Social Security debate, 8th February, 2016

This is the first time I have debated with the Minister at the Dispatch Box, so I welcome him to his place and thank him for his—very brief—explanation of the draft proposals.

I want to use this opportunity to debate, clarify and scrutinise aspects of these important measures. As the Minister has outlined previously, the coalition Government legislated in the Pensions Act 2014 to introduce a new single-tier state pension for persons reaching state pension age on or after 6 April 2016.

A central principle of this legislation has been to maintain the earnings link, which was restored in the Pensions Act 2007, passed by a Labour Government. The coalition Government committed to increasing the basic state pension through the triple guarantee of earnings, prices or 2.5%, whichever is highest, from April 2011. The triple lock is a policy approach that Labour Members support—a position that was confirmed in our manifesto at last year’s general election.

Today, we are considering statutory instruments to implement and update key features of that settlement. For existing pensioners on the current state pension age scheme, the proposed 2.9% increase, which matches earnings as the highest rise of the three measures for this year, is a step in the right direction. A full basic state pension will therefore rise to £119.30 a week—an increase of £3.35.

The increased starting rate of £155.65 for the new flat-rate pension, to be introduced in April this year, is also broadly welcomed by Labour Members, although it is of course an increase of only 5p on the previous minimum guarantee of £155.60. Less welcome are the lack of communication, escalated timescales, poor management and utter confusion caused by what the former Pensions Minister, Steve Webb, said was meant to be “a simplified system”. Several aspects of the new legislation will have significant implications for current and future pensioners.

Under the new single-tier state pension, the Government intend that individuals qualifying for the new state pension will receive it on the basis of their own contributory record. The qualifying period to receive the full flat-rate pension goes up from the former 30 years of national insurance contributions to 35 years. There is therefore some concern about reports over the weekend suggesting that up to 4 million people retiring under the new scheme from April could receive an incorrect amount because their incomes are being calculated using data riddled with errors.

The Government are quick to jump on individuals or families who make errors in relation to tax credit or benefit claims, so it is, equally, incumbent on them to ensure that their own calculations are correct. The Minister has been prepared to set debt collectors on families who have received extra tax credit income because of the Department’s errors, so there will be understandable fear of the consequences where pensioners are overpaid due to any errors. Of course, if they are underpaid, the injustice will be obvious. It would therefore be helpful if the Minister gave us his assessment of the scale of these problems and said whether he believes that the press reports over the weekend are accurate. If the Government are encountering such problems, how does he plan to deal with them? What reassurances can he give to the millions of taxpayers potentially affected that they will get the correct amount that they were promised and are entitled to?

On a matter of equal importance, unlike the current state pension, under the new single-tier state pension an individual will no longer derive entitlement based on the national insurance record of their former spouse or civil partner. Though some transitional protection has been provided, the details are not at all clear. I am sure that Members in all parts of the House have constituents in rather desperate circumstances, trying to knit through the fog. A constituent recently contacted me. Her husband is terminally ill and on his deathbed, and he has expressed fears about what would happen to her under these transitional arrangements when he dies. They have no children, and his wife had stayed at home for many years while her husband provided for them both. She called the pensions helpline, but it was unable to offer any clarity or reassurance.

I have asked this question before, but I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer: can the Minister confirm that, in an extreme scenario, a woman with no entitlement in her own right who is widowed could end up with no state pension at all, as compared with the expected £119.95 she would have received under the current system? What are the Government doing to ensure that pensioners do not unfairly lose out and that people are given the correct information, so that they know the position they will be in? When asked how the Department was planning to communicate with those affected, the  Minister for Welfare Reform, who of course sits in the other place and so is not here today, said, “You can’t foresee who is going to become widowed in future.” I think it is fair to say that that was not exactly a helpful reply. So perhaps the Minister who is with us today could provide some clarity on what action the Government are taking to communicate these changes, particularly to those with gaps in their record who are likely to be directly impacted.

The Government do need to get their act together on communicating these changes. The general population out there expect nothing less than honesty and the frank information that the Government should be providing for them, so that they can make informed decisions about their future.

Will the Minister give a more specific estimate of who will be covered by transitional protection and how many people will lose out from these changes in future years? Once again, the Government’s track record on communicating pension changes falls well short of the standard that the public would hope and expect. When I met members of the National Pensioners Convention last week, they pointed out that many pensioners are now waking up to the fact that only a minority of those who reach the state pension age under the new system will receive the full flat rate of £155.65 proposed today, as confirmed by recent analysis published by the Minister’s Department. It estimates that only 37% of people reaching state pension age in 2016-17 will receive the full amount of the new state pension directly from the state. Millions of people will receive a significantly lower state pension in future, and some of them will be more than £500 a year worse off. The gloss from spinning the top-line full flat rate without the detail is rapidly starting to fade. Indeed, the Minister for Pensions herself has now admitted that the new state pension has been “oversold”.

