I beg to move,
That this House has considered the state pension age.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am not minded to take many interventions, because I have a lengthy set of remarks, and I want as many colleagues to be able to speak as possible.
It is a pleasure for me to lead my first Westminster Hall debate since being elected to serve the people of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill in June. I am grateful to colleagues for joining me this afternoon. It demonstrates our collective commitment to older citizens in the four nations that make up our United Kingdom. I want to talk about the sort of policies we need to see to honour that commitment to our older people.
I have initiated this debate for many reasons, which I will set out in my remarks. The main motive is to highlight the fact that all sections of our community are feeling the effects of the decisions made by this Tory Government. For example, we had a debate two weeks ago on lowering the voting age and empowering our young people. I was there to support the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) and was disappointed to see the Tories talk it out.
Today, I hope our debate will highlight the rough deal that those reaching pension age in our country have been dealt. We have a social security system at breaking point, with local authorities being asked to lead the provision of social care but at the same time having their hands tied behind their backs by this Government. We are seeing older people staying in their own homes, often without the support to downsize to a small property if needed or even find the basic help and assistance needed to stay in their own home.
I remember the Tory slogans and arguments from the general election. They were heard loud and clear in the United Kingdom. This Conservative Government, and particularly the Prime Minister, say they want to build a country that works for everyone. It is very clear to me and many Opposition Members and, through us, the people we represent, that the truth is that the Prime Minister and her Government are building a country where working people are pushed to breaking point. The only thing working is the clock ticking on their time in Downing Street.
Let us be clear: the Tories, backed by the Democratic Unionist party, are asking the British people to work longer—I say this very clearly—to pay for failed Tory austerity measures and their internal obsession with a hard Brexit. Parliament has a responsibility to call the Government out on this, and that is why we are here today.
When I was elected to this House, I made a pledge that not only was I on a five-year career break from my job at Royal Mail but, importantly, I was going to stand up loud and proud for working people. I promised to do all I could to ensure that the arguments for better pay, better working conditions, decent support rules and regulations and a secure retirement are heard loud in Parliament and across Whitehall. I stand by that commitment today.
I am delighted that my party has committed to maintaining the state pension age at 66 years of age, while a review takes place to look at the most recent evidence on life expectancy, healthy life expectancy and the impact of a higher retirement age on those working in jobs with long hours. These are hard-working people with low pay who are often on the frontline, providing much needed public services. The longer people live, the better and more organised Government need to be when it comes to providing for all our people. It is a matter of political will. We can provide for all our people—young and old—if we choose to and if we want to. This Tory Government have the ability to act, but we have to ask, do they want to? If we close tax loopholes, scrap unnecessary vanity projects and work hard for a deal on Brexit that sees Britain retain the benefits of the customs union and the single market, we can fund a decent retirement for all our workers.
From the 1940s until 2010, the state pension age was 60 for women and 65 for men. Colleagues will know that three different pieces of legislation saw the state pension age increased in 1995, 2007 and 2011. That was done without any meaningful engagement. I have been in the House for six months, so I was not here to have my say on that, but I am having it now.
One recent report on public health I read described how the average pensioner will now have to deal with a “toxic cocktail” of ill health throughout their whole retirement and for some considerable years before they retire. That is not how things should be in one of the largest economies in the world. I support calls from my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, for a new review of the pension age and a rejection of the Tory proposals to increase the state pension age above and beyond 66, as it will be by 2020. I do not want to see thousands of older people with serious health conditions pushed into old-age poverty, living on state benefits before they are entitled to officially retire. I hope other Members will join those calls.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. The John Cridland report recommended that the pension age should extend to 70. Does he agree that we need an evidence base on the impact that will have? In nations where people work longer, they have proper flexibility in their work and career breaks built in. They prepare for their pensions from day one of work, as opposed to reaching the retirement age and then finding it falsely extended. Will my hon. Friend comment on that?
I support those points.
I have spent my career to date working for Royal Mail. Those 30 years saw early mornings—in Scotland, cold mornings—and lots of stairs and walking. I am lucky; I am now a Member of this House and spend more time being able to rest my knees, but many of the men and women I worked with are getting older. We all are, and age has an impact on our ability to do our job.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. There is a particular issue regarding women, which I hope he will come to. We have had six or seven debates on the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign and the position of those women. Does he agree that women in this country are bearing the burden of the recession, let alone some of the other problems they have? Many of those women were not able to plan for their retirement because the Government created this situation. Many of them have elderly parents and need to look after them, which is causing severe hardship. Does he agree?
I will come to the WASPI situation later on.
I now have a platform to speak up for the people I worked with, who are still working until the age of 66, 68 and beyond, and their rights and futures and the future of all working people. That is why I am here. The same goes for the nurses that keep us, our families and constituents alive, the firefighters who do what they can to keep us safe from horrific events like Grenfell and the policemen and women who keep our communities safe.
