Saving for Later Life — [Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at on 7 February 2023.

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[Relevant documents: Third Report of the Work and Pensions Committee, Protecting pension savers—five years on from the pension freedoms: Saving for later life, HC 126, and Fourth Special Report of the Work and Pensions Committee, Protecting pension savers—five years on from the pension freedoms: Saving for later life: Government, Financial Conduct Authority and Money and Pensions Service Responses to the Committee’s Third Report of Session 2022–23, HC 1057.]

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee 9:30, 7 February 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of saving for later life.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. The debate arises from the recent report by the Work and Pensions Committee and the responses from the Government, the Financial Conduct Authority and the Money and Pensions Service. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us to have this debate.

Auto-enrolment has been a big success, reversing the decline in workplace pension saving. By the end of last November, over 10.8 million workers had been automatically enrolled and over 2.1 million employers had met their obligations. Our report highlights two big challenges: first, people are not saving enough for an adequate income in retirement; and, secondly, there are people outside the scope of auto-enrolment, due to low pay or self-employment, who would nevertheless benefit from saving in a pension. I will set out those two problems.

The first is retirement income adequacy. Auto-enrolment requires employers to enrol eligible workers aged between 22 and state pension age and earning above £10,000 a year into a workplace pension, and, unless they opt out, to make minimum contributions on a band of qualifying earnings. Employees have to contribute at least 5% of qualifying earnings, including 1% in tax relief, and employers must contribute 3%, so the statutory minimum contribution is 8%. Thanks to auto-enrolment, 86% of eligible workers were saving in a pension in 2020—about twice as much as the proportion was in 2012. The problem is that some who used to have no pension savings now have inadequate pension savings, and they do not know that that is the case.

The Pensions Policy Institute claims that only 39% of households are on track for an adequate pension, according to the Pensions Commission definition. The Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association says that nearly 20% of households at the moment are heading for poverty in retirement. The problem is worse for people in their 40s or and above who have no defined benefit pensions and have not had time to build up an auto-enrolment pension either. The crisis of under-saving will crystallise when they retire, when it will be too late to do anything about it. One of the Minister’s predecessors, Sir Steve Webb, describes it as a “slow-motion car crash” that requires action now.

In our report we asked the Government to consult on a plan to deal with the issue and report back to us by March this year. In their response, the Government recognised the problem:

“Current statutory contributions of 8% on a band of earnings are unlikely to give all individuals the retirement to which they aspire”.

However, they said that now was not the “right time to consult” and that instead they would provide “further information and guidance”. Many witnesses, including the then Pensions Minister, Guy Opperman, told us that that would not work. He told us that

“the lessons of automatic enrolment are that default is the only way to get big interventions”,

and he was absolutely right.

The Government now need to make the case for higher contributions. As things stand, people do not know that they are not saving enough. We need a plan to raise minimum contributions, perhaps with mechanisms such as Save More Tomorrow, where people commit in advance to contributing more as their pay rises in future. The Association of British Insurers argues that contributions should go up from 8% today to 12% by the early 2030s, as in the successful Australian system.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I commend the right hon. Member on this timely debate. He talked about timing. Does he agree that while successive Governments commendably maintained the triple lock on state pension contributions and entitlements, it will come under increasing pressure in the coming years? The timeliness of the debate in resolving that is, or should be, apparent to everyone.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

The hon. Gentleman is right. The Government have usually—not always—applied the triple lock correctly, but it is absolutely vital that people build their own pension savings on top of that. Otherwise, a lot of people will get a very nasty shock when they reach retirement, and at that point it will be too late to do anything about it.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West

Understanding someone’s private pension is quite complex, particularly if they have had more than one job and been in several schemes. Does the right hon. Member agree the work that the Department for Work and Pensions is doing to deliver a dashboard with industry will allow people to access all that information?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

That is very important. We are expecting quite significant progress on the dashboard this year. The Select Committee will, I hope, be taking evidence about that in a session quite soon. That will be an important step, when it finally becomes available.

We recognised in our report that with the cost of living crisis now is not the right time to increase everybody’s pension contributions, but the ground needs to be prepared for increases in future. To quote the Financial Inclusion Commission, we need a “light bulb moment” to alert employers and the public to the gravity of the current under-saving problem. We need to start building a new consensus on what an adequate retirement income is and what is needed to deliver it.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the right hon. Member on bringing this forward. It is not just about the workers of today; we must start earlier. I know he has probably commented on that, but there have been numerous surveys. One, undertaken by Deloitte, states that younger people do not have a sound understanding of things such as ISAs, saving pots or pension pots. We must also note that some teenagers as young as 14 have jobs, so they should be knowledgeable about pensions and savings. Does he agree that consideration should be given to incorporating these matters into learning for life and work modules in schools across the UK nationally? Start it early, because that is when we build for the future.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is helpful for people at school to develop an understanding of financial matters. Even a fairly brief exposure to these matters at school can be really helpful in forming an understanding that serves people well throughout their future working lives.

In their response to our call for work to start building this consensus, the Government said they had a range of metrics for adequacy, but that misses the point. Will Ministers work with others to identify what an adequate retirement income is, and will they then start laying the ground for sufficient saving to deliver it? The Department’s own analysis in 2017 was that 12 million people were under-saving—that is about 38% of the working-age population. Some 1.5 million were substantially under-saving. The Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Hexham, told us that the number of under-savers was “up for debate” but “clearly substantial”. He said the Government would carry out further analysis and keep the Committee informed. When will the Department produce new estimates of the extent of under-saving? When will it publish its research on the pension saving issues for people with low incomes?

The 2017 auto-enrolment review recommended first lowering the minimum age at which a worker must be auto-enrolled from 22 to 18. Secondly, it recommended

“removing the lower limit of the qualifying earnings band”— which is £6,240 at the moment—so that contributions are paid on the whole of somebody’s earnings. We heard there was “almost universal support” for thus helping people poorly served by the current system—in particular, low-paid or part-time workers—and we recommended doing so. In response, the Government restated their commitment to implementing the 2017 review in the mid-2020s, saying:

“We aim to bring forward legislation at a suitable opportunity and when parliamentary time allows.”

Well, the mid-2020s are approaching rapidly. We need legislation this year if that is to be achieved, and I would welcome any encouragement that the Minister can give us about the prospects for that.

A second big problem is tackling exclusion from auto-enrolment. As I have said, auto-enrolment has reversed the decline in the number of employees saving in a pension. By contrast, there has been a big fall in self-employed pension savings, from about 48% in the 1990s to 16% now. We have known about that for some time; indeed, the Department’s response to the 2017 auto-enrolment review said that it was

“a significant and complex strategic problem”,

which is a fair comment.

A lot of people giving evidence to our inquiry argued for mirroring auto-enrolment, using the tax or national insurance system to auto-enrol self-employed people. It is very disappointing that the Government have no plans to do either of those things. Instead, they say that they favour prompts and nudges through accountancy, plus opportunities from the Making Tax Digital programme, but none of that will be enough. Can the Minister tell us when the Department plans to report back on those efforts? I am afraid they are doomed to fail.

A key part of our report focused on the gig economy. The 2021 Uber case suggested to some people that auto-enrolment might be opened up to all workers, but there are big enforcement challenges. Uber gave us compelling evidence and told us about its auto-enrolment model for drivers, which it had invited competitors to join. None of them has done so yet. The Government say that many gig economy workers are already eligible for auto-enrolment, including fixed-term contract, zero-hours and agency workers. The Pensions Regulator ought to be securing employer compliance, but it told us about a “significant evidential burden”. It told us that employers routinely challenge it at every stage and that the guidance issued by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy last July did not help.

