People with Disabilities: Access to Services

Lord Davies of Brixton Excerpts
Thursday 16th May 2024

(2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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It has truly been a privilege to sit and listen to this debate. Thanks are due to my noble friend Lady Hughes of Stretford for introducing it but all the other speakers have contributed so much. I have just two thoughts to advance: first, this is as much about mental as about physical disablement; secondly, I am going to say something about the challenge faced by disabled people in securing an adequate pension.

It is totally appropriate that we consider the mental health aspects. The noble Viscount, Lord Younger, has had to leave the Chamber but I can see that he is aware that it is Mental Health Awareness Week, so we need to include that in our thoughts. Of course, it arises in two ways. First, as I think a number of speakers have highlighted, coping with the situation creates mental health problems for people with physical disablement but, secondly, parallel to that are the problems faced by people who have mental health problems in coping with the situation as it is. My noble friend Lady Donaghy quite rightly drew attention to the excellent briefs that we receive because we are taking part in these debates. I will just highlight those from the Royal College of Psychiatrists and from the British Psychological Society, which clearly focus on the mental health aspects.

The royal college is particularly forthright about the reform of the disability benefits system. It points out the stark rise in the number of people facing mental problems and nails the canard that it is, in some way, due to more people taking a day off because it is a blue Monday. The royal college says:

“This increase is driven by serious issues such as poverty, housing and food insecurity and increased loneliness and isolation. These factors are known to put people at greater risk of having a mental illness and were compounded during the pandemic”.

It is absolutely clear that it is no easy ticket to be receiving support for a mental health problem. It stresses:

“Only those with conditions which significantly impact their ability to function and have lasted over a year can receive PIP”.

It would be good if the Minister could acknowledge the knowledge and experience of the royal college in assessing where we are in this situation.

The royal college also stresses the importance of getting the Mental Health Act on board and of having resources to support mental health services, not just in the health service but in schools and the employment service. The British Psychological Society echoes those concerns. It stresses the importance of more education and understanding within the public services, so that the people providing these services are more aware of the challenge faced by people with problems with their mental health.

Turning to pensions, I recall that, more than 40 years ago, I was a member of a body called the Occupational Pensions Board, which produced a report Occupational Pension Scheme Cover for Disabled People. I reread our report, and we quite rightly found that the difficulty faced by disabled people is not with the pension; it is with getting a job in the first place. When they have a job, they accrue a pension. I think I have learned a little more since then because, of course, being disabled interferes with your career pattern. It means often that you have periods out of work. Because of that, your earnings and earning prospects are lower and you have gaps. Because of those factors, you end up with a lower earnings-related pension, and we have a system that depends on earnings-related pensions. That is an issue which needs some further consideration in the context of the benefits system.

I declare an interest, as in the register, with the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, which is doing work on identifying the problems faced by people with mental health problems in the financial arena. It has recently produced a report on pensions that included a series of key recommendations, which I would like to highlight, regarding the issues faced by people who are mentally disabled in achieving a decent pension. It highlighted the importance of the Money and Pensions Service—MaPS—and calls for MaPS to put more effort into understanding and providing support for people with poor mental health. There is a need for specialist advice in this area and a need for MaPS to train the staff it has to acknowledge the problems that are faced. It is also important to ensure that, when advice is given, it is provided in an accessible way.

These issues come together. Poor pensions go with disability, and this needs to be acknowledged. I know the Minister has heard my speech on the gender pensions gap on more than one occasion; no doubt he will hear it again. Equally, we have a disability pensions gap, which needs to be addressed and acknowledged in a similar fashion.

Data Protection and Digital Information Bill

Lord Davies of Brixton Excerpts
I hope the Minister will hear the strength of feeling on this and, between Committee and Report, will seriously consider what power the Government genuinely need and intend to use. I hope he will come back with something rather more tailored and proportionate, perhaps along the lines of the amendments in the next group tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock—although I do not think they go far enough. In the absence of that, I certainly cannot support these clauses. As I said at Second Reading, this is a draconian power that constitutes a worrying level of creep towards a surveillance society, and nothing I have heard since has changed my mind on that.
Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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Most of what needed to be said has been said excellently and clearly by the other speakers. I have just three specific questions that I urge the Minister to answer. However, an important point of context needs to be made first on the opposition of the finance industry to these proposals. It is clear and unambiguous. It could be thought that the finance industry just does not want to bothered and does not care about fraud, but in fact it is making the point that the Government have failed to come up with an overall fraud strategy. This is just a one-off idea thrown up. Some bright spark thought, “Well, we could put this into the Bill. We’ve always wanted to have this sort of overweening power. Let’s shove it in here and hope no one notices”. We need a proper fraud strategy, as other speakers have said. We lose a lot of money to fraud, so none of us are against appropriate measures to deal with it, but this is a one-off, completely ill-timed and ill-thought-out addition to the state’s powers.

I turn to my three questions. First, I have no doubt that the Minister has a predisposition to oppose the state being able to interfere in our private information—I do not doubt that that is his starting point in these discussions. The problem with this proposal is that there is no way of ring-fencing the information required for the purposes of the DWP from all the other information that is disclosed by looking at someone’s bank account. Their whole life can be laid out in their bank account and other statements. You cannot ring-fence the necessary information. This is a widespread, total intrusion into people’s privacy. Does the Minister accept that there is no way of ring-fencing the information required for the purposes of the DWP from all the other information that is available from looking at someone’s bank account?

Secondly, I have several times heard the Minister discuss improving take-up of pension credit. Does he believe that this will encourage people to claim the pension credit to which they are entitled? It will clearly discourage them. Has this been properly assessed? We know that one big reason why people do not claim pension credit is the state’s intrusion into their private affairs. People do not like it. For some people, seeing an extension of the state’s ability to intrude into their private affairs will discourage them from applying. As I say, the Minister has rhetorically encouraged people to claim their pension credit; in practice, this proposal will discourage people. Does he accept that?

Thirdly, we have three debates on this issue and I think this question may arise more in the next group, but I will ask it now, so that I can come back and ask it again later. People have referred to claimants, but this also covers the state pension. It is possible to defraud the state pension, but it is nevertheless an income. Pension or income—whatever you call it; I do not think we should get too hung up on the vocabulary—it is paid as a right and people are entitled to these benefits.

One of the other theories about our state system is about identical benefits. Some people, like me, who have never been contracted out of the state scheme, have a full state pension, but a lot of people were contracted out into private schemes and personal pensions. Now, because I have that state pension, the state can intrude into my bank account. The state is paying me the pension; it can look at my bank account under these provisions.

However, if my pension were payable by Legal & General Assurance Society or the BP pension fund, they would not have the right to demand access to my bank accounts. I am just pointing out that we would react in horror if this Act gave power to the BP pension fund to trawl through my bank accounts. We would react in horror if we were giving power to Legal & General Assurance Society to go through my bank accounts, yet the Government believe that the state should have this overweening power. Does the Minister accept that and does he think that it is wrong?

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Baroness Buscombe Portrait Baroness Buscombe (Con)
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No. With respect, I am talking about Justice, which I think referenced 40 organisations. There was no list of what those organisations are in the information it sent me. There is also Big Brother Watch and many others.

