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Volume 627: debated on Wednesday 19 July 2017

With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement on pensions.

Last year, the Government commissioned the Government Actuary and John Cridland CBE to produce independent reports to inform the first review of the state pension age required under the Pensions Act 2014. I am grateful to Mr Cridland for his contribution in producing a thorough and comprehensive review. Over the course of his review, evidence was put forward by a wide range of people and organisations. I am grateful to everyone who took the time to engage. Today I am publishing the Government’s report on this review.

The Government are determined to deliver dignity and security in retirement, fairness across the generations, and the certainty that people need to plan for old age. In the report, I set out how we will achieve these things. As part of this publication, we have set out a coherent strategy targeted at strengthening and sustaining the UK’s pensions system for many decades to come. This is about the Government taking responsible action in response to growing demographic and fiscal pressures. That is why I am today announcing the Government’s intention to accept the key recommendation of the Cridland review and increase the state pension age from 67 to 68 over two years from 2037. This brings forward the increase by seven years from its legislated date of 2044 to 2046, in line with the recommendation made by John Cridland, and following careful consideration of the evidence on life expectancy, fairness and public finances.

When the modern state pension was introduced in 1948, a 65-year-old could expect to live for a further 13½ years. By 2007, when further legislation was introduced to increase state pension age, this had risen to around 21 years, and it is expected to be nearly 25 years in 2037. As the Cridland review makes clear, the increases in life expectancy are to be celebrated. I also want to make it clear that, even under the timetable for the rise I am announcing today, future pensioners can still expect to spend on average more than 22 years in receipt of the state pension. But increasing longevity also presents challenges for the Government. There is a balance to be struck between the funding of the state pension in years to come while also ensuring fairness for future generations of taxpayers.

The approach I am setting out today is the responsible and fair course of action. Failing to act now in the light of compelling evidence of demographic pressures would be irresponsible, and place an extremely unfair burden on younger generations. Although an ageing population means that state pension spending will rise under any of the possible timetables we have considered, the action we are taking reduces this rise by 0.4% of GDP in 2039-40. That is equivalent to a saving of around £400 per household, based on the number of households today.

Our proposed timetable will save £74 billion to 2045-46 when compared with current plans, and more than £250 billion to 2045-46 when compared with capping the rise in state pension age at 66 in 2020, as the Labour party has advocated. It is the duty of a responsible Government to keep the state pension sustainable and maintain fairness between generations. That is why the Government are aiming for the proportion of adult life spent in receipt of state pension to be “up to 32%”. This is a fair deal for current and future pensioners.

We will carry out a further review before legislating to bring forward the rise in state pension age to 68, to enable consideration of the latest life expectancy projections and to allow us to evaluate the effects of rises in state pension age already under way. This Government have a proven track record on helping people plan for their retirement. Alongside our automatic enrolment scheme, which has already brought the benefits of private pensions to nearly 10 million people since its inception, we have also set out plans to enhance the availability of impartial consumer advice through schemes such as the single financial guidance body and the pensions dashboard. Today, people have a much better idea of what their pension will be, bringing more certainty and clarity. That is something the Government will build on; making it easier for people to seek advice and make effective financial decisions.

I want Britain to be the best country in the world in which to grow old, where everyone enjoys the dignity and security they deserve in retirement. At the same time, we need to ensure that the costs of an ageing population are shared out fairly, without placing an unfair tax burden on future generations. To deliver that, we need to make responsible choices on the state pension age, and that is what the Government are doing today.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and for arranging to let me have sight of it 30 minutes ago.

Yesterday, the renowned expert on life expectancy, Professor Sir Michael Marmot, described how a century-long rise in life expectancy was

“pretty close to having ground to a halt”

since 2010, when this Government began their failing austerity programme. Last week, evidence from Public Health England showed how deep inequalities in healthy life expectancy remain, both regionally and between different groups in our society, including women, disabled people and black and minority ethnic groups. It is therefore astonishing that today this Government choose to implement their plans to speed up the state pension age increase to 68.

Most pensioners will now spend their retirement battling a toxic cocktail of ill health, with men expecting to drift into ill health at 63, five years earlier than this proposed quickened state pension age of 68, and women expecting to see signs of ill health at 64. This national picture masks even worse regional inequalities. Men who live in Nottingham are likely to suffer ill health from the age of 57, a full 11 years earlier, under this Government’s shortened plans, than a state pension age of 68. The Government talk about making Britain fairer, but their pensions policy, whether on the injustice that 1950s-born women are facing or on today’s proposal to increase the state pension age to 68, is anything but fair.