Uber and the GMB trade union called on the Government to legislate for better enforcement, with a new body for that purpose. We repeated the recommendation that we made in two previous reports for an employment Bill to address these issues. We have no idea why that Bill has not been forthcoming. In their response, the Government referred to their backing for five private Members’ Bills on a range of employment issues. Those are all no doubt helpful, but none of them helps with delivering auto-enrolment in the gig economy. We called for the Department to work with the Pensions Regulator to estimate, first, how many people in the gig economy should be workers for auto-enrolment purposes and therefore should be auto-enrolled, and, secondly, what resources or powers the Pensions Regulator needs to make sure that employers comply with their obligations, which they are most certainly not doing at the moment. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us something about what the Government will do to stop people working in the gig economy missing out on their entitlement.

The third important gap was referred to in evidence to us from a number of bodies, including Age UK, which told us the gender pensions gaps remains a serious problem. It reflects differences in labour market participation and hits women at retirement, when there is very little they can do about it. Nobody in government produces any data on the gender pensions gap, so the Prospect trade union produced a definition. It suggested the definition should be the percentage difference in average gross pension income for men and women receiving the state pension, and it currently estimates the gap to be 37.9%. There has been very little progress in reducing that since Prospect started reporting five years ago.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West

Last year, I carried a private Member’s Bill through the House to Royal Assent.  That legislation addressed sex-based inequality and guaranteed minimum pensions, which is just a small aspect of the pensions pay gap. Does the right hon. Member agree that because women are likely to earn less than men, and therefore their pension contributions will be lower, further and widespread work is required?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

Yes, I think the hon. Member is quite right. It is not just that women’s earnings are lower and therefore their pension contributions are lower; a lot of women earn below the current auto-enrolment earnings threshold, so they do not save anything at all. NOW: Pensions says that of the 14.6 million employed women in the UK, 17% do not meet the automatic enrolment criteria, compared with 8% of male employees. That is a big part of the problem as well and, as the hon. Member said, it is very much tied up with lower earnings.

I warmly welcome the announcement that the Department is working across Government to develop a coherent framework for assessing this gap and to find a definition to enable the measurement of progress to reduce it. Will the Minister tell us when she expects that work to be complete? In her helpful letter to the Work and Pensions Committee, which was published yesterday, she said that she was looking at

“regular reporting on the gender pension gap….to better highlight the issue publicly.”

When does she expect “regular reporting” to begin? When she says “regular reporting”, does she envisage that happening annually?

Auto-enrolment has been a big success in increasing the number of workers saving in a pension, but there is a lot more to do for the pension system to deliver adequate retirement incomes. The Department agrees with the Committee on the problems that need to be addressed; now we need to get a move on and address them. After the 2017 review—some six years ago—the Department said that its focus was

“for individuals to keep saving and to save more after minimum contributions reach 8 per cent in 2019” and

“to ensure that younger people, part-time workers and the self-employed can achieve more security in later life.”

Momentum has now stalled. The Department has not even progressed the recommendations of that review. In winding up, will the Minister make a start by telling us when the Government intend to make progress on those recommendations?

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley 9:47, 7 February 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the Chair of the Select Committee, Sir Stephen Timms, on securing the debate. As a member of the Backbench Business Committee, I thank him for applying for time for us to have a debate on this important topic.

Pension debates are bit like buses: we have had none for ages, and now we have had three in the last four sitting days, so we can certainly explore the topic thoroughly. By some fluke, we have ended up with all the key planks of pensions status being considered over the last few days. We looked at the age at which people should get their state pension and, last night, we looked at increasing pensions to keep them in line with inflation, which is key plank. If we are going to have a model where the state pension should be enough to keep people out of poverty in retirement, and after that is up to people to save for the kind of living that they want, we need to ensure the minimum floor is in the right place. We should welcome the fact the Government did that last night.

However, that leaves our whole pension-saving approach relying on how much people and their employers save for their own retirement. It is almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that people are simply not saving enough. The vast majority of people who work now are not saving enough, and the younger they are the more likely they are not to be saving enough.

The situation is stark. Around 28% of employees are still in defined benefit schemes, mainly in the public sector. Some 87% of those get an employer contribution of over 12% of their pay. However, for the 51% of people in defined contribution schemes, that number falls to 9%, so 91% of people in defined contribution schemes are not getting an employer contribution that is anything like the level that they used to have, or the level that we get.

The situation for the self-employed, as the Chair of the Select Committee set out, is even worse, as only 16% of self-employed people are saving anything like a material amount in a pension. Despite the incredible growth in the employed having a pension, that number for the self-employed is down from 48% 20 years ago, so they are going in the wrong direction. I suspect that is mostly because there is now a lot more self-employment in the gig economy. We can argue whether they are really self-employed, but they are the ones without any pension provision at all. There is clearly a huge problem, and we need to find a way to solve it.

Auto-enrolment was a tremendous start, getting people who were not saving anything to at least save something. The problem, of course, is that they are not saving anything like enough, and they probably do not even know that. The reason why auto-enrolment was chosen and was such a great success was that it did not require any engagement from the individual. In some ways, engagement is a bad thing, because if they do not know that this money is being taken from them and put in a pension scheme, they will not opt out.

We are trying to build a model that requires engagement to boost savings levels on a model where success was based on not having very much engagement. That is a real problem that we must wrestle with carefully. We do not want people to start opting out, but we do want them to realise that they are not going to have much quality of life in retirement if they do not do something materially different.

That brings us to two initiatives. The first is the dashboard and the second is access to guidance. There is a general consensus that the dashboard will be great, and that it will move us forward by enabling people to understand how much they have got in savings. It would be helpful if the Minister could give an update on when people will have live access that enables them to see at least the majority of the pensions they have saved for in their life. I think we would all accept that it is better to have it later than to have something that is rubbish, but let us not have perfection delay it too far. There probably will be some pensions schemes that will not be able to meet any kind of realistic starting date soon, but they will have so few savers in them that there will not be a problem for the vast majority. I hope that some time next year, people will have live access so that they can find out how much pension saving they have.

Having spent years working out the mechanics and how to make the system safe, what we really need to fix is what people will see when they go on the pensions dashboards. Will the Minister set out the process and her vision for it? People need a clear statement of what they have already saved and some objective, fair and consistent comparison with what they need to have saved, what other people have saved by that time and what they are on track to achieve. Otherwise, they will just see a large-looking pot of money. For someone with no other savings, having 20 grand in their pension might look like they are rich and everything is going to be fine.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I want to pick up on the point about national insurance contributions, and ladies who thought they were on a pension scheme that would reward them when they reached pension age. As an elected representative, I have had a number of constituents come forward over the past few years to tell me that, as they were part-time workers, their national insurance stamps were paid only for a certain period of time. That means that when they reach pension age, their pension is not there for them, although their understanding was that they would have a pension. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that for ladies of the generation now coming to pension age who will not have a pension because they have not paid their national insurance contributions to their full entitlement, the Government should make people more aware so that they can take steps early?

