7.1 pm

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): Today’s debate takes place more than 100 years after the Old Age Pensions Act 1908 was introduced by a slightly different coalition Government, led by Lloyd George, but including Churchill in his Liberal phase. The most important change since then is clearly in life expectancy. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) and other speakers this evening have already tackled that in forensic detail.

I think it would be helpful if I detailed a couple of salient facts as an introduction to my views about Second Reading. A hundred years ago, life expectancy was slightly less than the pension age of 65. That would imply a pension age of about 87 today. To put it another way, 10 million people who are alive today will live to be 100. Clearly, something must be done, and I am afraid that it falls to this coalition Government to do it. The Labour party had its chance. In 2002, the Labour Green Paper fudged the issue and, two years later, the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions clearly told the TUC that raising the pension age would not happen. The message today from the shadow Secretary of State and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), who is in her place, blithely recommending as an alternative to some aspects of the Bill a speeded-up increase in the pension age beyond 2020, can therefore be treated with a huge bucket of salt. Their paymasters, the trade unions, simply would not let it happen. As is so often the case, it falls to this Government to tackle the difficult questions and decide how to balance the interests of future pensioners with those who are earning, paying taxes and paying for those pensions.

The most critical issue of fairness that the Bill must tackle is intergenerational fairness. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State introduced the Bill, he highlighted several aspects that are worth mentioning. He referred to life expectancy, and I hope that I have covered that point. He also mentioned fairness between generations, which is the basis for the main provisions of the measure. He talked about the importance of savings and their not being frittered away through a means-tested system. I echo that strongly. Correspondence from my constituents in Gloucester constantly reflects the unfairness between people living next door to one another, some on means-tested pensions and others not, owing to their small amounts of hard-earned savings.

The other key aspect is auto-enrolment. I pay tribute to the Labour party for the previous Government’s work on auto-enrolment, but once again this Government will have to implement the scheme. We have examined the details of simplifying the administrative aspects, ensuring an opt-out, not an opt-in, getting the self-certification from defined contribution schemes and so on. I welcome those aspects of the Bill as well as the changes to occupational schemes, in which I should declare an interest as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on occupational pensions.

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It is notable that no Labour Members referred to judges’ pensions. An extraordinary silence has come upon my friends on the Opposition Benches. Several Government Members have pointed out that having zero contributions to the judges’ pension scheme is surely a massively unfair anomaly, which Work and Pensions Ministers are quite correct to change. That should have been done years ago.

That brings us to the one aspect of the Bill that causes hon. Members of all parties some concern: the effect on women born between December 1953 and October 1954. I have written to the Secretary of State and the Chancellor, inquiring whether it would be possible to introduce some flexibility to tackle the specific problems of women in that age group. I received a letter from the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), which tackles the question in some detail. He said that

“implementation of the increase to 66 between December 2018 and April 2020 is the option that best balances sustainability with fairness in the face of demographic change.”

I recognise that Ministers have a difficult task in trying to balance often conflicting aspects of dealing with pensions. I wondered—the Minister has agreed to consider the matter—whether the same argument could be made even more convincingly for stretching the period from December 2018 to the autumn of 2020 so that the increased period of waiting for their pension for those women would effectively be reduced from 24 to 18 months. I am confident, given everything that has been said today, that Ministers will consider that during the Bill’s later stages. I await what happens on Report.

It is important that our constituents understand that today we are considering and debating the principles of the Bill. The detail will be examined in Committee and again in the Chamber. I believe that the principles for tackling critical issues such as savings, auto-enrolment, occupational pensions, judges’ pensions and changes in life expectancy should occupy our time here today.

I was genuinely disappointed by the contribution of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), who gave a speech that contained a series of stories, rumours and quotes from newspaper articles—admirable soundbites in the absence of any policy. One must conclude that the shadow Secretary of State has no more policy on pensions than he had money left in the Treasury coffers a year ago. Although he said that he was proud of Labour’s pensions record, and the right hon. Member for Croydon North (Malcolm Wicks) gave one or two examples, such as the creation of the PPF, which are to be commended, I wonder whether Labour Front Benchers’ pride extends to the 75p increase in the state pension that was offered to my constituents so very recently. It is difficult to be proud of policy, but if Government Members are to be allowed some pride, it is in restoring the earnings link to the basic state pension, added to the triple guarantee that ensures that the basic state pension will always rise by at least 2.5% every year. That is a huge contrast to 75p.

I therefore believe that the Bill has a lot in it to commend to Members on both sides of the House. This issue should be non-partisan and non-tribal. We all want a good, affordable, sustainable pension for our constituents. I shall therefore support the Bill, which will make a significant difference to the 7 million people of

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both sexes who are currently under-saving, resolve the scandal of judiciary pensions, and allow for sensible reflections on aspects for women born within a particular year.

7.10 pm

Julie Elliott (Sunderland Central) (Lab): This debate is incredibly important to Members on both sides of the House. Before I move on to what most concerns me about the Bill, which has been raised by most hon. Members today, I should like to comment on some of the things that my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Malcolm Wicks) mentioned. My constituency’s past is in heavy industry, and it still has a huge element of industry. Both men and women work very hard in difficult, not-wonderful conditions. Many simply do not reach pensionable age. It is important to bear that in mind in our discussions. Nobody can argue with the statistics on the rate of increase of life expectancy, but in some areas of the country, especially in pockets within those areas, life expectancy is increasing much more slowly. That needs to be borne in mind in our considerations.

In my office, there are folders containing letters from many of my constituents who feel strongly about changes to their state pension age. Many have felt compelled to write to their MP for the first time. I want to speak on behalf of those people, who are predominantly women. They have told me what they think of the Government’s plans, and I promised that I would represent their views to the Government. I shall take this opportunity to raise their objections on their behalf. Some have told me extraordinary things about their lives, the jobs they have done and how hard they have worked. It is my privilege to speak on their behalf. Likewise, I was pleased to take part in a debate on this issue in Westminster Hall recently.

What are my constituents so unhappy about? These women have worked hard their entire lives and done everything right. They have worked, saved and planned. Along the way, many have raised families, and many now have caring responsibilities for younger and older members of their families—I could add that, in that way, they are saving the taxpayer money. They have made their contribution to society. They paid their taxes and national insurance in the hope of a happy, relaxed, financially secure and worry-free retirement, yet the Government have moved the goalposts. My constituents feel angry and let down. Many are afraid and wonder how they will manage financially. Those who must continue to work are fearful of the long-term implications for their health.

Before I go any further, I should like to make something clear. My constituents do not disagree that the state pension age should increase. They recognise that average life expectancy in this country is increasing and they recognise the dangers that come with an ageing society, but the Turner commission recommended 15 years of preparation before implementation, as a swift alteration could cause financial hardship and unnecessary anxiety.

That is of great concern to my constituents, some of whom have already retired. Many who were seven or eight years from pensionable age calculated their savings, pension entitlements and income and retired so that

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they could take on caring responsibilities within their families. They simply cannot adjust their finances to cope with such sudden changes.

The issue that concerns them, and indeed me, is the sense of injustice, which has left them feeling betrayed. When they started work aged 15 or 16, they had an idea of what was expected of them and what they were signing up to—similar, perhaps, to signing a contract of employment—but that is being unjustly altered, retrospectively, leaving them with very little time to prepare. They thought they were contributing to one thing, but in fact they will get another. There is simply not enough time for them to plan and prepare financially for their retirement, which causes them a great deal of anxiety. Moving the goalposts at such short notice is not the correct way to go about this. My constituents feel penalised, despite, as I said earlier, doing everything right.

Retirement should be about choice. People should be able to assess the prevailing factors and decide when it is appropriate for them to retire. Some of my constituents affected by these changes have already made the decision to retire and are living off small private pensions. The Bill effectively removes that choice. Their carefully planned savings will not suffice for the two extra years they will be forced to wait before receiving their pension.

I worry about the wider implications of the plans. The Minister says that we need to encourage people to save for their pensions, but what message is the Government sending to the young women of today? Are they saying, “You may save and you may plan, but we’ll make the changes anyway”?

I said that I would speak on behalf of my constituents, and I shall now directly quote just a couple of the letters I have received in the past few weeks. One constituent wrote:

“I started work aged 16 with the expectation of receiving a full state pension at 60. 5 years was added. I am now outraged to find that this government has changed it again. Having paid full contributions I now find myself worse off compared to my colleagues and friends who are only a few years older”.

As a result of the arbitrary way in which the Government have decided their dates, I am sure that some of that woman’s better-off colleagues and friends are only a few months or days older than her.

Another constituent wrote:

“I am currently in full time employment and have had 2 knee replacements and am about to have surgery on my back. I am in constant pain and find full-time work very difficult. However I was looking forward to my retirement. I had hoped not to have to claim for any benefits before my retirement but I can no longer see this being possible. I feel very let down and wonder why I have pushed myself to work so hard all these years”.

Have the Government assessed the costs they will incur when people who physically cannot work extra years claim benefits? Has that been taken into account?

Finally, another constituent said:

“I find that the goal posts are being moved and if these proposals go through I shall have to work for a further 91 weeks and £9,295 will be taken from my State Pension. I have worked hard all my life from the age of 15 and I have also brought up a family. I am looking forward to my retirement as the toll of all these years of working is starting to show and feel. This Coalition government is letting thousands of women down.”

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Jonathan Evans: Hon. Members on both sides of the House will have received similar letters. The Labour party’s policy, as far as I understand it, is to begin the process in 2020. Therefore, those people would write similar letters—would they not?—if the policy adopted by the hon. Lady were pursued.

Julie Elliott: That is absolutely right. The Labour party set out a similar policy of raising the pension age, but we would have done it by 2020, which would have allowed a considerable time for people to plan and to take that into account. The problem with the Government’s proposal is not raising the pensionable age, but doing so in such a short period. That is radically different from anything the Labour party proposed.

The coalition agreement said that the state pension age would not rise sooner than 2016 for men and 2020 for women. The Bill breaks that coalition commitment. My constituents feel very angry and misled about that. Like many of the coalition’s ill-conceived policies, this is too much, too fast.

7.19 pm

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): I would like to open my remarks by reflecting on a tale of two 64-year-olds. My great-grandfather died in Salisbury in 1944. In the words of my grandmother, who is now 90, he was seen at the time as an old man. Next week, my father will turn 64. He will retire having done a manual job for 48 years, and with the expectation of perhaps living, as his father did, to 90 or 92. But we do not know, which goes to the heart of the problem faced by the Government: changing expectations of how long we will live and what to do about it versus the reality that decisions will have to be made with finite resources.

I think that the Government have made an excellent start with this Bill, which addresses three interlocking issues. The first is our ageing population. Only a few weeks ago a lady came to my constituency surgery, sat down in front of me and asked whether I could help her. I said I would do what I could. I really thought it would be about an issue of care for herself or her aged husband, but in fact she wanted to talk about her 99-year-old mother. We have a ticking time bomb that, over the past two generations, Governments of all colours and parties and at all times failed properly to grasp. We cannot go on like that.

Sheila Gilmore: Will the hon. Gentleman accept that it is a gross generalisation to say that this problem has been ignored? The Bill makes a relatively minor change compared with the major changes proposed in the Turner report and the last Pensions Bill. It is wrong to suggest that this has not been looked at.

John Glen: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I think I will address the thrust of her comments in a few minutes.

The second issue is our active ageing population. Notwithstanding the remarks of the right hon. Member for Croydon North (Malcolm Wicks), who pointed out the differences in life expectancy between regions and socio-economic backgrounds, many people expect to lead an active retirement, which is why I welcome the proposal to remove the default retirement age. That will be important in allowing people to do more and to continue working if they wish.

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The third problem that the Bill addresses is the lack of saving. It has been said that 7 million people are not saving enough for retirement. The problem is the general sentiment that things will be all right on the night—people expect to be able to sell a property or make some money to put in a pension pot. The Government are facing up to these tough issues, and have realised that that is not a realistic proposition.

