Tuesday 26th March 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Statement
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 25 March.
“With permission, I would like to make a Statement to provide an interim update on the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s investigation into the way that changes to the state pension age were communicated to women born in the 1950s. I am grateful to the ombudsman for conducting this investigation.
I recognise the strength of feeling on this issue, and it is important to set out the wider context and our initial understanding of the report itself. The fact that it has taken over five years for the ombudsman to produce the final report reflects the complexity of this matter. The period that the investigation considers spans around 30 years, dating back to the decision that Parliament took in 1995 to equalise the state pension age for men and women gradually from 2010. Since then, changes have been made through a series of Acts of Parliament introduced by successive Governments, which resulted in the state pension age for women rising to 65 by November 2018, and then to 66 by October 2020.
The announcement in 1993 about equalising the state pension age addressed a long-standing inequality between men and women. The changes were about maintaining the right balance between the sustainability of the state pension, fairness between generations and ensuring a dignified retirement in later life. Women retiring today can still expect to receive the state pension for more than 21 years on average—over two years longer than for men. Had the Government not equalised the state pension age, women would have been retiring today at 60, and they could have spent, on average, over 40% of their adult lives in receipt of the state pension. That would have been unfair, because, by the 1990s, life expectancy had significantly increased compared with 1948, when the state pension age for women was set at 60.
Turning to the investigation itself, it is important to be clear about what the ombudsman has not said, particularly following some of the inaccurate and misleading commentary since the report was published. The ombudsman has looked not at the decision to equalise the state pension age, but at how that decision was communicated by the Department for Work and Pensions. The report hinges on the department’s decisions over a narrow period between 2005 and 2007, and on the effect of those decisions on individual notifications. The ombudsman has not found that women have directly lost out financially as a result of DWP’s actions. The report states:
‘We do not find that it’—
meaning DWP’s communication, resulted in the complainants
‘suffering direct financial loss’.
The final report has not said that all women born in the 1950s will have been adversely impacted, as many women were aware that the state pension age had changed.
In his stage 1 report, the ombudsman found that
‘between 1995 and 2004, DWP’s communication of changes to State Pension age reflected the standards we would expect it to meet’.
The report also confirms that accurate information about changes to the state pension age was publicly available in leaflets, through DWP’s pension education campaigns, through DWP’s agencies, and on its website. However, when considering the DWP’s actions between August 2005 and December 2007, the ombudsman came to the view that those actions resulted in 1950s-born women receiving individual notice later than they might, had different decisions been made.
It is important to remember that during the course of the ombudsman’s investigation, the state pension age changes were considered by the courts. In 2019 and 2020, the High Court and the Court of Appeal respectively found no fault with the actions of the DWP. The courts made it clear that under successive Governments dating back to 1995, the action taken was entirely lawful and did not discriminate on any grounds. During these proceedings, the Court of Appeal held that the High Court was entitled to conclude as a fact that there had been
‘adequate and reasonable notification given by the publicity campaigns implemented by the Department over a number of years’.
The ombudsman has taken five years to produce his final report. As the chief executive of the ombudsman herself has set out, the DWP has fully co-operated with the ombudsman’s investigation throughout this time and provided thousands of pages of detailed evidence. We continue to take the work of the ombudsman very seriously, and it is only right that we now fully and properly consider the findings and details of what is a substantial document. The ombudsman has noted in his report the challenges and complexities of this issue. In laying the report before Parliament, the ombudsman has brought matters to the attention of the House, and we will provide a further update to the House once we have considered the report’s findings.
This Government have a strong track record of supporting all pensioners. In 2023-24, we will spend over £151 billion on support for pensioners. That is 5.5% of GDP, and includes around £124 billion for the state pension. We are committed to ensuring that the state pension remains the foundation of income in retirement now and for future generations. That is why we are honouring the triple lock by increasing the basic and new state pensions by 8.5% from next month. This sees the full rate of the new state pension rise by £900 a year and it follows last year’s rise of 10.1%.
We now have 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty after housing costs than there were in 2010. Our sustained commitment to the triple lock demonstrates our determination to continue to combat pensioner poverty in the future. That is why we have reformed the state pension as well as workplace pensions, improving the retirement outcomes for many women. Our commitment to pensioners is why we introduced automatic enrolment, which has seen millions more women saving into a workplace pension.
This Government are committed to supporting pensioners in a sustainable way, providing them with a dignified retirement while also being fair to them and to taxpayers. I have set out our strong track record of backing our pensioners. I have also set out our commitment to the full and proper consideration of the ombudsman’s report. I note that the ombudsman has laid his final report on this issue before Parliament, and of course I can assure the House that the Government will continue to engage fully and constructively with Parliament, as we have done with the ombudsman”.
19:45
Baroness Sherlock Portrait Baroness Sherlock (Lab)
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My Lords, I am sure the House will join me in thanking the ombudsman and his staff for all their hard work on this report over a number of years. The product is a serious report that requires serious consideration. The ombudsman has rightly said that it is for the Government to respond but that Parliament should also consider its findings. As my honourable friend Liz Kendall said in the other place on this debate, we on these Benches will study the report and its findings carefully and will continue to take seriously the representations of those affected by these issues.

