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Pensions Act 2014 (Consequential Amendments) Order 2016

Volume 774: debated on Thursday 8 September 2016

Motion to Approve

Moved by

My Lords, you will recall a previous set of consequential amendments connected to the introduction of the new state pension, together with a set of affirmative regulations that were discussed in February this year. This order makes a small number of further such consequential amendments. They do two things.

First, they ensure that existing administrative arrangements which are designed to facilitate the annual uprating exercise will continue to operate as they do now. Secondly, they give appeal rights to decisions about national insurance credits that count for new state pension purposes.

Article 2 amends provisions of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 which deal with alterations in the payable amount of certain income-related benefits: income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance, income-related employment and support allowance, universal credit and pension credit. These provisions allow the income-related benefit award to be adjusted without the need for a further decision if the adjustment is due to uprating—whether it is the benefit itself that is being uprated, another benefit is being taken into account, or both. They also enable the decision-maker to take account of the new rates from the uprating date in determining new awards that begin before the uprating order has come into force. These are long-standing administrative easements which help to ensure the effective operation of the annual uprating exercise.

As your Lordships know, where a person is a member of a couple, their entitlement to benefits can be affected by their status as a couple. Therefore, where a working-age income-related benefit is in payment for a couple but the non-claiming partner is a pensioner, the benefit income could include state pensions. The amendments made by Article 2 simply ensure that business as usual will continue where a person’s benefit income includes new state pension. The forthcoming uprating exercise which will determine the rates to be applied from next April is, of course, the first to apply to the new state pension.

National insurance credits which count for new state pension purposes are provided for under Part 8 of the State Pension Regulations 2015. These are new regulations, made under a new power inserted in the legislation by the Pensions Act 2014. The policy is that decisions made in relation to these credits should, as is the case with decisions made in respect of existing credits awarded under the old credits regulations, have the right of appeal. As the law stands, they do not. The amendment being made by Article 3 gives that appeal right. This amendment should have been in place from 6 April 2016 but, unfortunately, it was overlooked. Having identified the omission, we have acted as quickly as we could to put it right. This is why the order will come into force on the day after it is made.

My officials have been working closely with HMRC, which administers credits on DWP’s behalf, to devise a workaround. Once the order has come into force, HMRC will be revisiting the decisions made before it came into force. Where fresh decisions are made, they will carry an appeal right. There will be no substantial difference in outcome between an original decision, had it been appealable and successfully appealed, and a fresh decision that is successfully appealed. A successful appellant will have credits awarded to them. I should stress that to date there have been no appeals. That there have been no appeals is understandable. First, this issue relates only to decisions made in the period between 6 April 2016 and the date the order takes effect, which is around five months. Secondly, it only affects credits which a person has to apply for.

The practical impact of the gap in the law is restricted to decisions about credits which a person has been able to apply for since 6 April 2016. These include new credits to cover past periods in which a person was accompanying their Armed Forces spouse or civil partner on service overseas. Ordinarily, credits awarded for the tax year 2016-17 would be taken into account only in the assessment of new state pension awards made on or after 6 April 2017. However, the new credits for Armed Forces spouses and civil partners could affect awards made this year. A further mitigation is that before a disputed decision can be appealed, it goes through a process of mandatory reconsideration. So the decision-maker has to look at it again and if, on reflection, they consider that the decision should be changed then it can be revised, without the claimant having to go through an appeal process.

We also know that in relation to the new credit for an Armed Forces spouse or civil partner made under Part 8 of the State Pension Regulations 2015, out of 1,647 applications which have been decided up to 5 September 2016, 324 were refused—and of those refusals, 201 were because the tax year in question is already a qualifying year for other reasons.

Finally, based on data from last year—2015-16—about credits decisions made under the 1975 regulations, we know that only a tiny number of disputed credits decisions actually proceeded to appeal.

So with the change in the law imminent, and if they are needed, we anticipate that the contingency arrangements we have put in place will be required for only a very small number of cases. I can also confirm that, in my view, this statutory instrument is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. I hope this gives noble Lords reassurance that while it is accepted that justice may be delayed, it will not be denied. I beg to move.

My Lords, it is unfortunate that there has been an oversight in providing a right of appeal in respect of certain decisions on NI credits for the new state pension, but clearly it is recognised that this SI seeks to correct that.

However, I am a little confused because, as I understand it, the decisions potentially impacted by the oversight in relation to the appeal relate to credits for, in certain circumstances, people caring for children under 12, carers and spouses and civil partners of members of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify exactly which classes of credits were impacted by this appeal oversight, because it is difficult for the layperson to work it out. In particular, will he say whether that category or class of credits includes applications for credits from those caring for at least 20 hours a week, including grandparents?

