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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 11 May 2011

[Mr Mike Weir in the Chair]

State Pension Age (Women)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Vara.)

9.30 am

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

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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 have 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,

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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?

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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.

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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 socio-economic 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

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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

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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 socio-economic 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.

9.50 am

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing this debate. It is not only important, but potentially timely given that we all need to come together to address what I think is an injustice, and one that perpetuates injustice over time.

I feel empowered to speak on this issue because, although I am well out of the age bracket affected by this latest injustice, I automatically signed up for married women’s contributions. All Members here will have had

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women come to their surgeries absolutely distressed because there is nothing that they can do about their pension. It has been said that it was all explained properly and it was a choice—people are told that it was an “informed choice”—but of course it was not, and once someone is in that position, there is nothing that can be done about it. That is how we treated women in the 1960s. Are we doing any better today?

I am sure that other Members have met women who worked part-time in the public sector who had to have their rights recognised through the courts; even then, the publicity, the information and the time scale were not published in a way that was effective for everyone concerned. I agree with the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead; as part of the reserve army of the work force, women working part-time have been used, and it has affected their pension rights very badly.

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): I was interested in the reference to public sector workers. Does the hon. Lady agree that there is no such thing as a gold-plated pension for public sector workers, and that the issues that women face are all the greater because they do not really have a pension to look forward to, even if they served 40 years in public service?

Annette Brooke: I made that particular point because those women could get justice and redress only through the courts, which is important.

A more recent instance of an injustice to women occurred during the time of the previous Government. The reduction in the number of contributory years for a full pension, to 30 years, was very welcome—it clearly helped women and so has to be welcomed. When it happened, only three in 10 women who reached state pension age drew a full pension in their own right, so that change alone should have raised the proportion to more than seven in 10—it was a good move. However, again, there was an injustice to a group of women whose birthday happened to be at the wrong time.

Michael Connarty: I am perplexed. The hon. Lady said that she would cite an injustice and then cited a tremendous change by the last Labour Government to give seven in 10 women pension rights after 30 years. As a Liberal Member who is part of the betrayal now, can she find any evidence that this Government will not withdraw the 30-year rights because they are looking to save money now?

Annette Brooke: I ask the hon. Gentleman to wait for me to identify the injustice. My point was about the cliff edge; there could be two women living next door to one another with one day’s difference in their birthdays, and there would be a cliff edge. Changes need to be phased in. In 2007, there was no phasing in, so some women missed out on as much as £28,000 over the course of their retirement because of one day. Whenever there is a sharp cut-off date, there is an injustice.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab) rose—

Annette Brooke: I want to make a fairly brief speech.

We have a long history of injustice towards women and I am illustrating that with a few examples from the

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past. On many of those issues, the Minister has an excellent record in fighting for the cause of women, particularly the married women’s contribution and the cliff edge, so I feel that we could get a very sympathetic hearing today.

As the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead said, women born between 1953 and 1954 particularly will be hit very hard. Some 500,000 women will have their state pension age delayed by more than a year, 300,000 women will have it delayed by 18 months or more and a small but badly hit group of 33,000 women will have it delayed by exactly two years—just because they happen to be born in a particular month. That picks up my point about the cliff edge of the previous change, because there are parallels with this change. We should not say that because it happened in the past, there will always be a one-day cliff edge. There are always opportunities to look at things again.

Fiona Mactaggart: I agree that there is an injustice for people born within a day of each other when there is a sudden change, but there is a difference between this change and the one to which the hon. Lady refers. That change increased the number of women who had an opportunity to get a full pension, but this change will negatively affect some women. When people feel an injustice, the difference is this—if someone gets a good thing, it is not completely fair, but if all of us get an appalling thing, it is certainly unfair.

Annette Brooke: I am sure that the hon. Lady appreciates that I am trying to show that there are a lot of instances in which women have had a very unjust settlement, and this is yet another instance of that. We all have an opportunity to speak out against it now, when there is time to do so.

Obviously, the proposals to speed up the increase of the pension age will deny large numbers of people the notice they need to plan effectively for a later retirement, and I am concerned that the poorest and the unemployed could face real hardship as they struggle to manage without the state pension and benefits on which they were relying. As other Members have mentioned, this particular change is not in the coalition agreement. I shall give one example of the effects of the change on one of my constituents:

“My birth date is 10/11/1954. I reluctantly accepted the raise of my retirement age to 64 years and 7 months…Now I am shocked to hear I will now have my pension at 66 years of age. I have had no opportunity to plan for this increased time scale, what do I do?????”

That is the question: what do these women do?

“I have no private pension and I am now being forced to work another 18 months after starting work at 15 years of age!!!!! I’ve already missed out on retiring at 60, like my mum. The older we get, the goal posts are continually being moved.”

For me, that says it all.

We know that this is not about a large number of people, so money could be found by the coalition Government. We need to know how much it would cost to even out matters. This is an opportunity for the coalition Government to say, “We really do care about giving equal treatment to the citizens of this country.”

9.59 am

Julie Elliott (Sunderland Central) (Lab): It is a pleasure, Mr Weir, to speak under your chairmanship this morning. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for

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Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing this debate and on her excellent introduction. I am pleased that so many Members are here to participate; this is an important subject, and many will be affected.

I start by saying how many of my constituents in Sunderland Central have contacted me about this issue. Over the past couple of months, I have been overwhelmed by the number of people contacting me who are worried and anxious, and oppose the Government’s plans to speed up the equalisation of the state pension age. Many have written giving their own stories of what they are about to lose.

Average life expectancy in this country is increasing. That is a good thing, but it is why reforms to the current pension system are necessary. No one disagrees with that. We live in an ageing society, and the pension age needs to rise to ensure that people’s retirements remain financially secure and enjoyable. However, I cannot support the changes that the Government propose, as speeding up the timetable for equalising the state pension age in that manner is unfair to my constituents.

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the golden principle running through our legal system is that legislation should not be made that results in offenders not knowing what sentence they are going to get? In a similar way, in civil law those who enter into a contract, such as in employment, should know exactly what the terms and conditions are. Retrospectively to change those terms and conditions is manifestly legally and morally wrong.

Julie Elliott: I totally agree with my hon. Friend. It is that feeling of injustice—almost that people have been conned; they thought that they were contributing to one thing, but were getting something else—that is so stark in these proposals.

I shall give a few examples to explain the problems that the proposed changes will bring to the lives of many women in my constituency—and, I am sure, across the country. The first is of a woman who has worked, planned and saved, but will still be caught out. She has done everything that people are being told to do. She has worked from the age of 16, with a couple of intermissions to have children, although in those days maternity provisions were not as good as they are now.

This woman has three small private pensions from her various places of work; in some ways, she is in a good position compared with many, although two of those pensions will be deferred until she is 60. A couple of years ago, her parents became ill. She did all the calculations; she could release the private pension from her current employment, and she had some savings, so she decided that she could manage with her deferred pensions being paid at 60 and her state pension not being paid until she was 63. She did all that, and left work a couple of years ago.

One could argue that my constituent has saved the state money by looking after her ailing parents. However, she now finds that her state pension will be delayed. She has done everything right—she has worked, saved and contributed—but is being penalised, and will somehow have to find the shortfall. She is incredibly worried about that. She has never been well paid, but has been cautious in her financial planning.

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Another constituent who contacted me is set to lose more than £7,500 of the state pension, something that she has worked hard for over many years. She is now required to work a further 74 weeks. She understandably feels let down by the Government. In her letter, she said that she has worked extremely hard all her life, yet her retirement age seems consistently to move further away. Frankly, the changes to her pension have left her feeling robbed. She is not in good health, and wonders whether she will be fit enough to work those extra years. She may have to go on to benefit, something that she has never wanted.

The third of my constituents to write to me says that she had planned to work until she was 60. She began saving, and started contributing towards her pension when she was 18—38 years ago. She has worked hard and contributed to society; she paid her taxes and her national insurance contributions. At the age of 56, she was looking forward to a relaxed and financially secure retirement. The Government’s plans mean that she will now have to work until she is 66, six years longer than she expected. Her health is failing due to the stress of her job, and she is not financially prepared for the change. She wonders how she is meant to prepare for it at such short notice, and why the Government have let her down in this way. I am sure that she also wonders why the Government are going back on their promise in the coalition agreement.

A common theme runs through the letters that I have received from constituents. They do not disagree about the state pension age rising; they recognise that increasing life expectancy makes that logical. However, they say that moving the goalposts at such short notice is creating serious financial harm and causing real worries. As a result, some are considering working beyond their state pension age. However, that should be a choice; it should not be forced on them. Retirement, and especially the age at which people decide to retire, should be about choice, but choice has been stripped from those affected by these changes.

In my constituency of Sunderland Central, 1,100 women aged between 56 and 57 are among the 33,000 women whose state pension will be delayed by two years. I wrote to the Minister, asking about his plans for the state pension age. In reply, he said:

“While overall there are some aspects of the change that will affect women more strongly than men, we consider the effect is not disproportionate”.

I disagree with him. No man will have to wait longer than a year, but 500,000 women will. If that is not disproportionate, what is?

When it comes to the state pension, women are already at a disadvantage. The median pension saving of a 56-year-old woman is almost six times lower than for a man of the same age. Women will have decided to have children and work part-time to raise families. That is a valid decision and one for which they should not be punished—indeed, they should be praised. However, under these proposals such women do not have enough time to adjust their financial plans for retirement. Many have already decreased their hours in preparation for retirement, and some will have done so because of ill health.

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Retirement is an opportunity for those who have contributed all that they can to society to rest with peace of mind, knowing that their contributions will be recognised and that they will be adequately provided for. However, I worry about the long-term costs for these women. I suspect that there will significant hardship, with anxiety and stress about financial matters. I also worry about the ill health that results from working to an older age.

