I beg to move,
That this House is concerned that the Government is not taking action to alleviate the injustice facing women affected by the acceleration of the increase in the state pension age, despite the House previously voting in favour of such action; welcomes the Landman Economics report into the impact of the changes to pension arrangements for women born in the 1950s, which identifies an affordable solution which would slow down that increase in order to give adequate time for women affected by the acceleration to make alternative arrangements; and calls on the Government to work with the Women Against State Pension Inequality and Women Against State Pension Inequality Voice campaigns further to explore transitional protection for those affected.
It is a pleasure to move this motion in the name of the leader of the Scottish National party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), and many of my right hon. and hon. Friends. We have long argued that the Government need to slow down the pace of the increase in women’s pensionable age, and that the increase in pensionable age is happening over too short a timescale. There has also been an argument about whether women were given enough notice of the increase in their pensionable age. Indeed, some Government Members, such as the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), have conceded that there were issues with communication. That is putting it mildly.
Thanks to freedom of information requests, we learned two weeks ago that only in April 2009 did the Department for Work and Pensions begin writing to women born between April 1950 and April 1955, and it did not complete the process until February 2012.
I will make some progress, and then I will give way.
The DWP wrote to women to inform them about changes in legislation that go back to the Pensions Act 1995, but it did not start the formal period of notification for 14 years. To take 14 years to begin informing people that the pension that they had paid in for was being deferred—that is quite something. Can we imagine the outcry if a private pension provider behaved in such a way? There would be an outcry in this House and, no doubt, legal action. This is quite stunning when we consider that entitlement to a state pension is earned through national insurance contributions, which many women have made for more than 40 years.
Does my hon. Friend agree that these pension entitlements are not a benefit or a privilege but a contract, and they should be honoured?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are talking about women who have paid national insurance contributions on the basis that they would get a pension. This is not a benefit. It should be a contractual arrangement between the Government and the women involved, and that is what the Government have wilfully removed.
Given the hon. Gentleman’s strong view on the matter, could he tell us whether the Scottish Government have written to pensioners in Scotland about it? Could he also tell us whether the Scottish Government are going to use their many fiscal and tax-raising powers, and their huge budget of some £30 billion, to compensate women in Scotland?
The hon. Gentleman might treat pensioners in Scotland and the rest of the UK with a little bit more respect than he has shown by asking that nonsense of a question. Just in case he does not know, pensions are a reserved matter. I would very much like the Scottish Government to have responsibility for pensions. Let us be quite clear: if this Government gave us access to the national insurance fund, we would not treat pensioners in such a shabby way as the Government are doing. That is the reality.
I want to go back to the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s argument, when he described the absolute injustice that many of the women who are affected feel. I have met many from my constituency and from across Wales who feel that this is a terrible thing, which must be righted. They expected something; they are not getting it and we need to right that injustice.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, and he is absolutely spot on. This is about justice and fairness. It is about people who have paid into a pension and who expected to get that pension—in the case of most of these women, at age 60. The discovery that they were not given adequate notice is a clear reason why the Government must change course and act in a responsible manner.
The hon. Gentleman has spoken in many debates on this issue, and I pay tribute to him for that. The situation gets worse. The Government, through the back door, are examining the triple lock for existing pensioners. More importantly, responsibility for television licences for pensioners over 75 is being shoved on to the BBC, which will get the blame instead of the Government.
Again, I find myself agreeing with the hon. Gentleman.
As a House, we must reflect on the situation in which there are still 1.2 million pensioners in this country living in poverty. I am ashamed when I hear Members of the House saying that we should examine the triple lock, because we should protect our pensioners. One thing on which I will give an absolute commitment is that if we had responsibility for pensions, the triple lock would be secured by the Scottish National party. Pensioners would be secured with the SNP.
I will make some progress and then take more interventions. I am aware that many people want to speak.
The Government have changed the entitlement for something that women have paid in for with an expectation of retiring at 60. When the goalposts were moved, the Government could not get around to informing the women affected in a timely manner. A woman born on 6 April 1953, who under the previous legislation would have retired on 6 April 2013, received a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions in January 2012 with the bombshell that she would now be retiring on 6 July 2016. That is three years and three months later than she might have expected, but she received only 15 months’ notice. That is what this Government have done to many women throughout the United Kingdom: 15 months’ written notice on what they thought was a contract they had with the Government, but which has now been ripped up. That is the contempt that this Government have shown for the 2.6 million Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign women throughout the UK.
My hon. Friend may well be right. The Government are of course hoping that with the passage of time this issue will go away, but it will not go away, because the women are angry. If they do not begin to recognise the need to do something, each and every Member of the House will have the WASPI women coming to their surgeries and demanding action. Not only will they be demanding action, but that will run the risk that this Government will be taken to court.
I will come on to cover that point, but the fact remains that the national insurance fund will be sitting with a surplus of close to £30 billion by the end of this decade. There will be £30 billion of contributions in the national insurance fund. There is no question but that the Government can afford to do this: there is a surplus. The national insurance fund has to retain two months’ cash flow, but that can still be done by putting in place what we are asking the House to do today, which is—as in the Landman report—to push back the increase in women’s pensionable age and to make sure that the women worst affected get recompense and fairness.
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned that the WASPI women will not go away. That is one of the most delightful things about them. Way back, we carried a vote on a Back-Bench motion supporting them in this House. They were not satisfied that there had already been a debate in Westminster Hall, and they were not satisfied that they were holding meetings in every constituency, city and town in Britain. They are like the Grunwick women of 40 years ago, the little Gujarati women who would not give in, and the Tory Government had better realise that the WASPI women ain’t going to give in either.
I want to make some progress, but I will let the hon. Gentleman in later.
The Government, despite not giving reasonable notice, have so far not apologised for how they have treated these women. It is utterly, utterly shameful, and it raises the question: how much notice should be given for changes to the state pension age? The Pensions Commission, which reported in 2005, suggested that at least 15 years’ notice be given on any further increase in pensionable age—15 years, not the 15 months given to so many women. Will the Government not recognise that appropriate notice has to be given and make changes?
Given the Government’s failure to give proper notice, I tabled a written question to the Secretary of State, which I received an answer to yesterday. My question was:
“To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, what his policy is on the minimum written notice to be given to people who will be affected by future changes to the state pension age.”
I received the following response:
“The Government has committed not to change the legislation relating to State Pension age for those people who are within 10 years of reaching it. This provides these individuals with the certainty they need to plan for the future. We recognise the importance of ensuring people are aware of any changes to their State Pension age and we use a number of different means to do this…Anyone can find out their State Pension age with our online calculator or the ‘Check your State Pension’ statement service.”
According to the Minister who responded, the Government accept that they should not change legislation for those within 10 years of pensionable age. That is all well and good, but what is the point if they do not inform those directly affected?
Yesterday, in response to a further question, a Minister stated that,
“following the Pensions Act 1995, State Pension estimates, issued to individuals on request, made the changes clear.”
“On request”! It should not be done on request. People should not have to ask the Government to inform them; that is this Government’s responsibility. It almost seems like a script from the comedy, “Yes Minister”, rather than a Government acting in a proper manner.
The hon. Gentleman has been dogged in pursuing this matter with colleagues from all Opposition parties. He mentioned “Yes Minister”. In 2011, I sat on these Benches as the then Liberal Democrat Minister pushed through the Pensions Act. Is he as astonished as I am that, having now left the House, that former Minister now says that the Act was wrong and unfair to women?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct that the previous Pensions Minister has made these comments. In fact, the last Pensions Minister in the other place, Baroness Altmann, made similar comments. Everyone can see the deficiencies in the Government’s policy except the Government themselves.
If the former Pensions Minister is to be referred to, it would be helpful to put the facts correctly. He said that the difference required was £30 billion. He went to the then Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister and asked for £3 billion. Then, when he was given a concession of £1.1 billion, he said, “That’s a hell of a lot of money.” So let us be clear: the difference was £30 billion but he only asked for £3 billion, which is a tenth of what the hon. Gentleman is arguing about.
We are not talking about concessions; we are talking about these women’s pension entitlement. How dare the Government talk about concessions, when people have paid into their pension and deserve to get it!
This is not a comedy but the reality of a Government letting women down.
There are suggestions from Conservative Members that money does not grow on trees, and that is correct, but this money came from these women paying in through national insurance. It did not grow on trees; it came, hard-earned, from their own pockets.
My hon. Friend is quite correct. We keep hearing about fiscal responsibility and how we cannot afford it, but of course we can, because the surplus is there in the national insurance fund.
When the new Prime Minister took office, the first thing she did was bring a motion before the House asking us to renew the Trident missile system, and effectively every single Conservative Member went through the Lobby and gave the Government a blank cheque. They can invest in weapons of mass destruction but they are not prepared to give women pensioners their just deserts.
I will take some more interventions later, but I must make some progress.
As I have mentioned, this is not a comedy; it is the reality of a Government letting women down. The failure to write to those affected is a failure of responsibility. It is an abrogation of responsibility. To pass the buck and say that anyone can use the online calculator is, frankly, stunning. All prospective pensioners ought to be treated with respect. Some 2.6 million women were not effectively communicated with, and many are now struggling to cope financially with a later pensionable age than the one they had planned for.
Let us look at what is taking place currently. I have highlighted the current sharp increases in pensionable age, but they need to be gone over again for the simple reason that, so far, the Government have simply not got it and will certainly need to do so. A woman born on 6 March 1953 will have retired on 6 March 2016 at the age of 63. A woman born a month later, on 6 April 1953, will have retired on 6 July aged 63 and three months. A woman born on 6 May 1953 will have retired a few days ago, on 6 November, aged 63 and six months. A woman born on 6 June will have to wait until 6 March 2017, when she will be aged 63 and nine months. A woman born on 6 July 1953 will not get her pension until her 64th birthday in July 2017.
I hope that the Government are beginning to get the picture. For each month that passes, women’s pensionable age is increasing by as much as three months. We should just dwell on that—a three-month addition to pensionable age for each month that someone was born later than their neighbour, friend or colleague.
I spoke about a woman born in March 1953 who retired this year at age 63, but a woman born a year later, in March 1954, will not retire until September 2019, when she will be aged 65 and a half. [Interruption.] Conservative Members seem to think that this is funny, but we are talking about women who are being significantly disadvantaged over too sharp an increase in women’s pensionable age. Those Members might find that acceptable, but I am afraid that I, my colleagues and many millions of other people in the country certainly do not. A woman born six months later, in September 1954, will have to wait until she is 66 in September 2020. Over an 18-month period, a woman’s pensionable age will have increased by three years.
As we keep saying, we are not against equalisation of the state pension age—[Interruption.] My colleagues and I have said that in every speech we have given in this House. We have made it crystal clear, as have the WASPI women, that we agree with equalisation. It is the pace of change that is the problem, and Conservative Members are burying their heads in the sand over it and are refusing to face the reality.
I must echo the very clear position that my hon. Friend has outlined. Does he agree that anybody who believes that, purely because someone is a woman and happens to have been born at a certain time they should lose out, is advocating a very warped and strange definition of equality?
Absolutely. Of course we have to face the gender inequality that has been with us, with women paid less for such a long time and women gaining less access to occupational pension schemes, but Government Members just seem to want to make things worse. As we keep saying, we are not against equalisation of the state pension age; it is the pace of change and the lack of appropriate notice that are the real issues.
I am absolutely dumbstruck! I do not know how many times we have to say it, but we are not against equalisation. We support it. It is the pace of change imposed by the Government that is the problem.
While we are on the subject, the Government might wish to consider the fact that the Polish Parliament met on the 16th of this month and agreed to reverse the increases in pensionable age because they recognised the unfairness. Perhaps we should take a leaf out of the Poles’ book, rather than this one.
I want to make some progress, because I know that many other Members want to speak.
