Before we begin this important debate, it might help Members to know that the Prime Minister will make a statement in the House at 3 o’clock. If Members wish to speak in this debate they must return for the wind-ups, which will start at approximately 4 o’clock. Nine Back Benchers have indicated that they wish to speak. I do not intend to impose a time limit.
On a point of order, Mr Bone. I am sorry to interrupt proceedings before they have really started. Thank you for your guidance, although I am not one of the Members who will speak; I am unable to because of other engagements. Could the debate be relayed to another room, so that the many people who cannot get into the Strangers Gallery can listen to it? They have come here for that, and are currently excluded. It would be kind to let them hear it.
Thank you for that important point of order. I entirely understand the frustration. I do not schedule debates. The debate could have been scheduled in the House where there would have been enough room for everyone. However, rather than postponing or stopping it, I think we should continue. It may help people to know that when debates happen in Westminster Hall a similar one often happens in the House at a later date. We should crack on with today’s important debate.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered state pension equalisation for women born in the 1950s.
I stand today feeling the weight of despair, the burning sense of injustice and the genuine bewilderment felt by the women who, by sheer bad luck, were born in the 1950s and thereby inexplicably became fair game to be robbed, mugged and made the victims of theft of the most cruel and callous kind. For some women, that theft can be of up to £40,000 in lost pension. A large number of MPs—too many to mention—who support the Women Against State Pension Inequality in their quest for justice sent messages asking me to convey their support despite their absence. Many colleagues across the House dearly wanted to speak in the debate but were unable to attend.
In my lifetime, this could be the most unjust Government policy since the poll tax. It affects 3.8 million women, and 4,800 women in my constituency. The acceleration of the timetable set out in the Pensions Act 1995 has meant that these women have faced changes to the pension age abruptly, with little or no time to adapt and prepare. These women have had their pensions stolen from them—it is as simple as that. They paid into their pensions through a lifetime of work, raising their families, and often acting as carers for other members of their families. They did all the right things, only to be told, when it came time for them to be paid, that the rules of the game had changed. Not only that, but no one had thought to tell them that the rules of the game had changed—and that was just bad luck.
In addition, lower wages and broken employment periods mean that many of these women do not have a full national insurance record, so they receive lower state pensions than men anyway. Indeed, the average woman receives about 82% of what a man receives in his state pension. They also have a fraction of the savings of men. Equalisation is not just about the age at which people reach retirement.
With no time to make alternative plans, many women are suffering, and many are now living in poverty as a direct result of the political choice not to give them their due. Only last week, Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, concluded that after decades of decline we are now witnessing a rise in pensioner poverty, with the figure rising in recent years by 300,000. He went on to say that
“a group of women born in the 1950s have been particularly impacted by an abrupt and poorly phased in change in the state pension age from 60 to 66.”
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will just finish the quotation from the rapporteur. He continued:
“The impact of the changes to pensionable age is such as to severely penalize those who happen to be on the cusp of retirement and who had well-founded expectations of entering the next phase of their lives, rather than being plunged back into a workforce for which many of them were ill-prepared and to which they could not reasonably have been expected to adjust with no notice.”
I would be keen to hear the Minister’s response to the rapporteur’s words. If he wishes to intervene to rebut them, I would be delighted to give way, but in the absence of his seeking to intervene, I will take an intervention from the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham).
The next best thing!
I do not know about that. I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this timely debate. We have had many such debates, but the Government do not seem to get the message. From the start of the recession until now, women have carried the burden of the recession. In tax adjustments, the Government saved something like £14 billion at the expense of women. The amount the Government are saving through not doing the right thing by these women probably runs into billions. A fraction of those billions could take care of the problem.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point well. It was recently said to me that it was interesting that the Government have chosen to pick a fight with women of a certain age, with a policy that will most harshly affect women in a lower income bracket. They will feel the most pain as a result of the policy, and were perhaps considered an easy target. Perhaps the Minister has views on that.
I have participated in every debate on the WASPI women since I was elected, and I repeatedly hear from whoever is responding for the Government—a variety of Ministers have done so—that the policy is about us all living longer. However, the debate is not about life expectancy, although we know that that has stalled; it is about women who had their pension age changed with little or no notice, directly causing considerable hardship.
My hon. Friend has been a consistent campaigner on this issue; there have been so many debates, and it is heartening to see her pressing it so often. She is absolutely right to press the point about life expectancy. Whenever we have had a debate on state pension inequality, the Pensions Minister has been unable to tell me what the life expectancy in my constituency is. Newspapers such as The Guardian like to talk about the life expectancy in Glasgow East, so I am surprised that the Minister does not know that it is not that high. The changes really affect people in my constituency.
I suspect that the Minister knows fine well the life expectancy in Glasgow East and various parts of the UK, but it might make uncomfortable reading when trying to impose a one-size-fits-all policy and stealing people’s pensions. Many of the women in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and indeed in my own, will die before they are of age to collect.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out that more than one in five women—21.2%—in the group affected by the recent increases in the state pension age were in poverty, which is up 6.4% on the situation pre-reform. Meanwhile, analysis by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies found that the poorest pensioners are the least able to work into their later years. It concluded that both men and women who had been poor during their working lives were the most likely to leave the job market between the ages of 50 and 55, with poor health being the key driver.
With striking inequalities in life expectancy and health expectancy, there are great worries that the policy hits hardest the poorest and most vulnerable. That has been borne out by analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that shows that a third of single women aged between 60 and 63 were in poverty after housing costs—up 13.5% since before the reforms. Similarly, nearly four out of 10 people who rent their homes are in poverty—up from around a quarter. The IFS also found that 1.1 million women had seen their individual incomes fall by an average of £50 a week. Increased income from earnings is simply not enough to offset the loss of pensions. TUC analysis shows that half a million workers who are within five years of state pension age have had to leave the workplace for medical reasons, and that those who have worked in the lowest-paid jobs are twice as likely as managers and professionals to stop working before retirement age, owing to sickness and disability.
In the absence of labour market reforms, it is hard to see how raising the state pension age will allow this group to continue working. Rather, it will mean greater reliance on working-age benefits, which the Government say they wish to avoid. That makes it even more indefensible—this point is key and I hope the Minister is listening, because I would really like him to address it in his reply—that the Government decided to implement the Cridland review’s recommendation to accelerate the rise in pension age to 68, but chose to ignore the welfare reforms that John Cridland said would be essential to cushion the impact of those changes. Will the Minister tell us why? The Government cannot just pick the bits they like; they should implement the whole review or none of it.
The Government have not listened, but that does not mean that these women are not suffering. Many of them have been left destitute. The Government may think that because they are ordinary women—organised, persistent and dignified as they are—they are easier to ignore than rich and powerful men, but the reality does not bear that out. These women have been robbed, betrayed, misrepresented and mistreated, and they will not go away. I repeat a question that I have asked the Government many times: where on earth do they expect these women to go?
The 10,000 or so WASPI women in my constituency are certainly not natural protesters who wave a placard at the first opportunity. In fact, they have played a very positive role in our communities throughout the years. They are to be found in the women’s institute, making jam, and in many other voluntary groups. It is deeply disappointing that any Government should treat them in such a disrespectful way. Considering that the Chancellor announced more money in the recent Budget, it would have been nice if that Budget had given the WASPI women some recognition.
I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman says. One of the most frustrating things that WASPI women have found in their quest for justice is not that they are not getting what they are asking for—bad as that is—but the wall of silence with which they have been met. It is as though they do not exist. That is not acceptable.
There have been too many occasions on which Pensions Ministers have said how many years women will get a pension for—once they get it. Can we make it plain that the question is what happens in the years before they get the state pension?
The Scottish National party commissioned independent research into how this could be resolved, but the Government rejected it. As far as I can see, they have rejected every other potential solution proposed from every quarter. I would like the Minister to tell us how he thinks the matter can be progressed, because doing nothing is not a sustainable option—certainly not for the WASPI women.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will make some progress.
The WASPI women’s situation is doubly unjust because they are a group who have faced pay discrimination throughout their working lives. They have been paid less, acknowledged less and valued less. Now, when they should be enjoying retirement, they are expected to sit quietly and simply accept the loss of their well-deserved and much-needed state pension. This is not pin money; it is money to pay the rent, buy food, do the shopping and pay the bills. How is that decent, by any measure? It is an absolute disgrace.
The Minister really must have a brass neck if he thinks he can talk his way out of this. The UK Government’s lack of engagement on the issue has been breathtaking in its arrogance. These women know that many of the hardest hit among their number have been driven to self-harm and suicide. Of 873 respondents to research undertaken for the BackTo60 campaign group by the charity SOS Silence of Suicide, almost half had self-harmed because of the stress and hardship caused by this pension reform, while 46% reported having suicidal thoughts as a direct result, and 70 women had attempted to take their own lives. All the while, the UK Government wring their hands and stutter about people living longer.
Such is the Government’s intransigence that these women have been forced to go to court. BackTo60 has launched a judicial review to force the Government to reverse their decision. The argument will be made by Michael Mansfield QC that the pension policy implemented by successive Governments is a gross injustice and is discriminatory, even though the delay in paying out the pensions is in the name of equality—there’s a wee irony for you. Law professor Jackie Jones has argued that the UK is in breach of its international treaty obligations. The demand for what is right—fair transitional arrangements for these women—will not be silenced.