It is clear that the Government should be doing far more to inform those affected, especially those who are nearing retirement and therefore have the least notice or time to consider the impact. In its interim report on the new state pension published in January, the Work and Pensions Committee reported:

“We heard evidence of a widespread lack of awareness among individuals about what they will receive and when. We were concerned to be told that the statements intended to rectify this were confusing and lacked necessary information.”

Age UK, among others, has called on the Government to do far more to contact people who are likely to be affected. It says:

“There are DWP materials highlighting credits and ways to increase the State Pension, but people need to know they may be affected. We believe the DWP should contact people with gaps in their record individually to highlight the changes and explain options.”

What are the Government doing to properly communicate the impact of the changes?

The Government are failing to give adequate information and it is not readily available when people require it.

The DWP has produced analysis showing that the majority of people will be better off over the next 15 years, but what about after that? A close look at the figures reveals that, for those aged under 43 now—like me and many others in the House—the probability is that they will receive thousands of pounds less in state pension by the time they retire.

We do not hear much about the impact of the new state pension on the retirement income of future generations, and it is becoming increasingly clear why the Government are keen to keep quiet about it. Analysis that the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend Owen Smith, has commissioned from the Library shows that those in their 40s now are likely to be £13,000 worse off over their retirement. Men in their 30s now are likely to be nearly £17,000 worse off, while women will lose more than £18,000. For the generation in their 20s now, the loss is likely to be more than £19,000 for men and £20,500 for women. Future generations will clearly be worse off.

By 2060, when today’s 20-year-olds are nearing retirement, the Government will be spending £28 billion a year less on state pension provision. That is a huge cut, and one that has not been given proper acknowledgement by the Government or, consequently, been properly scrutinised and debated in the House or more widely.

I remind the hon. Gentleman of the coalition Government’s provisions. We had a proposal that worked for pensioners—we had a long-term plan—but the coalition Government speeded it up without any regard for the people affected by it, so I will not take any lessons from Conservative Members.

As I was saying, the £28 billion a year less that will be spent on state pension provision is a huge cut that has not been given proper acknowledgement by the Government. I hope we will debate it further in the House. Will the Minister confirm that the Government’s so-called long-term economic plan involves cutting £28 billion from pensions? What assurances can he give to today’s younger generations—who face higher housing costs, the largest fall in real wages and greater insecurity in the workplace—that they will have sufficient income in retirement?

Labour will continue to ask the Government to be far more transparent about the long-term winners and losers from the new state pension. Withholding that information may be politically advantageous in the short term, but in the long term it serves only to undermine public trust in saving for retirement, which Members on both sides of the House agree is the right course for all our population and is in the national interest.

Members on both sides of the House showed enormous interest in a related debate in Westminster Hall last week, which was triggered by more than 140,000 signatures on the petition by WASPI. There was standing room only, not, I suspect, because it was my first outing on the Front Bench, but because of the significance and importance of the issue to many Members and 2.5 million of our female constituents. Indeed, the Minister might wish to note that they include more than 4,000 women in his own constituency. I therefore hope that he will expand on the Government’s consideration of transitional protections for those women, too many of whom were not given proper notification of the acceleration in their state pension age.

The Government have failed to respond to a number of proposals, including specific solutions for the 1951 to ’53 cohort of women, who will not have access to the new state pension that we are agreeing today; for those born between 6 October 1953 and 5 April 1955, who face a delay of more than a year; and for the women born later in 1953, who have had a double whammy of changes in 1995 and 2011. What assessment have the Government carried out of those options?

Alternatively, it was suggested during the passage of the Pensions Act 2011 that maintaining the qualifying age for pension credit according to the 1995 timetable would protect some of the most vulnerable people. Have the Government reconsidered the issue since then?

Turning to another element of the regulations, I note the proposal to freeze the saving credit element of pension credit, as announced in the autumn statement. For the 438,000 pension credit recipients who receive only the saving credit element of the pension credit, their losses will not be offset by the rise in guaranteed credit. Their pension credit reward will, therefore, be reduced.

Unfortunately, the Government have so far refused to come clean about the impact on some of Britain’s poorest pensioners. According to analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, 1.2 million recipients of pension credit will lose an average of £112 a year from the next financial year. That figure will be significantly higher for many people, including those in the poorest fifth of pensioner households. Will the Minister confirm that some of Britain’s poorest pensioners will be worse off as a result of the measure, and will he commit to publishing a more detailed impact assessment than that produced to date? Will he tell us exactly how many people will be worse off and by how much?

Knowledge is power, and people need to be empowered by knowledge when it comes to their retirement. I hope the Minister can provide some answers today, because that is the least that this and future generations of pensioners deserve.

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