Pension Equality for Women Debate

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Department: Department for Work and Pensions

Pension Equality for Women

Douglas Ross Excerpts
Thursday 14th December 2017

(2 years, 9 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Work and Pensions
Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op) - Hansard

I completely agree with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton): this is an entitlement for women. I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), who has a real determination to ensure that women get justice.

I am so proud of women. Women in York and across the country are standing up for their rights, and we will back them. My question is this: why is it always women who have to experience so much financial hardship and poverty in later life? We know that the structures of employment drive women into poverty. Some 36% of women work part time, compared with 22% of men. Women working part time earn a third less than full-time men. Women take on responsibilities for intergenerational care. A quarter of women do not return to work after having a child—for 17% of them, that is because of pregnancy discrimination. Therefore, women are already economically disadvantaged.

We know that vertical pay structures with job segregation mean that women earn £25,000 on average, compared with men’s £30,000. There is a north-south divide in this issue too, with women in the north earning less on average than women in the south. We also know that women tend to be concentrated in low-paid jobs. As we have heard, those jobs follow the “Cs”—childcare, eldercare, catering, cashiering, cleaning and clerical work. Often, this is physical labour, which means that it is hard for women to work in later life, and that must be recognised.

When we hear a story in our surgery, as I did on Friday, of a woman who has five jobs—three zero-hours jobs and two part-time jobs—we know that it is tough for women. However, many more women cannot get any employment at all in later life. We also know that the occupational pension that women have saved up for is far less than men’s. On average, women get only £2,500 a year from an occupational pension. Then, there is the further injustice of not being able to receive their state pension, after they have made their contributions. That is a complete disgrace. I am fed up that it is always women who have to pay the price.

If we look at other countries, we see that they take a lifelong approach to pensions. If they bring in changes, people are aware of them decades before. Here, even though the Turner commission talked about a period of 15 years, women are not having their rights honoured.

We therefore have to look particularly at women in poverty and their experience at the moment. As we have just heard, 1.9 million people in our country are living in poverty, and 40,000 people died last winter because they could not even afford to heat their homes, so we have to address the issue of women of pension age in poverty. We know that, among the WASPI women, pensioner poverty has increased from 12% to 21%. There is a real issue to be addressed there.

It was not women who failed, but it is women who have been failed. Women are now having to pay; they have always had to pay, and they have always been discriminated against—to the point of poverty. It was the Government who made these changes. It was the Government who failed to notify these women. We must rectify this gross injustice to end poverty for women in later life. Let us have real dignity for women in the future, and let us honour what they paid into.

Douglas Ross Portrait Douglas Ross (Moray) (Con) - Hansard

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on securing today’s debate, and I was happy to add my signature to the application to ensure that it got through the Backbench Business Committee.

May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to local Moray WASPI campaigners? Several other Scottish Members have intervened today to say that their campaigners are watching at home or in a union building in Glasgow. I am delighted that I have a local WASPI campaigner and others from Moray in the Gallery today. One of them is Jennifer Matheson, who is fresh from abseiling off a building in Lossiemouth recently to raise funds for Outfit Moray, when she was resplendent in her WASPI colours to show her continued support for the campaign. May I also put on record my support and admiration for Sheila Forbes, who leads the Moray WASPI campaign?

I have previously spoken in debates on this issue in this Chamber, but today I want to focus on local case studies to ensure that the effects the women in Moray face as a result of these changes are recorded in the Official Report, because the testimony of these women is extremely important.

One lady continues to look after three generations, as well as holding down a full-time job. However, because of the stress caused by her concerns over her pension age, she is now off sick. Another lady, who is close by in the Chamber at the moment, says:

“I am now 64, so four…years without my pension.”

She has worked since she was 16, and she has 43 years of national insurance contributions. To echo some of the comments made by other hon. Members today, this constituent has two schoolmates born in the same year as she was, 1953—one was born in February, and one in July—and they already have their pensions. So birthdays only nine months apart can mean two years’ difference in terms of state pension pay-outs.

Another constituent resigned when she was 61 from an extremely stressful job, and she felt she could live off her savings until she got to her pension age at 62, only to find out that it had changed to 66. She then had the double whammy of trying to claim her occupational pension and being advised that, if she took it, she would lose 5% each year before she reached state retirement age of 66.

