Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill Debate

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Department: Department for Work and Pensions
David Linden Portrait David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith).

I rise to speak in favour of the reasoned amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey), and commit the SNP to voting for it when the House divides this evening. As well as speaking to that amendment, I wish to comment on the broader principles of the Bill. I am conscious that those watching our proceedings will perhaps be unaware of the consequences of the passing of this legislation, and especially of rushing it all through in the space of a couple of hours.

In short, as we all know, the Bill facilitates this Tory Government’s breaking yet another manifesto commitment —namely, by breaking the pensions triple lock, to which all parties in the House committed themselves at the election less than two years ago. The breaking of that manifesto pledge follows on from the Government’s scrapping the commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on the world’s poorest through our international aid budget, and now comes on top of the new Tory poll tax, which sees hard-working Scots having to endure a hike in national insurance to pay for the sorting out of the utter mess of England’s health and social care system. The Prime Minister is not known for keeping his promises, and the decision to suspend the triple lock will have dire consequences for pensioners.

As constituency MPs, we all know that the state pension is by far the largest source of income for UK pensioners, and the triple lock has kept it secure throughout the pandemic. To be blunt, the British Government’s decision to break its triple-lock promise is a betrayal and an unacceptable attack on pensioners’ incomes. What is more, this change will do nothing to stop recent indications that more pensioners are living in poverty. The proportion of pensioners on relative low income—that is, the percentage of pensioners in the UK living in households with net disposable income below 60% of the national median, after housing costs—rose from a historic low of 13% in 2011-12 to 18% in 2019-20.

Selaine Saxby Portrait Selaine Saxby (North Devon) (Con)
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Does the hon. Gentleman recognise in his analysis that we took notice of pensioners’ needs last year? The triple lock is reliant on earnings being positive, and last year they were negative, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State took the opportunity to raise pensions, despite the fact that the terms of the triple lock were not met at that time.

David Linden Portrait David Linden
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If the hon. Lady pays attention to the rest of my speech, she will understand that I am developing my argument because the UK state pension is so pitiful. That is the point I am addressing and I am sure she will make it in her speech, too.

The rise in the proportion of pensioners on relative low income followed a period of more than a decade during which the measure had been trending downwards from a high of 29% in 1998-99. The passing of the Bill will undo all that work.

Although the state pension is the biggest source of income for pensioners, House of Commons Library analysis shows that UK state pensions are the lowest as a proportion of pre-retirement wages of all our European neighbours. Pensioners throughout these islands receive around just a quarter of the average wage when they retire, whereas pensioners in Luxembourg and Austria receive 90% of the average working wage. According to the OECD’s latest analysis, the UK has an overall net replacement rate of 28.4% from mandatory pensions for an average earner. That is well below the OECD average of 58.6% and the EU average of 63.5%. It is simply not right that the UK devotes a smaller percentage of its GDP to state pensions and pensioner benefits than most other advanced economies.

The triple lock betrayal is yet another Tory-imposed austerity cut. The Commons Library briefing for this debate estimates that the British Government will take away £5 billion from pensioners in 2022-23 if the triple-lock elements of the state pension are uprated by 2.5% rather than 8.3%. Investment in the state pension is crucial, especially as many are still excluded from automatic enrolment in workplace pensions—although I acknowledge that some, but nowhere near enough, progress has been made on auto-enrolment.

Let me briefly develop that point a little further. The British Government’s failure to extend automatic enrolment to low-income earners and young people disproportionately impacts women, thereby worsening the already massive gender pension gap on these islands. That is before we even come to the issue of the Department for Work and Pensions’ maladministration with regard to 1950s-born women who, quite rightly, await to see what stage 2 of the ombudsman’s process will conclude. I very much hope it will do so soon.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP)
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I echo what my hon. Friend is saying about 1950s-born women. Is the decision to abandon the triple lock not a double injustice to those women—and to the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign—because not only are they now being denied the rise in their pension that they might have expected, but they were denied a pension at all at the time they originally expected their pension?

David Linden Portrait David Linden
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and he is right. I am sure that, like me, he receives regular representations on that matter from Rosie Dickson from WASPI Scotland. I am glad that he has put that on the record on Rosie’s behalf.

Before I move on, let me touch on frozen pensions, to which the Father of the House made reference when we were considering the business of the House motion. Members will be aware that the UK has a series of historical reciprocal arrangements to provide for the uprating of state pensions in certain countries. Most recently, the Government committed in the Brexit trade deal to uprating the state pensions of UK pensioners in the European economic area. UK pensioners in other countries such as the USA, Philippines, Israel and Jamaica continue to receive their full payments. However, the arbitrary system means that pensioners in other countries—and, indeed, even in British overseas territories such as the Falkland Islands—have their pensions frozen, despite their having paid in the same dues. More than 90% of affected pensioners live in Commonwealth countries with close cultural ties to the UK. The UK is the only country in the OECD to take this two-tier approach to state pensions; I ask the Minister to reflect on that.