We need to be realistic. At 68, we will not be as fast running down the road chasing criminals or as alert and awake on a night shift in our hospitals. This is real talk, and it needs to be heard. That is my view and the view of the people I talk to in the streets.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about the nature and legacy of work, particularly in working-class areas, and how those people rely on the state pension to a disproportionate degree. We have neighbouring constituencies. There is a 15% higher premature mortality rate in Glasgow. Indeed, one in four Glaswegian men will not reach their 65th birthday. That is the reality people face in Glasgow. If the state pension age goes up, those people will be disproportionately affected, and that would be shameful.
I agree and thank my hon. Friend for making that point. In Scotland, life does seem a wee bit harder and people experience more wear and tear.
What a disgraceful situation we are in. The Government not only want our public sector workers, those on the frontline, to work longer, but refuse to lift fully the public sector pay cap. Since 2010, NHS professionals such as paramedics have seen their pay fall by £3,800 a year, firefighters are down nearly £2,900 and nuclear engineers and teachers are down approximately £2,500 a year.
The Government recently announced that the public sector pay cap would be lifted for police and prison officers. It is a disgrace to play off worker against worker. I strongly condemn a sector-by-sector pay rise. I did not come to this House to sit back and stay silent when such games are played. Shame on the Government! Tomorrow, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will give his Budget. I call on him, even at this late stage, to do the right thing and lift the public sector pay cap not just for certain public sector workers, but for all public sector workers.
The WASPI women have been mentioned. Those inspirational women are fighting for fairness; they are the Women Against State Pension Inequality. I wholeheartedly support their calls for fairness, for action and for a basic level of decency and respect.
I thank my hon. Friend for being generous in taking interventions. I speak to many of my constituents about that unfairness in the state pension age increases. Does my hon. Friend agree that what compounds the unfairness is that many of those women, when they were in work, did highly physically demanding, low-paid work and they had to fight just to be paid equally for that work?
Yes, I do. For your sake, Mr Hollobone, I point out that I will not take any more interventions and will finish my speech, but I thank my hon. Friend for making that point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) has applied to the Backbench Business Committee for a debate on the WASPI women. I am a sponsor of that request, along with my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) and hon. Members in other parties. I very much hope for a full debate on the issues and a vote on the Floor of the House. I believe that comments on the WASPI issue are best made in a debate such as that, but I will say a couple of words here.
First, the lack of communication from the Government to the women affected was crazy. The Cridland review recommended that the Government wrote directly and in time to the women affected by changes to the state pension age. Secondly, things do not have to be this way; we should not have citizens of our country paying a price because of their date of birth.
I thank my hon. Friend for his generosity in giving way. He came before me and the other members of the Backbench Business Committee last Tuesday to ask for the debate, as he said. Today we met and we have allocated a debate, with his divisible motion, for 14 December, if the Committee is allocated time on that day, which has not yet been confirmed. I hope that that is the news that my hon. Friend was looking for.
I am very glad that I took that intervention; I thank my hon. Friend for that news. I am sure that the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) will feel the same.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House rightly feel strongly about the impact of changes to the state pension age on women who are affected purely because of their date of birth. That is obviously not fair or appropriate. We need to see action, and I hope that we will see action now that my good friend has mentioned the date for the debate.
I want to mention the social care crisis in our country. The longer people work, the more likely they are to be pushed to breaking point, and therefore the demands on our fragile and under-resourced social care system become even more pressing. However, the issue is not just those in work, but those out of work. If older people are out of work because of long-term conditions or ill health caused by their occupation and are currently able to claim their state pension, that is good. It maintains dignity and respect. But what happens to those who now see their ability to claim their pension pushed further away? What safety network is in place for those older people not able to work?
I am also concerned by the roll-out of universal credit and older people being pushed on to universal credit. It has already failed and has the potential to cause real and lasting damage.
I am very grateful to Age UK for its briefing on the issues facing older people in our country. Like Age UK, I recognise that we need to look at the pension age, but we need to do so properly, fairly and effectively. I am pleased that 13 years of good Labour government saw pensioner poverty fall, but I fear that that trend is in reverse. Some 1.9 million pensioners live in poverty across our United Kingdom, and figures show that 25% of the over-65s find it hard to make ends meet. It is important to remember that 37% of women, and about 20% of men, between the ages of 55 and 64 do not have a private pension.
Let me make it clear: the state pension remains the most important source of income for the majority of pensioners, and any increase in the state pension age will present many challenges for people who already have difficulty working longer. Hon. Members on both sides of the House, representing seats in all four nations that make up the UK, will know the pressures that local government funding cuts have placed on councils’ ability to deliver decent, funded and effective social care provision.
