Future of Pensions Policy — [Mr Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:28 am on 8th December 2020.

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[Mr Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

Photo of Rob Roberts Rob Roberts Conservative, Delyn 2:30 pm, 8th December 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the future of pensions policy.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. There is an old saying that people should not talk about politics or religion; I sometimes wonder whether that extends to the topic of pensions as well. While saving for a house or car is seen as exciting and a real achievement—and rightly so—the same enthusiasm and planning is never given when people are saving for their retirement. It is time such attitudes around pensions and planning for retirement changed. Pensions are becoming increasingly important and we need to talk about them, both here in Parliament and in the wider public domain, if we want people to feel empowered to make their own decisions about their future, and secure a retirement that they deserve.

People are living longer, and the state pension age has increased, but discussions and debates around pension policy and infrastructure have not moved on in any significant way. A recent study found that 22 million working-age adults do not feel that they understand enough about pensions to make decisions about saving for retirement, highlighting that we need to do more to ensure that people feel informed and empowered to do that saving.

The fact that 5 million people in retirement are not satisfied with their financial circumstances proves that more needs to be done to ensure people take steps earlier so that their later years are more comfortable and secure. Only 38% of seven to 17-year-olds say that they have learned at school how to manage money, which showcases that the lack of knowledge and awareness about savings and pensions starts right at the beginning. This tells us that we need to be having frank and honest conversations about pensions much earlier in people’s lives. It is not enough to start discussing savings and retirement at 60; it needs to be happening in education, in the workplace, at key moments in life, and also here in Parliament.

Today’s debate, I hope, is the first of many important and crucial conversations around pensions and how we, as parliamentarians, can look to shape pension policy in a positive way in the years to come. I am going to touch on a couple of broad themes, the majority of which the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend Guy Opperman, can respond to, while I appreciate that some of the topics—although relevant—may be for the Treasury to consider rather than my hon. Friend.

Although it is hugely important to start conversations about pensions and retirement as early in life as possible, it would not be right to hold a debate on pensions policy without first looking at how we can help pensioners who may already be struggling. Sadly, pensioner poverty is a real problem across the UK. While it may have decreased over the past 20 years—I commend the efforts of the Minister and the Department in their work on this—Age UK found that 1.9 million pensioners are still living in poverty in the UK. That means that over a quarter of pensioners, despite having worked all their lives, paid their taxes and contributed to our economy, are now living their later years facing more challenging decisions than they necessarily should, wondering whether they can afford to turn the heating on or pay their bills, and watching how every penny is spent.

It does not have to be that way. Many pensioners will be eligible for pension credit: a financial lifeline that tops up their income and prevents them from having to make those difficult decisions, such as keeping warm in their home or having a good meal. Pension credit is also a gateway to other benefits that make a real difference to pensioners’ quality of life, including cold weather payments, NHS dental treatment and, topically, free TV licences for those over 75. Quite simply, pension credit gives older people the financial stability and security to live their lives in a much more worry-free manner.

It is also important to note that, while pension credit makes a huge difference to many individual pensioners’ lives and well-being, it also benefits the whole of society. Research from Independent Age estimates that the cost to the Government of those eligible for pension credit, but not taking it, is around £4 billion a year in increased NHS and social care spending, so it is imperative that we either get the implementation of this benefit right, or reform it altogether.

The question is: does the benefit work effectively for the people it is supposed to serve? Currently, it is not working nearly as effectively as it could, with uptake stagnating at around 60% for the past 10 years. It has never been more than 70%. To put that into perspective, around four in every 10 eligible pensioners are not collecting the free money that is due to them. That means that, at present, around £3.5 billion that is allocated to eradicating pensioner poverty is not reaching older people each year. That is, in part, due to awareness of pension credit being low, despite many advertising campaigns by successive Governments. It seems that wholesale reform is necessary to help reach the people it is designed to help.

The low take-up of pension credit is also due, in part, to the way it is assessed. Instead of being an automatic benefit provided to those who need it, pensioners have to make a claim when they reach the appropriate age, which considers their income level and savings. That is problematic for a couple of reasons, not least that the process can be seen as daunting, overly complicated and difficult to navigate for pensioners. Also, by taking into account people’s savings pots, it discourages long-term responsible economic actions such as saving because people will become ineligible not only for pension credit, but for other gateway benefits I mentioned earlier on.

We need to have a fundamental change in how pension credit is assessed and claimed. We should be looking to help those who need it most by ensuring that financial support is accessible and fair, taking away the blame on people who fail to make that claim. One way to do that would be by making pension credit a full or partial auto-payment benefit, so that no claim has to be submitted, and basing it solely on income levels, which Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs really should be able to track to ensure that no one is unfairly at a disadvantage for having prudently saved throughout their working life.

While successive Governments have taken steps to raise the profile and take-up of pension credit, as seen through the work to make it claimable online during the pandemic, we need serious, fundamental change if we want pension credit to play its part in eradicating pensioner poverty and helping the poorest households. I want the Government to consider their role in boosting take-up by making it an automatic benefit that solely considers income.

While pension credit is one important issue that the Government should review as we look to bring positive change, many other areas would also benefit from innovation and further development. One such area is the auto-enrolment regime. Auto-enrolment was introduced by the Government to improve pension savings in the UK, and it has worked, reversing the decline of workplace pension saving. Prior to the start of auto-enrolment, the number of eligible employees who enrolled was 10.7 million. That has now increased to almost 19 million—almost 90% of those eligible.

While that confirms the success of its original aims, instead of engaging the wider public in taking an active role in their workplace pensions, being auto-enrolled has meant that the vast majority of savers assume they will automatically have a large pension pot when they retire. However, that is often not the case, and we have added a layer of what I will call complacency risk into the mix of other issues to consider. It is the risk that people will assume that the pot they are building up is going to get them a particular lifestyle in retirement, which may not always match reality.

Do not get me wrong; auto-enrolment has been fantastic in getting pensions moving again. I really believe that we should be looking at what has been done so far as a starting point rather than an end game.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I accept entirely that this is a legitimate discussion about the future progress of automatic enrolment, which has transformed savings among women and young people to the extent that 80% are now saving, up from 40%. He is right that we are doing better than we have previously done, but it is the suggestions for the future that clearly need to take us forward. I support entirely the direction of travel that he is taking us on.

Photo of Rob Roberts Rob Roberts Conservative, Delyn

I thank the Minister for his intervention. The suggestions for the future are about to unfold before his very eyes, as he may have anticipated.

Analysis by the Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association suggests that the current contribution rate of 8% is simply not enough for people to have a good standard of living in retirement. I fear that will be the case for many people in several years’ time who have been auto-enrolled into workplace pensions and assume that, as the rate is automatically set by the Government, that means they will have a comfortable pension pot when they retire. Unfortunately, many people are simply not engaged enough with their pensions to realise that until it is too late, despite them being fundamental to their future. I fear auto-enrolment has created the complacency I mentioned earlier.

To combat that issue the PLSA has proposed an increase in the minimum contribution level, to at least 12%, and I agree. Forty-three per cent. of savers do not know how much of their monthly salary they should be saving, in any case, and the increase would benefit a great many individuals, by increasing their savings further. Additional changes could include reducing the starting age to 18 and removing the lower earnings limit, so that every penny of earned income counts towards pensionable pay. According to the Association of British Insurers that would have the potential to save a further £2.5 billion in pension pots. It would not only increase the number of years over which an individual saved, and consequently increase the pot; it would emphasise the importance of saving from a younger age.

What else can we do with auto-enrolment? Why not think a little more outside the box and create a savings culture in the UK? If covid has taught us anything it is the importance of preparedness and planning for every eventuality. One of the bedrocks of financial planning is having an emergency fund in place, but putting money away each month is perhaps easier said than done—there is always something else to spend it on.

