among some Conservative Members, who are trying to blame the European Union rather than their own Government’s decision for the measures that have been taken? The same thing is not happening in other countries. It is the Government’s decision, and no one else’s.
I expect that the Secretary of State is out in Europe somewhere right now blaming the European Union for his sins of inaction. Mrs Cox speaks for all the women in the WASPI campaign who are not opposed to the equalisation of the state pension age at 65 or 66, but who are opposed to the injustices that are being visited on them.
I am going to make a little more progress, and then I will give way. The truth is that we have had quite enough talk. The sins of omission and commission are well known, and the Government should now act. The Bills in 1995 and 2011 were their Bills, and the mistakes were their mistakes, so it is for them to put things right. Women in Britain have suffered inequality in the workplace and on payday for far too long. No Government should compound that fact when the carers and the grafters in our society, on whom we rely for so much, reach their retirement day.
There is a Budget in three weeks, and the Chancellor has a golden opportunity to rise to the challenge and put in place one of the six variants of transitional arrangements that I have talked about. He would be well advised to do so.
My hon. Friend mentions the Budget. Does he agree that, given the corporation tax cuts and the cuts to inheritance tax in the Chancellor’s most recent Budget, the Chancellor clearly has the will to spend and should now pay attention to the WASPI campaign?
At the last Budget, the Chancellor happened to find £27 billion extra in tax revenues, which was a very handy little windfall to find down the back of the sofa, but the WASPI women will have heard that he did not spend a red cent of it—not a penny—on them, as he could have done. If he continues to play the WASPI women for fools and continues to take our pensioners for granted, then, as Baroness Altmann has told him already, he will live to regret it.
That is a sentiment that we can share right across the House. It is why not a single Conservative Member chose to vote against either of the previous calls for transitional arrangements in any of the debates we have held. It is why so many Conservative Back Benchers have pledged their support to the WASPI campaign. It is why this issue will not go away without action from the Government.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way at this point because I want to make sure that we are not given the same excuses by the Minister, when he speaks in a moment, that he has previously given. We heard:
“Equalisation was necessary to meet the UK’s obligations under EU law”.—[Official Report, 2 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 145WH.]
Conservative Members have been writing that out, but it is not true. I have raised this in a number of debates. The interesting thing in relation to changing previous legislation is that Poland is now introducing legislation to reverse its previous reforms. Its Government clearly realised that they had got it wrong, just as this Government have got it wrong.
Poland has realised that it had moved too fast. France has done the same, as has Germany. Countries across Europe, Governments across Europe—including right-wing Governments in parts of Europe—have acknowledged that they made a mistake and are backtracking. Only this Government refuse to acknowledge any mistake, and refuse to acknowledge that they have any culpability or responsibility.
This issue will not go away, and when the Minister stands at the Dispatch Box in a moment, he should offer a glint of sunlight and some hope for the WASPI women that the Government have heard their campaign and will do something about it. If the Government do not, I will urge all Back-Bench Members to do so on their behalf.
The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) has just made a speech more of politics than of substance. Given that he has declared himself a contender in the event of a Labour leadership contest, it is clear that his choice of audience was more about getting nominated as a contender than about dealing with the substance of the matter at hand. [Interruption.] Labour Front Benchers are chuntering, “What about the women?” Precisely—what about the women? What about focusing the debate on the women? What about some substance? I will move on to that.
I will give way, but I first wish to make a little progress.
Hon. Members will be aware that the women’s state pension age was changed in 1995 to equalise it with the state pension age for men. Equalisation was then accelerated in the Pensions Act 2011, following extensive debates in both Houses of Parliament. Those changes were about bringing gender equality to pensions for the first time, about reflecting rises in life expectancy—it continues to rise for both men and women—and about taking spending on pensions to more sustainable levels.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because I wanted to point out to him that the audience today is the huge number of women across the country who are adversely affected by the changes. One of them wrote to me:
“When equalization for pensions was first introduced in 1995 I was informed I could collect my State Pension at 64…however this was changed again in 2011 to…66. This is very unfair to me and the many other women it affects bearing the brunt of the changes twice”.
Labour has recognised that, which is why we have tabled a motion calling for transitional arrangements. Why is the Minister not backing us and the WASPI women on this?
As far as the hon. Lady’s question—or her speech, which had a question at the end of it—is concerned, I will address those issues later in my speech. However, she is absolutely right that the audience for this debate is the women concerned. In my speech, I intend to address the substance of the subject, rather than the politics of it, which we heard earlier.
Was the Minister struck, as I was, by the fact that the shadow Secretary of State, during the 30 minutes he took to set out the challenges we face, did not actually tell us what the Labour party would do, which of the six changes he would commit to, or whether he would commit to all six of them?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The shadow Secretary of State’s speech was full of bluster and specified no options. He failed to recognise or to speak about the cost, and to explain why the issue was not in the Labour party manifesto. The luxury for the Opposition is the ability to spend money for which they are not accountable and for which they have no responsibility. The difficulty for the Government is to deal with taxpayers’ money and to take the hard decisions that are necessary.
The Minister is speaking as though we did nothing to bring this issue to the Government’s attention during the last Parliament. That is straightforwardly not true. I participated in debate after debate with my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), who brought it to the Government’s attention time and again. As we have had so many debates about it, can we not just get on with talking about what we are going to do about it?
I will come on to the debate we had in 2011 later in my speech. If the hon. Lady wants to talk about previous Governments, may I gently remind her of the 13 years of Labour Government, with the 10 Pensions Ministers—one Minister had the job twice—and the nine Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions? In the interests of fairness, she, along with everyone else, might wish to acknowledge the limited work, if any, that was done during the 13 years of the Labour Government to put matters right, as they put it.
The Minister says that the Labour Government did limited work. May I point out that, following a freedom of information request to the Government just a couple of weeks ago, it was conceded that Labour spent more than £5 million advertising the changes and sent out 800,000 letters? That was in stark contrast to the previous Tory Government, which, frankly, did damn all.
If the hon. Gentleman is so proud of what the Labour Government did, why does he stand up to complain? They obviously did very little, and it must have had very little impact, because otherwise we would not be hearing the comments that Labour Members are making today.
EU law does require us to equalise pension ages. Later in my speech, I will mention countries that have already achieved what we are still endeavouring to achieve. Incidentally, the shadow Secretary of State was wrong in what he said about Germany. Germany has already achieved equalisation.
There are women in Northumberland who are likely to be in serious financial difficulty as a result of these changes. It will not be most of those affected, but it will be a few. My concern is for that small number of women. I would be most grateful if the Minister would agree to meet me and other Government Members to look at the small group of women who face such financial pressures.
My hon. Friend is saying some fair things about the Opposition and they do not like it. Will he turn his mind to a fair thing that I want to say about the women who are directly affected? The issue is that people who were born within 12 months of each other can have retirement ages nearly three years apart. That is where better transitional arrangements are needed. We all know that this Government have had to put right many things that previous Governments have got wrong, but this is something we need to get right for ourselves.
I will give way later, but I wish to make some progress.
There has been much debate about this issue, and we have had several debates about it in recent weeks. It comes down to two fundamental issues. First, there have been calls to undo the 2011 pension changes. The cost of that would be more than £30 billion. Secondly, there are calls by some to go even further and unravel the 1995 pension reforms.
Yes, there are many people, including people in WASPI, who want to unravel the 1995 reforms. It is out there on the internet for people to see, so let us not try to deny the two options that are being debated out there. I said at the outset that I was going to talk about the substance of the matter, and I will talk about both those options.
The Minister repeats the calumny that the WASPI women are saying, “Do not equalise pensions, and get rid of the 1995 Act.” That is exactly what the Whips’ crib sheet says, but he knows it is not true. That was one comment made by one woman among the hundreds of thousands on Facebook. It is not what WASPI said to the Work and Pensions Committee, and it is not what it said in its petition. It is not true. Will he withdraw it?
I am simply speaking from my personal experience of speaking to women. There are women who have said to me that they want the restoration of the 1995 rules. Colleagues in this House have had people in their surgeries speaking of 1995. The hon. Gentleman may not have had that—he may be out of touch, but the rest of us are not. When we talk of £77 billion or even £30 billion, we are not talking about a few million pounds or a few billion pounds. In both contexts, we are talking of tens of billions of pounds. That situation is simply not sustainable.
When the hon. Gentleman says that £30 billion was saved as a result of the 2011 changes, what he is saying is that there was a transfer from one of the poorest groups in our society, which is women in their 50s. That group of women saw the largest growth in unemployment under the coalition Government and are more likely to have to work after retirement than men. When they do so, two thirds of them work on the lowest wage levels, unlike men who work after retirement, two thirds of whom work on the highest wage levels. What does he have to say about picking the pockets of the poorest women in our society?
I will address some of the points that the right hon. Lady makes, because there is a broader context to this debate, rather than simply the issue of the pension age. Given the opportunity, I would like to make some progress.
People are living longer and leading healthier lives. Of course, that is to be welcomed, but it does increase the pressure on the state pension scheme. As a Government, we have a responsibility to keep it affordable and sustainable for future generations.
I would like to make some progress.
The changes that have been made are important in making the state pension scheme affordable and sustainable. They also reflect the way in which men and women lead their lives now, rather than the way they led them in the 1940s. I will come back to that point later.
First, I want to tackle one issue head-on. Many hon. Members have talked about the need for transitional arrangements. I point them towards the extensive debates and discussions that took place when the legislation passed through Parliament. Let me quote Hansard from the day on which the Pensions Bill received its Second Reading in June 2011. The Secretary of State made it very clear that equalisation of the state pension age would take place in 2018. He said that
“we have no plans to change equalisation in 2018, or the age of 66 for both men and women in 2020, but we will consider transitional arrangements.”—[Official Report, 20 June 2011; Vol. 530, c. 52.]
Yes, he said,
“we will consider transitional arrangements.”
Four months after the Secretary of State said those words, and after he had considered the matter further, a concession or a transitional arrangement—call it what you will—was indeed considered by this House and included on Report. That transitional arrangement was worth over £1 billion and reduced the delay that anyone would experience in claiming their state pension from two years to 18 months. So when people say that transitional arrangements should have been made, I simply ask them to look back at the record, to consider what was said and to consider what was subsequently done four months later. There were transitional arrangements. They passed through the House, there was extensive debate, there was extensive engagement with the relevant stakeholders and it was done.
I think that this is the fourth debate I have attended in which the Minister has responded on these issues, and his answers on this injustice are still woefully inadequate. Talking of injustice, will he answer my constituent, Shiona Airlie, who is four months outside this measure and was only notified in 2012 that she would have to wait a further four years—less than a year before her 60th birthday? Where is the justice in that? How is it fair after she has paid into the system for all of her working life?
The Minister’s description of Hansard and the discussions that took place in this House was extensive, but the ladies concerned do not know about that. It is surely unreasonable to expect them to read Hansard to understand what their pension arrangements should be. Women in my constituency are coming to my surgery to tell me of the significant changes that they and their families will experience because of this policy. It is not good enough and the Minister must listen and act.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that the public are uninterested in Hansard. My point was that people in this House who are speaking in this debate should read Hansard. Rather than simply saying, “Where are the transitional arrangements?”, they should recognise that transitional arrangements were made.
Is it not a fact that people were not aware of the Pensions Act 1995? We had 13 years of a Labour Government that spent £5 million on communication. Is it not the complete failure of the previous Labour Government that failed the women involved?
My hon. Friend is right. In 13 years of government, Labour—with 10 Pensions Ministers and nine Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions— completely failed these women and now refuses to accept any responsibility or to acknowledge the arithmetic of the pensions budget. Labour Members seek to put the blame on those at this Dispatch Box without making any contrary proposals. They refuse to commit themselves. As I said earlier, the luxury of opposition is being able to speak about spending huge sums of money without having the responsibility of taking the political decisions that we have to take.
I have given way many times and I am afraid that we are now getting to a stage at which MPs are simply repeating points that have already been raised. I am mindful that many hon. Members wish to speak. Nobody can accuse me of not being generous in giving way, but I wish to make progress.
