Fairness in Pension Provision

– in Westminster Hall at 3:58 pm on 8th April 2014.

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Photo of Brian H Donohoe Brian H Donohoe Labour, Central Ayrshire 3:58 pm, 8th April 2014

It is good to see you in your place, Mrs Riordan. You, too, have a great interest in pensions, in the fairness of the system and in applying that fairness.

Since I was a very young person, I have always accepted that pension provision is part of deferred income and should be treated by employers and Government as such. All my life, I have believed that fairness should be applied to the whole question of pensions. At the bottom of this debate in many respects, however, is the unfairness in the application of the state pension scheme over a great number of years. I commend the Government for some of the changes to the scheme, making it much simpler than it was, but there is still a long way to go in terms of how we see the future for some elements of the situation. I will cover that later.

I come before the Chamber mainly because of the many constituents who came to see me to complain about the system. None of the three I will mention is after anything for themselves. They all accept that they are at an age when nothing further can be done for them, but by making themselves available to public scrutiny they want to help and protect those who follow to have a more level playing field.

I want to talk first about Ann Aitken, a constituent of mine for some time. She, as well as the other two, has worked since she was 15. She worked for ICI locally in various jobs, and then went to a knitwear company. She took five years off employment to bring up her first child and afterwards worked in shops and factories, before going to a local computer company, Fullerton Fabrication. Since then, she has worked in Crown Paints for some 22 years. She retires this Thursday, so I congratulate her.

Ann wants to bring to the attention of the House what she sees as an anomaly. Over that whole period, she never put her hand out for any form of Government assistance, other than the credits available for the times off she took. That would be in connection with the additional state pension. She is a friendly person and, from talking to her friends, has discovered that her additional state pension is less than that of someone who has never worked. She receives something like £16.22 for the additional state pension, while others she knows receive £21. Although she took five years off, she got no tax credits, because no such thing existed, yet she is now facing the penalty. She has a simple question: what reward was there for her working? What reward has she had for all the years that she has given? She hopes that her situation will not be repeated in future. That is what Ann is concerned about and why she has raised the issue with me.

The second person I want to talk about is Jean Dickson, another constituent who has come to me about her position. She worked from the age of 15, for all her days. Sadly, she lost her husband in 1998, and was grateful for the widow’s pension she received as a consequence, but she has worked all her days, even taking five years out to improve her educational standards. Latterly, she was employed as a nurse in an acute surgical area of the hospital. She, too, says, “Look, I have a state pension, and I am very grateful for it”, and it will be £566 per month. In addition, because of the occupational pension, she is receiving £240 per month before tax. As a result of her husband having a pension, she receives another £300 per year. As a consequence of the unfairness that I will cover in the latter stages of my presentation, she receives £166 per annum for the state earnings-related pension scheme, SERPS. In her last job, she paid 6.5% of her pay towards superannuation, so she still feels that there is injustice in her situation. She retired in October 2012, but is being penalised for working all her days, compared with those who perhaps were not.

The third case is that of Lawrence Clark, who came to see me and whose case particularly caught my imagination. He started working at the age of 15, similarly to people such as myself and my colleagues—he is of our age group. He started as a trainee accountant at Hyster, a local company, and went on to work for various companies, including Simpson Turner as a toolmaker. He moved on to Wilson Sporting Goods, another local company, where he worked for 25-odd years. He then worked for Digital, a local company that went bust, and for Scottish Golf Cast, which again lasted a few months. He ended up at the charity Quarriers for 15 years.

After that working life, he has managed to accrue £97 a month from his Wilson Sporting Goods occupational pension and £223 as a consequence of his work at Quarriers. In addition to that, on the basis of advice he received—another point I want to address in my conclusion—he paid towards a private pension that gives him something like £14 a month. From November 2015 he is going to receive a state pension of £123 a week. He is saying that, after 47 years, as a consequence of all that, as well as of being unemployed—if that is the right terminology for him—up until that point next November, he gets £60 a week for his pension credit guarantee, whereas others are apparently receiving £140. If he had not paid something like £30,000 into a superannuation scheme, he believes that he would currently be better off per week until he retires. That seems very unfair, and it should be looked at. He thinks that, had he not taken out a private pension or been involved in superannuation, he would have been better off. That is the unfairness that those three constituents believe they face.

