Teresa Pearce (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab): It is a privilege to have the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I asked for the debate because, like many other hon. Members, I have been contacted by many women in my constituency who will be badly affected by the Government’s plans to accelerate the timetable for equalising the state pension age. That has come as quite a shock to many of them. They thought that they were nearing the end of their time in the labour market and had been looking forward to and planning for their retirement.
The Pensions Bill is due to be introduced in the House of Commons shortly, so I am grateful to have the opportunity to talk about the proposal in advance of its being spoken about in the Commons. I hope that this debate will also help to raise awareness of the issue among hon. Members and possibly their wives, sisters and mothers, and among other women who will be affected by the change but have not yet realised that.
All the main political parties accept that overall life expectancy is increasing and that the state pension age for women should rise and be in line with the age for men. I do not oppose the equalisation of the state pension age, nor do many of the women for whom I am speaking. In fact, they have already accepted an extension of the date when they will receive their pension. The issue is how the Government are going about accelerating that. Like many others, I think that the Government’s accelerated timetable is unfair and will have wider implications for our pensions system and for society as a whole.
It is worth taking a few moments to set out some of the background to the debate. Under the current timetable, women’s state pension age was scheduled to rise to 65 to be equalised with that for men in 2020. It was then to rise to 66 for both men and women by 2027, to 67 by 2036 and to 68 by 2046. Under the Government’s new plans, the state pension age for women will follow that schedule only up to 2016, when it will rise to 63. It will then rapidly accelerate to 65 by 2018 and to 66 by 2020.
The overall impact of the change means that 2.6 million women and 2.3 million men will have to wait longer than expected to qualify for their state pension. However, there is a small cohort of women who will be hardest hit by the change simply because they were born at the wrong time. I have to declare an interest as one of the 500,000 British women born between 6 October 1953 and 5 March 1955. They will have to work for another one to two years before they reach the state pension age. The women who will have to wait two years stand to lose £10,000 in pension income and up to £15,000 if they would be in receipt of pension credit. Under the Government’s plans, we will have a deeply unfair situation in which, for example, a woman born on or before 5 April 1953 will reach the state pension age at 62, but those born on 6 April 1953 will retire at 65. Many of the women who have written to me consider that age discrimination, and they have a point.
It is important to note that the proposal was unexpected—it has been sprung on these women. It was in neither the Conservative nor the Liberal Democrat general election pledges and it was not in the coalition agreement. The women who will be affected by the Government’s U-turn will not have enough time to plan for the further change in their circumstances.
Mr Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Like many other hon. Members, I have constituents who are affected by this issue. For example, my constituent Mrs Janet Davies of Tydfil road, Bedwas, has been to see me and expressed very clearly the predicament that she faces. She was born in February 1954 and, as my hon. Friend said, stands to lose £10,000. What advice would she give Mrs Davies? How should she respond to the situation?
Teresa Pearce: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I totally agree. The unexpectedness of the extension of the time is the problem. I really do not have an answer as to how my hon. Friend’s constituent will manage that. I will put some questions to the Minister later.
The accelerated timetable will start in 2016, so the proposal will affect women who would have previously reached the state pension age in about five years’ time. The worst affected will have to wait a further two years to reach their pension age, so they are seven years away from their pension date, which is well below the 15 years’ preparation time recommended by the Turner commission.
It is important to remember that women are already at a significant disadvantage relative to men when it comes to pensions. The median pension saving of a 56-year-old woman is just £9,100, almost six times lower than that of a man, which stands at £52,800. Women’s pensions are traditionally lower because many have taken time out of paid work to raise children or to care for parents.
Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Like other hon. Members present, I been contacted by many constituents on this issue, but I suspect that many more do not realise what is to happen or are only gradually realising and will be contacting MPs more and more. Is it not the case that as well as the obvious effects on incomes, what stimulates their anger is that they feel cheated by what has happened? As my hon. Friend said, the proposal was not in the coalition parties’ manifestos and it was not even in the coalition agreement, so there is no way the Government can claim that they did not know the financial figures and they have to make this cut. They knew what the financial figures were when they did not include the proposal in the coalition agreement, so this is a double betrayal of many women pensioners. Does my hon. Friend agree that as we are now seeing U-turns from the Government daily, perhaps this issue should be the subject of today’s U-turn?
Teresa Pearce: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I agree. As I said, it is the unexpectedness of the change that is the problem. The women affected have worked all their lives and paid into the system, expecting something in return. They feel that they have done their bit, but they are not getting what they agreed to in the first place.
Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that the situation is made more difficult because many of the women have been on low incomes and have not been able to make savings in other ways? Although they may have done the right thing and planned, they are now hit by this double whammy.
Teresa Pearce: I agree. These women have been unable to plan for this change. Already, their pension age was further away than that of the previous generation and now it is being pushed further away again. It seems that the nearer they get, the further away it goes.
Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): My hon. Friend is being very tolerant of interventions. Is this situation not also symptomatic of the flaw in the analysis of why the pension age should be extended? For example, in the debate on Second Reading of the Finance (No. 3) Bill, one of our former Pensions Ministers made the point that if someone has been working from the age of 16, regardless of gender, by the time that they get to 60, they have paid 44 years of national insurance and have probably burned out. Extending the pension age for people who leave university at 25 after a postgraduate degree is not a problem; indeed, they probably have a very good private pension. However, for many ordinary working-class people—men and women—it means that they are being forced to work beyond the point at which their health allows them to carry on working. This is not just a problem for women, although I do not diminish the problem for them at all. It also affects people who have had a long working life in what are probably the hardest jobs in society.
Teresa Pearce: I agree: this is not just an economic issue or a gender issue, but a class issue.
As I was saying, many women have done part-time work or have taken time out of the work force altogether to raise children. Many women worked in part-time jobs at a time when part-time workers were unable to take out a private pension. Those women have worked for 40 years, paying their national insurance contributions. They were looking forward to the retirement that they expected to start at 60. They, and I, were disappointed when it was announced that the age of retirement would go up from 60 to 65 between April 2010 and April 2020, but we accepted that and planned accordingly. Now, these women find that just as they are nearing the end of their time in the labour market, the goalposts have been moved yet again.
Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Some of the women in my constituency who have approached me about the issue have found out about the changes by reading about them in the newspaper. There has not been adequate information. Does the hon. Lady share that concern?
Teresa Pearce: I certainly do and I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. It was not that long ago, and it was certainly after the proposal was first made, that if someone went on to the website to look at their pension forecast, it was still set at the old rates. I think that that has been changed now, thank goodness.
As I was saying, there has already been one movement forward so that people have to work longer. Now, there is another one. People are understandably angry about that and feel let down by the Government, because there was a covenant between them and the Government: “If you pay in, we’ll do this.” These people have done their part, but the other part is not coming forward.
Many people who are approaching state pension age have already taken steps to reduce their hours of employment or have taken on caring duties with elderly parents. Where their children are getting married, they have promised to look after their young grandchildren in the next few years, when their children return to the work force.
One constituent, Susan Harris, from Belvedere, was a teacher for 30 years. In 2005, she took early retirement and a reduced pension. She told me she had made calculations based on when she thought she would receive her state pension. She thought she was making an informed decision—she was planning. Sadly, she is now one of the unfortunate women facing a two-year loss in pension income. It is not surprising that she feels the Government are being unjust and have broken their promise to her about when she would receive her pension.
What assessment has the Minister’s Department made of the proposal’s effect on the number of unpaid carers and child minders in the UK? The accelerated timetable means that many people who would have taken up caring for relatives or providing child care when they retired so that the next generation could join the work force will not be able to do so, because they will be at work for another two years. The Government must consider that important social policy impact.
I would also be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on what the proposals will mean for volunteering and the big society. People who have retired are not inactive; they volunteer at local libraries, charity shops and lunch clubs. They also act as school governors and provide much needed care in our communities. If they are kept in the labour market for longer, they are less able to volunteer in those ways. In pushing people to work until they are much older, we are in danger of compromising activity outside the labour market, which we value very much.
It may not be easy for the women affected by the proposal to get another job or to increase their hours to fill the two-year gap, especially at such short notice. I am sure that I am not alone in receiving an increasing number of letters from constituents in their 50s who are willing to take any kind of work, but who are finding it impossible to get a job. It is not easy for people to return to the labour market once they have left, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to hang on to a job in later years, too. If women are expected to work longer, there needs to be work for them to do, and that is particularly important given the current economic situation and the rise in unemployment. In looking for work, these women may well be competing against their own grandchildren in the labour market.
Many women will not have enough savings to fall back on if they cannot hang on in the labour market. Women who have been employed in low-pay work, or who have taken time out to have children or to act as carers, will have few savings to cover them for the period between when they expected to retire and the proposed state pension date. Those women now face an uncertain future. Will the Minister outline the measures the Government plan to introduce to help them work longer? Will he comment on how women who are not in work are meant to balance their finances in the two-year gap, given that they will be eligible for jobseeker’s allowance for only six months if they have savings and will not be eligible at all if they have a small occupational pension?
I want to focus for a moment on women who have worked in low-pay or manual jobs, because class differentials need to be taken into account, as my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) said. The Minister has defended the accelerated timetable on the basis of fairness and has said that a balance must be struck as life expectancy continues to rise, because we cannot expect the workers and companies of today to shoulder all the costs. However, while overall life expectancy has increased by 5.5% for women and 6.5% for men, it has not increased uniformly, and there are still deep socioeconomic and regional differences in average life expectancy. Office for National Statistics figures show that women’s life expectancy at the age of 65 is highest in the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where women can expect an additional 26 and a half years. However, in Greenwich and Bexley—the two London boroughs that cover part of my constituency—the figures are much lower, at 20 and 21 years respectively. Women’s life expectancy at 65 is even lower in Glasgow city, where women can expect just an additional 17 and a half years. The 2010 Marmot report into health inequalities found that people living in the poorest areas live seven years less on average than those living in the richest areas.