The changes that were made, and the transitional arrangements made in 2011, benefited a quarter of a million women who would have otherwise have had a delay of up to two years. For more than 80% of those affected, the increase in the time period will be no more than 12 months. The House voted for this amendment to the Bill and a concession was called for. A concession was considered by the Government, proposed by the Government and accepted and voted for by this House. The Government promised to consider transitional arrangements in 2011 when the legislation was going through, and that is exactly what the Government delivered—a reduction in the time period from two years to 18 months at a cost of £1.1 billion. That shows that the Government were listening to the concerns of Members and responded to them at the time.
I will not give way, as I wish to make progress.
Following the 2011 Act, we wrote to all those directly affected to inform them of the change to their state pension age. About 5 million letters were sent by the DWP and the sending of the letters to those affected was completed between January 2012 and November 2013. Letters to those whose state pension age was set by the 1995 Act only were sent between April 2009, when Labour was still in government, and March 2011, when that process was finished by the coalition Government. As a result of those efforts, in 2012 a survey by the DWP found that only 6% of women who were within 10 years of receiving their pension thought that their state pension age was still 60.
The shadow Work and Pensions Secretary mentioned several surveys and was somewhat selective in those to which he referred. The one done by the DWP, which runs and is in charge of the pension scheme, has a fair amount of validity and, as I say, only 6% of women who were within 10 years of receiving their pension thought that their state pension age was still 60. As for the original 1995 changes to the state pension age, in 2004 nearly three quarters of those between 45 and 54 were aware of changes to women’s state pensions. Our communications campaign has focused on raising general awareness of the changes and encouraging those closest to the state pension age to get a personalised state pension statement.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and, despite the chuntering from those on the Labour Front Bench, I can assure him and everyone else that this is my question. We heard earlier from the shadow Secretary of State that he believed that the communication on this been absolutely appalling. He overlooked the fact that his own Government estimated that 75% of women had been informed. He also overlooked the fact that according to evidence to the Select Committee there were 600 mentions of the 1995 Act found in the media at that time. According to the briefing on the state pension legislation, 17 million automatic forecasts were issued by the Labour Government between 2004 and 2006—[Hon. Members: “Speech!”] Does my hon. Friend agree that although undoubtedly some women were not informed, many were?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting those facts on the record. I am, however, sorry that as he was making those points of substance, all he got was the yah-boo politics that we can expect from the Opposition. I am afraid that the truth, as anyone watching this debate at home can see for themselves, is that the Opposition do not want to know the substance or the facts. All they are interested in is the politics, but this is far too important an issue to be treated with the political naivety with which some Opposition Members are treating it. This is an important subject and the Government are dealing with it and treating it with the seriousness it deserves.
I thank the Minister for giving way, and he is clearly in a difficult corner, but I wondered whether he could clarify whether the Government now accept that women—well, anybody—need at least 10 years’ notification of a pension change in order to plan and prepare. If the Government now accept that, will he explain why that does not apply to this group of women?
The hon. Lady will be aware that Governments have to take difficult decisions at times. Considering the state of the economy and the financial position that this Government came into—she will be aware that one of her own colleagues said that there was no money left—and considering the longevity of both men and women, the Government had to take difficult decisions, as all Governments of both shades have to. This Government had to take difficult decisions and we took them because they needed to be taken.
The women of this country will be watching this debate and listening to the Minister’s comments with a mixture of concern and disappointment. He is giving us history lessons and is trying to apportion blame. We have a material problem now that the Government need to address, so he should stop looking backwards and start looking forwards, and start caring for the women of this country. This House has already said by an overwhelming majority that it wants the Government to look again at the transitional arrangements: has the Minister looked again at them, has his position changed since the last time this House debated the subject and will he tell us what his change of position is?
If hon. Members did not give mini speeches in the middle of my speech, I could reach my conclusions. I will answer the hon. Gentleman’s question in due course. We cannot look at the changes to women’s state pension age in isolation without acknowledging the significant changes in life expectancy in recent years, the huge progress made in opening up employment opportunities for women and the wider package of reforms. First, on life expectancy, the reason for all these significant reforms is that people are not just living longer but are staying healthy for longer. In just a decade, the length of time for which 65-year-olds will live in good health has surged by more than a year. That is welcome news, but it puts increasing pressure on the state pension scheme, and the Government—any Government—have a duty to ensure the sustainability of the state pension system. It would have been irresponsible for this Government, or the then coalition Government, to have ignored those developments.
Does the Minister agree that all Governments have the responsibility to be fair to the people of this country? Women are affected by the goal posts moving, and the benefits that they would get at retirement age have gone as well. This is a double whammy for that group of women who have worked hard all their lives.
The Government have a duty to all their citizens, and they have to take difficult decisions and perform a balancing act. It is important to bear that in mind when people are talking about spending £30 billion-plus, or £77 billion. Those are serious sums of money, and difficult decisions have to be taken to achieve that balancing act.
I will make progress. The landscape for women and employment has completely changed since the 1940s. Female employment is now at record levels, with more than 14 million women in work—a record rate of nearly 70%. The number of older women aged 50 to 64 in work is also at a record high, with over 100,000 more older women in work than this time last year. Indeed, over the past decade, women have on average stopped working later than 60. In 2015, the average age was 63, and we know that more women than men would prefer to work flexibly or part-time before retiring.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) just said to the Minister that we need at least 10 years for these notifications to be brought in. Is he confirming that this group of women, some of the poorest people in the country, are paying for the planned deficit reduction? What does he say to my constituent, Jayne Manners, who is disabled and cannot make up the six years that she has lost from this scheme? What transitional help can he give her?
The hon. Gentleman in part repeated a question that was asked earlier, and I refer him to my previous answer. I will turn to other issues later, given the opportunity to make progress with my speech.
We need a pensions system that recognises the changes that have been made, in the same way that we have responded to the need to support older workers in the labour market. We have abolished the default retirement age and extended the right to request flexible working to all employees, and we are working with businesses to encourage the employment and retention of older workers.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman is delighted that he was able to score his cheap political point.
Let me turn to our wider reforms. We inherited one of the most complex state pension systems in the world, and too many people did not understand what they could expect upon retiring. From April this year, we are introducing a simpler state pension that will give people a clear picture of what the state will provide so that they can build their own savings. We have a triple lock, so that pensioners will see their basic state pension go up by at least 2.5% every year, as it has since 2011. That means that from this April, pensioners will receive a basic state pension that is more than £1,100 higher a year than at the start of the last Parliament. It is important for people to look at matters in a broader context, rather than in the single-issue context that many colleagues seem to be speaking about.
I am genuinely grateful to the Minister for at long last allowing me to intervene. In response to an earlier intervention by a Conservative Member who has now left the Chamber, the Minister replied that Ministers are always happy to meet party colleagues to discuss difficult cases. Unlike the Minister for Pensions, who sits in the other place, this Minister has refused to come to Northern Ireland and meet women who were born in the 1950s and who are adversely affected by this change. Will he please have the good grace to agree to come to Northern Ireland and meet my constituents in North Down, and other women affected by this issue, and explain why the Government will not introduce transitional measures?
Order. Before the Minister replies, 25 Members wish to catch my eye and we are hoping to have a Division at about 4:50 pm. We still have another Front-Bench opening speech, and we are getting tight on time. Interventions have been very long, but if the Minister could start concluding his remarks, we might be able to get everybody in.
I take on board what you say, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I am coming to a conclusion. I am more than happy to meet colleagues, but I am afraid the venue would have to be negotiated. It is not every day that I go to Northern Ireland, but if the hon. Lady wants a meeting with me I am more than happy to meet her here in London.
We have ensured that more people are saving for their retirement by requiring employers to enrol their staff on to a pension with our auto-enrolment scheme. In addition to those reforms, we have continued to protect and build on a range of other pensioner benefits, including a permanent increase to cold weather payments, protection of winter fuel payments, and protection of free bus passes.
I will not give way. Hopefully the hon. Lady heard what Madam Deputy Speaker directed.
We are providing greater security and choice for people in retirement, while also ensuring that the system is sustainable for the future. That is a record on pensions and pensioners of which Conservative Members can be proud. Parliament has extensively debated accelerating the changes to the state pension age. We listened to all arguments for and against at the time of the Pensions Act 2011, and we made transitional arrangements.
We are far behind other countries in Europe on equalisation—Germany, Denmark, the Czech Republic and Greece have already equalised the pension age for men and women. We must look to the future, not persist in looking backwards. These changes are about putting our pensions system on a secure financial footing, rather than continuous confusion for those affected and further debate. We should build on the high levels of awareness that we already have, and continue to promote flexibility, choice and security for older people. There are no plans on the part of the Government to make policy changes.
Having listened to the Minister for 35 minutes, I cannot think of a time when I have been in the Chamber and felt so utterly depressed by what I have heard— 35 minutes to say absolutely nothing and to give absolutely no hope to those women who are facing pension inequality. Talk about a Government who are out of touch!
The game was given away by one of the Minister’s hon. Friends, the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries), who told the Government that she is one of the ladies who are caught up in this. The Government know who she is, where she lives and her age, but she has heard nothing. Does the Minister have anything to say to her? Absolutely nothing—just sheer contempt from this Government for the WASPI women and the WASPI campaign. He and the Government should be utterly, utterly ashamed of themselves.
A Conservative MP asked me last night, “Why are we having yet another debate on this issue?”, and I have some sympathy with his view. We should not be having this debate for the simple and straightforward reason that the Government should have acted by now to end this injustice.
Let us just remind ourselves of the fundamentals. We in the Scottish National party, I am sure along with everybody else in this Chamber, agree with pension equalisation—we are not debating that—but we do not support the unfair manner in which the changes have been made. The Government must explore options for transitional arrangements to protect retirement plans for the females adversely affected. The Minister tossed out the figure of £30 billion, but what he did not say is that that is £30 billion over the years up to 2026. Let me give him one suggestion. The Government are consulting on pension tax relief, which costs a gross £35 billion. Why do they not readjust that to give some hope and to deal with the problem that women pensioners are facing?
I will give way later, but I want to make some progress because I am aware of the time constraints.
Parliament voted unanimously on 7 January for a motion that the Government should put into place mitigation for the women affected. The Prime Minister speaks about the sovereignty of this House. Why have the Government ignored that vote? Why have they ignored the will of the House? Whose sovereignty now? They cannot ignore the will of the House at random on the legitimate demands of the WASPI people. The Government are treating this House and the people of this country with contempt. Where is parliamentary democracy?
I will give way. I will answer the point and then give way.
Austerity is a political choice. In the election campaign, we argued that if the Government increased spending by 0.5% per annum in each year of the Parliament, they would increase spending by £140 billion but still reduce the deficit to 2% of net national income by the end of the Parliament. That is the responsible way. That would mean the Government would not be punishing the women who are affected by this. Show some leadership, Minister. Take some action and address this properly.
The hon. Gentleman said earlier that the cost would be some £29 billion by 2026. He is completely wrong. The evidence to the Select Committee is that the bill in 2016-17 would be £29 billion and the total cost £77 billion. In Westminster Hall, the hon. Gentleman said that his party would commit to the policy of changing that if it were ever in the unlikely position of having responsibility for running these things itself. Will he confirm that his party leader will say, on the record, that if the SNP ever had responsibility for this, it would commit £77 billion?
Good grief! Have I ever heard such nonsense as I have just heard from the hon. Gentleman? I never committed the SNP to anything. What I did was make suggestions about what the Government may do. To toss around the £77 billion figure, which refers to the 1995 Act, is something I have never done. House of Commons Library figures show that the cost of reversing the 2011 Act would be £30 billion by 2026. Let us get the facts right. Rather than the nonsense from the Conservative Benches, we will tell the truth; they can spin the nonsense.