We could look at including a savings element in auto-enrolment. Why not, when payroll makes a deduction for the relevant amount for a pension, put 1% into a savings pot at the same time? There could be an auto-enrolment ISA, and people could be given the ability to increase the percentage to what they can afford. Creating a savings culture on the back of pensions policy could be one of the more pleasant side effects of covid. Many people might be more open to having emergency funds to combat future challenges.

Another area of pension policy that could benefit from further positive change are the annual and lifetime allowances. Bearing in mind that that is a Treasury issue and not necessarily one for the Department for Work and Pensions, I shall not labour the point, but there is no need for an annual allowance if there is a lifetime allowance. Saving should be encouraged, and individuals should not be penalised for taking on extra work and saving more into their pensions. That happened to doctors recently, leading to them not taking on shifts and procedures because of the danger of a significant tax bill. A potential solution to that issue would be to remove the tax penalty for breaching the annual allowance, but keep the restriction on the amount of tax relief available to current limits. There would be no additional cost to the Exchequer, and people would be able to continue saving into their pensions in the same way. Yet those who were unnecessarily penalised under the limits of the annual allowance would not be at a disadvantage. As I have said, it is a Treasury area, and I am sure that the Minister will take great pleasure in passing it along.

Wider change is needed in the pensions industry, and one way to achieve that and encourage people to engage earlier with pensions is by improving the accessibility and reach of financial advice and guidance. Despite having been a financial planner involved in the pensions industry for many years prior to coming to this place, I admit that the topic of pensions can be complex. I can see how, for many without such experience and knowledge, pensions could be viewed as hard to understand or even, God forbid, a boring subject—a terrible thought.

I welcome the Government’s push for a simpler regime, which is coming down the line, to make statements more comprehensible for both the consumer and professionals. Members would not believe the wide range of disparate information that pension providers send out to customers, making it impossible not only to understand what they have but to make accurate comparisons between providers. It is currently extremely complicated, and I look forward to simpler statements that will put the consumer in charge. I keep my fingers crossed that that policy will not be several years in the making, as the wheels of Government tend to take rather an age to turn.

It is right to empower individuals to make their own decisions about their futures, but we should ensure that before they make such life-changing decisions they feel informed and supported, and have considered their own unique circumstances. Advice and guidance about pensions needs to be accessible, affordable and available. Despite the benefits that financial advice can bring, only 8% of all UK adults have received it. That is, amazingly, an increase on previous years, but it is still shockingly low, and it puts individuals’ retirements at risk. Whether that is because people feel that financial advice is unaffordable or only for the wealthy, or because they feel it is a risk and do not trust the financial services industry, we need to work actively to change those perceptions and show that financial advice is for everyone.

I can assure the public that the vast majority of advisers whom I have worked with will treat someone’s £30,000 pension pot with the same care and diligence that they will treat someone’s £300,000 pot, because each sum is just as important to the individual concerned. Indeed, the smaller pot can be considered to be much more important to that individual in many ways, because it will often be a lower-earning individual’s only pension provision, and so the risks of it running out too early are more significant.

If we do not promote the need for and the benefits of financial advice, I worry that we will have a retirement crisis on our hands 20, 30 or 40 years down the line. Recent data shows that 35% of the adult population say they do not have a pension. Of those who do have one, 36% are not sure how much is in their pot. Even more worryingly, the uncertainty around pensions goes further than uncertainty about individual circumstances, with almost half the population admitting that they do not have a clue about how much income they would need to retire comfortably. That clearly shows that widespread advice and education regarding pensions and retirement are urgently needed if we want people to be able to live out their later years in financial security and comfort.

In the past, these types of financial decisions and risks were shouldered by employers, pension providers and life insurance companies. Now, however, with the introduction of greater flexibility and freedom to the pensions marketplace, it is increasingly down to the individual to decide these matters, which is a wonderful thing in some respects, but worrying in others. We should not really place all responsibility for such important decisions on to people themselves. Instead, we should ensure that people feel supported and know where to turn for help and advice.

Financial advice is not only needed to help people feel more informed and aware when they make decisions that will affect their lives; it also adds real value to people’s pensions, providing them with a better retirement in the long run. A recent report by the International Longevity Centre found that those who have sought professional financial advice are better off by an average of £40,000 in their pension pot compared with those who did not seek advice. That is not an insignificant amount of money. Ensuring that financial advice is seen as a viable option for people is not only the right thing to do, but crucial if we want people to have the best possible future, as well as the peace of mind that they are making the right decisions to benefit themselves.

Most importantly, how can we make sure that people are accessing the right financial advice and support? Forcing people to access support is not an option. Some people will not even take a vaccine to save lives, for goodness’ sake, so mandating things just because people have an in-built aversion to being dictated to does not work.

One option, however, is to encourage individuals to use guidance services, such as Pension Wise, the free and impartial guidance service that was set up in 2015. Accessing guidance is often the first step towards accessing full financial advice and should be greatly encouraged. Seeking guidance helps people to gain a good initial understanding about their options and also helps to boost their confidence in their ability to do things such as avoiding pension scams, which, sadly, are all too common.

In addition, we know that financial guidance is a great enabler for the full advice process. Data from Pension Wise’s user evaluation report recently found that 36% of customers who booked an appointment with Pension Wise went on to speak to a financial adviser in the following three months, compared with only 22% of non-users. That highlights the fact that we need to emphasise the benefits of these services, and ensure that people use them as early as possible to improve advice take-up and improve the financial outlook for many individuals in the UK.

Currently, it is far too easy to opt out of taking this free guidance from Pension Wise. Many studies over many years have shown that individuals need several exposures to information before they start taking action, so perhaps we need to start them on that journey a little bit earlier, so that they are engaged in the process when the time is right.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Independent, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr

I commend the hon. Gentleman on his speech, which shows his great expertise in this important policy field, and he is right to press on this issue of financial advice. However, does he agree that the education systems of the respective countries of the UK should play a greater role, so that our children are financially capable when they leave school? When it comes to pensions in particular, the earlier that people start saving for their pension, the better. Interventions need to happen far earlier than they do now.

Photo of Rob Roberts Rob Roberts Conservative, Delyn

Absolutely—that is a very salient and very welcome intervention from the hon. Gentleman. I completely agree.

We need to start financial education in schools about the more basic things: what is a current account? How does it work? What is an overdraft? What is a credit card? The number of people leaving school and university who are already in massive debt before even taking into account things such as university fees is staggering. If we are not getting people on the right footing, I completely agree that we should be looking into developing that. People need to start the journey earlier.

During my research for this speech, I came across an article from years ago with a picture of a young-looking fresh-faced pensions Minister: my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham. He was supporting the concept of a provider’s mid-life MOT. Engagement with the UK population as a matter of course when a person hits particular ages could be a transformative idea. Imagine the benefits of speaking to someone aged 45, when they may be in a more stable home and employment situation after those expensive years of having young children, and providing that person with some guidance on what they should be looking at from a financial point of view! That could have a significant impact on their outlook on pensions and financial planning for their remaining 20-plus years before retirement.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I am conscious that this job has aged me a great deal and that I look different from the fresh-faced photograph taken in 2017 when I first got it. I have no idea why I have aged so much in the job—aside from putting on the lockdown stone.

On the mid-life MOT, I point my hon. Friend to the Aviva trial and the various other trials done by the private sector. The mid-life MOTs started out as an HR benefit to employees. Their benefit to employees was found to be good, but the benefit to the business and to wider state in terms of wealth, work and wellbeing—the three things on which it is measured—was utterly transformational. I encourage all businesses to follow the initiative of those companies and the public sector to follow the initiative of the DWP, which also pioneered the mid-life MOT.