Inconveniently for the Government, the former Pensions Minister, Steven Webb, has conceded that not enough was done to inform and prepare these women for the changes. The Select Committee on Work and Pensions concluded that
“more could and should have been done”
to communicate the changes. It seems that a mess was made of the acceleration of the changes in the Pensions Act 2011, but the only people to pay the price for that mess are the women involved.
Many women, including constituents of mine at the Blackfriars pub in Glasgow, are watching this debate and listening to my hon. Friend’s excellent speech. Does she agree that the mythical letters that the Department for Work and Pensions was supposed to send to so many women to tell them that their pensions were changing were so elusive that there was a better chance of finding a golden ticket in a Wonka bar than of getting one?
Indeed. I am sure that the WASPI women are gratified to hear the support in this Chamber for their cause and their quest for justice.
Let me turn, before the Minister does, to the well-worn phrases and half-hearted justifications that may well form part of his reply. Let me be clear: this debate is not about the age at which people should retire, nor is it about how we are all living longer. It is about successive UK Governments not communicating significant changes in the women’s pension age, and about the political choice not to address that in order to save money. It is about how expendable women born in the 1950s are to this Government. The fact is that pension equalisation was not supposed to begin until 2020, as set out in the Pensions Act 1995, but that was accelerated in 2011 with no communication of or care for the effect on women. That had the added bonus—accidental, I am sure—of saving the Treasury about £5 billion a year by equalising the state pension age at 65.
In an interesting development, Baroness Altmann, who was formerly a great champion of older people but was neutralised in this debate by being elevated to the Lords and given a ministerial portfolio on pensions, has now told us that she was informed that the 1950s women
“would go away sooner or later.”
Well, guess what: they are still here. They are watching today in this Chamber and in towns and villages across the UK, willing this cruel and heartless Government to listen and do the right thing.
We continue to hear from this Government—I am sure the Minister is planning to mention it—that concessions of £1.1 billion have already been made. That figure is trotted out as though the Government have targeted money at the women affected. That is, at best, disingenuous. The £1.1 billion did not go solely to women and the concessions were limited to 500,000 men and women who were born within a short timeframe—between January and October 1954. The concession took the form of limiting the delay with the change in annually managed expenditure, estimated at £1.1 billion. I want to be clear: £1.1 billion of cash was not doled out to people in envelopes; in fact, it was not a monetary exchange for those involved.
Today I and my party stand beside the WASPI women, who have been the victims of a great injustice. As I said earlier in my speech, it is no less of an injustice than the poll tax. We will continue to stand beside them. The issue has not been debated in the Commons for more than nine months, and I am sure the Government thought the storm had passed. It has not passed. It will not pass. These women are engulfed by the storm every single day they have to manage without their pensions. Up and down the country, in all parts of the UK, WASPI women are watching the debate, inside and outside the Chamber—including Cunninghame WASPI, to whom I pay tribute. All the WASPI women are waiting for justice, hoping against hope that this heartless Government will finally hear their pleas for what is rightfully theirs to be restored to them.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am sorry; I am just about to wrap up.
In the name of all that is just and all that is right, I urge the Minister to go back from the debate today and tell his Government that this must not stand. The WASPI women need and deserve their pensions. Let us get this sorted. Let us undo the damage once and for all, and let us do it now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I do not wish to make lengthy remarks. This is a very important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) on securing it. Brentwood and Ongar is the most beautiful constituency in the world, but North Ayrshire and Arran has a chance of being called the second best.
This issue has affected a number of women in my constituency since I was elected last year. I very much understand what they have been through, but I would like to set out my thinking on the subject in the context of how we have arrived where we have.
In 1995, the then Government decided to equalise the state pension age for men and women to address long-standing inequality. That change was part of a wider social trend towards gender equality, but was also a decision that arose partly from European law and equality law cases relating to occupational pension provision. The last Labour Government, between 1997 and 2010, continued the policy and additionally determined that a state pension age of 65 could not be sustained for very much longer. That was the thinking that led to the Pensions Act 2007, which raised the state pension age to 66, 67 and then 68.
Under the stewardship of the former Member for Thornbury and Yate, an excellent Pensions Minister, the coalition Government introduced additional reforms in the Pensions Act 2011, which brought in a number of highly important reforms—not least auto-enrolment, which has benefited many people across all of our constituencies—and sought to address a growing imbalance. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), who was then Secretary of State, said at the time:
“Back in 1926, when the state pension age was first set, there were nine people of working age for every pensioner. The ratio is now 3:1 and is set to fall closer to 2:1 by the latter half of the 21st century. Some of these changes can be put down to the retirement of the baby boomers, but it is also driven by consistent increases in life expectancy. The facts are stark: life expectancy at 65 has increased by more than 10 years since the 1920s, when the state pension age was first set. The first five of those years were added between 1920 and 1990. What is really interesting is that the next five were added in just 20 years, from 1990 to 2010.”—[Official Report, 20 June 2011; Vol. 530, c. 45.]
My predecessor as MP for Ipswich is reported to have characterised the demands of the WASPI women as “intergenerational theft”. Will the hon. Gentleman dissociate himself from that comment?
I feel that the hon. Gentleman has achieved his purpose by putting such a claim on record. I am not aware of his predecessor having made such remarks and I am not aware of the context, so he will forgive me if I do not comment on them, although I am sure that he did not really make that intervention to get my response.
Although a potted history of where the state pension has come from and why changes have been introduced under whichever Government is interesting, the debate is not about that; it is about the fact that the Government have taken an archaic view and are essentially punishing women born in the 1950s, who have already faced discrimination through maternity laws, previous pension changes and national insurance changes. The debate is not about a potted history of why we are where we are. It is about some sort of redress for those women, who have already faced unnecessary burdens throughout their working lives. I am not trying to suggest that the hon. Gentleman is trying to move the agenda on, but the debate is not about why we have they pensions that we do. It is about the fact that the Government are accelerating the change and not giving any redress to the women affected, who quite frankly deserve it.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his lengthy intervention. I am making my own speech and will make my points in the way that I wish to make them, although I am grateful to him for telling me how I should speak.
The major demographic change needed to be addressed. A girl born in 1951 was expected to live to 81, and a boy to 77. By this year, the Office for National Statistics cohort figures showed an increase of more than 10 years for newborn girls and more than 12 years for boys, to 92 and 89 respectively.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), who secured the debate, has indicated that it is not about life expectancy. With due respect, can I mention an issue raised with me by my county council, which is healthy active life expectancy? In many of the constituencies that Opposition Members represent, healthy active life expectancy is considerably shorter than elsewhere. It is 10 years shorter in County Durham than in parts of the south and south-east. Surely we should be relieving the burden on women who are subject to such discrimination and injustice.
The hon. Gentleman makes a genuinely interesting point about healthy life expectancy, the figures on which should feature more largely in the debate than they often do. I acknowledge that point.
When Lloyd George first brought in the state pension in the Old Age Pensions Act 1908, it was at 70, when life expectancy was considerably lower.
I have no reason to doubt the hon. Gentleman’s statistics, but is it not just as interesting that the country is now three times as rich as it was when these ladies were born in the 1950s? When there have been other mistakes or crises in the economy, the Government have found money to bail out the bankers. If one compares the equity of this case to that, does the hon. Gentleman not think the Government should change their mind?
Presenting the case in the way that the hon. Gentleman does is slightly misrepresentative, because the cost of not bailing out the banks would have been extraordinarily high and would have seen businesses all over the country go bankrupt and people go out of work. It would have damaged their lives and would have become a cost to the state. I simply cannot see things in the binary way that he sets them out.
In 1942, William Beveridge wrote about the purpose of his pensions proposals, saying that
“giving to each individual an incentive to continue at work so long as he can, in place of retiring, is a necessary attempt to lighten the burden that will otherwise fall on the British community, through the large and growing proportion of people at the higher ages”.
Under the last Labour Government, it was acknowledged that we must not reach a position where women would be expected to spend 40% of their adult lives in retirement—that proportion is due to increase continually. No Government could have sustained that without dramatically curtailing services for younger people. On top of those demographic concerns, the Pensions Act 2011 had to deal with the circumstances that were dictated by the great financial crisis of 2008.
My hon. Friend talks about the introduction in 1908 of the state pension age of 70, but he could have told us that it was reduced to 65 in 1925, and that the inequality of the earlier retirement age for women was introduced, I think, in 1940. I am not arguing with him; I am trying just to set the scene.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s scene setting. Forgive me if I skipped a sentence earlier— I should have said that the retirement age of 65 was introduced in the Contributory Pensions Act 1925, so I am grateful to have been put right.
The Pensions Act 2011 dealt with the circumstances of 2008 and was introduced in the context of the emergency Budget brought forward by the then Chancellor in 2010, which offered the triple lock. To remind Members, that guarantees, each and every year, a rise in the basic state pension in line with earnings, prices or a 2.5% increase, whichever is the greatest. That policy meant that between April 2010 and April 2016, the value of the state pension rose by more than 22%, compared with growth in earnings of about 7.5% and growth in prices of 12%. Pensioners saw their incomes rise at almost double the pace of the average worker in that period. In 2018-19, the state pension is more than £1,450 a year higher than it was in 2010.
We know that the triple lock will be in place for the duration of this Parliament. For people reaching state pension age after April 2016, a new pension has been introduced at a single flat rate of £159.55 a week, which also has been triple-locked. All the women affected by the 2011 state pension age changes will draw their state pension under the new system.
I am quite confused. It is lovely to hear all this information about what happens when people retire, but we are debating the issue of those women being left in limbo, where they are expected just to fend for themselves.