I recognise that there is a gap between the long-term solution and the needs of those currently near the pensionable age, and many have acute concerns about what will happen—many Members have referred to the cohort of women who face a particularly tough time. All the indications are that the Government are prepared to acknowledge and address those concerns, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Pensions Minister will have an ingenious solution. However, I would like briefly to draw the House’s attention to a few specific issues.

Despite the welcome introduction of the triple lock, it is clear that pensioners feel a great sense of vulnerability. They know that they have a reasonable expectation of living many years, and are anxious that at a time of low interest rates and little investment income their basic state pension should grow. I therefore welcome the Government’s proposal. I recognise that it will cost a lot of money and will take time to work out, but its general thrust is the right one.

It has to be acknowledged that we have seen massive changes as a result of the increase in life expectancy over the past 50 or 60 years. Life expectancy at 65 has grown upwards of 10 to 15 years over the past two generations, and it would be helpful if the Government set out what we are aiming for. Notionally, we will have parity between genders over the next 10 years, but what are we aiming for? Are we saying that everyone should have a right to expect a fixed number of pensionable years? Are we seeking to address the statistical evidence on demographics and regional differences, or should we recognise, building on the comments of the right hon. Member for Croydon North about the level of complexity and a complexity deficit, that we will not be able to make the pensions system sufficiently complex to address every one of those factors?

We have to recognise that we need to do something, particularly about the 33,000 women who face this two-year delay, but it would help if we set out some broader principles. My generation—those under 40—will have to bear a much greater responsibility. I expect to work much longer, although I might have a different job from my father, who worked on the land. We need to send the message so that the next generation and those after know to put more into their pension pots and expect to retire later. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) has already mentioned the fact that 10 million people now living will live to 100. That is beyond the realistic expectations or assessments of most people today, but it will impose strains on public finances, health care costs and end-of-life care, which are the issues that we must address. We must not fail to consider my generation and those that come after because they do not seem to matter today.

I welcome the changes to auto-enrolment, but I ask the Government to avoid unnecessary and bureaucratic changes for small business people, especially those in the tourism or retail sectors, where staff turnover is high. Too often justice is not done in the detail to the

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headlines of Government. We need to ensure that small employers do not bear a disproportionate cost.

The free eye tests, free prescriptions, free bus passes, free television licences for the over-75s and the free winter fuel payments, along with the Government’s commitment to solidify the £25 payment in bad weather, are welcomed by many. Certainly, they are welcomed by the poorest members of my constituency—in Bemerton Heath and the Friary, for example—who rely on the payments year in, year out. I hesitate to say it, however, but is it really fair for those earning more than, say, £50,000 a year in retirement to have that extra money? There is usually a snigger, a gasp and a “Well, we don’t really need it.” However, in the assessment of true fairness, what value accrues to the public purse from expenditure on those people?

I welcome the Bill, which establishes the right direction, but there is still work to be done in certain areas, which I hope I have set out. No Government, past or present, will get everything right. I applaud the work of my hon. Friend the Pensions Minister and wish him well as he unravels these complex issues and develops a pensions system fit, in all respects, for the nation we live in and the number of years we can expect to live.

7.29 pm

Teresa Pearce (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab): Like many Members, I have been inundated with e-mails and letters from women who will be affected by the acceleration in the state pension age. I declare an interest, in that I was born between 1953 and 1955, and will have to wait longer for my pension.

Last month I held a 90-minute Westminster Hall debate in which I outlined my opposition to the Government’s plans. The arguments that I put forward then still hold. The Government’s proposals are unfair, because they target a group of women based on when they were born and give them too little time to plan. These are women who have done the right thing—they have paid their national insurance contributions and planned for their retirement—and they should not be penalised by a Government who are moving the goalposts at the last minute. The Government are threatening to undermine confidence in the pensions system and some of the more positive proposals in the Pensions Bill, such as auto-enrolment, that are designed to improve pension coverage. However, people may think, “If the goalposts are moved at the last minute, why bother? We may make our contributions now, but who’s to say that the money will be there at the end, when we expect it?” That is the opposite of the Government’s intentions for pension reform, but it is a distinct possibility.

When I held my Adjournment debate, not a single Conservative MP spoke. I am encouraged that we have had such thoughtful and wide-ranging contributions from all parts of the House on this important issue today. I also hope that the opposition expressed in this debate will cause Ministers to pause and rethink their plans. My early-day motion on the issue has gathered 177 signatures from all political parties, so there is widespread support in the House for a rethink.

I would like to touch on the Secretary of State’s comments in today’s media. He said that it would cost in the region of £10 billion to drop the accelerated timetable, and that he would therefore stick to his plans.

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The Bill’s regulatory impact assessment says that the proposal will save no money before 2016, by which time the Chancellor says that he will have balanced the books. I am therefore unsure what the Secretary of State means. Is this about deficit reduction, or is it about fairness and equality?

I would like to touch on some issues that have already been covered and put some further questions to the Minister. What assessment has his 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 provided child care when they retired, in order 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. That will have an important social policy impact. What assessment has the Department made of the proposal’s effect on volunteering and the Government’s big society agenda? People who have retired are not inactive; they volunteer at 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 will be less able to volunteer in those ways.

I am also deeply concerned about unemployment among the over-50s. It is not easy for the women affected by the proposal to get another job or increase their hours to fill the two-year gap if they find themselves out of work, especially at such short notice. I receive many 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. It is also becoming increasingly difficult to hang on to a job in later years. If women are expected to work longer, there needs to be work for them to do. That is particularly important given the current economic situation and the rise in unemployment. In looking for work, those women may well be competing against their own grandchildren in the labour market.

What projections and costings have the Government made for how many women affected by the proposal will have to claim employment-related benefits? Many women will not have enough savings to fall back on, particularly those who have been employed in low-paid work or who have taken time out to have children or act as carers. Will the Minister outline the measures that 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 or will not be eligible at all—this is my understanding—if they have a small occupational pension?

I was going to mention some of the class issues affecting people’s life expectancy, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Malcolm Wicks), who is no longer in his place, went into that in great detail, and much better than I could. I would therefore like to end by asking the Minister about auto-enrolment and NEST—the national employment savings trust—which I broadly support. The three-month waiting period will mean that 500,000 fewer people will be automatically enrolled in a pension scheme. It is my understanding that workers will be able to opt in during that three-month period and receive the employer contribution, but people

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will do so only if they know that they have that right. Will the Minister assure the House that the regulations will require employers to explain that to jobholders from day one of their employment?

It is disappointing that NEST will not be allowed to deal with small transfers in and out, and sweep up small pensions from casual employment. Many people are employed dozens of times over their lives, many doing short-term jobs in, say, call centres. The reality is that we have a much more transient labour market. Provisions for transitions in and out of NEST should be included in the Bill, even if they cannot be implemented immediately. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response on those two issues.

7.35 pm

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): It is a privilege to have the opportunity to contribute to such an important debate, and to follow some extremely thoughtful speeches from all parts of the House. Ensuring that Britain has a fair and financially sustainable pensions system must rank as one of the most important priorities on the coalition’s ever growing “to do” list. After all, not only does this Bill shed light on a pensions system that is currently broken and unsustainable; it also touches on key issues of individual responsibility, a new savings culture and easing the administrative burdens on small businesses. All those factors make this Bill a significant piece of legislation. However, it is impossible to reflect fairly on the initiatives in the Bill without taking note of the current state of our pensions system.

Unfortunately, Britain’s pensions system is dangerously creaking, with real doubts about its financial sustainability. The challenges that it faces are frankly enormous. Official projections of average life expectancy were once again revised upwards in 2009, indicating that men and women are expected to live an extra one and a half years longer than was thought at the time of the Pensions Act 2007. Although we must welcome increasing life expectancy rates, their impact on our pensions system cannot be ignored—a point already covered by a number of Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer), who did so very eloquently. The impact will be huge.

Meanwhile, it is a sad reality that too few people have been saving enough for their retirement in recent years. Indeed, according to the Office for National Statistics, fewer than 9 million people in Britain now participate in an occupational scheme, with around 7 million people not saving enough for their retirement. Combined with increasing life expectancy, our poor savings culture is a potent time bomb beneath the surface of our pensions system. In addition, the Pensions Commission recently described the UK pensions system as one of the most complex in the world. A 2009 survey by the Department for Work and Pensions highlighted the fact that 71% of people did not understand the workings of modern-day pensions. To my mind that is a worrying statistic.

With increasing life expectancy, a poor savings culture and a complicated system, our pensions systems is not fit for the 21st century. The status quo will no longer suffice. We cannot pass this ticking time bomb to the next generation. Change is absolutely necessary. This

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Bill paves the way for such timely reform. As in other policy areas, such as health, higher education and welfare, the Government are absolutely right to tackle pensions with a long-term focus on ensuring sustainability. As in other areas of Government, the coalition cannot be accused of currying favour ahead of the next general election. By tackling big, sensitive issues head-on, we will restore confidence and fairness in such vital areas. The Government are therefore right to commit to increasing the state pension age in the Bill. As I have said, we are experiencing significant increases in life expectancy.

I had hoped that that part of the Bill would be welcomed across the House—it was, after all, Labour which committed to increasing the state pension age in the Pensions Act 2007—but, sadly, that does not appear likely. In the light of new evidence about the rate of increasing life expectancy, I firmly believe that it is right to review the original time scales set by the previous Government and to speed up the process. I admit that that is not an easy decision to take, but it is vital that we grasp the nettle on this specific aspect of the Bill. If we are to pursue a policy to bring about long-term, sustainable change, we should do so courageously and without compromise to the Bill’s main principles.

I therefore urge the Government to resist calls from some to slow down their approach to increasing the state pension age, and I am pleased that the Secretary of State outlined his commitment in that regard earlier. Having said that, I acknowledge, as have many colleagues, that a sizeable group of individuals will now qualify for their state pension more than a year later than they would have qualified under the present arrangements, with more than 30,000 women qualifying more than two years later. Obviously, those affected will feel harshly treated, but it is encouraging to hear that the Secretary of State is willing to listen to the arguments put during the passage of the Bill. I very much welcome that; it is an important factor in the process. However, we must remember the previous Government’s regrettable mismanagement of Britain’s economy. Had we inherited a slightly more stable financial state of affairs, we might perhaps have been able to do more for those who now face a delay in their state pension entitlement.

The second part of the Bill deals with reforms relating to workplace pensions. I welcome the fact that the Government appear to be implementing the findings of “Making automatic enrolment work”, an independent review of automatic enrolment into workplace pensions. Independent reviews tend to be rather more balanced than those carried out by Whitehall Departments. I largely support the deregulatory nature of many of the workplace pension reforms. Reducing the cost of bureaucracy to small and medium-sized businesses should always be a cause for celebration. Indeed, I am led to believe that even the TUC supports this aspect of the Bill. Perhaps Labour Members can confirm that. Such support is wholly justified, as these reforms will ensure that, from 2012, millions of people will be saving for a pension for the first time. I have always believed in encouraging a new savings culture, and auto-enrolment is a really positive step in the right direction.

In summary, the challenges facing our pensions system can fairly be described as a ticking time bomb. The measures in the Bill alone will not be enough to turn the tide and reform pensions as widely as is necessary. Reforms of the state pension are currently being consulted

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on, and even at this stage I urge the Government to ensure a fair deal not just for future pensioners but for existing ones. Nevertheless, the Bill represents a good step forward in the attempt to tackle our out-of-date pensions system. The Government should again be congratulated on doing the right thing, even when it might not be the easiest of their duties. Good governance is about taking difficult decisions in the long-term interests of the country, which is what this coalition Government are doing. The Pensions Bill lays a solid foundation for a more sustainable and fairer pensions system, and I look forward to the Government building on it further in future.