I have outlined three cases in which there are problems with the pension provision directly, but we can also compare other aspects of the life they have lived with those of other people. Others have had free dentistry, free prescriptions for glasses, and housing benefit has been part of their scheme. The situation may have changed in Scotland now, but some people had to pay for their prescriptions all their lives. I am not saying for a minute that it is wrong that unemployed individuals are receiving these elements, but those three constituents say that perhaps more concern should be given to how they deal with the situation and how the Government deal with their problems.

On that basis, I want to broaden the argument. That is the difficulty for each of those individuals, but the position is more general too. The problem is that the great mass of people in this country do not have a clue, when they are aged 25, 35 or 55, about what provision they are making. They do not know what the result of their contributions will be for their pension. This issue has plagued me over the years, and it still does. Even here in the House, there are hundreds of Members of Parliament who do not have a clue what their pension provision is, and I say that as someone responsible for trying to educate them about that. It is clear that there must be a fundamental shift—information must be provided to every individual in this country to make them aware of the provision and advice available.

I commend the Government, because at the very least, and on the basis of all-party agreement, we now have financial advisers who are independent—in every sense of the word—in the advice they are giving. It used to be that financial advisers worked for companies on commission. The same individuals now charge for their services. That, at the very least, is a bit fairer, or gives the impression of being fairer.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

I certainly remember the early ’80s when people were encouraged to take out a private pension, but unless they worked for a reputable company it was not explained how a private pension could sometimes affect the state pension. There must be thousands of people in that situation in this country. Whatever my views about the Government’s pension proposals, at least they will explain them to people. When I worked at Rolls-Royce, it spent a lot of money trying to persuade us away from the state pension to a private pension scheme and to some extent we got reasonable advice, but I can think of other car companies in the Coventry area where even today there are still problems with pensions.

Photo of Brian H Donohoe Brian H Donohoe Labour, Central Ayrshire

My hon. Friend has focused on an issue that was dear to my heart and about which I argued forcefully when a previous Administration allowed people to contract out of their company’s superannuation scheme. I was a joint secretary of the Scottish Transport Group when, for the first time in about 1982, people were given the opportunity of opting out of its pension fund and going private. I argued forcefully with everyone and anyone that that was a big mistake, that they were leaving themselves open and that when they eventually retired they would find themselves in a different situation. We had what was recognised at the time to be the best pension scheme—perhaps not as good as that for MPs, but certainly a very good pension scheme. Some people are now in a worse position because they were pounced on by supposedly independent financial advisers who told them that they would be far better off in a private scheme, when the truth was the exact opposite.

Many years ago, I was a convener and shop steward in a shipyard where the blue-collar workers were not in a pension scheme. I argued with the employer and succeeded in persuading them to introduce a scheme. That company is still in my constituency and I still have people telling me, some 40 years later, that it was the best thing that was ever done and that they have never been better off after taking advice and voting overwhelmingly to join that scheme. I do not know whether I am an anorak in terms of pensions, but I believe that making provision for a pension is more important than anything else in life. People should understand that, and do so earlier.

I seek clarification on one or two points, but I want to make a plea to the Minister. How widely defined are “employees” and “new arrangements”? Are the self- employed, carers and the unemployed included? They exclude zero-hours contracts and people who may have two part-time jobs. That is unfair and should be looked at.

I have grave reservations about the new scheme because people will be able to take out money and go on a world cruise or buy a Ferrari. That worries me. It will send the signal to many people who do not understand pensions that they can draw on that money, but at the end of the day they will be a lot worse off. I want an assurance that they will be protected. Financial advice is important, and that must be stated clearly.

A business man came to me and said that every business man in the UK received a letter from No. 10 Downing street telling them about the advantages of the latest Budget proposals on national insurance from 6 April. Will the Minister have a word with No. 10 Downing street to see to it that every single person in the country is sent a letter telling them how fundamental it is for them to look after their old age, and telling them that if they were to die in service, that would be looked at as far as their families are concerned? If I get that assurance, I will go back to my constituents and tell them that the debate has been worth while. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions 4:15 pm, 8th April 2014

I congratulate Mr Donohoe on securing the debate. We have a common interest in quality pension provision, fairness and making things simpler for people. I entirely accept the premise that we have allowed the pension system to become bafflingly complicated. I entirely accept his point—not only do not all of our colleagues understand the pension system, but why should a member of the public understand contracting out, guaranteed minimum pensions and all the rest of it? A central drive of the state pension reform—I am grateful to him for his positive comments on that—is to sweep a great deal of that away and to have a single, simple, decent state pension set at a rate that people know. They will get that pension for 35 years in the system, contributions or credits, with no contracting out and no differences if they have been in a company scheme. That is the world that we are moving to.

