Women’s State Pension Age: Ombudsman Report

Wendy Chamberlain Excerpts
Thursday 16th May 2024

(1 week, 6 days ago)

Commons Chamber
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Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
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I commend the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) for securing this debate, and the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. However, I do think it is disappointing that the Government have not sought to have a debate on this issue in Government time, particularly when there is quite clearly cross-party consensus about the need for speed on it following the ombudsman’s report. I hope the Minister will be coming forward with some clear proposals today about where we go, and I hope he is also hearing how strong the feeling is across the House that the Government need to do something quickly.

On Monday, we had an impassioned debate in this place about the role of Members, and speech after speech stated that we in this place must uphold the highest standards and set the best example of good practice. There were arguments made by others about the importance of democracy and representation, and I may not have agreed with the conclusions they reached from those arguments in many cases, but I cannot fault their dedication to this place and to the job that we do here on behalf of our constituents. We should all therefore be able to support the basic idea that, when someone is wronged, and an independent body investigates and makes recommendations for recompense, those recommendations must be actioned.

The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who is no longer in his place, made a very important point about the fact that we as constituency MPs refer constituents on to the ombudsman. How can any of us continue to do that in the future if the Government and indeed this place choose to ignore recommendations made by that ombudsman? The Government are not above the law, and we are here representing our constituents. It is damning that the report from the ombudsman had to be sent by the ombudsman to Parliament because, in its words, it had

“significant concerns…that DWP will fail to remedy the injustice”

and acknowledge the maladministration. What does that say? I expect the Minister will say that the Department needs more time to consider its response, but having listened to the other Members who have participated in the debate so far, I think many of us have no time for that any more, and certainly the WASPI women do not.

I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) about the fact that female pensioners are most likely to be living in poverty. She made a very powerful and compelling case for that, and the reality is that the gender pension gap continues to this day because the gender pay gap also continues. We must have a social security system and a pension system that actually recognises the work women do and are more likely to do from a caring perspective. I did a lot of work on that in relation to my Carer’s Leave Act 2023, but women generally are more likely to work part-time or have time out of the workplace, so they are always going to experience lower levels of state pension.

Sarah Dyke Portrait Sarah Dyke (Somerton and Frome) (LD)
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The injustice that WASPI women have faced is simply shameful. The financial burden has been outlined, but the anxiety they feel is also huge. A constituent has contacted me to tell me that the ordeal has had an enormous and horrible negative effect on her mental health, because she simply feels so powerless to do anything about it. Does my hon. Friend agree that this Government should immediately confirm that they will honour the ombudsman’s recommendations, and come forward with a proper plan to compensate the millions of affected women?

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention, and I absolutely agree with her. We have had the report for some time, and I think the Government should be making a statement to say that they support it. It is quite clear that plenty of work has been done by both the APPG and the ombudsman to outline what a compensation scheme should look like.

My hon. Friend is right about the mental impact. I met a constituent of mine, Heather, several weeks ago. She is a single woman, so she does not have a partner’s or spouse’s income—that is the assumption made about women—to rely on. She has had to give up work as a teacher earlier than expected due to ill health, and feels that the injustice is compounded by the Government not having yet acknowledged the ombudsman’s report properly.

The DWP has had full notice of the investigation by the PHSO and its findings, and I would argue that they should therefore have had the opportunity to plan accordingly. With regard to the infected blood scandal, the Government have said that when the report is finally published on Monday, they will make a statement on what they will do very quickly thereafter. I feel, therefore, unmoved by the argument that they need more time to respond to the ombudsman’s report, when they have known for some time that it was coming. The first report on maladministration was published almost three years ago, so I just do not accept that the Government and the DWP have not had the time to consider the likely outcome of the findings. We knew that a recommendation for compensation was likely, so I would have expected the DWP to have started making plans for administering it.

While sitting in the Chamber, I have been notified by my researcher that I have had a response to a written parliamentary question, which states that the Department did not have sight of a draft copy of the PHSO’s report at the end of last year. My researcher has also confirmed with the WASPI campaign—I have met Angela Madden and others several times—who say that that is not the case, and that the Government did have sight of the draft report. I would be grateful for clarity from the Minister on that. I am happy to give way to him now—[Interruption] —or perhaps he can comment on that written response to the parliamentary question in his closing remarks. Is it correct that the Government did not have sight of the draft report at the end of last year?

Paul Maynard Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Paul Maynard)
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On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Opposition Members are complaining about the fact that I dip my head in order to listen, and suggest that is somehow evidence of me not listening. I take exception to their criticism of my body position.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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Your comments stand on the record.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain
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Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I certainly was not suggesting that to the Minister. I am saying that I have two different versions of events. The WASPI campaign is saying that the draft report was seen by the DWP at the end of last year, and I have a written response from the Government saying that it was not. If the response to the written parliamentary question is found to be inaccurate, I would be grateful if the Minister wrote to me to confirm that. If he is unable to conform that in his closing remarks, I would be grateful if he would place that letter in the Commons Library. I have done a lot of work with the Minister. Previously he was heavily involved with me in the all-party parliamentary group on ending the need for food banks, so I know that he cares about people, but I really do not want to hear in his closing remarks that this is just the Department being thorough.

Like many here, I have met WASPI women, and the campaigners who stand in the rain outside Parliament on Budget days. I have spoken to group leaders and to my constituents. The one message they want me to bring here today is that they are dying. They are dying without the DWP admitting to its errors, without any acknowledgement of the impact that this has had on their lives, without compensation, and without resolution. Frankly, they now feel that the Government are waiting for them to die, in order for the problem literally to cease to exist. WASPI women deserve compensation—that is not just my view or the view of many Members in the House; it is the view of the ombudsman. If we in this place cannot adhere to the findings of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, what message are we sending from this place generally?