I appreciate the hon. Lady’s point, which I am coming to.
The Pensions Act 2011 sped up the equalisation of women’s state pension age and required men and women’s state pension age to be raised to 66 by 2020. During the passage of that Act, the Government spent £1.1 billion—we might dispute the amount—on capping the maximum increase that any woman would see in her state pension age at 18 months, relative to the timetable set out in the Pensions Act 1995. Having heard the stories and spoken to some of the women involved, I know that this has been a hard transition and has caused difficulties and distress for many of them.
On the point of equalisation, will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Yes, I will.
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman gives way, let me say that I am grateful to him for making brief remarks, which have gone on for more than 12 minutes.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He has given his analysis of the equalisation, but does he find it ironic that the women who were told that they had to work for an additional 18 months were given only five years to sort out that problem, but the men who were asked to work an additional 12 months were given seven years to plan for that change?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Having spoken to women in my constituency, I understand the stress and difficulty that this change has caused. However, is clear that any attempt to reverse the policy would be extraordinarily expensive.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I look to you, Chair, to know whether I am entitled to take any more interventions.
The hon. Gentleman is entitled to go on for as long as he wants, but I would prefer him not to.
That makes two of us, Mr Bone.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran did not talk much about the cost of reversing Government policy, which is a shame. I understand that the SNP has costed the reversal of the Pensions Act 2011 at £8 billion, but other experts see that as a vast underestimate. It would actually cost the taxpayer £30 billion or more. There is no doubt that the Scotland Act 2016 gives the Scottish Government the powers that they need to address the issue.
I am really disappointed that we have a speech from somebody who clearly has not read the Scotland Act 2016 and has just lifted the headline from the Daily Mail or whatever it is that he reads. There is no power in that Act to mitigate yet more Tory cuts. We already mitigate Tory cuts to the tune of tens of millions of pounds. Even if we wanted to, under section 28 of the Act—the hon. Gentleman can look it up—we do not have the power. Once again, I urge him to stick to the focus of this debate. He says that I did not talk about money, but I talked about what it has saved the Treasury. Let us spend that money on these women.
The focus of the debate is compensation for the women involved. It is a fact that the Scottish Government could do more than they are doing.
I want this issue to be addressed at UK level—that is absolutely right—but devolution across the UK means that different choices can be taken by those who are in power. It is not just section 28 that gives the Scottish Government the powers to act. Section 26 allows them to make short-term payments to people who need them to
“avoid a risk to the well-being of an individual.”
I genuinely believe that the Scottish Government should act where they can, and they should not play politics with this issue.
I am sure we all agree that that was a very interesting intervention. Once again, the SNP wants all the power and none of the responsibility. The Labour party has made multiple suggestions about how it would address the situation, and many Opposition Members seek the full compensation package of £70 billion. They proposed in their manifesto to keep the state pension age at 66, which reversed the Labour decision of 2007. It would cost at least £250 billion more than the Government’s preferred timetable, and that is not covered by the party’s 2017 manifesto.
In addition, I understand that there are particular legal difficulties in reintroducing a different retirement age for men and women. Unquestionably, any amendment to the current legislation that introduced a new inequality would be challenged. This is an unsatisfactory situation. I admire the very good campaign that the WASPI campaigners have put together. Having met them, I know that they are principled people who wish to see policy change for entirely understandable reasons. However, I see the cost of change as absolutely prohibitive, and I see no solution from either Opposition party.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) for securing this very important debate. It is important for all parliamentarians who believe in equality to continue the fight to put right a wrong for women who were born in the 1950s. It is clear that the Government have given up on them.
Last month, we learned from the former Pensions Minister that, as Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) refused to engage with women born in the 1950s who were adversely affected. She was instructed not to speak to them and was told that they would go away sooner or later. When will the Government get the message that the WASPI women are not going anywhere? People seeking to put right a great injustice do not just go away. Good for them!
Last week’s report by the UN expert on extreme poverty showed that the number of pensioners living in poverty in the UK had risen by 300,000 to 16% in the four years to 2016-17, despite measures such as the triple-lock guarantee. The rapporteur said:
“The impact of the changes to pensionable age is such as to severely penalise those who happen to be on the cusp of retirement and who had well-founded expectations of entering the next phase of their lives, rather than being plunged back into a workforce for which many of them were ill-prepared and to which they could not reasonably have been expected to adjust with no notice.”
He said that the uptick in pensioner poverty was driven by single pensioners, who are significantly more likely to be women. The Government’s response to that damning evidence has been to ignore the findings and shoot the messenger.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the least the Government could do is to make an actuarial assessment of what the true cost would be of paying compensation to people who have clearly lost out heavily?
I thank my hon. Friend for that very important point. I agree 100%.
The Government are completely ignoring that evidence. The new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said that that excellent report on extreme poverty is “highly inappropriate”, but she missed the point. What is highly inappropriate is the Government’s arrogant and dogmatic policy on pension inequality. I have received heartbreaking letters from women who have worked hard and paid their dues all their lives, and have now found themselves struggling and humiliated. There are those who are faring better, but only because they can rely on spouses to help them out. Why should they have to do that? Women who do not have their option, perhaps because their spouse is dead, have found themselves destitute at a vulnerable time in their lives. The Government’s appalling response is to tell those women, who have worked for nearly 40 years, to get on their bike and try to find a job. That is highly inappropriate.
If the Government were even remotely in touch with real life, they would know that that is not an option for most of those women. Many are unable to work or have caring responsibilities for elderly parents, spouses and grandchildren. Instead of dismissing the women born in the 1950s, who are fighting for their rights, and dismissing the UN special rapporteur’s report, the Government should make the welfare system more humane. If they do not, they will be dismissed at the next general election.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) on securing this debate. She has been a stalwart in speaking out for the WASPI women. I was very happy to be a co-signatory to her request to the Backbench Business Committee for this debate, and I am happy to add my support.
I know that I speak for so many others when I say that my constituents in Strangford were gutted to find that no change has been made to the nefarious decision to deny women their hard-earned pension. An email I received said that there was a sense of
“despair amongst our WASPI women with increasingly negative effects on mental and physical health and catastrophic financial situations.”
I cannot underline enough those women’s mental and physical health and their catastrophic financial situations. The people I have spoken to are greatly affected by those three things.
It is little wonder that those women feel like that when it appears that the political route has led nowhere. The Bill supported by the all-party group on state pension inequality for women has been kicked into the long grass. For that reason, the WASPI women have, alongside their political campaign, been progressing on the legal front. They believe that proving that the DWP failed in its duty and committed maladministration is the most cost-effective and quickest way for the 3.8 million women affected by the changes to the state pension age in the Pensions Acts of 1995, 2007 and 2011 to achieve justice and recompense.
I am aware that the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman has begun his preliminary inquiry. He is starting with the 1995 Act and is looking at whether the DWP failed in its duty to inform women of the significant change to state pension age, which had been 60 for women since 1948. If he finds that the DWP failed in its duty and committed maladministration, he should make recommendations about what the Government should do to make amends. That would be an important way of addressing these issues. Those recommendations should perhaps include recompense for the losses suffered by all women adversely affected by the changes.
It is time that we did the right thing for those women. In my constituency alone, 5,800 women have been adversely affected. I am not saying that every one of them has come and spoken to me, but a great proportion have. They worked their fingers raw and had their end goal in sight, but the certainty of a pension was removed from them with very little notice. They did not have the ability to change the course of their financial future. They were told the facts of the case and were left to deal with it. The women who have spoken to me include not only civil servants who planned their financial future and are now cast into uncertainty, in doubt about how their well-deserved retirement will pan out, but women who have literally scrubbed on their hands and knees. They are saying, “Jim, I don’t know how I can physically do this anymore.”
The point is not just that those people worked hard all their lives and then suddenly found that their pension age had been increased, but that they were not given the time to plan their lives in advance. In many cases, they finished work and found that they would not get their pension for years afterwards.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. They thought they had planned for their pension age, but suddenly found that it was grasped away from them at the last moment. The impact on women throughout Northern Ireland is incredible. I have said this before, and I will keep on saying it: we need to do the right thing. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran said that we must do the right thing. I am here to do the right thing and make sure it happens.
This equalisation was initially brought about in 1995, when an EU directive prompted the Government to equalise retirement age for men and women—then 65 and 60 respectively. The Government chose to level it at 65, and it was decided to increase women’s SPA in stages between 2010 and 2020. Women born in 1950-51 would retire at 61, those born in 1952-53 would retire at 62 and so on until 65 was reached for all post-1955 women in 2020.
I am unsure how we got to the stage at which we are asking women to work into their 70s and beyond. People are working longer, but they will not live longer if we make them work longer. I believe that enough is enough. I am not alone in that view. I read an article—the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran referred to it—that said:
“A United Nations independent expert has affirmed the stance taken by campaign groups including the Women Against State Pension Inequality…that certain women have been affected disproportionately by recent pension age changes.”
We cannot ignore the United Nations—we often refer to it.
“Philip Alston’s report Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom on extreme poverty and human rights, out on Friday (16 November), showed the number of pensioners living in poverty in the UK had risen by 300,000 to 16 per cent in the four years to 2016/17. This was despite measures such as the triple lock guarantee. But he found a group of women born in the 1950s had been particularly impacted a ‘poorly phased in’ change in the state pension age.
