Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill

(Committee stage)
Monday 20th September 2021

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber

Read Hansard Text Bill Main Page
Department for Work and Pensions

Considered in Committee (Order, this day)

[Dame Eleanor Laing in the Chair]

Eleanor Laing Portrait The Chairman of Ways and Means (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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Before I ask the Clerk to read the title of the Bill, I should explain that although the Chair of the Committee would normally sit in the Clerk’s chair during a Committee stage, I will remain in the Speaker’s chair while we still have the screens around the Table. I will be carrying out the role not of Deputy Speaker, but Chairman of the Committee. The occupant of the chair during the Committee stage should be addressed as the Chair of the Committee, rather than as Deputy Speaker.

Clause 1

Up-rating of state pension and certain other benefits following review in tax year 2021-22

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Eleanor Laing Portrait The Chairman
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With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clause 2 stand part.

New Clause 1—Review of public health and poverty effects—

“(1) The Secretary of State must review the public health and poverty effects of the provisions of this Act and lay a report of that review before the House of Commons within six months of the day on which this Act is passed.

(2) A review under this section must consider—

(a) the effects of the provisions of this Act on the levels of relative and absolute poverty in the UK,

(b) the effects of the provisions of this Act on socioeconomic inequalities and on population groups with protected characteristics as defined by the Equality Act 2010,

(c) the effect of uprating benefits in line with price inflation instead of earnings growth under this Act on inter-generational income distribution and fairness,

(d) the effects of the provisions of this Act on life expectancy and healthy life expectancy in the UK, and

(e) the implications for the public finances of the public health effects of the provisions of this Act.”

This new clause would require a review of the impact of temporarily linking the state pension and other benefits covered by this Bill with price inflation rather than earnings growth.

New clause 2—Review—

“(1) The Secretary of State must, no later than 6 months after the date on which this Act is passed, lay before Parliament a report containing an assessment of the impact of this Act on levels of poverty among pensioners in—

(a) Scotland,

(b) Wales, and

(c) England.”

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament an assessment of the impact of the uprating next year by price inflation instead of earnings growth on levels of pensioner poverty in Scotland, Wales and England (the Bill does not extend to Northern Ireland).

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman)
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This is a short, two-clause Bill that sets out the way in which we will go from a triple lock to a double lock. I have set this matter out on Second Reading in great detail and I respectfully beg to move.

Matt Rodda Portrait Matt Rodda
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I want to speak to the new clauses tabled in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) and the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden).

As we heard on Second Reading, there are a number of important areas that the Government seem to have overlooked. Those failures and omissions are part of a pattern of behaviour by the Prime Minister and his Government. They show a casual approach to their responsibilities. As a result of that behaviour, they are undermining trust in the Government. The Government’s approach could have a damaging effect on millions of pensioners and indeed on the public as a whole.

Before turning to the amendments, it is worth considering the fact that the Government have still not offered any reassurance on their commitment to the triple lock in the long term. It is still not clear whether Ministers are leaving the door open to scrapping this important policy. I ask the Minister and the Secretary of State to set out a meaningful commitment to the triple lock, justify the decision to remove the earnings link, and explain why the Government have not found a way to keep the link, such as by providing a link to earnings over a longer period of time. With three broken promises in just a few short weeks, the Government have little credibility left and they now need to rebuild trust in this important area of policy, and in their work as a whole.

On the new clauses, colleagues from across the House are right to raise concerns about pensioners, particularly those on lower incomes. Recent research published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reiterates this. While there was a “dramatic reduction” in pensioner poverty between 1997 and 2012, the last few years have seen that progress “unravel”. House of Commons Library research shows that before housing costs, 19% of pensioners were living in poverty. After taking housing costs away, 18% were living in poverty. The problem is much worse for women than for men. Women make up—

James Gray Portrait James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con)
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On a point of order, Dame Eleanor. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I am just a little puzzled. I understood, looking at the Annunciator, that we were discussing clause 1 stand part, rather than amendments to clause 1. I just wondered precisely what we are doing here.