It was good that the Secretary of State made a Statement soon after the report was published, and it is good that the Minister is here today. The Government have said that they will provide a further update to Parliament on this matter. Can the Minister give the House some sense of the timescale? Should we expect that to happen soon after the House returns from the upcoming Easter Recess? After all, this matter has been under consideration for many years now.

The ombudsman began investigating how changes to the state pension age were communicated back in 2019. In the same year, the High Court ruled that the ombudsman could not recommend changes to the state pension age itself or the reimbursement of lost pensions, because that had been decided by Parliament. The ombudsman's final report, published last week, says that in 2004, internal research from DWP found that around 40% of the women affected knew about the changes to the state pension age. Does that remain the DWP assessment? What is the Government’s assessment of the total number of women who could receive compensation based on the ombudsman’s different options? How many of those are the poorest pensioners, in receipt of pension credit? How many of them have already retired or, sadly, died?

The Statement rightly says that issues around the changes to the state pension age have spanned multiple Parliaments, and it is important that lessons are learned from the events described in the report. The equalisation of the state pension age was legislated for in 1995, giving 15 years’ notice to those affected. In 2011, the then Chancellor, George Osborne, decided to accelerate the state pension age rises, giving much less than 10 years’ notice to many of those affected. His comment that this change

“probably saved more money than anything else we’ve done”

understandably angered many people and will not have made this debate any easier.

At that time, Labour tabled amendments that would have ensured that more notice was given so that women could plan for their retirement, which would have gone some way towards dealing with this problem. Given that the department already knew that there were problems with communicating changes to the state pension age, does the Minister think that it was wise for the Government to press ahead with the changes in the 2011 Act in the way that they did?

The Government have said that they are currently committed to providing 10 years’ notice of future changes to the state pension age. Labour’s 2005 Pensions Commission called for 15 years’ notice. Have the Government considered the merits of a longer timeframe and how they would improve future communications? Labour is fully committed to guaranteeing that information about any future changes to the state pension age will be provided in a timely and targeted way that is, wherever possible, tailored to individual needs. Will the Government make the same commitment?

Finally, the ombudsman took the rare decision to ask Parliament to intervene on this issue, clearly because he strongly doubted that the department would provide a remedy. In the light of these concerns, and to aid Parliament in its work, will the Minister now commit to laying all relevant information about this issue, including all impact assessments and relevant correspondence, in the Library, so that lessons can be learned and all Members from both Houses can do their jobs on this matter? Given the lack of confidence that the ombudsman has displayed in the likelihood of the DWP engaging to provide redress or a remedy, can the Minister say more about how his department will deal with future ombudsmen’s reports? I look forward to his reply.

Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Portrait Lord Palmer of Childs Hill (LD)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing the Oral Statement to the House. However, to paraphrase “Hamlet”, methinks the noble Viscount doth protest too much. It is all protest as to why he is not doing things.

From these Benches, we support the WASPI women in their campaigns, and we welcome that, after their years of work, the ombudsman has finally recommended compensation. They must be recognised as courageous women, and their persistence should be rewarded. Sadly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, said, some have died along the way.

The noble Lord, Lord Hague, wrote a big op-ed in the Times today about why the WASPI women were not going to be paid. Basically, what he said can be summed up as “They should have known better”. At this late hour, I can think only to quote from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy:

“All the planning … and demolition orders have been on display at your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for 50 of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint”.


I am afraid that what has happened is that so much time has elapsed that so many of the WASPI women have died or retired, and life has gone on.

The DWP has said, so I have read, that it will comply with the ombudsman’s decision. I would like the Minister to say how many WASPI women have died—a simple calculation, rather than the additional details that the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, asked for. Please will he come back to the House and say that the DWP has agreed, after consideration, that it will comply with that ruling, as the ombudsman suggested?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Viscount Younger of Leckie) (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for their comments. Some of what I will say chimes with the comments made by the noble Baroness. The Government are fully committed to supporting pensioners in a sustainable way that gives them a dignified retirement, while also being fair to them and taxpayers. We will carefully study the ombudsman’s recommendations in that respect.

I too am grateful to the ombudsman for conducting the investigation. The Government will provide an update to the House once we have considered the report’s findings; I will say a little more about the timings in a moment. Following the ombudsman’s five-year investigation —we should note that it has been five years—and his subsequent substantial report, it is right that we carefully consider his findings in full. That is work that this Government and the department are steadfastly committed to. I also make the point that the department has assisted the ombudsman throughout his investigation—which he recognises—by providing thousands of pages of evidence and detailed comments on his provisional views. As I said previously, the ombudsman’s chief executive herself has recognised that.

Something else that chimes with some of the remarks from the noble Baroness is that I well understand the strong feelings across the Chamber on these matters and the desire for urgency in addressing them. To echo points that have been made in the other place: these are complex matters, and they require careful consideration. It is therefore right that we take time to consider the ombudsman’s full findings.

There are many issues to consider, including that the courts concluded that the DWP gave adequate and reasonable notification of the state pension age changes. The ombudsman has noted in his report the challenges and complexity in laying the report before Parliament, through which he has brought matters to the attention of this House. We will provide a further update to the House, as I said earlier; but I also echo points made in the other place that it will be done with “no undue delay”.

The ombudsman is not saying that WASPI women suffered a direct financial loss, nor that all women in born in the 1950s will have been adversely affected. That adds to the complexity of the situation, which, again, is why the report requires proper and due consideration.

I turn to the points that were made. The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, asked about remitting to Parliament. In saying that we continue to take the work of the ombudsman very seriously, it is only right that we consider the findings of what is a substantial document. In laying the report before Parliament, the ombudsman has brought matters to the attention of the House, so it is important that it is considered very carefully.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, raised some points about the 2011 Act. The Pensions Act 2011 accelerated the equalisation of women’s state pension age by 18 months and brought forward the increase in men’s and women’s state pension age to 66 by five and a half years relative to previous timetables. The changes in the 2011 Act occurred following a public call for evidence and extensive debates in Parliament. During the passage of the Act, Parliament legislated for a concession worth £1.1 billion, which reduced the proposed increase in state pension age for over 450,000 men and women. That means that no woman will see her pension age change by more than 18 months relative to the timetable set by the 1995 Act. These reforms have focused on maintaining the right balance between the affordability and sustainability of the state pension and fairness between generations.