The Turner Commission recommended 15 years of preparation before such changes are implemented. I would be interested to know why the Minister disregarded that and opted for far fewer years. Current plans will result in very different outcomes for women of similar ages. I know that the line has to be drawn somewhere, but deciding a person’s pension eligibility by their birth date suggests that the entire reform is being introduced too swiftly. The Government should stick to the original timetable, with equalisation at 65 in 2020, and not increase the state pension age to 66 until after that.

Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead on securing such an important debate. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

10.8 am

Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on bringing this important matter before the House.

I start by declaring an interest. As a man born in 1954, I will be affected by the increase in state pension age. However, the extra time that men will have to work is slight, and the change is being brought in gradually. I can therefore accept that change. The real problem created by the Government’s proposals is for women born at about the same time as me. They will have to work considerably longer before they can collect their pension, and they are being given short notice to prepare for the extra work.

As others have said this morning, the Turner commission recommends 15 years preparation. The Government have had to make many difficult decisions because of the record-breaking deficit that they inherited from the previous Government. The Government’s aim is to eliminate the deficit by 2015, but this proposal will not help them to achieve that goal, because it does not come into effect until well after 2015. Therefore, they cannot put forward the argument that the proposal will help to eliminate the deficit.

The proposal will also not bring any long-term recurring benefits to the public finances. Equalisation and the increase in the pension age to 66 will take effect in the long term and this proposal will only bring a benefit over a few short years. The proposal is not needed for the Government’s overall strategy. It is also not in the coalition agreement, which said that equalisation should not take place before 2020.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Does the hon. Gentleman remember the Minister speaking in the House last month? He said:

“If we want to encourage pension saving, the key is getting the state pension system right.”—[Official Report, 4 April 2011; Vol. 526, c. 795.]

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There is an obvious anomaly here and this section of getting the system right has not been achieved. Today’s debate gives the Minister an excellent opportunity to rectify what is an obvious anomaly.

Mr Reid: I obviously agree that we must get the pension system right. The Minister has an excellent track record in campaigning for justice for pensioners. As the proposal is not in the coalition agreement and is not needed to eliminate the deficit by 2015, I hope that the Minister will go away and reflect on the matter before the Pensions Bill comes to the House.

10.11 am

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing this debate. My constituents in Blaenau Gwent are worried about the Government’s plans. At a recent surgery in a supermarket, one constituent told me, “I am one of the people who are affected by the proposed change. Also, having recently lost my job, I am finding it difficult to get another job in the current climate.”

In an e-mail, another constituent said:

“I have worked all my life. I have never been a burden to this county and I have always paid my own way. I was widowed 14 years ago so I have no-one else to support me, therefore, I’m dependent on my pension. I work for the Local Authority, so am unlikely in the current economic climate to retain my job until I’m 64.”

These women are fearful of what their future holds and angry that the goalposts have been moved.

The House of Commons Library estimated that about 800 women in my constituency will be affected by the proposals. Age Cymru said:

“These proposals are unfairly discriminating against women of this age group, as they are not providing them with an adequate amount of time to plan for these changes.”

I hope that the Minister listens to those important concerns today.

10.13 am

Rachel Reeves (Leeds West) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing this debate on such an important and unjust matter and on her early-day motion 1402, which has secured 138 signatures from across all the main parties.

I also congratulate Age UK on the campaign that it has been running. Those of us who get the tube to work in the morning and come up the escalators and into Portcullis house will have seen the posters that adorn the walls. They tell the stories of some of the women who will be affected by these changes. Some of those stories have been related by hon. Members from all parties this morning.

My hon. Friend spoke about some of the organisations that have provided support on this matter, such as Age UK, which I have already mentioned, and Saga. There have also been supportive articles in the Daily Mail and The Guardian. There is a broad coalition against the proposal, and we hope that the Government will take on board some of criticisms of the Pensions Bill, especially of clause 1 and the increase in the state pension age.

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People who are approaching retirement say, “This is a bit like a horizon. You can always see it in the distance, but you can never quite get to it.” As my hon. Friends the Members for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) and for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) have said, the goalposts just keep moving, and that does not seem fair, especially when people are trying to make the right decisions. They plan, contribute, bring up families and care for relatives, yet they are being penalised.

Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree with my constituent who said that she felt discriminated against when she started work 30 years ago because she was barred from joining a personal pension scheme? She feels discriminated against now because of her date of birth and the fact that her pension will be delayed.

Rachel Reeves: I could not agree more. That is a big issue and one that I will address later. For a number of reasons, this group of women are particularly ill-equipped to deal with the changes that the Government are trying to force upon them.

I want to pick up on a couple of points raised by the hon. Members for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) and for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). The proposals go against the coalition agreement, which states:

“The parties agree to…hold a review to set the date at which the state pension age starts to rise to 66, although it will not be sooner than 2016 for men and 2020 for women.”

These changes bring forward the equalisation of the state pension age to 2018, which is not mentioned in the coalition agreement, and they raise the state pension age for women to 66 in 2018—two years earlier than promised in the agreement.

Although there is increasing pressure on the Liberal Democrats to stick with the coalition agreement, there is no obligation on the Minister to support this breach or for coalition MPs to vote for it. No one in the country voted for this at the general election a year ago, and it is not what coalition MPs signed up to when they made their promises in the rose garden. We have heard a great deal from Liberal Democrat Members today. I hope that that means that people who are approaching retirement can feel that their MPs will not support these proposals.

To reiterate points that have already been made, 2.6 million women and 2.3 million men will have to wait longer for their state pension than they previously had been told. Some 500,000 women will have a delay of a year before they get their pensions and about 300,000 women will have a delay of 18 months or more. Unfortunately, 33,000 women who were born between early March and early April 1954 will have to wait another two years before they receive their state pension. I have been lobbied by a huge number of women on these issues, not least by my own mother who was born on 30 March 1954. She very much hopes that the Minister will be listening to every word that I say today.

There is fewer than five years’ notice before these changes take effect. The Turner report says that people should be given at least 15 years’ notice, and the Pensions Policy Institute believes that these changes do not give enough notice. Women need longer to prepare for changes in the state pension age because they tend to become part-time workers sooner than men of the same age.

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As of April 2011, the basic state pension is worth £102.15 a week. Pension credit is worth £137.35 a week. Those women who are seeing a delay in their state pension age of two years face a loss of pension income of more than £10,000. For those in receipt of pension credit, that loss is closer to £15,000. That does not take into account the passported benefits that come along with a pension.

Longevity is increasing and Members from all parts of the House welcome that, but we cannot move the goalposts every time an actuary changes his forecast. Six months before the election, the Minister himself said:

“Pension policy needs to be stable and predictable years ahead, not made up on the back of a cigarette packet.”

I agree with the Minister. Although his words are still on his website, he is now making policy up on the back of that cigarette packet and it is hitting women particularly hard. Indeed, the recently published Green Paper on the flat rate pension consults on reasoned mechanisms for increasing the state pension age, which is a recognition of the unfairness that is being imposed on women by the Pensions Bill, which is just about to come to the House. That Green Paper does not include consultation on arbitrary changes with five years’ notice. The reason that it does not consult on those types of changes is because the Minister, his Department and the Government know that they are unfair. So why is he forcing them upon women who are 56 or 57 years old?

My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central talked about the savings of women who are 56 or 57. There is something particularly perverse about targeting that specific group, because those women who are 56 or 57 now have average pension savings of £9,100, compared to the average pension savings of men of the same age of £52,800. At retirement, pension savings of £9,100 work out at £564 a year or £11 a week. The reasons for the difference in the average pension savings of men and women are varied, but the key point is that these women I am talking about are not in a financial position to absorb the changes being proposed at such short notice.

These women have earned far less during their lives than men of the same age. In 1980, the gender pay gap was 28.5%. When these women were in their 20s, they were earning on average almost 30% less than men of the same age. The gender pay gap has been closing since 1980 and it is now about 16%, but the point is that these women have suffered inequality throughout their working lives. They now face a double whammy and are paying the price for getting us there too quickly.

In addition, a lot of these women have worked part-time at some point in their life, particularly when they were bringing up children. In fact, many of them are also working part-time now, to help to care for elderly parents or grandchildren. As other Members have said already, these women are the big society. They are doing the caring work that we value as much as their work in the workplace. Of course, many of them have also had interrupted careers and have not paid full national insurance contributions. The Minister’s own Department estimates that women are entitled to receive £30 less in their basic state pension than men. All those points show that these women are more reliant on the state pension than their male equivalents, first because they

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have much lower private occupational pension savings and secondly because they are in not such a good position as men to increase their savings in the next five years.

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Steve Webb): The hon. Lady quite properly raises the issue of the big society by talking about volunteering, caring and so on. Under our proposals, the equalisation at the age of 66 will be in 2020. Under Labour proposals, it would be in 2026. In 2026, every single point that she has just made would also be true, would it not?

Rachel Reeves: The point is that these women will have time to prepare for changes if they happen in 2026. Changes in 2026 were legislated for in 2008, which meant that the people we are talking about today had 18 years’ notice of any changes. That is very different from the changes that the Government are introducing because they will start in 2016, giving people just five years’ notice. That is the point that Members are making today. We are not saying that we do not think that there should be any changes to the state pension age, because with increasing longevity it is right that people should work longer, but it is not right to move the goalposts and leave people so little time to prepare for changes.

As I said earlier, the loss of pension income for someone who has to wait two more years for their state pension is about £10,000, or it can be up to £15,000 if they are on pension credit. It is not feasible that that group of people can make up that difference in a five-year period, yet that is what the Minister is asking them to do.

Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): In Newport, 1,500 women will be affected by this change. Some of them have contacted me to say how betrayed they feel about it. Presumably, however, hundreds of them are unaware that it will happen. Is it not true that many women are not only not being given enough time to prepare for the change but are unaware that it is coming in a very short period of time?