Eleanor Laing Portrait The Chairman
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very reasonable point of order. Although each part of the Committee stage stands separately, I have decided that, as laid out in the selection list which should be available in the Lobby, we will discuss all matters in one group, especially as this is a short Bill with only four separate matters for discussion. The hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) is therefore absolutely in order to refer to any part of the Bill during this part of the proceedings.

Matt Rodda Portrait Matt Rodda
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In conclusion, these are sensible amendments which recognise the risks in the approach being taken by the Government. They offer a way of providing important information to Ministers and they could indeed alert them to potential problems with the Government’s approach. The new clauses also offer important safeguards for pensioners, and I hope the Government will consider them thoroughly. Given the Government’s dreadful record of playing fast and loose with manifesto commitments, it is the very least we can expect from them.

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)
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I rise to speak to new clause 1 in my name and on behalf of my colleagues.

New clause 1 compels the Secretary of State to assess the impact of the Bill on poverty, inequality and, subsequently, our health. In particular, I request that a report be laid before the House within six months of the passing of the Act, and that the effects of the provisions in the Act on socioeconomic inequalities and population groups with protected characteristics as defined by the Equality Act 2010 are considered.

We have heard a lot in recent months—it seems like many years—about levelling up and building back better. We even heard from the Prime Minister himself that he supports Professor Sir Michael Marmot’s call to build back fairer. To do that, however, we need the Government to be able to assess whether their policies will actually do that. We heard, in the Work and Pensions Committee, that that is difficult to do. I argue very strongly that that is not the case and I know there are many others who would argue similarly.

The House will recall that, in February 2020, Sir Michael published his review of health equity in England 10 years after his initial study. In it, he revealed that instead of narrowing, health inequalities, including how long we are going to live and how long we will live in good health, have actually got worse. Most significantly, his analysis showed that, unlike the majority of other high income countries, our life expectancy was flatlining. For the poorest 10% of the country it was declining and women were particularly badly affected. We heard earlier that 2 million pensioners live in relative poverty today; among women of state pension age it is one in five. For women of colour, the figure is even higher. Black and Asian pensioners are also twice as likely to be living in poverty as white pensioners.

Sir Michael also emphasised that it is predominantly the socioeconomic conditions that people are exposed to, not the NHS, that will determine their health status and how long they live. Analysing the abundant evidence available, he attributed the shorter lives of people in poorer areas, including in parts of my constituency in Oldham and in the north-west as a whole, to the disproportional Government cuts to local public services, including cuts in social security support that they have experienced since 2010.

And then the pandemic hit. As a former public health consultant, I can say this with absolute certainty: it was always a question of when, not if there was going to be a pandemic. The lack of pandemic preparedness, going back to the Cygnus report and before, as well as the woeful pandemic management, laid bare the pre-pandemic structural inequalities that are rife across the country.

Many believe that the structural inequalities driven by the Government cuts that I have referred to, including social security cuts, will be found responsible for the UK’s high and unequal covid death toll, with the fifth worst covid mortality rate in the world and the worst in the EU. In an early analysis of the reasons for that, Sir Michael’s Covid review last December summarised four key pre-pandemic factors.

The first was pre-existing and widening inequalities in social and economic conditions, particularly in power, money and resources; Sir Michael stated that those inequalities in life had led to inequalities in health. The second was our governance and political culture, not just before the pandemic but during it, which he described as divisive, damaging social cohesion and de-emphasising the importance of the common good. The third was Government austerity over the last 10-plus years; he referred particularly to cuts to social security and local authority budgets, including in adult and children’s social care, public health and education. The final factor was our pre-existing poor and declining health.

Sir Michael makes a number of recommendations to build back fairer, including increasing the adequacy of social security spending. Our focus in this debate has been on state pensions, but the cuts of £36 billion to working-age social security support over the past 11 years and the impact that they will have on increasing poverty rates—including as a result of the universal credit cut that we are expecting—must not be underestimated.