Mr Alston said: ‘As was made clear to me in a number of submissions and through powerful personal testimony, a group of women born in the 1950s have been particularly impacted by an abrupt and poorly phased in change in the state pension age from 60 to 66.
The impact of the changes to pensionable age is such as to severely penalise those who happen to be on the cusp of retirement and who had well-founded expectations of entering the next phase of their lives”—
as the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) said—
“rather than being plunged back into a workforce for which many of them were ill-prepared and to which they could not reasonably have been expected to adjust with no notice.’”
I want to share the experience of Ann from my constituency, whom I met on Friday. Three months prior to her 60th birthday, she had to leave work due to a health issue. She lived alone and had no income, and therefore had nothing to resort to bar her life savings. She is now living on a very small work pension, but had to add to that significantly from her savings. Over the years, she had done exactly what the hon. Gentleman spoke about. She had planned how to spend her savings, but she now has to use them for ordinary living expenses instead. There is an inherent unfairness in that.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He has told us the experience of his constituent, as I have done—many of mine tell me the same thing. They are not physically able to continue to work and have planned their future in what they thought was the right way, only to find that it has been—if I may use this word—stolen from them by this system. I could not do anything other than come to the debate in Westminster Hall to speak on behalf of the 5,800 constituents of mine who have indicated their distress and need for the Government to address the issue.
I understand that others want to speak and I want to try and keep to the timescale that you indicated, Mr Bone, so I will conclude. It is clear that others can see what the Government cannot. We must address the issue, and address it now. I hope the Minister will outline how he intends to address it rather than—with respect—wash his hands of it. It is time for action, not for words. Enough is enough.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I promise that my brief remarks will last less than 17 minutes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) on securing the debate and on making such a powerful speech. She covered the issue, but what she said about the number of people who are suicidal, attempt suicide, or self-harm, was particularly pertinent and should make the Government sit up. That sums up the injustice of the issue; the Government should really listen.
Once again, I am here to speak on behalf of the 6,500 women in my constituency who have been affected by the various Pensions Act changes. First of all, I want to look at some of the politics surrounding the pension changes and the subsequent developments. We all know that the women affected by the Pensions Act 1995 were not properly notified. That is completely undeniable and even loyal Tories have acknowledged in previous debates that there were “communication issues”, which is certainly an understatement. Many Tories have stated their genuine concern and have signed up as backers of the WASPI campaign, yet all these years and months later, there has been no change despite the fact that we now have a minority Government. How hard can those sympathetic Tories really be working their Government on the issue? The Democratic Unionist party were able to extract concessions to prop the Government up, but that is proving very challenging for Conservative Members.
As the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) demonstrated in his speech, too many Tories blindly back the mantra that there was a £1.1 billion concession during the Bill stages of the Pensions Act 2011. Not robbing women of an extra £1.1 billion is not the same as putting money into the system. It was just a bit less of a shafting for some of those affected, and I could not believe that the hon. Gentleman repeated that myth. We then hear the bigger picture: the Tories blame all the cuts that they imposed on the financial crash and the previous Labour Government. I might agree that Gordon Brown squandered billions of pounds, but while the Tories impose spending cuts, they have no problem introducing tax cuts for the wealthiest.
A Library briefing with projections of Budget measures from 2017 and 2018 estimates that the tax giveaways such as corporation tax, inheritance tax and higher income tax thresholds will cost the Treasury £78.6 billion pounds between 2017 and 2025. It is clear that austerity is for some but not for others. The fact that the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar said that compensation is completely unaffordable just shows that those choices have been made by Members in the Division Lobbies.
The Liberal Democrats now fully back WASPI, but the Minister for Pensions in 2011, Steve Webb, was one of theirs. They are the ones who started the austerity process in coalition with the Tories. Back then, Steve Webb estimated that if the timetable was not altered, pension spending would be £26 billion higher over a decade. Why was that figure so important in the grand scheme of Government spending when, as I have pointed out, tax cuts have suddenly become affordable?
Labour—Scottish Labour, in particular—is peddling, along with the Tories, the myth that the Scottish Parliament should be able to rectify matters for affected Scottish women. That comes after it said that pensions would be protected by Scotland remaining part of the UK in 2014, and after it fought tooth and nail against the concept of pensions being devolved to Scotland. Labour made sure pensions were not a Smith commission recommendation. The Scotland Act was designed specifically to make pensions a reserved matter and ensure that the Scottish Government could not introduce an age-based benefit. Why has Labour bought into the Tory sleight of hand which says that we can make changes in the Scottish Parliament while our budget is cut by £2 billion over a 10-year period? It was also a Labour Government that devolved pensions to Northern Ireland, while steadfastly refusing to do so for Scotland, which is another mystery that I cannot get my head around. Those parties all have culpability either for the current situation, or for masking responsibility for it.
Meanwhile, our constituents still suffer. I have been contacted by a constituent who has been fighting for 18 years to get her dead husband’s Metropolitan police pension. Recently, when she had primary care duties for her mother, she had to fight local authorities in England to get her mum into a care home. She has also been hit by the increase in contributions required, and is trying to pay more into the system—another five years’ contributions—so she gets a full pension when she reaches state pension age. She still has four years to go to reach her new state pension age, and without her widow’s pension she is in real financial hardship. She says that she does not want to access benefits because of a fear of the assessment process and of the threats and demands placed on jobseekers. That is the reality of the Government policy about which the UN special rapporteur says UK Government Ministers are in denial.
Finally, I pay tribute to a WASPI constituent of mine, Ann Hammil, who first raised the WASPI issue with me a number of years ago. She has fought her corner with the authorities and her case is now with the parliamentary ombudsman. The other week, she said to me:
“Alan, I will not give in to them.”
I completely support her attitude and that of other WASPI women and campaigners all over the UK. I hope I can help them achieve justice.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) on securing this extremely important debate. The message from today could not be clearer: this issue is not going to go away. We will not allow it to be kicked into the long grass and the tenacity of the campaigners will certainly not let it be forgotten. It is not a couple of pounds that have been taken away, and this is not a request for a handout. It is about livelihoods being destroyed, homes being lost, dignity being taken away, and the social contract between the state and the citizen being broken.
Events this week have demonstrated clearly that the Government do not command a majority, even on financial matters. Given the support we have heard right across the Chamber, the parliamentary arithmetic would clearly favour a fair and just settlement for the WASPI campaigners. I say to the Minister that time is running out for the Government to bring forward a proposal on their own terms.
I understand that this is not a simple issue to resolve and that there will be financial consequences for the Government, but when we are talking about a profound injustice on this scale, there is an imperative to act. As we have seen with the vast sums of money being expended on a Brexit deal that even members of the Cabinet do not support, or the additional expenditure in Northern Ireland to pay for a confidence and supply agreement that has delivered neither of those things, the Government have shown that they can find the money when there is a political imperative.
I simply do not accept that nothing can be done. There is not just a political imperative, but a moral imperative. In this country, we do not tell people who are ill that only they should be responsible for funding their treatment. We do not tell parents that they alone should fund the education of their children. When a mistake of this magnitude has been made by a Government, whether it happened yesterday or 23 years ago, the only morally acceptable outcome is for us all to accept responsibility and find a solution. We will hear concerns about the sums involved, but what we are really trying to do is find some justice.
We have all heard harrowing stories from our constituencies of women who have worked all their lives and now, through a change of circumstance, have found themselves in a dire situation, with some having to sell their homes. Some have worked hard and progressed through their careers only to face the indignity of being told to take up an apprenticeship when they are in their early 60s. Women who were in senior positions have been forced to attend DWP courses where they are given advice on how to dress for a job interview or how to write a CV.
I fear that the most serious cases might not even be those we have heard about today, or the ones that end up in our inboxes. It is not only about the ones we hear about; it is about those who are unable to fight for their rights. One of my constituents told me:
“I am struggling daily with trying to work three days a week as I am now disabled. I suffer from anxiety and depression and every day is really hard for me. I cannot impress on you strongly enough how hard life is for me.”
“It’s now a heat or eat situation for many. Some women are suicidal and some have had to sell their homes. Can you imagine how it feels for a woman in her 60s who has always worked, but is now frightened and in ill health, to be made to sign on? This isn’t equality it’s injustice.”
I could not agree more.
It is worth reminding ourselves that the state pension system is founded on a contributory principle; it is not a state benefit in which no prior commitment is involved. Yet that group of women, who have paid and fulfilled their end of the deal, face being short-changed retrospectively.
There is great irony in the fact that if a defined benefit pension fund became insolvent and left people possibly facing such a position in retirement, scheme members would be compensated by the Pension Protection Fund. That scheme is funded by a levy applied to all members of the scheme, so that those who have lost out through no fault of their own are not left destitute as a result.
The principle is simple: women born in the 1950s were not responsible for the failure to communicate the planned changes, so they should not be left alone to face an unfair and disproportionate burden. However difficult this might feel politically for the Government at the moment, they must now act to deliver justice.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend, who even got a naughty bit of applause from the Public Gallery.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) on securing this debate and on her passionate opening speech. It is important that we keep this issue on the parliamentary agenda, and that we continue to speak up for the women who have been so adversely affected by the changes.
Like other hon. Members, I have received a significant number of letters and emails from women who have been badly affected by the impact of the equalisation of the state pension age. I will use my time to share just a few of the experiences of the 6,100 women in my constituency who have been affected by all the various changes since 1995.
Janice wrote to me:
“I was born in 1956 and expected my pension when I was 60. The government has moved the goalposts twice and I now have to wait until I am 66…I am 63 and have left work to spend quality time with my 79-year-old husband. This has not been an easy decision as I am living without my pension.”