The Government keep telling us that this matter was decided in 2011 and we should just meekly accept that. What arrogance! I, and every other Member elected in May 2015, was sent to this place not to accept whatever went before. We were sent here to represent the views of our constituents in this Parliament. If we want to change the 2011 Act, we can do it. The Minister should stop hiding behind that. We cannot be bound by the mistakes of past Parliaments. We are here to speak up for our constituents, to hold the Government to account and to make sure they right this wrong. My heavens, the ways of this place are archaic! It is little wonder that people in Scotland see Westminster as out of touch and irrelevant.
Although the Government and the Minister are yet to repent, the pensions Minister in the previous Government, Steve Webb, admitted recently that the Government made a bad decision on state pension age rises. It is time not just for Steve Webb but for the Government to repent. When the Minister responsible for piloting the Bill through Parliament can see the error of his ways, surely the Treasury can recognise it has to act in the best interests of the women affected. When I think of the intransigence of the Treasury in not recognising its responsibility to do the right thing, I am reminded of a line that I am sure could be used in a school report card for the Chancellor of the Exchequer: we thought George had reached rock bottom; sadly, he has kept digging. This is one hole that the Government have to dig themselves out of. Many Conservative Members are hoping that this issue and the WASPI women are just going to go away. That is not going to happen. We will keep fighting for the WASPI women, because it is the right thing to do. The Chancellor has refused to act—the iron Chancellor in his bunker.
When we start to pay national insurance, we are entering a contract with the state to receive a pension. The Government have an obligation to meet that commitment. There has to be fairness and transparency, and that is what is lacking in this case. We are asking for the Government to put in place mitigation to reflect and recognise that the pace of the pension age increase is far too steep. It is a pity, in the week that they are welcoming the fiscal framework that would allow us to proceed with the Scotland Bill, that we are not seeing pensions provision come to Scotland. One thing is crystal clear: if we had powers over pensions in Scotland we would do the right thing for our pensioners.
I never realised the Tories were so hard of hearing. I thought I made that quite clear in my earlier remarks, but I will do it again. We are asking for the Government to make clear what they will offer in mitigation for pensioners. I gave the example of the review of pension tax relief. If they can find the money for £176 billion for weapons of mass destruction, they can find the money to do the right thing for pensioners.
I recognise the passion the hon. Gentleman is bringing to the debate, but I am very concerned that the WASPI campaigners will be misled and be unable to understand clearly what the SNP will commit to if it is to bring forward the amelioration it says is so necessary. If he and his party want to be taken seriously, it is incumbent upon them to have a clear, costed proposal to bring to the House today.
This is remarkable. The difference between our Government in Scotland and the Tory Government in London is that we have a Government who are popular and responsible. There is a very easy answer to this: give us the powers over pensions. Give us our independence and we will do the right thing for our people and rectify the wrong that has been done by the Conservative Government.
Conservative Members keep talking about money. That is very important, but there is another issue—fairness. Maybe you do not know, but a third of the women between the age of 55 and 59 do not work. Do you know why they do not work? Because they have ill health or are disabled. The other half are either carers or looking after people. The reality is—
The hon. Gentleman has been in and out of the Chamber. He was here at the beginning of the debate. May I use this opportunity to calm things a little bit, so we can move on? A very large number of Members want to speak. If Members make interventions, please keep them short. May I also remind Members that they are speaking through the Chair? When they say “you” they are addressing the Chair, not hon. Members.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I very much agree with the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis), who makes very good points. It is all about unfairness to women who are really struggling, women with ill health and women who cannot work; and it is about the Government accepting their responsibilities.
I have already taken a lot of interventions and I am aware that many Members want to speak, so I shall try to get through my points as quickly as I can.
Let me deal with the real case of women born in the early 1950s. This is something I have said before, but it needs repetition. Let us talk about women born on 10 February and let us look at the different experiences as they apply to each of the years of the early 1950s. Someone born on 10 February 1950 would have retired at age 60 in 2010. Women born a year later, however, would have had to wait almost two years longer to have retired on 6 January 2012. A woman born on 10 February 1952 would have reached state pension age on 6 January 2014, aged 61 years, 10 months and 27 days. Such a woman has had to wait an additional two years in comparison with a woman born in 1950.
If that were not bad enough, the increase for women born in 1953 and 1954 gets much worse. Someone born in 1953 would have retired in January this year, aged nearly 63, whereas a woman born in 1954 will not reach pensionable age until 6 July 2019, when she will be aged 65 years, four months and 26 days. A woman born in 1954 has to wait two and a half years longer for their pension than someone born a year earlier. We should dwell on that point.
Does my hon. Friend agree that as this plays out to the public, many women in the WASPI campaign who are watching our proceedings today, no doubt with huge disappointment, will be even more disappointed to see that the Tory Benches are populated almost exclusively by men, who are explaining why women born in the 1950s should not be able to access their pension? [Interruption.] I said “almost exclusively”. They are watching these detached, remote, middle-aged men explaining why they cannot access their pensions.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. We should all, whether we be men or women, reflect on the unfairness. It is an issue that we should see as simply wrong, and we should deal with it, whether we be male or female.
Let us dwell on the point. Someone born in 1953 has now retired, while someone born in 1954 has to wait until 2019. Where is the fairness in that? Let me ask Conservative Members who among them is going to defend it. I ask a Minister, a Back Bencher or any Conservative to rise to defend what the Government are doing. Why should some people have to wait so long?
Does the hon. Gentleman seriously believe, given that my constituents in Blackpool North and Cleveleys want me to be here, that I should leave the Chamber and not participate in the debate because I am a man?
I am sorry to hear that approach taken by the hon. Gentleman. I was looking for someone to defend the Government. I provided the opportunity for a Conservative Member to do so, and the hon. Gentleman failed. Everyone in this Chamber has the right to defend the interests of their constituents—we would all support that.
I want to make some progress.
We shall see whether the House divides on the motion later, but Tory Back Benchers may well meekly trot through the Lobbies and do nothing other than support the Government over an issue that is, in our view, completely untenable. This is a debate, so I ask Conservative Members whether they will defend the Government. I will happily give way to any Tory Member who is prepared to stand up for the WASPI women in this country.
To defend what the Government are doing is to defend the indefensible. It is wrong; it is mean-spirited. Conservative Members should not just troop through the Lobbies without reflecting on the situation of women who in some cases are losing tens of thousands of pounds of their entitlement.
I have talked so far about women born up to 1954. A woman born in 1955 will not retire until 10 February 2021, aged 66 years. That cannot be right. It is far too steep an increase over a short period, and the Government must put mitigation in place. You Government Members should examine your consciences. You will have women from the WASPI campaign coming to see you—
I apologise most sincerely for my oversight, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I will make sure it does not happen again.
Conservative Members will have women from the WASPI campaign coming to their surgeries. Let us look at what some of the woman affected have said about their real- life experiences of these changes. Here is one example:
“My husband and I got married in 1974, he is 12 years older than me. I like to think we planned life in the right way. The pension law has put all our plans out the window. I had been planning all my available options, when my husband retired, and in 2011, I requested my state pension forecast. It stated that if I deferred till 2020 I should receive a £14,621 lump sum. I thought this may allow me the option to work two days and still enjoy my family, but thanks to the changes I will no longer receive this. Also, I hadn’t anticipated that my age might make me a prime candidate for redundancy. Losing my job in 2014, was a massive blow. The government may have changed the law, but it turns out many industries don’t want 60+ women. They are effectively retiring us, and forcing us to use our lifetime savings on daily living costs, as no one wants to hire us!”
There are so many points to dwell on there, but most importantly, it speaks of the crushing of so many hopes and dreams.
It is also the case that many women are being forced to work on beyond their expected retirement date, and this brings its own challenges in terms of the availability of suitable employment, and many are sadly experiencing ill health. What has been the response of the Government? It is that other benefits are available. What a response! You have worked hard, paid your dues to society, met your side of the bargain in paying national insurance and expected to receive a pension, yet this callous, heartless Government are ripping that contract up and telling folk to claim benefits. Is that really the answer? You can get means-tested benefits, which will cost the Exchequer, but you are being denied what is rightfully yours. Welcome to “Osborne’s Britain”—callous, cold and undignified.
Is not the crux of the issue that we see a clear breach of contract? If this were a private pension company that unilaterally changed the pension conditions of 2.6 million ladies in this country, this House would quite rightly be up in arms. Those ladies want only to have that contract mitigated fairly. Surely the Government should listen to the 2.6 million ladies in this country, and act now.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a very good point. We were talking earlier about the Financial Conduct Authority and consumer protection, yet here are consumers being ripped off by their own Government, who are ripping up entitlements to the state pension. Conservative Members should be up in arms over this; they should defend the rights of their constituents.
Let me provide just one other example, as I am conscious of the time. Here it is:
“My husband will be 78 by the time I can retire. I had been looking forward to slowing down at 60 and enjoying putting my family, husband, children and grandchildren at the centre of my life. In Cameron’s speech on why families matter in 2014 he stated that he wanted to do ‘everything possible to help support and strengthen family life in Britain today’. Had I been available for my grandchildren, my daughter and her husband would not have had to pay £1700 a month for her two children to go to nursery, putting them in debt. They are both teachers and could not manage their mortgage on one salary. As you can see the changes to the state pension have not supported or strengthened our family, the changes have left us in a state of disarray”—
all thanks to this Conservative Government. That is the reality.
As I sum up—[Interruption.] Well, I could quite happily go on! What are Conservative MPs going to say to women who are going to have to wait six years longer than anticipated for their pension? This is a breach of trust between the Government and the women who have earned the right to a pension. We should recall the advice from the Turner report that such measures should be brought in over a 15-year period to mitigate the impact of any such changes.
We have heard about the failure of communication, which it could be argued means that the start of the 15-year process should be the beginning of the changes in 2010. That means there will effectively be a retirement age of 63 for women as of April this year. The Government could, for example, look at smoothing the increase in pensionable age for women to 2025. The Government should do the right thing and immediately introduce mitigation. Now is the time to act; if not, we will be coming back to this place and fighting for the women who deserve our protection.
I rise—finally—to express disappointment—huge disappointment. This has not been a good debate so far, and I imagine that many of the WASPI women who have been watching it on television may have switched off long ago, because the party political point-scoring on all sides has been pretty embarrassing.
Real women are affected by this, and have real issues. It is a fact that in 1995, following the first legislative change, the Labour party had 13 years during which it did not act: it did not inform women. It is also a fact that my own party has failed women in terms of communication. As for the Scottish National party, it was not even here. So yes, there have been failures on both sides of the House. I stand here as a WASPI woman, and I have received no communication whatsoever. It is not true to say that women have been informed. It is also not true to say that there has been a wide campaign of advertisements and information on this subject. The campaign of advertisements and information was about general pension changes; it did not specifically target the group of women who have been so badly affected.
What I want to talk about—during the very few minutes that I have left, after all the party political point-scoring—are the issues that are really affecting those women. I am going to use some words that will probably make the men cringe. Many people will think that I should not talk about such matters in the House. The fact is, however, that many women, when they reach a certain age, have health issues that men do not have to deal with. None of that is taken into consideration. If I had been here when the equalisation of the pension age was about to be introduced, I would not have supported it, because women have to deal with issues later in life that men simply do not have to deal with. Women are carers, and women in their fifties and sixties are more likely to be carers than women of any other age. It is a fact that 47.7% of breast cancer diagnoses are given to women in their fifties and sixties. Those are the real issues faced by the women out there who are affected by this legislation.
What do we say to the woman who has had breast cancer, has had 10 courses of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and who has now been told that she cannot retire when she thought she was going to, but has to go back to work when she is half the weight she has been at any time in her life, and is sick, and is facing worse diagnoses in the future? What do we say to women who have lost their insurance and have been blitzed with one issue after another because of their illness? There are women like that in my constituency. There is a woman in my constituency who was told by the Department for Work and Pensions that she should have been sent a letter, that in fact she had been sent a letter, and that she was telling lies. She now lives in the house that she was born in.
