Wendy Chamberlain Excerpts
Monday 1st March 2021

(2 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Stephen Timms Portrait Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab) [V]
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I understand the case for stability in the course of the pandemic; that is represented by the order and I would not quarrel with that at all. However, the order does raise a number of issues about the Government’s longer-term intentions on auto-enrolment, which others have raised and which the Minister touched on, and I would like to ask him about that.

On freezing the earnings trigger, again, £10,000 probably represents a very modest increase in the number of people brought into auto-enrolment. The Government’s analysis refers to another 8,000 people, of whom 72% will be women, but the order does not represent any real progress towards the changes set out in the 2017 review, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) reminded us from the Front Bench, would see contributions made for all employees aged 18 and over from the first £1 that they earn. When the review was published, the Government said, and the Minister reiterated it this evening, that the ambition was to implement those changes before the mid-2020s. We are now halfway from 2017 to the mid-2020s, and it would be helpful if the Minister was able to give some indication to us of when the legislation necessary to achieve that will be made. Is it the Government’s aim to legislate for those changes in the pensions Bill, which the Minister has said he wants to introduce perhaps next year? Is that when we can expect concrete steps to be made?

The previous Work and Pensions Committee recommended in its auto-enrolment report that, as part of their review, the Government should consider

“approaches to increasing contributions beyond the statutory minimum of 8% of qualifying earnings, including mandatory increases in employee and employer contribution rates and means of encouraging greater voluntary contributions”.

Can we look forward to progress along those lines in a 2022 pension schemes Bill as well?

As the Minister knows, and this has not previously been raised in this debate, the Supreme Court recently found that Uber drivers are workers for the purpose of section 54 of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. That means that Uber drivers are entitled to a minimum wage for the period when they have the app switched on in the area covered by their licence. If they and other gig economy workers are entitled to the minimum wage, they may well also be eligible for auto-enrolment on the terms set out in the order. Auto-enrolment contributions might well need to be paid retrospectively in relation to them. Will the Minister set out what the Government’s view about that is? Are they considering how gig economy workers could be brought into auto-enrolment? Is there a need for legislation to address this, or is it the Government’s view that the existing legislation can do the job?

The Work and Pensions Committee has now launched the second of our three-stage inquiry to assess the impact of the pension freedoms five years on from their introduction, following the first part, which was on pension scams, which I hope we will be able to produce a report on later this month. The third part of the inquiry, which we will launch later in the year, will look at these issues around auto-enrolment for gig economy workers such as Uber drivers and for self-employed people more generally.

The Government launched a series of trials and research exercises around enabling retirement saving for the self-employed at the end of 2018. That followed a report from the Select Committee at the end of 2017, “Self-employment and the gig economy”, which said:

“Low levels of retirement saving amongst the self-employed risk storing up grave problems of potential hardship and reliance on the welfare state in later life. While auto-enrolment for employees has been a great success, current structures are not encouraging sufficient pension saving by the self-employed. The idea of using an opt-out system on tax returns to encourage greater contribution to pensions is an interesting one that merits further consideration.”

Can the Minister, following the trials, which began a couple of years ago now, indicate what the Government’s plans are for extending the success of auto-enrolment to the self-employed?

Those trials involved: marketing interventions aimed at people who previously saved, such as those being automatically enrolled while employed, to encourage them to continue their saving; marketing interventions using trusted third parties for the self-employed, such as trade bodies and trade unions, to promote the value of saving and to provide an easy connection to an appropriate savings vehicle; and behavioural prompts, including testing messages combined with prompts through invoicing services or the banking sector to try to engage self-employed people to think about starting regular saving at a point when they are receiving their income.

What has been learned from those activities over the past couple of years? When will the Government publish the findings? When does the Minister intend to take an initiative based on those findings for the benefit of self-employed people?

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
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The Government’s annual automatic enrolment evaluation report is a testament to the success of automatic enrolment, with the most recent edition from 2019 showing that more than 10.2 million employees have been automatically enrolled across more than 1.6 million employers. As a result, the number of eligible employees with a workplace pension has skyrocketed from 10.7 million, or 55% in 2012, to 18.7 million—nearly 90%—in 2018. That is very much to be commended.

I have spoken before about the importance of intergenerational fairness in our pensions policy. The decisions we take now will continue to have an impact decades down the line. The automatic enrolment policy means not just that people in the next 10 or 20 years will be better off in retirement, but that the generation who are just entering the workforce now will be, too.