In the short time available, I want to finish with another story from Moray. This lady is a carer for her husband, who took a dense stroke five years ago. They were going to use some of the state pension money to buy specialist equipment that was not available on the NHS. That story is harrowing, but the key point for me was that she never, ever received a letter informing her that she would not be getting a pension at 60.

Mark Menzies Portrait Mark Menzies - Hansard

My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. There are lots of women who find themselves taking on caring responsibilities because their partners have life-changing health conditions. It is really important that the Minister takes this into account when looking at the pension implications for these women.

Douglas Ross Portrait Douglas Ross - Parliament Live - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 1:49 p.m.

I am grateful for that intervention. We have heard that message from both sides of the Chamber, and I am very hopeful that the Minister will take it on board.

The final point I want to make about this specific constituent was that she had lived at the same address for 27 years—she had not moved house, and she had not moved around the country—yet she never received a single letter from the DWP about these changes. That is the inadequacy we have to look at.

I would like to echo the comments of the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris)—sadly, she is not in the Chamber at the moment—and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who spoke about the all-party group’s study into this issue, which I fully support—I was at the launch in Westminster Hall recently. It is great to hear that there have been 90 submissions so far, but we need more because this is an opportunity for WASPI groups and WASPI women across the country to get involved and to ensure that we go through the process and have something to offer the Minister and the Government. We want to identify a solution, and it is important that the women affected by these changes are involved in that.

All 3.8 million WASPI women agree with equalisation, as we have heard across the Chamber today.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP) - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 1:50 p.m.

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concerns, and those of many others in this Chamber, about women who are doing physical and perhaps menial work and who are unable to continue to work for another two years? Does he agree that the Government should consider those who are physically unable to work and to cope with the extra two years and that action should be taken to help those women?

Douglas Ross Portrait Douglas Ross - Parliament Live - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 1:50 p.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. I was able to raise only some of the testimonies that I have had from Moray WASPI women, but I would have included those who are continuing in very hard labour jobs and have worked for a very long time in these sectors, where they have also experienced gender inequality. They suffered while they were working, they thought they were coming up to retirement age, and they have had to continue extremely strenuous work into a period where they thought they would have been retired. They have been hard-working, conscientious employees for so long, and they deserve our support. I hope that the many who are here with us today, and indeed the many around the country who are watching this debate, will feel that there is support around this Chamber and across the parties.

As I said, the key issue is the lack of notification. That is indefensible on the part of any Government. These decisions were made not only by the current Conservative Government but across these green Benches. Governments have let these women down by not ensuring that they had the notification they required to make their plans for the future. As we have heard, they were faced with a cliff edge with no prior notice. That is wrong, and that is why I support the WASPI women.

I also support the very positive comments that we heard earlier about the fact that we are fighting for these ladies’ entitlement to something that they have paid into for their entire lives. They should not have to fight for it—they should be given it. They entered into a contract with the Government that said, “At the end of it, you will receive this pension at this age.” That is why I support these women in fighting for that entitlement. It is why I support the Moray WASPI women who are with us today, all the WASPI women in the Gallery, and all the WASPI women who are watching at home.

Clive Lewis Portrait Clive Lewis (Norwich South) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 1:52 p.m.

This is a fantastic debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for the hard and tireless work he has done on this issue.

Many of us in this House, on both sides of the Chamber, do not see pensions as a burden but as an expression of collective solidarity among generations. We are proud of pensions—they are part of the glue of a civilised society and we will always defend them. That is why we defend and speak up for the WASPI women.

Like so many others in the Chamber today, I am here to represent many constituents who are among the millions of women—it sounds as though half of them are up in the Gallery today—who have suffered as a result of Government policy on pensions. The basic facts of this whole issue are now well-known. Many of the cases that Members will raise today will tell fundamentally the same story, but it is important that those stories be told. That is because the injustice of this consists not only in its quality—the sheer, brazen wrongness of it—but in its scale, with 3.8 million women being robbed of that which they were promised.

This is a huge scandal that must be faced up to by the Government as soon as possible. I have case studies of my own to tell—stories of constituents. Perhaps one of the most chilling and telling aspects is that I have been asked by my local 1950s women’s groups to anonymise them so as to not reveal their identities, because some of these women have been reduced to utter poverty and embarrassment. That is shocking. Women who have, in one way or another, spent their whole lives either working or caring for others—women in their 60s whose entire life plans were based on the knowledge that they would be receiving pensions in a given year—have been tossed casually on to the benefits system, with all its attendant humiliations. Some of my constituents have been forced to go out and get cleaning jobs on the minimum wage. Almost as bad as the financial robbery is the humiliation and insult. One woman is now forced to sell her home because she is unable to qualify for benefits—to sell the only asset she had acquired in a lifetime of work and service.