The concern has to be over the extent to which the omission of a right of appeal may have affected individuals’ access to such credits and whether this SI addresses that sufficiently. Again, it was quite complex trying to follow what exactly was the answer to that question. Is it possible for the Minister to confirm or indicate the number of claimants who have been denied a right of appeal to date as a result of this omission—that is, the population denied that right rather than those who sought, in the absence of that right, to appeal?

The oversight concerning an appeal embraces all decisions on the relevant credits made between 6 April 2016 and the date when these regulations restore a right of appeal. The Explanatory Memorandum refers to minimising,

“the period when there is no right of appeal”,

for these certain classes of credits, but I am not sure how that impacts the individuals who may have sought to exercise a right of appeal during the period. Does this mean, for example, that all those who made applications for such credits which failed will automatically be written to and told that they now have a right of appeal? I am not quite sure how they will be addressed under this SI. It would be helpful to have that clarified.

As the Explanatory Memorandum observes, some credits are posted automatically while other credits must be applied for: for example, the credit for caring for at least 20 hours a week. The omission of an appeal sits alongside what appears to be government reluctance to report on the success of measures to improve the take-up of claimable benefits. The noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, as Pensions Minister, commented that it was regrettable that the number of carers claiming for NI credits was still so low—so I will take this opportunity to ask the Minister whether it is possible to be advised on how many carers claim such credits and the number the DWP estimates could be eligible for such credits, so that we have some idea of what the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, was referring to when she referred to the regrettably low number of claimants.

My final point is on the uprating of the new state pension and the consequential adjustment to income-related benefits. Sections 150, 150A and 151A of the Social Security Administration Act refer to uprating by no less than earnings or prices. There is no reference to the triple lock in the new state pension. I cannot miss this opportunity, given that there has been much speculation and comment about the longevity of the triple lock, not least from the Government’s previous Pensions Minister. Can the Minister confirm the exact extent of the Government’s commitment to retaining the triple lock?

Given the introduction of universal credit, over time the adjusting of income-related benefits to take account of the uprating of the new state pension will largely be in respect of awards of universal credit and pension credit. The experience of the poorest pensioners will continue to be influenced by the extent to which the uprating of the pension guarantee credit is comparable to, or less generous than, that applied to the new state pension. Can the Minister confirm the Government’s policy for the uprating of pension credit, not least over the course of this Parliament?

My Lords, I will make a short contribution to this debate. I think the House is grateful to the Minister for coming forward with these two corrections to omissions. It is reassuring to hear, if I understand the Minister accurately, that these things have been caught in time, so that there has been no real loss to individuals. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, I would like more reassurance, because it was quite a complicated explanation. I think the Minister said that no results in terms of loss of appeals to national insurance credit were discernible.

It would be valuable if the Minister could take careful note that some of us might like to come back to monitoring this in the uprating debate next spring, so that we will have a better chance to look at all the downstream consequences of the changes. In addition, I would like to hear a little more reassurance about paragraph 12 of the Explanatory Memorandum, Monitoring and Review, which says:

“We will not monitor these changes specifically, but will do so through established customer feedback processes”.

I wonder what that means and how meaningful it is when these changes might be affecting tiny numbers, but the tiny numbers might be significantly affected. I am a bit nervous about leaving this to customer feedback. Will the Minister take that point on board?

On another process point, I have always been amazed at the extent of the expertise available to the professionals in the department, the Pensions Directorate and the Pensions Agency, its predecessor. They were expert at coping with this immense detail. The regulations contain two omissions, and that is two omissions too many. They may be relatively minor in their extent, but, as I keep saying to the Minister, the ministerial team has to make sure that there is enough resource in the department to ensure that parliamentary draftsmen get all the details they need, so that omissions are not made in future. The department continues to suffer staff cuts in a way that puts unreasonable pressure on the experts who are good enough to provide us with the regulations that we consider here in Parliament. Will the Minister reflect on that?

It may be that these are two completely one-off exceptions. I hope that it is not the beginning of a trend. Those of us in Parliament who look at these things will be watching very carefully. I do not blame the professionals in the department: if they are underhanded in terms of dealing with the immense volume of ineffably complicated minutiae of legislative proceedings and provisions, they need all the help that they can get.

Again, I welcome the fact that this seems to have been picked up in time, but if the Minister could give us some more reassurance about winners and losers, even if it takes him over the coming months until the next uprating in the spring, I am perfectly content to support these regulations. I support the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, but I am perfectly happy to support these regulations and allow them to go forward.