7.44 pm

Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. Like many hon. Members on both sides of the House, I have been contacted by a huge number of constituents about the measures in the Bill. Indeed, I expect that the e-mails are continuing to flood in even as I speak.

The debate today has rightly focused on women’s pensions, but it is important that we also remember the wider context. The majority of people want to plan ahead for their retirement, and they are happy to make their contributions during their working lives in the knowledge that they will reap the benefit when they retire. I am pleased that today’s debate has not had more heat than light, and that we have heard thoughtful contributions. All too often, insulting comments are made to suggest that people who have a decent pension might be getting something for nothing, or getting more than they deserve. I am genuinely glad that we have not heard any of that today.

For many working people brought up to do the right thing, pensions are like deferred wages. They have carefully planned for their later years because they believe that it is right to avoid being a burden on the state or on their families. Unfortunately, however, it is those thrifty, careful planners who are being let down by this Government in the Bill. It is sad that the Government have broken their promise in the coalition agreement not to raise the women’s state pension age to 66 before 2020. As we heard at the beginning of the debate, the coalition agreement clearly stated that the state pension age would rise to 66 but that this would

“not be sooner than 2016 for men and 2020 for women.”

Ministers have performed dramatic U-turns on a whole range of issues, some of which have been welcome, but this one is most unwelcome. The legislation will now accelerate the equalisation for women to 2018, and then increase men’s and women’s state pension ages to 66 by 2020. Anyone reading the coalition agreement when it was published would not have expected that to happen.

Some 2.6 million women will be affected by the Government’s proposals. The state pension age for women born between 6 December 1953 and 5 October 1954 will increase by more than 18 months. I should say that I do not have an interest to declare in that regard; the increase will not affect me, but it will affect many women in my constituency. The Government’s own impact assessment estimates that the measure will affect about 330,000 women. In the most extreme cases, some 33,000 women born between 6 March and 5 April 1954

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will see an increase of two years. Those are the points that constituents are contacting me about, because they are worried about the impact that the Bill will have on them.

To put this in context, a woman born in April 1953, as one of my good friends in my constituency was, will be able to get her pension at the age of 62 years 11 months. However, another friend who was born just a year later, in April 1954, will have to wait until she is 66 before she can draw her pension. It is completely understandable that people feel that the measures are unfair. We have heard that comment time and again this afternoon. They are certainly not fair to the 1,200 women in my constituency aged around 56 and 57 who are set to lose the most from these changes, and who will have very little time to prepare or to amend existing plans. Many of them have worked in a series of jobs, raised families and perhaps worked part-time over the years. It is difficult enough for those women on low pay to plan for their retirement without this additional burden being placed on them. I think the most significant part of the issue before us is allowing people time to plan adequately for retirement.

Age UK has highlighted a number of concerns, not simply about the plans, but about the fact that people are not necessarily aware of them. It estimated that about 32% of the women it polled said that, following the Government’s proposals, they did not know when the state pension age would reach 65 for both women and men. Just one in 10 correctly said 2018. Almost half expected equalisation to happen before the planned date, while 9% thought it would be later than planned. As we can see, there is confusion.

In the last few months, despite the public outrage and a campaign supported by different charities and organisations, Members of all parties and affected individuals, it appears that, although Ministers might have begun to listen, they have certainly not come forward with any clear proposals on what they intend to do.

We all understand the simple truth that our society is ageing. The previous Labour Government recognised it and, as we have heard, established the independent Turner commission and built a consensus for change around a number of key areas: linking the basic state pension to earnings, raising the retirement age to 68 by 2046, starting the rise from 2024 and making private pensions opt out instead of opt in, with employers also making a contribution. After trying to build that kind of consensus, it is simply wrong to penalise women who have worked hard for their whole lives and now have no time to plan for their retirement.

As I have said, many women of this generation are already at a disadvantage when it comes to pensions. They have perhaps been denied access to private pension schemes and have had to take career breaks to bring up children. Raising the state pension age for women so rapidly could result in some women currently in their 50s having to work for two years more than they had previously thought. That might not seem a great deal if people are not at the stage of life when they are thinking about planning for retirement, but for people working in an arduous job with long hours or working very early in the morning, as many in the cleaning or hospitality sector have to do, or late at night, that means a lot. The women affected are being made to accommodate the

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changes within fewer than seven years and it will not be possible for them to make up the time and earnings that they would have wanted. They are at a significant disadvantage. We have also heard that the median pension saving for a 56-year-old woman is just £9,100—almost six times lower than that of a man, which stands at £52,800.

During our debate, we have also heard about the number of people eligible to be auto-enrolled in a pension scheme. I have concerns about that. I was a bit disappointed to hear some of the attacks on the shadow Secretary of State when he raised these issues. We all need to hear the Minister respond to the issues raised. I am concerned that limiting the coverage of the scheme could exclude women disproportionately. It has been estimated that 7 million people are not saving enough to ensure an adequate income for their retirement. We have heard genuine concern about that from Members of all parties. That is why there was cross-party consensus to introduce auto-enrolment.

Combined with a minimum employer contribution and the creation of a pension scheme that could be used by any employer, the principles behind the legislation could be expected to lead to a step change in the level of participation in pension saving. Concerns have been expressed today, however, that the Government are proceeding with the introduction of auto-enrolment in a way that will limit its scope, including raising the salary level at which someone is automatically enrolled from about £5,000 to about £7,500. The Government predict that up to 600,000 fewer people will be automatically enrolled in a pension scheme as a result—as I have said, disproportionately affecting women.

My concerns about that could be summed up briefly. I am worried that this will rise in line with the income tax threshold, and therefore looks set to increase to £10,000 over the next few years—excluding a considerable number of people who will be earning less. Compared to Labour’s original plans, it will exclude in the region of 1.5 million to 2 million people, of whom 1 million to 1.5 million would be women. I hope that the Minister will respond to these points later. Having a three-month waiting period before auto-enrolment could mean 500,000 fewer people automatically enrolling in a pension scheme, which does not improve the position on encouraging people to save for the longer term.

As other Members have made clear, there are also concerns about people who work in call centres, and perhaps others in the retail and the hospitality sector, as they might work a relatively low number of hours at various points in their careers. Some people might have two or three different jobs to hold down, each of which might be under the threshold, but not when they are viewed cumulatively.

Sheila Gilmore: Has it occurred to my hon. Friend that there seems to be a mismatch here in respect of this Department’s policies? Just last week and all through the Committee stage of the Welfare Reform Bill, we heard great things about the importance of mini-jobs and the people who undertake them. Such people sometimes have more than one mini-job. At the same time, however, that does not seem to have been read across into this Bill.

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Cathy Jamieson: My hon. Friend makes exactly the point that I was about to make. There does indeed seem to be a mismatch. I have to say that I am not a great fan of the term “mini-job”. Some people are getting up at 6 o’clock in the morning to work a shift as a cleaner, then have to take their kids to school and subsequently do perhaps four hours in a local retail establishment, after which they have to pick the kids up from school only to have to go out to another job in the evening. There is not much that is “mini” about that when all those jobs are put together. This is exactly the sort of issue that Ministers need to address if this Bill continues through its parliamentary stages.

I think the general public understand that as people live longer over the coming decades, the state pension age will need to rise to ensure that people who have longer retirements do not have them on much lower incomes leading to a lower quality of life.

I have heard many Members express concern this afternoon about the proposals in the Bill. We are being asked to vote on the Bill’s principles, but I have heard many Members express real reservations about them. I believe that if we are not happy with the principles, it is our duty to represent our constituents by voting against the Bill. My constituents—not just those directly affected, but many others who also have concerns—are asking me to vote against it. If the Secretary of State had given us a firm commitment today that something would change and problems would be addressed, my constituents would have understood if I went back and told them about those assurances. In all honesty, I have to say that when I heard the Secretary of State outline right at the beginning of the debate that the Bill will go ahead as drafted, that was not the assurance I was seeking. That is not what my constituents want, so I will vote against the Bill tonight.

7.58 pm

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson)—I hope I have pronounced that correctly—although I do not entirely agree with what she said.

I want to congratulate the Secretary of State and the Front-Bench team on this Bill. This is a time-bomb that has been waiting to go off for years. The Labour party looked at it, sniffed it and walked away because it stank. It does stink. It is going to require a huge effort by this Government, particularly from the Pensions Secretary, for whose diligence I have huge admiration.

It has been long apparent that something had to give. As has been mentioned many times in this debate, our longevity has increased nationally by an average of 10 years since the 1970s. Today’s pensioner numbers have doubled since the 1950s and the increase is accelerating. The Office for Budget Responsibility has estimated that pensions will cost a stunning £32 billion by 2015—up by a third from today’s figures in just four years.

The problem was not created by the coalition, and neither is it exclusively our responsibility. Having packed the public sector to the gunwales, the last Government were well aware of the oncoming crunch, and had legislated to raise the state pension age to 66. The old understanding that public sector employees could rely on secure jobs with more generous final salary pensions

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as compensation for low pay is outmoded now. The pay gap has not only narrowed but reversed.

Figures from Policy Exchange for the past year show that the average public sector worker is now paid 35% an hour more than the average private sector worker, and Office for National Statistics figures tell us that in the year before that, the average public sector worker earned £2,000 more per annum than his or her private sector equivalent. Today private sector workers are worse paid, have less security of tenure, and have more fragile pensions than their public sector equivalents, but under the current arrangements they are expected to subsidise the more generous final salary pensions in the bloated public sector. They are understandably embittered, as, paradoxically, are the public sector workers, many of whose jobs were created by the last Government. They now feel threatened.

But deal with the pensions time bomb we must. The private sector has absorbed many shocks. So that we can survive the economic downturn, pensions, along with salaries and bonuses, have been hit hard. Final salary pensions are fast becoming a distant memory, even in larger firms, and new employer rules on automatic pensions enrolment which are due to come into force next year are likely to have further detrimental effects.

The public sector, however, needs a culture change. The current arrangements are simply unsustainable and unaffordable. The bottom line is that we all need to pay more into our pensions for longer, which means that the age at which we retire will be higher: it will be 66 by April 2020. The last Government legislated for that, but their legislation will be accelerated by this Bill. We will also need to supplement what we already pay with increased contributions.

We are told by Treasury Ministers that if we make these changes now, there is a chance of a decent and relatively generous pension for all entitled public sector workers. We are also assured that 750,000 of the lowest-paid public sector workers will not be asked to pay more, and that the extra contributions of another 500,000 will be capped. I am relieved to hear that the pensions of those who risk their lives serving their country—members of the police, fire service and military—will be protected.

Raising the state pension age to 66 and upwards will take years to implement, even on the revised timetable, and I am anxious to ensure that some worthy recipients do not slip through the net. Like others who have spoken today, I have received many letters and e-mails from people who are very concerned about the proposals. Mainly they are from women. The equalisation of the pension age, causing theirs to rise from 60 to 65, and the subsequent acceleration causing it to rise to 66 by 2020, appear to have left some unintended victims by the wayside. I ask the Secretary of State and the Treasury to think again about those cases.

In particular, women in their late 50s who were told to prepare for retirement at 65 have now seen the goalposts moved again. Overall, 5.5 million women now aged between 51 and 57 are affected to a greater or lesser degree, and 330,000 of them— those given less than two years’ notice of the change—are particularly badly affected. There will not be enough time for the women caught up in the scheme to save enough to address their loss. Many are among the lower-paid, 40% have private pensions, and many part-timers were excluded from occupational pension schemes until the

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1990s. Moreover, members of that age group are more likely to be economically inactive owing to caring responsibilities. Perhaps an interim measure can be introduced to ensure that they are paid what they have worked for, and that the longer gap before they reach the state pension age does not cause unnecessary hardship. After all, those women worked through the years of genuinely lower pay in the expectation of a comfortable retirement, only to see it evaporate.

