Previous Section Index Home Page

5.8 pm

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): The last time the House debated pensions we ended on a note of consensus about consensus. I agree with the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) that that is a good place to start.

I want to dispute with the hon. Gentleman a little, however, and travel a short way down memory lane in respect of his point about the link with earnings. He is right to have given that some analysis, but it needs a little bit more. I think that the previous Government’s decision to break the link with earnings was rational and they did it for good reasons. That point bears thinking about this afternoon, as we are deciding whether to restore the link. We have to do so for good reasons. Those reasons, and the link’s affordability and sustainability, must be considered in the context of why
16 Jan 2007 : Column 684
it was rationally broken, which was because the economic circumstances of the time were entirely different.

I remember that time very well indeed. I was a parent, recently divorced and buying a house by myself for the first time. When I went out shopping in the morning, I did not know whether interest rates would have changed by the time I got home in the evening. Those were different times. It was reasonable and rational in those circumstances to take that decision when pensioners did not know whether their pensions would change or whether they could afford things any more. I believe that the Government were right to say at that time that prices were rising fast and getting out of control. It was reasonable and rational to decide that carrying on was not the right way for pensioners to move forward. There was a big debate in the House and both sides divided on what was the best thing to do at that time. Now, however, the circumstances are completely different and there are completely different controls on the economy, so it is possible to look at affordability. Now is the time to move forward.

I want to concentrate most of my remarks on another issue—that of unfairness, which I believe has been built into the pensions system for many years because it was part of our social history and part of what we thought of as normal for family life. It was always regarded as normal for mum to stay at home and for dad to go out to work. That was just the ordinary way of things, but the world has changed and everything has to change with it.

It is now right to look ahead at a number of issues. We were looking at a demographic time bomb in the 1980s, particularly in respect of how many people would be in work. We did not properly look forward to its impact on pensions, but now it is coming home to roost. It could be said that the demographic time bomb is about to explode. Now is the right time—looking back 30 years and looking forward another 30 years—to take decisions. If we do not take them today, we will be making a very big mistake indeed. We have to view the issues in that context. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge is entirely right in his analysis of demographic change, so now is the right time for the Bill.

The Bill is also right in its social context, as we are seeing changes in family life and changes to work patterns. It is also right to think about young people and what we expect of them. I do not think that it would be right to tell young people that we expect them to pay for the needs of older people tomorrow so that the elderly can enjoy a luxurious retirement at their expense. It would not right be right to shift the burden of responsibility on to them. We need to draw some logical conclusions from that.

I am left looking at a particular group of people—those who have traditionally been left out of the pension market almost altogether. I refer to working women, 30 per cent. of whom draw full state pensions, but the majority of whom do not. That is because, despite huge changes in social life, women are still the main carers. Women are still the main people who look after young children and who, at the end of their working lives, remain the main carers of elderly parents or others in the family who are in need. We have to recognise that. It is not just a family responsibility, but
16 Jan 2007 : Column 685
the responsibility of us all, because the economic impact is huge. We are talking about a contribution to the nation of billions of pounds. It is not just thousands of pounds of investment for the family, but billions of pounds of investment for the whole country. We owe these people—not only but mainly women—a huge debt of thanks.

The Bill goes a great deal of the necessary distance. It is not just a matter of saying thank you, as thanks are worth nothing if they are not backed up with something positive. There are a number of ways of dealing with that problem. The debate that has led to the consensus considered a whole range of ways of opening up the whole Pandora’s box by starting from scratch and devising a new pensions system. We could have started again and looked at how citizens could be rewarded for their contributions to society. That would have been one rational way of proceeding, but it would have been extraordinarily expensive and might have thrown away another factor that our society has grown to value. There was already an in-built consensus about it and everyone understands it. I am talking about the national insurance system.

The national insurance system is a misnamed system. It is not really an insurance system by anybody else’s standards. It is not an insurance system in the sense that means that someone gets rewarded if their house burns down. It is not that kind of insurance. It is not the sort of savings scheme that anybody else would recognise as a savings scheme. It is the kind of British system that only the British really understand. We know and love it, and we know what it means to us. There is a definite consensus about it. Everybody who pays it knows what it means to them. It was right not to scrap it, but to say, “Let’s see what we can do with what we already have, and what will bring the benefits that throwing that out and bringing in a new citizen’s pension scheme would have brought.”

That was the right way to go. It has addressed all the concerns about people who work, but miss out some valuable years of their adult working lives because they are making important contributions to family life by bringing up children and looking after elderly or disabled people in their family. Recognising that was crucial. Reducing the qualification period to 30 years was a simple, but crucial, mechanism. At a stroke, it achieves what an otherwise much more complex way of achieving the same end would have done. I congratulate the Government not just on listening carefully to what women were asking them to achieve and achieving that end, but on doing so in a rational way. I am grateful for that.