These women are facing dreadful problems. They are spending hours on the telephone, trying to find out from the DWP how they are affected and what is going to happen to them. Those are the complaints that women are making. It is not about who should have done what and when, it is not about which party is to blame, it is not about who is at fault; it is about the problems that these women are facing. This is what they want, and this is what I would ask of the Minister if he had the grace to listen to my speech, as I listened to his, rather than talking to his neighbour on the Front Bench. What I would like the Minister to do, on behalf of those women, is to stand at the Dispatch Box today and make a commitment that, at the very least—
Women who work for fair transitional pension arrangements have been accused by some of being emotional. There is certainly one emotion that unites most of them, and that is anger: anger about the incompetence and stubbornness that have failed to address these issues over many years, and anger about the fact that the arrangements that they made for their retirement were based on either wrong information or no information at all from the Government, and have now been overturned.
Who are the women most affected? Many of them are carers; one lady who wrote to me is caring for a mother in her nineties. Others are women who have had to retire early because of ill health. Yet others are women who have been made redundant in their late fifties and early sixties, and there were a lot of those under the coalition Government. All of them thought that they could just about manage until their state pensions kicked in, only to find that the Government had moved the goalposts, a fact of which they had been totally unaware.
These are also women who have been disadvantaged throughout their working lives. Many of them started work before the Equal Pay Act 1970, and certainly before the cases involving equal pay for work of equal value. Many brought up their children when there was very little childcare, and a number had to take low-paid part-time jobs to fit in with their children’s school hours. As for those who gave up work to look after their children, they were, at that time, given no pension credits for their caring responsibilities, and when they went back to work they found themselves without enough time to build up a decent private pension. Many women have now found themselves redundant, but are being kept in the workforce and put through the Work programme as if they were workshy layabouts, although they have worked all their lives.
Ministers ought to hang their heads in shame for the way they have treated these women. It is not enough, apparently, for this Government to damage women’s prospects in every Budget they have introduced and make them bear the biggest burden of cuts; they also have to damage their retirement prospects—and this is the Government who tell us that they are on the side of strivers. Not if those strivers are women, they aren’t. They have put nearly 2.5 million women in an impossible position. So contemptuous of those women are they that the Secretary of State does not even come here to respond to debates. No doubt he is out fabricating some new fantasy about how our security is threatened by countries like Belgium and Luxembourg, those well-known bellicose nations.
However, the real culprit, whom we have never seen at all, is the Chancellor. Like Macavity the Mystery Cat, whenever there is trouble, he is not here. It is he who decided that women should bear an unfair burden of the cuts. It is he who has made sure that they are paying the price for this Government’s policies. In future, Ministers should listen. They should come to the Dispatch Box with more than the platitudes that we have heard before from this Minister—
I am sorry; I do not have time.
Ministers should come here and introduce transitional arrangements for these women. They have been the backbone of this country for years, many of them are saving us millions by caring for others, and they have been treated with gross unfairness and contempt by this Government.
Given that a great many Members want to speak, it would be helpful if Members did not intervene, because if they want to make speeches later, we shall be in an impossible position. If Members could shave just a little bit off their speeches, I shall try to ensure that everyone has a chance to speak.
I shall do my utmost, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I am embarrassed to be in the Chamber today, because this debate has shamed us all. I am deeply, deeply disappointed by what I have heard. I came here today to speak on behalf of the constituents I have met who are affected by this issue. I wanted to speak about their financial security, about why it matters to them, and about why they want to be resilient and protected from unexpected shocks.
All those I have met have been both reasonable and very frustrated. Some have been intensely angry, and understandably so. I have no doubt that more could have been done by all parties to improve communication. I am sorry that the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) is laughing at me. I wish that she would not laugh at me. This is not a laughing matter. I am desperately trying to explain that I think more needs to be done on behalf of the people affected. We can review what has been done by way of communication, but that will not help those individuals.
I wanted to look carefully at what WASPI is calling for, because of the strength of their campaign. Their petition is quite clear: it calls on the Government
“to put all women in their 50s…and affected by the changes to the state pension age in exactly the same financial position they would have been in had they been born on or before 5 April 1950”
My understanding, and I ask to be corrected by WASPI members themselves if I am wrong, is that that would effectively mean the restoration of the state pension age to 60 for that cohort of women. If that is the case, it is a perfectly valid argument to make, but one I cannot agree with because the cost would be too great for the Exchequer to bear.
That does not mean that the answer is that we should do nothing. There are many ways of looking at what the transitional arrangements could be. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), who called for mitigation and transitional arrangements, but I was not clear what they amounted to. When I have had debates in the Chamber with the shadow Secretary of State, I have always found him to be a very reasonable man. From the first time we met to discuss epilepsy, I have always had a high regard for him. He came up with six options, some of which are mutually exclusive, and none of which had a price tag. Nor did he select a particular preference. However, I thought it was a useful starting point.
I urge Members on both sides of the House to take account of this point: the more information we have, the more we can start to select which are the most appropriate methods to make progress. What problem are we trying to solve here? What are the most proportionate means of solving it? Not all those six options will address all the concerns that have been expressed to me. Some may be too costly, some may not, but we should be open to that information. The more the options can be costed, the better.
I want to make another point to WASPI. In its evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee, it perhaps made an error of judgment in that it appeared to rule out the prospect of any use of either means-tested benefits or other pensioner benefits to adjust for some of the problems that people face. That was a mistake, because there is potential to discuss how, once people are in receipt of their pension, some way could be found to mitigate or adjust for the impact. The age at which people can claim could be brought forward, but the amount that they claim reduced. I hope that we can also look at whether the changes need to be universal or could be means-tested. Many of my most vulnerable pensioners—my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) made this point clear—are going to be the least well off. I therefore hope we can start to have a wider debate.
I start by offering you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and the House my apologies, because unfortunately I will not be able to be here for the winding-up speeches—I am on Front-Bench duty in Westminster Hall from 4 o’clock. No discourtesy is intended either to the shadow Minister or the Minister who will be closing the debate.
As always, it is a pleasure to take part in the debate, although I am a little saddened by the Minister’s response to what is a fairly clear motion tabled by the Labour Front-Bench team. We are calling on the Government to set out a process of transitional arrangements for the group of women affected, who have been served a real injustice. I am not concerned about the who, where, how or what. When my kids are squabbling, they get put on the naughty step; I am not bothered about the who, why, where or what. We are where we are, as the WASPI women appreciate. The real injustice is that they have been denied fair transitional arrangements.
When we were discussing the pension scheme for Members of Parliament, we put in place, I accept through an independent system, a 10-year transitional arrangement, so that right hon. and hon. Members who were within 10 years of their normal retirement age were able to remain on the old House of Commons system, and the rest of us were moved on to the new IPSA system. I say to the Minister that if it is good enough for us, it is good enough for those women, and they deserve the freedom to have enough time to make alternative arrangements. Those were the arguments that were made when our pension changes came before us. There should not be one rule for us and one rule for people outside this Chamber. I argue, reasonably, that they should expect the same treatment that we expected when there were changes to our pension system.
I realise that the Minister currently sitting on the Front Bench is not the Pensions Minister; the Pensions Minister is in the other place. I have to say, being kind to the Minister, who seemed tetchy in his response, that the fact that he was not the Pensions Minister probably showed. I will tell him what the WASPI women are calling for—I quote from their petition:
“The Government must make fair transitional arrangements for all women born on or after 6th April 1951 who have unfairly borne the burden of the increase to the State Pension Age”.
They are not asking for changes to legislation; they are asking for fairness. That brings me back to the motion, which will be voted on. We all have the chance in the Division Lobby later today not just to offer platitudes to the women affected but to show that we mean it. In the motion we call on the Government
“to bring forward proposals for transitional arrangements for”
those women, because they deserve fairness. That is why we called for this debate. I commend the shadow Secretary of State for securing it, because it allows us to have a vote and to show these women that we mean what we say.
It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate. I rise to represent the views of Linda Anderson and others from the WASPI campaign group in Salisbury who came to see me just last week. It was clear from their representations that they feel a grave sense of injustice. They have had different experiences in what they have received over the years and in their understanding of the different entitlements they should have had, but I too have been disappointed by the lack of clarity in the alternatives that have been presented in this debate. We had a powerful speech by the SNP Front-Bench spokesman, but we did not have clarity or costings on the amelioration that his party proposes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) said, the Opposition spokesman offered a menu of options, but we did not have any price tags and we did not have any choices.
I want to set out what I would do and say how much it would cost, because it is important that we have some integrity in addressing the campaigners who have come to see all of us. There has been far too much emotive talk from people trying to get alongside the WASPI campaigners by saying, “It is my party that will do something about this”, and making grave accusations about a Government who have made significant changes to raise pensioners’ standard of living and to put in place mechanisms to ensure that changes in life expectancy are reflected in the provision that the Government make for senior citizens.
It is clear that the pathway to equalisation was set a long time ago, and that there was some communication after the legislation was passed in 1995, but I want to go back to the Work and Pensions Committee report in 2004. There is no ambiguity in what that report said about the Omnibus survey of women in 2004 aged 45 to 54. That survey found that 73%—nearly three quarters—of those women were aware of the changes. That was 12 years ago. I say that not to deflect from the sense of injustice of the WASPI campaigners but to suggest that there has been a range of experiences and different levels of awareness of the changes. It is therefore difficult to get absolute clarity on who knew what when.
However, there does seem to be a real injustice for that group of people, who are now very near their pensionable age, or what they thought would be their pensionable age, which has now been extended. Their lifestyle will be compromised. Their partners or husbands are often already retired, and there will be grave implications for their quality of life. So what I propose is that the group of pensioners in that early-50s cohort are given the option to take their pension earlier. Their pension would be reduced, but it would be a relatively small amount for two or three years, and it should be cost-neutral to the Government even taking into account the cost of the administrative changes involved. That is a reasonable approach, because it says, “There’s a good chance that three quarters of you will have heard about this, but if you didn’t, this option exists.” I urge the Front-Bench team to consider that and come back at the end of the debate with its response.
I am pleased to speak in this debate because I have heard in so many cases how the changes brought in by the Pensions Act 2011 affect the lives of millions of women born throughout the 1950s. They are unfairly bearing the burden of the personal costs of the Government’s increases to the state pension age, because many find themselves without a job, without a pension or pensioner benefits, and without money to live on, and that must focus our minds. Many of the 1950s-born women affected by the changes are living in real financial hardship.
In our last debate on this, I asked the Minister where the work or suitable support is for women affected by the state pension age increases that his Government have brought in. There are 2.6 million women born in the 1950s affected by the Government’s changes, but finding suitable employment in our 60s is not the same as looking for work in our teens and 20s. The experience of my constituents is that suitable work or support programmes do not exist. These facts were known about in 2011 when the legislation went through.
The Minister was pilloried even by MPs of his own party when he read out a list of benefits available to 1950s-born women affected by the Government’s changes. I say to the Minister that he does not realise what it means to have to go to a jobcentre or to be pushed on to the Work programme or to have an assessment for ESA. My constituents have told me how they feel about having to go to jobcentres; they feel there is no dignity in having to do that as women in their 60s, after a lifetime of working, bringing up children, and paying national insurance contributions for 40 years or more. One of my constituents told me she was pleased they had taken her off ESA
“because it is making me ill to keep dealing with them...the way you are dealt with.”
I have a constituent who is forced to attend the Work programme. She feels that it fails to take into account her previous experience, which is a very common feeling. She is worried about being “parked” on a programme where she has to work for free or face sanctions.
WASPI campaign supporters have shared other stories about poor practice by Work programme providers when working with 1950s-born women. One 62-year-old woman with a full work history has reported being escorted by staff of the provider Seetec around a shopping centre with a CV to make speculative applications to managers in shops there, but the woman involved did not recognise her CV because it had been changed by the Work programme provider to disguise her age by removing her date of birth and full work history. That raises legal issues as such misrepresentation can make an employment contract void, but putting them aside we see that the Government’s acceleration of state pension age changes is pushing some women who become unemployed into such situations.
