Women’s State Pension Age

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Tuesday 26th March 2024

(2 months, 4 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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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.

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.