Clearly, the hon. Gentleman’s constituents have spent their working life in a very different world. I want to say a word about one of the reasons why some of them—without full details it is difficult to comment on individual cases—might be getting less state pension than their neighbour. They might think that that is unfair, but it may not be unfair, because there is something else going on that they are not really aware of, namely the whole business of contracting out, which is about to be abolished. A number of his constituents, whom he mentioned by name, worked for firms that had a workplace pension scheme.

Under the principle of contracting out, the operators of the scheme, not the individual, decided that the scheme would be contracted out of the state earnings-related pension scheme. As a result, the scheme would pay less national insurance and, crucially, the hon. Gentleman’s constituents would pay less national insurance than their neighbours who worked at a factory that was not contracted out. Imagine there are two factories side by side, one of which has a company pension scheme and the other of which does not. At the factory with the company pension scheme that chooses to contract out of SERPS, all the employees in the scheme pay less national insurance than the employees at the factory that does not have a workplace pension scheme.

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The Minister says : "I congratulate Mr Donohoe on securing the debate. We have a common interest in quality pension provision, fairness and making things simpler for people. I entirely accept the premise that we have allowed the pension system to become bafflingly complicated".
BUT no quality pension provision or fairness should a pensioner emigrate to join his family already living abroad in some countries but not others. This is the real position that the minister never likes to talk about and never mentions because of the embarrassment to himself and his failing after pushing for equality and fairness for ex-pat pensioners who are frozen.
The removal of regulation 3 should be a priority for a truly honest minister plus the removal of the clause 20 in the new bill.

Submitted by George Morley Read 2 more annotations

Photo of Brian H Donohoe Brian H Donohoe Labour, Central Ayrshire

I am not talking about the person who is in another scheme; I am talking about the person who is in those schemes and who has everything coming their way, but who has never contributed anything to it. It is important to stress that I am not saying that we have to reduce the amount that they live on. I would not live on £130 a week, and I doubt whether the Minister would. The fact is that the situation is seen as unfair. If the new scheme will overcome that problem, it is a great idea.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

It will to some extent, for reasons that I will explain. When an individual is contracted out, they will receive a smaller state pension than they would have done, because they are building up only a basic state pension, not SERPS. However, they will not get a smaller pension than they would have done, because the company promises to match the SERPS pension that they would otherwise have received. When somebody retires and says, “I am only getting 16 quid of SERPS”, what matters is not the SERPS figure—in a sense, they might be getting zero SERPS—but the SERPS figure plus the occupational pension promise together.

Photo of Brian H Donohoe Brian H Donohoe Labour, Central Ayrshire

But they have paid for that.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

They have paid for it, but they have also saved by paying less national insurance. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about people who have not worked, and I will come on to them. In a world of contracting out, if person A pays less national insurance but still gets the same pension as their neighbour who was not contracted out, that would not be fair either. Fairness has a number of dimensions. The fact that someone has a £16 SERPS pension does not tell us anything in isolation; it depends on whether they paid less national insurance than their neighbour for years and years, which is why they have got a lower SERPS pension, but they have got something else instead. That is part of the system.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the position of people who have done nothing, and I often hear from pensioners who say, “Why did I bother saving? If I had done nothing, I would have got everything.” Part of the point of the single-tier pension is to set the value of the state pension above the basic means test, not 30-odd quid below, where it is now. Automatic enrolment then takes people further above that figure. As a result, because they have saved, they are clear of the means test and they are better off than someone who has done nothing. That is a new feature of the new system, because we are trying to address that point.

The hon. Gentleman has said that people who do nothing get stuff for free. He is not saying that poor people should not get stuff for free, but we cannot have it both ways. He is not saying that poor people should not get stuff for free, but we cannot have it both ways. If we think we have to look after people who have got nothing, and they get free prescriptions because they have no money to pay for them, we cannot then say, “But that is not fair to people who work, because they do not get them for free.”