What matters most in this debate is to find a way to make our pensions fairer, more affordable and as generous as possible, while taking into account the changes in life span and the sheer numbers involved. I know that that is the intention, but now, for all our sakes and those of our constituents, we must make it a reality.

8.5 pm

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): Like other Members, I am encouraged by the agreement across the Chamber, particularly on issues related to fairness that mostly affect women. We agree, for instance, that we are all living longer and therefore need to extend our working lives. Contrary to what the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) said, the last Labour Government took that into account in the Pensions Act 2007, following the recommendations of the Turner commission.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Malcolm Wicks) made a relevant point about variations in life expectancy connected with socio-economic inequalities, and about the time for which people in a healthy condition can expect to live. I agree that more research should be done on that.

Harriett Baldwin: The hon. Lady mentioned the steps that the last Government took to deal with increasing longevity. Does she agree that the figures produced by the original Turner commission suggest that things are moving much faster than was anticipated even in 2004, and that since then longevity has increased by at least a year?

Debbie Abrahams: I think that the hon. Lady is referring to the average. It is important for us to consider not just the average, but how the figure is spread across different socio-economic groups. It does not explain or excuse the Government’s failure to protect the women who are being detrimentally affected by the acceleration of the equalisation of the pension age.

As many people have pointed out, this is about fairness. We must focus on what is right, and the Bill fails the fairness test. Many figures have been cited in relation to what the Bill means nationally. Half a million women will have to wait more than a year longer to receive their state pensions, 300,000 will have to wait an additional 18 months, and an unfortunate 33,000 will have to wait a further two years. Moreover, the Government will increase the state pension age for both men and women to 66 in 2018.

I asked the House of Commons Library to conduct an analysis of the impact in my constituency. I discovered that 4,300 women and 3,800 men would be affected, and that approximately 200 women would experience a notional loss of income from their state pensions of up to £10,700. I have been contacted by dozens of women

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in my constituency who have been working since the age of 14 or 15, including one called Linda Murray. She gave me permission to use her name. She was born in 1954, and left school at 16 to start work. She wrote:

“I have never had a job that provided a pension or had the means to provide one for myself. I have worked full-time apart from a few years when I worked part-time while helping to look after my mother who needed 24-hour care. For most of my working life I expected to receive my pension at the age of 60. However when the age started to rise I accepted this, as did everyone else. My retirement date was set at 64. I now work 47 hours a week in a dry cleaners and it is hard manual work. Due to my personal circumstances, full retirement is not an option for me, at least for a few years, but I was planning to greatly reduce my hours. I know that I won’t be able to continue working as I am now until I’m 66.”

Many Members have mentioned that that is hard to do because of the physical wearing out of the body.

Linda continues:

“But my take-home pay is £267 a week—how am I going to be able to save enough from this to be able to work part-time when I’m 64?...This proposal is ill thought-out and cruel. It’s unfair to move the goalposts for a second time. Women of my age have worked hard and honestly and don’t deserve to be discriminated against in this way. We accept the need to equalise the retirement ages but it should be done in a fair way. I feel that this Act will create an underclass of women unable to continue in their present employment, unable to find another job and denied the pension to which they are entitled. In an interview in The Daily Telegraph…David Cameron said that a sudden rise in women’s retirement age was out of the question.”

So that is another broken promise. There are hundreds of women with similar stories, and there is considerable cross-party agreement that we need to do something about this. I therefore hope that Ministers are listening.

Another fairness issue is the switch from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index. The Department for Work and Pensions impact assessment produced figures that again suggest that the burden will shift from the Government and employers to the individual. Some £500 million will be taken from the Pension Protection Fund.

My final point is about the increase in income thresholds for automatic enrolment into occupational pensions and the delay in that regard. The former Labour Government introduced that measure in the Pensions Act 2008, but the current Government are restricting access to it by both increasing the threshold from £5,000 to almost £7,500 and introducing a three-month waiting period. Again, women and people in low-income jobs will be particularly affected. Indeed, the impact assessment suggests that those who will be most detrimentally affected will be women, people on low incomes, ethnic minority groups and people with disabilities.

We must not allow our pension system to be reformed in a way that pushes pensioners deeper into poverty. Labour did a lot to reduce inequalities—although I would have liked us to have done a lot more—but these reforms will make them worse.

8.13 pm

Nick Boles (Grantham and Stamford) (Con): First, I should tell Members that I am absolutely not a pensions expert; I have never spoken on the subject before in my life. I have therefore found this debate particularly

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enlightening, and I want to single out the speech of the right hon. Member for Croydon North (Malcolm Wicks) as it was extraordinarily illuminating and provoking. I hope Ministers will look at the issue he raised for the long term—after this Bill has been passed and changes have been made—and address the disparity between people who start work in their teens and those of us who are lucky enough to start work in our early to mid-20s.

I want to focus not so much on the detail of pensions, but rather on the context in which the Government are taking this Bill and its measures through Parliament. It is important to address that context because it explains so many of the difficult, controversial and even painful decisions the Government are making. It also informs and defines the approach taken by Her Majesty’s Opposition, which can be summarised by the refrain we have heard so eloquently and passionately from so many Opposition Members’ mouths tonight: it just is not fair.

Let us first consider the context from the Government’s point of view. Our strategy is simple. It is based on our reluctantly coming to the understanding that everyone in this country will suffer more—will suffer most, indeed—if the Government do not quickly deal with our unsustainable public finances. I use the term “unsustainable public finances” rather than “deficit” because it is important to understand that this is not just about dealing with the current deficit; it is also about putting in place a long-term platform of sustainable public finances. It is not about what we need to do between now and 2015; rather, it is about what we need to put in place for our country for the next two, three and four decades. The insight that everything must serve this overall objective of putting our public finances on a sustainable footing—

Nicky Morgan (Loughborough) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Nick Boles: Yes, I am happy to give way to my hon. Friend—even in mid-sentence.

Nicky Morgan: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He might address my point later in his speech, but does he agree that this issue is about not just public sector finances but a pension system that all our constituents can understand? Pensions is a very complex subject, as the Secretary of State said in opening, and many people do not understand the current system. Constituents who are in great need approach us when they finally receive their pension calculations and realise they might not have enough for the retirement they had planned.

Nick Boles: I entirely agree. Indeed, clarity, simplicity and dependability are what we seek to achieve in all areas of public policy, and when we do not have that we end up with the public finances we inherited from the last Government.

We should not be shy about admitting that the state of the public finances is leading us to make a whole series of decisions that unquestionably have rough edges. Nobody on the Government Benches wants to withdraw child benefit from people paying the higher rate of income tax. Nobody on the Government Benches wants to withdraw education maintenance allowance from people hoping to stay on in education after the age of

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16. Nobody on the Government Benches wants to charge students of the future the full cost—up to £9,000 per annum—of studying at university. Nobody on the Government Benches wants to put up VAT, which is paid by everybody in this country regardless of their income. We do not want to do any of those things, and not a single one of those decisions has no rough edges, not a single one of those decisions has no victims and not a single one of those decisions treats everybody in the country equally.

We have never claimed that these decisions have no rough edges—that they do not have victims, and that they treat everyone equally—but we have claimed, and do claim, that each of the decisions is an essential part of the overall objective of putting our public finances on a sustainable basis. If these decisions are not made and implemented in full, all the people affected by them—the very same young people who will not be getting EMA, the very same students who will be paying tuition fees, the very same pensioners who will be receiving their pensions a bit later—will suffer far more.

The Opposition’s stance is very revealing. They could have decided to restrict their opposition over the past year and during the rest of this Parliament to those matters on which they have a profound ideological dispute with the Government. They could have decided to oppose the benefits cap, whereby in future nobody will get more than average income from benefits and which will make it clear to people that the only way to earn more than the average is to work for a living. They could have decided to oppose the universal credit, which demonstrates our view that we have to remove excessive means-testing from the benefits system in order to make work pay. They could have decided to oppose immigration controls, which illustrate our view that we need to restrict the entry of people into this country, so that it is British people who can go out and get the jobs that our recovery creates.

The Opposition could have decided to focus on and restrict their opposition to those matters, about which they have genuine ideological differences of opinion with us that I entirely respect. However, instead, they are choosing to oppose all the measures we are introducing—even those that are driven not by an ideological programme or by an attempt to reshape the way this country operates, but by a wish to rescue this country from a road to ruin.

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): May I declare an interest as a trustee of the Conservative agents’ pension fund, and my other registered interests? Does my hon. Friend agree that Labour Members are opposing this because they are deeply embarrassed that they failed to increase the retirement age when they were in government? A much preferable approach is that followed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), who gave very long notice of these programmes and really did fix the roof when the sun was shining.

Nick Boles: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and he is absolutely right: the contrast is stark and is not flattering to the Opposition. Indeed, I would go so far as to claim that the curious thing about the Labour Government is that they demonstrated the quality we would normally associate with Oppositions: total

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opportunism—the total failure to grapple with any difficult long-term issues, and instead doing just the easy things that win votes at the next election.

Debbie Abrahams: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the Pensions Acts 2007 and 2008.

Nick Boles: I thank the hon. Lady—and remind her that her Government had been in power for 10 and a half years by the time they introduced those Acts, even though it was clear long before they took office that such problems existed. However, I do not want to be too ungracious and I do accept that some things were done—but not enough and too late.

So why are the Opposition taking this approach of opposing everything under the general charge that it just is not fair? Is it really fair to tell people that a budget deficit on the scale that we face can be dealt with without pain; without some people being asked to sacrifice things that are important to them; and without everyone in the country experiencing a real material loss? Is it fair to tell young people that, actually, there is no reason to pull back on EMA; that there is no reason to restrict their income when they stay on in education; that there is no reason to change the basis of funding for universities?

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): You have gone on a lot about ideological things, but is it ideologically bonkers to fight for a fair deal for women who have made the sacrifices that you are talking about? They have sacrificed for their country, for their families—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. Unfortunately, I am not responsible, so it is not “you”. I am sure the hon. Gentleman did not mean that.

Alex Cunningham: I beg your pardon, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it “ideological” for us to stick up for women who have had a raw deal through life looking after their families and doing a low-paid job, but who now find out they have to work even longer for a pittance of a pension?

Nick Boles: I thank the hon. Gentleman, but I fear he misunderstands me: I am not accusing him and his colleagues of being ideological, and that, in a sense, is my point. Actually, the Opposition are perpetrating a grand deceit on the British people, which is that there is anything fair about protecting all these things that we can no longer afford; that there is anything fair about arguing to the British people that we—

Dr Whiteford: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Nick Boles: No, I will not give way for the moment; I am in the middle of replying to the previous intervention. The Opposition are perpetrating the grand deceit that there is anything fair about pretending to the British people that this country is not poorer than it was; that it is not permanently poorer than we thought we would be in each of the next 20 years.

The point about what happened in the past three years is that the economy suffered a permanent drop. We can grow again from that drop—we can again achieve higher living standards—but we will never have back the growth that we lost in the past 10 years, and it is not fair to anyone to argue that this or any Government

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can proceed as if no sacrifices need to be made, no losses need to be felt and there can be an entirely victimless process of recovering from the terrible economic situation that the Government of the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) helped to create.

Sheila Gilmore: Is the hon. Gentleman not perpetrating the debating technique of erecting a straw man in order to knock him down? Perhaps he would like to consider the terms of the Bill that we are discussing.

Nick Boles: I thank the hon. Lady, but I fear that this man is a lot more substantial than just straw—even if the Leader of the Opposition sometimes appears to be exactly the straw man she refers to. The entire membership of the Labour party is signed up to the deceitful argument that we can correct this budget deficit, restore sustainability to our public finances and rescue this country from decline without taking painful decisions that cause people loss. That very same argument has been made in every single one of these debates—in the debates about education maintenance allowance, about tuition fees and about all the other benefit changes. We are hearing that argument here again tonight. This is not really an argument about pensions, but one about the future of this country, and the argument used by the Opposition is always exactly the same.