Photo of Rob Roberts Rob Roberts Conservative, Delyn

Absolutely; I thank the Minister for his intervention. It was in the Aviva article that I saw the fresh-faced youthfulness of the Minister, although he has now turned into an advert for Just for Men. It is working well for him.

The Minister is absolutely right. Adding a health review to that mid-life MOT process could also have untold benefits: it could catch illnesses early and could encourage people to change their lifestyle before problems arise. I completely endorse the Minister’s support of the mid-life MOT process and encourage him to work across Departments to put something together in that space that could drive real change in financial and medical wellbeing.

The banking and financial industry has developed and adapted to the 21st century, and in the same way the financial advice sector needs to undergo wholesale reform and change. Financial advice is often viewed as too expensive, or individuals worry that they do not have enough to invest. Those outdated perceptions of the sector need to change. To do that, the sector needs to become more transparent and to move towards set fees on an hourly rate, or towards a project fee basis. That would help make access to financial advice easier and more affordable.

There is a large amount of worry and mistrust around the financial services industry. It would certainly help boost consumers’ trust and confidence that they were getting the right advice if the advice sector were made more transparent. The inherent unfairness of percentage-based charging is clear. It is simply wrong to charge double the fee for handling a £200,000 investment compared with a £100,000 investment; it literally takes no more time and no more resource to do the work.

Even factoring in slightly more indemnity risk to the adviser for advising on a higher sum would certainly not justify anything like a doubling of the fee. I firmly believe that the public should seek out advisers who charge fees expressed in pounds and pence, and who give a quotation for services based on time expected or a fixed project fee rather than a percentage-based amount.

Photo of Damien Moore Damien Moore Conservative, Southport

Does my hon. Friend agree that many providers who give pensions advice should actually be putting their fees and charges explicitly on websites and other promotional materials, so that people can see what the costs would be from the start of the process?

Photo of Rob Roberts Rob Roberts Conservative, Delyn

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. It is now incumbent on advisers when they see clients for the first time to give them an initial disclosure document, which sets out the fees and charges that the client can rightly expect to pay. The disclosure of fees should always be completely upfront and agreed to by the client, before any work is undertaken—that is an absolutely vital part of the process, for sure.

Too many consumers are missing out on the potential opportunities that advice can bring because of a lack of understanding or a perception that advice is too expensive. It is time to develop the financial advice sector and make it work for consumers. I urge the Minister to continue to develop awareness of financial advice and guidance services, and make them as accessible as possible so that the advice gap around pensions can be closed.

One area of pensions where the advice gap is intrinsically linked is costs and charges associated with pensions. In many cases, the associated costs and charges, whether the annual management charge or underlying fund charges, are too much of a focus for consumers, advisers, the regulator and policy—to the detriment of the performance and quality of the actual pension. Instead of focusing on which contract is the cheapest, more time and guidance need to be shared that consider the end result and outcome. This is what will be available to pensioners and what will impact the quality of their retirement.

Even though pension costs may be more expensive, if a contract has the propensity to generate higher returns, it will give a better end result for the individual. In addition, as many people do not seek financial advice regarding their pension, many will lack the knowledge to understand the full impact of any costs and charges, which often leads to people choosing the cheapest contract which may not benefit their situation. The principle of having lower charges and less of a drag on performance is a noble principle, but it does not always work out that principles follow through to superior outcomes. It is the outcomes that people can spend in retirement, not the principle.

Finally, it would not be right to hold a debate that seeks to improve people’s future in retirement without considering how to ensure that the pension industry is becoming green and playing its part in protecting the environment. Given that pension funds—long-term investments—hold around $20 trillion in assets globally, they are an integral part of socially responsible investing and can play a major part in helping the UK to reach net zero. I commend, in his absence, my hon. Friend Gareth Davies, whose campaign has led to the UK’s first green investment bond, which is on the horizon.

According to the Make My Money Matter campaign, sustainable pensions are 27 times more impactful in reducing your carbon footprint than stopping air travel and following a plant-based diet combined—27 times! Looking across the whole fund universe, we see that relatively few pension funds have fully embraced socially responsible investing or incorporated environmental, social and governance factors into their processes. While some have suggested that the Government should force private pension schemes to invest in a socially responsible way, that feels like an over-reach—an inappropriate and counter-productive use of power—as it may well encourage disinvestment. The bottom line to keep in mind is that pensions are there to provide retirement income first and foremost; if we can save the planet afterwards, that is an extra bonus. But 68% of UK savers want their investments to consider people and planet alongside profits, while 71% would opt for a fully or partially sustainable pension if they had the choice, showing the demand for socially responsible investment of pensions.

The Pension Schemes Bill has recently created a taskforce on climate-related financial disclosures that puts the consumer in charge and increases the transparency of pension funds regarding investments. There is clearly a demand in the UK for socially responsible investing within pension funds. The Government aim to facilitate that, as shown with the taskforce, and I commend them for it and look forward to seeing how it develops.

As I said at the beginning, pension policy is a topic that can often be overlooked. It is overly complex, too technical and not relevant to the many immediate, pressing issues of the day. But it does not have to be overlooked. Pensions policy is an incredibly important topic that will impact all of us in later life as we look to retire, and it is the responsibility of all of us to look at how we can shape it positively to provide the best retirement for as many people as possible. The contributions and sacrifices that our older citizens have made throughout this pandemic, and indeed throughout their lives, are considerable, and it is only right that our policies recognise and reflect that hard work and allow them to live out their retirement in comfort with the peace of mind that their pension will see them through.

I look forward to the contributions of colleagues, including the Minister and the shadow Minister. Although great strides have been made through the Pension Schemes Bill, there is more to do if we want our pensioners to have the retirement they deserve.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade)

Order. Before I call the next speaker, let me say that if we take no more than seven minutes per Back Bencher, it will all go swimmingly.

Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Labour, Luton North 3:00 pm, 8th December 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate Rob Roberts on securing this incredibly important debate.

We have rightly spoken a lot over the past few months about how deeply people have been affected throughout this pandemic—people who have lost jobs, businesses that are worried that they are going under and the 3 million people who have not been able to access covid support. I am here today to speak up for my pension-age constituents who are struggling too.

As we have heard, since 2010 at least an extra 400,000 pensioners have been pushed into poverty, and a generation of women born in the 1950s were betrayed. That left millions of women with no time to make alternative plans, with sometimes devastating personal consequences, including for people I have spoken to in Luton North. The people who have written to me have done the right thing in life: they paid into the system and worked hard, and now they want their Government to be there when they need it. They include people such as my mum and her generation of friends—the WASPI women.

One Luton North constituent wrote:

“I am 65 years old and I am due to receive my state pension next year—at the age of 66.

I am currently struggling financially. I was due to receive my pension at the age of 60. I have worked my whole life and then I stopped as I became a carer for my elderly mother.

I am not entitled to apply for any benefits. With the current covid pandemic it is even more difficult for me to consider working. I suffer from a lot of health problems. I was diagnosed with TB last year and since had been receiving treatment for it.

I have never struggled so much financially before as I am now and the pandemic has made it even worse for me.”

I wish I could say that that was a one-off, Minister, but I am afraid that my inbox has been full of similar letters.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Independent, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that very important issue. I have also received numerous pieces of correspondence over the years in relation to that group of women. The anger about the injustice relates to the goalposts being changed late in their lives.

What in her view is the way forward to help address the problems faced by those women? Some are campaigning for bridging pensions or early access to their state pension. Is her view that that is the way forward, or does she support an alternative strategy?

Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Labour, Luton North

That is something that I will come to later in my speech. Whatever the future of our pension policy is, that injustice must be addressed.