I ask the Government to think again, however. I made this point in an intervention, but for the benefit of the House I will explain it more carefully. There is a group of people—it may be a small group—who I fear may get left out of all this. A person could take on a number of part-time jobs, all of which added together as though they were one job could result in an amount of money that would qualify that person to pay national insurance. At the moment, none of those jobs, on their own, would qualify for national insurance.

A person might do one job before their children go to school, another after the last child has been dropped
16 Jan 2007 : Column 686
off at school, another after they have picked the child up from school, and another after the child has gone to bed. People fit those jobs around their family life. All the jobs are for just a couple of hours and are low paid. They are all proper jobs and they are all a valuable contribution to our economy. Added together, they do not come to a whole day’s work that any one employer would recognise, but all of us would recognise them as a full day’s work. However, those people pay no national insurance contributions and so do not qualify for a state pension. That has the feeling of unfairness about it. I recognise what the Minister has explained to me about administrative burdens. However, I hope that we can find a way around the problem.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I have every sympathy with the points that the hon. Lady is making. If she were successful in gaining a place on the Standing Committee, and if an amendment were to be tabled, would she be prepared to support it?

Kali Mountford: As people who have worked on Committees with me in the past will know, I am never backward in coming forward with ideas. We will have to wait and see what happens. I will explain further what I think could be done.

Mr. Russell Brown: The picture that my hon. Friend is painting implies that the issue is about people fitting their working lives around their families. She is quite right, but we also have to accept the fact that there are employers who do not offer employment to people on anything more than a very part-time basis. That means that there is no real opportunity to work the requisite hours for paying national insurance, even if employees want to do so.

Kali Mountford: Both situations arise, and, in both cases, people are falling out of the system and being disenfranchised. Some people are not getting the opportunities of others who work exactly the same number of hours for exactly the same pay, but do so for one employer—that is the problem. People working for one employer will qualify because they pay national insurance, but those about whom I am talking will not, although, interestingly, they may pay tax cumulatively. However, they may not pay national insurance in such a way, which is unfortunate because it means that they do not get their entitlement.

I ask the Government to consider whether it would be possible to deem the national insurance of such people to have been paid. We have changed other aspects of the system to allow such credits to be made. Such a process would impose an extra burden on the Exchequer because we, the Government, would be making a payment on behalf of those people’s employers. However, if we did not do so, there would be a difficulty when a person had several employers because one would have to pay the employer’s part of the national insurance contribution. That could give rise to negotiations among employers that would not go very well at all, so I can appreciate that that process could be difficult. That is why I propose the simple solution of deeming a credit for those people.

At the end of someone’s working life, it might be that such credits would not be necessary because they had qualified in any event under the 30-year rule. However,
16 Jan 2007 : Column 687
would it not be sad if part of a person’s working life, in which they had spent five or six years working in the way that I outlined to fit around their children, did not go towards allowing them to meet the 30-year rule and thus to qualify for a full state pension? If we introduced my proposal into the Bill, we could enhance it further.

As I am a Back Bencher, I have not fully costed my proposal. I accept that that might present a problem for the Government and that the Bill must hang together as a whole. However, the Secretary of State has worked with me quite closely in the past, for which I thank him. Before I stretch his patience yet further with my attempts to get such a measure into the Bill, I make the plea that he work with me throughout the passage of the Bill so that, by the end of the process, it can hopefully be improved yet more.

5.23 pm

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) on her thoughtful speech. I start where she started, with a note of consensus about the Bill. Although many of us have put this on record before, it is worth pointing out that the Bill has its origins in the report of the Pensions Commission. I pay tribute to the work that Lord Turner and his two fellow commissioners put in, as well as that of all the staff of the commission. The Work and Pensions Committee’s report on this matter pointed out that the way in which the Turner commission operated and managed to influence the political and academic debate, and the debate in the sector, was a model for the way in which such independent commissions can work to have an impact on Government policy.

In the spirit of generosity, I congratulate the Secretary of State, Work and Pensions Ministers and their departmental officials on managing to deliver the Bill on time, especially given the opposition in government at the beginning of the process to the substance of many of Lord Turner’s proposals. It must have been tricky to secure the agreement of the Chancellor. We can only hope that his agreement will survive beyond any point at which he might take over as Prime Minister later this year. We hope that some of the proposals with which he earlier disagreed will be brought forward.