The Government claim that it is young people who will have to bear the burden of the state pension, but in fact it is the young who have to bear the burden of the cuts that they are facing already—cuts to education, housing and working age social security—as well as the Government’s endless extensions of the state pension age. Sadly, like much of the Conservatives’ policy platform, their approach to this matter appears to have changed little since their election manifesto. At that time, they promised to

“ensure that the state pension age reflects increases in life expectancy, while protecting each generation fairly.”

How does today’s statement meet the promise made in the manifesto, given the evidence on life expectancy that we have seen in the past week? What conversations has the Minister had with his new friends in the Democratic Unionist party, whose manifesto promised advocating

“for the interests of our older people”?

Perhaps, as the Pensions Minister astonishingly suggested in a debate earlier this month, the Government will force people in their mid-60s to seek out an apprenticeship. A constituent of mine, hearing that suggestion, visited our local jobcentre in Oldham, only to find that the adviser had no idea of any apprenticeship support or Government employment support available to a woman of her age. The Pensions Minister’s position was not one shared by Mr Cridland, who suggested that the social security system must be able to support those who find themselves unable to work. Perhaps Mr Cridland was unaware of the seven years of slash-and-burn policy on our social security system; the so-called “safety net” is increasingly inadequate, driving up pensioner poverty by 300,000.

Labour wants a different approach. In our manifesto, we committed to leaving the state pension age at 66 while we undertake a review into healthy life expectancy, arduous work and the potential of a flexible state pension age. We want an evidence-based approach to build a state pensions system that brings security for the many, not just the privileged few, so that we can all enjoy a healthy retirement.

Even by the standards of the Labour party, its approach to the state pension age is reckless, short-sighted and irresponsible. When the evidence in front of us shows that life expectancy will continue to increase by a little over one year every eight years that pass, fixing the state pension age at 66, as advocated by the Labour party, demonstrates a complete failure to appreciate the situation in front of us. Compared with the timetable set out by this Government, Labour’s approach will add £250 billion to national debt. Let us put that in context: it is almost twice as much as was disbursed into the financial sector following the financial crisis. Let us put it another way: spending in 2040 on the state pension would be £20 billion a year higher under Labour’s plans than under the plans we are setting out—that is almost twice the Home Office budget. Where on earth is this money coming from? Even the—[Interruption.]

Order. In fairness, I want to hear both sides so that we can make a judgment, and I am finding it very hard to hear the Minister. This is in a reply to the shadow Minister, so we all ought to be able to hear the answer.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Even the last Labour Government, who were not known for their fiscal rectitude, legislated to increase the state pension age to 68. Yet on top of a long list of unaffordable spending pledges, the Labour party now happily makes pledges on the state pension that it must know will cause unsustainable damage to the public finances.

The facts are, based on the most up-to-date evidence, and clearly set out in the Government Actuary’s report and John Cridland’s report, that life expectancy is going up. Healthy life expectancy at the age of 65 is also going up. The Government have to face up to this long-term challenge and not pretend that it does not exist. We should celebrate increased life expectancy, but it has consequences for fiscal sustainability that cannot be ignored. The Cridland review is a serious piece of work with a clear recommendation on the pension age. In contrast with the Labour party, we will act responsibly and accept that recommendation.

I commend my right hon. Friend for his statement. The Labour party used to work on a consensual basis, given the facts, but it has now departed from that. He is aware that we have a proud track record in reform, for example, in respect of automatic enrolment and the single tier. We also got rid of the default retirement age, where people were forced to retire when they did not want to do so. It is the Conservatives who have a proud record. The single figure that stands out starkly from this review is that if we do nothing about this, it will cost £250 billion more. That is not just a figure, as it will be borne by future generations, as they will have to pay excessive moneys. Given that the Labour party at the last election promised to get rid of the student debt and now reneges on that, does my right hon. Friend think that Labour will be doing the same very shortly on this one?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He makes some good points about the work the Government have done over the past seven years in terms of fuller working lives and helping more people to work longer, and he has a proud personal record in what he did on that as Secretary of State. He is absolutely right to highlight the irresponsibility of the position Labour Members had at the last election. Just as they have walked away from a deeply irresponsible position on student debt, I hope they will walk away from a deeply irresponsible position on the state pension age.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of the statement. I can see why the Department for Work and Pensions did not want to publish this report by the date it was supposed to have been published by—7 May—because it would undoubtedly have lost the Conservatives more seats than they did lose.

