Pensions and Welfare Reform

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:40 pm on 13th October 2004.

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Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Conservative, Grantham and Stamford 5:40 pm, 13th October 2004

We have had an extremely interesting debate and we have before us an extremely interesting report. The report is an authoritative source of facts that will be the locus classicus of discussions on this matter for many months to come, and the debate will prove to be an authoritative and much-referred-to source on the range of arguments that have been exchanged.

I want to make a few brief remarks under three headings. First, I shall comment on the responsibility for the situation that we are now in, because the Government are getting away with it a little too lightly; secondly, I shall discuss some of the new ideas that have come out of the debate; and thirdly, I shall make a few suggestions of my own.

There is no doubt that the present situation represents a crisis—that emerges clearly from the pensions commissioner's report. It is actually a double crisis, which is the worst of all possible crises because one reinforces the other. The first crisis is that of occupational pension schemes, particularly defined benefit schemes, which were once the pride of this country. Only seven years ago, people felt very confident about the future of those schemes, but since 1997, as the report states, 63 per cent.—virtually two thirds—of existing schemes have been closed to new members and not a single new one has been opened. That is a disastrous sea change in pension provision. Our occupational pensions, which were the envy of so many places around the world, are now in crisis.

The second crisis is that of the collapse of the savings ratio. That, too, emerges clearly from the report. Those two crises reinforce each other in undermining our people's prospects for a secure retirement. It is a very serious situation.

The Government have tried to evade responsibility for all this by saying that it is caused by the strains placed on pension schemes by increasing life expectancy or by disappointing stock market performances over the past few years. They say, "It's nothing to do with us, guv; it's not the fault of Gordon Brown's pension tax." That argument will not wash. We have had steadily increasing life expectancies over the past 50 years or so during which the occupational pension movement gained strength. Figure 1.1 of the report is a graph showing that the curve of rising life expectancies between 1970 and 1990 was distinctly steeper than it has been since 1990 or is projected to be over the next few years. Occupational pension schemes have to face a greater hurdle in terms of dealing with increasing life expectancy and actuarial risk than they did over the past seven years when many of them were closed to new members.

The fact that the stock market has not behaved very encouragingly over the past few years is a problem, but we have experienced far worse stock market crashes before. The occupational pension movement managed to survive the appalling stock market crash of 1974 as merely a blip in its history. Equally, the 1987 stock market crash was a good deal more serious than what has happened over the past few years. I have to tell the Minister that those excuses will not wash.

As for the collapse in savings, the key factor is undoubtedly means-testing. There is nothing new about my saying that—I have been saying it since 1997. I recall saying, when I was pensions spokesman at the beginning of the last Parliament, that the Government could not get away with increased means-testing. They were means-testing everything that moved. They means-tested incapacity benefit, widows benefit and support for students. All sorts of benefits that previously depended merely on a contributions record were suddenly means- tested. I remember saying at the time that that could not be done without having a devastating effect on the savings rate.

On pensions, I remember saying in the Chamber some six or seven years ago that a financial adviser could not with integrity advise anybody on less-than-average earnings to save for a pension.