The pandemic has had a devastating impact on older people in this country, in terms of isolation, their mental and physical health, and their finances. I want to put on the record my thanks to wonderful organisations such as Age Concern in Luton, which has been there every step of the way for older people in my constituency.

However, it should not be this way. The Government should not be turning their back on pensioners. I was truly appalled by the decision this year to scrap free TV licences for over-75s, which added yet another financial burden and barrier to accessing important information, especially at this time. What are the Government going to do during the pandemic to help those pensioners who, like so many others, have found themselves struggling to make ends meet?

As we enter one of the worst recessions since records began, what guarantees will the Minister give to protect pensions in the future? The recent findings from the Pensions Policy Institute show that single mothers, carers, disabled people and black, Asian and minority ethnic groups had pension wealth of just 15% of the national average, and that 81% of carers and 21% of disabled people are currently shut out of being automatically enrolled in a workplace pension. What is the Minister doing to tackle that huge savings gap, which is scandalous?

It is clear that even before the pandemic many people already felt a deep sense of unfairness about our pension system. Parliament has debated the issue, in a full Chamber, time and again, because of the strength of feeling among the 1950s women we represent who have been ripped off by this Government.

As a new Member, this is my first opportunity to raise the countless emails that I know we have all received on this issue and the massive number of conversations we have all had. I had many conversations on doorsteps at the time of the election. One gentleman came out of a mosque and said, “I wasn’t sure how I was going to vote, but I’m definitely voting for Labour now, because my wife has told me that you have promised that we will see justice for the WASPI women.”

I would like to give that hope to every family because this is not just about women—it is also about the families supported by those women. Any future reforms of pensions policy must come with justice for the 1950s women who lost out when the Government changed the pension age. Again, this is all about fairness. Those women worked, paid in and did the right thing, then had part of their pensions taken away. I ask the Minister whether the Government’s line from last year still stands. Is there no money for the WASPI women or will that change? Dignity as we grow older should not be an optional extra; it should be the very basic that the Government should provide. In one of the richest countries in the world, we should not have any older people living in poverty.

Photo of Damien Moore Damien Moore Conservative, Southport 3:06 pm, 8th December 2020

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank my hon. Friend Rob Roberts for securing this important debate and it is a pleasure to follow Sarah Owen.

This is an important debate on a subject that should be talked about more by more of us. My hon. Friend mentioned the number of people who do talk about pensions. We could have done with seeing a few more people here today representing their constituents to discuss the future pensions policy of this country, which is incredibly important. I am sure my hon. Friend will thank all hon. Members here for participating; it is testimony to those who really care about the issue that they are here today.

The matter affects the lives of millions of people in our country. It is very complex and complicated for people to navigate. My Southport constituency has an incredibly high level of pensioners. We not only have a high number of our own but people come to retire to our beautiful seaside resort, so I quite often talk about pensions with people there.

I will discuss a few issues on pensions policy. A number of points have already been made but I want to reiterate some of them in my speech. I will first say that the introduction of the Pension Schemes Bill was welcome. It contains meaningful and impactful measures that will go a long way to address the challenges faced by pensioners. We know, for example, that people might hold at least 11 different jobs during their working lives and will have paid into a multitude of different pension pots. Someone is more likely to have 25 different name badges from companies than a gold watch after 25 years of service.

Most people will only realise when they reach that stage in life of coming up to retirement that those pension pots are theirs and are available, and they need to know how best to utilise them. That point is often too late. People might not realise that sometimes it is possible to take out funds, that the funds might not have been invested in the right way or might have been invested in a way that that person did not want. Information from pension providers, not just the annual update but more regular ones, is really important. Employers should also talk about pensions on payslips, whether they are physical or virtual, asking whether someone is getting the right pensions advice. That could be done every month for those who are paid monthly or every week for those paid weekly. There should be something there specifically talking about pensions, so that people are informed and reminded every step of the way, because people are obviously very busy.

The pensions dashboard is welcome. It will simplify pension information and bring it to one place. It will empower people to do more than they have previously been able to do, with pieces of paper given on an intermittent basis.

Another area of the Pension Schemes Bill is green pension investments. The UK is the first major economy to put climate risk and disclosure into statute for pension schemes. I asked the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about that last week. It is a new area for pensions, but the generations coming up are more inclined to support green issues and might want their pensions to be invested in some of those companies, so we should empower them to do that.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn set out, people should receive a good retirement. The Government have shown through the Bill that they understand the issues facing pensioners; I genuinely believe that they are responding to them. When we talk about pensions, however, we are talking about the end of the process—when people will receive one or what time of life they will retire. We need to start talking about pensions at the beginning of people’s working lives when they start a job or a career and, hopefully, start saving for their retirement. As he said, it may not be the sexiest subject to speak about, but it is one of the most important. If somebody gets it right or wrong at the start of their career, it can be life-changing. Of course, as has been said, we should also look at points in time where we can have an MOT of where our pensions are.

Education in schools is critical and it should be there for all children in all schools. My financial education was about opening a bank account, credit cards, overdrafts and how to fill in a cheque, which was a cause of great excitement for many fellow pupils. I must say that I am still excited about it; I still use cheques. That being said, there should have been, and there should be now, more emphasis on pensions and what that will mean in later life. If we do not start explaining the long-term value of saving for a pension, we will never do it when people get close to the point of receiving one. That is really important. I know that the Minister is committed to lifelong financial education, and there is no better advocate of that than him in the Government, but I would like to see more of that happen when he speaks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education.

On pension credit, which has also been brought up, I know that the Government are doing all they can to ensure that people who are eligible for pension credit, who have paid into the system throughout their lives and done the right thing, receive it. Pension credit ensures that the pension of those who receive a weekly income is brought up to the minimum amount, which is an absolute lifeline to many people. As has been said, many people do not claim everything they can. We should encourage people to claim what they are entitled to.

Recent research commissioned by Independent Age shows that we must work harder on that. If the level of pension credit uptake was boosted to 100%, it could lift 450,000 pensioners out of poverty. Whether they are buying groceries or heating their homes, it is important that people in older age are living a life, not just existing, and that they do not feel shut away from society in any way. In 2018-19, £1.8 billion of pension credit was not received by those eligible for it. The low uptake of pension credit costs the taxpayer £4 billion a year in additional unavoidable NHS and social care spending. In an area that we are looking to reform and make better, we could prevent that high level of spending by giving people what they are entitled to.

Renewing our focus on increasing uptake would save the taxpayer money, as I have said, and people in all parts of our country would have a better standard of living. DWP representatives have already confirmed that the technology is there for greater automation of benefit provision and that the data required is largely already held by the Government. Hopefully, we can unlock that to get the process going. We need to build on that and work towards meaningful solutions for those in pension credit scenarios.

The key things that I would like the Minister to take away include education, of course, which is where we can start to build a better pensions policy and framework. If people have better education, they can take control of their lives. In later life, we need to look at the pension credit issue. We should also have an eye on innovation, technology and green industries and ensure that they are promoted to people now, because there is no better time for them to be thinking about it, in terms of their future and the future of our planet.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 3:14 pm, 8th December 2020

I am grateful to be called to speak in the debate this afternoon, Mr Hosie. I thank Rob Roberts for securing it.

The insecurity and inequality that people experience throughout their working lives is amplified in older life. I certainly see that in my constituency, where, regrettably, insecure work mars the lives of many people. It was in the city of York that Joseph Rowntree first introduced pensions in his factory in 1906, ahead of the Old Age Pensions Act 1908, which came into effect on 1 January 1909—on pensions day, as it was known. It was Seebohm Rowntree’s work in this field that brought about that Act, so my city has a real investment in today’s debate.