I just think that everyone needs to take, if I may use the word, a proportionate approach to this. We are talking about tackling a really serious offence. I think all noble Lords agree that we have to tackle fraud but I am sure, and hope, that my noble friend can reassure everybody. The current powers that the DWP has to ensure benefit correctness are mostly over 20 years old. Over that time, fraud has evolved and become increasingly sophisticated. The system currently relies on self-verification for many factors, and that is one of the issues. I know it would sound so much better if people could find another way to check whether someone is being honest about their assets, but the problem is that a lot of this is to do with self-verification.

Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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The suggestion was made that this was carefully thought out and part of a long-term plan. Can the noble Baroness therefore explain why it was introduced into the Bill at such a late stage in going through the Commons, such that it did not receive any worthwhile consideration at all there?

Baroness Buscombe Portrait Baroness Buscombe (Con)
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I am sure my noble friend the Minister can talk about the particular timing of why it went into this Bill. Certainly in my time at DWP, the difficulty we had was finding the right Bill that we could add it to. This is one of the things that is really hard about being a Minister: you cannot just say, “This is something we have to do”. You have to find a route—like finding a route to market—to include a measure in a Bill that is relevant. This Bill is entirely relevant in terms of where we are now on data collection. The Minister and his team were right to choose this particular Bill.

I could go on.

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Baroness Kidron Portrait Baroness Kidron (CB)
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My Lords, in relation to the excellent speech of the noble Baroness, she mentioned “personal” accounts. I would like to double-check that business accounts, charitable accounts and other accounts that have one’s name or one’s partner’s name on, or are connected, do not go on ad infinitum.

Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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Because of the way the amendments are grouped, I have the opportunity to repeat my questions. The first one is relatively straightforward. Does the Minister accept that introducing these provisions—obviously we are talking about Amendment 234 on pensions—will discourage people from claiming pension credit? Despite all the efforts of the Government to encourage people to claim pension credit, clearly this will discourage them. Have the Government made any effort to estimate what impact this will have? Obviously, it is a very difficult task, but have they thought about it and does the Minister accept that it will have a deterrent effect.

My second question relates to the issue I have already raised. The state pension or state pension equivalent is paid by the state, by a pension fund or by a personal pension provider. Does the Minister think it odd that there is a difference in treatment? Everyone is receiving their pension from the state, but with a person who receives their pension from a private pension scheme or personal pension provider there is not the same right to look at their bank accounts in relation to those benefits. Now I am not advocating that as a solution. The question is: does this not indicate the illogicality and extent of the Government’s powers over some people’s incomes that they do not have over other types of income? To me, particularly when it comes to the payment of a pension—a benefit paid as of right—this discontinuity points to the extent of the Government’s overreach.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, I must begin by joining the general applause for the characteristic tour de force from the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock. I was having a flashback because it was the noble Baroness in debate on what is now the Pension Schemes Act 2021 who taught me how to cope with Committee stage very kindly a long time ago —and we are very used to that. I rise briefly to address this group, but I start by saying in relation to the last group that I entirely agree with the proposition that Clause 128 should not stand part: the spying clause should not be part of the Bill.

I have a couple of points to make on the amendments in this group, one of which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, on the last group and is about protecting the Government from themselves. The amendments put down by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, are probing. However, if we were to restrict the Government’s use of these powers, they might end up at a vaguely manageable scale. It is worth raising that point when we look at these groups.

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Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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That point is very much noted. I will certainly take it back. Clearly, we need to provide greater reassurance on the limits and scope, as well as on what we are trying to do. I regret that I am not able to give those answers in full to the Committee now but I hope that, today, I have already taken us further forward than we were before we started. That is quite an important point to make.

I shall touch on the benefits that are in scope of this measure, a point that was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock. I think the noble Baroness wishes to restrict the power to working-age benefits, but pension-age benefits are not immune to fraud and error—I wanted to address that—and it is our duty to ensure that these benefits are paid correctly and in line with the benefit eligibility rules that Parliament has previously agreed. Every payment that the DWP makes has eligibility criteria to it. Parliament has considered these criteria in the passage of the relevant social security legislation, and the Government have a responsibility to check that payments are being made in line with those rules so that taxpayers’ money is spent responsibly.

Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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Pension benefits other than pension credit have eligibility criteria attached, but I do not know any eligibility criteria applying to pensions that you could discover from someone’s bank account.

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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The example that the noble Lord will be aware of links to what the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, was saying about some pensioners who have moved abroad but, for whatever reason, have not told us that they have done so and continue to receive the uprating. The figure for the fraud aspect—or it could be error—linked to state pensions is £100 million.

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Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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Presumably the DWP already knows the address of the bank account to which an overseas pension is being paid. Why does it need to know any more?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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My understanding is that it needs to have these powers to be able to cover the ground properly. I say again that these powers are limited, and whatever comes from the data that is requested from the third parties will end up being, we hope, limited. Even then, it may not be used by us because there is no need to do so.

The power covers all relevant benefits, grants and other payments set out in paragraph 16 of new Schedule 3B to the Social Security Administration Act 1992, as inserted by Schedule 11 to the Bill. To remove pension-age payments from the scope of the power would significantly undermine our power to tackle fraud and error where it occurs. Pension-age payments are not immune to fraud and error, as I have mentioned. I will give an example of that. The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, asked whether people would be notified of their bank accounts being accessed.

Occupational Pension Schemes (Funding and Investment Strategy and Amendment) Regulations 2024

Lord Davies of Brixton Excerpts
Tuesday 26th March 2024

(3 months, 3 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
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Baroness Drake Portrait Baroness Drake (Lab)
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I thank the Minister for the clarity of his presentation—this is a complex set of regulations—and for the briefing session that he arranged for Peers, where I was able to ask quite a lot of questions. I support these regulations but I want to take this opportunity to ask three questions.

The regulations were preceded by a government consultation on an original draft, which was amended post the LDI crisis and in the wake of the Mansion House productive finance proposals. Importantly, these regulations remove an uncertainty as to whether the DWP would qualify a trustee’s independence to make investment decisions as they make it clear that trustees will retain the power to decide how to invest the scheme’s assets. That is welcome; otherwise, it would have significantly weakened the trustee’s powers to protect scheme members. Is not intervening on a trustee’s independence to make investment decisions now settled policy? Also, is any consideration being given to granting additional powers to the Pensions Regulator to override investment decisions when it is oversighting a scheme’s funding and investment strategy?

Secondly, the regulations now allow greater flexibility in investments and risk-taking than was originally proposed in the first draft, were it supportable. The DWP has made amendments to avoid, to use the Government’s own phrase, things that “inadvertently drive reckless prudence” —that sounds like an oxymoron—“and inappropriate risk aversion”. As the Minister said, it is now explicit that open schemes can take account of new entrants and future accrual when determining when the scheme will reach significant maturity; this gives them greater scope for scheme-specific flexibility.

However, I note that these regulations also no longer require schemes of significant maturity that are making low-dependency investment allocation broadly to match cash flow from investment with schemes’ liabilities. The Government have made it clear that schemes can invest a reasonable amount in a wide range of assets beyond government and corporate bonds, even after significant maturity has been reached—for example, when the scheme’s years to duration of liabilities is around only five to 15. The DWP has explicitly removed the original draft Regulation 5(2)(a), which required in schemes of significant maturity that assets be invested in such a way that cash flow from investments broadly matched the payment of pensions under the scheme.