Improving our health and wellbeing must be a priority for this Government and an outcome of all our policies, including our economic and public spending and social security. My new clause is about ensuring that the Secretary of State recognises that and publishes a review of the impact of social security spending on poverty, inequality and, ultimately, our health. Given that the Prime Minister and Health Secretary have already stated that they support Sir Michael’s recommendations and that this is a means to implement levelling up, I hope that the Secretary of State will adopt my new clause in the Bill.

David Linden Portrait David Linden
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I do not seek to detain the Committee for long, not least because I spoke on Second Reading and because there are only two amendments before us.

In speaking to my new clause 2, which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friends, I also offer support to new clause 1, which stands in the name of the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams). In truth, the two new clauses, although worded differently, seek to do much the same thing: hold the Tory Government’s feet to the fire, not simply allow them to stick their head in the sand when it comes to pensioner poverty.

I bitterly regret that the Bill got a Second Reading, particularly with the help of Scottish Tory MPs, but as the Bill will soon be an Act, it is now incumbent on us to ensure that at least Ministers fully understand the sheer impact of such bad legislation on our constituents and the consequences of this Government’s ditching yet another manifesto pledge to pensioners about the triple lock.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson
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Does my hon. Friend share my disappointment with the Minister, who talked earlier about how the Scottish Government should top up the income that pensioners would be deprived of? The Minister knows full well—if he does not, it is worrying— that section 28 of the Scotland Act 2016 forbids the Scottish Government from topping up pensioners’ benefits except

“by reason of old age.”

I am sure that the Minister is well aware of that.

Does my hon. Friend also share my view that rather than expecting the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament to continually clean up the injustices of this Government, we would be far better off having all the powers to prevent injustices in the first place?

David Linden Portrait David Linden
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I would caution the Minister that my hon. Friend, a former teacher, is not someone whose office or classroom he would want to be summoned to for a telling off. She has quite eloquently set him right on what I am sure was inadvertent misleading of the Committee.

I will return to new clause 2, because I would not want to stray too far from matters before the Committee. My new clause would require the Secretary of State to lay before the House an assessment of the impact on levels of poverty of the uprating of state pensions next year by price inflation instead of earnings growth.

During the Brexit referendum, we were repeatedly told that Parliament would be taking back control. My new clause would merely require Ministers to be transparent and lay before Parliament an impact assessment of poverty, which I am sure any responsible Government would undertake. If indeed Parliament is taking back control, I am sure that agreeing to the new clause will be no problem at all for the Minister; I therefore hope that he will not oppose it. I commend new clause 2 to the Committee.

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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The answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) is that this is a one-year-only Bill and that the triple lock will resume after its duration. In respect of the requirement for a report, he and the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) should be aware that the Department already collects and publishes a wide range of data in this policy area, which is published annually in the HBAI—households below average income —series of reports. In fact, I have a copy here, which is available on gov.uk; the most recent report is dated 25 March 2021. I can assure the Committee that the Government will continue to publish actual data on public health and poverty as it becomes available, but no specific data would be available by May 2022, as is sought.

I will not go into what the powers are under sections 24, 26 and 28 of the Scotland Act 2016, but I can assure the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) that I disagree with her view. I maintain that the powers are there under the Act.

In the circumstances, I ask hon. Members not to press their new clauses.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause 2

Review

“(1) The Secretary of State must, no later than 6 months after the date on which this Act is passed, lay before Parliament a report containing an assessment of the impact of this Act on levels of poverty among pensioners in—

(a) Scotland,

(b) Wales, and

(c) England.”—(David Linden.)

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament an assessment of the impact of the uprating next year by price inflation instead of earnings growth on levels of pensioner poverty in Scotland, Wales and England (the Bill does not extend to Northern Ireland).