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

Well, temporarily they do. Unless we give everybody everything free, we must recognise that we sometimes do things for poor people because it is right to. Inevitably there will be an element of people who work and think, “It is not fair; I do not get that free.” However, as part of a civilised society I do not want people who have no income to be unable to afford medicines. That is just the way it is. If we give everyone free prescriptions and free everything, we will just tax everyone to the hilt. I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, and the new state pension system will start to address that point by setting levels of pension above the basic means test.

Automatic enrolment will be a huge step towards pensions for the millions of people who may never understand them, because the firm chooses it for people, puts them in for it, and puts money in. We put tax relief in, and people are free to opt out. Nine out of 10 are staying in, which is fantastic. Just as the hon. Gentleman got the pension scheme extended to shipyard workers, as I think he said, we are extending pensions to 10 million people, many of whom are low paid or part-time—many will be women or people on the edge of the labour market, and they are just the sort of people who would not otherwise have had a pension. That is a huge step forward in the spirit of what the hon. Gentleman achieved for his constituents all those years ago, and it will bring millions more in.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the scope of auto-enrolment. It is about employment and an employment relationship. There must be an employer to pay the employer contribution. The self-employed are not in auto-enrolment, but they do well out of the new state pension scheme, because at the moment the self-employed class 2 national insurance builds up only the basic pension, not the SERPS bit. In our new world, there is no distinction—there is just the pension; so every year in which a self-employed person puts in, in future, will be more valuable than now. That person will be building up 35ths of the whole pension, not 30ths of the basic state pension. So the self-employed will get better provision.

Carers, unless they are in a contract of employment, will not be auto-enrolled, because there will be no employer to put them in a scheme. However, they will be credited into the 35 years of full single-tier pension, so a carer will build up, every year, a 35th of the £144 pension—or whatever it will end up as. There is provision for carers in the new system.

Most people on zero-hours contracts work 20-odd hours a week, and as long as, at some point, they trigger auto-enrolment—as long as they earn above the threshold, ever—they will be put in. If I am on a zero-hours contract and work zero, zero, zero, zero, and then 20 hours over a pay period and go above the trigger, my employer has a legal duty to put me in. There are complexities about waiting periods and the rest, but the basic principle is that I must be put in once I am over the trigger. Once I am in, if there is a week when I have no earnings, of course no money goes in; but if there is a week when I do have earnings, money goes in. I do not fall out of the pension. Once I am in, I am in. Auto-enrolment happens once. It is triggered by earning above the threshold once in a pay period.

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The Minister talks about fairness and poor people and says that the new state pension system will start to address that point by setting levels of pension above the basic means test.
What he does'nt say is that it will be frozen if you retire to a country not preferred by the government - which is mainly directed at the Commonwealth where the pension purchasing value will gradually drop due to inflation and they will be tomorrows poor people living in poverty even though they qualify and have paid for the indexing during their working life.
This is government fairness !
Removal of clause 20 from the Pensions Bill would fix this !

Submitted by George Morley

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

My problem with what the Minister has said about zero-hours contracts is that surely a situation is possible in which someone falls below the threshold because there is not continuity of employment. That is a “suck it and see” situation. How would the Minister deal with that, 40 years down the road?

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

A zero-hours contract is a contract. If someone has a contract of employment, in the weeks or months—whatever the period is—when they are above the earnings threshold, money goes into the pension. We will not insist on pension contributions being made in weeks when people do not earn any money. How would they put money in?

I think the zero-hours contract argument is greatly overdone, in the sense that the typical person on a zero-hours contract does 20 hours a week, on average. It may vary—when they earn a lot in a good week, they will put a lot into the pension; when they earn less, in a bad week, less will go in. As long as they get work through the contract they will be in a pension, possibly for the first time. I think that many people on zero-hours contracts will do better, because employers would not generally have put them in a pension at all. We are making that happen.

As to people with multiple jobs, a small number of people have jobs that, taken together, would put them into the system, but, taken separately, do not. Sometimes they will have children, and if they do they are credited in the state system anyway. Only 35 years of contributions are needed for a full pension, so someone might not make contributions for a number of years and still get a full pension.

