Pension Equality for Women Debate

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Department: Department for Work and Pensions

Pension Equality for Women

Guy Opperman Excerpts
Thursday 14th December 2017

(2 years, 9 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Work and Pensions
Grahame Morris Portrait Grahame Morris - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 12:21 p.m.

I will give way to the Minister.

Guy Opperman Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Guy Opperman) - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 12:21 p.m.

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) will be aware that in 2007, after 10 years of a Labour Government, the then Government considered all matters of pensions legislation and passed the Pensions Act 2007. During their 13 years in power Labour Members had total capacity to do something about what they now say is not appropriate. With respect, there is a legitimate point to answer.

Grahame Morris Portrait Grahame Morris - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 12:22 p.m.

I will give way again in a minute, but I would like the opportunity to respond to the Minister’s point. We must recognise the injustice faced by these women, because there were many missed opportunities. There is no doubt that the 2011 Act accelerated the changes, and Steve Webb, the former Pensions Minister, is quoted extensively as indicating that. When he wrote to the WASPI women on behalf of the coalition Government, he not only informed them about the change in pension age of one year, as under the 2011 Act, but informed them for the first time about the earlier changes, meaning that some people’s state pension retirement age was being extended by six years.

Break in Debate

Debbie Abrahams - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 3:01 p.m.

There are so many cases like theirs, and I shall touch on a couple of them, if I may.

Women born in the 1950s have had their state pension age quietly pushed back, many without receiving any notice. They expected to retire at 60, only to find that they had three or more years to wait. In spite of some appalling stories of the dire circumstances that some of these women are facing, the Government have still refused to provide any transitional support. During our national pensions tour, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and I started this summer, we have heard from many women who are not only struggling but facing destitution. I shall mention a couple of cases, all anonymous of course. The first woman states:

“I’ve been paying national insurance for 43 years, but have no private pension or anything else for that matter. I’ve supported 2 children on my own salary as a divorced, single parent. I had no notification of the 1995 Act but in Feb 2012 I was told that my retirement date was May 2019. I’ll be 65 and 4 months. I’ve worked, got extra qualifications, had good jobs, but at 63 I am unemployed and am claiming JSA which finishes soon. I’ve little savings. Have applied for over 40 jobs since Sept. I’m at my wits end”.

The second woman states:

“I don’t remember ever getting a letter saying my pension age had changed. I’m disabled and have had a lot of stressful things going on in the last few years. Incapacity Benefit changing to ESA and worrying about that, then the bedroom tax and having to downsize, then news that DLA is changing. The change in State Pension Age just sort of crept in there and came to my attention when WASPI highlighted it. I kept hearing the words that no one will wait longer than 18 months! Then I realised not only would I not get a state pension when I was 60 but also the winter fuel allowance and bus pass would be affected. I’m tired of not mattering.”

Those women deserve more than this.

As we have heard, many of these women have had to rely on the wider social security system beyond the state pension to survive. This means that if they are claiming jobseeker’s allowance or universal credit, they will be expected to undertake 35 hours a week of job search activity, or be sanctioned. I would be grateful if the Minister commented on the recommendation in the final report of John Cridland’s review of the state pension age, which suggests that older jobseekers should be required to find only part-time work. Do the Government support that recommendation?

When the plight of women born in the 1950s was first raised by Women Against State Pension Inequality and various other groups two years ago, they stated that 3.8 million women were affected by the lack of notice of the changes in the Pensions Acts of 1995 and 2011. The change in the 2011 Act affected 2.7 million women, of whom only 150,000 have reached their revised state pension age to date. By 2026, they will all have retired. Those women feel palpable and justifiable anger. As they have said, they have done the right thing. They have worked all their lives, paid into the system for decades, cared for their children and cared for their parents, only for the goalposts to be moved. Many are seeking legal redress against the Government. They need action now, not in 10 or 20 years’ time.

Labour has presented two options that the Government could take forward now. The first, which was included in our manifesto, is the extension of pension credit to those most badly affected by the accelerated increase in the state pension age, enabling them to get additional support based on the 1995 state pension age timetable. That would provide approximately half a million women on the lowest incomes with up to £159 a week. We have repeatedly called on the Government to implement those costed measures—about £800 million, as my hon. Friend the Member for Easington mentioned—but they have sadly refused to act.

Our manifesto commitment said that we would consider other options as well, and I set out an additional option at conference that would give women the opportunity to retire up to two years early, rather than as expected under the Government’s plans. Given that the Government have so far refused to set aside additional expenditure, we felt that it was imperative to present cost-neutral proposals, so that there was no excuse to rule it out. Under the second option, women born in the 1950s would see a small reduction of 6% in their weekly state pension entitlement for each year that they retired early. Based on the state pension today, a woman retiring a year early would receive £149.98 a week instead of £159.55. That option would be available to all those waiting to retire—around 2.6 million women. However, as I said then and want to reiterate now, that proposal is a starter. It is to complement additional action on transitional protections. These women need action now, and the Government could introduce these options now, which also do not preclude compensation. We want to continue working with women to right the wrong that they have been done.