Rachel Reeves: Yes. That is another point that my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead made earlier. Many of the women who will be affected by this change have written to us, but even more women have not done so. The reason they have not written to us is not because they are happy and fine with these changes. By and large, it is because they are not aware of them. They are aware that they will have to work for longer than they had previously thought, because of the changes made in 1995 that will equalise the state pension age for men and women by 2020, but they do not know that those additional changes are coming down the line. So they are making changes now—as I said before, many of them are moving to part-time work so that they can care for elderly parents or young grandchildren—unaware that these additional changes are coming down the line. I think that people will be particularly worried or scared about what the future holds for them.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Does she agree that, if those women do not hear the Minister say that he is revising these proposals because they represent an unintended anomaly,

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they can only conclude that they are being selected as the victims of an intentional injustice and that they are to suffer a drive-by hit on their pension rights?

Rachel Reeves: Yes. The hon. Gentleman’s intervention also touches on a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) made earlier when she talked about the importance of people having trust in the pensions system. Unless we trust the pensions system and can have some certainty about what the future holds for us, it is very difficult for people—both men and women—to prepare for the future.

I want to quote something else that the Minister has said. In October 2009, he said:

“The Tories still seem to think that as long as women have husbands they don’t need to worry about their pensions.”

I wonder whether he has changed his views now that he is in government with the Conservatives. As the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole said earlier, women have been consistently badly served by the pensions system, both occupational and state. In opposition, the Minister campaigned for women pensioners, but now that he is in government he is hurting them hard. I wonder why he is doing that, when he is under no obligation to do so. I repeat that these changes were not in the coalition agreement, so he has no reason to support them.

Of course, the Minister has claimed that these women have jobseeker’s allowance to fall back on. But as hon. Members have already said, that does not seem to be the point. Talking about JSA is an insult to those who have worked their entire lives, especially because JSA only provides about half the income that the pension credit provides and about two thirds of the income that the basic state pension provides. These women do not want a handout. They legitimately want to receive the pension that they have contributed to on the date that they were promised it. Again, that brings us back to the issue of trust. It is so important that people have trust in the pensions system.

We have heard a lot of stories today about how these changes will affect great numbers of women, because every one of those 500,000 women who will have to wait an additional year before they receive their state pension has a personal story. We have heard some of those stories already. I want to tell Members two stories that I have heard that I think are particularly powerful. The first is from Barbara Bates, who says:

“From the age of 15, I have worked every day of my life, apart from a few years when I stayed at home to care for my disabled husband until his death in 2003. Since 1995, I have thought that I would retire in 2018, when I will be 64. I have based all my plans for the future on this. I now have to wait an extra two years to retire—in April 2020, when I will be 66. I feel robbed—robbed of two years of freedom, and robbed of more than £10,000 that I would have received as my state pension. The basic state pension will be my only retirement income, and I have no extra means of coping financially. I will have no option but to try and carry on working. I have osteoarthritis in my thumbs and wrists now, which makes the lifting and cleaning work in my job harder: I’m not sure how I’ll manage to the age of 66.”

I will read out another story, from Linda Murray:

“I started working at 16 and have worked full-time ever since, apart from a brief period of part-time work when I was caring for my mother. I work in a very physically demanding job, at a dry cleaners, for 46 hours each week just to make ends meet. I have never had the means to save for a private pension. When I started

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work, private pensions were not readily available for ordinary workers. We paid our contributions and assumed that we would draw a state pension and that it would be sufficient. Due to my circumstances, I know that full retirement is no longer an option. My plan was to greatly reduce my hours when I received my pension and return to part-time work. Now I estimate that I would need to save at least £12,000 just to be able to work part-time from the age of 64. Saving anything is impossible. I will not be able to continue working these demanding hours until the age of 66 and I am deeply worried about my future.”

It is people such as Linda and Barbara who I think most of us went into politics to serve, yet the Minister, who in opposition campaigned so much for women, is now hitting them hard, as I said earlier. These are stories, not numbers, and they hit home hard. It is wrong to hurt a group of women disproportionately, by giving them such little notice of a change when they have such little chance of making up the difference in income that they will lose.

Labour accepts and celebrates increasing longevity and therefore we accept that there is a need to increase the state pension age, as we did when we implemented the recommendations of the Turner report. However, making changes to pensions must be done in a fair way, giving people enough time to prepare for them.

What Labour now proposes is no more changes before 2020 and, if the Government accept the amendment to the Pensions Bill that they rejected in the House of Lords, we will support the state pension age increasing from 65 to 66 between 2020 and 2022. That would achieve a £20 billion reduction in expenditure, would affect equal numbers of men and women and, crucially, would affect 1.2 million fewer people than the Government’s current plans. It would give people nine years—not just five—to adjust to the changes, and no one would have to wait more than a year longer than expected to claim their state pension, to which they had contributed throughout their lives.

We will not let this matter go and nor, do not think, will the women affected. We must hold the coalition to account on its agreement.

Lindsay Roy (Glenrothes) (Lab): Has my hon. Friend been given any indication as to why this group of women has been so unfairly targeted?

Rachel Reeves: We will hear from the Minister in a moment, but we heard the arguments being rehearsed when the Pensions Bill was debated in the House of Lords. We are told that we first need to reduce the budget deficit but, as other Members have said, these provisions will not change that deficit in this Parliament and if the Government’s plans to eliminate the structural deficit in this Parliament come true, I do not see why changes on this scale will be needed in the next Parliament.

The Government’s other claim is about longevity, but longevity is not especially increasing for women aged 57, so why are we particularly targeting women of that age? If the Government wanted to look more broadly at longevity and increases in the state pension age, they would, I think, get cross-party support for that. It is particularly unfair and disproportionate to harm a group of women who have five years to prepare for the changes and have so little chance of making up the difference in lost income, which is what the women who have been writing to all of us are saying.

My final quote from the Minister is:

“a pension promise made should be a pension promise kept.”

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He and his colleagues should heed that, and we are not alone in our thinking. Age UK, the unions, Saga, The Guardian and the Daily Mail are all arguing for the Government to think again, and Age UK has organised a mass lobby of Parliament for a week today.

Yasmin Qureshi: The change to the pension provision was not in the coalition agreement and will do nothing to reduce the deficit by 2015. It will, however, as my hon. Friend has said, hit 5 million hard-working people, 500,000 of whom are women who will suffer particularly harshly. Does she agree that this is another example of hard-hearted Tory policies hitting the ordinary working person?

Rachel Reeves: I agree, but I would also go a bit further: not only was the change not in the coalition agreement—reached just a year ago—but it contradicts it. The agreement states that the state pension age for women will not start to rise to 66 before 2020, but under these proposals that rise will start in 2018. For that simple reason, coalition MPs from both the Liberal Democrat and the Conservative parties are under no obligation to support the changes.

The lobby of Parliament organised by Age UK for a week today will give a voice to those who are adversely and unfairly affected, and I hope that the Minister will spare some time to meet some of the women who are hit by the changes and are coming down to Westminster to oppose them.

The Bill has had its First Reading in the Commons and we are awaiting its Second Reading. I once again urge the Minister to honour the coalition agreement to which he signed up, to admit that the impact of the proposals is unacceptable, and to revise the timetable so that no one has their pension delayed by more than a year and trust can be restored in the pension system, a system which the Minister, in his heart, believes is so important.

10.34 am

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Steve Webb): I congratulate the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing this debate, and I very much welcome the fact that so many Members from both sides of the House have attended. I agree that the matters we are debating are important, and the hon. Lady has made her points in a measured and thoughtful way. I will try to respond to each of those points in turn, and also to some of the other contributions that have been made.

I shall start with what appears to be an element of consensus, although the more one looks at it the less of a consensus it seems. It has been welcomed that people are living longer, and there is an acceptance that state pension ages need to rise, and as far as I can see that is about the limit of the consensus. The current schedule for raising the state pension age, which is to 66 in the mid-2020s, 67 in the mid-2030s and 68 in the mid 2040s, is incredibly slow relative to the improvements in life expectancy that we are seeing. The Turner commission, which has been mentioned, said that one could look at a principle for raising the state pension age, for example fixing the proportion of life spent in

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retirement, but the schedule that we have inherited does not deliver on that. We need, therefore, to look at more rapid increases in the state pension age to 66, 67 and 68.

It has been implied that what we are doing is somehow extreme, but if we think back to 1990, for example—before the Pensions Act 1995, which increased the state pension age from 60 to 65—the typical woman retiring at the age of 60 would get a pension for 24 years. Even with our plans, in 2020 the typical 66-year-old woman will get a pension for 24 years. That context is important, because the improvement in life expectancy to which we are responding is astonishing. It is not just that we are all living a bit longer and life will carry on as before. Life will not carry on as before, not for the Government, society, the health service or the pension system. We are moving into a totally different world, to which very gradual incremental change will not respond sufficiently. The previous Government did not grasp that fact, and simply pushed it off into the middle distance.

Rachel Reeves: Is there any evidence that 56 and 57-year-old women’s longevity is going up particularly fast compared with everyone else’s? If not, why is the Minister disproportionately affecting that group of women?

Steve Webb: We had to take a judgment about not affecting people who were within a few years of retirement, those who were 58, 59 or so and were set to get their pensions in their early 60s. We took the view that change for them would be too soon, which is why nothing at all changes before 2016. However, having gone past that initial point, the crucial group—the one-month cohort, which a number of Members have mentioned—will, assuming that the Bill gets Royal Assent this summer, get six years and eight months’ notice of the change. I accept that notice, which has been mentioned by several Members, is the key issue.

Dr Whiteford: The issue is not only the pace of change. It is the context of a lifetime of low pay and inequality faced by many women, and the old-age problems that are a cumulative effect of that. The Government had an opportunity here to tackle women’s inequality in old age, but so far they have, instead, arbitrarily targeted women born in 1954.

