I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Each year I am required to undertake a review of social security rates to consider whether benefits have kept pace with inflation or an increase in earnings. I will undertake that review shortly, and will report to Parliament in November. The Bill refers to how I will undertake the review.
As set out in the Social Security Administration Act 1992, there are four benefits for which there is a direct link with earnings: the basic state pension, the new state pension, the standard minimum guarantee in pension credit, and survivors’ benefits in industrial death benefit. That last benefit is devolved to Scotland, and I can confirm that we have received the legislative consent motion that is necessary. I must emphasise that the Bill does not extend to other benefits, including universal credit, where the uprating review is linked to prices.
Normally, I have a specific reference period to consider earnings growth as part of my review. That same earnings reference period has been used for the last decade. In preparing for the review last year, with regard to that reference period, we anticipated and saw an unprecedented fall in average earnings as a result of the covid restrictions that we introduced to protect lives—especially those of the most vulnerable, including many pensioners—and to protect the NHS. That was why we changed the law for one year to set aside the earnings link. Otherwise, state pensions would have remain frozen. I then made the assessment, and awarded an uprating of 2.5%, which was higher than the then inflation rate of 0.5%.
As I prepare for this year’s review, the economic context is very different from last year’s, as our economy and businesses have reopened following our successful vaccination programme and unprecedented support for businesses and households. Millions of people have moved off furlough and back into work, and we are witnessing a surge in the labour market, with over a million job vacancies. The combination of those factors has resulted in a distorting effect on wages, with a statistical anomaly.
Confirmed figures will be published in October, but provisional figures from the Office for National Statistics show an increase in earnings of 8.3%, more than two percentage points higher than at any time over the last two decades. Given that this statistical spike in earnings is due to a covid-related distortion, I am seeking the agreement of Parliament to again set aside the earnings link for just one more year, 2022-23. I have put provision in the Bill to award the higher of inflation or 2.5%, applying in effect, again, a double-lock policy. The triple-lock policy will be applied in the usual way from next year for the remainder of the Parliament. This approach has been strongly recommended by external commentators, including Sir Steve Webb, who was the Liberal Democrat Pensions Minister for the lifetime of the coalition Government. While it has come as no surprise to most of us in the House, I was disappointed by the amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrats, finding their latest bandwagon to jump on. They really should listen to Sir Steve, who probably knows more about pensions than anybody in the Liberal Democrats.
This Government are committed to ensuring that older people can enjoy their retirement with security, dignity and respect, and since 2010 the full yearly basic state pension has increased by more than £2,050 in cash terms. There are now 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty, both before and after housing costs, than in 2009-10. I am proud of our record on support for pensioners and of the action we took last year to ensure that pensioners’ incomes continue to increase. This Bill will ensure that a temporary statistical anomaly in wages does not unfairly track across into pensions, while also preserving the spending power of pensioners and protecting them from increases in the cost of living. I commend the Bill to the House.
While this Bill seems to be a technical piece of legislation, it raises fundamental questions about this Government and the trust that they enjoy among people across the country. I want to address a number of issues today: the substance of the Bill; how it is part of a pattern of behaviour; the changes we would like to see to protect pensioners; and the context of wider Government policy towards the most vulnerable in our society.
Turning first to the substance of the Bill, we are being asked to vote today for a change in the law to suspend the earnings-related part of the triple lock for one year while retaining the link to prices and the commitment to raise the state pension by a minimum of 2.5%. This is an important issue that directly affects millions of people today as well as the value of state pensions for future generations. Labour supports the triple lock. Indeed, all the major parties committed to maintaining it in the 2019 general election. I should add that it was a Labour Government in 2002 who committed to raising the state pension by the higher of 2.5% and inflation. It is also important to note that, taking inflation into account, state pensions rose more on average under the last Labour Government than they have under the coalition or the Conservative Governments.
Of course, the covid-19 pandemic distorted the earnings growth figures for this year, and the impact of the furlough scheme and the distribution of jobs lost in the crisis has artificially inflated the headline earnings growth figure. The Government have said that they expect earnings to be above 8% as a result of this anomaly. We have been clear that the Government cannot be allowed to use the current crisis as a smokescreen to break their word to pensioners and to abolish the triple lock by the back door. We accept that the pandemic has distorted the earnings data, but we knew that this problem was coming and it was surely not beyond the wit of the Treasury to find a solution to the anomaly in wage data that maintained the link to earnings and offered certainty to pensioners.
I am afraid that the Government have failed to be open about the earnings data they are using. They have also failed to show that they are concerned about low-income pensioners. They are asking us to vote on trust alone, but that is something I am afraid this Government do not enjoy much of. By downgrading the triple lock, they are breaking a manifesto promise. Trust in the Government has been badly damaged. I should not have to say this, but given the history of the Prime Minister and his Government, I want to set out what the House and the public have a right to expect. Over the last months we have seen a series of actions that show that the Government do not understand, and that in some cases they just do not seem to care. This should be obvious, but sadly it does not seem to be, to the Prime Minister and his Administration.
Today’s broken promise is the third breach of trust in just a few months. This is starting to become a pattern of behaviour. First, there was the cut in overseas aid that the Government made despite a wide range of opposition. We are the only G7 country to cut aid, breaking a manifesto commitment to support the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, and this Conservative Government are retreating from our moral duty. This has already weakened the UK’s position at the G7 summit and it will continue to do so at the upcoming summit on education and COP26. Parliament has repeatedly made it clear that it does not support aid cuts and that Britain must not turn its back on the world’s poorest. I would add that a Labour Government will build partnerships with other Governments, civil society groups and communities to overcome global challenges by using the aid budget to tackle poverty and inequality.
Secondly, there was the breach of trust we saw last week when the Government broke their promise not to raise national insurance. The Government had already weakened social care and our NHS, cutting £8 billion and leaving us with long accident and emergency, cancer and mental health waiting lists even before the pandemic. Their solution, when finally pushed to act by the coronavirus pandemic, is an unfair tax on jobs—the biggest tax rise on families in over 50 years.
With a cut to universal credit in the Government’s sights, it seems that they are going after the same people time and time again. A tax rise that hits less well-off areas—so much for levelling up. The CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and the British Chambers of Commerce have all criticised the national insurance rise as illogical and harmful to businesses and our recovery.
Now we face the third broken promise, on the triple lock, which Ministers have consistently said they would protect. I repeat that the Government must not use this crisis to leave the door open to scrapping the triple lock altogether. We recognise that the pandemic has caused an anomaly in the earnings data and, crucially, we are not calling for an 8% rise in the state pension, but the Government must come clean and show why they cannot calculate underlying earnings growth over a longer period of time. They have not adequately made the case for why an earnings link, with this year’s anomaly resolved, cannot be maintained.
At the very least, Ministers should maintain an earnings link, explain their decisions, offer binding commitments to protect the triple lock and protect the incomes of less well-off pensioners. There is nothing in the Bill that seeks to increase the uptake of tax credits or, indeed, to set out other steps the Government will take to protect low-income pensioners.
The public, and we as the Opposition, expect the Government to look at this thoroughly, to be diligent and to treat people fairly. When the Secretary of State first informed the House of her decision, my hon. Friend Jonathan Reynolds asked the Government to publish their reasons. That is the least pensioners could expect. Governments should explain the evidence used to make key policy decisions, as evidence-based policy making has been a central plank of good governance for a very long time. Sadly, no answers were forthcoming, but perhaps we will see some actual evidence in this debate. The Government’s track record on the use of evidence, however, does not offer much hope.
