[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair] — Pensioner Poverty

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:30 am on 23rd February 2010.

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Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 10:30 am, 23rd February 2010

I congratulate my hon. Friend Jo Swinson on securing the debate on this important matter. As we have heard, she has a track record of raising such matters, including Equitable Life, and I thought that her contribution was characteristically well researched and comprehensive. She has done the House a service by giving us the chance to debate these vital issues. Various facets of pensioner poverty have been discussed, particularly the position of women, to which I will return.

I also want to thank the Minister. Rather than sitting for an hour twiddling her thumbs before reading out a prepared text, she has intervened on several occasions to make her points, which was entirely welcome. Therefore, I will save her the trouble of reading out her prepared text. In such debates Ministers tell Members all the things the Government have done to improve take-up, for example, or to address all the matters that have been talked about, but the point my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire and others have made is that, after all the things the Government have done, such as the take-up campaigns, we still have vast pensioner poverty, rising fuel poverty and very poor take-up. The question is not what the Government have done, but what will they do to address the aspects of poverty that are still very much with us, because pensioner poverty, as Jeremy Corbyn said, is a blight on our society. It should be the role of the state, not necessarily to deliver, but certainly to ensure that pensioner poverty is defeated. The fact that successive Governments have failed so lamentably on that is a shame on us all.

Mr. Pelling and my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire referred to the position of women. One facet of the changing pensions landscape that is prejudicial to women has not had the attention it deserves. John Mason mentioned the demise of final salary pension schemes. Although they tended to reinforce the gap between men and women, because men tended to earn more, when we switched to money purchase schemes we found that they were biased against women because women tend to live longer. Under such schemes, a man and a woman could start the same job at adjacent desks, leave their work at the same age and earn precisely the same amount of money, but the man will get the bigger pension. He will not live as long, so the total pot of money would be the same, but it is not much consolation for someone living in poverty to be told, "Don't worry. You can have a long period of poverty, rather than a shorter period on a higher income." Can the Government just watch the shift to defined contribution schemes, which are biased against women, and the introduction of personal accounts, or National Employment Savings Trust pensions, which are part of a whole new system of defined contribution pensions that will also be biased against women, relative to state provision, for example, which is unisex?

The Government cannot stand idly by and watch those things happen. I fully accept that the April 2010 changes are welcome, as the Minister said, but they create a cliff edge that means that women who are born perhaps a day too early will miss out on the whole improvement. I fully accept that there has to be a day when things change, but when the change is so substantial, the onus is on the Government to avoid those cliff edges and phase things in so that those who reached pension age in 2008-09 could have some proportion of the benefit of the changes, which would be a better step.