I echo the comments made by Baroness Thornton in the other place. She made an important set of remarks in a debate on the human rights of older people that was introduced by Lord Foulkes of Cumnock. She noted:
“Human rights do not lessen with age.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 November 2017; Vol. 785, c. 2206.]
It is a human right to have a decent retirement, and in my view it is a human right to have a decent state pension too. I also echo Baroness Thornton’s comments regarding the injustice done to all women born in the 1950s who are affected by the changes to the state pension laws in the Pensions Acts of both 1995 and 2011. I hope that the Minister will give some indication in his response of what the Government plan to do about that. Will there be any transitional arrangements for the women affected? I might say, as a new parliamentarian, how delighted I am that the WASPI women are seeking a parliamentary solution; they are right to do so.
I called this debate because I want this House to discuss the pension age, but also the issues related to any increase. It will not happen in isolation, and we need to consider the impact of any decisions taken on every part of public life. I am committed to fighting for a better deal for our young people, not just in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill but across the country. I am equally determined to fight for a better deal for our older people, and I hope that this afternoon’s debate will be the start of that.
The debate lasts until 5.30 pm. I will start to call the Front Benchers at seven minutes past 5, with the guideline limits being five minutes for the Scottish National party spokesman, five minutes for the Opposition spokesman and 10 minutes for the Minister. Mr Gaffney gets two minutes at the end to sum up the debate, and six hon. Members wish to speak, so I will have to impose a time limit of three minutes, which will ensure that everyone gets a chance to contribute.
Another day, another WASPI debate, albeit by another name. Still the Government remain intransigent, still we who know this is wrong remain hopeful and still the WASPI women fight on. Today, I ask the Minister not to talk about apprenticeship programmes for WASPI women. I ask him not to talk in a circuitous way about how we are all living longer, which is often trotted out—the great, “You know we’re all living longer, blah, blah, blah.” That bears no relation to what is being debated and what the WASPI women want to be debated, which is that women born in the 1950s were given little or no notice that their pensions would be delayed by several years.
That means retirement plans thrown into chaos, caring responsibilities presumably to be ignored and, for women who have worked their whole lives, financial hardship on a scale that is simply unacceptable. No cognisance seems to have been taken of the fact that this also hits the generation of women which suffered from pay inequality relative to their male counterparts, so this is a cruel double whammy—one that has hit 4,800 of my constituents in North Ayrshire and Arran very hard.
I am tired of the endless debates on this issue. Any fair-minded person would agree that this is a huge injustice. Let us get on and sort it out. The WASPI women, as I am sure the Minister knows, are not going to stop their campaign, because they are in the right and they know it. It is the Government who must change their position. I keep saying this: WASPI women are not going to go away, because there is nowhere for them to go. It is their money; they paid into their pensions in good faith and it is morally correct for the Government to pay out.
I know that the Minister knows, but I remind him that this is not pin money; these are pensions that those women have paid for and they need it for rent, food and basic necessities. The fact that the Government have so far turned a deaf ear to these women and all these cries of injustice shows that the Government have a brass neck. If this injustice is not addressed, the Government really should hang their heads in shame. We need to have a grown-up debate about pensions—of course we do—but until this is sorted out, we are whistling in the wind. I urge the Minister to put this outrage right.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) on setting the scene. We are all here for a purpose: to speak out on behalf of those who are disadvantaged through the pension scheme. I am very pleased to be here as a member of the Democratic Unionist party and express the view that many others will express in this Chamber.
I want to speak out specifically for those women born in the 1950s who are having to work longer and longer. Just last week my colleagues in our DUP group met with the WASPI women and had a good chat and discussion with them; we had a very constructive and positive meeting. We are here to underline the fact that we agreed that this massive jump from expecting a pension at the age of 60 to having to wait until 66 is a terrible gap to bridge.
I read a Northern Ireland Assembly report focusing on women’s economic transition to retirement, which was released in September and clearly outlined the changes in Northern Ireland. Life expectancy in Northern Ireland has increased by nine years for men and seven years for women. Just to give a bit of perspective, that places women at the forefront of demographic ageing and makes them particularly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of demographically driven policy change. They have on average poorer career progression, higher rates of casual, part-time and low-status work, and receive lower pay. We cannot ignore that.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. On the issue of life expectancy, does he agree that while we need to resolve the issue of the WASPI women now, this Government and future Governments need to think long term, rather than reacting to immediate pressures in the short term?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I agree with him.
All those things for ladies are exacerbated by poor availability of affordable childcare, especially in Northern Ireland. Women also make up the majority of those receiving later life care and the majority of those providing it. This makes them doubly vulnerable, as receivers of low pay or no pay, both on the frontline of late-life care and as the clientele of a social service and care system under increasing pressure.