As other Members have referenced, what is perhaps most notable about this order is not what it changes, but what it does not, with only the upper limit for the qualifying earnings band being revised, but not the lower limit or the earnings trigger, which the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda), and the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), referenced. While I understand the rationale for making this decision, which the Minister set out in his opening remarks, it is important that the progress made over the past decade does not start to slow down. In the words of the Government’s 2017 review, we must “maintain the momentum”.

The 2017 review contained proposals to lower the age threshold down to 18 and to abolish the lower earnings limit, with an estimated target date of delivery in the mid-2020s. We are now nearly four years on from that review and, as the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), mentioned, we have seen no change. Although “mid-2020s” can potentially be a bit elastic, that target is inching closer and today’s statutory instrument does not change the lower earnings limit either. Like others, I would be grateful if the Minister updated the House on progress towards the changes.

Another area that the review highlighted was the gaps in coverage, which particularly impact on people with multiple low-paid jobs and young people. The recent Supreme Court judgment on Uber workers has profound implications for the gig economy. Like the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, I would be grateful if the Minister set out how his Department intends to respond to that ruling in respect of auto-enrolment and set out a timescale.

A reduction in the earnings threshold for automatic enrolment would also help the ongoing problem of the gender pensions gap, and I thank the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) for tabling an early-day motion on that very topic. According to the Chartered Insurance Institute, the average pension pot for a woman aged 65 is just one fifth of the size of average pension pot for a 65-year-old man. Prospect estimated the gender pensions gap to be 39.5% when measured in terms of income, which is more than twice the size of the gender pay gap.

One factor in that inequality is that people with a salary below the earnings threshold are disproportionately women. More broadly, Members will be concerned to see reports in the press by the former Lib Dem Pensions Minister Steve Webb that thousands of women have been underpaid their state pension, so we would be grateful if the Minister updated the House on that issue, as well as setting out his plans to reduce not only the gender pensions gap but other gaps, including the gap in relation to those from black and other minority ethnic groups. Will he set out whether the Government will move forward with changes to automatic enrolment to help to deal with that? As I said at the beginning of my speech, automatic enrolment has been a success.

In the debate on the Ministerial and Other Maternity Allowances Bill, there was much discussion about the use of impact assessments so, finally, I would be keen to hear what assessment the Department for Work and Pensions has made of the impact of today’s changes on women and other minority groups. I look forward to the Minister’s winding-up speech.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP) [V]
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It is clear that automatic enrolment for pensions has been a good thing for many people, so I am pleased to add my support for the measure. The Library briefing puts it succinctly:

“The policy has reversed the decline in workplace pension saving. The rollout of automatic enrolment from 2012 onwards has led to a tenfold increase in total membership of defined contribution occupational schemes, from 2.1 million in 2011 to 21 million in 2019.”

That is a success story if ever there was one. The briefing continues:

“Actively contributing membership rose from a low point of 0.9 million active members in 2011 to 10.6 million members in 2019.”

Success indeed! Employers who had to furlough staff because of coronavirus could claim help for pensions contributions before 1 August 2020. Since then, however, they have had to meet costs themselves both for furloughed hours and hours worked. May I ask the Minister whether that will be looked at and changed or reviewed, as it has left some employers in a difficult position? While many have been able to access grant schemes for their closed businesses, anyone who owns more than one shop in Northern Ireland only receives a grant for one business—no matter that their staff could be employed in four shops or even more.

There is absolutely pressure on employers at this time, which will increase if staff earn less than the required lower limit. I personally believe that while we should look at the lower earnings limit, as other Members have said, I am thankful that that is reviewed annually. That is important, and it is good to see that in place. This is not the time to put more pressure and obligations on employers, and I believe that this year we should keep the limit as it is. Some companies will need help to get back on their feet for the next six months, and will find themselves in completely new circumstances next year. Making a small employer’s contribution for a staff member on low hours should not be a final nail in the coffin.

I support everyone who works to have access to a private pension scheme, but I truly do not believe that this is the time to implement a change. I hope that the Minister will confirm in his response that the Government will support employers in every possible way over the coming months, knowing that we will reap the rewards with thriving businesses in the years to come if we sow and till now. Never has that been more necessary, as the covid-19 pandemic has illustrated.