On the figures that were raised, I think, by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, I will cite a few statistics that may be helpful to the House. Around 3.5 million women born in the 1950s are impacted by the state pension age, and around 2.2 million men born between 6 December 1953 and April 1960 inclusive are also impacted. At the start of 2024, there will be around 790,000 women born in the 1950s who are still to reach their state pension age of 66. On the number of women who have died, which was also mentioned, the department offers its very sincere condolences to the families of the 1950s-born women who have died before reaching state pension age.

A question was raised about the referral to Parliament and not to the DWP, as well as the question of trust. In reply, I quote what the ombudsman’s chief executive herself said on Sky News last Thursday, the day the report was published:

“The Government, the DWP, completely co-operated with our report, with our investigation, and over the period of time we have been working they have provided us with the evidence that we asked for”.


I respect the independence of the ombudsman’s office and note that he has referred this matter to Parliament. His report notes the complexity and challenges involved. In laying the report before Parliament, the ombudsman has brought matters to the attention of this House. As I have said before, we will provide a further update to the House.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, asked about considering giving 15 years’ notice. She is right that it is important to give people enough notice about state pension age changes. In the last review of state pension age, the Government committed to provide 10 years. That is intended to provide sufficient time to allow people to plan.

I will finish by stating that this Government have a very strong record in supporting all pensioners; for example, in 2023-24 we will spend £151 billion on support for pensioners, which represents 5.5% of GDP. That includes around £124 billion for the state pension. We are committed to ensuring that the state pension remains the foundation of income in retirement—now and for future generations. Just to make the point, we are honouring the triple lock, which was mentioned on Sunday by the Chancellor, and is being put into the Conservative Party manifesto. Also, we are increasing the basic and new state pensions by 8.5% from next month. I mentioned earlier in the Chamber that we now have 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty after housing costs than in 2010. I thank both Peers for their comments.

20:01
Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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The House should thank the Minister for bringing us the Oral Statement and answering the questions. We should, however, be under no illusion that this is only a minor element of the issues raised by the 1950s women arising from the increase in their retirement age. This stage is not about any form of restitution of the pension they have lost, it is simply about a failure on the part of the DWP to provide the people affected with adequate information. What is clear from the ombudsman’s report is that the DWP failed to adequately inform those concerned. That is what the report finds. It also finds that it constituted maladministration. Those points, those issues, were identified in the stage 1 report. So that part is not a surprise. The Government have known that for some time.

This stage identifies that that maladministration amounted to an injustice, and it suggests that those who were affected by that injustice are entitled to a remedy. The Secretary of State said in the Commons yesterday—he said it 26 times, by my count—that there would be “no undue delay”. Well, “undue delay” implies to me that there will be a delay. The Secretary of State argued—it has been repeated by the noble Viscount today—that the reason for this delay is the complexity of the issues.

I am afraid I do not have much sympathy at all for this issue of complexity. The issues are clear and straightforward: a group of women were told later than they should have been about the change in their retirement age and, because of that, they suffered detriment—a loss of autonomy and a loss of life chances. That is the injustice. That is all clear. It does not need any further assessment or thought. It absolutely leaps off the page in the ombudsman’s report.

My question for the Minister is: whatever the need for delay to work up the fine details of any deal, will he not accept that it is now time to acknowledge there was maladministration, as identified some time ago by the ombudsman? Will he recognise the injustice that is set out in this report? Will the Government commit to implementing some remedy in the light of the maladministration and the injustice?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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As I made clear earlier, the report came out only on Thursday. We have said very clearly that we want to have enough time to be able to look carefully at all the details in the report. This touches on some of the points that the noble Lord has made.

Could I just say that the story the noble Lord has presented is not entirely the actual story? For example, it is important to remember the state pension age changes were considered by the courts during the ombudsman’s investigation. In 2019 and 2020, the High Court and the Court of Appeal respectively found no fault with the actions of the DWP. The courts made it clear that under successive Governments, dating back to 1995—and I make the point about successive Governments—the action taken was entirely lawful and did not discriminate on any grounds. During these proceedings, the Court of Appeal held that the High Court was entitled to conclude, as a fact, that there had been

“adequate and reasonable notification given by the publicity campaigns implemented by the Department over a number of years”.