I understand that the finances are stretched, but I also see the human side of women in their mid-60s who scrub floors for a living or do heavy lifting in care in the community, who have no plan in place and are now expected to work to an age at which it is almost impossible to do their job. Will the Minister say where these women can source a job which it is possible for them to do and whether his Department will take responsibility for transferring those women who have done manual labour all their life and are no longer fit to do so, but who are expected to work? These women need help, and we are looking to the Government to step in and provide the necessary interim support for a generation of women who feel cheated and lost in the mayhem of a system that is all new to them. We have put them on this journey—I say “we”, but it is the Government—and we must help them through it, and currently that is not being done.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) on securing this profoundly important debate.
The state pension age has been discussed for over 70 years. I appreciate that we only have an hour to add meaningful contributions, which is why I wish to speak about the handling of the state pension age. As hon. Members are aware, both the Pensions Act 1995 and the Pensions Act 2007 looked to stagger the equalisation of the state pension age over a series of years. Regrettably, there has been an unfair acceleration of this process, trapping half a million women, who must wait at least an extra year to receive their state pension. It is estimated that over 6,000 women in my constituency of East Lothian alone have been affected.
Let me make it clear: this is not about the principle of equalising the state pension age; it is about the practical roll-out of the policy. In 2005, the Pensions Commission argued that any planned increase to the state pension age should carry at least 15 years notice, the same timeframe that was contained in the 1995 Act. The 2014 Pensions Act established, however, that 10 years notice of state pension age increase was appropriate, and the Pensions Act 2011 gave just five years to plan for these changes. Age UK have been very clear on this, saying that it gives
“insufficient time to prepare for retirement.”
There is also the question of how the information was brought to the attention of those affected.
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point about the notification period that people have been given. Does he agree that it is a scandal that women such as my constituent Winifred Setzekorn only found out about the increase in their state pension age four years before turning 60?
Absolutely, and the point is very well made.
Across the UK, the profound unfairness of the changes has influenced and empowered local action groups working under the WASPI campaign. This debate was sought not only because of the inherent unfairness of the accelerated change, but because it offers an opportunity to pay credit to the diligence of some of the WASPI women in the work they do—women such as Pat Milligan, a local WASPI co-ordinator in East Lothian, who puts it far better and more eloquently than I. She tells those women she meets who have been trapped by these changes that they need to be active, write to the Minister and take their complaint to the Government. In her words:
“This is your pension; this is your fight.”
I am therefore tentatively pleased that the Minister has promised to create a dedicated team to handle these complaints, but it will be interesting to see what response complainants get.
On a wider note, the way that we parliamentarians handle this issue is also critical. Among the 6,000 women affected in East Lothian, those aged between 60 and 62 will see their incomes fall disastrously.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. In pension terms, what we have witnessed over recent years is an attempt to take away dignity in old age. The plans formulated to take the pensionable age beyond 65, 66 and, now, 67 simply outline this Government’s direction of travel. For any national pension scheme, dignity should be at the heart of retirement. Speaking for the Scottish National Party: that is where our values lie.
My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black), for example, has been at the sharp end of the debate on behalf of the WASPI women, as we all have. Despite the calls for fairness and dignity for the WASPI women, despite the majority of MPs saying that they would support the WASPI women in a vote, we are still in the situation that women born in the 1950s are expected to work beyond their original pensionable age and are having to work into their retirement years—those who still can.
For a Pensions Minister to come to this Chamber, as he did last July, to suggest that women get themselves an apprenticeship at the age of 63 or 64 is laughable and shows how much this Government appreciate the difficulties that people have adjusting to retirement.
Does my hon. Friend agree that my constituents, such as Lorraine McColl and Nancy Rea, who have campaigned relentlessly for the past two and a half years since I became an MP, have yet to hear any satisfactory response from this Government? I thank the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) for securing this debate, but how long must we continue endlessly to have this debate?
It certainly feels like, “How long is a piece of string?”, because this debate has gone on and on. Frankly, some of the conditions and situations described by other Members are totally unacceptable.
As my hon. Friend points out, it is absolutely ridiculous that women born in the ’50s have to wait for another six years before they can collect their deferred wages through the state pension. The situation is not getting any better; in fact, it is getting worse. The Cridland review recommended that the expected rise in the state pension age to 68 be brought forward to 2037. For many hard-working Scots, whose life expectancy is not high because of historical and deeply ingrained health challenges, this means fewer years for them to enjoy their retirement. The picture is no different in parts of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, where industrial injuries and a high level of poverty impact on life expectancy. At no point were the Scottish Government, which raised the issues with the Cridland commission, given the opportunity to put their point forward in a proper consultation on this proposal. Again, that is totally unacceptable from the point of view of Scottish pensioners.
It is an honour to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I am sure that many of the Members present have had the same experience as I have in representing their constituents: that woman after woman born in the 1950s has come and told them stories about having planned for their pension since they were young and having put money aside. In one case, someone took redundancy from a well-paid white-collar job because she would get her pension in two years, only to discover that that was not the case. In the intervening years, the savings that she had built up for her pension and the redundancy money that would have seen her through those two years had been spent. That constituent is now out working two jobs in order to make ends meet.