Finally, I pay tribute to the right hon. Members for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and for Ashford (Damian Green) for tabling their amendment. Opposition Members are deeply concerned about the cut to universal credit and the devastating impact it could have. It will hit thousands of families and many people in work, including nurses, teaching assistants and supermarket workers. I know from experience that 9,000 people in my constituency will be affected. Like colleagues on both sides of the House, I have spoken to residents who are desperate and who do not know how they will cope.
Although the temporary increase in universal credit has come to an end, surely the hon. Gentleman would welcome the permanent increases to the local housing allowance and the work allowance, the above-inflation increase to the national living wage and the changes to income tax thresholds. Does he welcome those?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, as I understood that the Government had frozen the housing allowance. I look forward to discussing that further in this debate.
The Government have left it late to do the right thing and end the cut, but it is not too late. There is clearly a strength of feeling on both sides of the House on the universal credit cut and the state pension uplift. I think we agree that trust is important and is the basis of good government. The Government will be letting down pensioners and the country if they plough on with these unfair changes without any explanation or reassurance about the future and without any assessment of the impact on many pensioners. We have now seen three successive breaches of trust in just a few weeks, and the last two were only days apart. Trust in this Government has fallen dramatically, and it will fall even further if they fail to listen.
I have some personal views on this subject, which I will explain. I tabled my amendment because I felt we needed to debate what the right level of investment in universal credit is. I have to say from the beginning that I otherwise support the idea that the Government have to make changes to the triple lock. What goes missing in a lot of these debates is the fact that we have just suffered the biggest blow to the economy as a result of covid—I accept that fully. We debate these things without realising that, but I recognise it and it changes the terms of the debate. It also changes the terms of the debate on the manifesto, because no manifesto could have predicted the kind of crisis we have just been through.
We need to get a rational and stable debate about these things. It is important to recognise the huge amount we have done for pensioners since the arrival of the triple lock; increases for pensioners have been remarkable, and so many more pensioners have been lifted out of poverty. These are success stories the Government should be able to talk about and recognise that there has to be some flexibility, so I am not going to end up at odds with the Government on this—quite the contrary, as I recognise all that fully.
However, I want to speak to the amendment that I tabled alongside Stephen Timms and my right hon. Friend Damian Green. I do feel it is necessary for us to re-examine the investment levels in UC. I recognise that the Government made the right decision at the beginning of the pandemic to invest in universal credit to ensure that those who were naturally going to be falling unemployed as a result of the problems that came from the pandemic would receive a higher level of support.
When I resigned from the job that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State now holds, I did so on the basis of two or three things. My No. 1 basis was that the Treasury took a significant sum—much the same as the uplift—out of universal credit. I always made the point very early on that when we put money into universal credit we are investing in a dynamic process. It is one that by its very nature reduces the overall cost, because the more we get people into work, the lower the overall cost of the money we put in.
Order. You will remember that your amendment was not selected. A passing reference to it is fine, but please do not go into it in detail.
In that case, I am going to make passing reference to it, and I will leave the Chair to decide whether or not that passing reference is more substantial. I shall pass through universal credit carefully and make full reference to the statement that has been made or the passing of this on Second Reading.
I want to make a simple point, and I am not going to hold the House up for too long. The point of the amendment I tabled but which was not selected and the purpose of today’s debate is to ensure that those of working age who are receiving security, support and benefit from this Government get the right level of support. We know that the changes made to the triple lock will ensure that a saving is made to the Exchequer against what was unpredictable at the time and resulting from the increase in pay that will happen as a result of the easing of the covid restrictions and the bounce back that is taking place. I also recognise that one problem we have as a result is that those of working age are going to have to pick up a bigger burden, which is why the universal credit uplift should be reviewed, and reviewed very quickly.
The point I simply make, in line with the idea that the pensioners are taking some of this burden, is about universal credit itself: if that money, or some of it, is moved towards the tapers, we will have a reality where more people move into work. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, in her discussions with the Treasury on these matters, will make the point that it needs to make sure that those on universal credit are able to move through it faster and that therefore investment in the tapers would benefit both the Treasury and those who are seeking to get work, by making that pathway easier. That will complement what is being done for pensioners at the moment under the terms of ending of the triple lock for one year. Such a move will almost certainly be beneficial; this winter and into the spring, while we see the effects of the fall-out of moving from the furlough scheme and of the other difficulties on energy pricing and some food pricing, which is going to rise, it will protect those who are most vulnerable, while giving people an opportunity to work, with work being the very best way out of poverty.
I am going to finish by simply saying that this is an important matter and I hope my right hon. Friend will take our amendment, which was not selected, as justification in her negotiations with the Treasury to secure a better investment in the taper.
It is a pleasure to follow Sir Iain Duncan Smith.
I rise to speak in favour of the reasoned amendment tabled by Ed Davey, and commit the SNP to voting for it when the House divides this evening. As well as speaking to that amendment, I wish to comment on the broader principles of the Bill. I am conscious that those watching our proceedings will perhaps be unaware of the consequences of the passing of this legislation, and especially of rushing it all through in the space of a couple of hours.
In short, as we all know, the Bill facilitates this Tory Government’s breaking yet another manifesto commitment —namely, by breaking the pensions triple lock, to which all parties in the House committed themselves at the election less than two years ago. The breaking of that manifesto pledge follows on from the Government’s scrapping the commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on the world’s poorest through our international aid budget, and now comes on top of the new Tory poll tax, which sees hard-working Scots having to endure a hike in national insurance to pay for the sorting out of the utter mess of England’s health and social care system. The Prime Minister is not known for keeping his promises, and the decision to suspend the triple lock will have dire consequences for pensioners.
As constituency MPs, we all know that the state pension is by far the largest source of income for UK pensioners, and the triple lock has kept it secure throughout the pandemic. To be blunt, the British Government’s decision to break its triple-lock promise is a betrayal and an unacceptable attack on pensioners’ incomes. What is more, this change will do nothing to stop recent indications that more pensioners are living in poverty. The proportion of pensioners on relative low income—that is, the percentage of pensioners in the UK living in households with net disposable income below 60% of the national median, after housing costs—rose from a historic low of 13% in 2011-12 to 18% in 2019-20.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise in his analysis that we took notice of pensioners’ needs last year? The triple lock is reliant on earnings being positive, and last year they were negative, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State took the opportunity to raise pensions, despite the fact that the terms of the triple lock were not met at that time.
If the hon. Lady pays attention to the rest of my speech, she will understand that I am developing my argument because the UK state pension is so pitiful. That is the point I am addressing and I am sure she will make it in her speech, too.
The rise in the proportion of pensioners on relative low income followed a period of more than a decade during which the measure had been trending downwards from a high of 29% in 1998-99. The passing of the Bill will undo all that work.
Although the state pension is the biggest source of income for pensioners, House of Commons Library analysis shows that UK state pensions are the lowest as a proportion of pre-retirement wages of all our European neighbours. Pensioners throughout these islands receive around just a quarter of the average wage when they retire, whereas pensioners in Luxembourg and Austria receive 90% of the average working wage. According to the OECD’s latest analysis, the UK has an overall net replacement rate of 28.4% from mandatory pensions for an average earner. That is well below the OECD average of 58.6% and the EU average of 63.5%. It is simply not right that the UK devotes a smaller percentage of its GDP to state pensions and pensioner benefits than most other advanced economies.
The triple lock betrayal is yet another Tory-imposed austerity cut. The Commons Library briefing for this debate estimates that the British Government will take away £5 billion from pensioners in 2022-23 if the triple-lock elements of the state pension are uprated by 2.5% rather than 8.3%. Investment in the state pension is crucial, especially as many are still excluded from automatic enrolment in workplace pensions—although I acknowledge that some, but nowhere near enough, progress has been made on auto-enrolment.