Dr Whiteford: The hon. Gentleman has been using a lot of rhetorical questions in this debate. For me, the key question, if we accept the premise of his argument, is: why should women born in 1953 and 1954 take a disproportionate amount of the pain and take all that pressure for everyone else?

Nick Boles: The hon. Lady is eloquent, as so many people have been, on behalf of a particular group, and I would accept and understand that were they not equally eloquent on behalf of every single other group that is being affected by the process of getting our public finances on to a stable footing. I would have some respect if an Opposition Member said to me, “I voted for EMA, I voted for tuition fees and I am voting for the benefits cap, but this one I cannot bear because it is egregious, outrageous and singles out this group in a way that no other group is being treated.” But we do not hear that. All we hear is the same cry—“It isn’t fair”—applied every day, every week, to a different group of people. Opposition Members need to understand that it is not fair to pretend to people that we can do this without pain or loss. It is not fair to perpetrate on the British people the deceit that we can somehow grow our way out of this deficit without cutting off some things that everybody appreciates.

Mr Watts: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. No one is saying that. People are saying that the reductions in public expenditure can be done slower to cause less pain. No one denies that the deficit has to be dealt with; the issue is how we go about doing that. It is about the difference between tax increases and cuts in public expenditure. Perhaps he will address those issues.

Nick Boles: The hon. Gentleman would have more credibility if we had heard, at any point in the past 13 months, a single specific proposal for a painful cut

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with unpopular consequences for a defined group of constituents who would write to all of us, but we have heard none, although we might be about to hear from the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), who gesticulates at me.

Rachel Reeves: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was here for the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), in which my right hon. Friend set out Labour’s proposals to increase the state pension age at a faster rate than in the previous Parliament while still giving people 10 years’ notice. Our proposal would mean that no one would have to wait for more than a year and would not disproportionately affect women of 56 or 57. So although the hon. Gentleman is making a very nice speech, it is not based on facts.

Nick Boles: The hon. Lady’s intervention betrays exactly what got her Government—or the Government whom she supported, because she was not in Parliament when they were in government—into such trouble. The only nettles that Labour is willing to grasp are those that will grow in 10 years’ time. There are no nettles now being grasped and there are no decisions that Labour, were they in government, might have to explain to the British people—there are only bills being deferred for later generations. I am afraid that the hon. Lady has revealed the shallowness and hollowness of Labour’s position by bringing forward one cut—one deprivation—that would come in only 10, 20 or 30 years’ hence, when all of us will be pushing up daisies or collecting a somewhat deferred pension.

Let me round up by saying that I hope that people, including even some of the women who will be affected so directly by some of the proposals in the Bill, will have respect for hon. Members on the Government Benches because when we reply to letters from constituents complaining about the unfairness of any of the Government’s individual proposals we are not going to take out the flannel and the soft soap—the first implements that Opposition Members reach for—but are going to explain the situation that the country faces. We are going to explain that, as before in our history, sacrifices are going to have to be made and everybody is going to suffer. Everybody will suffer some loss, but in doing so we will create a country and a public finance platform from which this country can grow again, from which we can make investments again and from which we can help those who need our help most. It is only with that honesty and that ability to admit the difficulty of our circumstances that we will earn the respect of the British people.

8.32 pm

Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): I would like to say that it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), but that might be pushing it somewhat. He made a characteristically rumbustious and entertaining contribution and I would like to respond directly to some of the issues he raised. He spoke about rough edges, but the view that we have heard from Opposition Members and even from some Members on the Government Benches is not of rough edges but of rough justice for women aged 56 and 57. He spoke about the road to ruin, but we

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see other countries engaged on a different path, as President Obama said when he spoke to us in Westminster Hall. Those countries are engaged in growing their economies more. The hon. Gentleman spoke about fairness, but may I say to him that fairness and restoring trust in politics are not about making a commitment in a coalition agreement 13 months ago and cynically breaking it in the way that this Bill will if it receives a Second Reading tonight.

Reform of the pensions system is best conducted with the agreement of as many shades of political and other opinion as possible. It is far too important for short-termism, and the principles and as much of the detail as possible should be above partisan politics. That is why there are some aspects of the Bill that Opposition Members could support, but the glaring unfairness at the heart of the Bill in its treatment of half a million women in the acceleration and equalisation of the state pension age in 2018 means that I will be opposing it tonight.

Rising life expectancy and other demographic changes mean that there is agreement across the House that the state pension age should change to reflect the longer period of retirement that people in younger age groups are likely to enjoy. There are currently 10.5 million people aged 65 and over, compared with just 5.5 million in the same age group in 1951. It was the previous Government who established the Turner commission to examine in detail on a non-partisan basis the necessary changes in the state pension age in a way that was fair to future taxpayers, just for people approaching retirement, and long term in its scope, to allow people to save for their retirement in the full knowledge and with sufficient notice of changes in the state pension age.

The Bill, particularly in part 1, breaks those three basic principles by adjusting the settlement in a way that hurts 500,000 women across the country who were born between December 1953 and October 1954, including 900 in my constituency. It fails in the aim of delivering an improved basic state pension. It also breaches the terms of the coalition agreement, which ruled out any equalisation of the state pension for women before 2020.

Nicky Morgan: On that point—I speak as a former lawyer—my understanding of the explanation given earlier this afternoon was that there was a legal reason that the coalition agreement could not be fulfilled as it was drafted. Is the hon. Gentleman honestly saying that his Government would have proceeded with something that is deemed to be illegal, however desirable?

Mr Bain: I am grateful for that intervention. The way to get round all the problems, legal or otherwise, is to follow the excellent suggestion that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) has already made in the debate and will restate in her winding-up speech: prevent this unfair change from going ahead and instead look at some of the accelerations in pension age that can be made, particularly in respect of people retiring at 66 or 67, which can also save money for the Exchequer.

The Minister and the Secretary of State did not spell out to the House what the legal problems were. Some Members have speculated that they relate to matters of European law. I hope that when the Pensions Minister

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winds up the debate, he can outline the legal issues. They certainly were not outlined to the country when the coalition agreement was signed, or during the press conference—the love-in—in the rose garden thereafter.

The Bill also fails the test of fairness, because it places too great a burden for savings on one group of the population when the Government should be looking elsewhere, such as at equalising state pension eligibility at 67. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) pointed out, even before these deeply unjust proposals were announced by the Government, women had been disadvantaged in pension provision for some time. As she said, median pension saving of a 56-year-old woman is just £9,100, almost six times lower than that of a man which, on average, is £52,800. Research by Prudential establishes that the average woman retiring this year can expect an annual income in retirement of £12,900 per annum, compared with an expected income of £19,400 for the average retiring male. Further, the same study found that 28% of women planning to retire this year have no savings in private or company pension schemes, compared with just 10% of men.

The previous Government’s strategy of seeking to link the basic state pension to earnings and making private pensions opt out instead of opt in sought to redress the balance and would have been implemented if we were in government. More safeguards should have been established through the Bill, rather than entrenching inequity, as it appears to do. Following the Bill, women affected will have less than seven years to react to the changes, and may be less likely to be in a pension scheme at all, with less disposable income to supplement savings for retirement, and with greater care responsibilities. Women are also much more likely to wind down in later years of employment, be that to care for elderly relatives or for young grandchildren. Furthermore, it will be more difficult for women to move from part-time to full-time work, or indeed back into employment of any form, given current economic conditions. The Office for Budget Responsibility’s projection of 310,000 public sector job losses in the coming years will disproportionately impact women, who make up 65% of that work force.

The Prime Minister said on Radio 2 today that retirement should be

“a process rather than a cliff edge”

and that

“many people, when they get to retirement, would like to go on doing some work or part-time work”.

The reality is that the cliff edge imposed by the Bill is an unfair burden on 56 and 57-year-old women who have done the right thing and saved for retirement but are now being grievously abandoned by the Government.

Recent decades have seen a change in employment patterns among women. The dated notion that a woman’s role is to stay at home and look after the children has been well and truly dispelled, but for women in their late 50s who are due to be affected by the proposals, such changes in social attitudes may not have been reflected in the earlier parts of their working lives. The Government’s reckless haste in changing the state pension age for those women makes adapting to that change even more difficult.

As Carers UK indicated last month, these changes will have a disproportionate impact on other social groups. About 58% of carers—3.4 million people—are

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women, as are one in five carers aged between 54 and 60. Of the estimated 662,000 carers who combine part-time work with caring, 89% are female. For carers, there is little opportunity to make contributions to a private pension plan or savings, even if they are in part-time employment. For women who are carers, provisions in the Bill collude to put them at even greater disadvantage.

In responding to the comprehensive spending review last October, Joanne Segars, chief executive of the National Association of Pension Funds, noted that any changes must include an improved and secure basic state pension. Savings from the Bill’s proposals on the state pension age will not even exceed £l billion until 2018-19, which is well outwith the range of the Government’s fiscal consolidation plan. The Bill does not spell out how they plan to increase the basic state pension for all. Again, there is little in the way of incentive and assistance for people who will now have to work longer. As the Equality and Human Rights Commission notes:

“Rather than focusing on increasing men’s State Pension Age and perpetuating the gap between men and women, Government should focus on how to help women and men extend their working lives, if they wish to do so, and thus reduce the disadvantage that women face in the workplace by shortened working lives.”

Women will also be penalised by the design of the Bill’s provisions on auto-enrolment in pension schemes, which will reduce the number of people enrolled by almost 600,000.

This is a Bill of broken promises from a deeply dysfunctional Government. It changes the terms of the social contract between women, low-paid workers and the state, with insufficient notice and scant regard to the effects on rising inequality. They are unjust proposals that bear the imprint of the Chancellor, despite having nothing to contribute to his deficit reduction plan during this Parliament. They put the burden of further departmental savings on the shoulders of too few people, and those people have worked and saved for the pension contributions they have accrued. That is why the Bill deserves to be opposed in the Lobby tonight.

8.43 pm

Mike Crockart (Edinburgh West) (LD): I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which details my paid employment in the pensions industry prior to my election last year.

I must admit to being a little confused by today’s debate. As a new Member, I had been under the impression that Second Reading was an opportunity for debate on the general principles of a Bill. I am also somewhat confused by the Labour party’s position. On the basis that some of the detail in the Bill is not yet right, it is prepared to throw the entire subject out and delay the reform that is necessary to move this country to a sustainable pensions system. It is worth spending some time looking at those general principles.

As has been noted, the present state pension age of 65 for men was set by the Widows’, Orphans’ and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act 1925, which was passed 86 years ago. That brought the pension age down from 70, which had been set in the excellent Old Age Pensions Act 1908. At that point, barely 40% of men lived long enough to claim it. The women’s pension age of 60 was

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set 71 years ago by the Old Age and Widows’ Pensions Act 1940, so change has not exactly been rushed into. As the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) said earlier, this country’s demographics have meant that for decades we have faced a ticking pensions time bomb, but we have unfortunately been very slow to deal with it. We may well have started to do so in the past 10 years, but countries such as Sweden grasped the problem 20 years ago and introduced auto-enrolment back then.

Life expectancy is far from static, having gone up for those aged 65 by five years between 1920 and 1990 and, crucially, by a further five years between 1990 and now. Men can now expect to live until 77 and a half years old and women for four years longer than that, but not only are we paying state pensions longer; we can expect to pay them to far more people. As the baby-boomer generation of 1946-47 reaches retirement in 2012, 800,000 people will celebrate their 65th birthday—150,000 more than did so this year. It is now abundantly clear that our current state pensions system and its funding are entirely unsuitable and unsustainable. That is why I welcome the general thrust of this Bill and, indeed, much of its detail, but as we go forward it is clear that we have to sort out four elements to ensure a sustainable system.