Women affected have described the whole process as “degrading”, being “frogmarched” with a falsified CV around a shopping centre and constantly under observation. It was also humiliating for women on this programme when the same provider offered inappropriate incentives such as sweets or chocolates to “encourage” the women to apply for jobs. Women fear they will be subject to sanctions if they refuse to participate.
We should be ashamed to have a system that treats women born in the 1950s in this way when they have worked all their lives. I have asked before why the Government have not considered different schemes to support people in their 60s. The Government have changed the situation and they should do that. Why have they not looked at a bridge pension scheme, or offering concessionary travel, or winter fuel payments?
Throughout their lives, 1950s-born women have been disadvantaged in terms of pay and pensions. They deserve better after a lifetime of work than being frogmarched around shopping centres or offered sweets to fill in job applications. They deserve proper consideration of a lifetime of work and NI contributions: they deserve fair transitional arrangements.
I commend the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) on the measured way in which she made her comments.
I support this motion, opportunistic though it is, and it gives me no pleasure to say that I will have to vote against the Government, which is not something I make a habit of. I will do so out of loyalty to WASPI, out of support for transitional arrangements which I agree with, and because legislation needs to be fair and proportionate, and these pension changes are unfair and have fallen disproportionately on a small number of women.
Never in my time in the House have I ever known there to be a debate on the same subject five times in the space of just two months; it has been unprecedented. There was standing room only in Westminster Hall in the last debate.
I welcome the six options put forward by the shadow Front Bench. They are fraught with problems, but they are a starting point, and the one thing the Government have not done is come up with some options and offer to help to model them. I hope and ask for a dialogue and that we may have detail and definition. There is genuine cross-party support for getting this problem sorted out. The problem is not going to go away, as we have said before. I ask the Minister to agree that the Secretary of State will meet a cross-party delegation of hon. Members with key members of the WASPI campaign and—with the help of civil servants—cost some possible models and give their implications, so at least we can have some facts about how impractical or practical some of these things might be. That would be a helpful way forward.
Given the time, I just want to read from a couple of letters from constituents that speak much more eloquently than I could. One of them is from a lady who said:
“2 years before I was due to retire at 60 I found out that I had to wait till I was 66. Like many other women, not exactly what I had planned for. In fact when I started work at 15 I was always going to work till I was 60, so everything was planned for that time…
I come from a family who believed in work, to save for the future and be independent. Despite being widowed at 22, and left with a small baby, I never accepted handouts, the only thing I had was child benefit. As a single mother, I worked and supported my son for 6 years—no tax credits. I was lucky enough to remarry when my son was 7 but still continued to work and be independent financially, which was important to me…Unfortunately after 2 bouts of cancer I finally had to stop working when I was in my mid-50s, and much against my ethos, had to claim incapacity benefit, but was again reassured that after 5 years I would receive my pension. So it was a complete shock that 2 years before I was due to receive it I find I will not get it till I am 66—if I live that long!”
Another constituent writes:
“I have worked as a nurse for 40 years, presently as a Macmillan Cancer Specialist.
When I was young, I believed that my Government would look after me when I reached retirement age of 60, and I believe they had a contract with me which they have now broken, as I will be 65 years and 9 months old when I receive my State pension.
This will cause me hardship as I grow older, and after working many years in the NHS, I really feel let down. My pension age has been changed twice, and I cannot believe that a woman born 2 years before me already receives her pension.”
Another lady ended up after making a similar impassioned plea saying:
“It seems that we older women who have contributed to society are considered unimportant and not worth the financial support that we have earned over the years.”
I agree. We need to send out a very strong message to those women that we do care, and that there has been a disproportionate effect from perfectly well-intentioned changes to the pension age. Nobody disagrees with equalisation—nobody says that we need to go back to a pre-1995 level—but there is a deal to be done and a compromise to be reached. Common sense needs to break out and the Government need to listen to those on both sides of this House and to these women, because we value them and they have been affected most disproportionately by well-intentioned changes. I hope that the Minister will take away that message and that we will now be able to open a dialogue, because we are talking about real women facing real hardship after hard-working lives, when they were doing the sort of thing we encourage our constituents to do every day of the week.
Today, we again debate the need for transitional arrangements following the equalisation of the state pension age. Contrary to what the Minister said, everyone—including the women affected—accepts the equalisation of the state pension age for men and women in principle. However, in practice it is clear that these changes have had such a detrimental effect on the lives of a particular group of women born in the 1950s—many thousands of them up and down the country—that we must look at transitional arrangements. We can ignore this no longer.
Like many others in the Chamber today, I have had many women from WASPI contact me at my surgeries, or via email or social media, to raise their concerns about the impact that the lack of transitional arrangements will have on their lives. In recent weeks and months, we have had many debates on this important matter, yet time and again the Government have failed to move an inch in their position and have continued to ignore the concerns of these women.
The common theme of all the many letters I have received from constituents has been that the escalation in the equalisation of the state pension age has ruined these women’s plans, savings and, in some cases, lives. One constituent’s case stands out in particular. She was born in 1957. I will not name her, but she explained to me that she saw these changes mentioned on the news a few times but as she never received a letter, she assumed they must not affect her, as she would surely have been told if they did. She eventually received a letter in 2014. She thought it was a routine pension calculation, but it showed her state pension age as taking effect in 2023. She thought it must be an error and was horrified later to discover that it was not. What that meant for her was that instead of retiring next year, as expected and as she planned for, she has to work a further six years. She is in very bad health and could just about envisage coping until next year, when she thought her state pension age applied. However, upon the realisation of the enormity of this information and what it meant to her and her life; her health rapidly deteriorated. She became severely depressed and required medication, and I would hazard that she may never be the same again.
No one here has a magic wand, not even the Minister, and none of us can turn back time, but just for a second, can the Minister put himself in that lady’s position? Imagine being that lady and finding out that news in that way—imagine how that would feel and imagine the shock! We—this institution, this Parliament—did that. Lots of us were not MPs in 1995, but some of us were in 2011, and the laws of the land that we make here affect people out there. Was it not our duty to ensure that these women, to whom we were about to deliver this great life-altering shock, at least knew about it? Should we not have ensured that they knew when they heard it on the news that it did indeed affect them, not because they had researched the small print themselves, but because the Department for Work and Pensions wrote to them and personally told them in good time, not as late as 2014? Surely that was the least the DWP should have done and we, Parliament, should have insisted upon it.
As I have said, we cannot turn back time and we cannot wave the magic wand that a lot of people think we have, because we do not have one—it does not exist. But we can do something today: we can insist that the Government do something. The Minister must go away and draft, with haste, transitional arrangements for this group of WASPI women who have been failed by the system and failed by these changes. We cannot fail them today. Parliament is at its best when using its powers for the good of its people. Parliament is speaking very clearly today to the Government. It is saying, “Go away, sort this out and bring forward transitional arrangements so that these women are not left destitute in what should have been their well-earned retirement.”
Nobody in this House can doubt the sincerity of the WASPI campaign or the number of women who have signed the petition, but as this is the fifth debate, we should start with what has changed since the last one. Today’s motion is all about bringing forward “transitional arrangements”, and those are the precise words used on the WASPI campaign’s petition. They sound fairly harmless, but what are these transitional arrangements?
In the last debate, the shadow Pensions Minister, who is in her place, included a specific proposal—a perfectly reasonable one—about extending pension credit. However, that had been specifically ruled out by WASPI spokeswomen in evidence to the Select Committee. Today, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, like the Scottish National party spokesman, talked passionately about doing the right thing, but they did not say what that was, what their commitment is or what their parties would do if they were ever in the position—in some cases, that is unlikely—of actually being responsible for the finances of the pension arrangements for the United Kingdom. There is a serious danger of Opposition Members, in their sympathy for the cause of the WASPI campaign, leading these women up the garden path—encouraging them with sympathy but giving no commitment whatsoever.
It is important that the House understands for what these women are mainly asking. It is exactly as I spelled it out from their Facebook page in the last debate. It is to ask for
“all women born in the 50s”—
“in the same financial position they would have been in had they been born on or before…April 1950.”
That is their main ask and it would reverse the 1995 Act in important ways. What would that cost? Since the last debate, the Department for Work and Pensions has provided data to the Select Committee, showing that the cost is much, much greater than any of us imagined. There would be an immediate cost of £29 billion in 2016-17—bigger than the entire budget for Scotland. The total cost up to 2020 alone would be £77 billion.
When I discuss this issue with my wife and my sisters and others born in the 1950s and I explain to them that pensions are paid every year not out of some magic protected pot called national insurance, but out of general taxpayer-provided revenue paid by the next generation—our children and our grandchildren—none of them believes that that cost of £77 billion is remotely practicable.
I had better not.
That is why the Opposition will never make that proposal or agree to it under any circumstances. The question is whether any other arrangements are possible. The other potential arrangements are being considered by the Select Committee in a report on the new state pension Act, which will include a section specifically on the WASPI campaign. Members should wait until that report has come out—it will be only about three weeks from now—and the conclusions may be seen and studied by everyone, and then they will see the real impact and the real cost of some of the suggestions that have been made today.
We should be clear about this: the WASPI campaign is genuine and it is principled. Its members care passionately. They feel that they have been badly treated, but this House has an obligation not to mislead them and pretend that things will be done when they will never be done. That is why the main ask is not possible.
Sometimes a campaign captures the mood of this nation, and the WASPI campaigners have done just that. Like so much of this Government’s agenda, the speed of the transition arrangements for women’s state pensions betrays a rush to pinch pennies at too great a human expense, but the WASPI women have stung back—even more so than other groups that have been hit hard by austerity—and the wave of public support for their cause speaks volumes.
We have a strong tradition of equality campaigning in this country. I think of the Suffragettes and their determination to given women a voice whatever the cost; the Chartists and their drive for universal suffrage and a fairer deal for working people; and the Ford Dagenham workers and their demand for equal pay for equal work. I think, too, of Stonewall and its tireless challenging of homophobia in law, schools and the workplace; and the Fawcett Society and its provocative challenge that, “This is what a feminist looks like.” Well, Mr Deputy Speaker, let me say, “This is what a feminist looks like.” Each of those campaigns was driven by anger at injustice; anger at unfairness; and anger at the unreasonableness of those in positions of power to listen to a reasonable case.
As we have heard, moving the goalposts on state pension age equalisation so rapidly is the latest affront to a generation of women whose working lives have already been too challenging. This is a generation of women who had patchy access to maternity leave and fair pay; who had no access to shared parental leave; who often experienced harassment, bullying and discrimination in the workplace; and who regularly settled for low-paid, low-skilled jobs beneath their potential, because quality flexible working was not then an option for them. They are the generation of women who account for too few seats in the boardroom and for too few positions in industries such as engineering and construction; who finished their working lives earning significantly less than their male counterparts; and who have paid their dues and deserve a decent retirement. They deserve, at a minimum, to be able to plan their retirement with the certainty and the expectation that others have.
It is right that the retirement age for the state pension should be the same for men and women. The WASPI campaign does not dispute that, but the pace of this change has robbed people of the time to prepare; the time to make informed decisions; and the time to honour other commitments without placing themselves in financial jeopardy. All those things have been robbed from the WASPI campaigners. Reasonable decisions about their family futures have been lost to a forced hand. More than 3,800 of my constituents are believed to be affected by this legislation—more than 5% of my electorate. Of those, a considerable 2,000 will experience a year’s increase to state pension age, and as many as 450 will experience the full 18-month delay. Several of them have contacted me to express their concerns. They include Gail Jones of Hyde and Barbara Evans of Mossley. They are women who have contributed to both the Exchequer and their communities throughout their lives, and they are now being short-changed.
This Government have at times proven that they can acknowledge when they have misjudged a policy by retreating from their attempts to cut tax credits and to make further cuts to police numbers. The cynics among us would say that that tends to happen when the Chancellor feels it will affect his career prospects, but it is still the case that the Government have on occasions performed a U-turn. I trust that on this occasion the Minister will finally listen to the strength of feeling of Labour Members and indeed of those on both sides of the House, but especially to the passionate appeals by the WASPI campaigners, and agree to revisit the arrangements. Let us respect those women who have contributed so much to both the national purse and the national fabric.