We should remind ourselves what a pension is. It is deferred income. Women, and men, have paid national insurance in the expectation of receiving a state pension. That is the deal, plain and simple. You pay in, and you get your entitlement. You do not expect the Government, without effective notice, to change the rules. What has been done to the WASPI women has undermined fairness and equity. The 2.6 million women affected by the increase in pensionable age have an entitlement to a pension and a right to be treated fairly: no more, no less.
The Government often state that the increase in pensionable age under the 2011 Act means that no women will have to wait longer than 18 months for their pensions. That is disingenuous, as it comes in addition to the changes in the 1995 Act, which are still in the process of being implemented. It is a fact that women’s pensionable age is increasing by six years over a very short period. That is the issue. That is the reality. It is the impact of both Acts. The Government have a duty to be truthful about this matter.
Let me now turn to the Prime Minister’s amendment. So much for her comments about supporting those who were “just about managing”. Many of the WASPI women are not managing, and this ill-conceived, patronising amendment from the Government is frankly contemptible. Although the Chancellor confirmed in last week’s autumn statement that the triple lock would remain for the duration of the current Parliament, he has ordered a review of the cost of the guarantee and whether it is affordable. We in the SNP remain fully committed to the future of the triple lock to ensure dignity in retirement for all our pensioners. Any roll-back by the UK Government will leave pensioners vulnerable.
The Government’s commitment to pensioners needs to be questioned. We already know that, in reality, although the new headline flat-rate state pension will be £159.55 a week, many people will get less if they contracted out of second or additional state pension top-ups over the years. With the Chancellor and others wavering on the future of the triple lock, only the Scottish National party can be trusted to protect the rights of pensioners in Scotland. [Laughter.] Members may laugh, but I am glad to say that pensioners throughout the United Kingdom will be listening, and they will be watching the behaviour on the Government Benches.
The amendment is something that we might expect from a student debating society, but not from a Government who are taking the plight of the WASPI women seriously. What is it going to take for the Government to recognise that they must do something to deal with the unfairness of the sharp increase in pensionable age? Over the last few weeks, 240 petitions relating to the WASPI campaign have been presented to Parliament by Members on both sides of the House, which shows that this issue affects all parts of the UK. Parliament and the petitioners should be given more respect by the Government, and I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate he will withdraw their amendment. The issue is not going to go away: the WASPI woman are angry, and will be lobbying MPs in the weeks and months ahead. The Government must act.
This is not the first time that women have had to campaign to defend their rights. In the House, we frequently pay homage to those in the suffragette movement who campaigned for voting rights for women. There are similarities between the suffragettes and the WASPI women. The suffragettes were known by the acronym WSPU, which stood for the Women’s Social and Political Union, and they were well known for wearing purple, as do the WASPI women. The Government of the day, of course, stood steadfast against the demands of the suffragettes for many years before they were eventually forced into doing the right thing. My message to the present Government is not to be as pig-headed as previous Governments in opposing a campaign which, as I have said—and as was pointed out earlier by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner)—is not going to go away. I say to them. “Show compassion. Show that you can do the right thing.”
Does my hon. Friend share my bafflement that in the face of evidence, in the face of campaigning and in the face of the many women who come through the doors of our surgeries to raise this issue, the Government have not yet changed their mind? This is not about equalisation; this is about a campaign against the WASPI women.
The hon. Gentleman will understand that in Northern Ireland this change is having a negative impact on thousands of women. I am one of them, but I will have a pension from this House; thousands of women will not enjoy that privileged status. On 13 July, a new Prime Minister walked into No. 10, giving an opportunity for this Government to set a different tone. The Prime Minister has a golden opportunity to deliver on the hopes and expectations that she revealed on the steps of No. 10.
The hon. Lady makes a strong point. I appeal to the Government to listen to what is said by Members in all parts of the House, including on the Government Benches. They can do the right thing today and deliver justice for the WASPI women. They have a chance to show that they really do care about the women who have been left behind.
Although it is simply shocking that we are still debating this issue without resolution, should we be surprised? Historically, women have suffered decades of gender inequality, and while the Tories tell us that the changes are about equalisation and fairness, they continue to push women further into hardship by delaying their pensions and ensuring that their austerity cuts continue to fall firmly on their shoulders.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the WASPI women should be commended for the civil, decent and reasonable way they have campaigned? We have met them all in our constituencies. He just made the point that women had a gender pay gap and a resulting pension gap even before the changes, so an already unfair situation is compounded. Does he agree that the failure to introduce better transitional arrangements exacerbates the existing inequality?
No. I have to make progress, because many others want to speak. I have been generous in giving way.
We also need to remind the Government that the House has already backed a motion calling on them to take action. It was passed on 7 January this year, and it is worth reflecting on its contents. It called on the Government
“to immediately introduce transitional arrangements for those women negatively affected by that equalisation.”
Why have the Government ignored the will of this House? Does parliamentary democracy mean anything, or can it simply be ignored by a Government who choose to disrespect not only this House but the 2.6 million WASPI women? It is an affront to democracy that despite this House having voted for the Government to take
“action to alleviate the injustice facing women affected by the acceleration of the increase in the state pension age”,
the Tories are intent on resisting the will of the people. It is abundantly clear that we have won the argument. As well as winning the vote unanimously in Parliament for the UK Government to introduce transitional arrangements for the WASPI women, the Tories continue to shrug their shoulders at the will of the House. In various debates on this issue, we have won the argument. The UK Government must realise that, with the support of Members on both sides of the House, we will not be abandoning the WASPI women as they have done. We and the constituents we represent should be given more respect and consideration by the UK Government.
Not once has the hon. Gentleman told the House that he will pay the £38 billion price tag. That will increase national debt, and future generations will have to pay for it by having a much higher pensionable age. How does he answer that question about fairness?
That was pathetic.
There will come a time when not only the SNP but the Government Back Benchers who have pledged to support the WASPI women and the general public will question the role of this place, if it is not to listen and respect the will of the people. With internal dissent growing in the Tory party over cuts to employment and support allowance and the reduction in the work allowance, the cracks are beginning to appear. Maybe now is the time for them to change tactics and start listening to the Conservatives they claim to represent. I understand the motivation of those Members who have put their names to amendments (a) and (b), but I ask them to support the SNP today.
The SNP commissioned research to challenge the UK Government’s figures. A number of options are available to the Government, but we believe option two can give immediate relief to those women who are next to face delay in this Parliament. The Government must act now.
With your forbearance, Mr Speaker, I am aware that I have been on my feet for quite some time and I want to move on to my concluding remarks. I have been generous in allowing others to come in, but I will not be taking any further interventions so that I can finish and allow others to speak.
Our report is a stepping stone. It should be adopted to help to end this injustice. We hope the UK Government welcome the report and act now to end this inequality. The SNP Westminster parliamentary group’s report detailed modelling by Landman Economics of the impact of different options for compensating women affected by the 2011 Act. One option was a return to the timetable in the 1995 Act, whereby women’s state pension age would rise from 63 in March 2016, to 65 in April 2020. The report estimates that reverting back to the 1995 Act for women would cost £7.9 billion between 2016-17 and 2020-21.
The Government estimate that the accelerated state pension age in the Pensions Act 2011 saved about £30 billion from both women and men from 2016-17 to 2025-26. However, that is simply not the case. The £8 billion cost is affordable given the surplus in the national insurance fund, which rightly should be used to end this injustice. The fund is in surplus and, according to the Government’s own Actuary’s Dept, is projected to be at a £30 billion surplus at the end of 2017-18. It is time the Government paid out. After all, the WASPI women paid in and helped to create this surplus. They now need to be given their due.
The Minister said that it is simply too expensive and that public spending is complicated. We will not be fobbed off. The report was carried out by a credible and sound model that has been used previously by independent economists. Again, the matter returns to priorities—too expensive by comparison with what other expenses? The Tories have a choice here: this is not a necessity.
While we are trying to get the Government to act, others elsewhere are doing just that. Measures were brought forward by the Polish Government on 16 November to reverse the increase in pensionable age from the previous planned state pensionable age of 67 to 60 for women and 65 for men as of October 2017. The Polish Prime Minister claimed that there were enough state funds from more efficient tax collection for earlier pensions. Well, well! Of course, the parallel here is that we know the national insurance fund is in surplus. We can afford to put in place mitigation. If Poland can do it, what about a rich country like the UK? It is all about choices.
We published in our report the scale of increase in pensionable age in each European country. Only two countries are seeing a rapid acceleration of pensionable age for women in line with the UK: Italy and Greece. Is anyone on the Government Benches prepared to defend the increase in women’s pensionable age of three months per month? We have given the Government an option and, unlike their Trident nuclear weapons commitment, it is costed. I say to the Government that we are not going away. More importantly, the WASPI women are not going away.
In conclusion, today is Scotland’s national day. With deference to Rabbie Burns, if he will forgive me, I would like to adapt one of his better known pieces of work:
“Women, wha hae wi’ WASPI bled,
Women, wham WASPI has af times led;
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to victory!
Now’s the day, and now’s the hour;
See the front o’ battle lour;
See approach proud Theresa’s power—
Chains and slavery!
Wha will be a traitor knave?
Wha can fill a coward’s grave!
Wha sae base as be a slave?
Let her turn and flee!
Wha for Pensions rightly earned
Freedom’s sword will strongly draw,
WASPIs stand, or WASPIs fa’,
Let them follow me!
By oppression’s woes and pains!
By your daughters in servile chains!
We will drain our dearest veins,
But they shall be free!
Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty’s in every blow!—
Let us do or die!”
Justice for the WASPI women!
The Tory Government have ducked their responsibility for the WASPI women for too long. It is time to face up to the reality. Pensions are not a privilege; they are a contract and the UK Government have broken it.
Order. In a moment I shall call the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to move the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister, but first I must advise the House that no fewer than 13 Back Benchers wish to contribute to the debate, and they should be heard. The Secretary of State, equally, will want to respond, and probably comprehensively, to what he has heard, which is perfectly proper. I therefore ask Members to have some regard for the interests of each other.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:
“welcomes the planned average rise of £550 a year for 3 million women, including those born in the 1950s, who receive the new state pension; further welcomes the increase of over £1,100 per year of the basic state pension since 2010 as the result of the triple lock, which will also benefit such women; and recognises that the state pension must reflect the welcome rise in life expectancy in order to remain sustainable for generations to come.”
We have heard the case put fully by the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), and I want to start my response by putting this debate in full context. The pensions system, along with the whole welfare system, needs to change to reflect the reality of today. What has happened in recent decades is not only that we are all living longer, which is welcome, but that we are able to work for longer as we become healthier. Of course this does not apply to everyone, and I will come to those who need financial help. However, although this is often a divisive debate, I hope the whole House can accept these four principles: first, that men and women should receive their state pension at the same age, a principle first set out more than 20 years ago in the Pensions Act 1995; secondly, that the age at which all receive a state pension has to rise as life expectancy rises; thirdly, that all who need help because they cannot work should receive appropriate support; and fourthly, that for most people work is beneficial not only because it provides an income, but because it gives them greater control over their own lives.
State pension age increases cannot be looked at in isolation. They fit into a wider array of changes, including changes in life expectancy, the huge and very welcome progress made in opening up employment opportunities for women, and the wider package of reforms we have introduced to ensure a fairer deal for pensioners, particularly the new state pension.
The state pension system for people who reached their state pension age before 6 April this year was extremely complex. The new state pension brings greater clarity by helping people to understand their pension more easily, and it is much more generous for many women who have been historically worse off under the old system. On average, women reaching state pension age last year get a higher state pension over their lifetimes than women who reached state pension age at any point before them, even when the accelerated equalisation of state pension age is taken into account. By 2030, over 3 million women stand to gain an average of £550 extra per year as a result of these changes.
I probably should declare an interest as a woman who was born on 12 September 1953. The Secretary of State’s remarks about women’s extra income throughout their lives does not pay the bills today for WASPI women, and that is their problem. They do not disagree with any of his four principles—they accepted the equal pension age—but they have planned their lives responsibly, and in return the Government have been irresponsible.