Steve Webb: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising the position of women in the pension system. Assuming that some of the pension reform proposals in the Green Paper that we published last month go ahead, for example the single flat-rate decent state pension, the group of women most affected by this change would be the first group of women to benefit, and potentially very substantially. At the moment, women draw a state pension of £40 a week, on average, less than men, but under the single-tier pension proposal, which I have been very involved in introducing, many women would be the main beneficiaries.

Various Members have raised the important issue of women whose pension rights have been hampered by time spent bringing up children or caring for relatives, and under the single-tier pension proposal a year spent at home with children or a relative will be worth just as much to a state pension as a year spent running a FTSE 100 company. So much do I take the view—in government as I did in opposition—that the work that men and

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women do, whether paid work or bringing up a family, is of equal value, that for the first time we are proposing that that be manifest in the pension system, and that will be transformative, particularly for women.

Fiona Mactaggart: Will the Minister agree to publish figures? I am interested in what effect the single-tier pension will have on women, and I am finding it difficult to work out how many women will be affected by the abolition of the state second pension and the cost of their different contributions. I am unaware of any figures working out how many women and men will be affected by the change respectively. I am not as sanguine as he is that all women will benefit. There are many women whose contributions to the state second pension are important to their retirement.

Steve Webb: On how the proposed single-tier pension will work, it is a Green Paper with options, so the sort of detailed figures for which the hon. Lady asks will be produced when we have identified which of the two options we will go for and refined the proposition. That information will be made available when the proposition is refined further.

To clarify, at the moment, many women in the age cohort that we have been discussing will have spent time at home with their children before the state second pension was introduced. Whereas the state second pension offers protection for time at home with children, the state earnings-related pension scheme did not. That set of women is approaching pension age. People have accused me of moving the goalposts. I am indeed moving the goalposts for those women, but in their direction. They will draw a state pension—yes, later, but for an average of more than 20 years. Compared with when we first started debating the changes in state pension age last summer, that is a significant difference.

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): If the Minister is so confident that the changes that he is introducing will be so beneficial, have not the Government failed to communicate that fact? Throughout the election campaign, I met women on the doorstep who were angry about what he describes as the changing of the goalposts, because they felt that it was against their interests, not in favour of them.

Steve Webb: I accept entirely that although what we propose is a lot simpler in a sense than what came before, that is not massively well understood because pensions are so complex. As we refine the proposition, we will have a lot of communicating to do. However, it stands to reason, for example, that paying a flat-rate state pension rather than an earnings-related one will, on average, benefit women. It must, because women earn less on average. Crediting years at home with kids towards the full pension, not just the basic pension, will and must benefit women on average. There can be no doubt that the options presented in the Green Paper would substantially benefit women, on average, out of the overall pensions budget. I look forward to the hon. Lady’s help in communicating that to her constituents.

Nick Smith: Given that the Minister is confirming that the Government are determined to ram through the proposals, what important measures will he take to raise awareness of the measures with that group of women so that they can plan for their retirement?

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Steve Webb: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, and for his self-restraint in making a brief and thoughtful contribution in order to allow others to speak. He is right that we need to make people aware of the changes. Our dilemma is that none of this is law yet. We must tell people that it may happen, but we cannot say on Government websites, “These are the new rules,” because Parliament has not approved them yet. The current website describes the current legislative position, as we are required to do, and then it says, “However, important changes are being discussed in Parliament. Click here if you want to find out what is being proposed.” As soon as the changes go through—this summer, or whenever—we will, of course, publicise them. We routinely write to people before they reach state pension age, and in a time of change we do it more.

I agree entirely that we need to communicate. One frustration of mine is that I get letters saying, “You’ve put my pension age up by six years.” Anyone who is going from 64 to 66 had their state pension age raised from 60 to 64 some 15 years ago, but they did not notice, because when they were 42 or so, they were not interested in pensions. That is our challenge. People close to pension age are interested in pensions and follow such matters; younger people turn off as soon as they hear “pensions”. Communicating to people further ahead is a challenge.

Angela Smith: I thank the Minister for giving way again; he is being generous. Surely the fact is that if the pension generally will improve, as he says, it will improve for everybody. I was born in 1961—I am not afraid to admit it—and my retirement age is still 66 under the proposals, as it was before the election. I will benefit from the more generous pension that he plans to offer, but women born between 1953 and 1960 are still being singled out, in that they will have to wait longer than they planned before getting that more generous pension. They will still lose out, and they are still being discriminated against.

Steve Webb: I suspect that the hon. Lady will not benefit from our proposals, as I imagine that she would have received a full basic state pension anyway, whereas the proposals will help some women who would not have received it. By being employed here, she is also contracted out of SERPS, resulting in a deduction from the £140. I do not actually think that she would benefit.

I do not dispute for a second that that set of women will be affected by the changes, but the pension that they will get under our proposals will be significantly better on average than that received, for example, by women who retired a few years earlier. We can do all sorts of comparisons between this group and that group. Some things will be better for some and some will be worse. What I am saying is that several hon. Members have said, “You used to campaign for women’s pensions, but you don’t care any more,” but I have spent all my time as a Minister working on proposals that will benefit women pensioners specifically.

Alison McGovern: Will the Minister answer a specific point? He made it clear that the reason why he felt compelled to introduce further changes was that what he inherited did not meet the terms of the Turner review. The Turner review advised allowing people 15 years

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to plan for changes, but women in our constituencies have had much less time than that—barely five years—to plan. That is not fair. Will he explain why his Government are doing that to women in our constituencies?

Steve Webb: The things that Turner recommended are not consistent with each other. We cannot, for example, have a consistent percentage of income during life in retirement and give 15 years’ notice at the same time, because longevity is increasing much faster than that. Something somewhere has to give.

One point that has been missing during this debate—the only time that it was mentioned was when an hon. Member quoted me from last week’s debate—is that if we delay till 2020, as the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) proposed, we will have to find £10 billion. My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) raised an important point, and he is analytically correct: that does not help us in the comprehensive spending review period or help the long-term structural deficit, because the age would have been 66 anyway. However, it does do one thing: it takes £30 billion—or rather, £10 billion; the whole change amounts to £30 billion, but the difference between the two of us is £10 billion—off the national debt. As he knows, servicing the national debt is one of the most crippling things that this Government must do. That is why such difficult decisions must be made.

Our changes will take £30 billion off the national debt. I do not know what the interest rate on the national debt is, but let us say 5% for the sake of round numbers. That is just to make the numbers add up; I do not suppose for a minute that it is 5%. That is £1.5 billion extra every year to spend on services or whatever rather than on the national debt. I think that that would be the hon. Lady’s preferred solution.

Julie Elliott: In those calculations, has the Minister taken into account the number of women who will end up on benefits to cover the shortfall during the time when they had planned for a pension, as in the examples that I quoted?

Steve Webb: Yes, we have. All our costings make assumptions about the proportion of people who would find themselves on benefits. Hon. Members have asked what people will live on between 64 and 66. Clearly, there will be a range of responses. Some people will go on working longer. Seven out of 10 people in the cohort that we are discussing—those born in 1953 and 1954—are in work at the moment.

Several people raised the important issue of different socio-economic groups. Across the socio-economic scale, life expectancies are rising. We cannot use the fact that there are differences between different groups—as there have been probably for ever, and certainly for the past century—as an argument for doing nothing. That argument would apply under the proposals of the hon. Member for Leeds West. If we raised the age a year to 66 in 2020, it would have exactly the same impact on the different socio-economic groups. Her proposal would have exactly the same impact on the numbers of carers and volunteers aged 64 to 66. Many of the points made by hon. Members in this debate about the impact on that age group would apply exactly, only four years later, or six

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years later under her proposals. We need to make a distinction between things that will be inevitable as the state pension age rises and the consequences of doing it more rapidly, which has been the focus of this debate.

Members have asked about caring responsibilities. We might not have expected this, but it is striking that the number of women within this age cohort who say that they have caring responsibilities is falling, partly because of social and demographic change. In 1993, of the women who are now in the 55 to 59-year-old age cohort, 15% had caring responsibilities, but, in 2010, the figure halved to 7.1%. Again, that suggests significant changes and that people are living longer and working longer. I suspect that caring responsibilities are being taken on, but that that is happening later in life than it would have previously.

Teresa Pearce: Does the Minister agree that it is possible that the percentage of those with caring responsibilities is falling because they already have to work longer to get their pension? It is not because their lifestyles have changed or because they are different types of people, whether older or younger. The fact is that they cannot take on that responsibility, because they already have to work well into their 60s.

Steve Webb: That does not apply to the figures I quoted, which relate to the difference between 1993 and 2010. All of the women in 1993 had a state pension age of 60, but all of the women whom I was talking about are under 60—they are currently in their late 50s. A diminishing proportion of the women about whom we have been talking have caring responsibilities, although that may change.

The issue of moving the goalposts has been mentioned and I think that one Member said that we are happy to change the pension age at the last minute. We have set out in our Green Paper a consultation on how we should do this beyond 66 in the longer term. In other words, what is the right balance between notice, keeping up with longevity, and fairness for those who have to pay national insurance for the increased longevity? There is a dilemma. Ideally, we would give people huge amounts of notice.

Angela Smith: That is what we did.

Steve Webb: That is not what the previous Government did. We would love to be able to say to people who are 40 or 45 years old, “This will be your pension age.” However, if we said that to 45-year-olds, who have another 20 years or more before they retire, and another 20 to 25 years of life in retirement, we would be locking in what we know about longevity now for pensions that we will still be paying in 50 years’ time. That is just not viable.

Alison McGovern: Will the Minister give way?