Regardless of what the Government might think, there is no class divide, no voter divide and no geographical divide in this. The mismanagement of the introduction of the new pension ages has trapped women all over Scotland and the United Kingdom in a poverty trap. They are being pushed into hardship by mismanagement. As my colleagues have said, we come here time after time, we make the same case, which is completely justifiable, and we hear nothing back from the Government.
An all-party parliamentary group Bill will come before the House in April next year. I hope that on that occasion, Members on both sides of the House will remember that this is not a political issue: it is about justice. It is about justice for women who were unfortunate enough to be born in the 1950s, who suffered the mismanagement of the introduction of a change in the pension age, and are now in circumstances over which they had no control. We do have control; we can change it, and I hope that every Member in the House will remember that when it comes time to vote.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I sincerely hope to see movement from the Government on the default retirement age for civil nuclear police, which is an issue that has remained unresolved for far too long, as has the unresolved matter of overseas pensions freezes, but for the purposes of this speech, I will focus on another epic struggle: WASPI. In Hartlepool, an estimated 5,500 women have lost out thanks to changes to the state pension age. Women in the town who were born between December 1953 and October 1954 and expected to retire at 60 now have to wait 18 months or two years longer to draw their state pension. For my constituents, many of whom have contributed to this scheme for 44 years and expected to retire at 60, this is simply not acceptable, and in some cases is causing genuine hardship—including, for one of my constituents, the forced sale of her home. The women were either given no notice of the changes by the Government or given inadequate notice, and the changes are causing a lot of worry and anger. It will be the poorest women who suffer the most as a result of the Government’s implementation of the changes to the state pension scheme, and I for one stand shoulder to shoulder with the Women Against State Pension Inequality activists, who are rightly challenging this injustice.
In 2013, my predecessor Iain Wright said that,
“many of the women affected by these…changes might have worked part time to raise families and might have not had the opportunity to pay into an occupational scheme. Women in Hartlepool…who are often the foundation of a household’s budget, are certainly not in a position to prepare properly for a sudden two year rise in their pension age”.
Sadly, it is now 2017 and the fight goes on. I fully support the WASPI women, as does my local authority, passing a resolution as recently as October this year demanding Government intervention to help.
I have many constituents who have come to me for help, and many of them are WASPI women. They are nearing pension age but many of them have had to leave work early because of physically, mentally and emotionally demanding jobs, and they are really struggling. Many of them are also facing the difficulty of the fully digital universal credit system. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government are victimising, and making life harder for, our mature citizens?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and it is a point well made.
Hartlepool women who have been left worst off will not be able to afford to bridge the pension gap. The WASPI campaign recognises that the equalisation of the state pension age is necessary, but the manner in which it has been introduced has been unfair, unjust and has had devastating consequences for the retirement plans of thousands of women in Hartlepool and millions across the country. I strongly support the demand for this matter to be debated in the Chamber and voted on so that this intolerable situation can be resolved once and for all if the Government continue to refuse to take action. I am not so well, Mr Hollobone, so I do apologise for my manner.
Thank you. We now come to the first of the Front-Bench speeches. The guideline limits are five minutes for the SNP, five minutes for the Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister.
Because of the constraints on time, I will rattle through this fairly quickly. We have basically got three main concerns that are relevant to this debate.
First, we want to make it clear that we oppose plans to increase the pensionable age beyond 66. That is a reckless move just now, and is not reflective of how long people are really living. The other element—which was touched on by the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), who I am very grateful to for securing this debate—is that Scotland has a very different demographic to many other parts of the UK. Even within the UK, we have different demographics in different areas. As was mentioned, some people in Glasgow barely see their 65th birthday, never mind live long enough to receive the pension that they have paid into.
This is a very important debate, and women play a considerable role in society, but will the hon. Lady accept that statistics from the National Records of Scotland put the life expectancy for women higher than that for men? In fact, it is 77 years for baby boys and 81 years for girls.
No, and I will tell the hon. Lady why. Yes, I recognise that physically human beings are living longer, but the inequalities that exist within our society are not moving with that. We have a situation where some folk in Glasgow or Paisley barely see their 50th birthday. They are doing well if they get to 65. That is the reality for many of our constituents and it has to be reflected when we make new policy.
When I first laid eyes on the issue of pensions, when I was elected, I just thought, “This is such a mess.” What strikes me most about the issue is that I do not think the Government have sat and cruelly decided who the most vulnerable people are and how they can attack them; I do not think that has happened. What I think has happened is that we have realised that pensions have become a bit of a mess, and we are so worried about—I do not know—what Channel 4 is going to report the next day or whatever, that we have to grab the headlines and have to be seen to be doing something good. All that is doing is trying to stuff this big problem back into the closet, rather than taking it out and going, “Let’s have a serious look at this.” That is what I had hoped the Cridland review would do. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), the Scottish Government and I made many appeals to the Cridland review, raising our concerns about how the rise in the pensionable age could affect different areas. It is really disheartening to see it so swiftly dismissed, considering how big an aspect it is of the lives of my constituents.