Let me briefly develop that point a little further. The British Government’s failure to extend automatic enrolment to low-income earners and young people disproportionately impacts women, thereby worsening the already massive gender pension gap on these islands. That is before we even come to the issue of the Department for Work and Pensions’ maladministration with regard to 1950s-born women who, quite rightly, await to see what stage 2 of the ombudsman’s process will conclude. I very much hope it will do so soon.
I echo what my hon. Friend is saying about 1950s-born women. Is the decision to abandon the triple lock not a double injustice to those women—and to the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign—because not only are they now being denied the rise in their pension that they might have expected, but they were denied a pension at all at the time they originally expected their pension?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and he is right. I am sure that, like me, he receives regular representations on that matter from Rosie Dickson from WASPI Scotland. I am glad that he has put that on the record on Rosie’s behalf.
Before I move on, let me touch on frozen pensions, to which the Father of the House made reference when we were considering the business of the House motion. Members will be aware that the UK has a series of historical reciprocal arrangements to provide for the uprating of state pensions in certain countries. Most recently, the Government committed in the Brexit trade deal to uprating the state pensions of UK pensioners in the European economic area. UK pensioners in other countries such as the USA, Philippines, Israel and Jamaica continue to receive their full payments. However, the arbitrary system means that pensioners in other countries—and, indeed, even in British overseas territories such as the Falkland Islands—have their pensions frozen, despite their having paid in the same dues. More than 90% of affected pensioners live in Commonwealth countries with close cultural ties to the UK. The UK is the only country in the OECD to take this two-tier approach to state pensions; I ask the Minister to reflect on that.
“The UK has one of the least generous state pensions in the developed world. The triple lock was introduced to close this gap and lift pensioners out of poverty. Suspending it will only halt our progress. This is a dangerous precedent. If the government is allowed to pick and choose when to apply the triple lock, the result will be lower state pensions for future generations and more pensioners experiencing hardship. This decision will hit old and young alike. A race to the bottom on pensions helps no one.”
She is absolutely right.
Let me finish with a quote from even closer to home: something I found on the Better Together website, which advocated Scotland voting against independence in 2014. The Better Together campaign said:
“Our pensions are safer as part of the UK…We are living longer and working longer than ever before. People want to know that their pensions are safe. The UK State Pension means that everyone in the UK can get the same basic State Pension. It is a great example of how we share good things across the UK.”
Not at the moment. The campaign went on:
“We all pay in when we are working, and we all benefit when we retire. This means we can support all our pensioners in the same way whether times are good or bad. Scotland’s people are getting older at a faster rate than the rest of the UK. This is good but it means that if we leave the UK we could have a difficult choice to make”,
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for finding the time to come to the House of Commons this evening; I know he will be balancing his obligations—
The Minister chunters from a sedentary position. I outlined earlier in my speech that we want pensions much more in line with those of, for example, Austria and Luxembourg. I hope that that answers the question.
The SNP will vote to reject this legislation, but in the passing of this Bill tonight we will see yet another Better Together myth burst: that pensioners are somehow protected by Mother Britannia. To be blunt, to allow the Bill to proceed tonight will not only violate the contract offered to voters by the Prime Minister in 2019—and, indeed, by the hon. Member for Moray—which won a handsome majority in this place, but make a mockery of the no campaign’s claim that Scotland remaining in this broken Union is the best deal for UK pensioners when it is patently not.
The SNP will vote to reject this legislation, but in truth we all know that the democratic deficit throughout these islands means that Scotland’s MPs will be outvoted when we try to protect pensioners’ incomes. That is why the only way to truly tackle the plight of pensioner poverty is with Scottish independence, because Westminster is not working and we need to retire from this United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. Fundamentally, this is about fairness. When the triple lock was conceived, no one anticipated a pandemic that would lead to mass redundancies of people predominantly on lower pay, which, in turn, would lead to wage inflation, through those people losing their jobs, and a cash bonanza for pensioners. Most pensioners believe that having an 8% or more rise would be fundamentally unfair.
I want to respond to some of the points about trust. We earn trust by being open and straightforward about difficult decisions that have to be made. We need to explain where we are and why we are doing the things we are doing. Ploughing headlong into this and upholding our manifesto commitment would be clearly ludicrous in the face of the current situation. That would be the way to lose trust in the Government and to lose trust in their competent administration.
None the less, this should be the start of the debate on the broader utility of the earnings component in the triple lock. At the moment, this has been distorted twice now by earnings in the past year. We need to make sure that we are correctly measuring the cost of living and tackling inequalities and pensioner poverty. While we cannot have that extensive debate today, a debate on that is sorely needed.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “That” to the end of the Question and add:
“this House, while recognising the extraordinary circumstances of the covid-19 pandemic, declines to give a Second Reading to the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill because it represents a broken manifesto commitment made by the Government at the last General Election, fails to address the impact of the pandemic on the two million pensioners living in poverty and fails to increase key benefits, such as making permanent the uplift to Universal Credit.”
The Government are on track to break yet another of their manifesto promises. It is another example of how this Government are willing to turn their back on people living in poverty—now it is pensioners, but next month it will be those on universal credit.
The Liberal Democrats want Britain to be the best place in which to live and to retire, but, frankly, we all accept that it is far from that. People who have worked hard and paid taxes all their lives deserve a comfortable retirement when the time comes. It was our party that was instrumental in putting the triple lock in place, providing a lifeline to millions of pensioners who had seen increases as derisory and as low as 75p per year.
When pensions were only pegged to price inflation, their real value shrunk to one of the lowest in the developed world. We all deserve to live in dignity, to be able to afford food and heating, and to be able to live a life with some meaning or enjoyment, and reaching retirement age does not and should not change that.
There are more than 18,000 people in my constituency claiming the state pension, which is over 20% of the local population. They have worked, paid taxes, raised families, and built communities, and I want them to know that they are visible. The Conservative party clearly does not feel the same about their local pensioners, with the 20 hardest hit constituencies all being represented by Conservative Members. The Secretary of State’s own constituency is the fifth most affected by this broken manifesto commitment.
We all accept that we have lived in exceptional times over the past 18 months, and that earnings growth this year is out of the ordinary, but the big picture here is that this Government are refusing to take any action to lift any group out of poverty. The refusal to do so highlights the hollowness of the phrase “levelling up”. They are cutting universal credit, taking away vital income from 5.5 million households, and pushing thousands of families further into poverty. They have refused throughout to increase legacy benefits at all, ignoring the needs of recipients who are disproportionately disabled. Technical issues were given as the reason for this, but, 18 months on, a lack of appetite seems to be the more obvious case.
The decision to increase national insurance is a further tax on young people, on working people—those who have already been hit the hardest by the pandemic. We know that people are willing to make sacrifices when it is needed—we have seen that during the pandemic—but a part of that must be seeing that we all follow the same rules. There must be a fairness in what is being asked of us. There cannot be one rule for them and one rule for us, which, sadly, is what we see time and again from this Government.
This Government’s habit of breaking their promises makes me very wary of this Bill. We might be told that this change is just for one year, but they also promised no increase in tax in their manifesto and they have just increased national insurance.
I am listening with great interest to the hon. Lady’s speech. I just want to know whether she agrees with Sir Steve Webb, the esteemed former Pensions Minister, who, for five years, represented her party in this House and who indicated on
I agree that we have seen extraordinary circumstances over the past 12 months, including significant increases in wages, causing this anomaly, but what this Bill fails to do—I will have this conversation with my friend, Steve Webb—is help those of working age in poverty through maintaining universal credit, or pensioners themselves.