Then there is Carol, who wrote:
“I only received a letter from the DWP four years before I was 60, so had very little notice at all.”
Carol has a private pension, but will not receive her state pension until she is 66. She is caring for her 89-year-old mother, and two of her granddaughters.
Susie Donkin, who was born in 1957, received notice only two years before she turned 60 that she would not receive her pension until she was 66. Another of my constituents, Sue, put it all succinctly when she wrote to me that:
“Women have so much against them. In the past they have had the burden of looking after the children and unable to build careers as men did…wages were not equal and opportunities for married women were not the same either.”
The WASPI women need action now. They have already waited long enough, and many are suffering real hardship and are basically destitute, as we have heard. It is totally unacceptable that the Government are simply ignoring the calls of those women. I ask the Minister to please listen to their calls now.
I thank you, Mr Bone, for calling me to speak, and my friend the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) for securing this important and timely debate. It is absolutely essential to keep this issue on the agenda, as it affects every single constituency. Though not as many of my constituents are affected by the change as those of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely), nevertheless 4,542 women in Easington are, and I owe it to them to keep fighting until the Government give them the justice that they deserve.
I want to mention my late constituent, Val Roberts. I have referred to her before. She was a determined campaigner in the interests of WASPI women. As I mentioned in a previous debate, she was left with no alternative but to sell her home and move into private rented accommodation. Sadly, Valerie has passed away, and that has redoubled my determination to see that others receive their due state pension.
We have debated this issue many times in the main Chamber and here in the Westminster Hall Chamber. I pay tribute to the WASPI women for their incredibly active campaign over the years and in particular over the past few months. Early-day motion 63 has been signed by 196 right hon. and hon. Members, including Conservative Members—notably the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley)—and others present such as my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) and the hon. Members for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), while numerous others have also pushed the campaign forward. An e-petition laid before Parliament attracted well over 100,000 signatures, and support for the campaign continues to grow.
My recollection of a previous Westminster Hall debate is that it was so oversubscribed—as this one would have been today but for the Brexit statement in the main Chamber—that Members were sitting on the window ledges, as those who were at the debate will recall. This is a live political issue that will not go away.
Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the reason why the WASPI women are so frustrated is that the Government will not engage with the matter? I do not expect them just to give the money over, but it is time for the Government to have a proper discussion with the representatives of WASPI to see whether there is a way forward. At the moment, there does not appear to be. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is the Government’s fault?
Absolutely. I could not have put it better myself. I hope, however, that the Minister will come up with some positive solutions to address this terrible injustice.
We have heard that 3.8 million women are affected, many of whom will be driven into poverty and reliance on food banks. That is a disgrace in one of the wealthiest nations on earth. Although the report by Philip Alston, the United Nations expert, has not been greeted with enormous acclaim by Department for Work and Pensions Ministers, we should look at what he says. He talked to various campaign groups, including the Women Against State Pension Inequality. He says that certain women, including the WASPI group, have been affected disproportionately by recent changes in policy, particularly those in relation to the pension age. Philip Alston’s statement on extreme poverty and human rights in the UK showed that in the four years to 2016-17 the number of pensioners living in poverty had risen by 300,000, or 16%. That is despite assurances from the Government that measures such as the triple lock guarantee would ensure that pensioner poverty was a thing of the past.
I mentioned this in an intervention, but it is an important point, which I hope the Minister will address. This is not just about variations in life expectancy—Ministers keep telling us that people are living longer, so in order to make pensions affordable the state retirement age has to be adjusted. There are huge regional variations not only in life expectancy, but in the amount of time that a retired person can expect to live a healthy and active lifestyle. That, too, should be factored into the Government’s calculations.
Two, three, four or five times the number of WASPI women watching in this room are outside. I pay tribute to them for coming to Westminster, and it is a great shame, as you remarked earlier, Mr Bone, that we could not have had a bigger venue to accommodate them.
Absolutely. I applaud the campaigners; they have pressed their case and put pressure Members of Parliament to come up with solutions. I also salute my hon. Friend, who will be addressing a meeting in his constituency on this issue on Saturday.
Surely we should consider not just life expectancy but work life expectancy. I suggest that is different. In many cases, women do physically taxing work; there is a huge difference between what someone can be expected to do in their working life and their life as a whole.
That is a relevant point. I hope the Minister and his advisers are noting the contributions being made, because they should be all factored into the calculations.
Women are particularly affected by poverty. Reductions in social care services translate into increased burdens on primary care givers, and that burden falls on women disproportionately. Various reports have indicated that, not least a report last year by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which warned that half a million more people would live in poverty if the Government maintained their existing benefits freeze. The Government have room for manoeuvre and some flexibility. They could have used the windfall to end the benefits freeze a year earlier than planned. Instead, they chose to change income tax thresholds in a way that will help those who are better off and to do nothing to help those in greatest need and in poverty. The poor could easily have been spared from the worst effects of poverty, if the political will had existed.
There are things that the Minister and the Government can do immediately. We are unnecessarily making many women of the 1950s generation rely on food banks; some are being forced to sell their homes and rely on the benefits system. That is degrading for women who have worked all their lives, often in very demanding occupations. If the Minister is looking for suggestions to make an immediate start, he could announce that the winter fuel allowance, which can be worth up to £300, will be paid immediately. If the Government were to give the WASPI women that payment, they would be able to have some level of comfort during the cold winter weather. Many in my region in the north-east will have to choose between heating and eating.
We must recognise the injustice faced by these women, because there have been so many missed opportunities to put their position right. I have no doubt that the Pensions Act 2011 accelerated the changes—many Members mentioned that. The former Pensions Minister Steve Webb, who is quoted extensively, said that he wrote to the WASPI women on behalf of the coalition Government after those changes. He said that he not only informed them about the one-year change in pension age, set out in the 2011 Act, but informed them—many for the first time—about an earlier change that meant that some women’s state pension retirement age was being extended by six years.
I was incredibly disappointed that the Budget did not offer any form of help or relief for the WASPI women. I acknowledge that some Conservative Members made representations to the Chancellor in all sincerity, and I was disappointed that neither he nor the Prime Minister responded sympathetically to them. I understand the Prime Minister is a WASPI woman; I would be curious to know from the Minister whether she received notification from the Department for Work and Pensions about the changes in her pension.
The Government must understand that this is a time-sensitive issue. We are willing to work cross-party to find a solution. If the Government are unable to do that, they will let down a whole generation of women who are being denied a fair deal on their state pension. In my constituency, 4,500 women are affected. The campaign is looking for justice, not just warm words.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) for bringing this important debate before us, and you, Mr Bone, for allowing me to speak directly after my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), who has worked tirelessly over the years to press this cause. He is a true champion of this subject and a far greater expert on it than me.
There are more than 5,000 WASPI women in Hartlepool. I am proud to say that this Saturday, the inaugural meeting of the first Hartlepool branch will take place. My hon. Friend will be the guest speaker. I pay homage to those women of Hartlepool, two of whom, Barbara Crossman and Lynne Taylor, are here today. The event on Saturday has been organised by Councillor Lesley Hamilton, Unison and local WASPI women activists, and will conclude a week in which we have championed the need for women to be engaged in politics. That irony has not escaped me. As parliamentarians, in the centenary year of women’s enfranchisement, we have campaigned all week for better representation for women in Parliament, celebrating the suffragettes and sporting their colours on both sides of the House. Yet this injustice towards women’s pensions lingers on without resolution.
It is unfortunate that there appears to be a fragmentation of those campaigning on this important issue—there is WASPI, CASPI, which stands for Campaigning Against State Pension Inequality, and the BackTo60 movement—because the main campaign is so important. The Pensions Act 1995 increased the state pension age for women from 60 to 65 in order to equalise it with that for men, with the change to be phased in over 10 years from 2010 for women born between 1950 and 1955. That transition was later sped up by the Pensions Act 2011. Those changes came as a shock to many women who had not been made aware of them. Some women found that they would have to wait up to six years longer for their state pension, which not only affected their retirement plans but pushed some into poverty and forced others to sell their home in order to make ends meet.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his speech. If women were notified, it was more likely to be by those campaign groups than by the Department for Work and Pensions.
The hon. Gentleman makes a poignant point.
Many of my constituents in Hartlepool have been affected in the way that I described. As a member of the Petitions Committee, I am well aware that the WASPI petition easily achieved the 100,000 signatures required to generate a debate in Parliament. Subsequently, there have been numerous debates on the subject, with one clear and stark exception—it has not yet been discussed in the main Chamber as part of official Government business. In fact, the Government continue to reject calls for compensation for the unfair ways in which the 1995 and 2011 changes were implemented, which affected the lives of around 2.6 million women.
The Government argue that they had to make the state pension more affordable to taxpayers. It has been estimated that the reforms have delivered £5.1 billion back to the Treasury. A study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that women’s household incomes reduced by an average of £32 a week as a result of the increase in the state pension age from 60 in 2010 to 63 in 2016. The IFS also says that the implementation has had a bigger impact on lower-income households—the knock-on effect was a 6.4% increase in the absolute poverty rate.
