I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman about the wider economic impacts the changes are likely to have. Indeed, that was one of the points I was trying to make in last Thursday’s debate on the uprating of social security benefits and pensions. If the collective effect of some of these changes is that some of those on the lowest incomes and on modest incomes have less money in their pockets, that will have ramifications for the economies of constituencies such as his and mine. Unfortunately, my constituency is extremely reliant on the public sector because we still have not recovered from the decades of industrial decline and the closure of traditional industries in areas such as North Ayrshire. We are therefore over-reliant on the public sector and nothing that the Government are currently proposing looks likely to reverse that trend.
I believe the proposal is about cutting public expenditure and I do not accept that it is about the deficit. The Government’s position is that the policy will be a long-term one, not a short-term one for four years or so. At the beginning of this Parliament, the Government’s policy was that they would pay off the deficit within the Parliament, but if we look at the progress that has been made to date and the economic impact that their policies are having, we see that the growth and unemployment figures suggest that we will still be left with that deficit at the end of the Parliament.
I intervened on my hon. Friend John McDonnell regarding opt-outs from public sector schemes. This is an important issue, particularly for those on low incomes. I have been provided with figures by the trade union Unison, as I believe have other Members, about the impact some of the changes will have on its members. These figures have been quoted in the House before and as far as I am aware they are accurate. Unison says that a woman receiving the average local government pension scheme pension for women of £2,600 a year would be £37 worse off this year and that a member—a man or a woman—receiving the average local government pension scheme pension of approximately £4,100 a year would be £58 worse off this year. It gives a further example of a woman on a median woman’s pension in the NHS pension scheme of approximately £3,500, who would be £49 worse off this year. As the hon. Member for Eastbourne indicated, there might be an element of offset so that if there are increases in the basic state pension and in other forms of benefit, some of those people might recover that money in other ways. However, going back to the example that Dr McDonnell gave, of someone on a public sector pension in the region of £10,000, I understand from what the Minister said in last week’s debate that such an individual would be unlikely to obtain equivalent sums in other ways and would be worse off as a result of the changes.
I am concerned about opt-outs and I would be grateful if the Minister addressed this issue today or on a later occasion, because there will be long-term consequences of these changes, particularly for public sector schemes. There is great concern, particularly regarding those on low incomes, that we might see far higher levels of people opting out of public sector schemes as a result of this policy. That will be compounded by people’s experiences over recent years with the financial crisis. As we know, there is a complete crisis of confidence in the financial institutions and in the ability of vehicles such as pensions adequately to provide for people or to provide any certainty for future years. That is one reason why changes such as this RPI/CPI change are so unhelpful: it contributes to the erosion of that confidence when people do not know what they are going to end up with. They think, “If they make this change now, perhaps they’ll come back again and try to erode the scheme further in future years.” For people on low incomes, particularly women, this is a big issue, and I would be grateful if the Minister responded to my points. I know that some figures were provided more than a year ago about the likely impact of these policies on opt-out rates and there was great concern that those figures might have been over-enthusiastic.