I will come to the specific point that the right hon. Lady raises later in my speech, as she would expect.
The new state pension works hand in hand with automatic enrolment, enabling many more people to save in a workplace pension. Together, the new state pension and automatic enrolment, along with reviews of the state pension age, are designed to form the main elements of a sustainable basis for retirement income in the decades to come. We want to ensure economic security for working people at every stage of their lives, including retirement, and that is why we are protecting the incomes of millions of pensioners through the triple lock. Living standards for pensioners have been rising steadily for many years. In 2014-15, the proportion of this group living in a low-income household was nearly the lowest on record, in terms of the proportion and of pensioner numbers. That is the general position, which it is important for the House to recognise.
We are discussing the state pension, not private pensions—[Interruption.] My principal pension is that of a Member of this House, so all aspects of it are exactly the same as those of the hon. Gentleman’s pension.
Let me deal with the group that is principally affected by the changes. Of course I have met many of those women in my own constituency. There was clearly a problem, and that is why a substantial concession worth £1.1 billion was introduced in the Pensions Act 2011. As a result, no woman will experience an increase of more than 18 months, and for 81% of the women affected—more than four in five of them—the increase will not exceed 12 months compared with the previous timetable. This concession benefited almost 250,000 women who would otherwise have experienced delays of up to two years. The introduction of further concessions cannot be justified, given the imperative to focus public resources on helping those who are most in need.
The Secretary of State talks about those in need as though the WASPI women are not in need, but of course many of them are. He has talked about resources, but what price justice? What price doing the right thing? These are the women who brought us up, who now care for older relatives and who are the mainstay of their communities. They are not some militant group. At a time when this House has a low standing, I believe that his dismissive attitude towards them will damage not only the Conservative party but politics as a whole in the eyes of the women who have made this country what it is today.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the luxuries for the Opposition is proposing to spend money that they do not have? Does he also agree that the comments from the Opposition parties ring hollow, given that these matters were not mentioned in their manifestos? They were not mentioned in the Labour manifesto or the Scottish National party manifesto.
My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point.
I want to deal specifically with some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber. He talked about communications. Since 2000—a long time before the 2011 Act—the Department for Work and Pensions has issued 14 million state pension estimates, which include mention of the state pension age. Between 2003 and 2006, the Department issued about 16 million automatic pension forecasts, which were accompanied by a leaflet about equalisation. There was also a media campaign in 2004. After the 2011 Act, as the hon. Gentleman admitted, the Department wrote to all those directly affected. There has been quite a significant communications campaign, going back more than 15 years.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He says that media and publications campaigns have been undertaken, but does he accept that some of the women did not receive any notification of the latest changes, which extended the period before which they would be entitled to access their state pension?
I feel that the hon. Gentleman has had his fair share of the time, having used more than 35 minutes of a three-hour debate, and I want to turn to the specific option that he proposed. He mentioned the Landman Economics report that modelled the impact of several options. The SNP’s preferred option would roll back the 2011 Act entirely, returning to the timetable in the 1995 Act. He said that that option would cost £8 billion, but I disagree. Our analysis suggests that the cost has to go beyond 2020-21 and must include the effects on national insurance payments and tax collection, which his economic model entirely ignores, and that it would cost over £30 billion.
Even if we accept the hon. Gentleman’s figures, his other suggestion is that the costs could be met from the surplus in the national insurance fund that he conveniently discovered. In fact, there is no surplus in the fund because it is all used to pay contributory benefits. If we take from the national insurance fund £8 billion, £30 billion or whatever number one cares to mention, we take it from people who receive benefits. The surplus of £16 billion that he identified is two months’ expenditure—an advisory level recommended by the Government Actuary as a prudent working balance. The money has been put there by a Treasury grant to maintain the fund at the recommended long-term balance. The Government Actuary does not forecast a long-term surplus, so this convenient pot of money for the SNP does not actually exist.
May I add to that? Others have tried to alight on this fund as a source of expenditure, but the then Financial Secretary Ruth Kelly said in 2003:
“The national insurance fund provides security for those contributory benefits. It is ring-fenced and cannot be used for other Government expenditure.”—[Official Report, 21 October 2003; Vol. 411, c. 231WH.]
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is knowledgeable about such matters.
The hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber used to work in the financial services industry and has been a fund manager, so he knows what he is talking about. However, he must know that his characterisation of the national insurance fund as involving some kind of individual contract that relates what someone gets out of it to what they pay in is not true. The state pension is a social security benefit, funded through national insurance contributions.
I did not twist what the hon. Gentleman said at all. Is he prepared to take £8 billion from people who receive contributory benefits? That is the only way that he could pay for it.
Returning to the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the national insurance fund, he gave the impression that it involved an individual contract. As he knows perfectly well, the national insurance scheme operates on a pay-as-you-go basis, meaning that today’s contributors are paying for today’s social security entitlements and pensions. Those who previously paid contributions were paying for the pensioners of that time. In other words, contributors do not accumulate an individual pension fund. It is not like any individual’s pension fund of moneys paid, which is personal to them. Instead, payment of contributions allows them, or their spouses, to access a range of social security entitlements. It is not an individual contract or fund. I gently suggest that the hon. Gentleman knows that perfectly well.
Moving on to the issues that affect the WASPI women, I absolutely accept that getting into work will be difficult for some older women, so I want to say what we are doing to help them and also what we are doing for those who simply cannot work.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, however well intentioned, the message of the WASPI campaigners has been severely damaged by the hate campaign on social media and in constituency offices against MPs, such as me, whose viewpoint is different from the campaigners’? Will he condemn that and say that it must stop?
I deprecate any form of personal abuse. I think that one of the problems of modern politics is that everything becomes personalised. I have not been aware of such abuse, as every WASPI woman I have met has been entirely polite and entirely reasonable, and I would wish that to continue.
Does the Minister accept that the fundamental issue here is not equalisation, because that has been agreed, but fairness? He can give comfort to the 63,000 WASPI women in Merseyside who, through a quirk of their birthdate, will be hit hard and penalised. He can announce transitional arrangements that would give them some comfort that that is not going to happen.
I was coming on to discuss what we are doing and what we will do for this group. Supporting older claimants to remain in the labour market, and tackling the barriers to their doing so, is a key priority for the Government. To support that aim, we have abolished the default retirement age, so most people can now retire when the time is right for them, and we have extended the right to request flexible working for all. Flexible working is particularly important for this group of people, who may well have caring responsibilities.
The Secretary of State will be aware that many of these older women are putting together two or three jobs, all of which are paid at less than £108 a week, as a result of which they do not get any national insurance contributions and that will affect their future pension. What is he doing about that? They can have their tax claimed, but they cannot get credits for a future pension.
What we are trying to do is what I am talking about, which is remove barriers to work, so that it is easier for these people to work. The arrival of universal credit makes it easier for people to extend the hours they work, so that they do not hit the old cliff edges under the other benefits. Paid employment maximises people’s opportunities to build up savings—the point the right hon. Lady was just making—and helps to maintain social networks, and it is beneficial to health, provided the employment takes into account the person’s broader circumstances.
I appreciate that the SNP’s proposal is not economically viable, but does the Minister accept that some women, including in my constituency, had to give up work for health reasons and were therefore not able to pay in, and they are not able to return to the workplace either? It does not seem that we have yet put in place adequate measures to be fair to those people, who cannot change their situation.
Absolutely, I quite take the point that my hon. Friend makes. Clearly, specific issues need to be dealt with for this group, and I am going through several of them now. Some of these people will not be able to work, as I made clear at the start; this touches on one of the four principles I set out at the start of my speech. Working-age benefits are specifically designed to help such people, and I wish to make it clear that this group of women will be entitled to working-age benefits. If there are barriers to their claiming them, we need to remove those barriers.
I, too, accept that the SNP proposal is totally ludicrous because it is totally unaffordable, but can the Secretary of State give me assurances on what can be done for WASPI women who say that they are finding it difficult to get back into work, with the jobcentres not geared up to help them, and who may have been out of the workforce for considerable time and do not have the skillset needed to get a good job?
Absolutely, and if my hon. Friend will bear with me for 30 seconds while I make one further point, I will then deal with precisely the point she raises, as I absolutely recognise it as an issue for many of these women. I should point out that the current average age of exit from the labour market for women is 63.1, which is well above the state pension age of 60 that the SNP proposal would take us back to. The number of older women aged 50 to 64 in work in 2016 stands at more than 4 million, which is a record high. That is one reason why the Government have extended the right to request flexible working and why job search requirements for those who are not in employment are adjusted to take account of individual circumstances. One purpose of the Green Paper on work and health that we have just produced is precisely to look at much better ways to join up the health, welfare and employment systems, so that we can deal with health conditions or disabilities that may be particularly prevalent in older women who want to work. We need to make the system much better than it has been in the past at removing those barriers, so that people can work.
Absolutely. We are always willing to look at individual cases. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Pensions has already done so. More widely, we introduced older claimant champions last year specifically to support older claimants. They work in jobcentres with work coaches and employers to raise the profile of this group and highlight the benefits of employing older jobseekers.
My right hon. Friend is being very generous, and I very much respect the interest that he has taken in this matter. On the older people’s champions and in answer to my parliamentary question, since April 2015 his Department has appointed seven such champions to cover every jobcentre in the country, which sounds good, but, in practice, it will really not make a lot of difference, will it?
So far, we have appointed older people’s champions at a regional level. This is the first step to a system that needs to improve. My hon. Friend and I will be at one on that, because this is an increasingly important part of what we need to do. One thing that I hope these older claimant champions will be able to achieve is to spread best practice. I am conscious that there will be different standards of practice in different jobcentres—I am talking about the capacity to deal sympathetically with older workers, particularly those who may not have been in a jobcentre before. We must get better at that.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again. I hear what he is saying about people working, but it is difficult for many older women in this position to run a car. It is something that they often cannot afford, yet free bus passes are not available in all parts of the country. They are available to women at 60 in London, Scotland and Merseyside. People’s ability to access work is different in different parts of the country. In Greater Manchester, they do not have that help. Will the Government do a very practical thing today and commit to helping all women into work by extending that free bus pass on the same basis all over the country?
The right hon. Gentleman, who has other fish to fry in the Manchester area, will know perfectly well that bus passes are the responsibility of the local authority, rather than national Government. I will of course urge everyone in the Manchester mayoral election to vote Conservative, but it may be that he has the chance to do something about that matter at some stage in the near future, as successive Mayors of London have done.
Apart from the older claimant champions, we have appointed Andy Briggs as business champion for older workers. He is the chief executive of Aviva, which is one of the most enlightened companies in dealing with older workers, and I am delighted that he has accepted this job, as he will work with employers not just to retain older workers, but to retrain and recruit them. If women in this age group are finding it difficult to find work, there will be more employers out there who are actively looking for them. We have also established carers in employment. We are carrying out pilots in nine local authorities at the moment. I recognise that people in this group are quite likely to have caring responsibilities, and combining those with work is inevitably complex. Ensuring that businesses are suitably sympathetic and flexible in dealing with that is one of the very important steps forward that we need to take as a society in the next few years.
My right hon. Friend is making some important points. In the way that he is providing support for people who are born in the 1950s and ’60s to stay in employment for longer, does he not agree that that will also help the cultural change, which will enable future generations to stay in work longer? Obviously, that will be a requirement given the demographic changes.
My right hon. Friend is making some very good points. He touched on the issue of carers. Is he aware that many of the WASPI women have dual caring arrangements, looking after not only husbands who might be ill but parents who might be very elderly?
Indeed. Like my hon. Friend, who has considerable expertise in this area, I have read the reports that suggest that the gap between childcare responsibilities and elderly care responsibilities for many families will get narrower and narrower. We are now piloting people who will teach employers how to deal with workers who are also carers. As with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), we are in the early stages of a journey that will become hugely important for society and the whole workforce in future decades.