How can an estimated 3.5 million women, all upstanding citizens who have paid their dues to the state, be treated like this? They were the subject of legislation aimed at equalising the state pension age, but in the process of that happening, they were not properly notified, and therefore not given the necessary warning to make provision for the changes. They were quite simply caught out, which led to a sharp increase in income poverty among 60 to 62-year-old women. The changes have had devastating consequences for the women affected, including many in my constituency. For the Government to allow this state of affairs to continue is nothing short of a disgrace and a scandal.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) for securing this debate. I want to make a few brief points. Many of them have been made already, but they are worth making again, especially since we have the Minister here.
[Joan Ryan in the Chair]
I have a very active WASPI group on the Isle of Wight, which is led by Yvonne Yelland and others. I pay tribute to the work she has done with her WASPI team. I hear many of the same concerns about financial loss and hardship. It seems to me, as I said earlier, that these people are not naturally given to protesting or being dissenting voices in our society. For decades they have brought up families, in many cases been part of traditional husband and wife structures, and played their parts in their communities very well. For us to ignore these ladies and their plight, in effect because we think they will not dissent, go out on the streets or cause problems, is fundamentally to disrespect them and their contributions to public life.
I am partly motivated by a sense of fairness. These women went into the workforce in a very different era. They did not have any hope of equal pay, which we have more or less achieved in this day and age. Not only did they work generally for less pay than their menfolk and male counterparts, but they now find the modest pensions they had hoped to gain have been pushed back—more than once. They have faced not only pay inequality but unfairness over pensions.
As I said, the WASPI women in my patch have played a strong and active role in our society. Their quiet poverty concerns me. Many of them, their menfolk having also retired, are effectively dependent on one pension. Yvonne and other people from my WASPI group have talked to me about the effect of that on their quality of life. They have to make iniquitous and wretched choices—they are not able to go away or visit their grandchildren, and they perhaps have to think carefully about how they heat their homes in winter.
I do not think we will get anything like a perfect settlement—these women have already been negatively affected by not being able to get the pension they are entitled to—but I strongly support the report of the all-party parliamentary group on state pension inequality for women. I know the Government have to keep an eye on the purse strings, but I have difficulty understanding why some kind of gender assessment cannot be published. I do not see why we cannot have some kind of open, official forum for the WASPI women or their representatives to come and tell their stories about how the changes have affected them.
For me, this is a question of natural justice. Although we are unlikely, for better or worse, to be able to afford to do everything the WASPI women want—I realise we have to balance the books—I hope very much that, now we are moving on in some way from austerity, the Government can move to some kind of transitional arrangement to recognise some of the hardship. They should do that not only through one-off payments but in a structured way that recognises the injustice and that something can and should be done. I know such vague words occasionally come back to haunt politicians, but something can be done to rectify this situation. We need some kind of transitional agreement that respects the WASPI women’s plight and, while respecting the financial position we are in, recompenses them, because I believe their cause absolutely to be a just one.
I will try to sum up as succinctly as I can. First, let me say that it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely). His was one of the few sincere speeches we heard from Government Members. Since this problem first rose to prominence, I have made every effort to be as factual and politically neutral as possible. I think everyone who has been active in the campaign throughout would agree with me about that. It is great to see the same sensible comment and genuine constructiveness in the Conservative party, because this issue affects every constituency in the UK. It is an honour to follow the hon. Gentleman.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson)—also known as Patricia—on bringing this issue forward for debate again. I honestly cannot remember how many times we have debated it—this must be the 13th or 14th. I find myself thinking, “What the hang am I supposed to say that’s new? What more evidence can we give?”
While I praised the sincere comments by Government Members, I want to address some of their more insincere comments. First, however, I want to try to frame this issue a little. What underlies the entire issue is the fact that austerity does not work. We have been arguing that for years. If someone is a millionaire, their money sits in the bank—it is not the most productive—whereas if we make a conscious effort to ensure that the average worker has more money in their pocket, they spend it and we find that local economies start booming, people start picking themselves up off the ground and communities thrive. We have witnessed from consecutive Conservative Governments the total destruction of any chance of recovery after the economic crash. That is the underlying thing.
The Government say problems such as WASPI just have to be suffered because they are all in the national economic interest. They also say things such as, “The national debt has fallen.” It has not—it has just been transferred to households. Household debt is getting worse because people are being forced to face all the debts for which the Government have decided, “That’s not my responsibility, end of.” That just cannot be okay.
As well as transferring that debt to households, the Government are trying to transfer political responsibility for this issue to the Scottish Government. When I say this issue is too important to play politics with, that is exactly that kind of guff I am talking about. I notice that the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) is not here to hear my responses to what he said, but I will indulge other hon. Members with my comments.
Let me make this absolutely clear: section 28 of the Scotland Act 2016 states that the Scottish Government cannot assist
“by reason of old age.”
I do not know how that could be clearer. We cannot pick a group of people and say, “We’re going to give you money because of your age.” This Government are trying to peddle the mistruth that we can but are choosing not to. The Scottish National party, along with individuals from other parties, has been at the forefront of doing the Government’s work for them. We provided a report—I hand-delivered it to Downing Street, so I know they have a copy—yet there has been no progress. We have yet to hear anything from the Government other than, “Look, we tried our best. We’re just going to ignore it.” That is not good enough from any Government.
I was amazed that the hon. Gentleman also said that this was typical SNP and that we did not want any of the responsibility. I am sorry, but that is just untrue. The SNP’s stance is for independence. We want all the powers because we want responsibility. We are tired of having Governments we did not vote for dictating to us, creating problems and then turning to us and saying, “You fix it.” The idea that Scottish people should be taxed more to fix it by a Parliament and a party they voted for who are completely against austerity is ridiculous. If anything, I suggest that any tax increases to mitigate the Tories’ policies should be referred to as a Union tax, because that is the price Scotland will pay so long as it is part of this Union and allows the Conservatives to have control over pensions.
Let me make it clear again, in case it has been lost in previous debates: if the Minister wants to give us power over pensions we will gladly accept it. We will accept that responsibility and try to do our utmost, but please stop peddling mistruths and trying to deliberately confuse people.
Can I give the hon. Member some advice?
You could say that an hon. Member or a Minister is incorrect but you cannot say that it is an untruth. I hope that is helpful.
Even if it is untrue?
I have given you my advice.
Okay. Of course, out of respect for this place that is absolutely fine.
I think you know the rules about implying that an hon. Member has told a lie.
Forgive me. I am just explaining things as they are in front of me. Of course, I will take that back now.
I will happily accept that the Ministers and several Conservatives might just be very confused and they may have got their facts wrong, which in itself is quite worrying. I would suggest that they do not make statements making demands of other Governments until they have read the Act themselves.
My last point is that this is all about equality—that is the one thing that pretty much everyone in the Chamber can agree on, and we will no doubt hear the Minister say that this is all about equality. Yesterday I took part in a panel at the Fawcett Society. As hon. Members will be aware, we have had 100 years of women in Parliament—we have had many events. Last night, we had a big photograph on the Terrace with all the male and female MPs and it was all great, with everyone celebrating how far we have come, but these things mean something only if the Government’s actions back them up.
Equality is defined as
“the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities.”
We have to accept that this generation of women have not had equality throughout their lives. They have suffered so much. To be honest, we are still only at the tip of the iceberg in understanding just the effect on them. I am not talking just about the money in their purses; I am talking about anxiety, depression and other different things, the repercussions of which we are still trying to work out fully. Yet here we are battling the Government again at the last hurdle. It cannot be justified in any sense.
The events in Parliament should be solidifying and celebrating how far women have come, to prove how much we have learned from feminism, to show a true understanding of the double burden that has been placed on women for generation after generation, and to show a true understanding of why the female experience of life has been so different. But here we are. These women are still being patronised, misled and ignored. They are constantly treated as less and by repeating something for long enough the Minister is hoping it will just become true. That is not the case.
Let me be clear: equality is not about treating everyone exactly the same. It is about treating everyone fairly. It is acknowledging who they are, what they have been through, what their experience of life has been, what their experience of Government and policy structures have been and what it has done to affect them. The job of Government now is to make sure that our policies help to mould a society that satisfies and respects all its citizens and their needs—
“the state of being equal especially in status, rights and opportunities.”
If the Minister truly believes that the Government has delivered on that then I am afraid he has not listened. If he, like me, cannot argue that the Government is furthering these women’s rights or opportunities, that should be his starting point. I can only hope that his conscience takes him there.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I sincerely thank the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) for securing this vital debate and for her consistent record in championing the cause. I am pleased to be able to respond on behalf of the Opposition, not just because it is an opportunity to thank Members for a good, well considered and passionate debate, but because I have raised this issue from the start of my time here, which has not been long—I arrived in 2017.
I do not wish to reiterate what has already been said, but it is clear that the decision to accelerate the rise in women’s state pension age in 2011 has had a devastating impact on many women who were born in the 1950s. Many are now facing hardship and poverty as a result, as was recently highlighted in the UN report cited by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran and my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris).
Some 3.8 million women affected did not have “fair notification” of the changes. Those are the words not only of those 3.8 million women nationally or the 4,000 women affected in my constituency, but of the former Pensions Minister, Steve Webb. Those women certainly deserve recognition for this injustice, and fair transitional protections.
In one of my earliest interventions in the House I mentioned Catherine Vernon, one of more than 4,000 constituents in Weaver Vale affected by this issue. It is an issue that was created by, and as things stand can only be solved by, the current Conservative Government. They could be influenced by the Democratic Unionist party, of course. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is no longer in his place, has been consistent in supporting women and campaigning on this issue. I would hope that he and his colleagues on the DUP Benches will put the same energy that is going into Brexit at the moment into supporting this campaign.