Secondly—surprise!—I want to touch on the issue of the WASPI women. I have honestly lost count of the number of debates we have had on this issue, so I will not do the usual stuff of saying how terrible that is, because I have accepted that that is just how this place works, but I will say that this is a real chance to get something right with pensions. It is not a political thing. I know that many Conservative Members will say, “The WASPI women are just a stick that the Opposition are using to beat us with,” but it is not. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) said earlier, this issue is affecting women in every constituency from all different backgrounds. Their only crime is that they were born in the ’50s. That is unjust, and it cannot be allowed to happen. The Government should do something right and inspire us a wee bit. They should do something good for pensions. When we add to that a further rise in the pension age, when they have not even dealt with the WASPI women, it is downright insulting and shows that the Government are putting the final nail in their coffin in terms of pensioners. If this issue is not dealt with, people will remember.
The third thing I want to touch on is frozen pensions. I met the International Consortium of British Pensioners and, to be honest, my knowledge at first was very much on the surface. The group explained that this is not just a bunch of pensioners who went away to Spain, to the Costa del Sol. These are people who, when they were of working age, were encouraged to go to Commonwealth countries. They were offered work and deals and told, “Go, and the bonus is that you will retire in sunshine. Brilliant—go!”, but because of some ancient bilateral agreements, we now have people in Canada and Australia whose pensions are still at the same rate as they were when they left in the ’70s. It is so mad that their pensions get uprated when they physically land here. A guy was in the UK for two weeks and his pension was uprated because he was physically here. It is ludicrous.
I am conscious of the time, so let me just say this: pensions are a mess. Please work with us to get it right.
Mr Hollobone, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, which has seen more than a dozen people take part in this short debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) on securing his first of many Westminster Hall debates. I very much believe that he is loud and proud. I love that voice, which reminds me so much of home, although I left the area when he was just three years old. He made an excellent speech; it was a trip right through the social security system and how it is failing so many of our people.
We could talk about many things today, from the plight of the ’50s-born women whom the Government are continuing to ignore, to the ill-advised increase in the state pension age that was brought in by the Tory Government and which hits the poorest and most vulnerable people hardest. Several Members have addressed the WASPI issue and the Minister will probably be pleased to hear that I will not dwell on the ’50s-born women. However, as I said in the House last week, this issue will not go away and the Government need to act, starting with an extension to pension credit, giving women the option to claim their state pension two years earlier at a slightly reduced rate. That is not a complete solution, but it would provide something for that very wronged group.
Then we have the issue of increasing the state pension age. Age UK said that it is reasonable to look at the state pension age as longevity increases, but it needs to be accompanied by support to enable people to work longer and protection for those who cannot. I share Age UK’s view, but I must stress that longevity is not enough. We need to consider quality of life and health. That said, University College London’s Sir Michael Marmot says that increases in life expectancy have slowed down or halted, but even if we might be living a little longer but not living healthily for any longer, increasing the state pension age is bad news, particularly for the poorest in our country and those with ill health.
The inequalities are not illustrated better anywhere than in my constituency, where a man in the poorest ward can expect to live 16.4 years less on average than a man in the most affluent ward. The man in the poor ward may have started work at 16 and paid national insurance contributions throughout his adult life, and is more likely to have been in a physically demanding job and to have experienced ill health at a younger age. He may even be lucky to get the state pension for a handful of years before dying. Contrast that with a more affluent, professional person, who may not have started work until his 20s, who retired at 60 because he could afford to, and who then picked up his state pension when he was still fit and healthy enough to enjoy it. The manual worker will have worked more years and may have paid contributions for 50 years—perhaps 10 more than the professional. How is that just? How is that fair? We have heard that people die younger, and the illustration from Glasgow of somebody dying aged 63 and never reaching state pension age is very relevant.
The Cridland review, which will effectively cost 7 million people £10,000 each, failed to come up with an answer to this question, but even John Cridland spoke of the need for greater support for people in hard physical jobs that offer them limited chance, if any, of a few years of healthy retirement.
We have not yet heard anything from the hon. Gentleman about costs. Does he accept that unless we raise the retirement age, the system of paying for the state pension will be financially unsustainable?
Cost will always be an issue, but some have made the point that we need to base decisions on fact and new data. The data are changing. People will not necessarily live longer, so the cost might not be higher in the longer run.
We believe that we should have a variable state pension age whereby a person’s work background, health and income are considered, with their retirement age being based on their life expectancy, not just the national average. The proposal to raise the state pension age even further all but wipes out the chances of many of our people enjoying a few years of retirement in good health. The state pension should be flexible and recognise the contribution that people have made to our country, and the system should be designed to work for everyone.