The House of Lords, in about half an hour, I think, is going to talk about the issue in the debate on the Pensions Bill. We will gather more data on it. We think the issue is small, but clearly we need to ensure that we know what is going on. The number of women, for example, doing multiple part-time jobs went down in the past 12 months, so we do not think that the assumption that the numbers are all going up and that it will all get worse is borne out by the data. However, it is a serious point and we will look into it.

The hon. Gentleman is right that people often do not have a clue. It would be lovely to think that one letter from Downing street would fix things. I have two views on the matter. We need to make sure that pensions work for people who do not get it and never will, because with the best will in the world, expecting tens of millions of people to understand all this stuff is a heck of an ask. For me, we have to make sure that the system works for people who do not understand it and do not make active choices. That is where the state pension reforms come in.

Photo of Brian H Donohoe Brian H Donohoe Labour, Central Ayrshire

Could a booklet be prepared for people at jobcentres?

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

We look at lots of different ways of communicating with people. The thing that we know most of all is that if we opt people in to pensions and they have to opt out, they stay in. We could have hand-printed 1 million booklets—I could have delivered them and sat down for half an hour with each person, and I would not have persuaded them. We have used the power of inertia and what we know about how people behave to get them in as 1 million Government advertising campaigns would never have done.

We are going to include financial education in the national curriculum. That is a good thing. Under the Budget measures that the hon. Gentleman referred to, people will have a guidance guarantee, so before they make their choices, they will have the right to a face-to-face conversation with somebody who is not trying to sell them anything, as he said. It is not independent financial advice—they can pay for that separately if they want; it is just a conversation that they have never had a right to before that will enable them to make informed choices. If they want to spend some of their pension money up-front, it is their money to spend, but we are making sure that there is a state pension system in place, so that even if they underestimate how long they will live—blow the lot, or whatever—they will have that floor of the state pension above the means test that they do not currently have.

I want to mention something else that may be of interest to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who reach state pension age under the current system. We are allowing people to top up their state pension if they want to. If someone has a bit of savings and they want to pay voluntary national insurance, under a new category of national insurance for people who have already retired, or who will do shortly—we are calling it class 3A or the additional state pension top-up—they can pay national insurance and get an extra pension for the rest of their life. That will be index-linked. There will be survivors’ benefits if they die. We think that will appeal to a set of people who perhaps have very low interest on their savings currently and are getting nothing in the bank. From October 2015—there are helplines, websites and all the rest of it—they can make additional contributions and enhance their pension if they wish. That is another option that we have created for today’s pensioners.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the guarantee credit. The constituent that he mentioned, if I understood him correctly, is above women’s state pension age, so qualifies for pension credit, but has not reached men’s state pension age. Clearly, in that period, we are saying to people who have no other income, “Here is an income that we think you need to live on, but if all you have is half of it, we will top you up to the full amount.” In theory, people could have nothing at all and get the full amount, which I think was the point that he made.

However, bear in mind conditionality on benefits. We do not allow people just to get jobseeker’s allowance for doing nothing all day. In a different debate, his colleagues might be saying to me, “We are far too strict with these folk. We are sanctioning them when we should not be”—and all the rest of it. The rules are pretty tight, so the option of sitting at home all day and doing nothing, and getting credits for a state pension, is one that we are essentially eliminating. People get credits for their state pension and so on only if they are actively seeking work, applying for jobs and doing the things we expect them to do. We do not have the system whereby people can just do nothing and then cash in. There are an awful lot of conditions and requirements on people receiving benefits.

We have tried to recognise that the system has been fiendishly complicated in the past—we accept that—and to simplify it so that it is simpler and fairer, particularly to older women, many of whom have done very badly out of the system. We have tried to ensure that everyone is in a workplace pension as far as possible and that that is good quality and good value, and to put new freedoms and guidance alongside that. I hope that, as a result, we will have a much fairer system in the future than we have had in the past.

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In the waffle by the Pensions Minister he said :"they can pay national insurance and get an extra pension for the rest of their life. That will be index-linked".
Is he positive about that ? Why then would he deny those pensioners who he now freezes their rightful indexed pension ? Of because they are in a wrong country which makes a difference ? Never any justification or valid reason for cheating a fully qualified paid up pensioner but they don't matter any more do they ? I suspect that the pensioners he mentioned here will suffer the same discrimination.

Submitted by George Morley Read 1 more annotation