The Bill has only two clauses and five subsections. It fails to address any of the problems with the state pension, or to assess the impact of suspending the triple lock. There are already 2 million pensioners living in poverty, the majority of whom are women and/or from black and Asian communities. This Bill ignores them and the disproportionate impact that suspending the triple lock will have on people already struggling. The promises made by a party in their manifesto matter. It is the essence of the mandate that they claim.
Just last week, during the urgent question on transport, the Transport Secretary welcomed increases in wages and hoped that they continued and were sustained. That is the whole point of the triple lock; it is about helping pensions to keep up with the cost of living.
Women have already been left behind when it comes to the state pension, with those born in the 1950s—the WASPI women—being unfairly penalised by the Department for Work and Pensions’ failure to properly notify them about the change in pension age. Women who had worked hard and planned for retirement suddenly found themselves without either. With women more likely to rely on the state pension than men, this policy is another damaging blow.
Last year, I talked about the importance of the triple lock for intergenerational fairness. This Bill is not just of interest to those of state pension age. Unless we truly trust that this Government will keep their promise—and there is no evidence to show that this will be any different from the other broken promises over the past two years—this will impact everyone. Jobs for life and final salary pensions are a thing of the past. It is harder than it has been in recent memory to get on to the housing ladder. It is fair and right that young people today are able to look ahead to a state pension, but if we return to the days of minimal increases to pensions, they will be impacted, too.
I am asking the House to support the amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrats for all the reasons that I have outlined. While there is no doubt that the pandemic has required exceptional measures, this Bill was an opportunity for the Government to support poorer pensioners and to right previous wrongs, and it is an opportunity that they have ignored. Why is there no impact assessment on how this will affect groups already disadvantaged under the pension system? I hope the Minister will address that in his closing remarks. Why do the Government continue to ignore the needs and wants of ordinary people, and why do they think that anyone will trust their word given what has happened over the past few weeks?
The public deserve better than these broken promises, better than this Government, and the 2 million pensioners living in poverty certainly deserve better than this Bill.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. May I start by paying a tribute to my hon. Friend Justin Tomlinson, who is in his place, and my hon. Friend Will Quince who left the Department in the reshuffle last week? We may have had our robust scrutiny sessions, but all of us would recognise that both Ministers were fully on top of their brief, keen on the issues and very competent. We wish them both luck in the important jobs that they will have in future, and we welcome the two new Ministers, including my hon. Friend David Rutley. I have enjoyed him being my Whip even more than he enjoyed being my Whip. [Interruption.] To be fair, I think I was the first person to make their Whip vote against the Government during the covid proxy period, so perhaps he really will be glad to have a different job, rather than having to go through that again. None the less, I wish both Ministers all the best in their new roles and look forward to seeing them soon.
I rise to support this Bill. I have been calling on the Government for about a year to fix what will obviously be a problem with the earnings blip due to the reductions at the start of the pandemic and then the hopeful rebound this year. I think it is right that the Government have taken this step and to do it with more than six months’ notice, so that pensioners will not be expecting an 8% rise and then have their hopes dashed in March. Those pensioners now have plenty of warning that that huge rise will not be happening. I think that most people are clear about this given what we have seen over the pandemic, with people losing their jobs, being put on furlough, and losing their earnings. All that insecurity has hopefully passed, but with furlough ending in a few weeks’ time, we may have a further round of that. The idea that a promise that was put in place to ensure the state pension kept pace with earnings would deliver an 8% rise in the state pension, on top of a 2.5% rise the previous year, is not remotely in the spirit of what this promise was meant to be. Most Members who, like me, strongly believe in the triple lock and want it to last a very long time, recognise that it needs to sustainable and reasonable. Had the Government tried to plough ahead and retain the 8% rise, that would have been the biggest threat to the triple lock in the future. It would mean that the Treasury, with its eagle eye, would think that this was a promise that could not be sustained for the long term. I hope we are now clear that this is a one-year suspension and that the triple lock will then be retained in its current form in the long term. That is the right policy and it is what we promised in our manifesto.
I was slightly confused by the Opposition’s approach. They appeared to say that the Government are not being transparent and are breaking a promise, but then accepted that 8% is too high. They therefore seem to be suggesting that the Government should go away and try to find a new definition of earnings that is different from the one that has been used for the 10 years of the triple lock, and that they should come up with a number that is a bit lower than 8% and a bit higher than the 3% or so that inflation would probably give to pensioners. The Opposition seem to think that it would somehow be fairer, more transparent and more honest to say to pensioners, “We aren’t breaking a promise; we’ve just contrived a new definition that gives us the answer that we think is acceptable.” That is clearly nonsensical.
Either we say that we will stick with the 8% that the law puts in place, or we do what the Government are doing here and say, “Look, we can’t stick to that measure. Let’s do something reasonable and have inflation or 2.5%, whichever is higher this year.” That is a clear policy. It is a calculation that we can all see and scrutinise, rather than asking the Government to contrive something that would necessarily be rather odd and artificial, and through which I suspect we would end up in a whole load of court cases while the Government tried to defend why they had picked one arbitrary earnings measure rather than another just to produce a number they were happy with in the first place. I do not see how we could produce a robust process in that situation.
I would have had some sympathy with the amendment of my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith, had it been selected, because I believe that the Government should retain the universal credit increase, at least for the next six months until we can be sure that the pandemic is finished. That amendment was not selected, so I cannot face the quandary of voting for it. I will happily support the Government tonight in a sensible measure that saves the public finances an unsustainable increase in the state pension that was never in keeping with the spirit of the promise and which in the long term will preserve the triple lock as the right way of protecting state pensions.
I am pleased to follow Nigel Mills, who makes an important contribution to the work of the Work and Pensions Committee. I echo his words of appreciation and good wishes to the hon. Members for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) and for Colchester (Will Quince).
The Bill reduces an increase in the state pension that the Government’s triple lock policy would have delivered. I understand why it has been done, but let us not kid ourselves; we have a growing problem with pensioner poverty, after a quite long-sustained improvement following the introduction of pension credit 18 years ago. The charity Independent Age has analysed the Government’s households below average income statistics. Its analysis shows that pensioner poverty has started to increase again since 2012, with 18% of pensioners—more than 2 million people—in 2020 living in poverty after paying housing costs, of whom more than 1 million are in severe poverty. This is a significant challenge and it is getting worse. Of the English regions, the problem is particularly acute in London. There is no room for complacency about pensioner poverty.
The Bill will increase the standard minimum guarantee of pension credit by 2.5% or inflation—whichever is the greater—next April. When the Minister responds, will he tell us what the Department will do to increase take-up of pension credit so that more people can benefit from the increase? The most recent figures show that only six in 10 of those who are eligible for pension credit are claiming it, and that only 76% of the total amount of pension credit that could have been claimed is claimed. That is quite a significant reason why the problem of pensioner poverty is rising.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Member for making that important point. In preparation for this debate, I read an incredible stat: in Wales alone, about £214 million of pension credit is not claimed. Increasing take-up would be an easy way to deal with the growing tides of pensioner poverty, but the key thing with pension credit is that it is also a gateway to other support.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is why Independent Age has called on the Government properly to research who is not claiming pension credit, and to draw up a plan to increase take-up over five years.
Research by academics at Loughborough University found that maximising pension credit uptake could lift three in 10 pensioners out of poverty and reduce the number living in severe poverty by half. When the Secretary of State came to the Select Committee in July, I asked her whether the Department would bring forward an action plan. She replied that there had been a “media day of action” in June to encourage take-up of pension credit, and told the Committee:
“We will continue to advertise it in a different way but I am not anticipating a big action plan, no.”