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley

Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right that we need people to understand if they have gaps in their state pension record. That can be found relatively straightforwardly on the state pension system. The dashboard will need to show the state pension entitlement. I urge ladies who might be in that situation to check, because they ought to have got credits while they were receiving child benefit. They might not have been working, but they had other caring responsibilities. It is always worth checking whether they have entitlements of which they may not be aware, and which the system has not picked up.

Back to my theme on the dashboard: for the dashboard to have the impact we want—for people to change their saving behaviour—the information needs to be there. It needs to say, “Yes, you have saved this amount, but most people by your age have saved this amount. If you want to have £10 grand of extra income in retirement over your state pension, you are not on track to do that, and you need to increase your saving.” We need to find a way to give people a context for their savings information. Otherwise, we will have a meaningless number that might not drive behaviour. It might even perversely make people think they are better off than they are.

It is important to understand what the Government and the regulators will allow to be shown and want to be shown. We must ensure that the data is objective, fair, accurate and preferably consistent, because we do not want people to get slightly different pension target across six schemes; they should be told the same information so they can make an accurate comparison.

The second area is the thorny issue of access to guidance and when people should have it. The Work and Pensions Committee has argued with the Government and the regulator about that for a few years. I hope the noises coming out of the Government about trying to get people who are not in economic activity back into work, and about wanting to do more than a midlife MOT or a financial review, mean that they are moving our way now, but the take-up of Pension Wise has been far lower than everybody wanted it to be. The Minister at the time said that Pension Wise take-up should be the norm. I am not sure how 8% or 14% take-up could be described as the norm; I would have thought that the norm would be just below half, or something. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what she thinks the norm is in that context.

There is no room for doubt: even with the stronger nudge that the Money and Pensions Service is trialling, Pension Wise will not get anywhere near that take-up. It is absolutely right that people should have access to that service when they are about to do something with their pension pot. It is a decision that they will not be able to change for the rest of their life, and if they get it wrong, it could be disastrous. Equally, given that we have so much unused take-up, can we not find a way of getting people to access the scheme earlier, soon after their 50s? That would allow them to get a proper review for half an hour or an hour and have all these things explained to them, so they can see what their situation is while they still have a chance to change it, rather than when it is too late? I am old enough to remember “Bullseye”—at the end of the show they used to say, “Here’s what you could have won.” Having a pension review at the age of 65 and a half that says, “Here’s what you could have had if you had saved a bit more,” is not all that helpful to people, so they should get that intervention earlier.

I was a little disappointed by the Government’s response to the Work and Pensions Committee. They said they did not want to go forward with a trial of auto-enrolling people into a Pension Wise appointment shortly after their 50th birthday. I understand that some pension schemes are willing to put their members forward in some sensible, random way so we can find out whether that works. All we are asking the Government to do is to allow MaPS and regulators to commission one of those trials so that we can see whether enrolling people into an appointment in their early 50s gets positive feedback and changes their behaviour. If it does not work, fine—we will have to find some other way—but it looks to be a low-cost way of seeing whether an intervention might work. It would use capacity that is already there and is not being taken up, and it would be a powerful way forward.

I hope that the Minister will be a bit more supportive than her predecessor. If we want to work out how to give people some kind of nudge, hint or push at an age when they can make a change, that is the best idea out there. If the Government are looking for ideas to get people in that age bracket to come back into work, because they have not saved enough for retirement but they think they have, a half-hour or hour session with an expert who can explain what they really need and what they have really got may be the best way of doing it. The online midlife MOT that the Government have produced contains some very useful information—I am not saying it is a bad thing—but it will not change behaviour. It is not an intervention that will really make a difference.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West

The Social Market Foundation found that just 25% of people from ethnic minority backgrounds have a workplace pension, and research found that they are more likely to be sceptical about private pensions. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should do more to educate and reach those groups so they can make sure of their post-retirement financial security?

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is important to explain to people not just from that background, but from all backgrounds, that pensions are a good thing, safe and a good way of saving for retirement. People just do not understand pensions, and they are quite cynical and sceptical about the idea that their money will be there. The more we can do to reassure them, the better.

I have two more quick points to make. We have wrestled for years with the conflict for younger people: should they save for a deposit to get on the housing ladder, or should they save for a pension? The pension industry screams if it is suggested that the former is possibly a good idea. There have been various ideas about how to link the two, but we have not yet made any progress on which one to go for. A key determinant of someone’s financial health in retirement is whether they own a house. If they do, they do not have housing costs to pay and they have an asset that they may be able to downsize to boost their pension pot, so getting young people on the housing ladder earlier is good for their retirement just as saving for a pension is good for their retirement.

Photo of Gareth Davies Gareth Davies Conservative, Grantham and Stamford

Is my hon. Friend aware of the KiwiSaver scheme in New Zealand? It combines the two aspirations—to save for a pension in later life and to get on the housing ladder—in that someone can divert a portion of their pension saving pot towards a deposit for a house. Is that something that the UK Government should consider?

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley

There are various ideas out there, and people could use that sort of scheme. They could take a loan out of their pension scheme to get their deposit, and pay it back. We could allow people to be auto-enrolled and have their employer contributions go into their help to buy ISA. There are various ways to try to achieve the aim, but we need to pick one and bring it forward. We have not made the progress that perhaps we should. To be honest, I can see no way of getting more money into young people’s savings to achieve a deposit other than allowing the use of some kind of employer support that is currently going into their pension, because in reality, young people will not have the scope to save much more for themselves. We have already tried to give them the taxpayer top-up through the help to buy ISA. Where else is new money coming from to improve this situation if not from money that is going into their retirement saving?

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Social Justice)

I am grateful to Gareth Davies, who intervened before me and talked about the KiwiSaver scheme. I think that that is very interesting, but it strikes me, when considering this topic, that this is a discussion that we have within our little bubble on work and pensions but it is perhaps not something that has been explored in Government—for example, in the Treasury and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Does Nigel Mills agree that there has to be a slightly wider, cross-Government approach if we are seriously to explore the issue?

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley

I agree. This is a complicated area and it clearly does cross into being a Treasury responsibility; it has to, as it involves quite a lot of pensions issues. But this is a question of coming up with a consensus around a plan for how we achieve the aim. There needs to be a long-term, stable solution. The Treasury did—it must be seven or eight years ago—move to the help to buy ISA and add the taxpayer top-up to it, and that is, in effect, an equivalent to what people get in a pension scheme. There does not have to be a completely closed door, but this is a matter of bringing these things to fruition.

I welcome the announcements made by my hon. Friend the Minister last week at the Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association about the value for money of pension schemes. I have banged on about this for a few years. It is regrettable that the auto-enrolment market is generally still about saying, “We’re going to be really cheap for employers and really easy for you to comply with,” rather than, “Here’s a great pension that you can put your staff in. It will be a really powerful motivation and retention tool, and they will get a really good pension at the end of it.” Now that the market is mature, we need to try to move it away from being cheap and easy to being high quality, with decent returns and a decent service to members. If the Minister is going to make some progress on that, I will greatly welcome it, because having people in the best possible schemes with the best returns, rather than in the cheapest and easiest ones, will actually boost their retirement income.

It is also extremely welcome that the Minister is looking at how we can roll out CDC—collective defined contribution—schemes to many more people. Not having them necessarily being employer-led, and allowing them to be decumulation only, is a really powerful thing for retirement, especially now that we are in a different world. If interest rates stay where they are and people can get a much better annuity—I think the rates are now more like 6% a year rather than 4%—that dramatically changes the assumptions that we have seen for the last 15 or 20 years. Those schemes could become much more attractive and much better for people even than we thought they would be when we introduced the Royal Mail one. The landscape has changed, and the more we can make some progress on these key things, the more chance there is to make a real difference. I hope the Government will make some progress on these matters.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay 10:04, 7 February 2023

It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my friend—he genuinely is my friend—Sir Stephen Timms on securing the debate, along with the work that the Select Committee has done on this topic under his guidance.

