It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, for what is my first appearance in this chamber on the front bench.
I have already debated the minister in committee last week and welcome him back for what is no doubt the first of many more exchanges here.
For anyone who has tuned in late, I would like to reassure them that, though I am sporting a broken elbow and ribs, these pre-date today, and our discussions have been heated but civil - though I did fear for the Honourable Member for Gloucester at one point!
I would like begin by thanking my Honourable Friend the Member for Warrington North for opening today’s debate and the Petitions Committee for ensuring that we have it.
Above all, I want to congratulate the women of the WASPI campaign and all those who signed the petition on their work in getting us here. Their numbers are very impressive, but we have revealed today that the numbers affected by the subject are even greater, at more than two and a half million nationally.
Around three and a half thousand of those are in my own constituency and like many here, I have heard their concerns directly.
There have been some excellent points made by Honourable Members during the course of our discussions, and I think we can tell the level of concern from the number of contributions on all sides.
Those listening to contributions made outside this Chamber, however, may have listened to the Minister for Pension Reform, who suggested this morning that the WASPI campaign wished to return the State Pension Age to 60.
Let me place on the record that is certainly not a case that they have ever advocated within my hearing.
And let me be clear that on these benches we are arguing neither for that nor against the equalisation of the state pension age.
There are, however, shared concerns about the impact of the acceleration that took place under the 2011, the adequacy of transitional protections, and the communication of changes to retirement ages generally.
I should add that when I say these are shared concerns, they were at one point at least shared by the Minister herself. She described the 2011 Pensions Act of the last Tory-led government as a decision “to renege on [the] Coalition Agreement, by increasing the State Pension Age for women from 2016,even though it assured these women that it would not start raising the pension age again before 2020.” That is still live on her website rosaltmann.com.
And after the passage of the Act, including the concession that the Minister will no doubt repeat to us shortly, she said that the government “seems oblivious to the problems faced by those already in their late fifties, particularly women”.
I’d ask if the real Ros Altmann would please stand up, but apparently she now prefers to stand up for the government than those women.
That is a pity, because the issues at stake are real and the government gives every impression of simply refusing to engage with them. Instead, we have seen repeatedly – most recently a few hours ago at Questions – that the 18-month cap is their start and end point.
Let me set out my start point, Mr Hanson. We must take into account that many of these women who are affected by the changes will have also been the victims of gender equality for most of their working lives.
The Equal Pay Act was not passed until 1970, so many of these women began working before even the first legislative steps to ensure gender equality at work.
Before I was elected to this place, I was myself in a traditionally low-paid, largely female workforce, in social care.
As an active trade unionist, I fought for many years to improve pay and conditions but even now we are long way from achieving decent, let alone equal wages in much of that sector.
Some of the women we are discussing today, however, will have entered work before even the 1968 strike in Dagenham. They will have been paid less than men simply because they were women.
Those who are likely to have entered work the earliest, those born between 6 April 1951 and 5 April 1953, will not be eligible for the new single-tier pension.
Another cohort, those born later in 1953, will have found their retirement age changed twice, in 1995 and 2011 – according to the Minister’s Written Answers to me on Friday, that will affect nearly a quarter of a million women, and a significant proportion of those will see have seen it increase by more than a year - with notice of less than a decade.
That is important, because the combination of good communication and proper notice are key to planning, and to any sense of fairness. Indeed, that is also key for future generations of savers to feel that they can save money with clarity that the state will fulfil its side of the bargain.
I could quote one prominent expert at the time of the 2011 Act, who said of women in their late fifties: “They are not being given enough notice of such a huge change.”
That pension expert was the then Ros Altmann, though apparently it’s not an opinion shared by the now Minister, the Baroness Altmann.
That issue was of course why transitional protections were discussed, and promised, during the passage of the 2011 Act.
We now know that the Minister’s predecessor in the coalition government had hoped for around a tenth of the direct savings – £3bn – to be put aside for these. The option that was eventually put forward as a concession, the 18-month cap, cost around a third of that. So we have a missing £2bn, which has gone to the Treasury along with the rest of the savings.
It bears repeating, of course, that the former minister has since admitted that this was “a bad decision” as a consequence of not being “properly briefed”.
It would be interesting to know whether today’s Ministers are better briefed, and whether they make a better decision.
He has often put this question back on the Opposition but consistently refused to say whether the department has properly investigated and modelled options for additional transitional protections.
For example, we put forward the option to maintain the qualifying age for pension credit on the 1995 timetable rather than the 2011 one during the passage of the Act. This would have provided a buffer for those who were at least able to cope financially with the changes. Despite this, that proposal was entirely dismissed. Can the minister please confirm whether this has been reconsidered since 2011?
My Honourable Friend for Warrington North earlier made the simple suggestion, that older women near to a delayed retirement could be exempted from the Work Programme. I would be interested in the Minister’s view.
Others proposed a lower cap on the maximum delay, for example the amendment put forward by my Honourable Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead, which set a maximum of one year for women born between 6 October 1953 and 5 April 1955 who otherwise face longer. The government rejected that at the time but has it any assessment now?
Some of the campaigners have proposed allowing access to the new state pension for the 1951-53 cohort. Can the minister respond to that proposal today, or promise to look in to it further?
And as I raised with him earlier, he could look specifically at the women born later in 1953 who have had a double whammy of changes in 1995 and 2011. What would be the impact of targeted changes for that narrower group?
This is not the first time I have asked what consideration the government has made of these and other options. As he will know, I have asked the Minister in committee, through written questions and oral questions just this morning.
Despite their boasts that they would be the most open and transparent government in the world, so far we are none the wiser as to what options they have even considered, let alone what the outcomes of those investigations were.
So I will ask him again, what modelling and analysis has the department carried out since 2011 on potential transitional protections?
Will he publish it in full so that we can assess these for ourselves?
And will the government then consider those alternatives properly and in full, and come back with a proper response to those who have signed the petition before us today, and the many millions more who are similarly affected?
In our view, that is the least that they deserve.