Labour’s options were developed after listening to women and men as part of the national state pension tour to discuss the future of our state pension system. We also met the various 1950s women lobby groups, and something that struck us profoundly was the urgency for many women. They need something now and cannot wait six months, let alone three, four or five years. As we all know, most 1950s-born women will retire in the next few years, so something needs to happen now, but this Government have ignored their pleas for help and have ignored the tangible measures that could be taken. Their approach is not only morally bankrupt and shows that they have no commitment to tackling burning injustices, but, given the prospect of a lengthy and costly court battle as women seek compensation for the years that they have lost, it is also extremely foolhardy.

Last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North challenged the Government on their contingency planning in the event of the courts awarding compensation to the affected women. The Minister said the Government believed that they were on firm ground, but history is littered with court and other decisions when injustice has been proved and Governments have had to pay up. It is clear that this Government have even less support in the House for their position on 1950s women than they do for a meaningful vote on the negotiated settlement with the EU, so I ask the Minister to work with us and with these women on a comprehensive set of bridging arrangements now.

Guy Opperman Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Guy Opperman) - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 3:08 p.m.

I congratulate my good friend the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on securing today’s debate on the state pension age and the 30-odd colleagues who have spoken.

The decisions by successive Governments concerning the rise in the state pension age were reached by reason of equality legislation, increased life expectancy and sustainability of the state pension. Since world war two, we have seen huge changes in life expectancy. Thanks to a better NHS, changes in the job market and improvements in medicine, there have been improvements for men and women such that they are living longer, staying healthier for longer, and leading far more active lifestyles, regardless of age. People living and staying healthier for longer is to be welcomed, but the Government must not ignore the fact that it also brings enormous financial and demographic pressures. The key choice that a Government face when seeking to control state pension spend is to increase the state pension age or pay lower pensions, with an inevitable impact on pensioner poverty. The only alternative is to ask the working generation to pay an ever larger share of their income to support pensioners, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) made clear in her speech.

In July 2017, the Government published their first review of the state pension age, which set out a coherent strategy targeted at strengthening and sustaining the UK state pension system for many decades to come. It accepts the key recommendation of John Cridland’s independent review, which was to increase the state pension age from 67 to 68 between 2037 and 2039.

The review is clear about increasing life expectancy and the challenges it poses. People are living longer. Almost 6,000 people in the UK turned 100 in 2016, compared with 3,000 in 2002. By 2035, there will be more than twice as many people over 100 as there are now.

Stephen Lloyd Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 3:10 p.m.

What does the Minister have to say about my two specific asks? First, the Government should give us a meaningful vote on this, because I know there is a lot of support on the Government Back Benches. Secondly, rather than giving one year of the corporation tax cut to business, I think business will be happy to give the money to WASPI women.

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 3:11 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman and I both voted for the 2011 Act to increase the state pension age, with the circumstances that apply, after much consideration of the variety of options that had been proposed. He and I, and certainly the Scottish National party and the Scottish Government, have differing views on taxation, such as on whether it should support Trident, but, with respect, the tax reduction he proposes would reduce the job-creating power of the businesses upon which we rely for the jobs and public services we all wish to support.

Debbie Abrahams - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 3:11 p.m.

Will the Minister acknowledge that, two days before John Cridland’s report was released, data showed that life expectancy at 60 is actually going down and life expectancy at birth is flat-lining? This is the only developed country where that is happening.

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 3:13 p.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that specific point, because I genuinely believe she is scaremongering—[Interruption.] Oh, yes. On the issue of life expectancy, there are two fundamental sources. The first is the ONS, which has repeatedly made it clear that life expectancy is rising across the board. We cannot get away from the fact that the ONS reported only this month that life expectancy continues to rise.

The Labour party manifesto sought an independent review of all aspects of the state pension age. Well, the Government did that with the Cridland report, which makes it critically clear that life expectancy has increased. Life expectancy at birth in 2016, for example, was 91 years for females and 89 years for males. In 50 years’ time, by 2066, life expectancy at birth in the UK is projected to rise to 98 years.

Healthy life expectancy has also been increasing in recent decades. Healthy life expectancy at 65, as a proportion of total life expectancy, has been relatively stable since 2000. Healthy life expectancy at 65, according to the latest ONS statistics, has been increasing in Scotland in recent years, as has disability-free life expectancy.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 3:13 p.m.

Will the Minister give way?

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 3:14 p.m.

If the hon. Lady will bear with me, I will answer her point.