For many people, my constituency of Torbay is the place they want to retire to, as many have already done. Its attractiveness as a tourism resort applies equally for those who want a change of lifestyle and to live amongst its natural beauty and enjoy the many activities that are on offer, which they previously had to put to one side to pursue a career. Given its attractiveness to retirees, Torbay is known for having a population mix that tends to be older than average. As I sometimes reflect on in debates about health and social care, in one of my wards, about 9% of the population is aged over 85. In an area where there is a one in 10 chance of meeting someone aged 86 or older, there are some unique challenges around the provision of public services. For example, at a local supermarket there might be a parent and child parking space, but nowhere to leave a scooter.

The focus of the debate is not those who are already retired, but how the dream of enjoying a comfortable retirement—hopefully in Torbay—can be maintained for those in their 20s, 30s and 40s; and how to ensure that they know how to save, what they need to save and what lifestyle their current level of retirement savings will allow them to enjoy. I welcome the Select Committee’s report and its focus not only on how to further develop auto-enrolment, but on some of the trickier situations around encouraging longer-term savings patterns where someone is self-employed or working in the gig economy.

Before I go too much further, it is worth noting the success of auto-enrolment in that endeavour. That one move has transformed saving for later life in the UK for millions of workers. The proportion of eligible workers saving in a pension rose from 44% in 2012 to 86% in 2020. As has been touched on, participation has remained high at 89% for 40 to 49-year-olds—my own age group—and, encouragingly, at 85% for 22 to 29-year-olds. The latter group is crucial, because small amounts that are put aside early can lead to a strong position for retirement in decades to come, not least with the additional employer contributions.

The financial impact has been significant, with an estimated additional £33 billion in real terms saved into workplace pensions in 2021, compared with 2012. It is also worth noting that with the forthcoming increase in the national living wage to £10.42, more people will go over the earnings threshold and therefore start auto-enrolment, with the savings it brings. Despite that major progress, however, it is clear that many are either still not part of a pension scheme or not saving enough to meet their eventual retirement plans.

The right hon. Member for East Ham rightly highlighted that it is worth people having a clear view of what is adequate so that they can think in their 20s and 30s about what they will need to support themselves in their late 70s and 70s. I think we all realise that there will be a difference in that figure across the UK, particularly if housing costs still need to be met. Someone living in central London will be in a different position from someone in Torbay or Glasgow who owns their property and therefore only has to account for the general lifestyle they want. Of course, if they own their property, they will still have to maintain it. The idea that housing is free when we reach retirement is often disproved when a property that has been owned for 20 or 30 years suddenly needs a new roof or a heating system upgrade. People can be capital-rich on paper because of their property, but they can find their finances quite stressed when they have to meet large repair bills.

There is a particular issue with how we encourage those who do not have a specific employer. That is relevant for many performing roles in Torbay’s tourism sector, and I was pleased that the Select Committee focused on it. The Government are right to say in their response that there is not a single solution for such a diverse part of the workforce. As was often mentioned during covid, self-employment includes everyone from those who are just starting out on their own in a small business, often on a relatively low income, to those in magic circle law firms earning significant sums. However, our focus will always be on those who may struggle in retirement, not on high-flying lawyers who are likely to be only too aware of their pension and saving options—probably their tax options as well—in planning for their retirement.

I agree that we need targeted messages that reach people when they consider their finances, or that we should proactively seek to put information about their retirement in front of them regularly. For example, how can we support self-employed people who work seasonally across the hospitality sector? When do they look at their finances? I share some of the thoughts of my hon. Friend Nigel Mills, however. We do not want to have a counterproductive impact by advising people that money will be coming out of their wages each month and having them decide, “Actually, I’ll take the money instead.” In the earlier stages—the first couple of years—the entitlement they have built up will not look particularly impressive, but if it were continued, it would become a worthwhile pot. We do not want a counterproductive outcome overall, but it is certainly something that can be worked on, and we have seen the progress that has been made so far.

Although the Select Committee report was welcome overall, I have some concerns about the suggestion that national insurance payments could become a quasi-auto-enrolment position for the self-employed. There is a real difference between a person saving specifically for their own retirement, to fulfil the dreams or plans they have, and paying tax to fund public services and benefits, as they are required to do under the law. I appreciate that the state pension is linked to making national insurance contributions, but that has always been on the basis of years, rather than “You will build up x amount of contributions, and that will produce y pension.” It is not a pot that people have and that they can access. I can see the idea that when people pay NI they are arguably making contributions towards a state pension, but that is slightly different from them building up their own pension pot, which would be theirs in name as well.

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley

To clarify, the idea was that because the self-employed pay a lower national insurance rate than those who are employed, we could effectively say to people, “Either you can put that into your own pension pot and top it up, or you can pay national insurance at the same level as somebody who is employed and not get any benefit from it.” It was a way of trying to replicate the auto-enrolment position, where a person puts in money themselves and gets money from somebody else and the taxpayer. It was the only real solution we could find in terms of people getting more bang for their buck.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay

I can certainly see where the logic came from—that someone who was self-employed would be paying similar levels of national insurance as someone who was employed. For me, though, it is a mix: when a person makes NI payments, that is based on years, and it is a fairly simple calculation, as opposed to a specific amount going into a pot that is then theirs. For me, the proposal raises that particular concern but, again, I appreciate my hon. Friend’s point: we all have the goal of ensuring that the self-employed, and predominantly the self-employed who are on lower earnings, have a reasonable pot for their retirement.

It is welcome to see the Minister in her place, and it would be interesting to hear her thoughts on a couple of points when she sums up. First, what work is being done to analyse the roles in the economy where there is most likely to be under-saving and to reach out to those people? As I have touched on, the self-employed are a very wide group: some will be all too aware of their options for retirement, but others may be on low incomes and struggling, or just facing the day-to-day pressures of running a business. They do not necessarily want to spend lots of time looking up pension rules and positions, as a large company might do. Secondly, therefore, what opportunities have been explored for working with sector groups at a more local level—such as chambers of commerce, business groups or the destination management groups that are common in the tourism industry—to see how they could be used to reach out to some of those who are unlikely to want to spend a lot of time reading through guidance on how to set up a pension?

Finally, what support would be offered for sectors to look at developing their own bespoke pension funds for self-employed workers and those in the gig economy? It was touching to hear from the right hon. Member for East Ham about things such as what Uber is doing for taxi drivers. Sometimes competitors will not necessarily rush to sign up to something that is run by another company, but what is being looked at that would give firms and organisations in particular sectors that want to do the right thing the opportunity to do so?

Many who will holiday in Torbay this summer will dream about one day retiring there, and we will sometimes see a retired couple who have been married many years sitting on the Babbacombe downs next to a young couple having their first break together, who will be part of a similar scene in decades to come. Helping people fulfil their dreams is the core of this debate, and that is what must drive us in ensuring that saving for later life becomes part of everyone’s working life.