First, we must be certain of what the state will provide. I welcome the current consultation, looking at the possibility of a single-tier universal pension, because, although it is not in the Bill, it is clearly part of the solution to the puzzle. With certainty about what they can expect from the Government, people will be able to decide whether the basic provision on offer is sufficient, although it is more likely to make it easier for them to decide to top up what is on offer.

Secondly, we must establish a level of state pension provision that is sustainable in the longer term and is regularly reviewed to ensure that it matches life expectancy. We simply cannot afford to find ourselves in this position again, having ignored the warning signs that our state pension offering has become unaffordable.

The current acceleration timetable for the state pension age will unfortunately, I fear, almost certainly fail to deal with the funding gap that I have outlined, but that does not mean that I support the Government’s current proposals, as it is quite clear that they will badly affect many women. It is simply wrong that those women, who are fast approaching their expected retirement age, will now be given as little as six years’ notice in order to plan how to cope with a delayed state pension. Some are already unemployed, caring for older relatives or working substantially reduced hours due to ill health.

The proposal hits especially hard those women who had already been told that their planned retirement would be delayed by four years. They are now being hit with a second delay. It will cause many to suffer unexpected financial pressures with insufficient notice, and it seems inequitable given the different outcomes for them and women of similar ages. An age difference of days could result in a pension two years later.

Unlike the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson), however, I believe that there are signs that the Government may be prepared to move on the issue, and I urge them strongly to do so. The current acceleration timetable will not deliver sufficient progress, but, as Members have already said, a fairer way might be to accelerate the progression of the pension age to

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67 and/or 68 years old and, by doing so, at least to give people 10 or more years in which to plan how they deal with it. That idea could find a great deal of support, given that Saga and Age UK have already proposed it, but I suspect that my support may well ensure that I am not a member of the Public Bill Committee.

On the third part of the pensions puzzle, we must make it as simple as possible for people to contribute to their own pensions provision and to take ownership of funding their own retirement. As we have heard, 7 million of us are not saving enough for our own retirement and 44% of working-age employees are not contributing at all towards a private pension.

That brings me to the fourth element of the solution—employers’ contributions. It is clear that to fill a funding gap of the size we are facing, we must strike a balance of responsibility between the state, the individual and employers. Mandatory auto-enrolment, as confirmed in the Bill, exemplifies that balance. The changes in the Bill will, I hope, do exactly what they aim to do in making automatic enrolment work, in the words of the title of the independent review. I hope that the provisions to raise the earnings threshold for auto-enrolment, to introduce the optional waiting period and to simplify the system of self-certification will increase employee and employer buy-in of the system.

Although raising the earnings threshold would certainly ease the financial difficulties of the lowest paid, it would effectively lock out of auto-enrolment those most in need of extra pension provision. Will the Minister reconsider that to see whether auto-enrolment could continue, merely delaying employment contributions until an earnings threshold is reached? Many examples of such graduated schemes already exist in the private sector. It is well known that even £1 invested earlier on for 40 years is likely to yield far greater returns than any amount invested 10 years later, once income has risen sufficiently to cross that threshold.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) that the proposals in the Bill are insufficient to deal with this immense problem. The auto-enrolment contribution level of 8% that is floated in the Bill is a start, especially from the low—indeed, at times non-existent—base that we have at present, but in many other countries the level is double that; in Sweden, for example, it stands at 18.5%. The proposed level is a good start, but only that.

More than five years ago, the Pensions Commission stated that

“there is…general acceptance that future policy needs to be based both on significant reforms to the state system and on a new approach to private pension saving which goes beyond a wholly voluntary approach.”

Having expressed my one concern about the Bill, I believe that it finally makes radical steps towards advancing that consensus, and I hope that the whole House will unite in supporting it.

8.52 pm

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): I am very keen to speak about this issue because it has resulted in my heaviest postbag for some time, with most of the correspondence coming from women. Some time ago, I was declared an honorary woman, which I took as a great compliment. I was in a discussion with half a

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dozen women who were talking about things of a feminine nature. One woman looked at another and said, “There’s a man here”, only to be told, “No, it’s okay—Alex is an honorary woman.”

I am very pleased that I am not a woman, because at my age I would be one of those losing out under the formula that the Government have put together. Only this afternoon, I received a phone call from one of my constituents, Fiona, who is a 56-year-old nurse. I wish that the Minister could have heard her voice and learned a little about the anguish and despair that was in it. She told me that she started work at the age of 17 and has worked in the health service for several decades, and that she now feels that the Government are slapping her in the face. She said that she had been aware for some time that her pension age would be going up from 60 to 65, and that she understood that and did not mind—she even thought it was fair—but that raising the age even further to 66 was going too far, too fast, and with very limited warning. In her own words—we have heard this cliché all day—“They keep moving the goalposts.”

Fiona pointed out that older nurses and other health professionals, particularly those in their sixties, would struggle to lift and assist the most frail and elderly patients. Similar issues exist for manual workers, many of them women, who simply cannot do the job that they were originally employed to do. Surely we should value people such as Fiona, not force them to replan their future with such limited notice. It was on behalf of Fiona and many other women in my constituency that I wanted to speak.

It is great that most people are living longer—of course, many others are not—but it brings challenges. It is important that as politicians we confront the difficult issues raised by the ageing population, not just for pensions, but in health care, the quality of life we provide for older people and how society treats the retired population. Those are all important issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Malcolm Wicks) outlined inequality in a different way today, with regard to manual workers who will be lucky to reach retirement age and even luckier if they get to 70, let alone the grand old age of 100 that some Government Members think they and their relatives will reach. Those manual workers are the people who have created wealth in our country, and yet they have never had the advantages of that wealth and they get very limited benefit from their pensions.

Mr Watts: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is also unfair that many of the women we are talking about started work at the age of 15 and so will have worked for 10 years longer than many other people by the time they retire?

Alex Cunningham: Indeed, that is the case. Some of the women in these difficult jobs may not have their health in later years, so they will lose in all ways.

All too often, the elderly are ignored and not treated with the respect that they deserve. The Government should play a big role in ensuring that society takes care of people when they have retired and are not as independent as they once were. Family, friends and community all play a big role, but the Government can and should lead by example. Pensions, among other things, are a big part of that.

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I am proud of Labour’s record in this field. We lifted a million pensioners out of poverty, and free bus passes, free TV licences and the winter fuel allowance all play their part in helping pensioners. In common with other hon. Members, I want to home in on two things.

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend’s fluent and fluid flow. Does he agree that it is insane, barking and bonkers to the ultimate degree to expect someone who has worked in a hard, physical job for most of their life to have the same longevity as someone who has luxuriated in the soporific circumstances of a stockbrokers’ office? What will happen is that people will be signed off sick. It will cost the Government more money and treat women appallingly in the process. Does he agree?

Alex Cunningham: Could I disagree? I most certainly could not. People in my constituency used to build ships and it has one of the biggest chemical industries in the country. It has people who have worked in difficult circumstances in hard jobs. My hon. Friend is correct that such people cannot expect a longer life, so I think we should make it a little easier for them.

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech and it is great to listen to him. Does he agree that the issue is not just health and longevity, but that even people who are in very good health and will live longer simply cannot rearrange their economic affairs in the time that they have—six years’ notice of two additional years in the case of some of our constituents—to cover the loss of pensionable income that they will sustain when this Bill goes through?

Alex Cunningham: That is very much the case. I suppose that there will be an additional few years of misery for some people because they will not have the income to enjoy the things that they see other people enjoying. It is therefore even more important that we raise these issues today.

It is the significant effect on women that worries me. The Bill makes it more likely that those on low incomes will not pay into a pension. Many women have contacted me, incensed that they are losing out thanks to the Government’s changes. It is completely unfair. The Government Members who have talked about fairness need to think about women a little more. A total of 177 MPs signed early-day motion 1402 on the state pension age for women. It is time that the Government backed down on this issue. All afternoon and evening, Government Members have teased us by saying that the Government will change their mind. When the Secretary of State was here, he was shaking his head, but I have seen no such indication from the Minister as the teasing has continued.

Age UK’s report “Not Enough Time” makes it clear that women are unhappy with the plans, and it is worth repeating some of the statistics that it gives. The 330,000 women born in Britain between December 1953 and October 1954 will have to wait 18 months or two years for their state pension, and 33,000 will see their state pension age increase by two years at a loss of £10,000.

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I suppose I should declare an interest, because just as I would be caught out if I were a woman, my wife Evaline is one of the women affected. Like others, she has fewer than seven years to plan for the changes. People need sufficient time to plan for the increase in the state pension age, and the changes are happening too fast and causing a lot of worry and anger. It will be the poorest women who suffer the most as a result, those who do not have savings to fall back on and are in low-paid jobs.

Raising the state pension age is necessary, however, to reflect the fact that some people are living longer. We all recognise that, and we need cross-party consensus on it, but we simply cannot afford this unfair treatment of women. It is always worth repeating that the coalition agreement promised that the women’s state pension age would not be raised to 66 before 2020. I do not care about the legal arguments and so on—if the Government are going to do that, they need to explain why. The Bill proposes equalisation of the age by 2018, and then increases to 66 for both men and women by 2020. Moving the goalposts—that cliché again—so late in the day has implications for public trust in the pensions system at a time when it is vital that we encourage more people to save for their retirement.

It is estimated that 7 million people are not saving enough for their retirement, but the Bill would raise the salary level at which someone is automatically enrolled in a pension scheme from about £5,000 to £7,500. That means that 600,000 fewer people will be automatically enrolled in a pension scheme, and again, women will be disproportionately affected. What long-term provision is there in the Bill for that group?

As I said at the start of my speech, I am glad that we are debating these issues today, but I believe that the Government have got the key elements of the Bill wrong. I cannot endorse the way in which a small but significant group of women, including my wife, are being hit by the accelerated pension age rise, nor can I support the changes to auto-enrolment given the problems that I have described. That is why I, too, will vote against the Bill today.

9.2 pm

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): We often hear in pensions debates about the UK having very poor pension provision, but I suggest that one reason for that is that there has been a lack of consensus and consistency over the years. We have heard a great deal about the failure to tackle problems, but I would like to take Members back to the state earnings-related pension scheme, introduced by Barbara Castle in 1978. It meant that everyone who was paying national insurance contributions and was not already in an occupational pension scheme would be in a compulsory earnings-related scheme. The pension reached maturity in 20 years, so it was particularly attractive to women and to anyone with an interrupted career pattern. The problem was known about as long ago as then, so people who think that they have discovered it recently are wrong.

By the late 1990s there should have been many more people benefiting from that pension provision. To my mind it was one of the best things done by the Callaghan Government. They have been much maligned, but not only did they introduce that pension provision, but

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income inequality was at its lowest in the whole post-war period during their years. Government Members who say that they are keen to reduce income inequalities might do well to take a history lesson from that Government.

What happened to SERPS? It was torn up by the Thatcher Government in the name of giving people choice. I appreciate that it is argued that SERPS would have proved increasingly expensive and that we would have had to amend it, but how much better to be in a position to amend something than to have to start again from scratch. That is what happened at the end of the previous Conservative Government’s time in office.

When the Thatcher Government decided to tear up SERPS, the possibility of its proving too expensive was not given as a reason. They advanced the ideological reason of giving people the choice to opt out of state provision and take up some form of personal pension. Anyone who took up one of those personal pensions knows that the level of provision was extremely poor. We have heard a great deal about the mis-selling of pensions, but even if they were not mis-sold, the quality of those personal pensions was not good. I speak as someone who knows, not because I chose to opt out but because, as a partner in a legal firm, I was treated as self-employed and therefore could no longer be part of SERPS—I wish I could have been. Consequently, I took out a couple of personal pensions, and I can tell hon. Members that the provision is poor—almost to the point where I might as well have put the money under the bed. Certainly, I might as well have put it into a savings account.