I hope that when the Minister comes to sum up, he will show from the Dispatch Box today that he is what a feminist looks like and will pledge to think again.
This has been an interesting debate. Parts of it have been quite poor, but it is clearly of great interest to many of our constituents.
Many of us came into politics to do the right thing and to look after the right sorts of people. I joined the Conservative party because I wanted to ensure that people who do the right thing, go out to work and save for their future are protected and looked after in their old age. It runs deep through the Conservative party that we should look after those who have been out there and worked hard, or those who have stayed at home, looked after their children and made sure their children set off on the right path.
Today’s debate has been a sad reflection on women who find themselves in difficult circumstances. We had to listen to 30 minutes from the Labour Front Bench of blatant party politicking about the issues and the challenges we face, without a single commitment saying what the Opposition would do. They talked about six options that were available and committed to none of them. They did not say whether they would do one of those, two or all six. It is a great shame that they did not nail their flag to the mast and say what they would do if they were in the hot seat. They left us in the hot seat.
To be fair to the Blair Government, with the Pensions Act, they tried to engage with those people who found themselves in a difficult position, but they did not go far enough. They did not recognise the enormous time bomb that was coming as a result of demographic change, and they left us in 2010 with an enormous mountain to climb to solve the challenges arising from the fact that we all live longer and healthier lives. The coalition Government tried to close the gap by introducing the Pensions Act 2011.
It is extremely challenging for those who find themselves on the wrong side of the line, but a line had to be drawn somewhere so that we could move the pension age up over time. I recognise that some people find themselves in difficult circumstances. I will listen to the Minister to hear whether there are ways in which we can mitigate some of the challenges that they face. We should recognise that changes have already taken place: there has been more than £1 billion of mitigation since our time in office to try to smooth the way for those people. I am enormously sympathetic to the challenges that they face, and I shall meet some of them very soon in my constituency. This debate will continue for a long time.
When I heard that we were to debate this issue again, I thought, “What am I going to talk about?” Everything is already on the record. We have already discussed how the new single tier state pension is irrelevant to the women in question and will not solve the problem. We went to great lengths to explain how nobody disagrees with equalisation and nobody is calling for Acts to be repealed.
Then I came across a document that was sent by a Conservative MP to a woman affected. On the front page it says that the Government cannot do anything because WASPI is campaigning for all women born after April 1951 to be given their state pension from age 60. No, that is not what WASPI is asking for. The hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) talked about misleading people. That is misleading. Nobody is against equalisation.
On Monday I attended a media training course, where we were taught how to look at the camera, where to put our hands and so on. One of the guys taking the course said, “If you, as politicians, ever find ourselves in a difficult situation where you realise you’re in the wrong and you need to get through an interview, just start talking about what you want to talk about.” It struck me immediately that that is what this Government are doing; every single time we talk about this, they start talking about things that are completely irrelevant.
The second page of the document states: “The national insurance credits are available for many people to help them build entitlement towards state pension. National insurance payments also impact on entitlement to a range of other benefits.” Pensions are not a benefit; they are a right. One of my constituents described them as a contract, and that is exactly what they are. Let me make this very simple. Everybody here has a phone—in fact, some of us are sitting with our iPads right now—and we all have contracts for those. If O2, Virgin or Three were to change the terms and conditions of our contracts, we would have something to say about it. If they waited 14 years to tell us about those changes, we would definitely have something to say about it. If they said, on top of that, that we would be forced to live off our life savings as a result of those changes, we would be up in arms about it, and rightly so. So why are pensions any different?
We hear all the time, “Where is the money going to come from for that?” The truth is that this comes down to austerity, and it is austerity of choice. Those on the Government Front Bench can roll their eyes all they want, but this is a choice. I am yet to hear a general or a Defence Minister say, “We can’t bomb that country because we’ve exceeded our budget.” When we want to bomb Syria, we can find the money. When we want to refurbish Westminster, we can find the money. But when it comes to giving our pensioners their pensions, we cannot find the money? I just do not accept that.
This debate reminds me of the tax credits debate. We were making all these arguments about how unfair the situation was, and the Government responded with exactly the same argument: “We don’t have the money.” Then, when the heat was turned up and political pressure was put on them, all of a sudden they put their hand down the back of the couch and said, “Okay, we can afford it now, so let’s just do a U-turn,” and rightly so.
That brings me to my last point. How can we ignore the will of this House? We have debated this matter in this Chamber and voted by 158 to 0. How can we ignore that? We debated it in Westminster Hall, which was packed to the gunnels, and almost everybody who spoke was against the Government. They cannot continue to ignore the will of this House. I am no fan of Westminster—that will come as no surprise—because I think it is more about ego than it is about issue, but the truth is that even the most politically savvy minds must be able to see that this is not party political. We have a chance to come together and do something that will earn us respect. I think that the Government should take that chance and act.
In the past few months I have met a number of constituents who have been impacted by these changes. They detailed how the increases in the state pension age have had an impact on them owing to their being on the wrong side of the dateline. I have every sympathy with them, and I understand their frustration.
I spoke during the Back-Bench business debate on this matter on 7 January, and I congratulated the WASPI campaign on driving the debate. Although it is true that any criteria changes regarding pensions, benefits or taxation in general are always going to have an impact on some people, I am conscious that many of the individuals we are talking about have worked for decades on the basis that they would receive their pensions at a prescribed time. However, I am also conscious that when actuaries calculated life expectancy, and therefore the number of years for which a pension would pay out, they did not expect it to reach the level that many currently enjoy, and they would not have anticipated the current rising levels of health. Those factors have driven successive Governments, and most OECD nations, to increase the pension age.
The issue I have with the motion is that it deals with legislation that was settled in previous Parliaments. It implores the use of
“transitional arrangements for women adversely affected”.
My understanding is that when the last set of changes were made in 2011, a transitional programme was implemented, to the tune of over £1 billion. In order to manage expectations, it would be better if the motion had recognised that changing these rules for those impacted would cost £39 billion and then outlined where the additional money would be saved in Government spending in order to pay for it to be delivered. I spoke earlier today about the need for the Government to continue to support spending on mental health provision, particularly for young people. Would that be hit? Would it be the police budget, the subject of the next Opposition day motion, which is critical about the lack of funding?
I stood on a manifesto commitment pledging the delivery of a budget surplus by 2020, which means that compensation in this matter would have to be paid for by another group of my constituents. Opposition parties also attempted to cost their commitments in their manifestos. I do not recall finding a commitment to reverse this policy, and it concerns me that we are not managing expectations. This issue is already settled, and none of the parties seeking to reopen it has explained where the £39 billion hit would be taken were we to rip up the equalisation rules.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, because it enables me to make the point that I wanted to make to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black). To put this in context, if we compare the £39 billion with the approximately £120 billion annual spend on the NHS, we begin to see how difficult it is to make the sums add up. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I absolutely do. When it comes to footing the bill, I also have concerns about another age group in my constituency—those in their 20s and 30s. They are sometimes referred to as the packhorse generation because they are saddled with debts from university, which I, and many others of my age group and those older than me did not have to endure; they are less likely to be in receipt of occupational pension schemes; they are paying high rents and struggling to afford a home of their own; and they are likely to be the subject of pension changes in decades to come, if life expectancy continues to increase.
Half-measured mitigation, even if it were introduced, would reveal the next pension age group to be impacted, and we would never be able to move on. The issue of pensions is becoming increasingly vexed. Post-retirement life expectancy is undoubtedly much greater than was envisaged when pensions calculators were put in place. Additionally, with advances allowing those in their sixties to remain fit and active, many people in their sixties and beyond are working in a manner that was not envisaged when those pensions calculators were put in place.
There has been a general change in life and working-age expectancy, which we all rightly celebrate because it shows that many people are living longer and leading fitter lives in their advanced years. However, it also means that there is a funding gap, and to avoid placing a financial obligation on those in their 20s and 30s, who are struggling to get on, the country has had to revise the pension age to take into account the changes in life and work expectancy.
This is a settled matter. Until it can be explained to me which of the current spending commitments will be axed to cover the cost of this £39 billion change, I cannot support this motion.
It has been interesting to hear the passionate arguments on this issue. The first thing we have to point out is that this is a political decision: “You guys in government decided where the cuts would come.” We are not asking Ministers to put £39 billion in; we are saying, “Don’t take it out. Have a transitional arrangement.”
Over the last few months, people have been queuing up at my surgery. The 3,800 in Blackburn affected by this change feel that the Government have moved the goalposts; they thought they had a contract with the Government, but it seems not. These are the same women who had to give up their jobs in their early working lives. There was no such thing as maternity pay; women gave up their job and applied for it when they were ready to go back and if one was available. These are the same women who were not protected by equal pay—who earned a lot less than their male counterparts—and who were less able to join a private pension scheme. Nevertheless, these women recognised the problem and tried to fill the gap. They did not want to be a burden on society, so they made arrangements. After working 45 years, they are entitled to a pension they were promised—but it seems the Government do not think so.
The people I have spoken to feel they have been misled, misinformed and, in a number of cases, not informed at all. They feel the Government are forcing changes on them. As everyone else has said, nobody is objecting to equality. What we are objecting to is thousands of people having difficult financial circumstances imposed on them.
One of my constituents, Kath, came to see me. She was very upset. She felt frustrated that the Minister did not understand the impact the changes would have on her life. She said:
“Had I been born 12 months earlier my retirement age would have been 4 years sooner. Can that be right?”
Why is the burden of the increase falling over such a short period? That cannot be right and it is unfair—surely any intelligent person can see that. Kath has an additional problem: the DWP cannot predict her pension because for a number of years she was in an opt-out situation. Is that fair? Kath is a widow and has worked all her life in a range of jobs, from the NHS to the banking sector to self-employment. She now finds that everything she has worked for has been put on hold and she will have to struggle on for a few more years. She feels that this is a very sad state of affairs and wants to know why this Government are penalising her for working hard all her life.
Some transitional arrangements must be put in place, because women all over the country have been put in the same difficult circumstances as those in Blackburn. It is not too late for these women; it is not too late to right the wrong. Transitional arrangements should be made, and should be made now.
The need for equalisation of the state pension age is evident. We have an ageing population. People are living healthier, longer lives, with an ever-greater proportion of the population drawing a pension while an ever-smaller proportion are contributing through national insurance. Without equalisation, the system risks becoming increasingly difficult to afford. At my help and advice surgery in Frodsham last month, a constituent of mine, Barbara, came to speak to me about this issue. Barbara is 59, turning 60 this year, and she had been expecting to retire at 62. It was not until recently that she realised she would have to wait until she was 66 to retire. The majority of the anger at these changes lies in the lack of notification.
Following the changes of 1995, the DWP issued a leaflet, among other press and publicity measures, including direct mail, to advise the public of those changes. In 2004, it ran an information campaign, distributing over 2 million pension information guides, alongside adverts in the press and women’s magazines, to complement an interactive online state pension age calculator. In addition, all state pension statements issued from 2001 included the new state pension age, as determined by the 1995 changes, as standard. Since then, over 11 million statements have been issued. Those affected by the 2011 changes were written to directly. This involved sending out more than 5 million letters between January 2012 and November 2013. I note that for those of us due to retire at 65, within the past three years the age has gone from 65 to 66, and it is now 67 for men and women born in the 1960s and onwards. Had those efforts been fully successful, however, we would probably not be here now debating this subject, and I believe that this is the fourth debate we have had on it in as many months.
The WASPI campaign has called on the Government
“to put all women in their 50’s affected by the changes to their state pension in exactly the same financial position they would have been in had they been born on or before 5 April 1950.”