Photo of Duncan Baker Duncan Baker Conservative, North Norfolk 10:14, 7 February 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate Sir Stephen Timms on securing the debate. As the Member of Parliament for North Norfolk, I might be expected to speak in a pensions debate. I have said many times in the main Chamber that I represent the constituency with the oldest demographic in the entire country, with 33.4% of my constituents being over the age of 65. However, I am not actually going to talk about that cohort of people, because they have already retired. I am going to talk about an issue that has not been covered much today: giving people—mainly lower-paid people—useful guidance and advice before they retire.

There is a fundamental problem facing society and policyholders: most people tend to glaze over when they hear the word “pensions”. That became clear to me when I was a finance director of a medium-sized company that employed many people, so I can speak with a bit of authority about this. I found that auto-enrolment was a phenomenal success, as has been said many times. The reason is quite simple: we largely reduced the burden of instigating saving and took out the scare factor. Nevertheless, running that company’s pension scheme showed me first hand that if people can put off engaging with their pensions, they certainly will. That becomes a real problem.

The DWP published new research last week on savers’ engagement with their pensions. It said:

“Attitudes to pensions were characterised by detachment, fear, and complacency, which acted as barriers to engagement.”

I suspect that anybody who has been closely involved with pensions will not be surprised by that finding. There is a real problem. I am not talking about people who are well paid, but about the vast majority of the country. For people who are lower paid—perhaps working on a shop floor or in a supermarket—engaging with their pension and their retirement is a long way down their priority list. The reason is that people simply do not understand them, and we know that people often fear what they do not understand.

The Government should strain every sinew to ensure that good paths are put in front of people, rather than expecting savers to direct themselves to those paths for help and advice. There is help, but I suspect that if we asked the average person on the street, hardly anyone would know what the Pension Wise service is. Would they know that it is a Government-backed service that offers free, impartial guidance to over-50s? I doubt it. Would they know that someone can advise them about the options for their pension pot? Probably not. We should be promoting that service far more.

With that in mind, I was disappointed that the Government had a negative response to the recent auto-appointment proposal for Pension Wise appointments, as recommended by the Work and Pensions Committee. Pension Wise is popular and has had a positive impact on the relatively small proportion of savers who use it. User feedback is excellent and much better than policymakers might have reasonably hoped for prior to its introduction.

More importantly, Pension Wise has been proven to leave users better equipped to make pension decisions. That encompasses everything we have talked about. In his excellent speech, the right hon. Member for East Ham said that people are simply recognising that they do not have enough savings in the first place. We ought to ensure that we leave users better equipped to make pension decisions, with the additional benefit of raising awareness of the risks posed, for instance, by scammers. That alone seems like a reason to conduct a trial.

In recent research, the Financial Conduct Authority estimated that a quarter of consumers would consider accessing their pension savings earlier than they had planned due to the current cost of living pressures. We really need to get people to Pension Wise before scammers get to them and before the point where they make pension decisions based on a partial or even incorrect understanding of the consequences. That is the reason why Pension Wise was created; it is a key part of understanding pension freedoms. Indeed, its usefulness to savers presumably explains why the Government decided in 2015 to lower the age threshold for Pension Wise advice from 55 to 50.

Given the phenomenal success of auto-enrolment, about which we all agree, let us pursue auto-appointment to help give the right advice. To sum up, we should repeat that success; we should do what we did with auto-enrolment with auto-appointments, so that people realise there is friendly, decent, professional advice out there. That could take away the reticence, and perhaps sometimes fear, about taking financial advice about retirement. It can be done; we have seen it with auto-enrolment—let us repeat that success with auto-appointments.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Social Justice) 10:20, 7 February 2023

It is a great pleasure, as ever, to see you in the Chair, Mr Hosie. I absolutely agree with Duncan Baker on that last point, which I will come to in my remarks. I also congratulate the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, Sir Stephen Timms, on securing this important debate. We have had very good contributions from the hon. Members for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and for North Norfolk, some of which I will touch on.

I am always struck that people can talk to me comfortably about the tragedy of poverty and its numerous consequences, but when pensioner poverty comes up they start to feel uneasy, perhaps justifiably. The truth is that many of us do not want to admit that the idea of older people struggling with simple things such as paying their bills and affording their weekly food shop is a bit too far from them. For many, it is an accepted fact that what awaits them in the golden years of retirement is a life of comfort, leisure and looking after grandchildren. But for far too many pensioners in these islands, the inadequacy of the state pension, which is one of the lowest in Europe, means that they have to turn to food banks and avoid turning on their radiators in the winter. It is an uncomfortable thought—the idea of one’s 80 or 90-year-old grandmother counting the pennies and sitting, anxiously, worrying about how to pay her bills. Sadly, for far too many, including in my own constituency—and, I am sure, in Dundee East, Mr Hosie—that is the stark reality of Tory Britain.

Saving for later life can be a complex and unfamiliar task, and it is further complicated by an arduous system and often impenetrable jargon, as Members have touched on. From speaking anecdotally to Members of this House, I know that as soon as pensions are mentioned, eyes glaze over and people turn off. It can seem easier to focus on today’s finances, particularly with the rising cost of living and heightened inflation, but that is simply to kick the can down the road. Today’s debate is therefore a welcome opportunity to take stock of the current pensions landscape and to assess how we are helping—if indeed we are helping—people to save for later life.

Let me start, as many others have, with automatic enrolment. Although it has undoubtedly been a success so far, it can and should go further. Saving the minimum through automatic enrolment will simply not provide many with an adequate living standard. That comes as a shock to many when retirement is just around the corner, at which point it is often too late to do much about it. My position, and indeed that of the SNP, is that the eligibility criteria for auto-enrolment should be widened and the age of eligibility moved from 22 to 16. Let me explain why it should be 16 and not 18, which appears to be the wider consensus in this House.

This issue is personal for me. This is National Apprenticeship Week, and I left school at 16 and started working as an apprentice, as tens of thousands of young people do, perhaps setting off on a lifelong career in local government. For that reason, and indeed many others, I believe it would be right and proper for auto-enrolment to be rolled out to those who enter the labour market at 16. That would bring it in line with taxation policy and give people the best opportunity to save for their future. I also want auto-enrolment to be rolled out from the first pound rather than an arbitrary threshold of £10,000. I will explain later why that ties in with the gender pensions gap, which is a real problem.

I concur with the Committee’s report regarding the recommendations of the 2017 auto-enrolment review, and I hope that we soon see more progress on those. The recommendations would hugely improve the saving ability of those who are typically short-changed by the pensions system—I am thinking specifically of part-time workers, women, self-employed people and workers in the gig economy. In this morning’s debate there has been a good focus on self-employment. As the Committee’s report clarifies, a much smaller proportion of self-employed people, as opposed to employees, now contribute to a pension. That proportion has increasingly declined since the mid-1990s and now sits at just 16%, compared with 88% of workers eligible for auto-enrolment. I therefore support the report’s recommendations on that issue, including trialling ways to default self-employed people into pension saving and considering how to promote it to them. I note from the Minister’s letter, which a number of us received, that the Government are making an effort to do that, but I press the Minister ever so slightly to give us a timescale.