The SNP opposes plans to raise the state pension age above 66. We also have concerns about the fact that the Government have chosen the 32% rather than the 33.3%, which was the more gentle of the scenarios presented in the Cridland review. I am lucky enough to be a few days inside the 69 group, so I will get to retire at 69 rather than 70, which people a couple of weeks younger than me will retire at if the full extent of the 32% in the Cridland review is implemented.

The SNP continues to call for the establishment of an independent savings and pensions commission. The Government are not doing enough to recognise demographic differences across the United Kingdom, and an independent review would look at those and take them into full account.

John Cridland looked at exactly those issues and concluded that the divergence within the regions and nations on this matter was greater than the divergence between them. However, if the Scottish Government believe that there should be more support from the state for those approaching retirement age, they will have the power to provide it. If they wish to provide that support in Scotland—effectively, providing support a year or two years earlier than in the rest of the United Kingdom—they have the power to do that. I would not particularly advise them to do it, but that is their decision, and I really do not think there is a complaint to be raised with the UK Government on that front.

I commend my right hon. Friend for his statement. He is right to be tackling the issues of intergenerational fairness, but retirement is not about the state alone. What other measures, alongside this one on intergenerational fairness, will he propose to ensure that younger people can save for their retirement alongside state provision?

One thing I would highlight, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) did a moment ago, is what we have done on auto-enrolment. That means 10 million more people saving for retirement, which is a huge step forward. I am delighted with the success of auto-enrolment—the very low opt-out rates—and that is one example of how the Government are ensuring that people will have a dignified retirement, but we must remember that the public finances need to be in good order as well.

Bearing in mind regional health inequalities, what steps will the Government introduce in terms of social security to support those who will not be able to work until this later age?

As a country we spend very large sums—something like £50 billion a year—on support for people with health and disability issues, and we will obviously continue to do that. That is the best way of supporting people who have health difficulties, rather than by having a lower state pension age, which would be unaffordable.

I thank the Secretary of State, although perhaps with not too much enthusiasm, for delaying my retirement by a year. I think I am in exactly the range of people whose retirement has just been delayed. What plans does he have to learn from the issues that arose from previous increases in the retirement age about communicating to people that this change will affect them?

First, I should say that the longer we can delay my hon. Friend’s retirement, the better that will be all round.

In terms of communicating with those affected, we are giving something like 20 years’ notice today, but as we legislate in due course, it will of course be necessary to communicate properly with those who are affected. [Interruption.] It will be done properly. It is proper that we communicate with those people, and we will do so.

What steps is the Secretary of State’s Department taking to ensure that older people are not subject to the Government’s punitive sanctions regime?

The number of sanctions is down by about half in the last year. We have a welfare system that has at its heart the principle of conditionality for many benefits, and to enforce conditions it is necessary to have a sanctions regime. However, the vast majority—something like 98%—of benefit claimants are not sanctioned.

With respect to the statement, my right hon. Friend will be aware that 300 people reached the age of 100 in 1952, when Her Majesty the Queen came to the throne; last year, it was over 13,000. Is he surprised, as I am, at the irresponsibility and recklessness of the Labour party in resisting some of these measures?

I do not know whether I am surprised any more by anything that the Labour party does, but it is disappointing. The reality is that we have an ageing population, just as every similar country does. We all have to respond to the facts, and the facts are that, as the population ages, and as life expectancy—and indeed healthy life expectancy—improves, it is necessary for the state pension age to reflect that. To deny that is just to deny common sense.

I had hoped that the Minister was coming here today because he had seen the light; that he had realised that the women from the 1950s have been dealt a terrible set of cards by this Government; that he was going to compensate them; that he was going to make good on the injustice that has been done to them; that he was going to make sure that every single person who was not even notified by the Government that they would be caught by the proposed measures would be compensated; and that he was finally going to acknowledge that women in my constituency who are in their 60s, who say to me that they are completely clapped out because they have had tough, laborious jobs all their lives, are the very people one of his Ministers said should now take up an apprenticeship. How dull are Ministers?