Brought up, and read the First time.

David Linden Portrait David Linden
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I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time. I know that the hon. Members who suspended proxy voting and brought back in-person voting will be very keen to vote tonight, so I would like to divide the Committee on the new clause, which stands in my name and in that of my hon. Friends.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Third Reading

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.—(Guy Opperman.)

Matt Rodda Portrait Matt Rodda
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As we start this debate on Third Reading, I want to reflect on what we have discussed so far in this important piece of legislation. The House has considered a number of issues relating to the Bill, and we will soon pass it over to the other place. Before we do so, we still have an opportunity to improve the legislation and to stand up for the interests of pensioners. Even at this late stage, I would like to ask the Government to consider a series of sensible, helpful points made from across the House. Taken together, these measures could make a substantial difference to the Bill.

The Government are breaking a manifesto promise. Parties across the House supported the triple lock in their manifestos in 2019, and this is a question of trust. Breaking their promise on the triple lock is the third time the Government have broken a manifesto commitment in just a few weeks. Trust in this Government has fallen dramatically, and I am afraid to say that their reputation is in tatters. We understand the difficult situation with the anomaly in earnings. However, it is down to the Government to find a way to protect the triple lock and deal with the anomaly in the earnings data.

We have asked Ministers to take a few simple steps to address the issue. First, we have asked them to be honest about the data showing a temporary increase in earnings. Secondly, we have asked them to find a way to address it while maintaining the earnings link. We have suggested using an average rising earnings over a longer period of time. Thirdly, if the Government are to address the anomaly, will they report back on the impact on pensioners’ incomes and take a real interest in the difficulties faced by millions of pensioners on low incomes? Those are all sensible measures that should be part of the good governance of this country.

We have discussed this issue in some detail today, and the Government must be clearer with pensioners. However, there is no need to take it further today and we would not want to divide the House on Third Reading. I remind Conservative Members that trust in the Government is wearing very thin, so let us hope that they will now listen to the House and to the public and show that they are concerned about such important matters.

David Linden Portrait David Linden
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I have already outlined my view of the Bill on Second Reading. I am disappointed that the Government chose to reject our new clause 2 in Committee, but in the interests of brevity I will not go over old ground, not least because I am conscious that we have more legislation to consider this evening.

As is customary, I want to thank all hon. and right hon. Members for the good-natured if robust debate that we have had during proceedings on the Bill. I also want to thank and pay tribute to the ever helpful Clerk of Legislation for their support and advice to me and our lead researcher on the Bill, Zoe Carre, who will be leaving Westminster for pastures new next month. I hope you will indulge me for a moment, Madam Deputy Speaker, when I say that Zoe has been a pleasure to work with on the inclusion and wellbeing team and will be sorely missed by all of us in the SNP group in this place.

By passing this Bill unamended tonight, the House will be agreeing with the very legislation that allows the Government to break their promise to our constituents that there would be a triple lock on pensions. The SNP will continue to stand firm against this Tory Government’s attack on the pensions triple lock, because we believe that an adequate state pension is essential to ensuring dignity and fairness in retirement. It is clear that the British Government will continue to ride roughshod over our pensioners and that the only way to protect Scotland’s pensioners from more Tory austerity is with the full powers of independence. I look forward to making that case during the upcoming referendum, which we all know is on the horizon. I just wonder whether those in the no campaign will be as misleading this time when it comes to pensions, because if they are, they will need plenty of polish for their brass necks.

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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I want to put on record my thanks to my private office and the policy teams at the Department for Work and Pensions. I also want to make it very clear that this is a one-year Bill, by reason of the pandemic, and that the triple lock will resume after the Bill’s duration. We increased the state pension by 2.5% last year and we will increase it by 2.5% on prices this year. We spend £129 billion on pensioners—that is £105 billion on the state pension and £24 billion on the top-up benefits—and this Government will continue to support pensioners now and on an ongoing basis. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Bill read the Third time and passed.