That is disappointing. Given that the Bill will deny pensioners an increase that the Government’s policy appeared to promise, I ask the Minister to look again at further steps to increase pension credit take-up.
My name was also on the reasoned amendment tabled by Sir Iain Duncan Smith, which, as he reminded the House, was not selected. However, I want to comment on the reasoned amendment that was selected, which states that we should reject the Bill because it
“fails to increase key benefits, such as making permanent the uplift to Universal Credit.”
Let me pick up that specific point. As the amendment drafted by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green pointed out, the money that the Bill will save the Government next year would almost deliver the £20 a week uplift to universal credit next year. Many Members across the House are deeply worried by the plan to remove the uplift next month. The Select Committee’s call to at least postpone the removal of the uplift was unanimous. There are lots of different kinds of worry, which I will outline.
First, this is not the right time, because the furlough scheme is about to end. We are told that Ministers’ intention in introducing the uplift was to protect people who were becoming newly unemployed, but there will be a surge of newly unemployed people when furlough ends. Ministers told the Select Committee last week that the Government have no estimate of the number of redundancies that will follow the end of the furlough scheme, but the most recent figures showed that 1.6 million people were furloughed at the end of July. Surely the consideration given to people who became unemployed at the start of the first lockdown should be given to those losing their livelihood next week as well. What justification could there be for treating them differently?
Secondly, since the decision to introduce the uplift—especially in the past month—we have seen a surge of price rises. September’s inflation figure was a record, reflecting increased food prices in particular, and earlier this afternoon the House was considering the current steep increases in energy prices. This cannot be the right time to take £20 a week away from everyone receiving universal credit. The Select Committee recently heard evidence of people having to skip meals before the uplift was introduced. Well, their position will be a good deal worse if the uplift is taken away in a couple of weeks, because the prices they now face are so much higher, and have become so much higher in just the last few weeks.
Thirdly, what justification can there be for reducing universal credit to a historically low level? If the uplift is taken away, support for unemployed families will be the lowest in real terms for more than 30 years. The economy has grown by more than 50% in real terms over that period, but we are being asked to agree that support for unemployed families should be no higher at all in real terms than it was 30 years ago. As a proportion of average earnings, support for unemployed families will be the lowest since the modern welfare state was introduced in 1948. The Library tells me that it will be lower as a proportion of average earnings than it was when unemployment benefit was first introduced in 1911.
We are told that the Government’s priority is levelling up. This policy is not levelling up; this is a policy of grinding down. Social security has a job to do—an important job that we all recognise needs to be done. Pushing it inexorably downwards when prices are surging upwards means that it cannot do that job. People cannot focus on getting a job if they are worrying about whether they can afford to eat their next meal.
Speaking to the Committee last week, Ministers from the Department could give no reason at all for the Government choosing to set the rate of universal credit so low, other than as a consequence of historical accidents. They said that the Government had made no assessment of the impact of ending the £20 a week uplift on people claiming, nor of how many people would be pushed into poverty as a result. The Legatum Institute has today published research suggesting that the number of people in poverty will go up by 840,000, including 290,000 children, if the uplift is removed. The Government have also made no new estimate of the annual cost of keeping the uplift.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that often in the briefings used there is a kind of mistake in that they talk about this as being an unemployment benefit? It is not, because it combines tax credits, so putting investment into this is more likely to get people through and into work than taking it out. That is the point I was going to make but was not able to.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point that I agree with. It is a vital fact, often not understood, that universal credit is an in-work benefit as well as an out-of-work benefit. I think that 40% of universal credit claimants are in work. We have taken evidence in the Select Committee from working parents receiving universal credit who are having quite a hard time at the moment and are going to have a very hard time indeed if they lose the £86 a month that they will if the uplift is removed.
The cost of keeping the uplift, the figure that we are given, is £6 billion a year, but—the hon. Member for Amber Valley drew attention to this in the Select Committee last week—that figure was calculated when lockdown was still in place and job vacancies were much lower, so presumably the cost would be less if the uplift was kept.
The Bill misses the chance—the Liberal Democrats’ reasoned amendment gives us the opportunity to reflect on this—to address this very serious flaw in the Government’s current intentions. We are heading into an extremely difficult period for both working families and unemployed families who depend on universal credit, because of price rises across the board.
The triple lock has been a successful policy that has seen the basic state pension increase by 35% since 2011—£2,050 in cash terms, and, importantly, the highest level of the basic state pension in relation to earnings for 34 years. My political interest and awareness about this grew when the last Labour Government were in power, because they came into power when I was 15. I well remember the outcry over the 75p a week increase in the basic state pension early on in their term and the outcry over the 25p a week increase for older pensioners towards the end of their term. So it is important that we get these things right, and the triple lock has been a considerable advance in how we support pensioners.
We are now faced with the interplay of two things: an anomaly in earnings, as has been touched on, where wages have fallen as a result of furlough and the economic conditions of the pandemic and then sharply risen; and over £400 billion spent on protecting people’s jobs and livelihoods that will need to be paid back. On the triple lock, often, a lot of the commentary pits young against old. As someone whose pre-politics career was entirely spent supporting young people, one might expect me to take a particular side on that, but actually, on this, I think that it is the wrong characterisation, because pensioners are not a group of people who just sit there worrying solely about the value of their pensions. They will have children and grandchildren whose job prospects they are concerned about. They will have relatives who were furloughed who might have otherwise lost their jobs or who work in the public sector where unfortunately pay has been frozen. They will be concerned about international aid, where we have taken another difficult decision. Although I have had emails from people who are not happy about the decision that has been made about the triple lock, I have had emails right up until this debate and from quite a while ago saying that, in the context of all the difficult decisions that have been made, it would not be right to make an increase to the basic state pension that is so far above what other people can expect.
It was right of the Government to introduce the triple lock in 2011, it was right to change the legislation last year so that instead of getting no increase pensioners still got a 2.5% increase, and it is right to move to a double lock for a year where in all likelihood pensions will still rise by at least 3% thanks to prices growth. Most people, including most pensioners, understand why we are making that decision, and I support the Government in doing so.
Finally, in this Bill, it is official: the Government will break their triple-lock promise to pensioners. The state pension will not increase with earnings in 2022-23 after all. Well, well, well: we can hardly be surprised. The betrayal of the commitment to the triple lock can be filed under the same heading as the broken pledge not to raise national insurance and the pledge to maintain the commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on development.
Those broken pledges fly in the face of yet another pledge from the Prime Minister:
“to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates.”—[Official Report,
I wonder whether anybody on the Treasury Bench can tell me how that is going. We are discussing the Elections Bill later this evening, but we do not need to look at that to see what restoring trust is worth. With the contents of the Elections Bill, even the Government realised that the assault on democracy that that constitutes meant they could not call it the electoral integrity Bill any more, because that really would be taking the mickey.
This particular broken pledge of abandoning the triple lock is an attack on the largest source of income for UK pensioners, on which they rely. Recent indications show that the number of pensioners living in poverty is rising. I wonder whether those on the Government Benches can even begin to imagine the anger, fury and sense of betrayal of those women born in the 1950s, some of whom have only just qualified for their state pension after so many years of being robbed of it, only to find a new betrayal—the abandonment of the triple lock. That is why SNP Members seek to require the Secretary of State to assess and to be held accountable for the impact that this legislation will have on poverty among pensioners in each of our constituencies. I will stand up for pensioners in North Ayrshire and Arran, just as all of my SNP colleagues will stand up for pensioners in their respective constituencies. This is what we have committed to do and that is what we will do.