We need to ask what the problem is that we are trying to solve around pensions. Are pensions simply part of reward packages and used as a recruitment and retention tool by employers? Are employers really interested in the economic fortunes of their former employees once they have left their employment? How do we address the serious issue of pensioner poverty, and are pensions fair and equitable or dependent too much on past income, which we know is inequitable in itself? Today, 1.9 million older people live in poverty, which really amplifies how pensions have gone wrong, and we therefore need to look at how we address those issues.

I view this issue through the prism of women and their experiences of the inequality that is already built into their working life by the pay gap. They are more likely to be in part-time employment and more likely to be carers, and there is also the serious issue of underemployment. In fact, since the start of the pandemic, 70% of people who have lost their jobs are women. We therefore need to understand why so many women are in pensioner poverty.

Young workers and black workers are more likely to be in insecure jobs. Disabled people lose out altogether and fare worse. Inequality is hardwired into our pension system, exacerbating the unfairness of employment. I observed over the years as a trade union official how we needed to bring redress into our pension system, which is an issue I would welcome the Minister looking at specifically.

On state pensions, many countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia have far better statutory provision in later life, as can be seen in the quality of life that people experience. The Netherlands pays 95% of average earnings, Denmark 66%, Australia 58% and the UK just 29%. Insufficiency is also built into our pensions system. We have heard much about the pension credit system, but take-up is only 60% , with £2.8 billion not claimed. I therefore support automation. Data can be shared and the technology is there to tackle inequality and enable people to access not only their pensions but, as we have heard, TV licences and other such benefits. It is really important that the gap is closed with the mechanisms we have available to achieve that.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Independent, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr

The hon. Lady is making a very well informed speech, as is typical of her. Does she agree that much of the drive over recent decades to increase the state pension age has been driven by the fact that life expectancy has been increasing? However, there is evidence that that is reversing and life expectancy is starting to fall. If that is sustained, the UK Government need to look at pensions policy and perhaps reverse the pension age increases that we have seen over recent decades.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. Of course, that was the basis on which the Cridland review undertook its exercise of looking at how to address an ageing population, so he is right that the Government need to look at that issue.

Turning to employer schemes, we have seen a change in the schemes over the years from more beneficial schemes such as the defined-benefit schemes, first from final salary to career-average earnings schemes. There has also been a rapid move to defined-contribution schemes, where more risk is placed with the worker. Therefore, people’s lack of engagement in the complex world of pensions is ever more understandable. Of course, auto-enrolment in some of the pension schemes shows insufficiency, which the hon. Member for Delyn drew out, but the employer contribution of just 3% is hardly that of an employer investing in their workers’ future. I would urge, if we are looking at raising the sufficiency of stakeholder schemes, a greater employer contribution into those schemes, as opposed to the burden being placed on the workers’ shoulders.

I would also like the Minister to look at the number of pension schemes. Many countries have just a few hundred pension schemes altogether; we have more than 10,000, and we know that many of those schemes are struggling. I have looked at the charity sector, where, among the top 50 charities, there is now a deficit of £1.5 billion. We know that in other sectors, people move from job to job to job and therefore have no time to build up a pension pot with a company. If we moved to a more sectoral model, that would give individuals a lot more scope to build a pension for their future, and a model of sectoral bargaining could shape such pension schemes. I think it would be helpful to look into that.

As I have mentioned, equality needs to be brought to the fore, not least because of the impact in terms of women in poverty in later life. Economic events impact on pensions so much. We therefore need to address those issues, but we also need to recognise that in later life, people from areas of deprivation are more likely to be in poor health and so working longer is not always relevant. We need more flexibility to be built into pensions in later life, but we also need to ensure that individuals do not lose out because they work in different ways.

I echo the support that has been expressed for more financial education. I, too, was at the event that Aviva held on work, wealth and wellbeing. It was particularly about people having an MOT to check on them—to check their mental health as well as their physical health—and to look in mid-life at the opportunities and the finances ahead. We need to ensure that such opportunities are open to everyone.

Finally, I want to draw attention to the importance of building confidence again in the pensions system. At a time when people have so little dispensable resource, they will be making choices about whether to invest in their longer-term future or to buy essentials, such as a meal for their family. We therefore need to ensure that we address the poverty today as well as the poverty tomorrow. The WASPI women are one example of a group that certainly made the right choices, yet was badly let down by the changes brought about by Government decisions. We need to build confidence in our system to ensure that there are fair choices for people in the future.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Wales), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 3:23 pm, 8th December 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate Rob Roberts on securing the debate. This autumn has demonstrated that there is a considerable appetite in the House for discussion of pensions policy. We have had the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Act 2020 and a landmark piece of pensions legislation in the Pension Schemes Bill, with amendments yet to be considered in the House of Lords. Not content with all that debate, we now find ourselves, thanks to the hon. Member for Delyn, looking to the horizon of pension policies yet to come.

Of course, that is entirely the right approach, for two reasons. First, pensions are, by their very nature, a long-term product, so the policy decisions we are making now will have an impact quite literally decades down the line. Let us say that someone is in their early 20s, has just started their first permanent job and is making their first pension contributions. They will not be drawing down their pension for another 45 or even 50 years, most likely, so the legislation and regulations that we make now—those, for instance, that are part of the Pension Schemes Bill—will have an effect stretching all the way to 2070 and beyond. That really is long-term policy making.

Secondly, this century poses new challenges of huge proportions. Those challenges of course include automation, an ageing population, with increasing life expectancy—I note the comments of Jonathan Edwards on that—and the climate emergency. I would not normally choose to quote Donald Rumsfeld, but when we consider the profound and unforeseen impact that a global pandemic has had on our society this year, we have to recognise that it is not just the identifiable factors that we need to be concerned about; it is also the “unknown unknowns”.

An incredibly important matter when it comes to long-term pensions policy is the triple lock. It was a decade ago that the Liberal Democrats helped introduce the triple lock on the state pension, and I pay tribute to the then Pensions Minister and former Liberal Democrat MP Steve Webb, who was instrumental in that. The triple lock has been a huge success and an incredibly popular measure: indeed, since its introduction, it has been adopted by all major parties, although I note with concern that there has been some speculation that the Government may look to scrap it in future. I hope that rumours of its demise are greatly exaggerated, because I do think that the triple lock plays a crucial role.

During the debate about the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill in October, I spoke to the issue of intergenerational fairness. That issue has become very clear over the past few months, during which young people have had to put their lives on hold to stop the spread of a virus that does not always pose the same threat to them as it does to older people in our society. Of course, it is young people who will bear the brunt of the current and future economic costs, not only because of the immediate impact on the jobs market that we are seeing, but because they will be saddled with the debt accrued into the future.

Some say that the triple lock is making the gap between the generations grow even further because, on the face of it, a large sum of money is being spent on older people. However, as I made clear during the debate on the uprating Bill, it is increasingly the case that many working-age people are unable to save adequately for their retirement. It is certainly the case that defined-benefit schemes, which many people were historically enrolled in, are being used far less frequently. That all means an increasing reliance on the state pension. As such, it is vital that we make sure the state pension is strong, not only for this generation of retirees but for the next one and the one after that. I continue to urge the Government, as I did during the passage of that Bill, to ensure that the triple lock is retained, now and in the future. We need to ensure a good deal for the generation of people who are currently only starting out in work. The choices we make now will have an impact decades into the future.