Why, when a scheme has reached significant maturity, would retaining the requirement that assets be invested in such a way that cash flow from the investments broadly matches the payment of pensions be considered “reckless prudence” or “inappropriate risk aversion”—the premise on which the original draft Regulation 5(2)(a) was withdrawn? When a scheme is in significant maturity, you need prudence and risk aversion because of the need for cash flow. In fact, in many closed DC schemes, the alignment of employers’ desire to remove DB liabilities and volatility from their balance sheets with trustees’ desire to protect benefits over the long term is increasingly leading to investments held broadly matching liabilities, as well as to consideration of a path to buy- out and buy-in for many schemes. It is rather rowing against what is happening in many instances. I fear that greater flexibility of access to surplus may not provide a sufficient incentive for schemes to change their course.

This is my third and final point. The requirement to assess the current and future development and resilience of the employer covenant is now on a legal basis and has to be embedded in the funding and investment strategy agreed by employers and trustees, which is welcome. It reflects the increasing importance given to covenants by trustees but the assessment of an employer covenant can be contested ground between employer and trustee, particularly where there is a question of whether there has been a material change to the strength of the employer covenant. Given this novel legal territory, which is of itself welcome, what powers does the regulator have to address such disagreements of view between the trustee and employer on the covenant, given that they have to agree them in order to proceed with a funding and investment strategy? How, if there are disagreements—and there could well be—will the regulator address those?

Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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I need to tell the Committee that I have an interest to declare: I am a fellow of the Institute of Actuaries. However, I should add—with some emphasis—that nothing of what I will say subsequently must be regarded as actuarial advice. It might sound like actuarial advice but I assure noble Lords that it is not. I speak from my experience as a scheme actuary having undertaken scheme valuations, including those under the TPR or previous iterations of where we are.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the briefing session due to other business in the House. It might have been better if I had attended because I have reservations about these regulations. They are going to go through and be implemented but, in expressing some doubts, I trust that it will affect the environment in which they are implemented.

In this context, we have to acknowledge the report published today by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee—Defined Benefit Pension Scheme, its third report of the 2023-24 Session—which comments in some detail on the role and functioning of the TPR. I want to take this opportunity to highlight some of the report, in which doubts are expressed about the way the TPR operates. For example, Mary Starks undertook an independent review of the TPR and said:

“TPR’s statutory objective to minimise calls on the PPF may drive it to be overly risk averse, particularly given the PPF’s strong funding position”.

I will return to that.

Other comments are that the TPR’s objectives have not changed to reflect the significant changes that there have been in the defined benefit landscape. The concept of excessive prudence is widely held within the pensions industry. The PLSA, the Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association, says that

“it would be helpful to give TPR a greater focus on member outcomes as a whole”,

while the Railways Pension Scheme trustee corporation suggested that an objective should be made explicitly to

“protect and promote the provision of past and future service benefits under occupational pension schemes of, or in respect of, members of such schemes”.

So there is a significant train of thought coming from the industry that the TPR has failed to acknowledge its role in pension provision.

A particular problem highlighted in the first comment is the position of the PPF, the Pension Protection Fund. In giving evidence to the Select Committee, its chief executive, Oliver Morley, said that the objective of the TPR to protect the PPF was

“looking a bit anachronistic now, given the scale of the reserves and the funding level”.

I am not asking the Committee to accept or endorse these comments at the moment but, at the very least, they emphasise that the role of the TPR is a matter of detailed discussion. The regulations before us are firmly within a concept of its role, which many commentators now say is outdated. I have held this view for some time; it is good to see that it is now accepted more widely.

This was the conclusion of the Select Committee:

“TPR’s approach to scheme funding has been driven by its objective to protect the PPF. We agree with those who told us that the objective now looks redundant, given the PPF has £12 billion in reserves”.

As I said, this is at the very least an issue that should be confronted, but it is not confronted by the regulations before us. The regulations are patently too prescriptive. The details that they require are not directed at the objective of protecting members’ benefits but are about establishing a system where box-ticking will take priority over the longer term and broader interests of scheme members.

I have also argued for some time that the TPR misunderstands its role. There is a sort of assumption in its thinking that the calculation of technical provisions represents the best valuation basis. New readers may well find that this is getting into deep water but the point is that the actuary who undertakes the valuation at the request of the trustees must comply with the appropriate professional standard: Technical Actuarial Standard 300. This is the latest version, coming into effect in April.

It is notable that these requirements, which any actuary valuing the solvency of a pension fund should follow, do not mention technical provisions. In essence, the technical provisions are there to trigger action by the regulator; they are not there to substitute for the scheme actuary’s solvency valuation. We have what is in effect a dual basis. The scheme actuary working for the trustees will advise what they believe to be the appropriate contribution rate. Parallel to that, there is the system of technical provisions that, if triggered, require a separate valuation to be undertaken to calculate the recovery plan.

They are quite separate operations but the TPR consistently confuses the two. The end result is that, by overemphasising the role of technical provisions, schemes are being forced into this problem of excessive care, or excessive protection, of the members. It is not at all clear to me that this bureaucratic overweight on the operation of pension schemes ultimately favours the members in any way. In effect, it forces schemes—LPI is just one example—to invest in gilts, which is bad for members; there is no question about that. It is good for the Pension Protection Fund, and good for a Government who are concerned about being held up as not caring about the protection of members, but members’ benefits are drawn from the scheme so the scheme should be funded in accordance with the actuarial solvency standards, as set out by the Financial Reporting Council.

Women’s State Pension Age

Lord Davies of Brixton Excerpts
Tuesday 26th March 2024

(3 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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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.

Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2024

Lord Davies of Brixton Excerpts
Tuesday 27th February 2024

(4 months, 2 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
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In conclusion, I have raised the question of benefit adequacy every year in which I have participated in these uprating debates. It is encouraging that it is no longer a niche issue, but the Government have yet to acknowledge the case for a review of benefits adequacy and restrictions. I just hope that they or a future Government will do so; otherwise, we will continue, in future uprating debates, to wring our hands over the hardship experienced by too many of our fellow citizens.
Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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It is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lady Lister of Burtersett. In her usual meticulous manner, she made a series of detailed points. I will just make a couple of relatively straightforward points on pensions.

There is a touch of unreality about this discussion, because I received notification of my increased state pension last week and there was nothing in there to suggest that it was subject to any further parliamentary process. Should we vote it down today, my hopes based on the notification that I had from the noble Lord’s department will be shattered. However, I suspect that we are not going to turn this down today.

I have two points. First, a lot of the coverage of this increase said that state pensions would be increased by 8.5%. I discovered that it was not actually 8.5% and might be something else only from reading the small print. The press are mainly at fault for that. I found no significant story in a national paper explaining the distinction between the 8.5% increase for the new and basic state pensions and the 6.7% for everything else.