Let me turn to the gig economy and the future of work. As we inevitably become more reliant on the gig economy, it is vital that auto-enrolment applies to everyone and that employers do not shirk their responsibilities to staff. It is worth noting that that recommendation has been made in not one but two previous reports by the Committee. I repeat that the British Government must do more to bring forward an employment Bill as soon as possible. We have been waiting for this elusive employment Bill for what feels like an eternity. If the Government can find time for the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, they should be able to bring forward an employment Bill that improves workers’ rights—something we were promised would be part of the post-Brexit sunlit uplands. Although an employment Bill would offer many possibilities for enshrining better terms, conditions and employment protections, it would also increase the legal protection available to people in low-paid work and the gig economy, ensuring that they have a fair opportunity to save for their pension. Surely we can all agree on a cross-party basis about that.

I turn now to the injustice of the gender pensions gap and to the need for a clear and official measure of what that gap actually is. Again, I welcome what the Minister said in her letter about trying to get to that definition. We rightly talk a lot in this place about the gender pensions gap, but we cannot work constructively towards ending the inherent gender-based discrimination that is baked so deeply into our economic structures if we do not have a definition of it.

Although eligibility to auto-enrolment doubtless contributes to the gap, so too does the motherhood penalty. To put the gender divide in context, we know that the average pension pot for a woman aged 65 is one fifth of that for a 65-year-old man, and that, on average over a 20-year period, women receive £29,000 less by way of a state pension than men. What is even more depressing is that, without urgent intervention, that deficit is predicted to continue, closing only by a meagre 3% by 2060. Therefore, extending the coverage of automatic enrolment further by reducing the earnings threshold to a lower level—ideally, as I say, to the first pound—would bring hundreds of thousands of people, and most importantly women, into pension saving. We should be proud that, in recent years, we have made enormous strides in bringing about equality, but we need to be honest that that progress is not reflected in pensions policy.

I turn now to the question of advice, which is where the hon. Member for North Norfolk finished his speech. Obviously, it is hugely important that people save enough for retirement, but it also matters greatly that people receive impartial and fair advice about their pension in good time. The Money and Pensions Service estimates that 22 million people do not know enough to plan for their retirement, which is an incredibly alarming figure. That leads me to reflect on a conversation that I had with my mother over Christmas, when she was talking about her pension. She had no idea about things such as Pension Wise, so clearly she is one of those 22 million people. That dim assessment was also reflected in new research from the Department of Work and Pensions, which was released only last week. It found:

“Attitudes to pensions were characterised by detachment, fear and complacency, which acted as barriers to engagement.”

We would all want people to feel more confident and secure about their pension savings. I certainly want to ensure that I am doing everything I can to make sure that people fully understand the decisions they make and, more importantly, that they can make them with conviction. There are good organisations out there, such as the Just Group, which are clear that the best option for achieving those aims is Pension Wise, the Government-backed and impartial guidance service delivered by MaPS.

I have spoken to the Minister over the course of the last month about the importance of Pension Wise and how disappointing it is that take-up remains relatively low, despite satisfaction with the service being so high. The hon. Member for North Norfolk spoke about how high satisfaction is with that service; it is up there at 90%, which is quite remarkable.

In Scotland, separate analysis from MaPS shows that the number of appointments that people made with it fell by 13% in a year, while the total number of pensions accessed across the UK rose by 18%. That concerns me enormously, because people are drawing down their pensions and making decisions about their pensions in a way that is not particularly well informed and that could even be financially disadvantageous to them.

The Work and Pensions Committee has recommended that there should be an auto-appointment trial for Pension Wise and I again join others in urging the Minister to consider that suggestion. In addition, I also ask what her Department is doing to increase the take-up of Pension Wise, because I am not necessarily sure that things such as the “stronger nudge” are working. If she is in a position to agree to meet me and the Just Group to discuss the issue, I would be grateful if she could confirm that during her speech.

Although Members from different parties may disagree about the adequacy of the pensions system, we must be clear that a situation in which any pensioner is experiencing poverty is unacceptable. According to the latest figures from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, roughly 1.7 million pensioners in these islands are currently living in poverty. Age UK has said that the priority for many pensioners is dealing with the rising cost of living and surviving day to day. They are focused now on the challenges of health, money and their responsibilities, as well as how to cope with limited resources.

It cannot be right that after working for their entire lives, raising families and contributing to the society that my generation benefits from, so many pensioners are now worried and anxious about money. It is not right that the UK devotes a smaller percentage of its GDP to state pensions and pensioner benefits than most other advanced economies. It is also not right that the UK, despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, has one of the lowest state pensions in Europe.

From Barrowfield to Baillieston, pensioners in my constituency are clear to me on the doorstep that they feel that the British Government do not value them and that pensioners are, at best, an afterthought and a group that the Tories merely pay lip service to.

On just about every measure, this London Government have a disastrous record on supporting pensioners, whether that is the injustice shown to the 1950s women, the frozen pensions for UK citizens living abroad, the breaking of the pensions triple lock, the underpayment of state pensions, the gender pensions gap or the low uptake of pension credit. The list goes on and on.

Westminster has proven time and again that it will not deliver fairness or prosperity for pensioners in Scotland and that without radical change our senior citizens face a retirement of poverty, not prosperity. So long as Scotland is still tied to this Westminster system that we do not consent to, we will continue to get pensions policies that make our people poorer. That is why I fervently believe that the only way to ensure dignity and fairness in retirement for my constituents is with Scottish independence. For many of my elderly constituents sitting in their freezing homes this morning, perversely in an energy-rich country, that conclusion—that we need Scottish independence—is one that they are rapidly also reaching.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions) 10:34, 7 February 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and I commend my right hon. Friend Sir Stephen Timms and the other members of the Work and Pensions Committee for their excellent work and their report.

People who work hard and save all their lives deserve to expect a decent income in retirement. It is vital that the Government support pension saving as well as providing a decent state pension, and I hope that the debate will be a starting point as we discuss some of those issues. First, however, I want to put the debate in context.

We are living through difficult and challenging times with families and pensioners facing a cost of living crisis the like of which has not been seen for 40 years. Food prices are up, fuel prices are up and the cost of living is rising dramatically. That is having an enormous impact on households across the country, and there is, as has been mentioned, a real risk that some people might either stop saving for a pension or dip into their pension savings early and unsustainably, simply because they cannot afford the cost of living.

To make matters worse, the wider economic context is, to say the least, extremely challenging. Last week, the International Monetary Fund reported that the UK faces the worst economic outlook of any major economy. After 12 years of economic mismanagement by the Government, we seem to be stuck in a persistent period of low growth and high inflation. As a result of that mismanagement, the Government are trying to cut public spending. They have reduced spending on the state pension by failing to increase pensions in line with inflation until April, which means that pensioners, for some months, have been trying to keep up with the huge increase in the cost of living. They have been let down by the Government in attempting to do that.

Saving for a pension takes time and regular contributions, and, as we have seen, there is an issue of pensions adequacy. I note that the Committee’s report found that many savers did not realise that they were not on track for the retirement they had envisaged. This, sadly, is a tragedy waiting to happen. I hope the Minister will address that, and I encourage her to focus on it because Ministers must do more to avoid a terrible problem in future and to show they are taking the issue seriously. Sadly, I am not convinced that the point was adequately addressed in the Government response to the report, and I hope the Minister will find time to discuss it more properly.

Saving for the future remains sustainable only if pensions are kept safe, and increased pensions freedoms, which were introduced in 2015, gave many hundreds of thousands of people choice as to how to invest their savings. However, the Government need to do more to help them, including providing better advice, as we heard earlier, and helping to tackle fraud, such as pension scams. I am afraid that the evidence so far is that Ministers, unfortunately, are failing on both counts. As we heard earlier, not enough people are accessing free, impartial advice, and it seems as though those with the largest pension pots might be somewhat more likely to seek such advice, rather than those in greatest need.