It is worth reflecting on the effect that the Pensions Commission had in helping to forge an agreement on pensions policy. The range of issues on which there is now agreement between the three political parties is far broader than anybody could have expected, even before the last general election. They agree on the earnings link, on raising the state pension age—traditionally a controversial and sensitive issue—on the issue of women’s pensions, and on a number of other key issues, including auto-enrolment. As the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) suggested earlier, the Conservatives support the compulsory employer contribution. Those are all marked changes for the parties collectively, so it is worth paying tribute to the Turner commission and the Government for getting this far.

I hope that the Secretary of State will excuse me for injecting a note of caution about that great consensus, because as he and other hon. Members will know, in
16 Jan 2007 : Column 688
the past there has been cross-party consensus on pensions issues on a number of occasions, and that consensus has not always lasted. Yesterday, I was looking at “The Five Giants: A Biography of the Welfare State”, the influential and impressive book on the welfare state by Nick Timmins, now of the Financial Times. In an interesting passage worth reflecting on today, he recalls the last time that there was major consensus between the three political parties on pensions reform. It was in 1975, when there were proposals to link the basic state pension to earnings, and to introduce a state earnings-related pensions system. Nick Timmins says that, in 1975,

There are a few more than a dozen MPs present at the moment, but we will see what the numbers are at 10 o’clock. I suspect that today’s Second Reading may be unopposed, too. Mr. Timmins continues:

Of course, just a few years later, the Government who introduced the Bill were swept away. The account goes on:

that is, Norman Fowler—

The Bill, essentially unchanged, became an Act, but within a few years the great hopes for a consensus proved to be a pipe dream.

Mr. Philip Hammond: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could clear something up for me, because I am now genuinely confused about where he stands on the issue of consensus. The last time I heard a spokesman for his party speaking about the issue, he started off by saying that the Liberal Democrats supported the cross-party political consensus on the Bill, and ended his speech by saying that we should have a citizen’s pension, which fundamentally undermines the principles set out in the Bill. Will the hon. Gentleman make absolutely clear to the House whether he supports the architecture proposed in the Bill, and if so, will he stop banging on about the unaffordable citizen’s pension?

Mr. Laws: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for paving the way for the next part of my speech, in which I will discuss our support for the citizen’s pension, and the problems that will arise from building a future pension systems on the sandy, unsound foundations of the basic state pension system, even after the reforms. We have spelled out many times that although we agree with the Bill’s principles, and although we believe that it heads in the right direction, we have major concerns that it will not deliver a decent foundation pension, and about the extent of means-testing. The hon. Gentleman shares many of those concerns, and I have often been on public platforms with him when he expressed anxieties about means-testing. The truth of the matter, as we discovered this evening, is that he is
16 Jan 2007 : Column 689
not prepared to do anything about it, as his aspiration is to deal with the issue in 20, 30 or 40 years’ time. It is a serious problem, however, so the time scale of such an aspiration is not satisfactory.

Mr. Weir: I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman has said. We have heard a great deal about consensus in the House, but is it not more important to secure consensus outwith the House about how we are to proceed? That can be done only by addressing the problem of means-testing and making improvements to the affordability of the basic state pension by offering a citizen’s pension.

Mr. Laws: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. If the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge listened to people outside Parliament they would realise that there is considerable consensus on the proposals and the Bill’s principles. At the pensions conferences that I attend, people fundamentally agree, as far as I can establish, that we are seeking to build on a basic state pension foundation that entails too much means-testing and may therefore fail. At the pensions conference organised by the Financial Times in November—I believe that the Minister for Pensions Reform spoke at that conference, and that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge attended, too—representatives of the pensions industry were polled on their attitude to the critical issue of pension reform and means-testing, and whether or not the Government were building on a solid foundation. My recollection is that the overwhelming majority of people who expressed a view did not believe that the Government were building on a firm foundation. The hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) therefore made an excellent point by suggesting that the consensus outside the House is that the Bill is not perfect. There is support for its principles, but there are major concerns that there is too much reliance on means-testing, which is dangerous. I shall come on to discuss that.

Miss Begg: The hon. Gentleman is talking about the citizen’s pension as if it were a panacea and its mere introduction would result in the abolition of means -testing. That would not be the case if the citizen’s pension were introduced at the level of the basic state pension. The citizen’s pension will not, in itself, end means-testing unless it is introduced at a level equivalent to the pension credit, which makes it unaffordable in the short term.

Mr. Laws: The hon. Lady signed up to the excellent report on the issue by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, which shares my concerns about the extent of means-testing in the system. She is quite right to say that any reduction in means-testing that does not involve cutting means-tested benefits would result in more universal state pension provision, which I believe she supports, and a higher state pension. She will be delighted that I shall discuss the economics of that proposal later.

Next Section Index Home Page