Let me make some progress, as I am conscious of the time. I said I wanted to deal with women who find it impossible to work, and of course the system needs to be designed to deal with problems such as disability that prevent them from working and mean that they are most in need as they approach state pension age. We are committed to supporting these vulnerable groups, spending around £50 billion a year on disability benefits, which equates to more than 6% of all Government spending. Carer’s allowance and related benefits provide financial support and safeguards for carers and their families, including those who are disabled or who are ill, and this week I was pleased to announce that the earnings limit for carers will be uprated by £6, which will help those with caring responsibilities.
Early in the new year, we will propose a new strategy specifically for elderly workers—the fuller working lives strategy—and I would be very happy to deal with colleagues on both sides of the House who have suggestions about how we can specifically help older workers in general and, specifically, older women. I do not believe that a monopoly of wisdom in this area lies in Whitehall. We will propose a new strategy that will involve many Departments, but we will also need to include ideas from employers, charities and Members and their constituents.
The Secretary of State talks about reaching out to other Departments. This point has been made by my SNP colleagues, but we are about to spend £167 billion on weapons of mass destruction—the figure has gone up because of the collapse of the pound. Will he charge his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence to see whether they can find the £8 billion we are proposing from there?
The defence of this country is hugely important, but not, I think, a direct issue for this debate.
I hope that the House will see that I am extremely open to ideas to help this group of women but in ways that reflect the modern world of work and do not blur the lines between working age benefits and pensions.
I think I have been very generous in giving way.
It should go without saying that any idea needs to be not only practical but affordable. None of the ideas proposed that concentrate purely on the pensions issue achieve this. The acceleration of the pension age for both women and men was necessary to ensure the state pension’s sustainability in the light of increasing life expectancy and increasing pressure on public resources. For those who face hardship, we continue to provide a strong and well-functioning welfare safety net. I am always looking for ways to improve that. Of course there has been a considerable concession of £1.1 billion to lessen the impact on those most affected. As I have set out, we not only continue to increase the employment prospects for women above the age of 60, but provide the new state pension, which gives people greater security, choice and dignity in retirement. This is a balanced and affordable package for older women—and men—and I commend the amendment to the House.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Speaker. It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate. I commend Scottish National party Members for tabling the motion, using their limited Opposition day time on the issue of accelerated state pension equalisation. I pay tribute to Members from my own party who have campaigned tirelessly and fiercely on the issue, alongside admirable WASPI campaigners. I support amendment (a).
The treatment of WASPI women seems like politics-by-Excel-spreadsheet in its crudest form. The decision to make the lives of working-class women even harder has thrown into turmoil the lives of up to 4,100 women in Batley and Spen, as well as many thousands across the country. It is a decision that moves the goalposts unfairly for women born in the 1950s. We have heard plenty of examples from Members’ constituencies today. I would like to share some from mine.
One woman works in a care home. She was approaching retirement age and, having had a long and fulfilling career, she was looking forward to an equally rewarding retirement looking after her daughter’s children. Her plans would have allowed her daughter to go back to work, get a career back on track and provide for her family. Although I support equalising the pension age, the clumsy way in which that has been introduced means that her daughter will not be able to seek the employment she wants, because of the cost of childcare, and it has caused great distress to my constituent, who is genuinely unsure whether she will be able to do such a physically demanding job for another five years.
Ministers may remember that during Question Time I asked about the assessment that they made of the knock-on effect on families. To be fair, I received an answer, but unfortunately not an answer to my question. I wrote to the Minister that day to ask for more information and I have yet to receive a reply. Perhaps when he sums up, the Minister will be good enough to shed some light on the issue.
The next example is from a letter I received just the other day. A woman born in 1954 was looking forward to retiring within three months of her husband and spending the precious years ahead together, living on money from savings and the state pension that they were promised. Now she will have to wait not months, but years.
This is indeed about fairness, compassion and humanity towards women who have contributed so much to our society and are now left with difficult choices. One such woman is my constituent whose dilemma is to continue working, even though she does not feel physically able, or to stop working and spend the money that she has saved for retirement on getting by. She sent me questions to ask the Government. What can they offer her to make her life easier? Why cannot the Government phase in the change, understanding that life choices at this stage in the women’s lives take proper planning? Why can my constituent not have what she is entitled to after 40 years of working and paying in? Those are good questions.
I welcome the hon. Lady to her place. My constituent Patricia has been severely affected by the changes. After spending years looking after her late husband Billy and then her mother, she now has to live off her hard-earned savings. Patricia feels under immense stress, knowing that the money will not last long, and she is anxious about finding work at this stage in her life. Does the hon. Lady agree that such instances are all too common, and that this demonstrates that those who are suffering are the ones who we should be helping the most?
I thank the hon. Lady and agree that there are many constituents out there who feel the same. We have felt the anger in the Chamber today and we are right to be angry. Our constituents’ lives have been thrown into turmoil. The former Prime Minister admitted that something had to be done, but we are still waiting. The Chancellor’s big finish to his autumn statement—to some laughter on the Government Benches—was to abolish the autumn statement. A far more elegant and just end to the statement would have been a commitment to justice on women’s state pensions.
The Government have previously accepted that the changes were an unintended consequence of their policy. Does my hon. Friend not think that now is the right time for them to accept that if this was an error on their part, they should make amends properly?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, because although the answers and solutions may not be forthcoming today, the questions and the calls will not stop. For as long as our constituents feel they have been mistreated, we—the party of justice, compassion and humanity—will keep up the fight.
There has been much agreement in the Chamber today about equalisation, but I am probably unusual in that I am not actually sure I agree. Maybe, when the majority of men become carers, and when all men have a menopause, I might, but I am not sure I do now.
I feel very sorry for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, because he has come to the Dispatch Box to pick up a mess that has been created by others. We knew equalisation was taking place, but the former Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), decided he would move things from 2026 to 2020.
I am terribly sorry to say this to the Secretary of State, but I am one of the WASPI women. I am also one of those who were not written to and informed about this, and I think the DWP knows where I live—I have made that point before. Many of these women were not informed and not able to plan, and that is because the former Chancellor wanted to save £30 billion.
I understand that the former Chancellor may have wanted to save that money. I also understand that the SNP is never going to be able to achieve anything in this debate. It is never going to be in power. When it makes financial claims, as it is trying to at the moment, that absolutely shows how unprepared it would ever be to be a party of government. The claim about the £30 billion is ridiculous, and the SNP is doing the WASPI women an injustice.
The crude way the former Chancellor tried to slip this £30 billion saving under the fence by moving from 2026 to 2020 without informing women was wrong, and many women are suffering as a result. I am not saying that, financially, we can achieve what most people are asking for. However, in the spirit of fairness, amelioration and pouring some oil on troubled waters, would the Secretary of State please go away and have a look at whether we can do something just around the edges, for some of the women, or perhaps the older women, in this group—I am 21 May 1957, by the way. I do not mean that we should deal with all of it or do something for everybody, but that in the spirit of fairness, there may be something we could do.
Obviously, I have constituents who are in this situation, and I have heard from lots of the WASPI women. I am actually appalled at some of the comments I have seen on social media, and I have stopped engaging with the WASPI women on social media—not the core campaigners, who are a very decent bunch of ladies—because some people have hijacked their cause for social media and unpleasant purposes. However, I have engaged with many of the WASPI women, and their stories are very difficult.
I do not know how many women in the Chamber or the House are of my age, but I would not like to be in the position where I thought I was going to get my pension but then had to get another job, because nobody would employ me. Who would employ a woman facing her 60th birthday? Despite the fact that we have a lot of skills and life experience, and that we are probably very good employees, it is difficult for women of a certain age to get employed. You become faceless when you reach a certain age.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving such a powerful and impassioned speech, but could I correct her in saying, “Who would give me a job at my age?” I gave two ladies in my office who are in exactly that age group a job, because—I think this is what the Secretary of State was driving at—there is a change in culture.
I thank my hon. Friend. I actually have a member of staff in my office who is older than I am, but I also know of many friends who are being made redundant and have lost their jobs. Recently, in fact, a whole group of people in a company—all women over a certain age—were made redundant, and they all know that it was because of their age. It is not the case that most employers want to take on women in their 50s and 60s—it just does not happen.
No, because it takes up other people’s time. If the hon. Lady wants to speak, she should put in to speak. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but it is a fair point—a lot of people want to speak.
I ask the Secretary of State please to go away and have a look at this, because that would be a generous and healing statement on the part of the Government. We would be able to show that we are a kind, considerate and caring Government—because we are—in doing something for these women and making things a bit better for some of them, going forward.
I confess that today I am in deep and utter despair because once again I find myself, for the fifth time, in a similar debate about the WASPI women. Each time, the junior Ministers who were rolled out for the occasion had what I can only call the brass neck to listen to plea after plea that the Government should and must act on this issue, and then respond by saying almost nothing at all, but characteristically taking a very long time to say it in vague and woolly terms. Today, however, we have the big cheese—we have the big gun rolled out—but his bullish and dismissive response was, quite frankly, astonishing.
I would say to all Members of this House—I am not referring to the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) but talking about something that was said much earlier in the debate—that they should be very careful about trying to portray the WASPI women as a band of mad militants who go around threatening MPs, because that could not be further from the truth. We are talking about women who have acted with dignity throughout this campaign and organised themselves simply to access that which is already theirs by rights. Some Members have disingenuously suggested that we in the SNP are arguing against equalisation. It is the old trick of people trying to misrepresent their opponents when they fear they are losing the argument—in this case, losing it on rational grounds, on ethical grounds and on financial grounds.
I will make some progress.
Despite four previous debates, a UK-wide petition that in my own constituency attracted 2,534 signatures, potential legal action against the Government in which they must surely fear a humiliating defeat—it is possible that the WASPI women will win a case against the Government on mis-selling of their pensions—and a report from the Work and Pensions Committee concluding that
“more could and should have been done”
to communicate these changes, we still appear to be no further forward. How utterly frustrating! It is frustrating for us in this place, so can the Secretary of State begin to imagine how frustrating it must be for the women caught up in this nightmare? Well, 4,800 women in my constituency are caught up in this nightmare, as are many more across the United Kingdom.
When will this Government wake up to the fact that pensions are not a benefit, despite the chuntering earlier that suggested otherwise? They are a social contract, which has been cruelly broken. It is time for the Government to step up and take responsibility for the way in which this entire matter has been mishandled.
I really am conscious of the time. Under the solution offered by the SNP, which was outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), it would be possible to increase women’s pension age to 66 in the 2020s. The UK Government’s view on this, even after mistakes in the process have been laid bare for all to see, has been characterised by intransigence and wilful stubbornness. The Government have ducked their responsibilities in this matter for far too long. It is time to do what is right, fair and just. It is time for the Government to waken up and realise that pensions are not a privilege and they are not, as I have heard them referred to in another debate, a promise or a benefit.
A contract has been broken, and the breaking of that contract marks a fundamental shift between the Government and those they purport to represent. When contracts can be torn up and ignored, what does that say about a representative democracy? It is time for the Government to stop telling us that they have no choice. When it comes to writing blank cheques for Trident, there is a choice, so they have a choice here. It is time to make the right choice for WASPI women.
I think we all recognise that in the world of politics, there are very few easy solutions, and solutions are certainly never cheap. As far as the matter that we are debating is concerned, the cheap version—to undo the Pensions Act 2011—would cost some £30 billion, and to undo the Pensions Act 1995 would cost many billions more. We must recognise that any pension scheme that we have must be sustainable, and the Government have a duty to keep it so. It would be irresponsible for the Government not to act with a view to keeping the pension scheme sustainable.
Much has been said about transitional arrangements. It is important that colleagues realise that there have already been transitional arrangements. Those who take the trouble to read Hansard will find that on Second Reading of the Pensions Bill of 2011, the Minister speaking for the Government said,
“we will consider transitional arrangements”.—[Official Report, 20 June 2011; Vol. 530, c. 52.]