Giving people that freedom of choice had other disadvantages. I well remember that my secretary at the time the change was made was of an age when she could opt out, and she did. I know that she did not opt into a personal pension scheme. Her rationale was, “I don’t have a very high income. I’ve got two children in the early teenage years, who are becoming increasingly expensive. Extra money in my pocket now is valuable to me.” I can understand her making that choice, but I am sure that, 20 years on, she now regrets it. I am therefore extremely supportive of enabling people to be included in pension schemes. It may be directive, bossy and even what the previous Conservative Government called the nanny state, but it ensures that people make provision for their retirement.

I am particularly disappointed that the Government have decided to change the income level at which auto-enrolment comes into force. They have increased it from the amount that was agreed through consensus to the level at which people begin to pay income tax. Ministers seemed to say during the debate that it is not inevitable that the level will continue to rise in line with whatever happens to income tax and income tax allowances. However, if that is the case, why tie it to income tax in the first place? It creates a suspicion that that will continue to happen. If that is not the case, we need to be clear about it.

We have heard a great deal in the debate about the long term. I started by talking about consensus and what went wrong when it was previously torn up. It is regrettable that the Bill risks tearing up another consensus—on the previous Government’s work on the back of the Turner report and the pensions legislation that was then introduced—by including an extremely

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contentious provision, which did not need to be in the measure were it not for a desire to make savings as part of the comprehensive spending review. Government Members have asked us not to oppose Second Reading because we are dealing with generalities. If the provision on women’s pension age had not been in the Bill, we would not have debated the measure for so long.

Despite what some Members have suggested, the Bill does not completely recast the pension system and provide for a solid and sustainable future. In many ways, it is a relatively minor amending measure, which alters some provisions from previous pensions legislation. Without the specific provision about women, we would largely be in agreement. I have already said why I am not entirely happy about the provisions on auto-enrolment, which change previous legislation, but nevertheless the particular provision on women’s pension age has caused the difficulties about which we have heard. The Bill is objectionable not just because the pension age is increasing, but because a double change over a short period affects the same cohort of women.

The proposals have been under discussion and the subject of campaigning over at least the past six months—we are not debating recent proposals. Ministers have hinted today that they might be prepared to make changes in due course to take account of people’s concerns, but those concerns have been raised ever since the proposals were made. The Bill has been through the House of Lords, when there was an opportunity to make the adjustments that Ministers have appeared to suggest today. Did that happen? No, it did not. There was no suggestion at that stage that the Government were willing to make any such changes.

We could have held today’s debate knowing what changes the Government are considering. Perhaps in his closing speech the Minister will say what changes he is prepared to make to the part of the Bill dealing with pension age. He should show not just that the Government are making another attempt to ensure that the coalition partners go through the Division Lobby together, but that he has been listening, not only to his coalition partners and the Opposition, but more importantly to the many women who have campaigned and given clear reasons why they want the Government to change their mind. If the Minister is thinking of changing the proposals, he owes it to those women to tell them how. He has the opportunity to do so in his closing speech.

9.12 pm

Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): I am intrigued by the debate thus far. A range of hon. Members have followed a number of themes. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) and others argued that the poorest will be affected by the changes that the Government are making, but they are already affected by the lack of good, sustainable state pension provision, which is one of the major issues that the Bill addresses.

I welcome the Bill and congratulate the Government on it. In my view, it will transform the pensions landscape. As we have heard, in recent years, there have been significant increases in longevity and changes in how we lead our lives. Things are changing at a dramatic pace. That will not stop, and nor should it; frankly, we should celebrate it. Not only are we living longer, but our expectations of quality of life in retirement are changing

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beyond all recognition compared with those of previous generations, as is how people spend their retirement. With increasing life expectancy, it is vital that our state pension age increases.

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): The hon. Lady rightly makes the point that we are living longer, which is of course something to celebrate. However, we are not living that much longer than we were when the coalition agreement was formed.

Priti Patel: I thank the hon. Lady for her remark. It is a fact of life that we are living longer. At the end of the day, there are serious pressures on public finances and on funding for our state pensions. The Government are seeking to address that serious issue. Ultimately, this is about the future of a sustainable state pension. The Bill is not about today or tomorrow, but about future generations. It is right that the Government tackle this fundamental, serious issue in the way that they are. Furthermore, we have all seen from Department for Work and Pensions figures that more than 10 million people in the UK can expect to live to see their 100th birthday. This reform is therefore clearly long overdue.

People are living longer and healthier lives, but we simply cannot ignore the pressure that this puts on the state pension system. In my view, increasing the state pension age is the only fair and sustainable option. We have heard a range of quotes in the Chamber today from various organisations. There are experts in our society who understand how our pensions are funded, and it is worth noting that the chief executive of the National Association of Pension Funds said:

“Our ageing population means increases in the State Pension Age are unavoidable. This rise in the State Pension Age to 66 from 2018 to 2020, as implemented in the…Bill, is a sensible move.”

Mr Watts: We keep hearing the same arguments, as though Opposition Members have not taken on board the need for changes. Our issue is with the speed, and with the unfairness to a specific group. If the Government address this issue, we can have consensus, which surely is what we all want.

Priti Patel: The previous Labour Government had the perfect opportunity to address this issue. Opposition Members say that their issue is with the speed, but this is now about having a sustainable pensions system, as we simply cannot carry on as we are, so I do not think that the hon. Gentleman’s remarks are plausible. The status quo is not an option.

Sheila Gilmore: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Priti Patel: I am going to close my remarks shortly, so I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me if I do not take her intervention.

I want to touch briefly on auto-enrolment. We know that millions of people are not putting aside anywhere near enough money for their retirement. I was previously an employer, including of young graduates. On starting their working lives, they do not think about retirement, saving for their pensions or anything of that nature. Although auto-enrolment was started by the previous

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Government, it is a good thing, and we really have to get on with it. This is about a culture change to people’s understanding of the need to save, and of how much they need to save, for their retirement. It is not about one lump sum. It is about what they expect to get out of retirement and their potential quality of life.

To conclude, I think that these reforms are welcome and long overdue. The changes to the state pension age and auto-enrolment will lead almost to a cultural revolution and a transformation of the pensions and savings culture in our society. That is a welcome step forward.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): I remind the next speaker that she must finish by 9.30 pm.

9.18 pm

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): I have been a little bemused by suggestions from Government Members that the previous Labour Government did nothing on pensions. When Labour came to power in 1997, one of the biggest challenges it faced was tackling pensioner poverty and improving the quality of life for older people. We must bear it in mind that the Tories had been in power for 18 years. Between 1979 and 1997, 29% of pensioners were living in poverty. Between 1997 and 2010, Labour made huge achievements, as a result of which average gross pensioner incomes increased by more than 40% in real terms, and more than 1 million pensioners were lifted out of poverty. No pensioner need now live on less than £130 per week, compared with £69 per week in 1997. The winter fuel allowance, free off-peak travel on local buses, free television licences and other benefits have helped to take 1 million pensioners out of poverty.

Government Members seem to suffer from collective amnesia. The previous Labour Government established the independent Turner commission because they recognised, as we all now do, that there was an ageing population and that the retirement age had to be changed. However as a result of the Turner commission a consensus was built on three things: linking the basic state pension to earnings; raising the retirement age to 68 by 2046, starting in 2024; and making private pensions opt-out instead of opt-in pensions, with employers also making a contribution. However, the Government’s proposal goes back on that consensus, raising the state pension age for women so rapidly that some women in their 50s will have to work an extra two years that they have not planned for, and raising the pension credit age so rapidly that the poorest pensioners would lose around 10% of their lifetime retirement income. Reducing the number of people eligible for automatic enrolment in a pension scheme has also had an effect. Let me deal with each of those separately.

Labour’s Pensions Act 2007, in which we accepted some of the things carried out by the Conservative Government in 1995, set out the timetable for equalising the state pension age for men and women, legislating to increase it to 65 for men by 2020, and then to 66 by 2027, 67 by 2036 and 68 by 2046. The coalition agreement stated that the parties had agreed 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.”

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However, the Bill proposes to accelerate equalisation for women by 2018, and then to increase the state pension age for both men and women to 66 by 2020. As so many Members have mentioned today, this is a U-turn that hits women aged around 56 to 57 particularly hard. It means that 4.9 million people are affected, 2.6 million being women and 2.3 million men. Some 500,000 women born between 6 October 1953 and 5 March 1955 will have their state pension delayed by more than a year, with the 300,000 born between 6 December 1953 and 5 October 1954 waiting an extra 18 months or more. The 33,000 women facing a two-year delay will suffer a loss in income of £10,000, while for those in receipt of pension credit, the figure is closer to £15,000. Those women are being made to accommodate the changes within less than seven years.

Women are already at a significant disadvantage in pension provision. The median pension savings of a 56-year-old woman amount to just £9,100, which is almost a sixth of the same figure for a man, which stands at £52,800. That is why this is such an important issue and why so many Members have concentrated on it. It is not fair to speed up the equalisation timetable. We oppose any change before 2020. The Government must stick to their coalition agreement promise. However, we support an acceleration of the timetable for both men and women from 65 to 66 between 2020 and 2022. That would achieve the aim of reaching a state pension age of 66 more quickly, but would affect 1.2 million fewer people than under the current plans, and affect an equal number of men and women.

The reason given for the changes is that we cannot afford not to make them because of the budget deficit. With respect, that is just incorrect. When the coalition Government made their promise, they knew what the deficit was. This is another example of the coalition saying one thing to get into power and another thing in power. For example, during the election the Tories said that there would be no VAT rise. They knew the deficit then, so why did they promise no VAT rise? They also said that there would be no top-to-bottom review of the health service, which would cost £3 billion. The Lib Dems knew about the deficit, yet they still said that there would be no rise in tuition fees. The Tories said that Equitable Life people would get a fair share of remuneration, yet they have backtracked on that, too, even though, as some of us have suggested, if the deficit is the issue, those people can receive some payments now and some later—that is, after 2015. Further, we are told that the Government’s measures will cut the deficit by 2015, yet the provisions in the Bill will come into play after 2015.

The Bill also deals with automatic enrolment. The Labour Government were legislating to introduce auto-enrolment into workplace pensions, which is a good thing because we estimated that 7 million people were not saving enough for their retirement. To ensure an adequate retirement income, we built cross-party consensus to introduce auto-enrolment. That meant that people would opt out of pension savings, rather than opting in. Combining a minimum employer contribution and the creation of a pension scheme that could be used by any employer, the measure was expected to lead to a change in the level of participation in pension savings.

The Government are proceeding with the introduction of auto-enrolment, which we welcome, but they are limiting its scope. They are raising the salary level at

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which someone will automatically be enrolled from £5,000 to £7,475, which will result in 600,000 fewer people being auto-enrolled in a pension scheme, a disproportionate number of whom will be women. The Government are also introducing a three-month waiting period before auto-enrolment, which they predict will mean that 500,000 fewer people will be automatically enrolled. Most people have an average of 11 different employers over their working lives, so this provision could lead to a loss of almost three years’ pension for many people. I know that the Secretary of State has said that he will listen, and I ask the Government to reconsider these issues, which have been raised by Member after Member, certainly on this side of the House, today.

9.26 pm

Rachel Reeves (Leeds West) (Lab): Today’s debate has shown the concern and anger that exists at the rapid rise in the state pension age. Members on both sides of the House have had the chance to show that they are listening to their constituents, and they now have the chance to assure the women who will be affected that they understand their plight and are willing to vote down these changes.

We have heard from 20 Back Benchers today, but only two—the hon. Members for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) and for Witham (Priti Patel)—have spoken in defence of the policies as they stand. That was a brave decision to take, but I believe that it was ultimately the wrong one. The reasons for the concerns being expressed across the House are clear. As many hon. Members have said, under the proposals, 500,000 women will have to wait more than a year longer for their state pension, with 33,000 having to wait two years longer.