My Lords, I shall follow the usual incisive contribution of my noble friend Lady Drake and the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, in thanking the Minister for his introduction of this order. It is quite like old times. I also take the opportunity to thank the officials who spent a bit of time yesterday with us trying to unlock for us some of the intricacies of these provisions which, although small in terms of drafting, are quite complicated.

We note the Minister has confirmed at least in one respect the judgment of his predecessor, concerning compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights. I state from the outset that we do not seek to challenge these provisions, although we add our concerns to that expressed by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, that overlooking an appeals mechanism within three months of a new pension scheme starting does not inspire confidence. My noble friend Lady Drake has rightly chided the Government in stronger terms, and the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, made the point that two omissions are two too many.

As we have heard, the order seeks to address two distinct issues. First, it extends the automatic adjustment of certain benefits where a recipient or their family are in receipt of another benefit which is uprated. In particular, it ensures that the definition of benefit income includes the state pension under the Pensions Act 2014—that is, the new state pension—and that definitions of alteration include those transitional provisions of the new state pension which have to be uprated by no less than the increase in prices. That includes protected payments, certain increments inherited from a deceased spouse or civil partner, and certain other deferred amounts inherited under the state pension. Secondly, as the noble Lord explained, there are appeal rights to secure certain national insurance credits.

On the first issue, the automatic adjustment would apply only to income-related benefits including income support, JSA, ESA, pension credit and universal credit. The Explanatory Note to the order sets out the limited circumstances where the state pension will form part of the benefit income of a person claiming a working-age benefit. Its application is asserted to be—perhaps the Minister will confirm this—for pension credit awards and potentially for so-called “mixed” couples, where there is currently a choice of pension credit or the working-age benefit. We are told that this choice is to be phased out. Perhaps the Minister will also confirm the timing and mechanism for this to happen.

To the extent that income support, JSA and ESA are to be replaced by universal credit, the Government anticipate that these arrangements in due course will apply to universal credit and pension credit only. This raises a number of questions. First, there is the timetable for universal credit. It is understood that the most recent plans—pre the resignation of IDS—were for universal credit to be rolled out for all new claimants between 2016 and June 2018, with gateway areas becoming full service areas. This was to be followed by migration of current claims of legacy benefits to be completed in 2021. Is this still the plan?

How does the Minister respond to the article in Tuesday’s Times, which refers to the involvement of GCHQ in alerting No. 10 to security flaws in the programme, with significant numbers of claimants facing significant issues? Can the Minister assure us that, now IDS is out of the way, the reported chaos under every stone has been dealt with? Quite apart from this order, however, we should find time to debate this fully.

So far as pension uprating is concerned, Sections 150, 150A and 151A make reference variously to uprating by not less than earnings or prices. My noble friend Lady Drake pressed this issue. There is of course no specific reference to the triple lock in these statutory provisions, although it can be catered for within the drafting formulation. I press the Minister, as has my noble friend, to confirm the Government’s position on this matter, particularly in light of his predecessor’s recent comments. Will the triple lock continue to be applied, as now, at least until the end of this Parliament?

We have been told that Article 3 amends an omission of a consequential amendment arising from the 2014 Pensions Act, and this omission being included in the right of appeal for decisions concerning awards for credits made under Part 8 of the State Pension Regulations 2015. We are told that any credit decisions under these provisions in respect of the tax year 2016-17 will need to be reconsidered once the law has changed. My noble friend, again, pressed on that matter. As my noble friend said, these could relate to decisions on credits for spouses and civil partners of members of HM Forces, people caring for a child under 12, foster carers and people approaching pensionable age. These are important provisions.

The Explanatory Note suggests that this omission will have very little effect because it concerns only one class of credits—post-April 2016 class 3 credits to cover gaps in the records of those accompanying HM Forces, as spouses or civil partners, in a posting outside the UK. This seems to be on the basis that generally decisions on tax credits for 2016-17 will be relevant only in determining the new state pension for those reaching state pension age for 2017-18, by which time the problem will have been fixed. The exception appears to be spouses and civil partners of HM Forces personnel, where credit from 1975-76 can be relevant to pension awards for 2016-17. Can the Minister confirm that that is correct and that is why it is of limited effect?

Can the Minister say generally whether the appeals rights apply only to those credits which have to be claimed and not those applied automatically? I think he did that in his presentation, but I ask: if that is the case, what is the remedy, should the latter be subject to error? Is this a matter of administrative adjustment?