On fraud, there are also deeply worrying indications of Government failure. In 2022, there was a 75% increase in online searches for scam help and a large increase in searches for pension scams. In 2018, the Financial Conduct Authority published data showing that hundreds of people had been scammed out of their pensions, losing on average the enormous total of £82,000 per person. Research by the Money Advice Service suggests that there could be as many as eight scam calls every second, and Citizens Advice found that 8.4 million consumers had been offered unsolicited pensions advice between 2015 and 2016.

On a similar note, we need to ensure that the regulator and the ombudsman are given the tools they need to take swift and effective action in cases of mis-selling or unethical behaviour, and the serious ongoing problems with the British Steel pension scheme show the need to improve regulation. Much of the damage in that case could—and indeed should—have been avoided if tougher action had been taken at the time. I am glad to say, however, that steps can be taken. The law was changed in 2020 to ban cold calling from UK numbers, thanks to Labour pressure. The Government should act on our calls to take further steps, such as banning fraudulent online advertisements, which remain an option for scammers.

Let me move on to speak more about the structures to help people save. As was mentioned earlier, auto-enrolment, which was created by the previous Labour Government, has become an undisputed success. We must maintain the ambitions of the previous Labour Government and do more to ensure that everyone benefits, including, as colleagues mentioned earlier, women, low-paid people and minority groups. I remind the Minister that the Government promised to look at expanding auto-enrolment by the mid-2020s. I hope she will address that point when she responds.

There is, as Nigel Mills and others have mentioned, scope for other innovations. I urge the Government to think more creatively about new ways of encouraging saving—for example, by considering pensions sidecars and other ways to address the wider challenge of encouraging saving, which we have heard so much about today.

I am aware that time is limited, so I will finish by urging the Minister to do more. There is scope for pensions to contribute to protecting the future of the planet. I welcome the work of the shadow Chancellor, my right hon. Friend Rachel Reeves, and her plans to support green start-up companies’ links with pension funds. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Laura Trott Laura Trott The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 10:40, 7 February 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank the Work and Pensions Committee for its report and the important role that it plays in scrutinising the work of the Department. I also extend my thanks to the Chair of the Select Committee, Sir Stephen Timms, for securing this debate. We have had thoughtful contributions from everyone here.

The Committee’s report rightly raises key areas for reflection in our ongoing story of pension saving. The pensions landscape has undergone substantial change in recent years with the new state pension, increased pension saving through automatic enrolment, and increased choice through pensions freedoms, backed up with free, impartial guidance. We have laid a solid foundation to enable people to take responsibility and plan more effectively for the retirement that they want.

We have had numerous pension successes, with the most notable mentioned by everyone here today: the successful delivery of automatic enrolment, which has got 10.8 million more people into saving for retirement. However, the way that people save has undergone a significant shift in recent decades by shifting the retirement outcomes responsibility on to individuals rather than employers. That has thrown up policy challenges, which we have discussed today and were rightly considered in the Committee’s report.

I turn now to the future of automatic enrolment. Last year was the 10th anniversary of AE, which was introduced under a Conservative Government. AE facilitated a dramatic shift in workplace pension savings, with 86% of eligible employees in the private sector now participating in a workplace pension. The Government are committed to building on the success of AE by implementing the outcomes of the 2017 review, as endorsed by the Committee. I am pleased that there is a widespread consensus on that.

We will reduce the age at which people are auto-enrolled from 21 to 18, as well as removing the lower earnings limit. I heard what David Linden said about lowering the age to 16—he tells a powerful story—and we will keep that under review. The 2017 recommendations will change the landscape for the better. They will enable people to save for longer and begin their savings journey from the first pound of their earnings. That will give younger people and people in part-time jobs, particularly women, the opportunity to be brought into the world of pension savings for the first time. I know the Committee is keen for me to set out a timeline. I, too, am keen to set out a timeline, and as soon as I have collective agreement I will come back to the Committee and the House to announce that.

In its recommendations the Committee also asked the Government to look at measures to close the gender pensions gap, which is something we can all agree on. My Department regularly monitors the contribution and participation rates by gender and regularly publishes the data in our workplace pension participation and savings trends publications. As discussed, I want to take that one step further and begin monitoring and reporting on the issue regularly. Although many factors create inequality in pension outcomes, most notably the gender pay gap, I have started working with key stakeholders and colleagues across Government to create a framework to understand the challenge and also to produce a definition of the gender pensions gap.

Agreeing a definition, as discussed by many Members today, is a crucial first step. That will allow us to agree a suitable metric to monitor progress and begin reporting on the issue. Again, I need collective agreement before I can say more, but I will come back to the Committee when I have a timeline for that.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

I welcome what the Minister has just said. Does she envisage annual reporting? Is that the sort of frequency she has in mind for monitoring the size of the gender pensions gap?

Photo of Laura Trott Laura Trott The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I think annual reporting would make sense, but this is something that we need to look into further. I will come back to the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee.

The hon. Member for Glasgow East spoke about the gender pensions gap. We have seen progress in women’s participation, particularly in automatic enrolment, where they are now slightly ahead of men, but I agree that we need to see further work on the issue. I intend to drive that forward.

I turn to measures for the self-employed. When I started this role, I found it striking how low pension savings were among the self-employed. As the right hon. Member for East Ham is aware, the success of AE is down to the employer enrolling the member, which is clearly something that the self-employed do not have. Nest Insight has recently published the results of its trials on behavioural messaging and savings mechanisms on financial digital platforms and money management apps, to test the role of tech-based nudges and the value of flexible savings.

My intention is to make retirement savings easier for the self-employed. To do that, I want to better understand the touchpoints through which the self-employed engage with the Government, which will be the most effective at encouraging them to save into a pension pot. So far, the most obvious point is the tax system. We have begun work with the UK trade body for business software developers to help us better understand the software market and explore the opportunities, both current and new, to support self-employed people to save for their retirement. This includes scoping the feasibility of building and testing retirement savings solutions within compatible software used by the self-employed to manage their money.

We are also keen to explore and test hybrid saving vehicles that combine accessible and illiquid savings, which could preserve some control for individuals in managing their short-term finances alongside saving for retirement. The next stage of trialling will also build on the evidence from the work with HMRC to test the capacity of nudges to pension guidance systems installed within the existing assessment system, with a view to encouraging the self-employed to start saving. The Government have no intention to make automatic deductions for the self-employed via the making tax digital system, and we agree with my hon. Friend Kevin Foster that although we welcome all ideas for boosting self-employed pension savings, we do not think that mixing them with the national insurance system is workable.

Many Members mentioned the gig economy, and we are continuing to work with the Pensions Regulator and BEIS on this complex issue. As the right hon. Member for East Ham outlined, the Department’s view is that many gig economy workers are already eligible for automatic enrolment, including those on fixed-term or zero-hours contracts and agency workers. I heard what he said about the guidance produced by BEIS, and I will feed that back to that Department.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. I hope she is right and the legal position is as she said, but delivering enforcement clearly is not happening at the moment. Does she recognise that the Pensions Regulator needs more powers in order to do the job that she is saying it should be doing already?

Photo of Laura Trott Laura Trott The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I understand and respect the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns, and I will be having further meetings with the Pensions Regulator about this issue. I look forward to discussing the outcomes of those when I appear in front of his Committee.

