Pension Equality for Women

Mhairi Black 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, 12:22 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.

Mhairi Black Portrait Mhairi Black (Paisley and Renfrewshire South) (SNP) - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 12:23 p.m.

As someone who was one year old when the 1995 Act came into effect but is sitting here just like everybody else, may I ask all Members that we get past the party political nonsense of whose fault this is? The mess has been going on for long enough and the current Government are in charge now. This problem is not going away, and the Government need to deal with it.

Grahame Morris Portrait Grahame Morris - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 12:23 p.m.

Absolutely, and there are things that the Government could do immediately to mitigate the worst cases of hardship. For example, the winter fuel allowance can be worth up to £300. If the Minister is looking for suggestions, that would be a decent start. If the Government were to give the WASPI women that payment each year, they would be able to have some level of comfort during this cold winter weather, but many in my region are having to choose between heating and eating.

Break in Debate

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge (South Suffolk) (Con) - Parliament Live - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 1:24 p.m.

It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on bringing it forward.

I have received a considerable amount of correspondence about this matter from the ladies in South Suffolk who are affected by the change, although I do not know whether they are in the Public Gallery today. As everyone else, quite rightly, is focusing on the specific issue faced by that cohort of women, I want to consider its long-term implications for the state pension system. We need to ask ourselves whether the system is really fit for purpose. Do we have a state pension system that actually delivers any longer?

The key thing is that we have a pay-as-you-go system. The most common argument that we hear from ladies who have been affected by these changes is, “I have paid in contributions all my life; it is my pension pot.” They believe that as they have paid in their money, they have a contract for what they should receive in return. The problem is that there is no such pot. None of us in the state pension system has a pot with our name on it. We have a pay-as-you-go system. This month’s national insurance contributions from the working population pay for this month’s pension liabilities in the state system. I am afraid that that system is extremely vulnerable in the face of demographic change.

Mhairi Black Portrait Mhairi Black - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 1:25 p.m.

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 1:25 p.m.

I always give way to the hon. Lady.

Mhairi Black Portrait Mhairi Black - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 1:25 p.m.

I am very grateful to my former Committee colleague for giving way. I would just like to ask whether the same pay-as-you-go system applies for the Democratic Unionist party and remaining in power.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 1:26 p.m.

That is not a function of the state pension system. I will resist the bait to which the hon. Lady tries to get me to rise.

It is important that we remember the costs involved. The DWP spends £264 billion a year, of which the largest part is for the state pension. At £111 billion, it is by far the biggest single piece of public expenditure. That sum gives out a state pension of on average just under £160 a week—not exactly a king’s ransom. Of course pensioner poverty would be far higher in the current age were it not for the fact that many of this generation of pensioners are fortunate enough to have occupational pensions—and good luck to them. My parents are in that generation, many of whom own property. Savills estimates that the housing equity of people over 65 is about £1.5 trillion, so that generation has been cushioned to a certain degree. It has also been cushioned by the Government’s actions to protect pensioner benefits and introduce the triple lock, all of which have protected state pension expenditure from the necessary savings made in other Departments.

Break in Debate

Laura Pidcock (North West Durham) (Lab) Parliament Live - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 2:46 p.m.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for securing this debate. My mam is a WASPI woman. As the daughter of a WASPI woman, worse than the so-called burden on my generation or younger generations is seeing my mam not getting what she deserves, and the consequences of that, so I definitely do not see it as a burden.

There is an overwhelming case to reach a compensatory and transitional arrangement for women who were born in the 1950s—women who, through no fault of their own, have been robbed of a decent retirement. However, despite this long debate, I am sure that those women do not feel as though their voices will be heard by this Government. We will see when the Minister rises to his feet. If the hardship was really heard, the Government would take action.

I asked women to share their experiences, and they were stark and heartbreaking. Contrary to the comments on the Government Benches about the individualised nature of these experiences, there were patterns. It was a collective experience. For example, it is clear and cannot be disputed that these women have been left without information by the Department for Work and Pensions. The word that they used repeatedly about how they felt was “cheated”. The lack of notification has consequences; that is clear and cannot be disputed.

Women who often started work at the age of 15 have been suddenly asked to rip up their retirement plans and scratch around to make a living. Because of those new and sudden realities, they have been forced into often back-breaking temporary zero-hours work with no security or job satisfaction just to make it through to their retirement age. Illness has made them desperate and trapped, and having to search for ways to make ends meet is frightening in this new financial environment. Financial insecurity and poverty have caused many to experience acute mental health problems. Caring responsibilities have left them exhausted and with gaps in their pensions through no fault of their own.

Overall, these women, who have worked all their lives and have not had the advantages of many in this place—and for many, life has been a struggle—have felt utterly let down by the DWP, by their representatives in the House, and by the Government. What happens in this place has massive consequences.