Steve Webb: In a moment. The pace of improvement in longevity is breathtaking. Between 2004 and 2008—the longevity projections of 2004 are, I think, what the previous Government’s legislation was based on, and those of 2008 are what we have now—life expectancy at pension age increased by well over a year in just four years. It is almost like a runaway train. We can always

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say, “Let’s wait another decade,” but one of the problems is that there is a trade-off, because, as I have said, what has been missing from this debate is the people who have to pay.

Delaying for 10 years, which is what I think the hon. Member for Leeds West is suggesting, does not mean a free lunch. It would mean a £10 billion national insurance hit on today’s workers and today’s firms. If she were wearing another hat, the hon. Lady would be saying, “The recovery is fragile and we need to do more for jobs and to boost the economy,” but what she is saying is that we should levy another £10 billion of national insurance on today’s workers, including low-paid women who do not have much pension, and today’s firms, which may have to lay off people who will not then be able to build up decent pensions. There will be no free lunch if we delay.

Rachel Reeves: Will the Minister give way?

Steve Webb: There is a queue. I shall give way to the hon. Member for Wirral South first.

Alison McGovern: If, as figures last week suggested, the Government fail to meet their own target to balance the books over the course of this Parliament and we still have a deficit for which the Government have not planned in 2015-16, will we have more pensions Bills to push people’s pensions further back in order to incorporate what the Minister has said about being fair to those who are paying now?

Steve Webb: We have made it clear that the age-66 changes are in the present Pensions Bill, which will be legislated for long before the end of this Parliament. We are also consulting in the Green Paper on a systematic mechanism for going beyond 66 that takes account of all the factors that we have talked about. That will try to strike a balance between notice, which is important, and fairness for those who bear the cost of increased longevity. The intention—this is something that no previous Government have done—is for the further changes to do it in a more systematic way. The 60 to 65 equalisation was a response to a legal case. The previous Government’s plans for 66, 67 and 68 were not ad hoc exactly, but there was no mechanism in place to respond to subsequent improvement in longevity. What we are trying to do as part of our reforms, which we are consulting on at the moment, is give people the certainty that future Governments will not just pass a law and change things, but that there will be a structure in place and that they will know how it is going to be.

Angela Smith: I was on the Committee for the Bill that became the Pensions Act 2008, which, as the Minister has said, set out the changes recommended by the Turner report. He says that the approach that he wants to introduce is systematic, but does it not mean a constant shifting of the goalposts that will leave most people, however much notice they are given, with a constantly changing picture of when they should expect to retire?

Steve Webb: I hope that the hon. Lady will respond to our consultation on the right process. She raises the important issue of how we strike a balance. The fact is

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that one in six of us alive today will live to be not 88, but 100, and that figure is increasing all the time. How do we strike a balance between that and giving people notice? We could have a principle of always giving people x years’ notice, which would mean that it would not matter if longevity improved dramatically after that point. That is part of what we are consulting on and there are trade-offs. I hope that the hon. Lady will respond to that.

We are moving into a world in which pension ages will not be the rock-solid certainty that they have been in the past, because they cannot be. The hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), who has left the Chamber, said that this is like someone starting a job but having their contract changed halfway through. On that basis, people start paying national insurance at 16, have a guaranteed pension age for the next 50-odd years, and have another 20-odd years after they start drawing a pension. Therefore, the second that they are in the system at 16, nothing can change until 70. That is economic madness. There has to be some adjustment, but I accept that it has to be done in a measured way, which is why we are consulting on an appropriate mechanism.

Rachel Reeves: I fear that, at this rate, the Minister will start sending pensioners back to work if they live too long. Returning to the review, would it not have been better to have done it and find out what the right trade-off is before increasing the state pension age for 57-year-old women with such little notice?

The Minister says that Labour is saying that we have to find another £10 billion or £30 billion for these changes. This is about cutting spending—the Government are cutting £30 billion of spending. I do not want additional spending. First, Labour wants to halve the budget deficit in this Parliament. Secondly, our proposals would cut £20 billion-worth of spending, so we are not asking for additional spending. I would like that put on the record.

Steve Webb: Unless there is some free money to be had somewhere, delaying for 10 years must cost somebody something. It is fantasy economics to think that we can get 10 billion quid from somewhere. The hon. Lady must agree that that £10 billion would have to be paid by today’s workers and today’s firms. It has to come from somewhere—perhaps the hon. Lady thinks that it could be magicked from the air—and there is a trade-off between today’s workers and today’s pensioners.

Time is short, so I will conclude my response to the debate. I welcome and recognise the point that, ideally, we would give people more notice than we have. I fully accept that. The difficulty is that delay, which is always the easy option, has a huge impact on the state of the nation’s finances and on our response to a world in which people are living substantially longer. Our goal is to strike a fair balance. I will certainly reflect further on the contributions of my hon. Friends and other Members. As has been said, throughout my career I have campaigned for a fairer pensions system for women. I believe that some of the proposals that we are talking about for the next generation of retiring women will make a huge difference to their quality of life. Some of the points that have been put on the record today have been made forcefully and effectively.

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Car Insurance Premiums

10.59 am

Mr Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to initiate this short debate under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. The cost of car insurance concerns everybody who owns and drives a car, not least my constituents who live in the B11 and B12 postcodes of Birmingham. I will explain later why I mention those specific postcodes.

I am aware of the detailed report on car insurance produced by the Select Committee on Transport and of the recommendations that it has made to both the Government and the insurance industry. I commend the Committee’s work and welcome its recommendations on personal injury claims and referral fees, uninsured driving, fraud, and the whole question of young drivers, whose driving habits are one of the industry’s biggest justifications for the overall increase in the cost of motor insurance.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), made it perfectly clear when giving evidence to the Transport Committee that the responsibility for the level of premiums rests with the market and not the Government. I accept that. However, in some other countries—and not least in one of the Canadian provinces—motor insurance has been socialised or run by a Government agency because the market was unable to handle its responsibility, despite having a captive audience of motorists who were rightly obliged by law to insure their vehicles. I shall not attempt to lead the Minister down that path because I suspect that he would not wish to follow, but I make those points to place them on the record.

After reading the Transport Committee’s admirable report, I was struck by the sheer weight of submissions from insurers, solicitors, claim management firms and their associations—all of whom, purely by chance, are part of the referral system. I got the distinct impression from reading the report that the motor insurance industry was trying to convince the Committee—and, indeed, perhaps itself—that it was not making any money out of the motor insurance business and that it was taking on the onerous burden of insuring motorists only out of some sense of public duty. Indeed, the Committee was told:

“insurers currently spent around £1.20 for every £1 collected in premiums”.

I am sure that the Government would say that those are the economics of the mad house and will lead to bankruptcy. However, the motor insurance industry has apparently kept going purely to help out motorists. The Committee was told:

“the underwriters of motor insurance had been loss-making since 1994”.

I drive to and from my constituency, and I am sure that motorists throughout the whole of the United Kingdom would like to say a heartfelt thank you to the motor insurance industry for being prepared to shoulder such losses for 16 years and for their altruistic attitude towards the whole business.

In case hon. Members think that I am seeking to pillory the insurance industry, I should say that I am not. I recognise that the industry is an important part of the UK’s financial services sector and that, in general terms, it provides competitive and tailored products,

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such as building, household, personal and holiday insurances. However, all those are optional, whereas motor insurance is, rightly, compulsory.

I pick my words carefully when I say, to put it bluntly, that having read the report, looked into the issue and considered many representations I have had from constituents whose motor insurance premiums had gone through the roof, I think that the motor insurance industry is just milking the motorist. Instead of tailoring insurance premiums to individual driving records and the personal circumstances of the motorist and the vehicle they are using, the industry is taking the cheap and easy option of postcode charging and having box-ticking premiums. It is giving scant regard to an individual’s personal circumstances because it knows that to drive on the highway, someone has to have insurance. Motorists are trapped and the industry can do what it wants.

The motor insurance industry and its lobbyists, some of whom may be here today, are very quick off the mark. My e-mail account was totally inundated and blocked by thousands of representations when those concerned saw that this debate was taking place. I applaud their rapid-response approach to the matter. The Association of British Insurers has said to me:

“the market remains competitive, despite recent rate increases, and some of the best deals may be found by phoning insurance companies or brokers directly rather than by using price comparison websites.”

I will give a couple of examples to show not only that that is incorrect, but that the motor insurance industry uses postcode premiums and gives minimal regard to personal circumstances.

A constituent who lives in Sparkhill, which is in the Springfield ward—one of the wards we gained last week at the local elections from the Liberal Democrats—has been driving since 1987 and has a 10-year no-claims bonus. He has a public service vehicle licence and is a bus driver. His postcode is B11 and he was quoted £1,200 a year for his motor insurance. That is for a PSV holder and bus driver, with 10 years’ no claims. He then used the address of one of his relatives who lives in an adjoining postcode. Apart from that, he supplied exactly the same details. How much was he quoted? Some £276, which is four times less. He is being penalised because he lives in B11. As I said—10 years’ no claims, PSV holder, bus driver. However, he lives in the wrong place and is charged four times as much.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Further to the hon. Gentleman’s last remarks, in Northern Ireland we are subject to higher prices for insurance than in other parts of the United Kingdom—England, Wales and Scotland. In the whole of Northern Ireland, we pay higher prices than everyone else because of our postcode. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that better competitive prices for insurance should be available across the whole of the United Kingdom and that Northern Ireland should not be excluded?

Mr Godsiff: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. However, motor insurance is not being discriminatory; it milks the motorist wherever they live in the United Kingdom.

Another constituent who lives in Sparkbrook, B12, has had a driving licence for 38 years and no claims for 10 years. His insurance has been between £250 and

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£300 for fully comprehensive and his best quote is now £600. He then got quotes for exactly the same driving history but with a Solihull and a Warwick and Leamington address, and they were less than £300. So he is being asked to pay double because he lives in the wrong postcode.

