All 1 Baroness Noakes contributions to the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Act 2021

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Wed 13th Oct 2021
Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill
Lords Chamber

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Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill Debate

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Department: Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office

Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill

Baroness Noakes Excerpts
Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, I do not like breaking manifesto commitments, so my support for the Bill is tinged with regret, but I do wholeheartedly support it. I am clear that Covid has created significant complications for the triple lock two years running. Last year, as we have heard, earnings growth was negative, which under the law should have resulted in a zero increase in pensions. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions brought legislation to ignore that and awarded a 2.5% increase. This year she has faced artificially high earnings growth and has wisely chosen to ignore that too, so she will make the determination based on the higher of 2.5% and CPI inflation. We should not look at this year in isolation.

I agree with my noble friend Lady Stowell, that the Bill is fair. In particular, it is fair to pensioners, whose income will be protected in real terms. Last year, their income increased above the rate of CPI inflation. This year it will be no worse than CPI inflation. Next year we should be able to return to the normal formula, so that if earnings growth continues, pensioners too will benefit. Noble Lords will know that this Government are committed to a high-wage economy, not a low-wage one. This is good news not only for those in work but also, through the triple lock, for pensioners as well.

While I support what the Government are doing in the Bill, I have never been keen on the triple lock, mainly because I believe that writing formulae into legislation is just a recipe for trouble. The last two years, in relation to pensions, are proof of that. We need to stop virtue signalling in legislation because good intentions often collide with reality and corrective legislation then serves to magnify the problem. So, I would take it out of legislation.

Some have tried to make a case that pensioners are particularly badly treated and that pensioner poverty is increasing, but those who do that tend to use selective measures of relative poverty and are highly selective about segments of the total pensioner population. If we look at absolute measures of poverty, there are 200,000 fewer pensioners living in absolute poverty than there were 10 years ago. We will probably never eliminate relative poverty, but we can and should focus on absolute poverty.

In addition, we should not look only to the basic state pension to ensure that pensioners receive an adequate income. In the long run, access to further pension income, by virtue of automatic enrolment, should be a significant element of pensioner income. In the short term, as other noble Lords have referred to, pension credit is important. As the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, pointed out, it is important not only for the increased income that it gives to some of the poorest old people, but also because it acts as a gateway to further significant benefits. It is therefore a real shame that the latest estimates from DWP show that nearly £2 billion each year is unclaimed and 1 million households are losing out.

I took part in the pension credit legislation when it was introduced in your Lordships’ House almost exactly 20 years ago. Two highly expert and redoubtable Baronesses—both no longer with us, sadly—were on the Labour Benches. On the Front Bench was Baroness Hollis of Heigham and behind her was Baroness Castle of Blackburn. Baroness Castle disliked means-tested benefits and knew that pensioners in particular worried about the stigma attached to claiming benefits. She worried—and she was very worried—that 20% would go unclaimed, a figure in line with other similar benefits at the time. Baroness Hollis refused to give the Government’s estimate for pension credit take-up. Baroness Castle must be turning in her grave at the fact that nearly 40% do not claim.

On our Benches, we pressed Baroness Hollis to say how the Government would ensure that pensioners got what they were entitled to without the Government incurring massive administrative costs. It is fair to say that we got no sensible answer to that question at the time and I believe that it still needs to be answered. The Government have said all the right things but I am not sure that their record on this is one to be proud of. Can my noble friend the Minister say what the Government’s strategy is for pension credit uptake and when we will see real improvements in the rate?

Covid-19—or rather the Government’s response to it—has had a massive negative impact on our economy that cannot be ignored. Support to individuals and businesses has cost over £400 billion and debt has risen to around 100% of GDP. While the economy is now recovering well, there is a lot of work to do to restore economic and fiscal health. In the meantime, the Government are going to have to make some hard decisions. In relation to this Bill, I believe that the Government have got it right with the state pension. It is a fair increase and a fair outcome for taxpayers.

Before concluding, I must say something about the universal credit uplift because several noble Lords have tried to drag the issue of its removal into this Bill. I believe that is a category error. It is quite unrelated to the level of the state pension and I sincerely hope that noble Lords will respect the narrow purpose of this Bill and not try to impede its passage towards Royal Assent.