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley

Would the Minister consider setting a target for the number of self-employed people who are regularly saving into a pension scheme by a certain date? I think the rate is currently around 16%. If we could get that up to the 48% it was at 20 years ago, that would be a dramatic improvement and would show whether the efforts to encourage people to save are working. Does she accept that targets are the only way to really drive change?

Photo of Laura Trott Laura Trott The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I think what we need to do is set out a plan. I accept that when we look at the various mechanisms that I have outlined today, we should outline the impact that we think they should have. I commit to go away and have a look at that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay asked what the Department is doing to develop sectoral pension schemes and whether they can be made available for gig economy employers. Collective defined contribution schemes have the potential to transform the UK pensions landscape. He will know that we introduced legislation to allow them for single employers last year, and we are currently consulting on multi-employers. They are really exciting and could be a way forward in this space.

I am conscious of time; I will obviously write to hon. Members to cover anything I do not get to. The Work and Pensions Committee is right to raise concerns about ensuring pensions adequacy. The shift from the promise of retirement income through defined benefit to defined contribution places responsibility on the saver to ensure they have the outcome they want, but I do not think there is widespread understanding of that among the general public. Personal circumstances obviously dictate what individuals consider an adequate level for retirement savings. It is my role as the Pensions Minister to enable people to save adequately, as well as to ensure pension-maximising returns on their savings. The key to that is empowering savers to take control of their financial future. The introduction of simple annual statements, the midlife MOT and the pensions dashboard will make pensions more understandable to the saver and empower them to take control of their retirement outcomes.

My hon. Friend Nigel Mills was entirely right that the pensions dashboard will be crucial to that. We expect to see on the dashboard an understanding of what current savings will lead to as retirement income. What he said about comparing that to what others have was really interesting, and I will take that away.

Photo of Gareth Davies Gareth Davies Conservative, Grantham and Stamford

There has been a lot of discussion today about the adequacy of the amount saved, but no discussion of what the investments are made in. The UK has one of the lowest levels of investment in illiquid assets—private equity, venture capital and infrastructure. What does the Minister think we need to do to encourage a greater diversity of investment so that our pensioners have greater returns?

Photo of Laura Trott Laura Trott The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

My hon. Friend makes a typically excellent point. He is right that we have a lower investment in illiquids than many of our European counterparts. We are at 7%, and they are at 15% or 16%. Last week, I announced a change in regulations, which I believe will come to the House in around March. It will mean that the performance charges can be passed on for the first time, which will hopefully take away a barrier to investment in those types of asset. It is of course for the pension trustees to make investments in the best interest of pension savers, but it is important that we do not put any barriers in the way of that. My hon. Friends the Members for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies) and for Amber Valley are right that we need to focus on returns. If we are going to deal with adequacy, we need to ensure that investments in pension schemes return the maximum amount that they can for savers. Illiquids are part of the story in making that happen.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

I was lucky to enjoy a very interesting visit to a solar farm with the Minister’s predecessor, Guy Opperman. One of the issues there—this relates to the point made by Gareth Davies—is that the obstacles to pension funds investing in illiquids are quite considerable. Does the Minister agree that there is an issue with work across Government on that matter? The delays in that case were to do with electricity connectivity to the site, and there may be other similar delays that are holding pension funds back from investing in illiquids in the UK.

Photo of Laura Trott Laura Trott The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

If there is a specific issue with that, I am of course happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman about that separately.

I want to give the right hon. Member for East Ham time at the end to sum up, so I will try to get through the rest of my speech quite quickly. On the generation X issue, we have an issue with the people who fell into the gap between the mid-1990s and 2010, when auto-enrolment was introduced. I praise the work of the Work and Pensions Committee, but I hope the right hon. Gentleman and Matt Rodda would accept that not enough was done between 1997 and 2010. I cannot wave a magic wand and make that right, but I can raise awareness through pension dashboards and help boost returns through value for money, as discussed. In addition, the state pension has been boosted significantly under this Government.

I thank the Committee for all its work on the stronger nudge. It is important to recognise, as my hon. Friends the Members for Amber Valley and for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), and David Linden, have done, that Pension Wise is consistently given very high feedback. About 47% of pots in 2021-22 were accessed for the first time with Pension Wise guidance. It is important to look at the amounts. If the pot is very small, say £100, it is potentially less valuable to have a Pension Wise appointment, than it would be for a pot of multiple thousands. I note that 73% of pots larger than £100,000 were accessed using Pension Wise guidance. It is important to look at that graduation.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

I thank the Minister for giving way again. Does she agree that it is important for people with very modest pension pots to get access to high-quality advice? They are financially vulnerable in some cases. There have been instances of people approaching retirement taking their pension early, when that is not necessarily in their best long-term interests.

Photo of Laura Trott Laura Trott The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

It is absolutely the case that people who want or need guidance should get it. As I was coming to, we are seeing a positive impact with stronger nudge, which we should continue to evaluate. I am conscious of time, so I will wrap up. It is vital that we put pension savers at the heart of everything we do. I am grateful for the comprehensive and thoughtful discussion today, which I look forward to continuing in future.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee 10:56, 7 February 2023

It has been a useful debate, and I express my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for scheduling it. There is no dispute that we need people to save more towards their pensions—that was accepted by the Minister in her speech—but we do need to get a move on in making it happen. We are certainly not demanding that minimum auto-enrolment contributions ought to be raised now, but they will have to be raised, and the Government should draw up and publish a plan for when that will happen, and build a consensus around it.

The Minister said she could not wave a magic wand. Nobody is asking her to wave a magic wand, but we are asking her to get a move on and bring forward the plan, so that people know what will happen in two, five or 10 years. The longer we delay, the larger the numbers will be of people who suffer a terrible shock when they reach retirement, start drawing their retirement income and discover that it is way below what they expected and what they need.

I am pleased to hear the Minister confirm that the Government are committed to implementing the recommendations of the 2017 review. I assume she means by the mid-2020s, as has repeatedly been said. We look forward to hearing soon how that will be achieved. I also welcome what she said about monitoring the gender pensions gap. I welcome the prospect of annual Government reporting on that subject. I hope she is able to secure the cross-Government agreement she needs to deliver that.

The hon. Members for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) and for Glasgow East (David Linden) all talked about the case for at least trying out automatic enrolment into an appointment with Pension Wise. As we have heard, it is an excellent service. The feedback from people who use it is good, but take-up remains lamentably low.

When the pension freedoms were introduced in the middle of the previous decade, the talk was of a guidance guarantee. That is what we were told was going to be provided—a guarantee. What came of that was the Pension Wise service, which is taken up by a very small proportion of people. It is a good service, but taken up by a small proportion. We need more effort to be made to promote that. The Committee has repeatedly said that it is worth trying out automatic enrolment into a Pension Wise appointment for people who reach that stage.

My final point relates to the comment by the hon. Member for Amber Valley. He referred to the scheme suggested in the Committee’s report for auto-enrolment of self-employed people. The proposition would be to increase national insurance contributions for self-employed people that would allow them to direct their additional payment into a pension, alongside a matching contribution from themselves. That would replicate the attractions of auto-enrolment for self-employed people. The Minister rejected that proposition, but we need to do something. We simply cannot carry on with five sixths of self-employed people not saving for retirement. We think that proposition is well worth pursuing, and I hope the Minister will take another look at it.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the matter of saving for later life.