It is a cause for shame that this cut is taking place fully in the context of the fact that we in the UK have the lowest levels of proportion of pre-retirement wages of all our European neighbours. As my hon. Friend David Linden pointed out, UK pensioners receive about a quarter of the average working wage when they retire, whereas pensioners in Austria and Luxembourg receive 90% of the average working wage. When will the UK Government devote a percentage of GDP to pensioner benefits that is similar to that in other advanced economies?
The other element to this scandal is that it takes place in the context of too many workers being excluded from automatic enrolment into workplace pensions. The failure to extend that impacts low earners and disproportionately impacts women, widening further the gender pensions gap. Why has that not been fully addressed?
The state pension remains an important source of income for pensioners living in or at risk of poverty because of the very low uptake of pension credit. I ask those on the Treasury Bench: what steps have been taken to increase uptake of pension credit—something I first raised four years ago? What has been done about that? I suspect—I fear—that nothing has been done about it. So much for levelling up.
The Government say they are breaking the triple-lock pledge because this year’s earnings measure is “skewed and distorted”. Well, I have heard people say the same thing about this Government’s priorities. Age UK has expressed real concern that this may not just be a one-off measure but a sneaky way of ditching the triple lock altogether. That might explain why there has been no impact assessment. Where is the impact assessment, given we have 2 million pensioners living in poverty and the triple lock is abandoned? That is a staggering oversight and complacency on stilts towards pensioner poverty.
For all those reasons, I support the reasoned amendment from the Scottish National party. This cut, falling on pensioners, will push more pensioners into poverty. The Government know that. The cut disadvantages women, who are more likely to be poorer in retirement. The Government know that. It is yet another kick in the teeth for WASPI women. Just like with the universal credit cut, this Government are imposing cuts that they know will cause real financial distress, but they go ahead anyway. What does that tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker, about their vision of society? The only conclusion that can be drawn is that they do not care about the people they are supposed to serve. No other conclusion can be drawn. This Government have no interest in the greater good, only in sectional interests. That is why inequality is rising and will continue to rise. No wonder support for independence is rising. Increasingly, the people of Scotland want no more of this Government. Scotland needs a Government who govern for all the people with all the powers of an independent country. That is what the people of Scotland will choose.
I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Across the country, the British people are waking up to the fact that a Tory promise is an empty promise. From tax hikes on the lowest earners to drastic reductions in our food and environmental standards, and now the triple lock on pensions, this Government have made it absolutely clear that their manifesto commitments just are not worth the paper they are written on.
This latest U-turn could hardly have come at a worse time. Having endured immense suffering during the pandemic, retired people are now being forced to grapple with the fallout of the Government’s incompetence, from rising inflation to food shortages, and now we have soaring energy prices just as we enter the coldest months of the year. Pensioners are being told they must survive on the lowest state pensions in all of Europe.
The last Labour Government proudly set themselves the goal of ending pensioner poverty in our country, and when they left office, the number of retired people in poverty was at a historic low. After more than a decade of Conservative Governments, nearly a fifth of pensioners are languishing in poverty, with women and black and minority ethnic pensioners disproportionately affected. As the nights draw in and temperatures begin to fall, many older people in my constituency of Birkenhead will be forced to choose between putting a hot meal on the table and heating their homes. As they do, they will undoubtedly be asking themselves how they can ever trust this Government again.
The Secretary of State has justified this measure as a temporary response to the extraordinary conditions created by the pandemic and said that it is impossible to accurately estimate underlying earnings growth. She must now commit to publishing the advice she has been given on this issue.
Millions of people across our country are filled with a sense of dread at the prospect of the coming winter, from overworked and underpaid healthcare workers to families struggling to get by on universal credit. Pensioners are not being and will not be spared from a cost of living crisis that is engulfing our poorest and most vulnerable communities, but that will be nothing compared with the suffering that will be inflicted on retired people in winters to come if the triple lock is not reinstated again in 2023.
As Age UK has warned, we have simply no hope of tackling pensioner poverty without an absolute commitment to the triple lock. As many of my retired constituents look fearfully to the future, I call on the Secretary of State to reaffirm her commitment to the triple lock and to guarantee to the House that this Bill will not be the first step in doing away with this vital safeguard altogether.
As my hon. Friend David Linden said in his excellent speech from the Front Bench, the UK lags far behind most other industrialised countries when it comes to what its Government spend on its older people and their pensions. Most of the EU spends more. The US spends far more. The vast majority of OECD countries spend more.
It should be clear that that is not an accident of history or just an outcome of circumstances; it is the result of decades of deliberate policy decisions by Governments here, including the current Administration. I must ask the question: what exactly is the point of a triple lock, if at any time the Secretary of State and her Cabinet colleagues can jimmy it open and bust open promises that were made not just once, but multiple times over many years?
Just three months ago the Prime Minister’s official spokesman told us,
“we are committed to the triple lock”,
when asked a direct question about its removal. That pledge existed only for as long as it actually meant anything—as soon as actual expenditure on pensions was involved, those promises disappeared quicker than a Prime Ministerial bridge.
This attack on pensioners’ living standards should not be looked at in isolation. As the families of many pensioners are being hammered by rising energy prices, soaring food prices and shortages, regressive tax raids, the scrapping of free TV licences and the shameful cuts to universal credit, this Bill is just the latest attack on the social contract and the welfare state. Those rising energy prices threaten to put more pensioner households into fuel poverty, and removing the triple lock will magnify that impact. Already more than half of single pensioners live in fuel poverty, while 13% of older households live in extreme fuel poverty. Those numbers will undoubtedly grow if today’s Bill is passed. In a wealthy, energy-rich country such as ours, that is an absolute disgrace.
The Bill is not only a betrayal of older people around the country, but economically illiterate. The Government are reducing the spending power available in our economy at the very time our industries need that consumer spending as part of the recovery from covid. The same argument can be said for the shameful cut in universal credit, which could be happening at scarcely a worse moment for all the reasons I have outlined. Moreover, we know that almost every penny of that uplift went directly into the economy, because people had to keep food on the table, clothe their children, keep the lights on and stay warm. The Government will look back on this moment with deep regret, I guarantee it. The political consequences will only be outweighed by the social and human consequences.
The £4.5 billion that the Government propose to keep from pensioners is money that could be circulating in our economy, supporting jobs and businesses on our high streets, stimulating demand in our producers and manufacturers and supporting the recovery. With this change, that money will be lost from our economy and from the job-creating cycle. Pensioners in this country, as has been outlined already, should know that what is offered by the UK Government, and the system they have created, is far below almost every EU country. This Bill is another attempt to decouple the UK from the European and global mainstream, in social security as in so many other areas of life.
Attacking the welfare state has been this Government’s hallmark since the current Prime Minister came to office, since his predecessor came to office, and since her predecessor came to office. Indeed, one can look through the books of Tory Prime Ministers going back decades and pick out one ideological attack after another, not least the disgraceful way that successive UK Governments have treated the WASPI women. If this cut saw the money saved kept in the DWP budget, the Government could at least argue that they were diverting money to different priorities—I do not accept that that would be necessary, but it would at least have some logic to it. However, that is not what is happening. Instead, the Government’s social security policies, combined with the more general havoc they are wreaking on the economy, will leave millions of pensioner households worse off.