Those are just two examples, but I have many others about how my constituents are being penalised. The motor insurance industry takes the cheapest and easiest option of using postcodes, rather than individual circumstances, to set its premiums. It does so at a time when there has already been a 29.9% rise in motor insurance for all motorists, and young men and women have been subject to rises of 46.6% and 58.8% respectively. That is ridiculous.

Let me give you another example of how the motor insurance industry exploits its monopoly position. I know a person who spends part of his time in the UK, and one or two months abroad every year. He checked recently with his insurance broker to find out whether he could save money by avoiding paying insurance premiums for the months that he was out of the country, and his car was off the road and garaged. He was told by his broker:

“it used to be the case that the Insurance Industry would allow you to not pay premiums for months when your car was garaged and you were abroad but they no longer allow this”.

I contend that that is yet another example of how the motor insurance industry milks motorists, rather than seeking to tailor its policies to their personal circumstances. I am not suggesting for one minute—I would not dream of it—that there is collusion between motor insurance companies, but the fact of the matter is that they openly say that they share information regarding fraud—quite rightly. But it is disingenuous to believe that they do not share information concerning their charging policies and postcode premium policies.

I end by saying this: I do not expect the Minister to bring about a revolution in motor insurance overnight, and I know that he will consider the recommendations of the Select Committee very seriously. However, motorists, like the wider population, are under increasing economic pressure and many people still have to rely on the use of their cars for their daily lives. Furthermore, if young people are priced out of using a car because of the massive cost of insurance, then, I regret to say, there will be an increase in the number of uninsured drivers. That would not be a good thing, and I agree with the Minister about that.

The motor insurance industry has to realise that it is in the privileged position of having a captive audience. Instead of whingeing about not making money out of car insurance—which is not true; everybody knows that it is not true—it should be developing insurance policies that reward careful drivers with a proven record of not claiming, and take into account personal driving history. It should also scrap the unfair and discriminatory policy of penalising everybody in certain postcodes and allow motorists who use their cars only for a certain number of months a year to pay insurance for those months only, instead of being charged for the whole year.

I know that the Minister has listened carefully to what I have said, and I hope that he will depart from his brief and address those two specific points. Those points

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concern motorists in my constituency, his constituency and throughout the country. I do not see why motorists should be milked by the motor insurance industry.

11.13 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): The Minister who normally deals with these matters, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), is, unfortunately, elsewhere today, so I am happy to stand in for him. I discussed the matter with him prior to the debate and I will ensure that the comments made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) are passed directly to him, so that he is aware of the specific points that have been raised today. My civil servants will confirm that I am not averse to disappearing off my brief to respond to points in debates. I am happy do so today in response to the points that the hon. Gentleman has made, in so far as I am able to within the responsibilities of the Department for Transport.

First, on the point that the hon. Gentleman made about the nature of the motor insurance industry, motor insurance is sold in a competitive market. There are many players, many different companies, and motorists are able to shop around and find the best deal that suits their needs. How premiums are set is a commercial decision for individual insurers according to the risks that they believe are posed by the drivers concerned, including factors such as experience, age, the type of vehicle and the driver’s record—for example, whether he, or she, has penalty points or disqualifications.

The Department is not aware of any evidence that the market is not working. There are certainly a large number of players who have, in theory at least, an opportunity to carve out a better position in the market by offering different kinds of products to different kinds of drivers. If the hon. Gentleman believes that there is evidence of collusion in the market, then he needs to bring that to the attention of the Competition Commission; it can investigate the market if it believes that there is prima facie evidence that collusion is taking place. I should say that the Department is not aware of any such evidence.

On the issue of postcode charging, the hon. Gentleman gave one or two striking examples involving the B11 postcode. I will ensure that my colleague the Under-Secretary is aware of that issue and that he takes it forward in his discussions with the motor insurance industry.

My experience of this issue relates to the year 2000, when there were problems with flood insurance in my constituency of Lewes in the aftermath of flooding, and with how the insurance industry responded to that challenge. It was certainly the case at the time that, in my constituency, the insurance industry applied a broad-brush approach to insurance premiums, based on postcodes—in that case, the BN7 postcode.

The BN7 postcode encompassed houses that had been flooded and houses, way up a hill, that obviously had not been and would never be flooded, even in the worst possible scenario. The houses up the hill were being invited to pay higher premiums because they were in the same postcode, so I entirely understand the hon. Gentleman’s point.

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In that case, the insurance industry has moved on, and one or two companies were able to offer different premiums on a more selective basis, based on their detailed analysis of where was, and was not, flooded. They were able to carve out a market from that, which demonstrated that in that case the industry was working and able to respond, through individual initiative by individual companies, to the circumstances that pertained. I would have thought that there was an opportunity for an insurance company to offer more reasonable premiums in B11 in order to undercut those who apply a crude postcode approach. That is, however, a matter for the industry.

Mr Godsiff: I hear what the Minister says, and I know the logic of what he says. I assure him that my constituents are very price-conscious and, particularly in this day and age, very careful with their money. They have searched every alternative. If they had found an alternative, then believe you me, not only would they have taken out insurance with it, but they would have alerted all their friends to the benefits of going to another company. The alternative is not there, despite what the motor insurance industry likes to make out.

Norman Baker: I hear the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Obviously, he has looked into the matter in his area much more than we will have done at the Department for Transport. All I can do is repeat the comments that I have made. First, if he believes that there is collusion in the industry, he needs to draw that to the attention of the Competition Commission. Secondly, the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead—the relevant Minister for this area—will, I am sure, be interested in his comments and look at the issue of postcode charging. We would like to ensure that the motorist gets a fair deal and is not subject to improper procedures. We want, therefore, to ensure that motor insurance costs are kept reasonable, as far as it is possible for us to influence them.

We recognise that the high cost of motor insurance can cause a number of policy problems and we are working with the industry to help address them. People are dependent on their cars to travel to work, leisure facilities and so on, so this is an important issue for a great number of people. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is speaking with the insurance industry on a number of issues, particularly tackling uninsured driving, automatic access for insurers to check the driver’s record held by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, and addressing the problems of high premium costs faced by young drivers, to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

One area of concern for us is that people may be tempted to drive uninsured. The insurance industry estimates that uninsured driving costs each motorist approximately £30 on their premiums each year.

The Government introduced the continuous insurance enforcement scheme to deal with uninsured drivers. A new offence has been introduced of keeping a vehicle without insurance unless it is kept off the road and a statutory off-road notice declaration has been made to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. The new scheme regularly compares the DVLA vehicles database with the motor insurance database, which holds all motor insurance policies.

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From that comparison, we are able to detect a greater number of uninsured vehicles, rather than relying solely on the police spotting uninsured vehicles in use on the road. We anticipate that the scheme could reduce uninsured driving by 15% to 20%, by taking out the softer evaders and leaving the police to target on the road hard-core offenders who continue to drive uninsured. Obviously, getting uninsured drivers off the road would be of benefit not only to road safety generally, but to those who legitimately and properly pay their insurance and who quite rightly feel aggrieved about having to pay extra in their premiums to deal with the uninsured. I think that that agenda is shared throughout the country—except by uninsured drivers. I hope that it is shared, so that we can get some fairness into the premiums.

The scheme is planned to commence in late June. Under it, keepers of vehicles that appear to be uninsured will be sent reminder letters by the Motor Insurers’ Bureau. If keepers take no action, they will receive a fixed penalty notice and a fine of £100, followed by enforcement action which, in extreme circumstances, might be wheel-clamping, impounding of the vehicle and, ultimately, prosecution. The DVLA will be responsible for enforcement action on behalf of the Secretary of State.

We are also concerned that significant rises in the cost of insurance might increase fraud, with some drivers prepared to make false statements about their driving record to obtain cheaper insurance, such as on how many penalty points they have, whether they have been disqualified and so on. The insurance industry estimates that 40,000 claims are declined already each year at the underwriting stage, on the grounds of non-disclosure or misrepresentation, and that 200,000 claims are adjusted.

Others might be tempted to declare younger drivers as named secondary drivers on their parents’ insurance when, in fact, they are the main driver of a vehicle. We are working with the insurance industry with a view to allowing it access to the driver details held by the DVLA. That will to help to tackle fraud and prevent situations in which drivers might give inaccurate information, consequently invalidating their insurance. The timetable for delivery is yet to be finalised with the insurance industry, but we expect a project of such a size to take between 18 and 24 months to complete all stages of the work, from specification and design to development, and through to a fully operational system.

Jim Shannon: Up until now, in response to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff), the Minister has indicated that everything is about catching those who are not paying insurance and so on. The Government response has indicated nothing about incentives for those who drive well. Not only in Northern Ireland, but all over the United Kingdom, people who drive well and who have passed advanced driving courses should qualify for a reduction in their insurance risk. Is that something that the coalition Government are considering? If so, what discussions have they had with the insurance companies?

Norman Baker: Personally, I believe it is right for drivers who drive well to be rewarded, and that occurs in a sense with no claims bonus systems, which are well established in car insurance. Generally, submitting no claims drives down the costs year on year for a driver relative to other drivers.

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Whether insurance companies ought to identify further opportunities to reward good drivers is a commercial matter for them. For example, I know about some schemes that benefit older drivers with clean licences, or others for people driving an historic vehicle. Premiums can reflect guarantees to drive less than a certain number of miles each year, or that drivers of an historic vehicle probably want to take care of that vehicle, so they would be less of a risk to the insurance industry than they might otherwise be.

I come back to my central point, which I made at the beginning: the market is competitive, including a large number of insurance companies. If I were running an insurance company, I would want to look for the niche market and the opportunity to identify a set of safe drivers who are less likely to make a claim. We could then offer that group a good premium, pulling one big market in and collecting together all the low-risk drivers, and so benefiting from paying out less. Insurance companies in a commercial market have such opportunities, and can identify them better than I can. Any business worth its salt would reward good drivers, because they are better business for the insurance company than are bad drivers, for whom they are paying out.

