Pension Equality for Women DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Guy OppermanMain Page: Guy Opperman (Conservative) - Hexham)
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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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.