Those who plan towards their retirement want to live the retirement they planned for. Following the 2011 changes, the Government passed an amendment to the legislation that provided £1.1 billion of transitional funding and delayed the equalisation of the state pension age, on top of bringing the new state pension forward by a full year. However, undoing the 2011 changes would cost £30 billion, in addition to a loss of £8 billion in tax revenue, and undoing the 1995 changes would cost several times that—£70 billion plus. The new state pension, which has been brought forward by a year, will come into effect in April this year. It will see many woman significantly better off than they would have been under the old system, with £416 a year more than they would have had. Likewise, the introduction of the triple lock, which ensures that the state pension goes up by whichever is highest of inflation, wages or 2.5% means that the basic state pension will be over £1,100 higher than it was at the start of the previous Parliament.
The lesson to be learned by Governments of all colours is that of effective communication. Pensions are complicated at the best of times, and I have a huge amount of sympathy with that. I believe that it is the fault of Governments of all colours, not just the Conservative Government. WASPI women will receive an improved pension before the men and women who will now retire at the age of 67. WASPI women will live longer, on average, than men. The Government’s pension reforms are fair for those who receive them and for the younger generation who will have to pay for them.
Usually, when somebody says to me, “So-and-so is being a bit waspy,” it is a signal to tread with some care, so when I was told that a load of women who were concerned about this issue were coming to see me at my surgery on Friday, I trod with sufficient care. I was able to tell them that I spoke on Second Reading of the 2011 Act to point out that the women who left Foxhills comprehensive in my constituency in 1970 were the very women who would be affected, that it was not fair and that, frankly, there needed to be a better deal than two months’ transitional mudge.
I am aware that we are short of time, so I will just give a voice to those women. Marie Spikings said to me:
“My personal story began when I was 15 years old, leaving school at Easter with no qualifications. From the start of my working life at 15 years I paid a full National Insurance stamp believing that I was entering into a contract.”
That is a common belief. She continued:
“I understand the need for equality, however the 2011 Act has given me no time to prepare for working until I am 66! Not only have I lost thousands of pounds but also the benefits that come with the state pension e.g. heating allowance and bus pass etc.”
That is a key point about the other allowances, from which those women are now debarred. She told me:
“I am a single parent through no fault of my own. Day to day life is a struggle as I have a dependent child, and a disabled dependent adult child. I am tired and the thought of having to work for another 5 years is daunting to say the least.”
Christine said to me: “I feel trapped.” Her choices have been taken away from her.
Annette said to me:
“I was born in May 1954 and my state pension date has been moved twice, the first time I was informed in writing that it was changing from my 60th birthday to my 64th year. Since then I had heard nothing until someone told me to check the website by entering my DOB. The date for my state pension then came up as January 2021 another 18 months on. I am sure you will agree this is completely unfair”.
That is an example of the poor communication that we have heard about. Another woman pointed out to me that her older sister, who was born in April 1952, has already received her state pension. The woman who wrote to me is 22 months younger than her sister and has to wait an extra five years and five months—not fair and not reasonable. I could go on to give many similar examples.
There are 3,540 women affected by the changes in my constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that the 1995 changes were reasonably well communicated, but the 2011 changes were badly communicated? Some women who are affected by the 1995 changes were also affected by the 2011 changes, which compounded the issue.
My hon. Friend has it spot on. Communication, as the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) said, is one of the issues at the heart of the matter. What happened in 2011 compounded what had happened previously, and the situation is totally unfair.
The debate has been quite good since we got to the Back-Bench speeches, although my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) did a good job of kicking things off. I welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who drew attention to my hon. Friend’s six suggestions and said that they were a good starting point. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said that there was a deal to be done, and I think he is right. The hon. Members for Salisbury (John Glen) and for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) encouraged Ministers to find a way to put right the injustices.
The women we are talking about are not asking for the world. They are not even asking for the things that some people have suggested that they are asking for. They are simply asking for a reasonable settlement and a reasonable deal, which is what they deserve.
Women of a certain age, of whom I am one, from right across the United Kingdom are very angry about the position they find themselves in. If they were born in March 1953, like Jill in the Jack and Jill twins scenario, they will be absolutely livid, because Jack will get £155 a week under the single-tier state pension, while Jill will get £131, because she was born a woman. Where is the justice in Jack getting £20,000 more over 20 years than his sister Jill? That is just ridiculous.
We all know women who do not have access to a private pension and who find themselves being forced to look for work or—if they take the advice of the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), who is no longer in his place—they can sign on for JSA. It is a slap in the face for every woman who has dedicated themselves to being the backbone of this country. The absence of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—my eyes tell me he is loitering outside the Chamber, but he is obviously unwilling to come in to defend his Government’s policies—is an absolute insult to these women.
I am aware of a 60-year-old woman who has had to find employment as a bus escort for a special needs school. That involves physically manoeuvring youngsters from the vehicle into the building. It is hard, heavy and demanding work. How do I know that? Because I did that job in my thirties; I could not do it now.
The changes to women’s pensions are categorically unfair and unjust. Everyone in the Chamber, and indeed everyone across the country, will have heard about the WASPI campaign. We have heard all the analogies about a sting in the tail and a buzz in the air, but did any of us really think that in three short months we would have debated this issue so many times? That is the power of this lobby. It has proved time and again that it is fighting on a platform that resonates right across this country.
Everyone will know at least one woman affected by this injustice. Such women are only asking for fairness. They have been betrayed, they have been discriminated against and they have been seen as a soft option by this Government. They were seen as the one group that could be pushed to one side to rush through the transition to equal retirement ages. The Government thought they would save money, but in reality they have lost credibility and respect, and they have been exposed by this wonderful group of strong women as petty, arrogant and, quite frankly, ridiculous.
I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak on this important issue. I thank the women of the WASPI campaign for their tireless efforts in persisting in bringing this issue to the Government’s attention. I want to speak for the women in my constituency of Burnley, and for the thousands of women who will be affected. There has been much talk about the financial impact of the change and what the cost will be, but let us not forget that these women are taxpayers who have worked hard and paid in. They are asking not for a benefit, but for a right to which they are entitled.
I want to talk about the impact on people. I have talked to women in my constituency who are physically struggling every day to cope with their physical jobs. One lady I spoke to during my surgery at the weekend was in tears as she told me about her many years of working in an engineering foundry. She is staggering on towards her retirement age. She is in bed at 7.30 every night, having been barely able to make it to the bus station to get the bus home. She has spent long years working on the minimum wage, and the only light at the end of the tunnel was retirement at the age of 60. She thought that she might just be able to stagger on until then. However, not only have the goalposts been moved, but there just has not been any communication with her. Let us not get into the blame game of arguing about whose fault it was or was not that she did not know, but the fact is that she did not know.
There has been a lot of talk about what happened in 2011 and in 1995. I was not a Member of Parliament then. I would say that we are where we are. Let us tackle the problem we have in front of us now. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have made sensible suggestions about sitting down together with the WASPI women, around the table, on a cross-party basis and without scoring political points, to work out a solution to this terrible mess.
I congratulate WASPI on its highly effective campaign, particularly all the women from my constituency who have contacted me or come to my surgeries. Women across the UK have been hit hard by the changes. To the surprise and dismay of many of them, the plans that they had made have been disrupted. Often, they face unemployment, with little hope of getting a job—a bleak life on benefits at a time when they should be enjoying the fruits of their long years of work.
Plaid Cymru supports the principle of equalising the pension age. Equalisation is another step towards recognising how radically circumstances have changed since the pension was brought in by my predecessor as the Member for Caernarfon, Lloyd George, when men worked for the money and generally supported women, and women worked at home for free. Those are not the circumstances now. It is not equalisation that is so unfair but the way in which the Government are bringing it in.
The Government say that they are making these changes in response to the increase in life expectancy. As one woman who contacted me said, “That’s all right then—it’s our fault for living longer.” Both life expectancy and life experience vary significantly depending on class and, crucially, on where one lives. Women in Wales will be hit particularly hard by the changes. Life expectancy is generally lower in Wales than in England—there is a difference of up to 11 years. Welsh women and Welsh men therefore have less opportunity to enjoy their retirement. Incomes in Wales are also low, so they have already suffered a disproportionate disadvantage. There are fewer job opportunities and jobs are more insecure, particularly in some constituencies.
On Monday, I asked the Prime Minister about the fate of the EU convergence funding that we in Wales won after a long and hard fight. He smiled sympathetically and went on to talk about Romania and Bulgaria. Disgracefully, that is where the incomes of women and men in Wales are—on a par with those in Romania and Bulgaria. Wales has the lowest income per head of all the UK nations and regions.
The equal treatment of women and men in respect of the state pension is good, but the way in which the Government have handled the matter is not. In fact, it is a disgrace.
Mr Deputy Speaker, 1950s-born women are not usually seen as a militant group. They were born and raised in the era of “Hi honey, I’m home,” spotless perfection, domestic bliss and Formica, but the situation they now find themselves in is far from perfect.
I have only been an MP since May, but, as several Members have mentioned, including the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black), this feels a bit like groundhog day. This is the third time I have raised the matter, and at other times I could not even get into Westminster Hall because it was standing room only. The TV show “Desperate Housewives” comes to mind, although the valiant WASPI women are far from desperate.
The Government have to act. The public are making their voices heard, and the Government are on the wrong side of public opinion. It feels like groundhog day because not only is what we are saying falling on deaf ears, but there is a broken record routine in the way we are told that there is no money left. At the same time, we constantly hear that economic growth is returning and things are looking rosy. The two things cannot be reconciled with each other.
The people we are talking about have been hit twice, as everyone has said. “Double-whammy” is the phrase that keeps coming up in the emails that I receive. They were hit in 1995 and 2011. I have heard the rejoinder from Government Members that the 1997 Labour Government did not do anything about the 1995 changes, but surely the Conservative Government and civil service of that time should have put a work plan in place. We hear that not all people were notified, but there should have been some provision in place for that to keep happening. Presumably because that Government were saving money on their communications strategy or something, that did not happen. Anyway, as many people have said, we are where we are.
Like many Members here, I have received representations from many people, including Michele Carlile, who was born in 1954, and Linda Gregory, who was born in 1953. Some have pointed out that they started work at 15. One of them said to me, “That’s probably a good 10 years before you did, my dear.” The circumstances that these people faced was different from what happens today. We must remember that the Equal Pay Act 1970 did not come into force until a Labour Government made it happen in 1976. These people brought up children before the free childcare and nurseries and all the other things that Labour Governments have brought in. We should therefore be sympathetic to their plight.
I think that in this debate people have confused the WASPI petition and the wording of the motion. Nobody is arguing against equality. Nobody is saying that there should be compensation at the levels that these people would have received. All that is being asked for is transitional arrangements to soften the blow. Some of the people in the campaign have been neutral money people, such as Paul Lewis of the BBC’s “Money Box”, a former constituent of mine, and Martin Lewis of moneysavingexpert.com.
I urge Government Members to vote with us tonight, simply for transitional arrangements, since this Government have found so much money down the back of the sofa for so many things. The former Pensions Minister in the coalition, Steve Webb, has admitted that people are hard done by, so in the 17 seconds that I have left, let me say that this great pensions swindle must end now.
I welcome the opportunity to make another contribution on this matter. I also want to take the opportunity to pay tribute to the WASPI campaign for refusing to lie down and for continuing to fight for a transitional arrangement that will protect against the most damaging consequences of the rushed equalisation of the state pension.
All these women are asking for is fairness, and I commend them for keeping the issue alive. This is the fourth time that it has been debated in the House, which shows the strength of feeling, exposes the injustice of the situation and highlights the struggles that many women face daily from the delay in receiving the state pension. I accept that a lot of the damage was done in the 1995 Act, but the coalition Government exacerbated the situation and this Government’s refusal to rectify the blunder is not only political folly but plain wrong.
These women have paid into the system all their lives, and it is only right that the Government should step in to right this wrong. Responding to the motion, the Minister shamefully chose to repeat the accusation that WASPI is against the equalisation of the pension age for men and women. No, it is not. The Minister knows that. To use that line of argument again does a disservice to today’s debate, to the women sitting in the Gallery right now and those watching the debate at home, and to the struggles that they face as a result of the rug being pulled from under their feet just when they needed the support most. Furthermore, I was hoping that the Minister would give Members and, more importantly, the WASPI women a better response to today’s debate than the quite frankly pitiful response given in the petition debate in Westminster Hall. Sadly, I was wrong.