This injustice has been highlighted many times before, and in my short time here the issue has been mentioned more than 100 times in Parliament. We have had debates, lobbies, protests, a petition signed by well over 100,000 people and early-day motion 63, with 196 signatures from across the parties. I recently had the honour of joining many campaigners outside Parliament, and I met up with an old family friend from Castleford, West Yorkshire, named Sheila, who was there with some very vocal campaigners. “I’m sorry, Mike,” she said. “I’m just going to have to go away now—unfortunately I can’t spend any longer with you. I’ve just got to go and block the road with many other people.” I must confess that I did not join her because as an MP I felt that was not my place.
Many MPs have taken the cause forward with passion and conviction, none more so than my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), who is co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on state pension inequality for women. Perhaps most memorably, during the Budget statement a few weeks ago we saw a number of women affected making their case in what can only be described as a very direct and loud manner. I was certainly proud to applaud them.
I and many other hon. Members have been inspired by the commitment and tenacity of the campaigners, and I would like to pay tribute to every single one of them in the Chamber now, those who could not get in and everyone watching. However, as today’s debate has made clear, we are no closer to securing justice for these women. This Government are no closer to accepting their culpability and doing something about it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East has said before:
“These women feel cheated and disrespected, and they are angry. Every meeting”—
including this one—
“is packed. Not one of these women has any intention of giving up until they get the result that they have earned and that they deserve”.—[Official Report, 14 December 2017; Vol. 633, c. 648.]
If the Government think that these campaigners will simply disappear or give up, they could not be more wrong.
As hon. Members have said, the problems are real and UK-wide, and they need action now. We have had contributions today from the hon. Members for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), for Strangford, for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) and for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely), from my hon. Friends the Members for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for Easington, for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), and from the Scottish National party spokesperson. Apart from one, they have all been pretty consistent in their opposition to the Government’s proposals.
I will cite examples: the hon. Member for Isle of Wight quite eloquently called on the Chancellor, in the forthcoming spending review, to help what I think in his case were 10,000 constituents affected to move toward justice. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston highlighted a challenging case of a constituent struggling to pay her bills while holding down a part-time job, and my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West highlighted a case of a constituent struggling to look after her husband, who is in his 70s now, and juggling a part-time job when she should be enjoying retirement. Those are the injustices that people face on a daily basis.
As I mentioned, if we are to respond properly to these stories and gain justice for those affected, the Government must listen and they must act. My question to the Minister is, will they do so? Will they commit to extending pension credits to hundreds of thousands of women born in the ’50s? Will they respond to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Easington asked about extending the winter fuel allowance to the people affected? Beyond that, will they commit to developing a proper and full package of transitional proposals to support these women and address the injustice they have experienced?
It is positive that Andy Burnham, a former Member of this House and now a metro Mayor, has offered a solution on transport, with free bus passes for those affected in Greater Manchester, but let us be clear about this: it should not be up to our local politicians to take action when it is the Government’s responsibility to do so. As important as it is for local politicians to come up with such schemes, it in no way compensates for, or reflects the true scale of, the injustice that millions of women have suffered.
The Minister must take responsibility and take action, because the problems go beyond individual hardship; this injustice is furthering wider problems in our society too. It has been pointed out by parliamentary colleagues elsewhere that the gender pay gap for the over-60s has increased by nearly 3% in a year, partly as a result of so many women having to take low-paid jobs just to make ends meet. It is a self-defeating policy, and it needs to be addressed now.
Sadly, the Government’s commitment to dealing with people who have been affected, even under the existing regulations, appears to be lacking. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) has previously noted that there are just three case examiners working on almost 3,000 WASPI cases. The average wait for a complaint is 36 weeks, with many taking more than 43 weeks. Will the Minister show some commitment to dealing with such complaints by ensuring that there are enough staff to handle them, so that women are not yet again left in limbo and feeling ignored by this Government?
Yesterday we recognised 100 years since the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918, which allowed women to stand and vote in Parliament, a key milestone in a long campaign for women’s equality and suffrage. At the heart of that campaign for equality was a rallying cry to action, “Deeds not Words”. One hundred years on, our 1950s women need deeds, not words, and it is up to the Minister and the Government to deliver them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) on securing this debate and thank all individual hon. Members for their forthright and impassioned contributions.
The background is well known. The change, announced in 1993, was made for a number of different reasons, notably equality legislation and various cases in the European courts. At the same time, life expectancy and pressures on state spending were being considered. The reality of the present situation is that the number of people receiving a state pension is expected to grow by one third over the next 25 years, and by 2034 there will be more than twice as many people over 100 as there are now. The old age dependency ratio is projected to rise significantly over the next 20-odd years.
Following the passing of the Pensions Act 1995, the actual and projected growth in the pensioner population continued faster than anticipated, due to increasing longevity. As a result, the then Labour Government decided that a state pension age fixed at 65 was not affordable or sustainable. The Pensions Act 2007 was introduced, increasing state pension ages to 66, 67 and 68 years. The coalition Government, as has been explained today, set out further changes in the Pensions Act 2011, which accelerated the equalisation of women’s state pension age and brought forward the increase in men and women’s state pension age to 66, so that it would be completed by 2020. The Pensions Act 2014 then brought forward the increase in state pension age to 67 by eight years, so that it would be completed by 2028, and introduced regular reviews of the state pension age, the first of which was the Cridland review of 2017, to ensure that the system remains fair, sustainable and affordable for taxpayers on an ongoing basis.
There has been much discussion about life expectancy, which I will touch on briefly at this stage. The reality is that since the second world war there have been dramatic transformations in NHS care, in the quality of healthcare generally and in the nature of healthy lifestyles. Cohort life expectancy projections have also been transformed in that time, rising by more than 10 years for individual men and women. By 2018 those figures had increased by more than 10 years for newly born girls and by more than 12 years for boys, to 92 and 89 respectively. It remains the case that women live significantly longer than men. [Official Report, 17 December 2018, Vol. 651, c. 4MC.]
I wonder whether the Minister might address the issue I raised about not just life expectancy, but the anticipation of a healthy and active lifespan after retirement. Many of my constituents have worked in quite demanding occupations and are physically not capable of further work, which the Minister has previously suggested they should take advantage of. They really need to access their state pension.
I was going to come to that, but I will turn to that point now. I will deal first with general life expectancy and then with the point on healthy life expectancy.
On general life expectancy, I was going to answer the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who is no longer in his place; I know we all have other commitments in other bits of the House today. The Office for National Statistics releases period life expectancy by local area of the UK, but not by individual parliamentary constituency. Life expectancy at birth in Glasgow is 73 years for men and 78 years for women, and it has increased by four years for men and more than two years for women since 2001 to 2003; it has increased in every area of the UK over the same period. Cohort life expectancy at birth in Scotland is currently 87 for men and 90 for women, and cohort life expectancy at age 65 in Scotland is currently 19 years for men and 21 years for women.
I turn to healthy life expectancy. The latest ONS statistics show that 65-year-olds in the UK are expected to live over half their remaining life in good health, at 11.2 years for women and 10.4 years for men. Healthy life expectancy as a whole has increased over recent decades, and healthy life expectancy at age 65 as a proportion of total life expectancy has been relatively stable since the year 2000. I apologise that I do not have the data for the specific area of the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), but I am happy to write to him on the specifics. I know his constituency very well; it is down the road from mine. In Scotland, healthy life expectancy at age 65 has increased in recent years. I believe that addresses that point.
I stand here defending not only the Conservative Government but the coalition Government and the Labour Government who were in power for 13 years, as well as the nine different Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions and 11 Pensions Ministers over that time, some of whom are still serving in this House today: the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman); the Deputy Speaker, the right hon. Member for Doncaster Central (Dame Rosie Winterton); and the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper); and various other Members such as the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), all of whom supported the policy changes that took place because of the increase in life expectancy.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I was waiting until he finalised his point. This issue goes all the way back to when it started in 1995, under various Governments who had decades of opportunities to let people know about the changes. The ball has got to stop somewhere. The buck that gets passed around has stopped here with this Government. This is real now. These women are being left destitute. Given all the failures of the past, will he now do something to help the women rather than just say, “Oh, well, it’s not just me. Other people could have done something and didn’t.”? It is him now and he can do something about it.
The issue of communication has been addressed on an ongoing basis in this House and in the Work and Pensions Committee, which did a highly detailed assessment of the matter a couple of years ago. The matter began in 1993 and received considerable publicity at the time. Since 1995, the Government have gone to significant lengths to communicate the changes in various ways—
She asked me the question—let me finish. The Government have gone to significant lengths to communicate the changes to ensure that those affected were fully aware of their rights. That has been done using a range of formats, communication methods and styles—as I have explained, it has been gone through in a multitude of ways by the Work and Pensions Committee—including communication campaigns, information online, and individual letters posted to approximately 1.2 million women who were directly affected by the 1995 Act changes. A further 5 million letters were sent later to those affected by the 2011 Act changes between January 2012 and November 2013. Between April 2000 and the end of September 2018, the Department for Work and Pensions provided more than 24 million personalised state pension statements, and we continue to encourage individuals to request a personalised state pension statement.
On transitional arrangements, the coalition Government and previous Governments gave careful consideration to a range of options that were debated at great length in this House on repeated occasions. The matter was debated during the passage of the 1995 Act, the 2007 Act, the 2011 Act and the 2014 Act. Any amendment to the current legislation that created a new inequality between men and women would unquestionably be highly dubious as a matter of law. Secondly, causing younger people to bear a greater share of the cost of the pension system in that way would be unfair and would undermine the principle of intergenerational fairness that is integral to our state pension reforms.
