Workers (Economic Affairs Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:04 pm on 8 February 2024.

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Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative 1:04, 8 February 2024

My Lords, I too begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Bridges for the report. It is an incisive report and is good at defining problems, but we are still left looking for the solutions. I also welcome back my friend the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky. I applaud his contribution and am very pleased that he is now back with us in this House.

As I said, this report is a good definition of the problems, but the last thing we are going to get in an election year is any solution to them. I see the problems as falling into three separate parts: what you might call the voluntary part, the sickness part and the structural part. The voluntary part is quite simply that people have decided that it is a very good idea to retire. I was very fortunate that, thanks to the pension reforms for MEPs passed by Margaret Thatcher—I will not hear a bad word said against her—I was able to retire on a full pension at 60. I have always been very grateful to that good lady for that.

The big thing about retiring is that you no longer have anyone telling you what to do. It is not that I stopped doing any work—in fact, I probably work just as hard—but no longer was there any compulsion. No longer was the diary out saying that I had to do this or that, so I can well understand the attraction of early retirement. Of course, thanks to George Osborne, if you have private means you can now retire at around 55 with a SIPP and a lot of people have decided to do just that.

I know one or two in my city of Cambridge who have decided that they had better retire. A number of them work in the medical profession, then go back as locums to do part-time work so that they can supplement their income but be retired. There is nothing wrong with that and nothing we can do about it. It is a free choice in a free society. The Government could look at upping the age at which you can acquire a pension from your SIPPs, but they cannot and really should not do much about people using their voluntary idea of retiring and leaving the labour force. In the experience of my friends who have retired, they are often doing something pretty useful afterwards.

We then get to the next category, which is where all the money is going. The claims for PIPs have doubled recently, so I am told, and the costs are going to go up because 2.8 million people are now unable to work. It is going to be a challenge for this Government and the next Government, whoever they may be, to sort out how to bring under control social security payments. However much we may think that they are under control, they are clearly not. Not only does the ONS have great problems with the statistics but there seems to be an eternal moving up.

The noble Lord, Lord Layard, who is not in his place, made a very good point about the costs of mental illness. He reminded me of another noble Member of this House, my noble friend Lord Hammond. When he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, I met him on a number of occasions. I recall that on one of them he said to me, “You know, Richard, the trouble is quite simple. There is lots of ‘invest’ but I never see any of the ‘save’”, and this is a problem. We can always say that if we put more money in we will get a dividend out, but I am afraid that we have to tackle the issue of depression in society because if people are too depressed to work, that is a problem. My colleague—I am not sure I am entitled to call him my friend—the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, had a point when he talked about the way in which the working people of this country have gradually had their rights pushed backwards.

Noble Lords will know that I have often stood here and said that we need a much better working relationship with the Trades Union Congress and the labour movement. This is not a left-wing policy. In the European Parliament, where I spent most of my political life, what were known as the “Christian unions”—the right-wing unions—played an important part in the development of policy. Indeed, we had a trade union group in the Christian Democrats when I sat with them in the European Parliament.

We have to look at the conditions of work, and we have to stop regarding workers as latter-day slaves to be pushed around. We have to realise, as Winston Churchill did, that they need to be treated with dignity, compassion and respect. That is the way to get the best out of the workforce. You do not get it through brutalism. If it is the policy of one of the parties in this Chamber to let people carry interest on their ill-gotten gains in private equity, and then not be able to afford to look after working people, that is very sad. One of the lessons in the report, for me, is the need to treat people better and to be better in the way we approach our industrial relations.