The everything else is not trivial: it is all the additional pensions that people earned while they were in the state second pension, the retained rights that they received when the new state pension was introduced and the additional pensions that people gained because they deferred their state pension. A particular surprise to me was the 10% increase that pre-2016 retirees receive. The additional pension, the 10%, is increased by only the lower figure rather than, as I would have logically thought, the higher figure. It includes the graduated retirement pension from the Boyd-Carpenter scheme. So significant amounts are increasing and, I dare say, by only 6.5%. I say “only” because that reflects the rate of inflation. I think saying it is increasing only in line with inflation is a fair assessment of the situation.

To a certain extent, it is the fault of the press, but I think the department has a responsibility to produce greater clarity on this issue. In moving these regulations in the Commons, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Work and Pensions said:

“The draft order will increase relevant state pension rates by 8.5%, in line with the growth in average earnings in the year to July 2023. It will also increase most other benefit rates by 6.7%”.—[Official Report, Commons, 31/1/24; col. 929.]

To the non-expert observer, I am sure that would suggest that all the state pension was going to increase by 8.5%, and I suggest that that was reflected in the press coverage. However, I defy the department to produce a single person whose entire benefit is just the new state pension or the basic state pension. People are bound to have some other increases, even if it is only the graduated pension scheme, so no one gets 8.7%. I thought at one stage I was going to tell the Committee what my increase was, but then I realised that with a simple bit of algebra noble Lords could work out what my state pension is, and I do not want to mention it in this debate.

Look at what the Chancellor of the Exchequer said about the Autumn Statement when he announced these increases:

“The government will … continue to protect pensioner incomes by maintaining the Triple Lock and uprating the basic State Pension, new State Pension and Pension Credit standard minimum guarantee for 2024-25 in line with average earnings growth of 8.5%”.

There is no mention that there is this large chunk of pension that will be increased only in line with inflation. It annoys me each time, and Members of the Committee have been the recipients of my annoyance on this occasion.

The other point I wish to raise has already been raised by my noble friend Lady Lister—the delay in payment. I spoke about this at some length last year, and it has not changed, but I thought that on this occasion it is worth quoting, as my noble friend mentioned, Nigel Mills MP speaking in the Commons. He is chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Pensions. He described it as a “crazy process” and said:

“We have to use September’s inflation for an April increase in benefits, and we have to have an uprating order quite a while after the Chancellor has announced it in the Budget. The Work and Pensions Committee recommended that the Government bring these orders before the House earlier than February, so I commend the Government—we are still in January”.—[Official Report, Commons, 31/1/24; col. 932.]

So down the other end they got it in January, but we did not get it until February and the important point is that pensioners will not get the increase until April. That system of a September/autumn announcement and April increases has, in effect, subsisted for 40 years despite all the developments in maintaining records and the computerisation of systems.

I was glad to hear my noble friend suggest that some further thought is being given to this. In the interim it would be reasonable, to the extent that the effect of the increase could be from 1 January—although it is not possible to start the payment until April, because of the systems—for us to give the underpayment for the first three months of the year as a lump sum, at the beginning of April. I think that everyone would love to receive that.

Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2024

Lord Davies of Brixton Excerpts
Tuesday 27th February 2024

(4 months, 2 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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My Lords, I feel obliged to make a contribution. As I said last year, if I was on “Mastermind” my specialist subject would be the GMP. I was waiting to pounce on the Minister if he missed anything out, but he provided a very comprehensive— I leave it to others to judge whether it was a clear—explanation of the system that applies.

The only thing I want to add is that, post 2016, retirees lose out on these increases and some of them are very angry about it. However, as the Minister indicated, they gain in other ways. The continued accrual post 2016 more than compensates for the loss of these increases—except, that is, for those who retired in the year 2016-17, because they did not get any additional accrual that counted towards their pension. I pointed that out at the time when the Act was going through but, as happens all too often, nobody listened.

Baroness Janke Portrait Baroness Janke (LD)
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I thank the Minister for his explanation, which was indeed very clear on a fairly complicated issue. We support this order but, at the same time, I would like to use this opportunity to raise some issues relating to pensions.

First, I welcome the Government’s support for retaining the triple lock. Although there has been a reduction of the numbers, there are still 1.7 million pensioners in poverty and the value of the state pension is still lower in the UK than in comparable countries.

The next thing I would like an update on is: what has happened about the large number of pensioners who are entitled to pension credit but do not take it up? Some of us had frequent meetings with the Minister’s predecessor about this. There were many suggestions as to how awareness could be raised and the potential benefits of the scheme promoted among poorer pensioners. Can the Minister update us on what measures have been taken to improve take-up and what level of success the campaign has achieved to date?

We also welcome the measures to expand auto-enrolment by giving powers to end the lower earnings limit and increase the eligible age range. Can the Minister provide us with a progress report on the implementation of these measures? Are the Government planning to review the rate of contribution, which quite a few people say is too low?

Have the Government taken any action on the pensions gender gap? The average pension for a woman aged 65 is one-fifth of a 65 year-old man’s, and women receive £29,000 less in state pension than men over 20 years. This deficit is set to continue, with all else being equal, closing by only 3% by 2060. What is the Government’s response to the embedded unfairness in this system? Will the Minister tell us what progress has been made in the Government’s plans to streamline tax administration, perhaps to enable low-paid workers, who are typically women, to receive pensions tax relief on their contributions?

A lack of awareness of the value of pension assets and pension complexity, as well as the increasing number of online divorces, has led to many divorced women having no pension savings at all. Women’s pension rights are much harder hit than men’s by divorce, so has any progress been made to ensure the fair sharing of pension benefits after divorce? I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Workers (Economic Affairs Committee Report)

Lord Davies of Brixton Excerpts
Thursday 8th February 2024

(5 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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My Lords, it is an honour and a pleasure to take part in this debate, with its stellar cast of speakers. The report was introduced extremely well by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges of Headley. I should mention that I am currently a member of the Economic Affairs Committee, but I was not when it produced this report. Indeed, when I saw that this was down for debate, I thought that I was going to have to stand up and make a whole series of criticisms, but then I took the precaution of reading the report, rather than just the press.

The report itself is measured in what it says. It does not attempt to make moral judgments about the situation, but identifies that we need to know more and that there is a shortage of data—the intervening period since its publication has strongly reinforced that point. I agree with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. The Government’s failure to get to grips with understanding the situation is the most concerning point that we need to discuss today.

I will direct my remarks, not surprisingly, to what the report says about pensions and retirement, but I think that the most important part is where it talks about sickness and ill health. I strongly endorse the remarks of my noble friend Lord Layard in relation to mental health.

We should recognise that economic inactivity is quite a difficult concept to pin down. It appears in some official statistics, so we are very much subject to the way in which those statistics are drawn up. One issue that has not been addressed in this debate is how useful people classified as economically inactive are to the overall standard of living and quality of life: how they are contributing. It is doubtless that many are making a massive contribution that is simply not reflected in the economic statistics. Having said that, it is clearly a matter of importance that we take an interest in the reduction that we have seen in the size of the workforce, as measured by the statistics.

It is important to understand that the report does not provide us with policy solutions, and it certainly does not tell us what the long-term implications are, how significant the reduction of the workforce is, or even whether it is a good or bad thing. Certain speakers have claimed generally that it is a bad thing that we have seen this reduction in the workforce, but the report itself does not do that—unlike, as I suggested earlier, much of the commentary on the report.