On Report, the Government delivered on their promise, because they made a concession worth £1.1 billion and reduced the time period from two years to 18 months. For 81% of the women affected, the increase in the time period will be no more than 12 months. It is fundamentally wrong to say, as the last line of the SNP motion does, that there should be transitional arrangements.
Forgive me; I am mindful of the time limit.
If people want to seek a change to what has already been done, they should have the courage to say so. They should say that they do not accept the transitional arrangements that have been made, and that they want further changes. To say that no changes were made is, frankly, disingenuous. As far as notification and the 1995 Act are concerned, let us not forget that the Labour party was in government for 13 years and it did very little—in fact, it did nothing—in the way of notification, even though some 10 Pensions Ministers could have done so. In 2012, research by the DWP found that only 6% of women who were within 10 years of reaching their pension age thought that their state pension age was still 60.
There are, of course, a number of other factors that need to be taken into account. It is wrong that debates such as this focus solely on state pension age equalisation and its impact on the women concerned. We have to take account of life expectancy, which is increasing. [Interruption.] It is good news, but nevertheless we have to take it into account. Employment prospects for women are far better than they have been at any time since the state pension was introduced in 1940. There is record female employment and record employment for older women. The Government have worked hard to engage with stakeholders and employers to make sure that they recognise and value all the contributions that older workers can make. There are also our broader reforms. We have protected the winter fuel payment, permanently increased cold weather payments, created a new and simpler state pension system, abolished the default retirement age and extended the right to request flexible working.
I will not give way, because I want to leave other hon. Members as much time as possible in which to speak.
We must also mention other countries. Nine EU countries, including Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, introduced equalisation as far back as 2009. I conclude by simply saying one thing: we have had many debates on this issue and the Government have repeatedly made their position clear, which is that they do not intend to revisit this issue. The issue was not in the Labour or the SNP manifesto, and by continuing to debate it, Labour and SNP Members are doing a disservice to the good women affected by giving them false hope. They should understand that doing so is opportunism pure and simple and political irresponsibility of the highest order. They should not give these good women false hope, and they should recognise that the Government will not give way.
If I may say so, this is starting to feel like déjà vu. The story is now one that we are all familiar with, and the injustices are being experienced right across the country. However, at the risk of repeating the same old argument, I am going to continue just in case anyone is in any doubt about where I stand on this matter.
Because of the 2011 pension changes, over 500,000 women born in the 1950s are now unable to collect their pensions until much later than they thought. Most Members will have substantial numbers of women in their constituencies who are affected by the changes. These women have worked hard all their lives, holding families together and, in many cases, holding down jobs. These women have been the carers of their children and grandchildren and, in many cases, of elderly parents. These women are the backbone of this country.
As always, my hon. Friend speaks with great passion on a subject that she cares about. One of the things about the women born in the 1950s is that they were actively encouraged to give up work when they had children, so their pensions are actually smaller now than they would be had they taken maternity leave, and they are therefore at more of a disadvantage. Does she agree that we owe these women justice because they have been the backbone of this country for decades?
I think my hon. Friend already knows my answer, but I would most certainly never disagree with him.
The Government’s refusal to engage constructively on this issue has left many of these women very angry, and it has left many Members on both sides of the House frustrated at the Government’s bloody-mindedness. I will not cite facts and figures or offer Ministers examples, because they have heard them all before, but I will just give them a warning. The women affected by the pension changes—the WASPI women—as well as their families and, increasingly, the general public are getting more angry and they are getting better organised. They are not going away, and we are not going to stop talking about the issue. Those of us who object to this situation, who I would even go so far as to say are offended by this Government’s inaction, will stand up week on week in debate after debate to put forward the argument for the WASPI women until they get the justice they deserve.
The Work and Pensions Committee, of which I am a member, worked on this issue at length earlier this year, and the SNP-commissioned report by Landman Economics draws upon much of our work—indeed, copies much of it. I certainly hope that the SNP did not pay too much for its report.
It is clear that there was a gross inequality in the old system, which had been untouched for some 70 years. It was very much a “kick it down the road” subject that few wished to touch, but we as Conservatives did touch it, because it needed touching. That said, I have not only taken the WASPI women’s concerns on board, but actually done something about it. I wanted to hear directly from local constituents about their own experiences, and to that end I held a Thanet WASPI forum on Saturday 21 May. It attracted not only local constituents but others who had heard about it from across Kent. In all, 100 women came.
I have also encouraged WASPI women to come to my surgeries and met campaigners, as have many right hon. and hon. Members from the across the House, outside Parliament. I have written to, and discussed the issue with, current and former Pensions Ministers and Secretaries of State, and I have presented a WASPI petition to the House. Few could have done more to understand the issue, to listen to the problem and to try and get a solution. I have tried to come up with a single solution, but therein is the problem: WASPI does not speak with one voice. The reason is that no one solution fits all the problems.
I commend my hon. Friend for his efforts in trying to better understand this challenge—no doubt it is a challenge and there are people having to cope with this—but does he agree that the question ultimately comes down not just to the complexity of the solution but to affordability?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Given the state of the nation’s finances in 2010 and that 70-year-old inequality, something had to be done.
WASPI women find themselves in a difficult situation, having started out in a more traditional era of British life. Back then, women were more likely to be at home. If in work, they were unlikely to have been on a well-paid career path. Often part-time work would feature and low-paid work was the norm. The problems do not end there, though; this generation has parents themselves benefiting from increases in longevity, hence an extended caring function often falls upon them, while many WASPI women often support grandchildren as well.
The majority view among women at my forum was that there should have been no change at all to the 1995 Act and that the retirement age of 60 should have prevailed. Now, that clearly is not sustainable. None of the Opposition parties proposed it in their manifestos last year, and indeed this option—option 1 in the Landman Economics report—has been discounted even by the SNP. At £30 billion, it is simply too expensive and unfair. The SNP report advanced other options: option 2 was to wind back the 2011 pension change, which accelerated the age increase; and option 3 was a slowing down of the 2011 Act—a sort of Pension Act 2011-minus.
An option 4, suggested by Labour Members, is that pension credit be used to bridge the gap, but the great problem with that is that it might actually discourage work, or even encourage people to stop work altogether. Option 5 is for an actuarially reduced pension at an earlier age. I floated that with many WASPI women, and some supported it, given an appropriate discount rate. It could work—it works in the USA and Canada—but then another group of WASPI campaigners do not want to hear of it, and my worry is that, in 10 years, we might have a group of WASPI women who, having accepted less for longer, are now in poverty. I have discussed all these issues with my WASPI women, and there is very little agreement.
On the question of what is acceptable, does the hon. Gentleman understand that many WASPI women, having been born in the ’50s and done physical work, are physically unable to continue working and cannot be expected to do so? Moreover, those born in the ’60’s and ’70’s have a chance to retrain, whereas the WASPI women do not and are physically unable to work on their knees for physically demanding jobs. Surely that has to be a consideration.
I fully understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I will cover some of those issues as I progress.
On the contract that many Members say was there, there was no contract for the Government to implement the triple lock, which has done more to alleviate poverty in older age than any other measure before it. There was no contract about the implementation of the new state pension, which will provide £155.65 per week on 35 qualifying years of national insurance. These were choices made by Conservative Governments and were done for the right reasons. We will have increased the take-home pension by £1,100 a year since 2010. Many people welcome these things, which were done for the right reasons, as I said. WASPI women have the right to work for longer because they are not forced into retirement any more. If they are unable to work, there is a benefit system, which I support and hope would carry them through.
I already have given way twice, and I do not have much time.
I have an option 6 to offer to Members today, which I even offer to Landman Economics for free. It has to be understood that later-age employment is difficult. Employers are not always as enlightened as they could be in recognising the value of older employees. I am grateful to colleagues here who have taken on older employees. I would offer a lighter-touch approach by the Department for Work and Pensions in jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance claims with no need to prove endless CV writing and job clubs and less formal job coaching, and advice on a simpler footing.
Finally, one of the most active South Thanet WASPI campaigners, still very much annoyed with me and the Government, recently came to see me. As a result of the changes, she had taken up an offer by Jobcentre Plus and she wrote to me to pass on to it how good it had been. We do not see much of that in our surgeries. Because of the great service she had received—she also attended a jobs fair that I had put on—she had found a job. I have never seen her so happy, but that would not have happened unless the changes had moved her in that direction.
It is very clear that one solution does not fit all. I would have supported the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), if it had been available to vote for this afternoon. I have to say to SNP Members, however, that I am sorry, but I am unable to support their rather blunt motion. As ever, I am afraid, it is pure political grandstanding, offering very few answers. There is an answer out there, and it will be found, I am sure, by the excellent work of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I encourage WASPI to speak to us with one voice, so that we can reach a solution that is right for the majority.
I thank SNP Members for bringing forward this debate, and I pay tribute to the WASPI women and their supporters up and down the country for their tireless campaigning on this important issue in the face of an obstinate Government who refuse to listen to their very rational arguments about the need for better transitional protection and arrangements for this group of women.
Most of all, I want to pay tribute to the WASPI group in Durham, which was formed after a visit to Parliament in June. I attended a meeting it held in my constituency on 10 November. I wish that the Secretary of State, who is no longer in his place, the Under-Secretary of State for Pensions, the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) and indeed the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) had been there to listen to what the women had to say. Most of them had until recently been simply unaware of the changes to their retirement ages, and most of them will now have to wait years to receive their pension. Most of them had already had two significant changes made to their pension age. These women described in great detail the strain that their current situation was putting on them and their families. Many of them had planned to retire in order to care for family members, and were now having to balance social care needs with full-time work often across a range of different jobs. All were job-seeking.
One point that the Secretary of State did not acknowledge earlier was that for an older woman, trying to get a job in a depressed labour market is extremely difficult. Nor did he recognise that it does not matter how many older champions women have. If no jobs are available in their local labour market, women of any age will be unable to find employment, but it will have a negative impact on older women in particular.
Furthermore, the Secretary of State did not acknowledge two important factors: the regional disparities in the ages at which women will remain fit and active enough for work—especially if they have been involved in more strenuous occupations—and the differing ages of mortality across regions and, indeed, within specific areas. None of that has been factored into the Government’s thinking, and that, in my view, is also pretty atrocious.
One of the things that I was asked to do by the women whom I met on 10 November was to write to the Secretary of State, and I did so on their behalf. I must say that I was pretty appalled by the response that I received. It answered the case relating to the equalisation of the pension age, which was not the issue that had been raised.
The hon. Lady was right to say that equalisation was not the issue. The issue is the fairness, or rather the unfairness, of the transitional arrangements. We have heard that there are transitional arrangements, but they are unfair.
Absolutely, and that was the point that was being raised. It concerned the way in which the changes were being implemented and the lack of proper transitional arrangements, rather than the equalisation issue itself.
I am pleased that Labour Front Benchers have come forward with an answer, or a partial answer, to the problems highlighted by the WASPI campaign. I am pleased that they have announced that we will not abandon those women to live in poverty, and that under the Labour plan, pension credit will be extended to those who were due to retire before the chaotic pension age increase introduced by the Conservative-led coalition Government and supported by the previous Conservative Government. Labour’s proposal is to return eligibility for pension credit to the state pension age timetable of the 1995 Act. With the qualifying age continuing to increase to 66 by 2022, that policy would cost the Government only £860 million rather than the ridiculous £30 billion figure to which they have referred; they say that they cannot do anything because of that huge figure. The Landman Economics report, which has already been mentioned today, outlines some other policies that they could adopt.
It is simply not acceptable for the Government to say that they are not going to do anything. The message that they need to hear from us this afternoon is that we will continue to support the WASPI women and their campaign—we will continue to raise questions and initiate debates in the House to support them throughout the country—until they do the right thing by those women, and introduce proper transitional arrangements that will protect them from the hardship that they are currently experiencing.