Women in poorer areas, many of whom are from working class backgrounds and have been in low-income jobs, will be hardest hit by the accelerated timetable. They are the least financially equipped to deal with the change, and their lower life expectancy means they will get less time to enjoy their retirement. There is also the issue of women manual workers, who will struggle to continue to work if their jobs are physically demanding. A constituent in Plumstead recently wrote to me, saying:
“It is particularly hard on me because I am a manual worker. I have already been ‘pacing myself’ if you like, for my retirement. I don’t think I will physically be able to continue fork lift driving and hulking boxes around at the later age. If I’d known I would’ve changed my job but it’s too late now. It’s not fair on me.”
I was hoping that my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Malcolm Wicks) would be able to make the debate, because he has done some excellent research on the impact that the accelerated timetable will have on men and women of different social classes. I hope the Minister is aware of that research and that the Government will take it into account.
Although the proposed accelerated timetable directly affects a comparatively small group of women, its impact will be felt more widely. Extended family members may have to contribute financially to help women cover the costs of the period between when they expected to get a pension and when they actually receive it. The change will also affect many men of pensionable age because they cannot claim pension credit until their wife or partner reaches pension age. The change will therefore affect the whole household.
The Government need to think carefully about what they are asking of a small group of women who have worked hard all their lives. These women are being told to pay a disproportionate cost with little notice. They have earned a decent retirement, but many fear they will be too old and frail to enjoy it. A constituent from Belvedere wrote to me recently to say:
“I have been working since I was 16, have paid all my contributions and was looking forward to enjoying my retirement. But now it looks like I will be too old to do anything except watch telly if they keep altering the age. I suppose the Government does not care about the people who vote them in.”
Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the wider consequences relates to trust in the pensions system? When daughters see their mothers being somewhat misled, and when they see the Government change their plans in this way, they lose faith in our pensions system, and we can ill afford that.
Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab) rose—
Teresa Pearce: I give way to my hon. Friend.
Lilian Greenwood: I want to pick up the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern). A constituent in Wollaton told me that she has always worked full time. She was raised on national assistance as the fifth child of a recently widowed mother. She lived by the rules as she knew them, she saved and she made pension contributions. When she heard the Minister on the radio, she rightly felt that she did not want to be claiming benefits at the end of her life; she wanted a pension that she had contributed to and earned. Is that not absolutely right? As my hon. Friend said, many people will feel that it simply is not worth making contributions to a pension if it is going to be pulled out from under them just when they need it.
Teresa Pearce: I thank both my hon. Friends. That is exactly the point I was coming to. Moving the goalposts at the last minute has implications for public confidence in our pensions system, which has already taken a knock as a result of the changes to public sector workers’ pensions. The unfairness of the Government’s accelerated timetable could undermine some of the more positive changes in the Pensions Bill. Clauses 4 to 9 are about automatically enrolling people in a workplace pension and creating the national employment savings trust. That is a positive step, which will do much to boost confidence in our pension system and address the low take-up of pensions, particularly among low-income workers.
However, the accelerated timetable will make it harder for the Government to achieve that, because people will note that Ministers are happy to change the pension rules at the last minute. That will undermine confidence in the pensions system, which already suffers from low confidence among members of the public. Like the change to public sector pensions, the proposed change undermines public trust. People are likely to think, “If they move the goalposts again at the last minute, why bother? We may make our contributions now, but who’s to say the money will be there at the end when we expect it?” That is the opposite of the Government’s intentions on pension reform, but it is a distinct possibility. Will the Minister consider that point? I hope he will address it in his closing remarks.
The proposal has been developed too quickly. In the past, pensions Bills have been the product of detailed reviews that have taken an holistic approach to pension reform. Pensions policy needs to be planned stage by stage and for the long term through reviews such as the current workplace retirement income commission, which is led by Lord McFall. I am concerned that the Government’s hasty inclusion of the current proposal in the Pensions Bill will mean that key issues, such as socioeconomic and regional differences in life expectancy, are not given the proper consideration they are due.
In making any changes to legislation, the Government should ensure that no group is disproportionately impacted on, and none more so than the post-war generation of women, who have had to battle for rights all their lives—from the Equal Pay Act 1970 to the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Employment Protection Act 1975. Women born in the 1950s have seen so much change that they did not expect to be battling still—battling against a rapid acceleration of the pension age, which falls purely on their shoulders. I ask the Government to pause and look at the bigger picture before making these unpopular changes.
I hope to show today that the campaign against the Government’s accelerated timetable has broad support. Earlier this year, I tabled early-day motion 1402 urging the Government to drop the timetable. It has already been signed by 138 Members from all political parties. Charities such as Age UK and companies such as Saga are also campaigning against the accelerated timetable, and it is very rare for the Daily Mail to back something that I am saying, so we really do have broad support. Some 10,000 people have signed the Unions Together “Hands Off Our Pensions!” petition, and I can see that many of them have contacted their local MP to ask them to attend the debate today, and I am grateful for that.
I hope that the Minister will consider carefully the points I have raised and those that will be raised by other Members, and, most importantly, listen to the voices of the women themselves. I strongly urge him to drop the unfair plans to accelerate the equalisation of the state pension age—it is a shabby way to treat Britain’s grandmothers. People will embrace change, but only if it is implemented slowly and fairly.
The rest of the debate can be viewed here.
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