However, pensions policy is not just about the long term. As we have heard from other Members, there are many steps that can and should be taken to ensure that pensions work better for people who are about to retire, or who have retired already. Pensioners are feeling real financial impacts now, including the Equitable Life scandal, the situation experienced by the WASPI women and the issues with plumbers’ pensions, which I raised during the debate on the Pension Schemes Bill last month. There is also the fact that many British pensioners overseas have their state pensions frozen, and the Government have not committed to uplifting those pensions, at the very least for the duration of the covid pandemic. This has been a hugely difficult time for many of those pensioners in many different countries. We might just have taken a huge step in relation to pensions through legislation, but these campaigns continue, and it is imperative that the Government actively engage with them. Many of those campaigners are disheartened that the chance they felt they had to resolve those issues through the Pension Schemes Bill was missed, and feel that they remain unheard.

Another issue that I hope the Minister will address is that of married women who have been underpaid their state pension, having not been upgraded to their full pension when their husband reached state pension age. They could potentially be eligible for thousands of pounds in repayment from the Department for Work and Pensions. This is an issue that Steve Webb, whom I mentioned earlier, is working to highlight and resolve. We know that at least 1,900 women have been paid out to, but the Government have not yet said how much money has been paid out in total. We urgently need to know how many women the Government estimate have potentially been underpaid. It is so important that these women are informed as soon as possible that they have been underpaid.

Many Members have talked about pension credit; we need to inform people of what they are due. I hope the Minister will address that in his response, because so far there has not been sufficient clarity from the Government about the scale of this problem and what has been done to address it.

Finally, I come back to the Pension Schemes Bill, because it has not yet been passed. Amendments are still being considered by the Lords, and while the scope of possible changes to the Bill is now limited, I do hope the Government will be willing to engage and potentially to restore some of the additions made to the Bill. As the Minister knows, I am particularly keen to see further clarity on the issue of open defined-benefit schemes, and I hope the Government will continue to engage with my colleague Baroness Bowles on that issue—in fact, I believe they are doing so today.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

On that particular point, the hon. Lady will be pleased to know that, provided this debate ends on time, I will go straight into a meeting with a cross-party group of Lords about clause 123 and open DB. I will be making the point that the Pensions Regulator will be very happy to meet the Lords to engage with them and ensure that they have an opportunity to fully comprehend what the proposed regulations are going to be. I will also make the point that we remain very supportive of DB on an ongoing basis.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Wales), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I thank the Minister for that intervention. I only became aware of the meeting today, while I was sitting here, a short time ago, and I thank him for his response. There is still an opportunity to make the Bill even better than it is, and I urge the Government to take that chance. That Bill lays the foundations for the future of pensions policy.

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work, Pensions and Inclusion), SNP Deputy Leader 3:30 pm, 8th December 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hosie. I thank Rob Roberts for securing today’s debate.

My hon. Friend Amy Callaghan would have been here today but for her recent health issues. Other Members will be pleased to hear that she is showing good signs of recovery, and I know that everyone will join me in sending our best wishes to her.

Members should be in no doubt that the Scottish National party believes that pensions policy should be in Scotland’s hands; this would let our Scottish Parliament set a policy that reflects Scotland’s circumstances. That opportunity to do things that work better for people in Scotland will come with independence, which more and more people recognise as the best future for Scotland.

For now, while the SNP broadly supported the Bill, we believe that improvements can be made, including in managing the roll-out and risks of pensions dashboards, protecting existing defined benefit schemes, tackling the injustice of section 75 debt, and improving automatic enrolment. However, pensions policy must address more fundamental issues; as the hon. Member for Delyn said, pensions policy should be a simple matter, allowing people to save up during their working lives to finance their retirements. Instead, it is notoriously complex; it is of such complexity that many people switch off, leaving their biggest asset—their future security—in the hands of others. Adding new options, such as collective money purchase schemes, increases that complexity.

One of the questions facing the UK is: why has the pensions bar been set so low compared with other countries? A 2017 report by the OECD found that UK pensioners get the worst deal of any OECD country, retiring on just 29% of nation average earnings, compared with an OECD average of 63% and an average for EU member states of 71%.

As the UK’s population ages, this leaves much of the population with little choice and limited purchasing power. Even the triple lock, which Wendy Chamberlain spoke about comprehensively, has had a limited impact, with the value of the basic state pension increasing by less than 1.5% of national average earnings since 2011.

Recognising that pensions are too low to support a lengthy retirement should be the beginning of a serious programme for change. The SNP has long supported the establishment of an independent savings and pensions commission to ensure that pensions and savings policies are fit for purpose. Such a commission could prevent changes being announced with no assessment of impacts, and without communication of the changes being made properly, as happened when the 1950s-born WASPI women had their state pension age changed with little or no notice or information, as Sarah Owen noted. The increase in state pension age beyond 66 also does not take into account the demographic challenges we face in Scotland, but it seems that we in Scotland, just like the WASPI women, are getting a message—that is, that this Government and this Parliament are not listening.

Ahead of the spending review, the Chancellor was warned that the proposal to reform measures of inflation would result in more than 10 million pensioners losing out if he moves to a lower inflation measure. Where was the public debate around a so-called technical adjustment that could take an estimated £60 billion out of UK pension funds?

For many people on low pensions, pension credit could be the difference between living in poverty and simply keeping their head above water. However, pension credit take-up has stagnated at around 60% for the last 10 years; more than 1 million pensioners are missing this lifeline, which also opens access to other vital benefits.

Despite only recently taking responsibility for some benefits, the Scottish Government have already published a benefit take-up strategy and are working to increase awareness of and access to Scottish benefits; I know that my hon. Friend Anne McLaughlin has done a great deal of work on this. The UK Government need a similar take-up campaign and a strategy for reserved benefits, including pension credit. I wonder whether the Minister will commit to putting such a campaign in place, to ensure that people are aware of benefits and can access those to which they are entitled.

In the midst of great uncertainty, protecting people’s savings and eliminating pensioner poverty is more important than it has ever been. Young people whose lives and prospects could be irreparably damaged by covid and Brexit face losing out on vital lifetime savings. We have heard that there are significant gender, ethnic and regional disparities in pension incomes that a pensions and savings commission could address.

A 2018 study by the Chartered Insurance Institute noted that, by the time a woman is aged 65 to 69, her average pension wealth is £35,700, which is roughly a fifth of that for a man of her age. That is a shocking figure and surely reflects the number of women who have not saved for a pension because of low earnings. The SNP supports automatic enrolment, but far too many have been left behind. The UK Government need to extend the coverage. That could be done by reducing the earnings threshold to the national insurance primary threshold, bringing almost 500,000 people—mostly women —into pension saving, and by lowering the age threshold from 22 to 18. Saving from the first pound earned would also reinforce the importance of starting a savings habit early, but that can be afforded only if we extend the real living wage.

One of the reasons for pensions complexity is the need for reassurance that funds held over long periods of time will not disappear or promised returns fail to materialise. That is why pensions need strong consumer protections. For too often, Governments have failed to deliver that. George Osborne failed to do so when he introduced so-called pension freedoms in 2015. The SNP voiced its opposition at the time, highlighting the risk to people of transferring funds out of their pension to their detriment. Unfortunately, the evidence is that this has turned into yet another Government-initiated scammers’ paradise that will further inflict damage on the reputation of the UK financial services sector.

I want to address the biggest long-term challenge we face in future pensions policy. What will happen to pensions if we allow the assets on which they depend to be significantly devalued or rendered unusable by climate change? The SNP supports industry calls for firms to include climate change-related disclosures in their annual reports. It sounded as though Damien Moore might agree with that. We are committed to putting that on to a statutory basis.

The SNP also supports moves to introduce an easy-to-understand system of climate-friendly external audits so small investors can better understand the climate-related risks of investments, including the risks facing company pension schemes. It was hugely disappointing that the UK Government prevented occupational pension schemes from being required to develop a strategy for aligning investments with Paris agreement goals and net zero emissions targets. With COP26 coming to Glasgow next year, perhaps the Minister could share with members what advice the Department for Work and Pensions has received from the Committee on Climate Change on the role of pensions in tackling the climate challenge. If no advice has been received, will the Department ask for it?