I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I am a little surprised that there are so few Members on the SNP Benches.
There is a clear need for equalisation of the state pension age. We are all agreed on that. We have an ageing population. People are leading healthier, longer lives. Given that an ever greater proportion of the population are drawing pensions, while an ever smaller proportion are contributing through national insurance, the pension system risks becoming unsustainable without the important measure that we debated and voted on in 2011.
On the most fundamental level, however, we as a House should champion equality. The new single-tier pension is much fairer and simpler. People who have worked for 35 years will receive £8,000 a year. It is a very simple process: 35 years of work will give us £8,000. I have already worked for 35 years, but I will not qualify for my pension until I am 67; the same applies to Mrs Evans. As we all live longer and healthier lives, that will increase, I am sure. Let us make that clear, here and now. The single-tier pension also takes into consideration for the first time the time off that people take to have children—maternity and paternity leave.
I supported the measure. When I was a member of the Work and Pensions Committee we investigated the matter. I contacted the DWP to find out my retirement date, and I have to say to the Minister that the document I received was rather drab—not the most exciting document to read. The first time I went through that process, in 2013, I was told I was going to retire at 65; when I did it in 2014, the answer was 66; and the following year it went up to 67. I had to read the documents very carefully indeed, so I think people can be forgiven for not realising that their retirement date had changed. I encourage the Government to take a look at the personalised documents that are regularly produced, with a view to perhaps introducing a little colour—for example, making the retirement date red and easier to see.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments about information, but this is not a small mistake. I have constituents who will lose £30,000 or more by the shifting of the goalposts. Does he not think that because of the failure to communicate the changes, the Government have a duty to look again at transitional arrangements for the women affected?
I do not agree, because, to be fair to the DWP, it has communicated with people. I think it could communicate better, as I have just described, but following the 1995 Act the Department issued a leaflet, among other press and publicity measures including direct mailings, to advise the public of the changes. In 2004, during the 13 years of Labour Governments, the DWP ran an information campaign distributing more than 2 million pension guides alongside adverts in the press and women’s magazines to complement an interactive online state pension calculator. In addition, all state pension statements issued from 2001 would have included as standard the new state pension age as determined by the 1995 changes. Since then, more than 11 million statements have been issued.
The Government have been notifying women of the changes. Those most affected by the 2011 changes were written to directly. That involved sending out more than 5 million letters between January 2012 and November 2013. Research carried out by the DWP found that 6% of women who were within 10 years of pension age thought that their state pension age was still 60. However, those efforts were not wholly successful. Had they been, we would not be here now debating this subject. There are lessons to be learned by Governments of all colours, present and future, on effective communication of such important matters. Those who planned for their retirement want to live the retirement they planned for.
After the 2011 changes, the Government passed an amendment to the Bill that provided £1.1 billion-worth of transitional funding, delaying the equalisation of the state pension age. We have already considered this matter and taken mitigating action. The new state pension has been brought forward a year and many women will be significantly better off than they would have been. By 2030, more than 3 million stand to get an extra £550 a year. Likewise, the introduction of the triple lock, which ensures that the state pension rises by inflation, wages or 2.5%, whichever is greater, ensures that the basic state pension will be over £1,100 a year higher than it was at the start of the last Parliament.
To undo the 2011 changes would cost £30 billion in addition to the loss of £8 billion in tax revenue. To undo the 1995 changes—
Here we are again. By my calculation, we have had no fewer than 10 debates in Westminster Hall and the Chamber since 2 December last year. In 20 years, I have never known such parliamentary attention on a single subject that was either not instigated by the Government or subject to proposed legislation. We have had over 240 petitions, mass demonstrations by WASPI women all over the country, the best attended all-party group meeting—I am proud to be a co-chair of the group—and unparalleled activity in this Chamber.
As hon. Members have said, this problem is not going to go away: WASPI women are not going to go away and we are not going to go away, yet throughout the entire past 12 months there has been no movement whatever from the Government. There has been no recognition of the very real hardship now being suffered by some of the WASPI women, and no recognition of the disproportionate impact of pension equalisation falling on a minority—albeit a significant minority—of women. We have had three Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions who, notwithstanding my respect for the current incumbent, have refused to engage with WASPI women and sit around a table to hear what hardship is like in real life.
The WASPI women in Cheltenham I have spoken to broadly recognise that the SNP’s plan to reverse the entire equalisation process, at a cost of billions of pounds we do not have, is unrealistic and inappropriate. Where individuals can establish exceptional hardship due to circumstances beyond their control, however, is it not right to examine cost-neutral transitional measures?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will come on to that in the very limited time available.
I am concerned that the Government’s amendment to the motion is just another example of them sticking their head in the sand and hoping the problem will go away. I acknowledge the wisdom of Mr Speaker in selecting the Government amendment, rather than those in my name and other hon. Members, but it appears to have little to do with the subject of the debate—the effect of pension age equalisation on WASPI women. I welcome the average rise of £550 a year for 3 million women. I welcome the increases in the basic pension, which the Secretary of State talked about. I welcome the introduction of the triple lock. Frankly, however, to produce such an amendment adds insult to injury. WASPI women will not be able to enjoy those benefits for up to six further years. That is the whole point. These women will not qualify for the benefits for a much longer time and they need help now. In addition, and despite what we have heard, women’s life expectancy actually fell last year for the first time in many years. The Chancellor, understandably, recently declined to guarantee the triple lock for years to come. By the time many of the WASPI women qualify, they will not be able to enjoy the security of the triple lock. That is why I cannot support the Government amendment. I urge hon. Members to refrain from supporting it, too. Frankly, to vote for such a disappointing and inappropriate amendment would be an insult to the many WASPI women who have campaigned so hard.
I also have a problem with the SNP motion. Mr Speaker, you were lucky enough not to be here when the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) spent 36 minutes losing my vote. SNP Members have been unilaterally pushing this cause. I am grateful that they do so, but in Scotland they do not have to pay for it. That is why we never hear solutions from the SNP. The motion references the Landman report, which relies heavily on the magic money tree known as the national insurance fund. We know the fund has been in deficit and that the Government, who have a responsibility for pensions up and down the country, had to top it up. The SNP suggestion is, in reality, a pension fund-raiding exercise.
I am disappointed that Mr Speaker did not choose my amendment, simply because it asked for a dialogue to be opened up—that we prioritise looking at the most extreme cases of hardship, which we all now see in our surgeries. The amendment does not commit to specific substantial spending and it certainly does not call for a reversion to the pre-1995 status quo. We support pension age equalisation. It is just that the speed of the transition process has led to unintended consequences for a large number of women. Many hon. Members have seen cases at first hand in their surgeries. We just want to talk.
I agree that it is regrettable that we were not able to debate my hon. Friend’s amendment. I would have supported it. Does he agree that we are where we are, and that we should not go down the extravagant SNP route? We should take the Secretary of State up on his offer of dialogue to find something constructive for those most in need.
I agree. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for seeing a delegation from the all-party group just a few days ago, even though there is no preparedness to discuss specific options. He has, however, offered to look at examples of hardship, particularly where women are being offered very inappropriate and impractical jobs by jobcentres up and down the country. We have examples from all over the place of women aged 65 being offered bar jobs in a nightclub or a job stacking shelves at 4 o’clock in the morning. It is just not working in practice. We need to be much more sensitive and sensible to the particular work needs of these women if they do indeed have to go back to work, and transitional arrangements cannot hold them back from doing that.
I also made the point earlier about there being just seven of these older people champions at jobcentres up and down the country. We do not need to go over the issues again. We heard them today, and we have heard them nine times before: the poor communication; the little notice or no notice of the change; the fact that women from the 1950s worked in very different environments, where they did not get equal pay or childcare benefits, or have access to occupational pension schemes, and typically worked part time. I believe if we proceed on these lines it will be a breach of trust between hundreds of thousands of women who have worked hard, brought up families and done the right thing—and some of them also have caring responsibilities—and the Government.
The state pension system is founded on the contributory principle. This is not a state benefit for which no prior commitment is involved, yet this group of women, who have been paying national insurance contributions over many years in good faith, now stand to have their reasonable expectations dashed.
I urge the Government to think again and to talk, and let us come up with a sensible proposal.
There are times when Conservative Members support our Ministers and their policies because we know that they are doing something great to reform the country, whether it is giving more choice in the national health service, freeing up schools from local authority control or even delivering on Brexit. There are other times when we support our Ministers because we know they are taking difficult decisions for all the right reasons, because one of the centrepieces of this Government’s policy is to bring Britain’s books back into the black, to pay off the deficit and to solve the financial problems created by Labour Members, and that is what this is all about today.
We all have accepted, I think—perhaps bar one—the principle of the equalisation of the pension age, and we all accept that people are living longer, which is a wonderful thing, under our national health service. As a result, it is going to take us longer to get our pensions. However, there has been an issue with the transition. I meet women affected in my constituency, and they are honourable, decent women. They say to me that they were not informed. I am told that back in the 1990s and early 2000s, when different people were in office, they were in fact informed, but I believe these women; they clearly did not know what was going to happen.
I appreciate the help the Government have already given, but I ask them to continue to look at what is going on in jobcentres—what officials there are to help with special cases—to draw more attention to that, and, if the finances improve, to make further help available if at all possible. But I absolutely reject the ludicrous proposals put forward by SNP Members today. They have come up with an uncosted proposal that even they say will cost at least £8 billion, but which the DWP has said would cost about £14 billion. They do this knowing perfectly well that, if they chose to, they could find all the women affected in Scotland and use the powers they already have to raise taxes, cut costs elsewhere or indeed borrow money—although that might be rather harder to do because even The Guardian has reported that they borrowed £50 billion up until 2020, and they may well find there are very few people left who would lend them the money.
The reality is that SNP Members jump up and say, “This is nothing to do with us,” but, frankly, foreign affairs have got nothing to do with them either, yet that has not stopped them talking about Brexit. If they wanted to do something about this issue, they could, but they are not going to do anything because what they are really doing is playing political games—building up people’s hopes, knowing full well that they are not prepared to take the decisions that they ask my hon. Friends on the Front-Bench to take.
SNP Members wrap themselves in the flag of the suffragettes. The Conservative party needs no lessons from them in its support of women’s rights.
I will try to keep this swift in order to give other colleagues a chance. I agree with just about everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) said, although there is one point: the Work and Pensions Committee has stated that with hindsight previous Governments could have done a lot better in communicating. I would throw a slight challenge to Labour Members: they had 13 years—[Interruption.] The changes had been announced, and women like myself did not receive any communication about them. I too have met my WASPI women, and I sympathise with the principles of their campaign. However, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) that this is a complex issue.
My first point is about affordability. This is not a movable feast, as my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) pointed out. If the proposal is indeed affordable, I would urge SNP Members to put their money where their mouth is—as my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth suggested—and to pay those 100,000 women.
I am sorry; I am not taking interventions.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to the fact that the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland has called into question the reliability of the figures that the SNP has been trying to sell to us. So let us look at this problem. We are living longer. If I start work at 16 and get a pension at 66, I will be receiving that pension for a third of my life. A third of babies born this year will live to 100. We are not a party that kicks the can of difficult decisions down the road. Can we create a policy without a cliff edge? No. My sister and I will go through a difficult period between 2026 and 2028, because she is 18 months older than me and will retire a full year earlier. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans), I have seen the pension age go up. We have had to make adaptations and it is tough.
Should we not be looking at this differently? The motion tells us that all women want this solution. That is not the case. I have had women write to me to say that they felt they had been informed. I would not want us to go backwards in this regard. I believe, as many hon. Members do, in the equalisation of the pension age. That is right and proper. Moreover, we should be fighting to remove the gender pay gap, which is not due to be equalised for 43 years. That is a much bigger problem. There are some exceptions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) said. A constituent of mine volunteered overseas and lost her professional registration. She now has a low-paid job, but she plans and she saves. I am grateful that the Minister is looking into these cases.