I run 13 surgeries a month across Paisley and Renfrewshire North, and over the past two to three months the majority of people attending them have raised this very issue. On this occasion, I want to take a little more time to highlight some of the heartbreaking stories I have heard. Many women were looking forward to having some more time to themselves, only to find out with a couple of months’ notice that they were not retiring at 60 as they had thought.
There are two ladies whose stories I want to highlight. One, who did not want her name mentioned, recently came to see me at a surgery. She has worked all her life, from the age of 17, and built a career for herself that she had to give up to care for her husband. Even while she was caring she worked part time, and she has never been on benefits. She stopped working at 58 because of her health, thinking that she would get both her state pension and her small civil service pension at 60. She has never received any letters from the DWP and only found out about the changes to her pension age through word of mouth.
Another constituent, Ms Millar, also received no letter. The changes have had a devastating impact on her finances, forcing her to sell her car and her house to be able to cut down on her work in the future. She has suffered from ME since she was 30, which makes it difficult for her to continue working as a teacher. Is the Minister listening to this? No. I think that he owes Ms Millar the courtesy of listening to my speech. She will now have to work a lot longer than she had anticipated, and she also has caring responsibilities, caring for her mum three days a week. The fact that she now needs to work six years longer than expected means that she has six fewer years to spend full time with her mum.
I challenge the Minister to respond to my constituents and advise them what they should do to ease their financial worries, bearing in mind their poor health and personal circumstances. My constituents are watching the debate, WASPI campaigners are watching the debate and the women in the Public Gallery are watching the debate. We are all waiting for the Government finally to wake up to the situation, show some humility and respond appropriately.
Previous speakers have already said that pensions are not a benefit but a contract, and the Government have broken that contract. If that were done by a private company, it would be sued for mis-selling. When the terms of a contract change, there must be notification—actual notification, not Westminster politicians talking to each other—and mitigation when someone is disadvantaged. In this case, the Government must take responsibility and correct that.
What is the future for our pensions system if citizens cannot trust Government promises that when they pay in, they will receive their due amount at an agreed time? The situation reminds me and my constituents of someone who buys a car from a used-car salesman, but the car turns out to be dodgy. They bring it back, and the used-car salesman looks at it, scratches his head, and says, “I’d really like to help you out, but I just can’t.”
We are told that the Government will not move to put in appropriate transitional measures, but the greater cost of not acting is that of betraying all those women, many of whom spent a lifetime in low pay—we are literally picking their pockets and further alienating people from the cosy, Westminster establishment. We are told that money for transitional arrangements cannot be found, but I suspect that if companies such as Google paid their taxes, the Government would find that they had more money in the pot. Choices, choices—politics is nothing if it is not about choices. If the Government do not act on this issue, they have no alternative but to hang their head in shame.
The WASPI campaigners are calling for a review into the way that changes to the state pension age were implemented under the Pensions Acts of 1995 and 2011. What is wrong with that? Other European Governments have brought in pension equalisation arrangements without the distress, chaos and rammy created by this Government as they try to pick women’s pockets. Why is that? It is because other European Governments have not made a Horlicks of it. This is both cock-up and incompetence writ large.
I am sick to the back teeth of hearing Government Ministers boasting of a new flat-rate pension of £155.65 a week. Apart from the fact that that is utterly irrelevant to this debate, many people who reach pension age will receive much less than that because they will not have paid enough national insurance. Those in the private sector, the low-paid and those earning less than £15,000 a year will be hit hardest, and those people are much more likely to be female than male.
An independent commission is required to prevent further gender inequalities and ensure a fair universal pension system that looks at the looming injustices coming down the track in the form of the flat-rate pension, which will leave many low-paid people on lower pensions than they would otherwise have benefited from. So far, the Government have not listened to the WASPI campaigners or to votes taken in this House, but I urge them to do so. We require fairness and natural justice, and it is time that the Government held their head up and faced these women.
This is the fourth WASPI campaign debate that I have spoken in, and it is hard to find something new to say. I note that the Minister had the same problem, because his earlier performance at the Dispatch Box was a disgrace. He said that he would talk about transitional arrangements, but he did not—he avoided the matter the whole time, took interventions and fudged the issue. Let me remind him of a suggestion that he made in a previous answer to an oral question, when he said that women could use the pension freedoms to help themselves bridge the gap and transition to state pension age. For me, that shows that he does not understand that women are less likely to have pensions, and that the pensions they do have are more likely to be low in value. To suggest that women should blow their savings as a remedial measure, instead of the Government helping out, is crazy and irresponsible.
I also want to make the Minister aware of another ongoing issue that could compound matters and affect people’s choice, namely the exit payment gap in the Enterprise Bill. The cap in its current format will further limit the choices for people considering early retirement or voluntary redundancy. The £95,000 cap will affect not the so-called fat cats but long-serving, lower paid workers. The cap in its current format covers the strain on pension funds that an employer requires to pay for early and ill-health retirement. That means that people taking ill-health retirement might have the money due to them capped because of this Government. That compounds matters. The exit cap prevents councils, such as the local authority I was a councillor for, from operating schemes such as Teacher Refresh, which allows higher paid experienced teachers to opt for early retirement. That allows younger teachers to be employed, saving the taxpayer money overall and creating jobs for younger teachers. Combine the cap with the increased retirement age and we have a bad deal for individuals—mainly women—a bad deal for local authorities, and a bad deal for the taxpayer overall.
Another impact of the increase in the state pension age in the 2011 Act is that it can make women more dependent on male partners. That is bad for personal esteem, bad for relationships and potentially damaging in cases of domestic abuse where women feel trapped financially. Women are concerned and are feeling stress due to the bombshell that has been dropped on them. Instead of ignoring what is going on and ignoring the four debates, the Government should think about the consequences and do something about them.
The Government hide behind the £30 billion estimate to fully reverse the 2011 Act. People today are asking for transitional arrangements, but the £30 billion to do a full reversal could be found. The Government found an extra £16 billion in the defence review for Trident, to add to the £167 billion that had already been committed. They have allocated £12 billion for the right to buy social housing. They could introduce a bank levy and a mansion tax. They could reverse the inheritance tax and stop adding more people to the other place. Those are all choices to spend more money or subsidise other policies, while introducing austerity in other ways.
The Government have already lost court cases relating to the personal independence payment and the bedroom tax. There is a great chance they will lose another court case due to the unfairness of this measure and the lack of notice given to women. As has been said, this is a breach of contract. I ask the Minister to please take that into account and to put in place some transitional arrangements.
I am pleased to finally be able to take part in this debate on transitional state pension arrangements. As many hon. Members have pointed out, we have had many debates recently on the subject of women’s state pension age inequality. Now, however, we are talking about practical solutions and considering seriously transitional arrangements. Remember, this is transition—it is not forever and it will not cost £30 billion or £39 billion, or whatever other figure has been floating around the Chamber. Transitional payments will help all the women born in the 1950s who have suffered the double whammy of the 1995 and 2011 Pension Acts. Those women have emailed, written, phoned, Facebooked and tweeted me, and many of my fellow MPs, on seeing their retirement plans disintegrate.
The basic issue here is fairness. All we are asking is for the women affected to be treated fairly. This group of women have not been communicated with properly. Many of them tell me that they either did not receive letters or that the letters they did receive were unclear. Contrary to the view held by some in this Chamber, the WASPI campaign is not asking to go back to receiving state pensions at 60. What they are asking for is simply fair treatment. These are women who work part time and who were not even eligible for their occupational pension schemes when they started work. These are women who gave up work to bring up children, which affected their personal occupational pension if they were lucky enough to have one. These are women who have worked in difficult conditions, many of whom have had to retire early because of ill health. These are women who, as well as bringing up children, are now shouldering the burden of caring for elderly relatives in their later lives. These women have all been through the doors of my surgeries in my constituency, and I am sure their story is familiar to all right hon. and hon. Members. My constituents frequently urge me to take this argument to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—[Interruption.] I have extreme difficulty doing so, because he has not attended a single one of the many debates we have had on this subject.
Jackie, one of my constituents, introduced herself to me as “June ’54 and furious!” She made the valid point that denying her access to her state pension until she is 66 also denies her entitlement to concessionary travel and the winter fuel allowance. Jackie started work in 1971, but had to take early retirement from the police service in order to care for an elderly relative.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), the shadow Secretary of State, has made six helpful suggestions about how fair transition could be put in place to help women such as Jackie. Let us stop prevaricating. I await the Minister’s response to those sensible and reasonable suggestions, which— I might add—have been supported by many Government Members. Let us help to turn Jackie from being “June ’54 and furious!” to “June ’54 and finally fairly transitioned”.
In common with others, I regret that much of the debate from the Dispatch Box was focused on fixing the blame rather than fixing the problem, but at least the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) put forward a six-pack of options, which he rightly asked the Government to consider. Let us remember that the salient point about the motion is that it
“calls on the Government to bring forward proposals for transitional arrangements for women adversely affected by the acceleration of the increase in the state pension age.”
That is logical, reasonable and compelling, which is why the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) is prepared to support it. I ask some of his hon. Friends to join him in supporting it, not least those who valiantly fought over Equitable Life and called on the taxpayer to restore Equitable Life members to some position of equivalence. If they were prepared to fight for the Equitable Members Action Group and were indignant over Equitable Life, they should not be indifferent to the WASPI women and what they face. We should respond to them with justice.
It is not just a matter of a breach of trust and a breach of contract, because there is also the question of moral hazard. If Parliament says, “We can be quite capricious with the state pension”, we send out a signal to all the private pension providers that they can do what they want, that politicians will be in no place to reprimand them and that the regulator will not be able to interfere. We send out a very dangerous signal, too, to those younger people who were encouraged to have confidence and show responsibility in their pension planning. We send out a signal to them that what happened to their mothers shows that even when provision for pensions is made, people do not get what they thought they were going to get. It says that the pensions rules can be changed, so younger people will ask why bother with them—just see what they get when they get there.
We should not offer the mixture of conceit and deceit that we heard from some Conservative Members. We were told by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) that the matter is settled and therefore cannot be touched. When was it settled? It was settled by Parliament in 2011, and he argued that it was the settled will of Parliament, which cannot be touched. These are the same people who tell us about parliamentary sovereignty and how one Parliament cannot bind another. They tell us that they want to stand up to the EU all over the place, but they are of course hiding behind a completely false explanation of EU rules and EU requirements in defence of this injustice.
This is an intentional injustice that has been visited on these women. It is not just, as the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) tried to tell us, that a line has to be drawn somewhere. These are not just haphazard victims of a drive-by cut in the name of austerity; they have been carefully selected and calculated as the victims. Why? These women have been used to inequality and injustice all their lives; they have been on the receiving end of inequality in respect of gender pay gaps and denial of access to second pensions at a time when their male colleagues were given access to them. The aim now seems to be, “Let’s give them one more twist of injustice in the name of equalisation as they come to the end of their working lives.” That is an absolutely travesty; it offers people stone for bread. This Parliament should be doing better than that.
As for the “settled will”, legislation that is currently going through Parliament will change legislation that was passed in the last Parliament. The Financial Services Act 2012 and the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013 were passed in the last Parliament, and they are being changed by legislation that is going through the House now. The Enterprise Bill is changing legislation that was passed in the last Parliament. The Trade Union Bill is changing legislation that was passed in the last Parliament. Yesterday we debated the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which, of course, is also changing legislation that was passed in the last Parliament. The Government can change legislation to introduce cuts, but they cannot change legislation to bring justice to people.
We should compare the present position with the position in 2011. What we have now are pension freedoms, and a tax windfall for the Treasury. The Government should bear in mind the new fiscal ambit that comes with those pension freedoms, and use it to introduce pension justice—