We all know that life expectancy is increasing, so the state pension age needs to rise. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) pointed out that the women writing to her understand that, too. However, it cannot be right for a particular group of women to have their state pension age increased at a faster rate than anyone else’s with such little notice. All hon. Members have emphasised that point today. My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) said that there was no evidence that life expectancy was increasing for 57-year-old women at a faster rate than for anyone else, so why are those women being asked to shoulder so much of the burden? My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Malcolm Wicks) said that the changes will start to kick in in just five years from now, in 2016, giving much less notice than the 10 years that Age UK, the Turner report and the Pensions Policy Institute recommend.

Let us think about the women who will be affected, as my hon. Friends the Members for Erith and Thamesmead, for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) and for Sunderland Central did in their eloquent speeches. The women hit by these changes are the backbone of our families. They are the mums who took time off work to bring up their children, the daughters who are helping their parents as they get older, and the grans who are providing child care for their children’s children, to help their children to balance work and family life. They are the women who have done the right thing. They have looked after their families, they have worked

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hard and they have played by the rules. They want to look forward to their retirement, not worry about how to make ends meet as they see the pension age being changed again. Moving the goalposts so near to retirement is unfair and unjust. A year ago, the Government seemed to get it. The coalition agreement said that women’s state pension age would not start to rise to 66 before 2020. However, that promise has been breached, and women are being hit hard.

The last few weeks have been filled with speculation that the Government were about to perform a U-turn. We have heard rumours of numerous proposals and options. However, the Secretary of State told us this afternoon that he was going to stand by the proposed timetable, although only this morning the Financial Times reported him saying:

“I understand there are issues and problems and I’ll constantly look at ways to see whether there’s a way of doing”

something about that. What is the truth? Hon. Members who spoke today seemed to think that concessions will be forthcoming for the women most affected by the Bill, but what assurances can the Pensions Minister give to that effect, as we are none the wiser after today’s debate?

Given the double-speak, it is no wonder that utter confusion reigns. The women affected and everyone else planning for retirement need time and they deserve certainty. Even the hon. Members for Grantham and Stamford and for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) say they want certainty in policy, but these proposals are inducing the exact opposite—huge uncertainty. What the Government are offering is utter chaos. It is another example of the shambles at the heart of this Government and symptomatic of what is fundamentally wrong with their approach. Ministers should listen, consult, assess the impact and only then make policy. At the moment, things are happening the wrong way round. That is why the Government are in this mess.

Hon. Members have picked up on many clauses this afternoon—including my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South and the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart), who spoke thoughtfully about the benefits of automatic enrolment of workers into occupational pensions. Automatic enrolment was introduced by the last Labour Government and is set to mean an extra 7 million people saving towards their retirement. As my hon. Friends the Members for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) and for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) have said, we regret the watering down of auto-enrolment, as well as the waiting period and the increased threshold before people become enrolled automatically.

Of course, the issue we have heard most about today, on which I shall focus the rest of my comments, are the changes to the state pension age. I will build on the thoughtful speeches made by so many Members of all parties, including my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South and my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North, but also the hon. Members for Arfon (Hywel Williams) and for Cardiff Central (Jenny Willott).

The plans we have debated today simply do not meet the test of fairness. These changes mean that half a million people will have to wait more than a year longer for their state pension. The hon. Member for Grantham

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and Stamford called these women “rough edges”; I call them 500,000 women and their families who have had their plans blown out of the water so close to their retirement date.

Nick Boles: Will the hon. Lady give way? This is outrageous—

Rachel Reeves: Yes, I look forward to hearing whether the hon. Gentleman really believes that 500,000 women are rough edges.

Nick Boles: I apologise, Mr Speaker, that in the heat of the moment I did not wait for the hon. Lady to give way. I thank her for that at least, but she has made the outrageous assertion that I referred to the women as “rough edges” when I was saying that the policies had some rough edges. I think she should withdraw that outrageous implication.

Rachel Reeves: I am sure the hon. Gentleman’s constituents in Grantham and Stamford will feel very reassured that he does not regard them as rough edges, but speaks of the rough edges that have resulted from this Government’s policies.

These changes mean a loss of income of up to £10,000 for these women. For those in receipt of pension credit, the loss is closer to £15,000. There is something particularly perverse about targeting this specific group of women. As my hon. Friends the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun and for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) have said, the average 57-year-old woman has just £9,100-worth of pension savings compared to £52,800 for a man of the same age—a sixfold difference. About 40% of 57-year-old women have no private savings to fall back on, so how can these changes be fair?

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) and my hon. Friends the Members for Aberdeen South, for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and for Kilmarnock and Loudoun have said, all this goes against the coalition agreement that stated that the changes would not start to kick in before 2020. The Secretary of State says that the breach reflects legal advice, but when I asked him to place it in the Library, he did not guarantee to do so. I do not think there is anything illegal about sticking to a commitment and I urge Ministers to publish that legal advice and explain the breach. No one in the country voted for these policies. It is not what coalition MPs signed up to, and there is absolutely no obligation on Government Members to support the breach when we vote this evening.

During this afternoon’s debate, we have heard very few attempts to defend the proposals that we are now being asked to vote on—and I am not surprised. Time after time, Government Members have called for a rethink. Having heard the depth of anger up and down the country, the Government’s excuse that women are living longer simply does not hold water. The hon. Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) raised the issue of increasing longevity, but he still concedes that these changes are unfair. After all, he will have to explain to the 1,000 women aged 56 and 57 in Ipswich why they will have to bear the brunt of increasing life expectancy for everybody. The same is true of the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans), who pointed to increasing longevity but ultimately concluded that the Government’s proposed changes are unfair on the 1,000 women aged

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56 and 57 in his constituency. This applies to the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who has 1,100 such women in his constituency to answer to.

The hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) referred to the Government’s introduction of a triple lock guarantee, but he too has serious problems with the Government’s plans. After all, he will need to explain himself to the 1,200 women aged 56 and 57 in his constituency. The hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) referred to unintended victims of the proposals. There are 1,300 unintended victims in his constituency. The hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) defended the broad direction of Government policy, but referred to the unfair treatment of the 1,200 women aged 56 and 57 in his constituency. The hon. Member for Cardiff Central spoke in support of pension reform, but was nevertheless vocal in her opposition to these particular proposals. Given that her constituency contains 700 women aged 56 and 57, no wonder she wrote on her website this morning that the Government needed to

“think again about these plans and find a way to make them fairer”.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh West, whose constituency contains 1,100 women aged 56 and 57, thinks that the changes are too severe. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford talked of the 1,300 women aged 56 and 57 in his constituency. I wonder what he will say in reply to the letters from his constituents that I am sure are building up in his office. Will he say that the proposals are just the side effects of the rough edges of this policy? The hon. Member for Witham talked of people living longer, but expressed no understanding of the 1,000 women aged 56 and 57 in her constituency. I hope that they were listening to her remarks.

Nick Boles: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Rachel Reeves: I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman once, and I will not do so again.

All the Members who have spoken today—indeed, all Government Members—should think carefully about how they can consistently defend those women and vote for the Bill. In the absence of any concessions from the Minister, I urge Members who think that the changes are unfair and disproportionate to send a message to the Government and vote them down.

I have talked about the way in which the Bill will affect a great number of women and what that entails for them, but what we are really talking about are real lives. We have heard some powerful and moving stories in the Chamber today, particularly from my hon. Friends the Members for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) and for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham). However, I want to touch on the story that was shared with us by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth, the story of her constituent Linda Murray. Linda started work at the age of 16. Although she has worked throughout her life, she has never had the benefit of a workplace pension, or had the means to provide one for herself. She works 47 hours a week for a dry cleaner, and it is hard manual work: the sort of work that was described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North. Linda is no longer with her husband, and full retirement is not an option for her, at least for a few years. Her take-home pay is £267 a week, and she faces the impossible task of having to save £1,200 just to be able to work part-time

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from the age of 64. She is extremely worried about her future. That is just one story from one woman, but each and every one of us in the Chamber will have heard countless more from women in our constituencies who are approaching retirement with fear and trepidation.

At the heart of the issue is fairness. It is not about increasing longevity: we know that people are living longer, and that is a good thing. It is not about the restoration of the earnings link. That is something for which we legislated, and it is a good thing that people will be better off. [Interruption.] We legislated for it, and we welcome it. It is not about the flat-rate pension that is at some point down the track, and may or may not benefit the women about whom we are talking today. No; today’s debate is about half a million women who are being treated without fairness or justice by a Government who act first and think later.

We celebrate increasing longevity, we support the earnings link, and we welcome simplification of the pension system. We would work with the Government on all those things, but any changes in the state pension age must meet two tests. First, people must be given adequate notice and, secondly, there must not be a disproportionate impact on one group. We have set out an alternative that would equalise men’s and women’s state pension ages by 2020 and increase the state pension age for men and women to 66 by 2022.

We would work with the Government on proposals of their own as long as they met the two tests that we have set out. I think that that is what many Government Members seek from the Government. In that way we could save money, make pensions sustainable, show fairness, and treat people with dignity and respect. Right now, the policy is in a state of chaos. Ministers need to get a grip. We have heard many pleas for concessions, but none has been forthcoming. The mood in the House today has made it clear to the Minister that he must think again. I urge him, and his Government, to do so, and I urge hon. Members to vote down the Bill this evening.

9.40 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Steve Webb): We have spent a worthwhile six hours, and I enjoy nothing more than debating pension reform. There were 24 contributions, and I want to respond to as many of the points raised as possible in the time available to me. Not all Members will have been present at the start of the debate, so it might be worth reminding them that this Bill is about more than clause 1, although clause 1 does two important things: it treats men and women equally sooner, and it responds to rising longevity by 2020.

The Bill contains two further major measures, however, which Opposition Members who vote against it would take away from us. The first is reforming auto-enrolment to make it work. That was the subject of an independent review that we set up last summer, which was conducted by highly respected advisers who want to make auto-enrolment work and get it in place next year. We have heard that many women in their late 50s have no private pension savings. Well, why is that? Who was in charge for the past 13 years? We want to make auto-enrolment work, and to get on with that. Voting down this Bill would stop us in our tracks.

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Dr Whiteford: Will the Minister give way?

Steve Webb: In a little while; I want to make some progress first.

The Bill’s third key element—which, again, voting it down would stop—is making judges put some money into their pensions. I think that Members were rather shocked when they discovered that the taxpayer put 32% of a judge’s salary into a judge’s pension, and that the judge in respect of their own pension entitlements puts a big fat juicy zero. This Bill will correct that. If the Opposition succeed in voting it down, they will stop us doing so. We need to make progress with the Bill, therefore. Second Reading is about the principles, and we stand firmly behind them.

In the debate, the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne)—who has rejoined us now—glossed over the auto-enrolment provisions and said the Labour party will vote against the Bill. That would leave £30 billion to be found, as that is what the Bill would put into the Exchequer. When asked where the money would come from, he replied, “Well, we’d move a bit faster on age 67” and then added, in brackets as it were, “in the 2030s.” For a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury to tell us that the way to find money for a problem in the next Parliament is to look to somewhere in the 2030s sounds vaguely familiar. The answer is always, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”—

Mr Byrne: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Steve Webb: In a second. [Hon. Members: “Give way.”] I will give way. The reason there is no money, as the right hon. Gentleman said, is because difficult decisions were always deferred to tomorrow.

Mr Byrne: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He is making his remarks with his customary eloquence. As the following figure has not been presented this afternoon, will he remind the House precisely how much the acceleration of the state pension age for women before 2018 will save? Is the sum about £1.2 billion—yes or no?

Steve Webb: Interestingly, the right hon. Gentleman and his colleague the shadow Minister are saying two different things. The right hon. Gentleman knows that the sum for the changes up to 2020 is £10 billion. His shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), says we should delay to 2020 and find £10 billion while he wants to vote against the Bill and find £30 billion at some time in the 2030s. I think the House knows where we stand on that.