In relation to specific areas of Scotland, the long and short of it is that I do not have the life expectancies for specific constituencies, as has been asked for, but in the Glasgow city area, for example, life expectancy at birth, according to the December 2017 ONS figures, has increased by more than four years for men. Life expectancy at 65 in Glasgow city is 15 years for men and 18 years for women, an increase on 2001 to 2003. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) asserts from a sedentary position that I am using the wrong data. The data I am using is what the Office for National Statistics has said and from the Cridland report.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 3:14 p.m.

rose—

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 3:14 p.m.

I am conscious of your restrictions on the length of time available to me, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I will come back to the hon. Lady in a moment, if she will allow me.

The state pension was initially addressed in the 1995 Act. The need to do so arose because of life expectancy changes and the anticipated increase in the number of pensioners in the years to come. As I have said, the Labour Government introduced the Pensions Act 2007, which again increased the state pension age. I should point out that the Labour party has now resiled from that position and seeks to argue that both the Blair and Brown reforms were wrong.

The Government listened to concerned voices during the passage of the 2011 Act, as I indicated to the hon. Member for Easington. The proposed two-year acceleration was reduced to 18 months, benefiting more than a quarter of a million women, with the concession being worth more than £1 billion. Going as far as some campaigners have argued—he mentioned early-day motion 63 and what he described as “full compensation”—would represent a cost of more than £70 billion to the public purse. With respect, the requirements those changes would make in relation to taking into account the difference between men and women would require new legislation, meaning that an ongoing inequality would potentially be created between men and women.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 3:16 p.m.

Perhaps the Minister could offer me some assistance. He talks about life expectancy increasing, and I do not want to argue the toss about whether it is or is not. I am curious about something, and I hope he will be able to explain this to me. Just because people are living longer, I do not understand why this particular generation of women should pay the price, given that they expected to receive their pensions at 60. The argument about life expectancy might be one about reforming pensions in the future, but we are talking about this particular group of women, who feel very let down and cheated because at 60 they have not got their pension.

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 3:16 p.m.

I am conscious of Madam Deputy’s Speaker’s desire that I should end my speech speedily, so I will write to the hon. Lady with a detailed reply to the point she just raised.

I have barely had a chance to address the arguments made by my hon. Friends from Scotland, which include the point raised eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) that Jeane Freeman, my opposite number as Pensions Minister in Scotland, has indicated that her Government have the powers to act under sections 24, 26 and 28 of the Scotland Act 2016. I stress the point strongly that there is no question but that they have this power, because this is not about dealing with pensioners as such; the provisions we are dealing with concern people who are of working age, according to the law. I rely strongly upon the words not of this Government but of the Scottish Government, as set out in her letter of 22 June.

The issue of notification was raised, and I can answer the points on that briefly. Clearly, there was massive parliamentary debate, on repeated occasions, in 1995. Thereafter, we saw multiple articles in the press and media; the distribution of a huge number of leaflets; a campaign in 2004 to educate people about their state pensions; adverts in a variety of ways; correspondence in two different ways, both prior to 2010 and after 2011; and state pension forecasts sent to 19 million people over the past 17 years.

I wish to make a couple of final points. We recognise that some men and women are forced to reduce their working hours or cannot work for reasons of sickness, disability or caring responsibilities. The Government are committed to supporting the vulnerable, and we spend about £50 billion a year on benefits to support disabled people, those with health conditions and carers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) particularly mentioned. That equates to 6% of all Government spending. With increased financial pressures, we cannot change a policy that was implemented over 22 years ago and supported by all three political parties.

I finish with a point about life expectancy, as the hon. Member for Easington and I are good examples of that—we have both suffered from cancer. I am delighted to see that he has made a recovery from lymphatic cancer. I have made a recovery from a brain tumour. Those illnesses would have killed us both 30 to 40 years ago. There is no question but that the life expectancy changes are what has driven this approach on the part of successive Governments. With increased financial pressures, it would be unaffordable and not right, in the light of the changes we have had, to place an unfair financial burden on future generations.

Grahame Morris Portrait Grahame Morris - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 3:19 p.m.

I thank the more than 30 Members who have participated in the debate, either directly through speeches or in the numerous interventions. I hope that the Minister has taken note of what has been said. I am an eternal optimist, perhaps formed by my experiences, and I think that all sides are going to build momentum and bring this campaign to a successful conclusion. I point out to the Minister, with all due respect, that if the maladministration cases are found against the Government, we could be looking at a huge settlement, so it may well be in the Minister’s interests and those of the Government to seek a parliamentary solution. These women, many of whom were in the Gallery today, deserve justice, and we are here to try to deliver that. I hope that Parliament will speak with one voice in support of the motion.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House calls on the Government to publish proposals to provide a non-means tested bridging solution for all women born on or after 6 April 1950 who are affected by changes to the State Pension age in the 1995 and 2011 Pension Acts.