I have mentioned the quality of this injustice and its quantity—the numbers of those affected. However, there is another element that makes this scandal a terrible stain on all of us in this place—the perpetrator of the injustice. It has been carried out not by some faceless corporate financial mega-business domiciled in Panama, or by some fly-by-night wheeler-dealer, but by Her Majesty’s Government. I am chair of the APPG on fair business banking and finance. We have found in our work alarming evidence of malpractice and fraud in our financial sector that is truly disgraceful. We have also found that trust and faith in our financial sector are now shockingly low. But why should we be surprised by what is happening in the private sector if the Government themselves—the same Government who are supposed to regulate and keep the system fair—are so ready to casually rip off millions of women?

Trust, as we know, is hard won and easily lost. Yet without it, the entire basis of consent under which democratic government operates is lost. If we allow this injustice to persist, we will be doing our whole country a great disservice. I call on the Government to bring forward a fair and reasonable plan to solve this without delay.

Break in Debate

Mhairi Black Portrait Mhairi Black - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 2:56 p.m.

I am about to come specifically to the hon. Gentleman. He mentioned the problems faced by the pensions system, and I completely agreed with the spirit of his speech. I understand that Gordon Brown had a field day with the pensions pot and made things a hell of a lot more complicated for everybody. I accept that as reality and a historical fact. However, the fact that I agree with the hon. Gentleman about those grave concerns shows why we need to fix this problem. We always hear the argument about it being unfair to put costs on to the younger generations because they are the ones who will be footing the bill—the pay-as-you-go system that the hon. Gentleman referred to. I am from that generation, and I am looking at this problem and thinking: these women have done nothing wrong, yet the Government are still able to afford all these things that I really do not think are that important. Are the Government really not going to act because of me? Wait a second—why should I be paying national insurance, if at the last hurdle the Government can change the rules and move the goalposts? Why should my generation take anything that the Government say seriously? We must be grown up about this—I can’t believe I have to say that in here—and we need to address and fix this problem. This is above party politics, so let us be practical.

Where the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) and I will disagree is when I say that this comes down to tough political choices. The Government have a deal with the DUP to maintain power, and billions of pounds are being spent on Trident. There is the refurbishment for this place, and we have heard about some ridiculous campaigns for boats and royal yachts and so on. I am sorry, but those things are not the priority right now. These women entered a contract—national insurance is a contract; it is a basic fundamental of our welfare state as it functions. We cannot undermine that, yet that is all the Government are serving to do. If this were a private company it would, rightly, be getting dragged through the courts right now, and the Government should reflect on that.

The hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) said that section 28 of the Scotland Act 2016 gives the Scottish Parliament the power to mitigate these changes. I have a problem with that argument because section 28 of that Act states that we cannot give pension assistance or assistance by “reason of old age”. We are not allowed to do that—pensions are completely reserved, and when we campaigned for the devolution of pensions we were told no.

Douglas Ross Portrait Douglas Ross - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 2:58 p.m.

Does the hon. Lady also agree that an SNP Government Minister stated in a letter to the UK Government about the WASPI women:

“I accept that ‘old age’ is not defined in the legislation, and that most people would not regard this age group as old”?

When she speaks about pensions, does she agree that these women are not pensioners because they have not received their state pension? There may be an opportunity to use that—an opportunity, that is all I ask.

Mhairi Black Portrait Mhairi Black - Hansard

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says, but the WASPI women are not receiving a pension because the UK Government will not give them one, so that is a ridiculous notion. I commend the hon. Gentleman because he supported us during an Opposition-day debate. That was commendable and brave, so fair play to the guy, but that is a totally ludicrous point of view and I will explain why.

As I have said—I am coming to a conclusion, Madam Deputy Speaker—I disagree with Labour on constitutional grounds, but that is because I want to cut out the middle man. This is the perfect example of why I support independence. Why are we paying taxes to come to London to be told by a Conservative Government what we can and cannot spend the money on? The irony is that, when those policies start to take effect, the Government turn round and say, “We want the Scottish Government to fix it.” I don’t think so! If they want to devolve pensions, great. Until then, this is a UK problem and a Conservative problem, and it is not going away. It has to be fixed, and it has to be fixed soon as. Do the right thing.