Just to add to that, to be helpful to the noble Lord, since 1995 the Government have used various methods to communicate the state pension age changes, including leaflets explaining the legislative changes, advertising campaigns to raise awareness and directly writing to those affected. So I would just make the point that that is one of the complexities and that it is not all as the noble Lord says. As I have made clear before, this is one of many complex issues that we need to look at as a result of the production of this report.

Lord Dodds of Duncairn Portrait Lord Dodds of Duncairn (DUP)
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I thank the Minister for the Statement. On the general issue of the state pension, I warmly welcome the commitment by the Government, through the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the weekend, to the maintenance of the triple lock. It is extremely important that that assurance is given. I remember when we negotiated the confidence and supply agreement with the then Conservative Government, this was one of our central demands and the Government committed to that. I am glad that it remains in place.

On this issue of the WASPI campaign, I congratulate the women and those behind it, who—over many, many years—have brought it to this point. I understand the complexities, I understand it was produced only on Thursday and I understand the need for a considered look at it. Both the Opposition and the Government take that position. But I do worry, along with others, about this continued repetition of “undue delay”. It has been five years, as the Minister indicated, since this was first referred to the ombudsman and many more years that this has been under consideration. Can the Minister give your Lordships’ House some kind of indication of when this is going to come back to Parliament? We know the timescale for the remainder of this Parliament. It might not be that long. We need action as quickly as possible. The women concerned deserve that. The action has to be one that entails a clear commitment to proper compensation.

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, for his support and endorsement of our stance on the triple lock and our decision to include it in our manifesto. On the points on WASPI that he has mentioned, absolutely—I think I have said this before—I recognise the strength of feeling and I am aware of the urgency in dealing with many of these matters. I probably will not repeat it again, but just to say it briefly, I have highlighted very clearly the complexity of the issues. The noble Lord would not expect me to be in a position to set out a timetable, even if I could. So I am afraid that I will disappoint him by sticking to the line, which is that we will be coming back to Parliament without undue delay.

Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka (Lab)
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My Lords, I congratulate the WASPI and Back to 60 campaigners on their quest for justice. The ombudsman’s reports have said that:

“Our investigation found maladministration … thousands of women may have been affected by DWP’s failure to adequately inform them that the state pension age had changed”.


This has led to anguish, hardship and many other problems. I have met many of these women and listened to their arguments and to their case. This problem of not telling them about the hike in pension age is part of a bigger problem about how women have been treated by successive Governments. Despite the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the illusions of equality, women continue to be treated as second-class citizens. The gender pay gap persists, which then leads to the gender pension gap. Despite hiking the state pension age for women, women continue to receive a lower state pension. No attempt whatever has been made to equalise the two, although the equality horse was ridden to raise their state pension age. Unfortunately, many of the wronged women have died. I am sure that the House would agree that justice delayed was justice denied.

I do not understand what, in the light of this report, the Government need to consider. It is very clear that women have been wronged. I press the Minister to give a commitment that women will be compensated for the anguish and hardship that they have suffered and that this compensation will be paid, I hope after the Easter break.

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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I will disappoint the noble Lord by saying that I am not able to give any such commitment, apart from those that I have given. I am beginning to sound like a long-playing record but, despite what he said, these are complex matters, and he will have to respect that. I want to pick up on one thing that he mentioned—the role of DWP. Yes, the report’s words, not mine, were that the PHSO found maladministration in the steps that the department took between 2005 and 2007 in relation to notifying the women affected. I gently point out that this was when the Labour Party was in power. The point has been made before, but it is worth making. However, this is one of the many complexities. I am unable to answer the precise questions. I hope that the noble Lord respects this.