In conclusion, the Bill is more evidence of how the UK’s welfare state is becoming something for the history books, rather than a living system. We are a long, long way from the days of Beveridge and the five giants. It is not a route we in Scotland wish to continue down. The UK is sowing the seeds of its own demise by providing its own contrast between an island that forces pensioners and millions more into deeper and deeper poverty while the fat cats continue to collect the cream, with a Europe where security of retirement is a fundamental right supported by the state. In case you have not got the gist yet, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will be voting for the amendment.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow others who have made points very clearly. I support trying to get our finances on an even keel after the massive unexpected expenses of covid, yet something within me balks at what again seems to be a raid on pensioners’ incomes. Is it not so that the Library statistics outline that the potential costs of uprating the triple-locked elements of the state pension by 2.5%, instead of 8.3%, saves £5 billion in state pension expenditure in 2022-23? That seems to be the greater consideration, rather than fairness and equity. Perhaps the Government should be giving more indications of the effect, especially on pensioners.
I spoke to the Minister before the debate. He was kind to come to confirm some matters with me. When he winds up the debate, will he confirm the impact, how this Bill will affect Northern Ireland and how the process will go forward? Northern Ireland pensioners are paying more for products due to the intransigence of the EU perhaps, and they need this additional funding to pay sharply rising costs. Items that cost £1 just a while ago now cost £1.29. We must address the deficit, but that cannot be done fairly through overly taxing those who have paid all their lives and having them shoulder more of the burden than those who can afford to pay more.
I endorse the comment of Patricia Gibson on the WASPI women; my constituency very much falls into the category of others. I think her words were “poorer in retirement”, and I see some of my constituents in that same place.
I want to raise the plight of the 4% of UK pensioners who are excluded from the Bill and have had their state pensions frozen because they happen to live in the wrong country. All pensioners who have paid their dues should be entitled to the full uprated state pension, yet half a million British pensioners living around the world have been left behind year on year. Does the hon. Member agree that it is disgraceful to be leaving our pensioners in that situation without dignity, financial security and respect and that the Government must address those frozen pensions?
I wholeheartedly endorse that. It is always good to have these debates to which others bring their knowledge and information, and the hon. Lady highlights something that clearly needs to be addressed. Perhaps the Minister can give us an indication on that when he concludes the debate.
We should be cementing, investing and encouraging business growth that pays into the Treasury in a natural manner. Wendy Chamberlain referred to her reasoned amendment, which I think shows what those of us on the Opposition Benches are thinking. This is a difficult topic, and I am aware of the pressure of covid-19 on the economy and how my grandchildren—and perhaps their children—may be paying for it throughout their lifetimes. However, I am concerned about how we recoup the money. It cannot be through overly taxing those who have paid all their lives and seeing them shoulder the burden more than those who can afford to pay more. We need—this seems to be a slogan—to stop squeezing the middle class. We should be investing in and encouraging business growth.
Others have referred to pension credit. When I am on the doorstep or at a social occasion, there is not an occasion when I do not speak to someone in that bracket and ask them, “Are you getting all your benefits? Are you getting your tenant’s allowance? Are you getting your pension credit?” Unfortunately, more often than not, many of those people are not getting their benefits. The Government have a role to play in ensuring that those who are not aware of a benefit know that they should be getting it. Will the Minister remind us of where we stand on that?
The figures for Northern Ireland are quite scary: 15% of pensioners—some 43,000 people—are in fuel poverty and overall poverty. That concerns me. Perhaps the Minister can address that. Stephen Timms when referring to universal credit mentioned in passing his reasoned amendment, which was not selected. He also said that, whenever furlough ends, many families will find themselves in a difficult position. I subscribe to that view, as does probably everyone on the Opposition Benches. In Northern Ireland, we are facing gas bill rises of some 35% as winter comes in hard, and those who live in Housing Executive or housing association accommodation that has been converted to gas heating face the double whammy of not just how their pensions are affected but by the cut to universal credit, and they will be squeezed more than ever. Pensioners will therefore be impacted unfairly. This winter will see increasing pressure on pensioners and many more than the 15% will fall into that category.
The right hon. Member for East Ham also referred to those in work, and I will give one quick example from a constituent. This lady said:
“You make a third of your money when you do overtime for the benefit you lose, so I am paid £3 an hour in real terms. While I do take the overtime offered to me if I am able to do it, I can also understand why others don’t. Making up £20 a week is not as easy as many would have us believe today.”
I have long opposed the cut to universal credit, especially as we are coming into winter, when there are additional costs. For the sake of working families in my constituency, I must add my voice to those calling for the money saved by this uprating change and other methods to be factored into the ability of families to afford the gas price increase. We are thinking of capping the pension increase for the most vulnerable sector of people without a real review of how their living costs will increase this year. I do not feel that we can comfortably do that with the limited information provided. Given the increase in the cost of living, as I think the right hon. Member for East Ham said, many will face the stark choice of whether they have a meal or turn the heat on. Those are cold realities for many people.
As we see rises in the cost of living in Northern Ireland, with 20% rises in the cost of food and fuel in the next few weeks, I say with great respect to the Minister and the Government that I must support my pensioners and stand with them. I will support the reasoned amendment and oppose the Bill. The Bill is not right, so I cannot support it.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to close the Bill’s Second Reading for the Opposition. We have heard many good speeches, but, before I turn to them, I want first to deal with the central case that the Government have made for the legislation.
As my hon. Friend Matt Rodda set out in opening for Labour, Opposition Members accept that there has been an anomaly in the earnings data due to the pandemic, and we recognise that a solution is required. I have listened carefully to passionate speeches from colleagues across the House, but I simply do not believe that anyone in the UK believes that wages are rising at 8.3% in real terms across the board. If I were to put that case to my constituents, I think they would very much question my judgment. However, as we said since the announcement was made, the duty is on the Government to explain why their preferred solution—a move to uprating by inflation or 2.5%—is the right one. That duty is particularly important because the triple lock was a Conservative manifesto commitment and, as many hon. Members pointed out, the announcement to break it has come after a series of decisions to break other Conservative manifesto commitments. It is therefore reasonable that the burden of proof lies on the Government and that the threshold for support should be high.
We have had some valuable contributions. David Linden was right to highlight the trust in the Government stemming from the decisions of the last few months. He was also right to point out figures that show that the number of pensioners living in poverty taken by the measurement that he indicated—those living with an income below 60% of the median after their housing costs—is rising. Given that we know overall spending on pensions is going up every year by quite considerable numbers, why are we also seeing that rise in poverty? That is a question for us all and one on which we may need more time in future.
The hon. Member favours auto-enrolment, and I very much agree. The question is about how to do that in a post-pandemic environment. He will understand, however, that I cannot agree when he posits that Scottish independence might be the solution to some of those problems, because an independent Scotland would clearly face some difficult economic decisions in its own right. I do not think it is necessarily helpful to put that across.
Yes, an independent Scotland would face difficult economic decisions, but does the hon. Member accept that the central point of independence is about people in Scotland—the people who live and work there—making those economic decisions?
I understand the basis of any nationalist claim for any sense of self-determination, but—this debate may be taking us a little away from the pensions uprating discussion, Madam Deputy Speaker—we all live on these islands together and, when we look at difficult economic decisions, the strength that we have by being a Union is of benefit to us all. [Interruption.] I will come to the speech by Patricia Gibson, but I do not think there is time for a debate on Scottish independence as part of our discussion of pension upratings.
Dr Spencer made a brave case that the Government might actually lose trust if they held to their manifesto commitments, and I admired the style in which he did it. He wanted a wider debate on the earnings lock, but I would respectfully have to disagree with him on that. I do believe there is a need to maintain the value of the state pension and the objectives of the triple lock are ones we should keep to—many of the reforms in Parliament since I have been here have been based on a provision for the triple lock to take place—but I did appreciate his speech.