One particular concern of the Government is the impact of high insurance costs on young drivers. I accept that the higher premiums faced by younger drivers reflect the cost to insurers of covering the risk for two main reasons. First, insurance companies’ figures suggest that as many as a fifth of newly qualified drivers make a claim within six months of passing their test. Many are relatively minor bumps and scrapes, but the overall cost to an insurer of even modest damage is likely to be higher than a young driver will have paid in his or her annual premium. We recognise that the cost of damage claims affects all insured drivers, although groups that are over-represented in claims, such as young or newly qualified drivers, are likely to cost insurers more.

Secondly, insurers have to make special provision for young people. A minority of accidents can unfortunately lead to catastrophic claims, in particular when one or more claimants might require long-term or even life-long medical care. The problem with young drivers is not simply that claims are more likely, but that such costs are liable to be much higher if the claimant is young. In addition, only a limited number of big insurers can afford provision against such claims, which in this area limits the market in which young people can buy insurance. The usual recommended option of shopping around for the best price, therefore, is less effective for young drivers than for older drivers. If the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green has researched that aspect, we would be interested in hearing about his specific examples of how young drivers in his constituency are affected in insurance terms.

One effect is that young drivers, including learner drivers, often find that rises in insurance costs are increasingly prohibitive. Many young people depend on a motor vehicle to obtain better access to education and employment, and they often learn to drive for such reasons. We do not want to deprive people of that opportunity.

Some insurers have argued for the Government to impose additional regulation on newly qualified drivers so that they would not be allowed to drive in high-risk circumstances, which might improve road safety. Other

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specific restrictions have been proposed, including those in other countries where driving is permitted below the minimum age here. We are, however, reluctant to impose more regulations on young people, because doing so would bear down on those who want to be safe and responsible. It might reduce access to employment and education, while enforcing regulations might involve significant costs. There is also a risk of perverse consequences; for example, limiting the carriage of young passengers might prevent a sober driver providing transport for companions who have been consuming alcohol.

The Department has been working on alternative approaches, such as measures to improve driver training and testing, and is considering whether further measures should be developed. Training should focus not only on the test, but on the challenge of independent driving, including, for example, an understanding of the risks of particular driving conditions, and of distraction and impairment. A range of measures have been taken already, including a voluntary foundation course in safe road use to help pre-drivers and learners, which is aimed primarily at 14 to 16-years-olds. We also intend to work with the insurance industry on whether new or existing insurance products can be developed, with discounts if young drivers choose enhanced training before and/or after the test, or are happy to accept in return restrictions such as not driving at night.

In addition, my Department is in regular contact with vehicle manufacturers and suppliers on developments in new vehicle technology, including driver information systems and parental controls. Such technology might demonstrate how young drivers are driving and could provide important information on behaviour and their insurance and casualty risks. The insurance industry is already making use of technologies and new products when young drivers are willing to accept restrictions or training. The Government are keen to work with the industry on such matters.

The number of personal injury claims has increased at a time when the number of casualties has reduced, which we believe has had a consequent effect on costs incurred by insurers. There have been concerns around high legal costs in civil litigation, in particular under no win, no fee conditional fee agreements. The Government are committed to addressing such concerns and welcomed Lord Justice Jackson’s final report on those matters, which made a broad range of significant recommendations for reducing costs in the civil justice system.

The Ministry of Justice published “Proposals for Reform of Civil Litigation Funding and Costs in England and Wales—Implementation of Lord Justice Jackson’s Recommendations” on 15 November 2010. The Department announced on 29 March 2011 that it will abolish the general recoverability of the CFA success fee from the losing side; abolish the general recoverability of after-the-event insurance premiums; and introduce the package of associated measures set out by Lord Justice Jackson. Through the Legal Services Board, we are also considering the issue of referral fees.

Finally, we should recognise that the most effective way of controlling costs is to reduce the number of road accidents and casualties. The Government are strongly committed to improving road safety and we are setting out our plans in a strategic framework published today.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.

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Legal Aid

2.30 pm

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): I hope that this debate on legal aid—a vitally important component of our legal system—will prove timely. It is opportune because although the Government consultation, which has received around 5,000 replies, has closed, the Government have not yet published their response. I hope, therefore, that the Government will have the chance to listen to concerns from both sides of the House before publishing their final recommendations. I am delighted to welcome the Minister to respond to the debate, and more particularly to listen to it. He and I spent some time debating in 2005, and although I did not always agree with his position, he showed that he would listen to an argument and I hope he will show the same character today.

One of the basic pillars of our legal system is supposed to be that the law is accessible to all, not only to those who can afford it. Members of another Committee are seeking to reform the law of libel to ensure that success goes to those who have truth on their side, rather than to those with the most money. Legal aid is the manner in which we ensure that all have a fair chance to access the law and see justice done.

The Government have been at pains to emphasise their commitment to access to justice. We would all, I hope, agree with their stated position that

“access to justice is the hallmark of a civil society.”

Indeed, many of us would go slightly further and say that it is the hallmark of a civilised society. The Green Paper that announced the proposals suggested that the Ministry of Justice believes that legal aid has expanded far beyond its original intentions. I recognise that there is often waste, and that unnecessary costs could be eliminated or reduced, but we should avoid simply caricaturing the current legal aid system.

In my opinion, as it currently stands the legal aid system seems broadly to represent what Lord Rushcliffe intended in his 1945 report. He argued that public funding for legal aid should not be limited to those “normally classed as poor”, but should also include those of “small or moderate means.” According to the Ministry of Justice, under the current legal aid system 29% of us are eligible for publicly funded advice. One could ask whether that goes far enough. Given our unequal income distribution, even the median wage could well be described as “small or moderate means” in some parts of the country.

I accept that the wider fiscal situation and the rapidly growing nature of the legal aid budget allow room for consolidation through reductions in the budget, and there is a balance to strike between access and cost. This debate is largely an opportunity to discuss how such reductions can be achieved without harming the most vulnerable people in our society. A large portion of my speech will deal with the scope of the Government’s proposals, but I also hope to draw the Minister’s attention to the viable alternatives that have been proposed. Given the number of hon. Members from all parties present in the debate, I will try to be brief to allow others to speak. I am sure that one could easily fill 90 minutes with more detailed analyses of every issue that I cover.

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It is easy to forget the recent history of legal aid, and it is important to look at the context behind the debate this afternoon and remind ourselves that legal aid underwent substantial changes under the previous Government—Labour launched about 30 consultations and reviews to try to sort the system out. Since the formation of the coalition, we have had Sir Ian Magee’s “Review of legal aid delivery and governance”, and the family justice review chaired by David Norgrove, both of which are pertinent to the debate. I am glad that the Government delayed their response to the consultation on legal aid until after the interim report of the Norgrove review was published. It is always useful to get expert advice before making decisions.

Hon. Members should be in no doubt that I appreciate much of what the Ministry of Justice has done since the formation of the coalition. In general, I admire the liberal proposals on sentencing that have stemmed from the Secretary of State and his team of Ministers—they may not thank me for that praise of their liberalism. It has been particularly good to see a renewed emphasis on evidence and reinvestment in justice, moving us away from an obsession with prisons and punishment, and renewing our desire to see criminals rehabilitated. We want less crime, not just to be harsh on criminals after the event.

There are, however, problems with the Government’s proposals, many of which will be familiar to hon. Members following this debate. If they have not already done so, hon. Members might want to familiarise themselves with the excellent report from the Justice Committee—chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith)—the large majority of which I agree with. I want to focus on the effects of the proposals concerning access to advice on social welfare law, in particular with regard to immigration law, family law and children and young people. I will also highlight what I believe are the unintended consequences of the Government’s proposals for citizens advice bureaux and other organisations.

It is worth questioning the central decision at the heart of the Government’s proposals. From the off they considered it impossible to pare down any further expenditure on criminal legal aid. Like many others, I remain unconvinced that we should leave criminal legal aid entirely untouched when it accounts for more than half the total budget, even if it has previously come in for close attention. Obviously, we do not want to deny people access to justice in criminal trials, but I believe there may be further scope for savings in that area. I hope the Minister will heed that note of slight uncertainty and address it when he responds to the debate.

In other areas, my uncertainty is more than slight. One such area is family law, and I have received many representations from organisations and individuals across the spectrum, from those who need legal aid to those who provide it and almost everyone in between. I cannot over-emphasise the concerns that people have about the possible effects of the Government proposals. Time and again I have heard the same criticism: the Government have brought forward proposals without properly researching the effects of the current system, and without adequately justifying their stance. As a result, the unintended consequences of the proposals, if implemented, could be regressive and widespread.

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Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): My hon. Friend makes a strong case. Does he agree that there is a danger that people in a host of vulnerable groups, including those with mental health problems, those suffering domestic abuse—as opposed to domestic violence—those with learning disabilities, and others, could be disadvantaged in front of the law? Would it not be better to raise the bar for legal aid, and look at the situation case by case?

Dr Huppert: My hon. Friend raises a number of issues, some of which I will come on to talk about. There is no doubt that this issue is a challenge, and there is no easy solution with which to protect all those vulnerable groups. Ideas such as that mentioned by my hon. Friend, or those suggested by the Law Society, may provide a better option.

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): My hon. Friend makes an excellent case and I congratulate him on that. Does he agree that rather than being largely budget driven, the review should begin with an understanding that legal justice is inextricably linked to social justice? Homelessness, for example, will be narrowly defined by these changes at a time when the Government’s policies on homelessness, housing benefit and other areas are already having a disruptive impact in that area. We need a legal aid system that is flexible enough to assist those who will find themselves on the margins of society.