The Explanatory Note seems to be suggesting that, notwithstanding that there is no current right of appeal in certain circumstances, HMRC can in the interim undertake a reconsideration, which would be the first stage of an appeal should the right to one exist. Again, I think that that is what the Minister said, but perhaps he would confirm that.

The issue of National Insurance credits takes us back to an earlier debate about generally improving take-up of these credits, which are not awarded automatically—again a point pressed by my noble friend Lady Drake. In resisting a reporting process to Parliament on a take-up strategy, the noble Lord said that,

“we intend to review these systems to identify what efficiencies can be put in place to make the system of national insurance credits as simple as possible”.—[Official Report, 18/12/13; col. 353.]

Would the noble Lord please now offer us an update?

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their contributions, which made it rather a more interesting debate than I had anticipated. I will go straight into the questions that were raised rather than reprising the content.

There have been two omissions. One was something that has actually potentially affected people; we are getting that first one back in time. We take this seriously. It is not the first time that I have had to grovel somewhat about redoing regulations; I suspect that some noble Lords on the other Benches have had similar experiences.

Never! So, clearly we need to take this seriously. In this case, however, the impacts have not been great. On how the feedback works, we have an established complaints and resolution procedure—and it is particularly valuable doing it this way because, as the noble Lord said, the numbers are small—whereby people can either write or phone in. We will catch these and assess what is happening.

I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, that I described in my speech a process that, so far, no one has tried to appeal. If they do, there is a workaround, so in practice there will be no gap at all for people. The minimum guarantee for the pension credit standard will continue to be uprated, at least by earnings every year. I am in a position, I think, to confirm to noble Lords that the triple lock is in place through this Parliament, as has been said several times in the past.

On the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, about credit decisions, the oversight affects all decisions on credits—which includes grandparents—made under the powers in the Pensions Act 2014 from 6 April 2016 to when the law is changed. The specific decisions affected relate to credits for spouses and civil partners of members of Her Majesty’s Forces, child benefit recipients, people caring for a child under 12, foster carers and people approaching pensionable age—and, as I mentioned, it includes grandparents. I am afraid that we do not have data on the numbers. There are around 400,000 eligible for carer’s credit and, in August, there were 10,900 recipients. There are 200,000 service spouses eligible and, since April, we have had 1,850 applicants.

The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, enjoys reading newspaper articles on universal credit. I can confirm that there was a most imaginative use of the present tense in the Times—all references to spies are pretty historical by now. We have been working with GCHQ all the way through to make sure that universal credit is secure. It has monitored and is content with the system; that is something that has been of immense value to us as we have developed the system.

We made an announcement in July on the timetable. We now envisage universal credit being completed by March 2022 instead of March 2021, but nine months of that difference is contingency.

The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked about credit applications. Decisions on credit applications made in respect of 2016-17 will be relevant in determining the new state pension entitlement only of people reaching state pension age from 2017-18, as this will be the first cohort for which 2016-17 will be a relevant tax year. What he was asking was therefore correct.

On his question about a review, we carried out a review and found that the main issue was lack of information. This is being addressed in the new state pension awareness campaign. I think I have covered most of the questions, but I will go over them carefully afterwards and I will write to noble Lords.

Before the noble Lord sits down, I imagine he has a note from the Box ready, so perhaps I could ask him to comment on the right of appeal in respect of credits where they are awarded automatically. From what he said, I think the right of appeal applies to credits that have to be claimed. If there is an error in the application of automatic credits, what is the remedy and how is it applied?

I will confirm this in writing, but my impression is that there is a right of appeal in these circumstances. It may be that there was no gap in the legislation. I will confirm that, but that is my starting position for 10.

Before the noble Lord sits down, I just want to take advantage, if I may, to ask about the issue of pension credit. It has been confirmed that it will follow the earnings link, which we know is in the legislation. But in recent times we have seen increases in pension credit greater than what is required by legislation in order to ensure that the poorest pensioners do not receive a smaller increase than those receiving state pension. Given the kind of statements made in the Budget in 2015, is the disposition of the Government still to say that there will be a focus on the poorest pensioners through pension credit and that they will not feel constrained to stay only within what the legislation says but may go above it in order to protect those poorest pensioners? I am interested so I am pushing the Minister on this point.

I always love to answer the noble Baroness in a positive way, but I am not in a position to speculate on the precise levels in any particular year. We do not have long to wait until we see some of the figures. I am feeling incredibly confident about my last answer, almost to the extent that a letter is not required on this particular point. With that response, I beg to move.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 5.33 pm.