I will not support the motion. It ignores our children. Our generation has done better than they have done. They have tuition fees, soaring rents and difficulties with housing. I oppose the motion because it is financially unsustainable.
As other hon. Members have commented, this is our umpteenth debate on the WASPI campaign. We have already covered this ground in huge detail. Indeed, the Work and Pensions Committee produced an extensive report on this subject, entitled “Communication of state pension age changes”, in March this year. So what is new today? What has changed? In my view, there are three things.
First, the WASPI campaign has split into two. The original campaign required a reversal of the Pensions Act 1995, which was all about equalising women’s pensions with men’s, but three of the five original founders have resigned over disagreements over what constitute fair transitional arrangements.
Secondly, the WASPI campaigners born between 1953 and 1955 are now close to receiving their state pension. Many of them will start receiving it in 2018, and all of them will receive it before the 2020 election. That fact is convenient because it means that Labour Members, who did not put this issue in their 2015 manifesto, will not be able to put it into their 2020 manifesto either, because it will no longer be relevant.
Thirdly, Scottish National party Members believe that they have found a way to fund a reversal of the Pensions Act 2011, which was accelerating the equality of women’s pensions. In fact, they have gone further than that. The Daily Business quoted the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), in whose name this debate is taking place, as saying that he had found a solution:
“The Tories have tried to wash their hands of this crisis…which is why the SNP decided to do the work for them.”
In doing the work for them, the hon. Gentleman has identified that the national insurance fund—which funds welfare benefits—is the source of the £8 billion he believes will rectify the situation. The Government believe that it would cost £30 billion. His suggestion is arguably the most extraordinary of all time in this House. It is irresponsible, inappropriate and inaccurate, and it is seriously worrying that the hon. Gentleman, who has worked in the pensions industry for a long time, believes that he has done the work. His work needs serious improvement.
Interestingly, the SNP leader said that this is an issue on which the
“UK government must make transitional arrangements”.
However, while pensions remain a UK Government responsibility, things could be done by the SNP Government. The powers have been devolved, and the Scottish Government could use them now. The SNP is leading the WASPI campaign up the garden path. It is to be regretted that good women, some of whom are in trouble, are being so seriously misled by ostensibly serious politicians. We should turn the motion down.
I am delighted to be called. Like many Government Members, I have the greatest of sympathy for constituents who have been left incredibly frustrated by the changes. Indeed, this group of people have held an expectation for many decades but have then found themselves, without notification in some cases, with little time to make things up. However, the ultimate point is that if reversing the changes will cost up to £39 billion, it is wrong of this House to raise expectations and suggest that the problem can be solved without any intelligent rationale for where the money will come from. Others will always have to pay. It will be a question of having to reduce spending on essential services that are listed in our manifestos. Health is a huge issue in my constituency, and I would like more money for social care, but I am realistic about what we can afford.
I will not give way, owing to the time. Will we see services cut to pay for this proposal, or, as is so often the case, will it be left to future generations to foot the bill?
My next point is crucial. Individuals in their 20s and 30s—often termed the packhorse generation—have had to pay tuition fees, which I and others did not have to pay, and are living with expensive private rents and cannot afford to get on the housing ladder. It will be left to them to pay—a generation that will be fortunate indeed to retire at 66, let alone 60. Many of them do not even have occupational pensions. The Opposition may scoff at some of the points made by Government Members, but they should ask themselves whether they are really thinking of those individuals in the same way as we are and protecting their futures.
I will not give way.
I raised my next point when I slipped over to the other side of the Chamber. Manifestos are where such changes should be proposed and where we should stand up and be counted for what we believe in. We should not jump on bandwagons mid-term when we do not have to cost things. This proposal was not in the Labour manifesto. I have looked through the SNP manifesto—it is a gripping read—and it contains a reference to not supporting pension changes above the age of 66.
The hon. Gentleman says, “Rubbish,” so he can then state where it is. It does not appear at all in three sections. This is a cynical move that mismanages the expectations of the most vulnerable, who need looking after. They do not need cheap gimmicks from the Opposition that do not have intelligent costings. On that basis, I am going to do what is right for generations to come and not support the motion.
I am grateful to you for getting me in, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will be brief. I will not hear any aspersions cast against the WASPI women. The women whom I have met have been completely sincere. I have received much correspondence from people facing difficult and challenging circumstances.
In Waveney, 2,249 people have signed a petition and the Conservative-controlled Waveney District Council unanimously passed a motion in support of the WASPI petition. There is an injustice here that we need to correct. I acknowledge that the finances are tight, something which I fear the SNP has not taken on board, but there are times when we need to do the right thing. This is one of those times. I urge the Government to sit down with the WASPI women and engage the experts in the DWP and the Treasury to come up with a fair, considered and affordable solution.
Once again, the injustices suffered by 50s-born women at the hands of the coalition and now the current Government dominate proceedings here in Parliament. Labour Members would give our eye teeth to have the powers to help the people we represent, but, sadly, all we can do is continue to try to help the Government out of the hole they are in. This will be the fifth time in the six weeks since I took on the shadow Pensions Minister role that I have spoken in Parliament about the WASPI women’s plight, which has been created through poor communication and mismanagement. Sadly, even our low-cost option to extend pension credit to those who need it has been turned down flat by the Secretary of State and his Pensions Minister. I would have said that it had also been turned down by the Treasury, but at Work and Pensions questions last week, it was revealed that the Secretary of State had not even bothered to run it past the Treasury, so it could not even consider the matter.
As I have said before, the Pensions Minister is a decent man, but he disappointed me by failing to fight for the WASPI women and he has done so again by refusing to set up a special proactive helpline for those affected to ensure they all access the social security benefits he says are sufficient to meet their needs. Labour Members do not believe they are sufficient, and we all know that hundreds of millions of pounds—if not billions—in social security to which many people are entitled is left unclaimed because people simply do not know that they are eligible. I have no doubt that that applies to many of the 50s-born women, including members of WASPI and WASPI Voice.
Perhaps the Government need reminding of the hardship that the poorly managed changes they have put in place have caused to 2.6 million WASPI women. We have heard from one woman who had her pension age moved back and could no longer afford to pay the rent, so she went spiralling into debt and was on the verge of losing her home. We heard about another who is struggling to keep her sick husband out of care, so that they can hang on to their family home, and is doing so without the state pension income that she was planning to use to keep them going in her retirement. Many Members have outlined similar cases, which are repeated reminders of the Government’s failure.
Some of those examples were given in a full speech from the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford). It was just a shame that he had to murder the words of our national poet towards the end. The Secretary of State spoke of four principles and asked for support. We support those four principles, but principles are no good without action, and it is the WASPI women who are suffering because of the inaction.
The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) reminded us that some women never had the chance to build up contributions because of ill health or other reasons, and saw no provision for them—I do not either. My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) spoke of the turmoil of 50s-born women and of the care worker planning to help her daughter return to work by caring for her grandchildren. Neither of those things can now happen.
The hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) suggested a different equalisation—for the majority of men to become carers and to suffer the menopause. One may be possible, but I hope the other will not. She, too, wanted more action to help the older WASPI women. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) spoke of the women affected as the backbone of our country—women who have probably sacrificed more than any of us.
The hon. Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) wanted a relaxation of the rules on JSA and ESA. Will the Minister consider that idea from someone on the Conservative Benches? My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) spoke of the need for vacancies in the labour market for women. If the vacancies do not exist—and they do not in the north-east, where I am a Member, too—people cannot get a job.
We must remember that the two main campaigning groups WASPI and WASPI Voice agree with equalisation of the state pension age, but this is about the means by which that is achieved. Contrary to what the Government say, we still need fair transitional arrangements in place to support the most vulnerable, and there have been plenty of options put forward by Labour that this Conservative Government have not properly considered.
The Government are now getting themselves into a deeper hole, as one of the WASPI campaign groups is planning to mount a legal action, with their representatives preparing legal guides for women who may have intentions to pursue maladministration complaints against the Department for Work and Pensions. That will be costly, too. These women are organised and they are taking the steps that they feel are necessary to make this situation right, but the Government are burying their head in the sand, hoping that it will all go away if they ignore it for long enough. One hon. Member said earlier that if we get to 2020, it will be too late, but it will never be too late for the WASPI women.
As we near the end of this debate, it is important to remember that, through devolution, the Scottish Parliament does have the power to provide top-up benefits for people in Scotland, but it has yet to act. We have already heard that the last joint working group on welfare shows that the SNP Scottish Ministers at Holyrood do not even feel confident enough to implement any of their new social security powers quite yet and have asked for the timetable to be pushed back. I suspect that there will be no joy for the Scottish WASPI women there.
No, I will not.
Assuming that the SNP Scottish Government do have the powers to help the WASPI women, Scottish Ministers should overcome their shyness, make a real decision and agree to step in and aid the 250,000 women in Scotland. Not to do so will be seen as a missed opportunity.
The hon. Gentleman, who opened this debate, spoke for 35 minutes; I have 10 minutes.
If the Scottish National party in government in Scotland did that, it would further highlight the injustice faced by other WASPI women across the rest of the UK who would still get nothing. That is why we must have a UK-wide solution to the problem. We do not want one that sees British women in different parts of the United Kingdom treated differently on social security because of where they live.
We have said that the proposals are not fair, have not been implemented properly and are damaging the most vulnerable, but the Government have made it clear that they do not care about the plight of women up and down this country. Those women are frightened of these proposals because they do not know how they will cope. The Secretary of State spoke about the older people’s champion. We could have a champion in each and every department across the country, providing a special helpline for the women affected.
Under our proposals, we are calling on the Government to extend pension credit to those who would have been eligible under the 1995 timetable, so that women affected by the chaotic mismanagement of equalisation will be offered some support until they retire. That will make hundreds of thousands of WASPI women eligible for up to £156 a week. We will not stop there. We are developing further proposals to support as many of the WASPI women as possible. Importantly, they will be financially credible and will be based on sound evidence and supported by the WASPI women themselves.
It is disappointing that the SNP chooses to cost only the option in the Landman report—the one mentioned in the motion—to the end of this Parliament. This accounting trick has led it to promise the WASPI women that it has a long-term solution, but that is not the case. The measure will cost £8 billion until 2020, but more than £30 billion if it is to help affected women up to 2026. Sadly, this has confused the debate, when clarity was needed. As I have mentioned, if the SNP actually wanted to support the WASPI women rather than play games, it would have acted already in Scotland.
The Government could have done something in the autumn statement to support these women and then used the Pension Schemes Bill currently in the other place to put the changes into law. They still have time to do so in the new year.
I have had numerous emails, phone calls and meetings with women all over the country who are begging and pleading for Parliament to act. They are at their wits end. If they are not already suffering the full impact of the changes, they are dreading them, as they know this Government will require them to survive on very little—including those who are single or incapable of working.
My party believes in standing up for the most vulnerable, and that is what we are doing today. We will to do that tomorrow, and we will continue to support the WASPI women in this fight. For that reason, we will support the SNP motion today, but we hope to have the real cost of its proposed solution up to 2026 properly acknowledged. Only Labour is taking a detailed look at the evidence and trying to find the best way forward to help dig both the Scottish and UK Governments out of the hole they are now in. Let us make it clear once again: it is not a Scottish, English, Irish or Welsh solution that we need, but a UK-wide solution, and this Government must act.
I have to start by saying that I am feeling very, very humbled here today, because the Conservative Benches are the busiest that they have ever been for me, talking on this issue.
Unfortunately, I have to start off on a negative point. Earlier, the hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) talked about Members of Parliament finding themselves continually criticised for their point of view, whether that be on Twitter or when they meet people on the street or in their surgeries. The response to that should be for MPs to go away and reflect on whether they are in the right position and have the correct opinion. You do not turn round and call an entire fantastic, intellectual campaign hate-filled. You do not accuse them of having a hate campaign; you listen to them and you form your views.