Nigel Mills made, as ever, a thoughtful contribution. He questioned the ability—my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East raised this in his opening remarks—to analyse the underlying wage trend taking away the impact of the pandemic. The hon. Member for Amber Valley will know that that has been an open question, and several organisations have tried to do a piece of work on it. Ultimately, I do agree that it is challenging to do so in a way that is unchallengeable, and that is a fair point to make when looking at possible alternatives.
My right hon. Friend Stephen Timms, the Chair of the Select Committee, pointed out that pensioner poverty is rising, as the hon. Member for Glasgow East did, and I think that has to be central to our discussions. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham made the point repeatedly that the question must be how we can increase the take-up of pension credit. He has raised this point consistently, and I know there has been some engagement with the Government Front Bench on it, but I think there is strong support for his words from all sides whenever he raises it. Of course, I believe he was absolutely right to raise the juxtaposition of the decision today with the cut to universal credit, and I believe the case is getting stronger every single day not to proceed with the Government’s cut.
David Johnston raised pension upratings in the past. He will not, I think, mind my saying that if we look at the position say in 1997, when the Labour Government came to power, we see that a third of all pensioners back then lived in poverty. There was a very strong correlation in those days between growing old and being in poverty, and that was reduced to record low levels by the end of that Labour Government, so the record has to be considered in the round. However, I do agree with him, and I have said this myself, that I reject discussion of pension uprating as an issue of intergenerational conflict. I think it is very much about the value of the state pension when today’s workers do retire, and we should never forget that.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran also highlighted the lack of trust stemming from recent Government decisions to break successive manifesto commitments. She obviously strongly opposes this measure. I think what is required is more engagement with the issue of whether the data we have before us is a true and accurate reflection of what we believe is happening in our constituencies. I have said very clearly to her that I do not believe that level of wage growth is the real picture, certainly in a constituency such as mine. Where I do agree with her is that coming, as this decision has, after other manifesto commitments have been broken, that is the context in which our constituents will look at what is happening.
My hon. Friend Mick Whitley also reflected on the run of broken promises and how this has come across to the public. He is absolutely right on pensioner poverty and absolutely right to demand transparency from the Government on this decision and commitments to reassure his constituents.
Gavin Newlands raised the cost of living, and I think that case is getting stronger every day. Again, we will not dwell on it, but I do not believe his analysis of independence as the answer to that is the right way forward.
Jim Shannon was not convinced of the Government’s case either. He was also right to raise particular issues in Northern Ireland about the post-Brexit trading situation and the impact on his people as a result—something about which I think all the House shares concerns. Of course, he is again absolutely right about the impact of the universal credit cut.
However, there is no doubt that the most valuable contribution and perhaps the one of most interest was from the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Sir Iain Duncan Smith. Again, we have heard in the debate, and it is something I have said myself, that the triple lock is not a straightforward question of an intergenerational clash, and I know some people have concerns about linking the two issues together. However, I do believe he was right to raise—and to attempt to have his own amendment on—the impact of that universal credit cut, which we discussed in depth last week. I believe that the case against it gets stronger with every single day, and I would appeal to noble Lords in the other place to give this matter the due consideration that has not quite been possible today, but is still very valid.
On the reasoned amendment moved by Wendy Chamberlain, this is an opportunity to discuss the wider context in which this decision has been taken and it makes reference to the universal credit cut that is imminent. However, while the amendment makes passing reference to that, its main argument is that there has been no anomaly, which is not the position of the Labour Front Bench. I can tell the House that I have had my own discussions with the Office for National Statistics, and I am very satisfied that the case for the 8.3% figure is, frankly, unsound.
I know there is an argument for simply insisting on a rise of 8.3%, but I do not believe that that is a responsible course of action. We make the case for the Government to change course on the universal credit cut, but that is because the Government can do so, it is the right decision and it is very much in the national interest, but I do not think, frankly, that the same factors apply to the decision before us today. Again, it goes back to whether we ultimately believe that that is the correct rate of wage growth or earnings growth across the economy as a whole.
For that reason, I will not be supporting the reasoned amendment, and I do not see much merit in dividing the House on Second Reading. However, we will be seeking to interrogate the Minister during future stages of the Bill, and we will be looking for the reassurances and that transparency we have sought since the original decision and announcement were made. Therefore, we look forward to the remaining stages of the Bill.
I thank the 13 colleagues who have contributed to a wide-ranging debate. The Bill makes technical changes to set aside the earnings link for 2022-23. We will instead increase the relevant pensions and benefits by at least the higher of inflation or 2.5%. This approach will ensure that pensioners’ spending power is preserved and that they are protected from the higher cost of living, but it will also take into account the difficult decisions elsewhere across public spending.
The practical reality is that many issues were raised tonight, not least pensioner poverty. I would respectfully remind the House that pensioner poverty is going down, not up. As a result of the triple lock since 2010, the full yearly basic state pension has increased by £2,050 in cash terms. There are 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty, both before and after housing costs, as compared with 2009-10, and material deprivation—an alternative way of measuring poverty—is at an all-time low of 6% of pensioners.
I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I am delighted he is still in his post. He talked about pensioner poverty, but rather idiosyncratically, he is using the absolute measure. The much more widely used measure is the relative measure of poverty, on which the analysis of Independent Age is based, and on that much more widely used measure, pensioner poverty is of course going up.
I am not going to repeat the points I have made, but I manifestly disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. I would point out that we could add on the £24 billion of top-ups that this Government put forward over and above the £105 billion of state pension, so with respect we are in disagreement. There is also a significant degree of support for winter fuel, NHS prescriptions, free eye tests, the over-75s free TV licence and a variety of other matters.
No, not for the moment.
SNP Members raised many points, and I want to address them. No mention was made, surprisingly, of the powers under sections 24, 26 and 28 of the Scotland Act 2016, which give the Scottish Government the ability to intervene on such matters, should they wish to do so, including the WASPI matters. No mention was made in answer to my hon. Friend Douglas Ross, who asked what currency an independent Scottish pension would be paid in. No mention was made of the ability to pay Scottish pensions upon independence, because of course answer there is none.
Reference was made to pension credit take-up, and I want to address the points made.
I am about to answer the points the hon. Lady raised specifically, if she will bear with me.
Pension credit take-up was raised. We are doing a variety of things on that, including the pension credit awareness day in June, the engagement with the BBC—I met its chief executive only last week—the stakeholder roundtable in May, and the working group established with all the key partners in this matter, let alone the various other ways in which we have changed things and the over 11 million communications to pensioners up and down the country. The Government are proud of their record.
I am reminded by the Secretary of State that that is a transferred matter, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware that pension credit take-up is increasing, as is the amount of pension credit going to individuals.
I must turn briefly to the reasoned amendment, which was put forward by a solitary Lib Dem—admittedly, there are not many of them in 2021 so I understand that. It used to be a serious party—a party that understood the fiscal pressures facing Government. Now, to be blunt, it is being reduced to a party of protest, with, it seemed to me, about 15% of its MPs conducting their party conference in the backroom of a Travelodge somewhere on a business park. The practical reality is that the party of Asquith, Gladstone, even Ashdown, is now putting forward something devoid of ideas. It is a party of protest. and we do not agree with it in any way.
We are proud of the fact that last year, when we had no obligation to do so, we took the dramatic and important decision to raise the state pension by 2.5%. We will be raising the state pension by prices or 2.5% when this Bill passes, and pensioners will be protected on an ongoing basis, so I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put, That the amendment be made.