I am not sure I would want to call my constituents clapped out, but there we go. The position when it comes to those born in the 1950s, just as with this announcement on those born in the 1970s, is that we have to balance the need and the desire to provide a dignified retirement with the fact that state pensions have to be paid for, and it is unfair on taxpayers if we do not have a state pension age that reflects life expectancy. That is all we are saying, and it seems to me to be very hard to argue against.

The Secretary of State is absolutely right to go ahead with the main recommendation in the Cridland report, which, critically, gives advance notice of more than 20 years to those who will be affected, thereby distinguishing this Government’s record from that of the previous Labour Government, who failed to communicate adequately their changes to women’s state pension provision. Will my right hon. Friend confirm, first, that there will be a comprehensive communication programme to make sure everybody knows about these changes in advance and, secondly, whether the Government accept the Cridland report’s other recommendations, on means-tested benefits, working past the state pension age and the auto-enrolment review?

We are looking carefully at the other Cridland recommendations. Obviously, there are issues that have an impact across Government, but it is right to move swiftly on the key recommendation—on the state pension age—to give people as much advance notice as possible. However, my hon. Friend makes a good point about the communication process and so on, and those things will need to be determined nearer the time. As I said, we are 20 years away from the point at which this change takes effect, but we are determined to ensure that it is brought to the attention of all those who are affected.

On the issue of the WASPI women raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), the essence of their complaint, in some respects, is the fact that some of them were not even notified of the change that had occurred. Some were notified late, some were notified after it happened, and some received no notification at all. This point has been put time and again to the Government, and it is about time they came up with an answer to it. Instead of driving the WASPI women to take court action, why do not the Government give them a fair deal?

Some 5 million letters were sent out to the addresses that the Government had. As I say, the changes made in the 1995 Act were many, many years in advance of when they took effect. None of those women born in the 1950s had had their state pension age put back by more than 18 months by the Pensions Act 2011.

Demographic pressures are felt acutely across East Sussex, where we have the most 85-year-olds, most of whom live in my constituency. With life expectancy increasing at birth and at older ages, can my right hon. Friend confirm that, looking ahead, people, including those who live in my constituency, can expect to receive more state pension over their lifetimes than generations before?

That is absolutely right. Looking ahead, every generation will spend more years, on average, receiving a state pension than the previous generation. That is a very good thing, but it is right that we get the balance right. If Governments do not address this issue, we end up with a crisis, end up having to move quickly, and end up with sharp increases in the state pension age. That is what we are avoiding through the responsible approach we are taking today.

I am the father of three young daughters. Office for National Statistics figures say that one of them will live to be 100, and that by the time they retire, there will be only two workers in this country for every retired person. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is blindingly obvious that we need to take the steps that he has outlined today? It should not be a cause of regret—it should be a cause of celebration that our children and grandchildren are going to live to such a grand old age—and it should be treated on a cross-party basis as the perfectly responsible action that any Government should be taking.

My hon. Friend puts it very well. It is a cause of celebration that life expectancy is improving, but along with changes in life expectancy, inevitably, there are changes in the state pension age, as the change announced today demonstrates.

Does the Secretary of State agree that thanks to the financial responsibility shown hitherto, we have managed in the past seven years to increase state pensions quite generously by £1,250 a year, and that is why pensioner poverty has gone down?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In order to do that, we need to take responsible decisions on the public finances as a whole, including on the state pension age. That is what we will continue to do, even if we will not get Labour’s support.

As someone who had their state pension age increased to 68 back in 2007, along with everyone slightly older than me and everyone younger than me, I have listened with incredulity to some of the comments made this afternoon. How does this compare with the situation in other countries—for example, the Republic of Ireland? Presumably it is not just a challenge unique to the United Kingdom.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are seeing increases in the state pension age in the Republic of Ireland, in the Netherlands, and in Denmark. It is what responsible Governments do and what responsible parties support. Unfortunately we have only one responsible party in this country.

I pay tribute to the Cridland report, which is, in part, as excellent as it is because John Cridland was educated at Boston Grammar School in my constituency. Does the Secretary of State agree that by taking responsible, brave decisions, and having reviews such as the Cridland review, we avoid the situation that countries such as Italy find themselves in, where the pension age has to be increased, in one go, by four and a half years? This is the responsible thing to do and the fair thing to do.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We could have put this off, failed to address it, or kicked it into the long grass, but it is important for the future of this country that we have a Government who are prepared to take these long-term decisions, securing intergenerational fairness and ensuring that we provide more certainty to pensioners that there will not be the need for the sudden changes that may be seen elsewhere.