Chapter 1 identifies the impacts of the reduction of the workforce. It identified inflation, but went on to say that inflation was because of the implications that the reduction in the workforce has for people’s wages. I want to be absolutely clear that I think that pressure to increase wages is a good thing, both economically and for the individuals concerned. Business needs people to spend money, and they will spend money only if they have good wages. The report also said that it limited economic growth and, as an associated point, would worsen public finances. As we know, GDP is a pretty bad measure; it is the only one we have, which is why we use it, but, as a measure of quality of life it is a pretty poor proxy. I suggest that—I need to say this the right way round—men and women were not made for the GDP. You cannot assess the quality of people’s lives by the level of GDP, because they are doing other things that are not reflected in the GDP figures themselves.

It is right that the report focuses on retirement and the changes that have taken place in retirement. We should try to understand figure 16, and what it tells us about the reasons people are taking retirement. The report is a bit thin on this; it raises lots of questions and provides some speculation, but it does not really tell us why people are taking retirement.

Looking at figure 16, what it suggests to me—and here I am entering into speculation, along with everyone else—is a considerable class divide. People on higher incomes are not retiring as much; people on very low incomes are not retiring as much; but people in the middle are. At the risk of making very broad generalisations, people on higher incomes have the resources to retire but they probably also have more fulfilling, more interesting, more rewarding jobs—by definition they are more rewarding—so they keep working. People on low incomes cannot afford to retire, so they stay at work. It is people in the middle income bands who have some agency here and who actually take retirement. That is obviously influenced by factors such as home ownership and what the report describes as financial resilience, which I assume means a bit of money in the bank. The report suggests that people who retire are the well-resourced group. Well, yes, I am sure that is true.

Amazingly, I have gone well over my time. I shall finish, skipping a lot of what I wanted to say, with a remark about retirement age. I always worry when people who are well off, in well-paid, interesting jobs, say that other people should be retiring later than they want to. The whole issue of the retirement age is going to come back to us, I am sure, but I want to add a dissenting note: you cannot solve the productivity problem by forcing people to stay at work.

Love Matters (Archbishops’ Commission on Families and Households Report)

Lord Davies of Brixton Excerpts
Friday 8th December 2023

(7 months, 1 week ago)

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Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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My Lords, thanks are due to the Archbishops and their commission for producing this report. Drawing on a wide range of knowledge and experience, it provides a good basis for discussion of these important issues. I particularly welcome the speech by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury in stressing the importance of a partnership between families and the state. People have suggested that the family is everything and the state is a subsidiary part, but it is a partnership between the two. Quite rightly, the most reverend Primate stressed the role of the state in relation to the family, and I very much welcome that.

I thought it would be helpful for a committed atheist to contribute to this debate, if only to emphasise that believers do not have a monopoly on recognising the needs of families and individuals within society. I am going to avoid the theology, look at the practical proposals and make a number of comments where I think there is more work to be done.

First, I often have a problem with the use of the term “family” in this and similar discussions. Its use is particularly questionable in political discussions where it is often used as a way of dividing rather than uniting. Whenever it is used, we must ask ourselves what counts as a family. At least in the report, the particularly suspect term “hard-working families”, which is too often used when discussing social policies, does not appear. In awful truth, it is sometimes used in a form of dog-whistle politics suggesting that there is the other, the deserving and the undeserving poor, or us and them.

However, if the term “family” is to be defined as including everyone, it loses all meaning. Who is being excluded when we use the word “family”? I am therefore pleased and give tribute that, obviously, care and attention has been taken in drafting this report to avoid this trap. I assume this is deliberate, as the report notes:

“Terms such as ‘family-friendly’ can be alienating for people without children and those who live alone. They must be used with great care”.

So, while the report argues that

“strong and stable families and households … are … the foundation for our society”,

it then goes on to call for singleness to “be recognised and honoured” as

“a major part of our society”.

All well and good to see. It does suggest, however, that a lot of words could have been saved in producing the report by just referring to everyone.

The report also notes that

“Family life can be difficult and messy”—

all too true, although I will avoid the temptation to quote Philip Larkin. The report concludes, therefore, that

“All relationships … can benefit from support at different life-stages”.

The key here is “different life stages”.

That brings me to the main point I want to make in this debate, which is about what I believe is a serious omission. I may be wrong—I may misunderstand the report—but as far as I can see there is no specific reference to issues that arise with families and relationships with increasing age, be they failing faculties, ill health or, ultimately, bereavement. There is no reference to old age or pensions or elderly family members, only one reference to retirement, which can be such a seminal event in anyone’s lifetime, and there is nothing specific about those who, through choice or circumstances, grow old alone.

I have to ask whether this was deliberate. Was it thought simply that a general age-blind approach was right? I suspect not, as children get a mention, with one of the priorities being identified, quite rightly, as ensuring that they get the best possible start in life. Either way, I must express some disappointment. Forgive me if I have misunderstood what is in the report and, in any event, I am not suggesting for a moment that the commission does not care about the elderly, but the elderly have specific issues that need to be addressed in the context of the issues dealt with in this report, and I suggest that they might have been expressed more explicitly in its recommendations.

Looking at what is in the report, it includes 36 recommendations for the Church of England, and 29 for the Government. I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I avoid commenting on those for the Church, but turning to those for the Government, there are a number where specific reference could have been made to the elderly. They include where reference is made to “life transitions”. It should be kept in mind that facing up to old age is often difficult—looking around the Chamber, I feel that many will bear witness to that. It is not all negative, of course. It can be a form of liberation, providing new opportunities for development, but relationships might change and, certainly, as I can testify, slowly but inexorably, new life-changing issues arise that must be confronted.

The report also stresses that

“strong and stable relationships in every family and household”

should be a priority for every government department, and it suggests a

“Cabinet level Minister holding responsibility for the implementation, oversight and publication of a family review”.

Care for older family members should obviously be part of such a review, which has important implications for the Government’s policy, or perhaps more accurately, lack of policy and financing for an adequate social care service.

Then there is the call on the Government to

“Value families in all their diversity, meeting their basic needs by putting their wellbeing at the heart of Government policymaking and our community life”.

One form of diversity is the growth of multigeneration households. ONS figures, for example, have shown a steady rise in three-generation households, which will typically include older people. I surmise that is due to growth in certain parts of our community. I am sure support will be needed to ensure their well-being, for example, more housing tailored for their particular needs.

Finally, I mention the welcome call in the report to

“Honour singleness and single person households, recognising that loving relationships matter to everyone”.

This again is particularly important where people are newly single, typically at older ages, and have to cope with the death of their partner after many years together.

I am sure that there are other examples. In no sense is this a criticism of the work that has been done; it is pointing a pathway to what more attention needs to be given to the needs of the elderly.

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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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My Lords, it is an honour to close this debate on Love Matters, the report of the Archbishops’ Commission on Families and Households. I start by thanking all noble Lords for their valuable contributions today and, in particular, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for initiating this important debate and for treating the House to a moving and passionate speech. If noble Lords will excuse the pun, in looking up to the gods, I thank the commission for its work in producing the report. It is a landmark report for the Church which makes valuable recommendations. I assure the House that these have been closely studied by the Government and are reflected in our plans and actions across the families agenda.