I would also like to ask the Minister to address the issue of frozen pensions that we have heard about already. Half a million UK pensioners living overseas do not receive an increase to their UK state pension with the value frozen when they leave the UK or when the pension is first drawn. This means that their pension decreases in real value year on year. Because it only applies in some countries, we now have significant inequality built up and, for instance, a disproportionate impact on groups such as the Windrush generation.

I will finish by highlighting the issue of inequality. That is the topic that Rachael Maskell was particularly concerned about. It was brought to my attention by a constituent who was allocated a share of her husband’s police pension as part of a divorce settlement. Having become unable to work owing to ill health, she was told that although her ex-husband had retired early and drawn his share of the pension, she is unable to do so until she turns 60. She was shocked to find that such discriminatory regulations are expressly permitted under section 61 of the Equality Act 2010. Does the Minister agree that this seems wholly inappropriate in 2020? Will he tell me what he thinks can be done to address that issue?

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment) 3:39 pm, 8th December 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hosie. I welcome this debate in which I speak on behalf of my hon. Friend Jack Dromey. I congratulate Rob Roberts on securing the debate and on his broad-ranging opening remarks on the need to support pensioners and on the uptake of pension credit, the scourge of pensioner poverty, the sufficiency of pension savings and many other issues.

I thank other Members for their contributions. My hon. Friend Sarah Owen spoke powerfully about the plight of the WASPI women. I also thank Damien Moore, my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell, and Wendy Chamberlain.

Hon. Members are right to say that pensions are all too often seen as a distant, complex topic. It is vital to make them easy and accessible to understand, particularly to engage younger people in savings choices early in their life. A pound saved at 18 is worth much more in retirement than a pound saved at the age of 30 or 40, or later. I welcome the many contributions on the importance of lifelong financial learning and literacy.

Ensuring that everyone, no matter their background, occupation or gender, has dignity and security in old age should be the fundamental objective of pensions policy. However, the complex and long-term nature of pensions policy decisions, and the long-term careful planning of public finances, mean that those ambitions are best realised through political co-operation and consensus. That is why, in government, Labour introduced the Pensions Commission in 2002, to provide a comprehensive analysis of the UK pensions system, assess how it was developing over time, and make recommendations on the long-term funding of pensions. Indeed, the commission charted a new direction in UK pensions policy and gained widespread consensus on reforms that might previously have been regarded as unthinkable.

I am proud that, for instance, it was the last Labour Government who created auto-enrolment, which has transformed the lives of millions, with 10 million more people now saving into a workplace pension. I give credit to the Government who took office in 2010 for their work to drive forward auto-enrolment. However, I think that we are all concerned that an estimated 12 million people may still be under-saving for retirement. We welcome the review of the policy that was commissioned in 2017 and its recommendations that the age threshold for auto-enrolment should be lowered from 22 to 18 and that the lower limit of the qualifying earnings band should be removed so that contributions are payable from the first pound earned by an employee. The Minister told us in Committee that the review will be implemented in the mid-2020s; but could we have confirmation that the intended legislation will enact those two proposals? If possible, can we have further detail on the timeframe?

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I welcome the cross-party tone of the hon. Lady’s speech, and I hope it continues. Automatic enrolment is of course a classic example of a policy instituted by Labour, brought forward under the coalition and finally taken forward under the Conservative Government. We would definitely seek to take the action in question in the current Parliament, because we have said it would be brought forward by the mid-2020s; but many of the other policies that the hon. Lady is talking about, such as the state pension age increase brought in by the Labour Government in the Pensions Act 2007, are cross-party decisions, which I hope she continues to support.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment)

The Minister knows, indeed, the importance that we also give to cross-party consensus on such important strategic directions in pensions policy, and that we have worked closely with him on many measures in the Pension Schemes Bill. There could not be a more important time for us to work together to protect people’s financial security in retirement, because even though the Government have refused to publish their dossier on the economic impact of coronavirus, we know that the economic fallout is vast. Indeed, according to the OECD the pandemic has compounded the challenges for retirement savings, including pressures such as ageing populations, slow growth and low returns, which will continue long into the future.

Furthermore, the fall of major employers puts the pensions of entire workforces at risk. An example is the uncertain status of the 10,000 members of the Arcadia defined benefit pension scheme, where there is an eye-watering deficit of about £350 million. The Government must act to ensure that those workers get the pensions that they are owed. It is Labour’s firm view that Sir Philip Green and Lady Green owe a moral responsibility to the employees to fill the pensions shortfall. They must not allow their workers to go into Christmas not only having to deal with the consequences of losing their jobs, but fearing for their pensions.

The pandemic also brings an increased risk from pension scammers preying on people who are worried about the impact of the current economic uncertainty on their savings. That is why Labour fully supported the amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms to the Pension Schemes Bill, to protect people better from risky transfers and improve the provision of advice, to stop people falling prey to scammers. We regret that the Government did not support my right hon. Friend’s amendments, but welcomed assurances from the Minister that regulations will be brought in to ensure that trustees should not have to proceed with a transfer where there are good grounds for believing that a proposed transfer involves moving pension savings into a scam.

On auto-enrolling people into pension guidance appointments, Pension Wise is an excellent service with high satisfaction ratings, but only one in 33 of those eligible to use it do so. Surely, it is more important than ever that people make use of impartial guidance appointments and we would welcome concrete proposals by the Government to improve take-up of these appointments.

On pension charges, at a time when millions are struggling, it is vital that pension costs and charges are reasonable and transparent, and that people receive value for money. Research by PensionBee found that 70% of non-advised draw-down customers pay more than 0.75% a year in charges costing them £40 million to £50 million extra a year and more than £175 million since the pension freedoms were introduced. The long-term impact of high costs and charges for income draw-down could be significant. It is argued that putting costs and charges on the simpler annual statement would confuse people. Instead of being provided with specific information about how much they are paying, they would be signposted to what could be pages and pages of information about charges. We note that the Minister has said that costs and charges information will only be displayed on the pensions dashboard in the longer term, but we would welcome any discussions about a guarantee for value for money as well.

I return to climate change, which is a very important area for future pension policy. The investment decisions taken by pensions involve trillions of pounds—the kind of money that can catalyse significant change when used responsibly, from investing in infrastructure to green technologies. Labour’s amendment to the Pension Schemes Bill sought to ask pension funds to demonstrate how they are helping us get to net zero emissions. It is hard to see how the Government can achieve their own climate goals while excluding trillions of pounds of British capital from those efforts. By voting against our amendment, we believe the Government missed a chance to mobilise pension funds to protect the planet and support the drive to net zero. This is despite the fact that there is clear public support for such a move. The Government must use all the tools at their disposal to channel pension funds into investments that benefit people and the planet.

Finally, I highlight the particular challenges faced by specific groups where injustices need further action. On the former ASW steelworkers, the Minister is aware of their desperate plight. Many worked for decades, paying 100% of their pensions, only to find years later that they only received half of what they were entitled to. They have been fighting for their full pensions for 20 years. Will the Minister confirm when he plans to meet the ASW steelworkers, as he has committed to, and will he work to find a cross-party solution?

I once again raise the plight of the WASPI women, about whom my hon. Friend Sarah Owen spoke so powerfully. Labour also found recently that 15,000 1950s women are claiming universal credit—the pandemic will have made this worse. It is unacceptable that 1950s women have been forgotten by the Conservative Government, both within the crisis and before.

Finally, on the issue of pension underpayment for married women, it feels as if almost every week a new story comes to light of the DWP’s mistakes in paying women their full pension entitlements. It is particularly concerning that many of those affected contacted the Department and were wrongly told that their pensions were correct. This is simply not good enough.