We have debated this issue five times, I believe, so this is the fifth time I am speaking on it. It is important to reflect back on how we ended up in this position. Nearly a year ago today, I stood pretty much on this spot and argued for the WASPI campaign. I argued that this problem was happening and explained how it came about, and I tried to give the Government the benefit of the doubt. We said, “You have to accept that the Government have messed up. You have to accept that problems have been created and you have to come up with something.” It is truly an embarrassment to this House that we are still waiting on a Government plan for making this better.
The SNP went away and spent our own money to get a constructive report. We could easily have said, “Get rid of the ’95 Act altogether;” we could have said a million and one things, but instead we went away and found credible economists, put together a cracking report and tried to build a bridge that all parties in this House could cross. Instead—[Interruption.] If the Secretary of State wants to make an intervention, I am more than happy to take it. Until then, I suggest he listens.
When we put forward our report to the Government, so that they could listen to it, what was their response? In the Westminster Hall debate a couple of weeks back, the Minister said that,
“the Government’s position is very clear: this was not a contract. State pensions are technically a benefit.”—[Official Report, 15 November 2016; Vol. 617, c. 44.]
That utterly pathetic response shows that this Government are determined to wriggle out of their responsibility for these women.
A Government Member said earlier that we now say to women that they have to pay in 35 years of national insurance and that that is how they are entitled to their pension, but the women we are talking about have paid in for 40 years, for 45 years and some of them for 50 years, yet we are being told that they are still not entitled to their pension. The Government are refusing to pay women what they are owed, and I am sure that the 2.6 million women will remember that the next time they are standing at the ballot box in an election.
The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) said earlier that Germany made these changes in 2009 and he asked what the problem was with our doing it in 2011. I would point out to the hon. Gentleman—who, by the way, has a majority of 806, if I remember correctly, which I imagine consists of a lot of WASPI women who will remember his speech at the next election—that our report shows that the only other country in Europe that has made this level of change at this accelerated pace is Greece. As I said in the last debate, that is a country that a couple of weeks ago was teargassing pensioners who were campaigning and protesting against austerity measures. Is that really what we want to base our arguments on? Is that the kind of model we want to follow?
This has been said a million and one times in the debate, and I have been biting my tongue the whole way through because of the incredible hypocrisy and lack of knowledge on these Benches—I was going to say on the Conservative Benches, but now unfortunately I have to add the Labour shadow Minister to that. Scotland does not have the power over pensions. If anyone wants to dispute that, I suggest that they get the Scotland Act 1998 and go to section 28, and they will see that in all the reserved matters that we are entitled to top up, pensions is not included.
Even if we did have the power to create pensions, and to fix them, I tell you something—and I think I speak for my colleagues not just in this Chamber but up the road as well—we are sick to the back teeth of using taxpayers’ money to fill all the holes that this Government create: a Government with policies that we have never voted for in Scotland, that we actively rejected in the general election. We cannot be expected to plug every single hole that this Government create with their shambolic policies.
The Government now say, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) alluded to earlier, that they will never make changes to pensions unless people are within 10 years of reaching pension age. How can they justify that position but not do anything for these women, who have been told that they have to wait six or seven years to get their pensions?
The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) said that this was not in our manifesto. If he goes to page 21 of the 2016 manifesto for the Scottish elections, he will see it says that we support the WASPI campaign. He said that he would vote against our motion tonight because it is the younger generation who will pay—people in their 20s and 30s. I am included in that category, funnily enough, and I have to say that the issue is bigger than just the WASPI generation, because I want to know that when I am paying national insurance throughout my working lifetime, I am not going to be shafted at the last hurdle—that I am not going to be told at the last minute that the goalposts are moving. This is bigger. This is about the Government setting a precedent that pensions can change anywhere at any time, and that is not a healthy position for any Government to have.
The issue is altogether bigger than WASPI. The justification for the change is that we do not have enough money and this is about austerity. But the thing is that it is women that suffer under austerity. That is the reality; whether it be pensioners, single mothers or young women, it is always women that bear the brunt of this austerity.
On affordability, is it not the case that the Government can revisit the £20 billion of tax giveaways in the last Budget—£8.5 billion in corporation tax and £5.5 billion in capital gains, inheritance tax and higher tax threshold relief? The Government can revisit those in the forthcoming spring Budget.
My hon. Friend makes his point very eloquently.
The Women’s Budget Group has done tremendous work. I urge Ministers to look at it and see the impact that they are having on women’s lives because of the Government’s detrimental policies. The group’s director said:
“We’ve known for some time that the poorest households and women have shouldered the greatest burden of austerity measures.”
In fact, 85% of the burden is forecast to fall on women by 2020. These women are not unfortunate casualties. They are not people who just happened to get unlucky. This Government cannot claim ignorance. They cannot plead innocence and say that they have no idea of the impact that they are about to have on people’s lives. These women, for whatever reason, are suffering under Conservative policies for no other crime than the fact that they are female and they are poor. That is the reality of what this Government are doing.
The legacy that this Government are leaving is absolutely shambolic and no amount of sympathy and flowery words from hon. Members is going to pay bills for people. It is not going to move things forward; it will not make sure that your citizens have a good, high-quality standard of life. The idea that the £8 billion spread across five years, as proposed in our report, is not affordable is an absolute joke. The national insurance fund, as we have said multiple times, will be sitting on a surplus of £30 billion. That figure has been disputed from the Government Benches, but it is worth pointing out that it comes from the Government Actuary’s Department. It is a Government figure.
In every one of these debates I have said that politics is about choice, and I have lambasted the Government for choosing to bomb Syria instead of paying pensions. I have lambasted them for spending billions on Trident. I have had a go at them for doing up this Palace of Westminster for £7 billion, which funnily enough we can afford. I understand that sometimes it can be quite dull when politicians repeat things time and again, but now there is something new. We can now also afford to pay up for the Queen’s house; we can now find the money to refurbish Buckingham Palace. So my question to the Minister would be this: are we going to be doing up Downing Street anytime soon? Are there any other houses filled with millionaires that need to be done up—that need a lick of paint? It is a ridiculous notion that we can afford to fork out money for palaces—literally, palaces such as this and Buckingham Palace—but we cannae pay pensions. It is a joke.
Our job here is to represent; it is to maintain democracy, to make sure that people watching at home feel as though they have a voice, to make sure that they feel there are people listening and standing up for them. When you see the quality of the debate that we have just sat through, no wonder people are quite depressed and disillusioned with politics. We have debated this subject five times. We have had 240 petitions all across the House. People are affected by this. Every single Member who handed in a petition has not just a professional duty but a moral duty to walk through that Lobby tonight and vote with us, because if they do not, as my WASPI mother would say, hell slap it intae ye at the next election.
I have been to quite a few Opposition day debates in my six and a half years here, but I have never known one when there were no Back-Bench speeches from the party that brought the motion forward. I found that very sad. [Interruption.] I do apologise to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson)—there was one.
That does not mean that we have not heard extensively from the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), who opened the debate. He has kindly referred to me in the past as an honourable man—in fact, a principled man—and I would say exactly the same thing to him, as I would, indeed, to my shadow from the Labour party, the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham). However, they painted the Government as heartless and as people who are not interested in pensioners, and that is absolutely untrue.
We have had a lot of platitudes and clichés about how taxing millionaires more could fund the WASPI pensioners. Everybody says, “We believe in equalisation.” Everybody says what the problems are. Everybody talks of hardship. Everybody talks of examples from their constituencies. But when it comes to it, the Opposition have a licence to say anything they want—the Government have to make hard decisions. This Government and their predecessor—
I am sorry, but, for the moment, there is not time to take interventions.
Governments have to take hard decisions. The can that was kicked down the road for many years by the Labour party had to be dealt with by the coalition Government. I would just like to refer to some of the fallacies mentioned by Opposition Members. The hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, in moving the motion, talked about the 1995 Act as if there was absolutely no communication from the Government—as if the DWP and everybody else suddenly forgot to talk about it. Well, that is not true. There were leaflets produced. There was an extensive advertising campaign. There were articles in women’s papers. In addition, millions of people, who decided they were going to sort out their pension, applied, quite properly, to the DWP; in fact, more than 14 million people applied and received full details of what their pensions were. I mention that because it would appear that there was absolutely no communication whatever. After the 2011 Act, that was a direct mail campaign, where individual letters—
I will not give way. I have a very short time left.
There was actually very good communication. However, I would like to mention the various contributions we have had. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries), who was among many speakers from the Government side, said that women, including herself, were not informed following the 2011 Act. In fact, as I have just shown, millions of letters were sent between January 2012 and November 2013. She said it is difficult for women over the age of 60 to find employment, and she said nobody would employ her. Actually, more than 4 million women in her age group are in employment—more than ever.
From the Opposition, we have had the argument, which I have had to deal with on many occasions, about the state pension being a contract. It is not a view but a question of fact that the state pension is a benefit, not a contract. As my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) said, promises are cheap. The Government have to actually deal with facts.
I have much sympathy for Members who spoke of constituents who are finding it difficult to access the benefits system. [Interruption.] Someone has shouted from a sedentary position, “What are you going to do about it?” As hon. Members will be aware, and as the Secretary of State mentioned, we have a system of helping through the benefits system people who may need looking at. We have older claimants’ champions, and we are getting more of them. We will find a way to help people to find their way into the benefits system. For any constituents who are finding this difficult, if the Department can have their name, address and national insurance number—I have asked for this on many occasions—I will be very happy to personally see what the position is and get them the help they need to get through the benefits system. We hear a lot of talk from hon. Members about their constituents, but the actual factual details I get are few and far between.
Let me move on to the famous economic report from the Scots Nats. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who described it as irresponsible and inaccurate. I really could not have put it better myself, because it is, as my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire said, raising false hopes by saying to our constituents that this is a small problem that can quite easily be dealt with. I remind hon. Members that even the SNP costs this at £8 billion, and the Department, as I have written to the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, has assessed it at nearer £30 billion. We have looked at every alternative. We have looked at more than 25 options that have been mentioned to us about the WASPIs, and there simply is not a viable option, either because of cost, complexity or practicality.
The luxury of opposition is promising everybody money without having to consider how to pay for it. I view this as very irresponsible.
I must tell the House that the figures in this report, which has been produced by Landman Economics, are based on the Institute for Public Policy Research model, which has been tried and tested. It really ill behoves the House to traduce the economists who have produced these figures based on a Treasury model. When we had the debate two weeks ago, the Minister said that the cost was £14 billion. How come we have gone from £14 billion to £30 billion? It is the Government’s figures that do not make any sense.
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman—I could not hear the end of what he said because of the noise. I am not disputing that this was produced by proper economists—I accept that fact—but it is about what timescale they look at, in this case going to 2021, and how they brief. But okay, fair enough: even by the SNP’s calculations the figure is £7.9 billion, which should apparently come from millionaires or from Trident. Government is not like that; these are completely separate issues. This country has a proud record on state pensions. This Government, and the predecessor coalition before it, did not have the luxury, partly because of the economic mess Labour left us in, of kicking the can down the road and ignoring these very, very serious issues.
The benefits system is available to people, and if they are not having the access to it they should, we will help them. I give an undertaking to look at every way that the benefits system can be used to help people who are in difficulty. Contrary to what some hon. Members have said, my door is open to people so I can speak to them. I hope I have shown that. I took this job to help pensioners, not to not help pensioners. It has been irresponsible to imply—
Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the proposed words be there added.
Question agreed to.
The Deputy Speaker declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to (Standing Order No. 31(2)).
That this House welcomes the planned average rise of £550 a year for 3 million women, including those born in the 1950s, who receive the new state pension; further welcomes the increase of over £1,100 per year of the basic state pension since 2010 as the result of the triple lock, which will also benefit such women; and recognises that the state pension must reflect the welcome rise in life expectancy in order to remain sustainable for generations to come.