Dr Huppert: I thank my hon. Friend for his valuable contribution to the debate. He is right: social justice lies at the heart of much of what is happening. The lack of social justice in this country, and the widening disparity between the rich and poor, already existed under the previous Government. That disparity is a sorry blight for us all and affects much of public policy. We know that one of the worst problems is the effect that social injustice and deprivation have on health. That is a much more fundamental problem to be solved than exactly what happens in an A and E hospital, and the same goes for the examples provided by my hon. Friend.

Family law particularly concerns me. I am indebted to a number of people for drawing my attention to the issue, and I would particularly like to thank Jo Miles, a Fellow in Law at Trinity college Cambridge, where I used to be a Fellow. She has made great efforts to produce evidence-based assessments of the proposals in the Green Paper, and she has also been in touch with Ministers.

The Green Paper’s reforms for family law constitute a radical reduction in the number of private family law issues for which legal aid will be available. That policy is based on two premises. To say those are outright false is perhaps going too far, but they are questionable and not well justified. The premises are first that spending on legal aid fuels litigation, and secondly that mediation is the clear alternative.

In some cases, there is no doubt that lawyers on each side—I declare an interest as a non-lawyer—ramp up the case to earn fees, and make a tense situation worse for the individuals as well as expensive for the state and of course for the side that does not have legal aid. However, it is not clear that that is common or regular. In fact, it is probably because clients can currently see a solicitor that litigation is avoided in many cases. Solicitors

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can play a very important role in guiding their clients towards agreed resolutions or advising them that their case is too weak to fight. Without professional guidance, badly founded and prepared litigation conducted by the client in person will surely follow and grow. That will mean an inevitable and probably substantial rise in the number of litigants in person in the family courts and the associated costs. I have seen no evidence for the Government’s assumption that there will be no significant impact on court operating costs. I strongly suspect that what is saved in legal aid may simply be spent in court costs.

The result will be that, as ever, those with money will have access to justice. Those who do not have the cash and who also lack the energy and resources to litigate by themselves will simply not have access to justice. Those who have not been able to enforce the other party’s private law responsibilities will have to fall back on the state for housing and other support—another cost to the Exchequer.

Therefore, the removal of public funding from the areas of family law that we are discussing may have the opposite effect on the finances to that which is intended. On a related note, it may also hamper successful mediation. Studies have shown that one of the main reasons why mediation has been successful has been the threat of litigation. That encourages people to adopt sensible positions and so to settle. Will that still work in the absence of litigation as a plausible threat?

Mrs Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): I declare an interest in the debate, having been a legal aid family lawyer. I want to pick up the point about mediation. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that mediation can be quite useful, but it is no panacea and frequently fails when there is an imbalance of power, which is often the case in family matters? I am concerned that the Government’s proposals rely on mediation. I am concerned also about where all the mediators will come from and who will pay for them.

Dr Huppert: I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and bow to her greater expertise in this area. She is absolutely right. There is no doubt that mediation is fantastic, but it does not solve every problem. It is a great thing where it works. Where it does not work, there must be alternatives. She also raises the important point about the number of mediators. We are trying to turn to more and more mediation and arbitration in relation to a range of areas of law, and there is a real question about how we can train enough people.

I hope that the Government will revisit their proposals on reducing the scope of family law. We share the objective of controlling costs while preserving access to justice. I hope that the Government will be able to reach a better balance than they did in their original proposals.

Let me now turn to another element of family law, which has had almost as much attention from the same organisations—domestic violence, which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) mentioned. That is a blight that is far more common in our country than many of us would like to believe. It is a very private crime and therefore difficult to measure, but estimates based on available data, such as the British crime survey, suggest that as many as one in five adults have experienced it in some form.

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The Green Paper takes a narrow view of what domestic violence constitutes and how it can be evidenced. The Government seem to be counting only physical violence under the definition of domestic violence and then only where relevant legal proceedings have been started or orders obtained in relation to it. There are a couple of concerns about the consequences of that. First, it provides a perverse incentive for people to allege domestic violence just to gain access to funding for their other issues. In other words, it will encourage court proceedings. It is not clear whether that would involve people admitting what is actually happening or would lead to false allegations, but either way, it will increase court proceedings. Secondly, a huge amount of research shows that many victims of domestic violence do not disclose their abuse at all. For all sorts of reasons, they are reluctant to take legal proceedings in relation to the abuse. We should not make that harder.

All that would be bad enough. I hope that I need not convince anyone here that domestic violence cannot refer simply to physical violence. We must all be concerned about people suffering the threat of violence and mental torment. I hope that the Government will take seriously the criticisms that they have received on that point and will clarify and strengthen their definition of domestic violence so that those at risk have access to justice and are protected.

There is a particular issue about those people—normally women—who are in the UK on a spousal visa with no access to public funds and are subjected to domestic violence. I have met such people in the Cambridge women’s refuge. I am delighted that the Government are taking some steps to support them—for example, by extending the funding for the Sojourner project, which I hope will continue even longer. Everyone will work together to help such people. There will be legal aid funding for them to obtain an injunction against their ex-partner, and the UK Border Agency will fast-track their visa application—but there will be no support for them to apply for the visa that unlocks their future support. Surely that is not right.

Women will be disproportionately affected by the changes in legal aid. They are more often the recipients of it and less often have their own finances in place. Children and young people will also be disproportionately affected, partly because women make up the majority of primary care givers, although of course not all. I have received a considerable amount of evidence from a number of organisations suggesting that the proposals could deny many thousands of children and young people access to justice. The Liberal Democrat youth policy includes a commitment to providing young people with access to specialist support and advice on their legal rights and responsibilities—something that I hope would attract universal support. I therefore urge the Government to think again more carefully about their proposals for young people. They are clearly a group of people who are generally vulnerable and less able to represent themselves. It seems to me, then, that the current scope of legal aid should remain available to children and young people even if it must be reduced somewhat for adults. In addition, we should try to target funding and support better towards that demographic group in the future.

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Similar concerns apply in relation to disabled people, whether young or old. For example, the Government plan to remove legal aid relating to matters of special educational need. The Government sought to justify that proposal in the Green Paper because there are alternative sources of support, they do not consider parents and carers bringing SEN appeals to be particularly vulnerable and they believe that the education of children should not be accorded the same level of priority as other, more critical issues. The last point is the most concerning. The coalition Government have taken some good steps to support families with disabled children—for example, the SEN Green Paper from the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), is a great step forwards. However, the change that we are discussing in this debate would send entirely the wrong message to those families. Access to education is a right for all children and is a vital mechanism for removing some of the barriers facing disabled children and young people.

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): On the point about special educational needs, does my hon. Friend further welcome the proposals in the Green Paper to move to a system of mediation to resolve many of the problems that parents and children have in challenging decisions made by local authorities? Should not that system of mediation be put in train with any changes to legal aid so that we do not end up with the good intentions of the Green Paper being frustrated by a lack of co-ordination between two Departments?

Dr Huppert: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Yes, mediation can play a good role. There are a number of cases in which we need to move away from the legalistic approach to resolving problems and towards mediatory approaches. However, as I said in response to the point raised by the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), mediation does not always work, and where will we get all the mediators from? We must ensure that there is a fall-back—a safety net—for people.

I cannot deal with all the issues relating to this area now. I assume that the Government have seen the briefings from the Children’s Society and the Special Educational Consortium and I hope that they will consider what they say. I am sure that other hon. Members have seen them as well.

Andrew George: My hon. Friend is being very patient in allowing me to intervene again. The theme underlying this is public service and its improvement. There is an important link, which must not be lost by the Government. They must ensure that those people seeking to benefit from public services see an improvement in them. We have found this in the Select Committee on Health, which has been considering clinical negligence. The removal of legal aid is proposed in that area. How can a service move on, learn lessons and improve if those who are served poorly by it do not have access to the right kind of justice?

Dr Huppert: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I hope to talk later about the effect of the Jackson changes, how legal aid will work then and the double whammy that people may face with the two changes being rolled up together.

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Lastly on the subject of special educational needs, I am sure that other hon. Members have had constituents coming to see them, as I have. My constituents take special educational needs appeals for their children very seriously. They are very concerned. A number of people have come to see me. They are terrified both about what will happen to their own children and about the future. They see education as critical to their children’s future. I could talk about other aspects, but time moves on apace.

Hon. Members may be aware that I have a passionate interest in matters to do with immigration and asylum. I chair the all-party group on refugees, as well as being a member of the Home Affairs Committee, which is chaired by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), and it is a great pleasure to see him here today. I am of course pleased that asylum will remain within the scope of legal aid, but it is extremely concerning that other immigration cases have been excluded. Even under existing arrangements, immigration legal aid providers are struggling to remain viable; if we confine legal aid to asylum, it is doubtful whether good quality practitioners will continue to be available. There is already a surfeit of poor quality lawyers and advisers working in this field, and we would all benefit from better provision because many of them are not up to scratch.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Is he aware that many of the legal aid practitioners that used to deal largely with immigration matters in inner London have gone under? I frequently represent people at immigration appeal tribunal hearings, and I know that a disturbing number of claimants with strong cases are completely unrepresented, and that all kinds of family breakdowns and misery result. It is not necessary to invest a great deal of money in order for the most vulnerable to get reasonable access to justice.

Dr Huppert: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He is right. I am not an expert on the position in London, but I know the Cambridge area and I realise that there is a shortage of good people. I see that with my constituents time and again.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I pay tribute to him for the work that he does as chair of the all-party group on refugees and as a member of the Select Committee.

Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), if that specialism disappears—and immigration cases are dealt with by specialist legal aid lawyers—vulnerable constituents may go to unscrupulous immigration advisers, be charged huge sums, and, at the end of the day, be left with no recourse except to go to Members of Parliament, who are not really qualified to give them that advice.