I really worry about the pressure facing older people in our country. The cost of living is going up and their pension is getting further away. At the same time, many are unwell and unable to work, or they may be caring for even more elderly parents or young children, making a very different but relevant contribution.
I wonder whether the Minister is even aware that 1.9 million pensioners now live below the poverty line. That means more struggling older people on social security and extra strain on the NHS when vulnerable people are living in poverty, all within a system that has seen that value of income shrink since 2010. I referred to older people with caring responsibilities. Many will fall short of the 35 years of contributions that are needed to secure a full pension. We need to do things for all those people, for all the different groups in our community, because that would be the fair and right thing to do.
If the Minister can finish his remarks no later than 5.27 pm, Mr Gaffney will have time to sum up.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) on securing today’s debate on the state pension age and welcome him to what I think is his first debate here.
Since world war 2, we have seen dramatic changes in life expectancy. We are living longer and staying healthier for longer, and we are leading far more active lifestyles, regardless of our age. Although increasing longevity is to be celebrated, we must also be realistic about the demographic and fiscal challenges that that creates for us as a society. Faced with significant increases in life expectancy and compelling evidence of demographic pressures, it is right that successive Governments took action to secure the affordability and sustainability of the state pension system for current and future generations.
To answer the point raised by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), who wanted us to think long term, in July the Government published their first review of the state pension age, setting out a coherent strategy targeted at strengthening and sustaining the UK’s state pension system for many decades to come. It accepts the key recommendations of John Cridland’s independent review, which consulted a wide range of people and organisations, proposing that the state pension age be increased from 67 to 68 in the years 2037 to 2039.
The Cridland review was independent and is very clear. It stated:
“In 1917 the first telegrams to those celebrating their 100th birthday”
were sent. There were 24 that year. The review continued:
“In 2016 around 6,000 people will have received a card from Her Majesty the Queen. In 2050, we expect over 56,000 people to reach this milestone. Three factors are at play here: a growing population; an ageing population as the Baby Boomers retire; and an unprecedented increase in life expectancy. A baby girl born in 2017 can expect to live to be 94 years and a boy to be 91. By 2047 it could well be 98 and 95 respectively.”
The reality, therefore, is that the
“world of the Third Age is now a very different one”
and that those who receive the state pension
“will on average spend…a third of their adult life in retirement, a proportion never before reached.”
Given that the Minister has spent so long talking about life expectancy, will he do me the honour of telling the House what the life expectancy in Glasgow East is?
The reality is that life expectancy has increased repeatedly across the country—[Interruption.] It most definitely has increased across the country in all socioeconomic groups over the past 30 years, and for all constituent countries of the UK. Mr Cridland, who was independent, did extensive work on that point, concluding that a universal state pension age remained the best system, and the Government agree with that point.
The Opposition spokesman said that Labour supports a variable state pension age. Does my hon. Friend think that that would survive legal challenge?
I will make two points about that. The first is that anybody who proposes a situation involving framing new legislation that lacks equality between men and women will have to deal with the Equality Act 2010, because any new transitional provision runs the risk of creating a new inequality between men and women and being subject to challenge.
Further to the proposal made by the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, the Labour party’s position in its manifesto, as agreed with by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) and presumably the Scottish National party, is to reject any increase in the state pension age above 66. That would involve scrapping the Pensions Act 2007, the work of the Labour Government in the Blair-Brown years. Costs have been mentioned; let me be clear that the costs of capping the rise in state pension age at 66 in 2020 would be £250 billion higher than proceeding according to the timetable set out by John Cridland.
The Minister referred to Labour policy, but he edited it to a few words. We actually said that we wanted to freeze the pension age at 66 and set up our own commission to consider longevity and pensions issues and how we could help the more vulnerable in our society.
I will quote the hon. Gentleman’s party manifesto to him, just so we are utterly clear.
Will the Minister give way?
No, I will not. The manifesto says:
“The pension age is due to rise to 66 by the end of 2020. Labour rejects the Conservatives’ proposal to increase the state pension age even further.”
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the shadow Secretary of State made it clear in July, as the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill said, that 66 was the proposed utter limit for an increase.
I want to make a little bit of progress.
I turn to the legislation passed over the last 22 years, during which time Labour, the coalition and the Conservatives have all been in government. Back in 1995, after two years of debate and consultation, the Government legislated to equalise the state pension age to eliminate gender inequalities in state pensions. That was a result of welcome increases in life expectancy, combined with the anticipated increase in the number of pensioners in the years to come.
The Minister has talked about the number of people who are living longer, getting telegrams from the Queen on their 100th birthday and so on. That is fantastic, and I am sure that we are all happy about it, but can he not see that it does not help the women who have been told, with very little notice, that they will not get the pension they thought they would get at age 60? Telling them that they will live longer does not ease their hardship now.