Every single one of the issues I have addressed relies on an effective departmental delivery of pension entitlements, yet this issue raises profound questions about the ability of the DWP to do just that. Labour called for an inquiry into the mismanagement of pensions payments earlier this year. It is time for the Government to take urgent action on this growing scandal, to make sure that every woman affected is paid the pension to which she is entitled and to redress the root causes of the mistakes made.

In conclusion, putting future pension policy on a long-term footing necessitates careful planning and a consensus-driven approach. Labour stands ready to support the Government where they bring forward proposals to protect people’s pensions and savings. However, we urge the Government to take action to address the clear cases of pension injustices that I have highlighted, as well as those likely to emerge through the pandemic. We also call on the Government to take a greater role in ensuring that funds are invested in a socially and environmentally beneficial way.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 3:49 pm, 8th December 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my hon. Friend Rob Roberts on securing this important debate, and I look forward greatly to summing up about 35 different points, in copious detail, in exactly nine minutes, and I undertake to try to write to hon. Members where I am unable to do so.

Starting with one particular point, Amy Callaghan was mentioned; I also had a brain tumour and collapsed in the House of Commons in 2011, and I wish her tremendous good fortune in her recovery. We miss her, and I look forward to her coming back to this place, causing me difficulties and posing important and genuine questions, which I am sure she will continue to do. We all send her our best wishes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Delyn secured an important debate, the fundamental point of which is that pensions play a vital part in all our constituents’ lives, and it is right that we debate these matters and champion their causes on an ongoing basis. While the Government’s immediate priority is the conquering of covid and to build back better, and we have a plan for jobs taking things forward, we are also clear in our desire to ensure that we protect people’s pensions and support people in saving for their retirement. It is timely and right that my hon. Friend raises these points, and I will attempt to address them in a bit of detail.

I will first touch on the fundamentals of the state pension and the fact that we now spend £126 billion on pensioners—the highest that has ever been in this country—of which the state pension is £102 billion. The state pension has gone up by £1,900 in real terms since 2010, thanks to the triple lock and various other measures, and we are in a position that material deprivation for pensioners has fallen from 10% to 6% in 2018-19. Average pensioner incomes have grown significantly in real terms over the past two decades. Average weekly income in 1994-95 was £165 a week at 2018-19 prices, after housing costs, compared with £320 a week in 2018-19. Clearly, there is more to do, and my hon. Friend rightfully raises the issue of pension credit.

The policy was introduced by a previous Chancellor, Gordon Brown, under the Labour Government, and successive Governments have had a variety of strategies, advertising campaigns and initiatives to try to boost take-up. It is patently clear from the available statistics that, even with significant advertising campaigns, take-up of pension credit has been between 60% and 76%. For example, the Labour Government spent over £14 million after the launch of pension credit and the take-up went down, if not remained static, that particular year.

The reality is that we need to work with trusted partners, and that is what we are trying to do. We are trying to institute a variety of campaigns. We had a nationwide campaign in spring last year to boost pension credit. We also have the online pension credit claim facility, ensuring ease of access for anyone wishing to make a claim. A whole host of other matters are under way to take the pension credit take-up forward, but I would particularly inform the House that, following a cross-party meeting with the House of Lords, we have reached out to the BBC and to Tim Davie, its new chief executive, to see whether the BBC can do anything to improve and expand on that particular process. I will put on the record in the Library the letter that Baroness Stedman-Scott and I have written to Mr Davie to see to what extent we could significantly enhance the take-up of pension credit.

My hon. Friend the Member for Delyn raised the idea of an automatic entitlement to pension credit. I fear that is something that is simply not possible on the data available to the state at this stage. There may be a time in the future when such data and capability exist, but it is not possible at the present stage.

I turn to the point he raises on automatic enrolment. Many things were said not only in respect of the cross-party nature of this particular problem, but also the desire for a better outcome. Automatic enrolment has ensured that the participation of private-sector eligible women has increased from 40% to 86%. That is equal to men, I should say. For private-sector eligible 22 to 29-year-olds, it has gone up from 24% to 85%. In 2019-20, working people will save an extra £18 billion into workplace pensions as a result of those reforms. All Members of Parliament will find that there are many thousands of constituents and employers who are doing the right thing and providing the 8% automatic enrolment.

Of course there is more to do. We will be instituting the lower earnings threshold from the age of 18. The Government have made it crucially clear, following the 2017 review, that that is what we will do, and without a shadow of a doubt that will be brought forward. I hope it is at some stage in this Parliament, but obviously these matters are somewhat beyond my control.

Speaking of things that are beyond my control, my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn raised the very important issue of lifetime allowance on tax relief pension savings. He waxed lyrical about a point that I am delighted to say that I am going to raise with the Chancellor personally. I look forward to the Chancellor addressing it at the Budget statement in March if he feels so inclined. I hope my hon. Friend’s plea is taken on board, but clearly that is a matter entirely for the Chancellor.

On automatic enrolment, my hon. Friend raised a very interesting issue that I want to touch on: the idea of a 1% saving added on to the automatic enrolment in the future. There is no question but that we want to look at the possibly of having a rainy-day fund, whether it is a 1% add-on to whatever the future of automatic enrolment is. I am looking at that personally. Clearly, there are many decisions to be made about the future of automatic enrolment, but without a shadow of a doubt trying to improve the financial capability, resilience and inclusion of this country is massively important.

On that issue, we talked about the mid-life MOT, which we back totally. I met the new chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority to discuss how we can improve the capability of individuals from the age of 47. Apparently that is when men are in their mid-life; for women, it is later. The reality is that we want tremendously to improve the mid-life MOT as an option so that we address wealth, work and wellbeing at an early stage.

I have about a minute left. Simpler statements will go forward on state pension age increases. As I indicated to Seema Malhotra, that is a Labour party policy that the coalition and Conservative Governments have continued to implement, and there are no plans to change that. We have an ongoing review of costs and charges, and clearly great work is going forward.

I am deeply grateful to the House for the opportunity to address pension policy. There is no question but that these are serious issues. The Government are absolutely zeroed in on trying to make pension policy work. I totally dispute the claim that we are not doing anything on climate change. With COP26 coming up, we are leading the way. We are the first country to legislate for net zero and for the taskforce on climate-related financial disclosures. We lead the way on all matters, including green gilts. I believe very strongly that climate change and pensions will go hand in hand under this Prime Minister’s leadership. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn for this debate.

Photo of Rob Roberts Rob Roberts Conservative, Delyn 3:58 pm, 8th December 2020

I thank the Minister for summing up. I am interested to hear about using the BBC to enhance pension credit take-up. I suggested that very thing to my right hon. Friend the Work and Pensions Secretary just last week at Department for Work and Pensions questions, so it is good to know that there is movement on that. I was very pleased to hear about auto-enrolment, changes to age limits, losing the lower earnings limit and adding a savings element—all very good.

I thank all hon. Members. There seemed to be wide-ranging agreement on things such as promoting the idea of automation where we can and financial education. That may include not only knowledge of facts but the skills, critical thinking and analysis that will serve our young people well. There was cross-party support and agreement on many issues, although sadly not for the comments of Kirsten Oswald on Scottish independence. That is for another day.

I appreciated Wendy Chamberlain channelling her inner Donald Rumsfeld and trying to tackle the unknown unknowns. I think we will allow our mortal Minister to tackle the known unknowns before we give him any powers of clairvoyance. That is definitely a wise thing to be doing. I appreciate everyone’s contributions, including that of the Minister.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the future of pensions policy.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade)

In order to allow for the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am briefly suspending the sitting.

Sitting suspended.