This is one woman’s reality. She says that she is living from “hand to mouth”. It really is about whether she can “heat or eat”. She writes:

“I am not in the best of health…If I am unwell and cannot work I don’t get paid. I should not be in this position! I should have been informed years ago of the massive increase in state pension age! An additional six years to work is…unfair, it’s the best part of a decade and that means a lot when you’re in your 60s! I feel hopeless and frustrated. What will my health be like in another four years’ time? Will I ever get to enjoy my retirement?”

Those words are truly heartbreaking, and there are thousands of similar stories from thousands of women in my constituency.

These women want to know where their money is. They want to know how a contractual relationship with the state can just be ripped up. They want to know how there can be no consequences for the administrative inadequacies of the state. They know, deep down, that where there is a will there is a way. I say to the Government: please give these women the future that is rightfully theirs. When they do win, they will not be grateful, but they will be glad that they did not give up.

Mhairi Black Portrait Mhairi Black (Paisley and Renfrewshire South) (SNP) - Parliament Live - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 2:50 p.m.

I too woke up this morning and thought, “What the hang am I going to say?” I have said everything multiple times, and there are only so many ways you can state the same facts.

I had an email from a lady called Hazel. She said that, just out of curiosity, she wanted to look at the old TV adverts for the multi-million-pound campaign that the Government had apparently launched. Given that we have focused so much on communication today, I think this is a very valid point. Hazel showed me various adverts; having searched the whole archive, we could find three. The first was presumably aimed at women. It is very patronising, as is the one that is aimed at guys.

Two dogs are talking to each other in a field. One says that it is very confused by pensions because there are so many different types. The other dog says, “Well, the Government have this great new handbook that you can request to be sent to you.” The punchline is “Is that you a guide dog now?” Oh, the banter. That is very good, right? But it was not adequate in the slightest when it came to getting across to people the grave changes that were being made.

My favourite is the third advert. It is only 10 seconds long, and half of it shows a dog chasing its own tail. There is no dialogue whatsoever. That summed up, for me, the Government’s reactions to this entire saga. They are just spinning in the one circle, refusing to acknowledge the facts that people are pointing out to them.

I raised that for two reasons. First, it is the only new thing that I have to add, and secondly, the onus is still on the women to request the information. The onus is still on them to go and find out what the Government might or might not be up to with their pensions.

It is incredible that we are still having to have this debate. As far as I am aware, this is the 13th in which I have taken part since I was elected, and I know that there were others before that. The key issue is that at no point have these changes been explicitly mentioned, and at no point have they been communicated to the women affected.

Until the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), I thought that everyone here agreed that there was poor communication for many years. I think that that still stands. It is a historical fact that both Labour and Conservative Governments totally ignored the problem and, to an extent, there is still a huge communication problem that we have to look at.

From the admission that there is a communication problem, we can safely draw two conclusions. The first, which is the more important, is that the women are utterly blameless. The second is that it is actually an admission of guilt on the Government’s part. It is a recognition that the institution of government has failed those same women again and again.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) said earlier that the 2011 Act had been rushed, and I agree with him. It was shoved in at the last minute. Then, all of a sudden, people said, “Wait a second: there is a 1995 Act. Oh my God, this has kicked off.” Instead of doing the sensible thing and saying, “Let us step back and see what we can do to soften the blow,” the Government decided to vamp ahead with it anyway. Can we deal with the fact that the job of current Governments is to fix the mistakes made by previous Governments? That is what we are all here for. We are trying to move society forward, and it is not going to get anywhere if the response is always, “We looked at that; it is rubbish, but let us move on.” However, that is all that we are getting from the Government. We can shout about whose fault this is until we are a Tory shade of blue in the face, but it will not fix a damn thing. I recognise that the Government have made slight concessions to the 2011 Act. That gave some women an extra few months, but it was a wholly inadequate response because it totally neglected the chaos that started back in 1995, and the huge leap that nobody knew about. Can we focus on how to fix the issue now, rather than getting drawn into the blame game of whose fault it is or is not?

As has been mentioned, the SNP produced a report that did the Government’s job for them. It stated that with £8 billion spent across five years—one whole Parliament—things could effectively revert back to the original timetable of the 1995 Act. That would allow a lot of breathing space for a lot of women, especially those worse affected. The national insurance fund has a surplus of £23 billion. People can disagree with that all they want—I am happy to talk to them afterwards.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 2:55 p.m.

rose—

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.

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab) - Hansard
14 Dec 2017, 3 p.m.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on securing this important debate, and I am absolutely delighted to be able to speak in support of his motion. We have had an excellent and passionate debate with some fantastic contributions, and I would like to thank each and every one of them. On the whole, it has been completely cross-party, recognising the real injustice that women born in the 1950s have been dealt. There can be no doubt that women have borne the brunt of this Government’s cuts over the past seven years, but that applies particularly to women born in the 1950s, who have been dealt a real injustice with the accelerated increase in their state pension age.