Report (1st Day)

Part of Pensions Bill – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 24th February 2014.

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Photo of Lord Browne of Ladyton Lord Browne of Ladyton Labour 3:45 pm, 24th February 2014

My Lords, I support my noble friend’s amendment—and, having listened to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord German, I am delighted that I do not have to answer the questions that he posed. I suspect that the noble Lord who is the Minister for Welfare Reform had wanted to avoid having to give a date as to when the universal credit system will be functioning well enough to provide the sort of functionality that the noble Lord, Lord German, seems to think that the alternative to this amendment requires. I will listen carefully to the Minister’s response and write down any date that he gives us in relation to that. It is also a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Morris, who speaks with significant experience of, and great authority about, the workings of the modern labour market, and who has assisted us greatly in understanding the need for this amendment.

As my noble friend said, this issue was debated in the Commons and in Committee at some length. I have considered carefully the various government responses, as my noble friends Lady Hollis and Lady Drake clearly have. They are to be congratulated for having produced here what could be described as an elegant, permissive, statutory device that adds to the Minister’s armoury in his desire,

“to seize this issue head-on”.—[ Official Report , 18/12/13; col. GC 328.]

He used that phrase in our debate when he expressed equal concern—the words are mine—as the rest of us about this issue. I believed, as did all those who were present debating the issue, that he shared our concerns. Indeed, in his contribution to the debate he indicated why he had come to that conclusion.

In support of the arguments that I set out in my own contribution in Grand Committee, I simply want to make three points today. First, the phenomenon of people working in two or more low-earning jobs is not a limited one. They are often on zero-hours contracts but certainly on short hours, with each job under the level at which national insurance contributions are made, and are therefore not building up a contributions record towards the state pension. Nor indeed is it a temporary phenomenon, as has been argued, often coming at the end of a working life. Nor is it an experience limited to rural communities, although it is very prevalent there.

Since I shared the content of my overheard conversation on the Transport for London overground train, I have consciously inquired of young people whom I meet in this city and back home in Scotland how many of them are working for more than one employer. For noble Lords who have not heard this short anecdote, I will repeat it. A few days before we debated this matter in Committee, I overheard a conversation among three young people on an overground train as I was making my way home from your Lordships’ House. It was very clear to me that they had all been working together in what I suppose we would call a mini-job and that they each had two other jobs.

What was significant about them was that two were graduates and the third certainly had a tertiary level of education. I found that surprising. I do not know why I found it surprising, but it caused me to inquire the same of other young people, and I have come to the view that this is the norm for thousands of young people in the first phase of their employed life, even for graduates. It is a significant feature of a flexible labour market and, along with zero-hours contracts, it is part of the reason that politicians, particularly Ministers, and employers celebrate its flexibility. Undoubtedly the number of people in this situation is growing, not declining.

The question of numbers leads me to repeat a point I made in Grand Committee, which has already been made by my noble friends. The Government assert that there are about 50,000 people in this category. I am not convinced by their estimate of the scale of the problem. That is based not on my experience but on evidence that has already been referred to. We await the outcome of the—I think still anticipated—BIS consultation on zero-hours contracts, which was promised in October and is due to report by the end of March, but I have not seen a lot of evidence of it. We should reflect on the fact that in the fourth quarter of 2012, the ONS estimated that there were 250,000 people on zero-hours contracts. However, a contemporaneous survey of employers by the CIPD estimated that in fact the figure was around 1 million.

As we have heard, the union Unite estimates that as many as 5.5 million people are employed on such contracts up and down the UK. Following the CIPD estimate, the ONS conceded that the Labour Force Survey, which is based on responses by individuals, more than likely understated the numbers. The ONS then announced, as my noble friends have told your Lordships’ House, that it would change the way it collected its data from autumn 2013,

“so as to obtain more robust data”.

The importance of this contradictory information is not that it goes directly to the heart of the estimate from the Government, but that clearly it must have informed the Government’s estimate. None of the estimates that the Government have for the scale of this problem is at all reliable. Therefore, your Lordships cannot be convinced that a strategy based on unreliable statistics is a reliable strategy.

Finally, the Government’s responses appear complacent. Steve Webb, the Pensions Minister, suggested in the Commons that there was only a tenuous link between having multiple jobs below the LEL and being unable to build up the required 35 years’ contributions, and referred to this problem as a temporary phenomenon. In our debates in Grand Committee, the Minister promised that universal credit would resolve the issue. The noble Lord, Lord German, has already gone through the pros and cons of that in some detail, and my noble friend Lady Hollis significantly undermined that argument by pointing out the categories of people who are in these jobs who would be denied universal credit in the first place and therefore the consequent crediting of national insurance contributions.

I say with respect to the noble Lord, Lord German, that that is the one point of our argument that he did not engage with. Even if universal credit is the answer for some of those people, it cannot be the answer for all people in this category, and in the absence of reliable statistics, it is not easy to see what proportion of people would benefit from a universal credit system that met the coincidence of engagement with the challenge that the noble Lord, Lord German, set out.

What do we need? We need an alternative. We can have no confidence that the approach of either the Pensions Minister or the noble Lord, Lord Freud, will be sufficient. If it is not, the net effect will not only be to deny access to the modern pension system to a significant number of people, most of whom will be the least well paid working people in our society. As the numbers grow—and they will—it will also, in the long term, severely undermine the pensions policy that is now agreed across your Lordships’ House, because it will increase the number of people who have to depend on means testing in retirement.

We support the amendment tabled by my noble friend. We want to make it clear that this is a solution for now, in the context of the Bill. We hope the amendment will be agreed and will become law. It will then be for the Government to take it away and for the Minister to seize the opportunity to use it to address the issue head-on.