On that point about intergenerational fairness, we have to factor in the unfairness that the 1950s women face for all the reasons that have been set out: historical reasons such as paying a lower stamp, women not working as often as men, and spending time at home when they had children. With regard to intergenerational fairness, I think the younger generation accept that it is different for the 1950s women.
I take the hon. Lady’s point, but that matter was unquestionably considered by female Ministers such as the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham and the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford. As the matter has been debated on an ongoing basis, it has been an evolutionary process throughout the past 23 years. I am the latest of many different Ministers who have stood in this post, and I continue to defend the actions of Governments and Ministers who went before me.
Will the Minister give way?
I will give way to the hon. Lady, but first I want to address the point about complaints that was raised by the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) and others.
A number of different processes were raised in respect of complaints, including departmental complaints. The Government have worked extensively—there is no change in the policy approach to departmental complaints under this Government or previous Governments—to engage with a significant amount of correspondence from women who have contacted them on this issue. There have been approximately 8,000 complaints on the topic and a significant amount of resource has been dedicated to it. The Government believe there has been no maladministration within the Department for Work and Pensions with regard to the communication of state pension age changes under this or previous Governments.
We have an Independent Case Examiner. If the House will bear with me, I will explain the processes. The steps the Department took to notify the general public about changes to state pension age have undergone additional scrutiny by the Independent Case Examiner, an independent office holder who reviews complaints about the Department for Work and Pensions. The Independent Case Examiner does not consider policy or legislative issues, but examines whether the Department for Work and Pensions has appropriately administered stated policies or procedures. The Independent Case Examiner’s team has concluded investigations into approximately 185 women’s state pension cases to date, and in every case there was no finding that the Department had failed to provide appropriate notice of the changes.
I will finish the last two aspects on complaints and then I will give way to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South.
We also have a Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. Some complaints have been escalated to the ombudsman, who has identified a sample of cases that they feel reflect the issues raised in the WASPI complaints. They are now considering whether to investigate, and, if so, the scope of that investigation. Should they decide to investigate, the Government will co-operate in full with that process.
Finally, colleagues will be aware that there is an ongoing judicial review application. It would be inappropriate for me to comment in any detail on the legal case. I can confirm that the High Court has refused the claimant permission to apply for judicial review, but I understand there is a reapplication for oral permission. I spent 10 years both suing and defending the Government as a judicial review lawyer. My last client was a gentleman by the name of Ed Balls when he was Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. I will not comment on the merit of the matter, because it is for an individual judge to decide. Now I give way to the hon. Lady.
I am genuinely grateful to the Minister for giving way; no doubt I am probably getting on his nerves after all this time. Can the Government not concede that there has clearly been terrible communication? It was 14 years before letters went out, and now that women are coming forward and saying how hard this issue is hitting them—and bearing in mind the lives and the inequalities that they have suffered—the Government are still not listening to them. When he talks about intergenerational fairness, my generation is looking at how the Government are treating the older generation because they are our aunties or grannies, so how can we have any faith in the pension system? Will there even be a pension system years from now?
The point of having a balance between spending on state pensions and the number of people coming into receipt of the state pension is to ensure that there is a state pension in the future. With a larger number of people becoming pensioners, any Government has to make assessments, as has been shown, and that is what has happened.
Will the Minister give way?
I will give way in a second. First I will address the poverty point.
The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) raised the issue of poverty and others have raised the United Nations report. In the early 1970s, roughly 40% of pensioners were in relative poverty. That figure is now down to 16%, one of the lowest rates since comparable records began. No one disputes that more has to be done, but that is a significant improvement. Since 2010, there are 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty before housing costs. That is a record low. The reality is that we spend approximately £121 billion on benefits for pensioners, which includes the £97 billion spent on state pensions this year—2018-19. The overall trend in the percentage of pensioners living in poverty is of a significant fall over several decades. At the same stage, the basic state pension has risen by £660 more than if it had just been uprated by earnings since 2010.
I understand the Minister’s argument about the need to ensure that the number of people entering the state pension system is equalled out, but surely if we are to readdress the matter or rebalance any imbalance, it would be far fairer to do so for those in my generation, who have decades to plan for our pension and retirement, than to punish the women who for decades worked and strove, in the reasonable expectation of retiring on a particular date.
That is the debate that, clearly, has to be held. I return to the point that the decision was originally taken in 1993 by my—then very youthful— right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) and was supported by a series of Governments and Ministers way more experienced than I am, who have been here over the past twenty-something years. I am merely continuing that debate and discussion about how we progress.
I thought I heard the Minister say that there had been a fall in pensioner poverty. That leads me to question where he gets his information. The UN special rapporteur was clear: between 2012-13 and 2016-17 there was a 300,000 rise in pensioner poverty in the UK, which he specifically linked to the rise in state pension age. Is the special rapporteur wrong?
We may take some time to dissect the specific figures on that, but I will attempt to do so—[Interruption.]—if the hon. Lady bears with me.
One starts with the basic principle that the figure used to be at 40% for relative poverty and is now down to 16%. The reason for the 300,000 increase is that more pensioners are in relative poverty after housing costs. That is the issue in relation to relative poverty, because in the past few years the housing costs of those of working age have reduced, because of lower mortgage rates. That reduction in housing costs increases income for those with mortgages, and that pushes median income up. That then feeds through to increase the number of pensioners who are below the 60% of median income poverty line, as the vast majority of pensioners do not have a mortgage and so do not see any benefit from lower mortgage rates. There can be a discussion about relative and absolute poverty and how to measure them, but the overall trend is dramatically down for such poverty, and I believe the explanation of what the rapporteur said is as I have just set out.
I have not addressed the specific point about the Scottish National party proposals and the vexed question of the Scotland Act 2016. As I understand it, various previous proposals—and specifically the one outlined today—would reverse the 2011 Act in its entirety. The SNP’s projected cost for that is £8 billion. We manifestly disagree and suggest it would be in the region of £30 billion, with further costs as long as women’s state pension age was below 66.
As to the Scotland Act powers, I accept that the hon. Members for North Ayrshire and Arran and for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) and I have had robust debate on many such occasions, but I would always say as I have previously, “Don’t take this from me.” I will read the letter from Jeane Freeman of 22 June 2017, in which she sets out what payments can potentially be made under sections 26, 28 and 24 of the Scotland Act 2016. Under the heading of section 26 she states:
“This power is limited to providing help with ‘short term needs’, and those needs must require to be met to avoid a risk to a person’s wellbeing… Their needs and the risks to their well-being would have to be assessed individually.”
Will the Minister give way?
I will set these things out, and then the hon. Lady can come back at me.
On the creation of the benefit under section 28, I point out with great respect to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South that in paragraph 3 of the same letter, her own party’s Pensions Minister in Scotland rebuts the point on old age—and she puts “old age” in inverted commas:
“I accept that ‘old age’ is not defined in the legislation, and that most people would not regard this age group as old”.
Under section 28, there is the capability to create a new benefit. That is the heading that Jeane Freeman gives to the relevant part of the letter: “Creation of a new benefit using section 28”. Finally, the situation on top-up and reserve benefits under section 24 is also set out.
I am very appreciative again that the Minister has given way. I want to say something very directly. First, if he is suggesting that the Scottish Government should mitigate the situation, that does not solve the problem for the rest of the UK, where women are suffering just as much. Secondly, that leads me to question who is responsible. If he wants us to take the burden, will he devolve pensions control to us to let us do it? Currently he is saying, “With the limited powers you have, try and fix this whole problem.” It is like giving us control over the window wipers and complaining about the direction of the car. What he suggests has nothing to do with the issue. Does the Minister support the Scottish Government taking full responsibility for pensions?
I am not going to re-litigate and re-debate the Scotland Act 2016. I accept that the Scottish Parliament cannot provide assistance by way of a pension to individuals who qualify by reason of old age. However, those who have not attained state pension age are, by definition, of working age, and are not therefore being provided support by reason of old age, and therefore the restriction relied upon by the hon. Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire South and for North Ayrshire and Arran does not apply.
We spend about £50 billion a year on welfare disability support in this country, and the key choice facing any Government of any form when seeking to control and manage state pension spend is whether to increase the state pension age or to 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. Successive Governments have made appropriate, difficult decisions to equalise and increase the state pension age, and we do not intend to change that today.
I know that I have just two or three minutes to sum up the debate. I am beyond disappointed. We have heard nothing new today. We have seen again a huge lack of any real and meaningful engagement from the UK Government. That lack of engagement has to end. It is dismissive of and disrespectful to an entire generation of women.
Giving speeches on the history of pensions is not what the debate was about, and it does nothing to address either the fact that women’s pensions were stolen or the suffering caused as a result. The debate was not about life expectancy; it was about the theft perpetrated upon women. These women were often excluded from company and workplace pensions. They raised families and cared for relatives and they have now been abandoned by the UK Government. To be told that there is no solution, as we heard from one Government Member today, is frankly an insult. It is not good enough, and the campaign will go on.
Brexit is entirely consuming UK politics, but we can and will continue to keep this issue firmly on the agenda. These women are our mothers, sisters, grannies and wives, and the UK Government have not heard the last of this. The entire state pension system has been undermined by this travesty. A social contract has been broken, and I remind those in this place that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered state pension equalisation for women born in the 1950s.