There is opposition to the Bill from various parts of the House, but that opposition does not stop in this Chamber. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady has said:

“The UK has one of the least generous state pensions in the developed world. The triple lock was introduced to close this gap and lift pensioners out of poverty. Suspending it will only halt our progress. This is a dangerous precedent. If the government is allowed to pick and choose when to apply the triple lock, the result will be lower state pensions for future generations and more pensioners experiencing hardship. This decision will hit old and young alike. A race to the bottom on pensions helps no one.”

She is absolutely right.

Let me finish with a quote from even closer to home: something I found on the Better Together website, which advocated Scotland voting against independence in 2014. The Better Together campaign said:

“Our pensions are safer as part of the UK…We are living longer and working longer than ever before. People want to know that their pensions are safe. The UK State Pension means that everyone in the UK can get the same basic State Pension. It is a great example of how we share good things across the UK.”

Douglas Ross Portrait Douglas Ross (Moray) (Con)
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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

David Linden Portrait David Linden
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Not at the moment. The campaign went on:

“We all pay in when we are working, and we all benefit when we retire. This means we can support all our pensioners in the same way whether times are good or bad. Scotland’s people are getting older at a faster rate than the rest of the UK. This is good but it means that if we leave the UK we could have a difficult choice to make”,

including on “Cutting the state pension.” On that, I give way to the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross).

Douglas Ross Portrait Douglas Ross
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Can the hon. Gentleman tell us what the state pension would be in an independent Scotland and what currency it would be paid in?

David Linden Portrait David Linden
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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for finding the time to come to the House of Commons this evening; I know he will be balancing his obligations—

David Linden Portrait David Linden
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The Minister chunters from a sedentary position. I outlined earlier in my speech that we want pensions much more in line with those of, for example, Austria and Luxembourg. I hope that that answers the question.

The SNP will vote to reject this legislation, but in the passing of this Bill tonight we will see yet another Better Together myth burst: that pensioners are somehow protected by Mother Britannia. To be blunt, to allow the Bill to proceed tonight will not only violate the contract offered to voters by the Prime Minister in 2019—and, indeed, by the hon. Member for Moray—which won a handsome majority in this place, but make a mockery of the no campaign’s claim that Scotland remaining in this broken Union is the best deal for UK pensioners when it is patently not.

The SNP will vote to reject this legislation, but in truth we all know that the democratic deficit throughout these islands means that Scotland’s MPs will be outvoted when we try to protect pensioners’ incomes. That is why the only way to truly tackle the plight of pensioner poverty is with Scottish independence, because Westminster is not working and we need to retire from this United Kingdom.

--- Later in debate ---
Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op)
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Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to close the Bill’s Second Reading for the Opposition. We have heard many good speeches, but, before I turn to them, I want first to deal with the central case that the Government have made for the legislation.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) set out in opening for Labour, Opposition Members accept that there has been an anomaly in the earnings data due to the pandemic, and we recognise that a solution is required. I have listened carefully to passionate speeches from colleagues across the House, but I simply do not believe that anyone in the UK believes that wages are rising at 8.3% in real terms across the board. If I were to put that case to my constituents, I think they would very much question my judgment. However, as we said since the announcement was made, the duty is on the Government to explain why their preferred solution—a move to uprating by inflation or 2.5%—is the right one. That duty is particularly important because the triple lock was a Conservative manifesto commitment and, as many hon. Members pointed out, the announcement to break it has come after a series of decisions to break other Conservative manifesto commitments. It is therefore reasonable that the burden of proof lies on the Government and that the threshold for support should be high.

We have had some valuable contributions. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) was right to highlight the trust in the Government stemming from the decisions of the last few months. He was also right to point out figures that show that the number of pensioners living in poverty taken by the measurement that he indicated—those living with an income below 60% of the median after their housing costs—is rising. Given that we know overall spending on pensions is going up every year by quite considerable numbers, why are we also seeing that rise in poverty? That is a question for us all and one on which we may need more time in future.

The hon. Member favours auto-enrolment, and I very much agree. The question is about how to do that in a post-pandemic environment. He will understand, however, that I cannot agree when he posits that Scottish independence might be the solution to some of those problems, because an independent Scotland would clearly face some difficult economic decisions in its own right. I do not think it is necessarily helpful to put that across.

David Linden Portrait David Linden
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Yes, an independent Scotland would face difficult economic decisions, but does the hon. Member accept that the central point of independence is about people in Scotland—the people who live and work there—making those economic decisions?