I add that it is a delightful change to see that there are more recommendations for the Church than for the Government on this occasion. However, just to reassure the House, there still remains much for us to do. As my noble friend Lady Bottomley said, faith groups and the Church are a crucial element in communities around the country and support many families. We have strong partnerships with the Church, including on the delivery of high-quality education in schools, and I will say more about that later.

Before I begin, I will just round up some of the themes. There were a lot of wide-ranging themes this afternoon: the importance and value of marriage, including same-sex marriage and in the traditional sense; a focus on children; views on single-person households and lone parents; relationships generally, and relating better, and how much this matters; a focus on the elderly from the noble Lord, Lord Davies; the joys or otherwise of being married to an MP; national service for young people cropped up; and, it is fair to say, bad days at the office for benefits officials struck me as being quite interesting. There was an emphasis on friends and “Neighbours”, and we have been exhorted to watch “Coronation Street” next Wednesday—I must make sure to put that into my diary.

I happen to be wearing a tie with an elephant on today, and the House will know that elephants have deep family bonds. They are loyal to a fault and they are known to spend time with the relics of their ancestors, so clearly, in that respect, love matters. I welcome the report’s focus on love, which provides an important reminder of the human element, the unconditional bond that underlies the entire families agenda. We all know that children benefit from growing up in a family that provides love and support and is part of a community. These are the things that ultimately make a difference to children’s happiness and success throughout childhood and up through as far as employment.

We also know, sadly, that this is not the case for all children, and that some families require greater support. As a result, providing such support to create an environment where all children can thrive is a key priority for this Government. That is why, in February, we published Stable Homes, Built on Love, which sets out our vision for a social care system built on love, safety and stability, along with the actions being taken to reform children’s social care, a focus shared by the report. This is just one part of our wider support for families, and I will highlight some of the further initiatives shortly.

The term “family” does not automatically imply everyone living together under one roof, nor only those who find themselves under the branches of the same family tree, so I welcome the report’s broad definition of family. In preparation for this debate, I was struck by one definition I happened to come across. It goes as follows.

“Family is loving and supporting one another even when it’s not easy to do so. It’s being the best person you could be so that you may inspire your loved ones”.

Indeed, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister puts it, quoted by the report,

“whatever your family looks like, it doesn’t matter as long as the common bond is love”.

I echo the report’s celebration of all forms of loving relationships. As the most reverend Primate and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said, they are significant for every individual, whether they opt for a life as a pair within a family unit or as a single person. We must respect and recognise the different family arrangements and structures, so that we can provide the right types of support. However, I listened very carefully to my noble friends Lady Stowell, Lord Cormack and Lord Robathan. They spoke passionately, particularly my noble friend Lady Stowell, about the value and benefit of marriage and the need to keep promoting this, and they are absolutely right.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham echoed the view, which was also raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, that the marriage ceremony is enormously important, and the preparation for the ceremony—preparing for the commitment of marriage—was at the heart of this. The right reverend Prelate cited a role model for this at the Holy Trinity Brompton. I also declare an interest that I believe that I am a beneficiary of good preparation for marriage, having just, last June, celebrated 35 years—not quite as many as some others in the Chamber. I also noted the question raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham about the registrar possibly doing some signposting. I will reflect on that, and I will certainly get back to him, and put a letter in the House Library regarding that important point.

In terms of supporting marriage, I remind the House that the Government do indeed support the institution of marriage. The House will know that we introduced the marriage allowance in 2015 to recognise marriage and civil partnerships in the tax system as just one example of our support for marriage. The Government also have a strong track record of advancing LGBT rights, including the introduction of same-sex marriage in 2013. I was deeply moved by the speech from my noble friend Lord Herbert.

The most reverend Primate mentioned the importance of state intervention where needed. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, added in at different stages, and I think he alluded to the reference made to the elderly. I will come back to that, hopefully, with time later.

I will directly address what support the Government are providing on issues that affect families. As my noble friend Lady Bottomley highlighted, my own department, DWP, oversees the reducing parental conflict programme, which shows that supporting parents, inter alia, to reduce the damage of frequent arguing—I make the point that it is frequent arguing, not just arguing, that is very damaging—achieves positive and sustained impacts for children. This programme is delivered through local authority family services and with local community and faith partners. The most reverend Primate emphasised the importance of local action in this respect, and he is right. We continue to provide ongoing support for local authorities across England on this programme and are on track to have directly supported 40,000 parents in the last two years.

In addition, the start for life and family hubs programme has created a network of centres for families with children up to 19, or up to 25 where the child has a disability. These family hubs link professionals, local partners and faith groups to support families. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham spoke about family hubs very eloquently. They also support the very important early years development, which I know is a priority for the Royal Foundation and her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales. I am sure that the House will welcome the joined-up support being given by midwives and family hub workers to expectant and new parents, helping them with both their child’s and their own health and well-being.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham asked how the Government will ensure that faith groups are involved in family hubs, and that they provide the necessary relationships advice. He is right: faith groups are at the heart of many communities and therefore are a key component of the family hub model. We have published guidance for local authorities on the services we expect family hubs to offer, including helping families access support for separating and separated parents, and to reduce parental conflict.

In another passionate speech, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester spoke about children with a parent in prison—a very important subject. A parent going into prison can have a profound impact on children, which I would say is an understatement. Local agencies are best placed here to determine what support is needed, for example, Keeping Children Safe in Education 2023: Statutory Guidance for Schools and Colleges states that the additional needs of children with a family member in prison or who are affected by parental offending should be considered.

Healthy relationships are built on a foundation of mutual respect, trust and honest communication. In schools, our children are being taught about the importance of healthy relationships through the inclusion of age-appropriate relationships, sex and health education within the curriculum. This helps them to develop mutually respectful relationships more broadly, but that is not all the help that they get on relationships. School mental health teams are already making a difference when relationships get tough, to help children address problems early before they escalate.

The reality is that not all relationships stand the test of time. The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, put it very well when he said, “Bad things happen”, and indeed they do. In 2020, the Government introduced the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act. The legislation has modernised divorce laws and has created an online divorce service to help with financial settlements and childcare arrangements after separation.

In addition, the Child Maintenance Service—which I am directly responsible for—plays a crucial role in securing financial support for children where parents have separated. It mandates—and, where necessary, enforces—appropriate arrangements so that children have the best start in life with a solid financial foundation. Through both private family-based arrangements and more formal Child Maintenance Service arrangements, looking at the years 2020 to 2022, on average 160,000 children were kept out of absolute low income on an after-housing-costs basis.

Despite this progress, however, there is much more we can do. That is why, in October, my department announced measures to strengthen the Child Maintenance Service by accelerating our enforcement powers and removing the £20 application fee. We will also consult on the ways in which the Child Maintenance Service collects and transfers maintenance payments, all with the primary aim of getting more funds to children. My noble friend Lord Robathan is right to mention that it is mainly men—93%—who have strayed in a marriage. However, I emphasise that not all do not take responsibility for their children, so it is a complicated story.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham spoke about the two-child limit, which I was certainly expecting to speak about this afternoon. He will probably know what my answer will be; my noble friend Lady Stowell alluded to it. The two-child limit has been extensively debated in this House. On inception, the policy had two clear intentions: first, to make universal credit fairer and more affordable to the taxpayer; secondly, to make sure those supporting themselves through benefits face the same financial choices around the number of children they can afford to have as those not on benefits. The House will be aware of the exceptions that apply. Child benefit continues to be paid for all children in eligible families.