Over the past 22 years, the Government have gone to significant lengths to both communicate and mitigate the nature of the state pension age changes, and that included a campaign in 2004 to educate people about their state pensions and extensive debates in the House of Commons on a multitude of occasions under a number of different Governments.
Will the Minister give way?
No; I am answering the question. Beyond that, over the last 17 years, the Department has provided more than 19 million personalised state pension estimates. In addition, the Department wrote to women born between 6 April 1950 and 5 April 1953, informing them of changes to their state pension age.
Will the Minister give way?
I am still finishing this point. Following the Pensions Act 2011, the Department wrote 5.77 million letters to the people directly affected, to inform them of changes to their state pension age. The reality of the situation is that during the passage of the 2011 Act, the two-year acceleration originally proposed was revised to 18 months. It was a concession worth more than £1 billion, which reduced the delay that anyone would experience in claiming their state pension to no more than 18 months, compared with the previous timetable from 1995.
The Minister seems to have a distorted view of history. The reality is that most women did not receive a letter, most letters that were received had incorrect information and many were sent to completely the wrong address. It is important to put that on record in the first instance.
Secondly, I have been listening to the Minister intently. He talked about birthdays and people living longer, and that is fine. He brought up Labour Governments, and I understand why he did so: it is important to remember that both Conservative and Labour Governments let this group of women down. That is why we must rise above the politics of the issue and come up with a reason. Please do not give platitudes about letters.
I feel that I have already answered the point about notice.
The proposal made by many is to revoke the Pensions Act 1995 and all subsequent Acts, which would cost the public purse more than £70 billion, to be paid for by younger people, as today’s pensions are paid for by today’s worker. It would represent a cost of more than £38 billion to the public purse in the next year alone.
On that point, will the Minister give way?
No; I have a minute and a half in which to finish. If we consider that in combination with the ever-increasing demographic pressure—the number of people over state pension age is set to rise by almost one third in the next 25 years—it quickly becomes clear that we cannot afford to back away from the responsible choices that successive Governments have made. Although the state pension has risen significantly since 2010 under the coalition and this Conservative Government, and although auto-enrolment has succeeded in increasing eligible female employees’ participation in a workplace pension to 80% in 2016, the reality is that the Government face a key choice when seeking to control state pension spend: increase state pension age or pay lower pensions, with an inevitable impact on pensioner poverty.
The only alternative is to ask the working generation to pay an ever-larger share of their income to support pensioners. Although increasing longevity is to be celebrated, we must also be realistic about the demographic and fiscal challenges that it creates for us as a society. Given the increasing fiscal pressures described, we cannot and do not intend to change a policy implemented over the last 22 years and supported by all three major political parties.
I thank everybody who took part in this debate. I was disappointed by the lack of Tory Back Benchers taking the opportunity to speak and maybe defend themselves, but I counted 21 people involved in this hour-long debate. Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for allowing that to happen. It shows the seriousness of this debate.
This debate has not finished. It has not stopped. We will continue. I see a large number of the WASPI women here with us, and I thank them for coming to hear this debate. I hope that we can do them justice and do them proud. They will have heard most Members mention the WASPI debate. We will deal with the WASPI issue and continue the fight for the WASPI women.
We will also speak for every single pensioner out there, and for workers, who are now being worked harder and harder. Jobs are going and not being replaced. Redundancies are happening everywhere. Local authorities everywhere are cutting jobs, and more and more pressure is being put on people to work harder and harder. I know that as a postman. I am only 54, but I am starting to suffer from that job when I climb the stairs, and I have many good friends and workmates still doing that job today.
I thank the fire brigade, whom I mentioned earlier, and the hospital workers and all those people. We all age. We all get older and older, but we are now going to make people suffer as they get on in life, because the pension money will not see them through their lives. People are worried. The next generation are not even bothered about pensions; they are looking for mum and dad’s house to sell. That is how they will get by in this country.
This debate will continue. We will continue to fight for the WASPI women. To finish, the Government found £1 billion for the DUP; find the money for the pensioners.
On a point of order, Mr Hollobone. As a new Member of this House, I am perhaps not acquainted with the procedure, so I wanted to ask whether you could clarify. During the course of the debate there were a couple of rather pathetic, in my view, interventions from Government Back Benchers. Can you clarify whether any information was given to you beforehand about Conservative MPs coming here to take part in the substance of the debate?
It is open to any Member of the House to attend any Westminster Hall debate. Members can choose to apply to speak, or they can ask to intervene on the Member speaking. It is entirely in the hands of individual Members whether they attend a debate or not.
On a point of order, Mr Hollobone. Can I clarify something for the avoidance of doubt? A number of generalisations were made about young and old people, and who cares more or less about pensions—
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).