Automatic Enrolment: Lower Earnings Limit

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:42 pm on 12th March 2019.

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Photo of Angela Crawley Angela Crawley Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Disabilities), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Pensions), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Youth affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Children and Families), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities) 4:42 pm, 12th March 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mhairi Black on securing this debate, and I thank Hugh Gaffney for his contribution.

I am a firm believer in workers’ rights, but with Brexit on the horizon, it feels like even the most basic rights are no longer guaranteed or a priority. It speaks volumes that we are having this debate in this Chamber while the Brexit debate takes place in the main Chamber. It is important to recognise where the Government are taking positive action. Although it is not perfect, the attempt at auto-enrolment was one way for the Government to recognise the huge issues with the current pensions system. It has meant that eligible workers are automatically enrolled on a pension scheme, with the employer obliged to pay towards their employee’s pension.

In reality, however, it will allow pensions contributions to be paid at set limits and with set criteria, which the Government have set out in a phased timeline. The Government have made no firm commitments on when exactly the conclusion of that timeline will be, and in reality, it does not quite meet the mark of what is required for people to truly be able to plan for financial retirement.

If the Government were to scrap the lower-earnings limit, as my hon. Friend outlined, that would allow pension contributions to be paid from the first pound of every worker’s salary. Currently, employers do not have to include the first £6,032 that an employee earns when calculating pension contributions, so if the Government removed the lower earnings limit, that would mean a significant increase to the employee’s pension pot.

As was outlined earlier, that would account for an extra £2.6 billion a year going into workers’ pensions, including £1 billion more from employers, according to the Government’s own figures. The Government released detailed plans to scrap the lower earnings limit in 2017, but have given only a vague commitment to take action on it in the mid-2020s. When does the Minister envisage that that will happen? 2023? 2024? 2025? 2027? Rather than the vague timescale that the Minister has set out previously, can he give a concrete guarantee about exactly when the lower earnings limit will be scrapped? To put that into perspective, research by the TUC outlines that a six-year delay could cut a saver’s pension pot by £12,000—based on the 2022 figure rather than the 2028 figure—which would make a sizeable difference to the affected individuals.

I will address some of the key flaws and primary concerns of the issue. The lower earnings limit trigger provides eligibility for the auto-enrolment programme. When it was introduced, it was set at £5,035 a year, and then increased to £7,457, which resulted in the exclusion of 600,000 workers, of whom 78% were women. After increases over the years, the earnings trigger was frozen at £10,000 in 2015-16 up to the current period of 2018-19. That resulted in the exclusion of an additional 40,000 workers, of whom 30,000 were women, notwithstanding the fact that increasing the lower earnings limit to £10,000 excluded 170,000 workers, of whom 120,000—69%—were women. I hope that that illustrates to the Minister, who I am sure already knows this, my key concerns—as spokesperson for women and equalities—about the problems this poses for women.