Going further, in 2014—as the most reverend Primate highlighted—we introduced the family test, which guides policy-makers in assessing the potential effects of their decisions on family dynamics, including elements related to marriage. The family test is for individual departments to apply. The approach allows for flexibility to consider the test at the most appropriate points in the policy-making process. In my role, I have actively supported the family test and I remain committed to promoting it across government.

I know the most reverend Primate regards this as being very important. We acknowledge that some people, including himself, might like to see the consideration and publication of the family test become a statutory obligation. To work best, an assessment of the potential family impacts of policies needs to be done early in the policy development process, so that consideration can be given to adapting proposals. Feedback from policy-makers tells us that statutory tests risk becoming a box-ticking exercise at the end of the policy process, with pass or fail outcomes. However, perhaps I can reassure him and the House that we continue to work across government to support officials developing policy to apply the family test from the earliest policy development stages and encourage the sharing of best practice. We are also starting work across government to consider the language of the family test questions and supporting guidance. We really do want to ensure that it continues to be relevant and appropriate. We acknowledge the recommendations in the report, but also in the Children’s Commissioner’s report.

I will turn to some other matters raised in the report. On reducing poverty and supporting low-income families, the Government believe they have a strong track record of helping vulnerable families. There were a number of questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, and I will need to write a letter as there were an awful lot of them. I will be touching on housing later, however, which was a general theme during the debate, so I hope that some answers may come to her from that.

The House will be aware of the £276 billion spent on welfare in Great Britain over 2023-24. I will not rehearse all the Autumn Statement announcements, because the House has heard them on several occasions over the past two weeks or so. However, as I said earlier, I will focus on housing. The noble Lord, Lord Mann, raised this, and the most reverend Primate also spoke about the importance of family, where they live and how they live, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford spoke about the types of houses, the intergenerational focus on the buildings and, frankly, making it a lot better for families to live near each other so that we have the influence of the intergenerational aspects. Those are incredibly important points, which I certainly take on board.

In the meantime, as the House will know, in the Autumn Statement the Government are raising the local housing allowance rates to the 30th percentile of local market rents in April 2024, which will benefit 1.6 million low-income households by on average £800 a year in 2024-25, and of course help many who are in poverty. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford asked about timing. I will certainly take her point back about perhaps bringing the date forward but I certainly cannot offer any reassurance on that.

The report rightly identifies many of the features that support families’ flourishing, including friendship, shelter and the ability to deal with conflict. However, I highlight the importance of work. I have to say that I am slightly amazed that this has not been raised at all during this debate, so I will take this opportunity to focus on it. It has been a long-standing principle for the Government that the most effective and sustainable way to tackle poverty is by championing employment, acknowledging the mental health benefit that this brings and supporting people, including parents, to progress in work. Work can be an important part of bringing families together, supporting their mental health, and role-modelling positive behaviours for younger generations. The Government are committed to improving lives by ensuring that more people can reap the rewards of work. The voluntary in-work progression offer is now available in all jobcentres across Great Britain. We estimate that around 1.2 million low-paid workers will be eligible for support to progress into higher-paid work, and we will encourage them to take up this offer.

On childcare and the actions of my department to support parents into work, from June 2023 we increased the universal credit childcare cost caps by 47% to £951 a month for one child and £1,630 a month for families with two or more children. Importantly, we can now also provide even more help with up-front childcare costs when parents move into work or increase their hours. I reiterate my appreciation to faith groups and their commitment to parents, carers and children, and I am grateful to the commission for its invaluable contributions to supporting and strengthening family life since it was established in March 2021.

I want to raise one very important point, which is the role of grandparents—the noble Lord, Lord Davies, referenced the elderly in his remarks, but I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Mann, profusely for raising this important subject. The intergenerational aspects of grandparents—the way they play a pivotal role in families, often stepping up to provide kinship care and support to children and their parents—are important. Many kinship carers, especially grandparents, take on this role at a time in their lives when they least expect to raise a family, we would guess. They provide support, sage advice and stability, forging strong relationships not out of duty but because love matters.

I will answer a question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Davies, to do with having a Cabinet-level Minister for Children. Perhaps I can be helpful by saying that of course he will know that we have a Children’s Minister, but that was not his point. The Secretary of State for Education fulfils the role of Cabinet-level Minister. She makes sure that the best interests of children and families are front and centre in policy and decision-making at this highest level of government. She has a statutory duty to promote the well-being of children in England under the Children and Young Persons Act 2008, and is responsible for overseeing domestic implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and leading the reporting process on behalf of the UK to the UN.

The Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing also chairs a cross-government child protection ministerial group. This group helps to ensure that safeguarding is championed at the highest level by government departments that provide services to children and families. Through this group, the Secretary of State also ensures that other government departments are held to account in delivering for children.

This Government are committed to delivering on issues that matter to the British people. That is why we will continue with our mission to help all families to thrive, and our young people growing up within them to flourish.

Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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Before the Minister sits down, can I ask him whether he used a word in his section on divorce advisedly? He referred to a proportion or percentage of men who had “strayed”. To me, that suggests an element of blame, whereas I thought that the whole thrust of developments in divorce law is for the law to avoid allocating blame.

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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The noble Lord is absolutely right. I clarify that I was not attaching any blame; I was just making a factual point that it is the 93% of men who stray. There is a balance that we strike within the Child Maintenance Service to be sure that we take account of the issues relating to paying parents and receiving parents. It is very important that we do not take sides, but we also have to look at the facts.

Benefit Claimants: Free Prescriptions

Lord Davies of Brixton Excerpts
Thursday 30th November 2023

(7 months, 2 weeks ago)

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Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London for securing this debate on the end of free prescriptions for certain benefit claimants. She covered, in detail, the operational effectiveness of this and how it works out in practice; I will talk about the philosophy that lies behind the proposal.

As I said in yesterday’s debate on the Autumn Statement, I am angry. I saved my anger from yesterday’s debate for today. It is unfortunate that the noble Viscount the Minister, for whom I have considerable respect, has to be the butt of my anger, but my anger exists nevertheless. I am angry about this cruel and outrageous proposal that reflects so badly on a Government that have already lost much credibility and honour—I am angry and sick to my stomach. My immediate reaction when I read this policy was to ask, “Are we back to the workhouse?”. I am angry, because we have known for almost two centuries that the policy of less eligibility simply does not work—not only does it not work; it leads to further cruelty in a race to the bottom, devoid of compassion and sense.

I will talk history. I am sorry that we have lost the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, who gave us a history lesson in the previous debate today, for which three of us were present—but here is some more history. I will talk about the Poor Law and the principle of less eligibility that played significant roles in shaping the approach to poverty and welfare in the 19th century, particularly in the United Kingdom.

The Poor Law, a system of social welfare that dated back to the 16th century, underwent significant reforms in the 1830s with the implementation of the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. The core principle of the Poor Law was the provision a relief to the poor through workhouses, which were intended to be austere institutions to discourage dependence on state assistance. The workhouse system aimed to make poverty less desirable than the lowest paying jobs available, thus enforcing a concept of less eligibility. That meant that conditions in the workhouse were intentionally made to be harsher than the worst situations outside, creating a deterrent against seeking public assistance.

Less eligibility sought to create a clear distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor, with the belief that the fear of destitution would drive people to seek alternative means of support. The workhouse environment was designed to be Spartan and unpleasant, reinforcing the idea that dependence on state support should be a last resort.

It became clear, however, that the Poor Law and less eligibility meant the system was dehumanising and punitive, pushing vulnerable individuals and families to the brink of despair. The workhouse conditions were often harsh, further exacerbating the emotional toll on those seeking assistance. Charles Dickens, through his literary work such as Oliver Twist, on the Poor Law and its bastard children, vividly depicted the hardships faced by the poor in workhouses, contributing to public awareness and debate. Over time, society’s attitudes shifted and the harshness of the Poor Law system began to be questioned. As the 19th century progressed, there were calls for reform and a more compassionate approach to poverty. Eventually, the Poor Law system was largely dismantled in the early 20th century, making way for the development of modern welfare programmes.

In retrospect, the Poor Law and less eligibility reflected the prevailing ideologies of the time, attempting to address poverty through deterrence rather than systemic support. The approach was rooted in a belief in self-sufficiency, but it ultimately led to widespread suffering and hardship for those already marginalised by poverty. The lessons learned from the shortcomings of the Poor Law should influence contemporary discussions on social welfare and the importance of a compassionate and inclusive approach to addressing poverty and inequality. However, it is as if the Government have forgotten these lessons.

My question to the Minister is: has he read his Dickens? Does he realise that, not as an individual but as the representative of the Government here today, he is playing the part of the villain in an up-to-date Dickens novel and that he is, in his official role, if not personally, acting as a modern-day Mr Bumble, the cruel manager of the workhouse in Oliver Twist, devoid of compassion? I was struck by the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, in the discussions yesterday, when she complained that this was a compassionate policy. I think it is identical to Mr Bumble, the cruel manager claiming to be compassionate.

When we look at the people who will be affected by this policy, we do not really know much about their characteristics—I think that was the point that was made—so we do not know who will be harmed by this policy. Make no mistake: the intention of this policy is to harm people. I suspect that few if any people fit the tabloid caricature of the feckless, workshy scrounger, but we do know that these people are poor. We also know that they are ill, and we know this policy is designed to make them poorer and iller. To put it at its clearest, even the feckless, workshy scrounger deserves the medical treatment they require.

I hope the Minister can hear history speaking to him, saying that this policy is a component of the failed idea of less eligibility, and it is bound to fail and create more problems than it seeks to address.

Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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My Lords, I join my noble friend Lady Drake in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, on bringing this important Bill before us today. I still struggle to get my head around the idea that a government policy requires a Private Member’s Bill to bring it in: it seems a bit odd to me, but then most of the Bills this morning seem to have been in line with government policy. I suppose that is because you have a chance of getting legislation through only if it has government backing. But this is government policy and the Government have promised to introduce it. They did not say when, so their tardiness is being pre-empted by the Bill.

I am going to say some things which may seem a bit grouchy, but I do support the Bill and I am not suggesting any amendments: I think it should be put on the statute book as quickly as possible. It is, of course, an enabling piece of legislation; it is just the first step. We are going to have the regulations and there is some suggestion that we are going to have a consultation later this year. We are a bit overburdened with consultations at the moment—I think there were about five earlier this week—on crucial issues in the pensions area, so I hope there will be some understanding of the capacity issues in dealing with all these areas of policy.

The Bill does two distinct things: it increases the contributions that everyone who is automatically enrolled has to receive in their pension: it affects everyone, right up to the ceiling. It is not in any way targeted at the lower paid, but it has a much bigger impact on the lower paid, of course, because including the extra £6,000 for someone on £18,000 has a much bigger proportionate effect than for someone on, say, £30,000 or £35,000. So, proportionately, it is aiming at those on lower levels of pay. It also brings in those who are between the ages of 18 and 22—my noble friend Lady Drake dealt with this in detail.

Nevertheless, while both those things seem like good things, I do have concerns. There is a general concern that this might be seen as solely what we need to do in order to address what I think is currently the biggest problem in pensions policy, which is the gender-based pension gap that the noble Baroness referred to in her introduction. It is because of inadequate pension provision and of course it affects primarily women, hence the gender gap. We could spend a bit of time discussing the DWP errors and the differential impact that they are having on women, but we will leave that to one side today. However, the two key issues there are low pay for women and continued gender discrimination in employment.

The second concern is that caring tends to be the responsibility of women. There is, perhaps, greater sharing now than there was in the past, but it is still overwhelmingly women who have caring responsibilities, and this has an impact on the pensions that they accrue.

What solutions do we have to those issues? I am afraid that I must disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, about the impact this will have on the pensions gap. I think it is irrelevant to the pensions gap and hence is a diversion from what we should be doing. My crucial point on the pensions gap, and where the Bill misses the point, is that we cannot solve the problem of the inadequate pensions received by women, people on low incomes and people with caring responsibilities by making them save more money. It is not the answer to the pensions gap to rely on people having greater savings, because their resources are just not there. We have to look at other ways of providing support to eliminate the pensions gap, and I really do not think that market-based funded pensions are that solution. We have to look at the solution through improvements to the state scheme. Clearly, the state has a bigger role here. In that sense, this Bill is a diversion and raises concerns in my mind, even though the measures in themselves are worth supporting.

There are also practical issues that need to be addressed if we are to extend auto-enrolment. First, we have to resolve the problem of small pots. The Government have issued a further consultation. I thought that we had consulted almost to death on this issue, but we got another consultation paper on small pots earlier today. The new and dynamic Pensions Minister says:

“I am setting out a decisive way forward built around the multiple default consolidator model”.

That is perhaps the correct approach—it moves away from the pot-follows-member model that previously had support—but this debate has been going on for 10 years or more, ever since the birth of auto-enrolment. We have to address the problem of small pots and we need to do it soon, so increasing auto-enrolment must go along with sorting out the problem of small pots.

The other issue that needs to be resolved, particularly for younger people, whose earnings will tend to be low and may be outside the tax regime, is that of net pay. I was going to say something about that at Second Reading of the Finance (No. 2) Bill, but unfortunately I could not make it. However, they are important issues and, in this context, I stress that the small pots issue needs to be taken more seriously by the Government. It was discussed in Committee in the House of Commons and various points were raised. I do not believe that the Government have yet totally resolved these issues—the need to make sure that people know that net pay tax relief will be there.

The Government’s proposal is to start, in effect, two years in the future, but I cannot see any sound reason why we should not go back to 2023. There is the whole process of individuals being able to object to whatever assessment is made and additional technical issues which I will not detain the House with today. There are a number of issues with net pay that need to be addressed. So, okay, let us go ahead, let us expand auto-enrolment, but unless at the same time we resolve the other issues of net pay and small pots, it will not have the impact that it should have. To come back to my prime point, let us not believe that this is going to resolve to a significant extent the biggest issue, which I believe is the gender pensions gap.