--- Later in debate ---
Paul Maynard Portrait Paul Maynard
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I recognise that there will be an appetite from some Opposition Members for the Government to respond item by item to different parts of the ombudsman’s report, but the Government wish to respond in full when they have reached a conclusion from their deliberations. I will not go down the path that the hon. Gentleman seeks to take me along.

Some of the detailed commentary from Members today illustrates the interlocking considerations at play, depending on how each Member of Parliament responds to the report. The fact that so many have spoken today demonstrates the importance of this issue. Many parliamentary activities are worth noting to understand how they fit in. The Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), mentioned the evidence session held last week and the recommendation that he has made to the Department, which I read after he mentioned it, so I have only just seen it.

Late last month I was able to meet the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) and my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), the chair and co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group, to discuss our initial views of the report and what steps they intended to pursue to take further evidence. I am looking forward to seeing what they have to say. I have noted the evidence given last week to the Select Committee. I also took careful note of what occurred in the Scottish Parliament. The many views expressed so far provide valuable input to the ongoing deliberations.

Let me come to the question from the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) about the written answer she received. I will take my glasses off to read this, because the print is very small and not clear: in November 2023, alongside other interested parties, the DWP received a copy of the PHSO’s revised provisional views on injustice, which was stage two of the inquiry, and remedies, which were stage three, for comment. The DWP responded with its comments in January 2024. The Department was notified by the PHSO on 19 March that the final report would be received on 21 March 2024, at a meeting between the permanent secretary and the ombudsman. I note that the hon. Lady’s written question was about the final report as opposed to the preliminary report.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain
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It was about the draft report, but I am grateful for that clarity.

Paul Maynard Portrait Paul Maynard
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Members raised questions about changes to the state pension age. As I said, the ombudsman’s report is clear that it cannot consider the impact of changes in the law on state pension age. The changes are set out in primary legislation and, as such, were agreed by Parliament. The announcement in 1993 of the equalisation of the state pension age addressed a long-standing inequality between men and women. The changes were also about maintaining the right balance between the sustainability of the state pension, fairness between generations and ensuring a dignified retirement.

Changes to the state pension age were made in a series of Acts by successive Governments from 1995 onwards, following public consultations and extensive debates in both Houses of Parliament. From the 1940s until April 2010, the state pension age was 60 for women and 65 for men. The decision to equalise the state pension age for men and women dates back to 1995. It was right to address a long-standing inequality between men’s and women’s state pension age. The report of the Pensions Commission in 2005 recommended that the state pension age should increase in a staged way to 68 in the three decades following the completion of equalisation in 2020. A broad consensus on that was achieved largely due to the commission’s evidence base, which showed that state pension age should follow increases in life expectancy to help ensure the affordability and sustainability of the state pension.

Legislation passed in 2007 introduced a series of increases, starting with a state pension age of 66 between 2024 and 2026, and ending with an increase to 68 between 2044 and 2046. As has been observed, the Pensions Act 2011 accelerated the equalisation of women’s state pension age by 18 months and brought forward the increase in men’s and women’s state pension age to 66 by five and a half years, relative to the previous timetables. The changes in the 2011 Act occurred following a public call for evidence and extensive debates in Parliament. During the passage of the Act, Parliament legislated for a concession worth £1.1 billion. The concession reduced the proposed increase in state pension age for more than 450,000 men and women, and meant that no woman saw their state pension age change by more than 18 months relative to the timetable set by the Pensions Act 1995.

Health and Disability Reform

Wendy Chamberlain Excerpts
Monday 29th April 2024

(1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
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Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I thank my hon. Friend for that really pertinent question. She will be familiar with the Buckland review, which has reported. I was very keen to pursue that review when it came across my desk, and I made my officials and the necessary infrastructure available to ensure that it was able to go ahead. It addresses many of the issues to which my hon. Friend rightly points, in terms of employers accommodating and benefiting from those who have autism and other conditions.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
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Can I start by commending the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) on her comments? They really went to the heart of some of what we are discussing. One of the challenges for the Government in talking about PIP is that they started this whole conversation by referring to the back to work plan, which makes many disabled people feel that this is about getting them back to work and reducing the overall welfare budget, when PIP is supposed to be about ensuring that they get the right support for their disabilities. On PIP, a big challenge that all MPs deal with is the number of errors in the system, and particularly the number of cases that end up at a tribunal. If we are looking into having a system that targets support better, what assurances can the Secretary of State give that it will actually be a better system, with fewer errors?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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There were two points there. First, errors in the benefits system—overpayments, underpayments and so on—are relatively rare. Secondly, on how we approach those who have long-term sickness or disability, the hon. Lady will see, if she refers to the back to work plan, that we are giving the 2.8 million people on those long-term benefits the opportunity to try work without fear of losing those benefits at all. We have made that extremely explicit. That is simply freeing up the system, and trying to get rid of some of the barriers that those people otherwise face.

Universal Credit: Farmers

Wendy Chamberlain Excerpts
Wednesday 24th April 2024

(1 month ago)

Westminster Hall
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Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered universal credit and farmers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mrs Murray.

This morning for breakfast I had oat clusters, and for lunch I had a cheese panini with some salad—it is a good day when I remember to eat. So far today, without even thinking about it, I have had produce from oat and wheat farmers, dairy farmers and a variety of vegetable farmers, and I am suspect everyone here could say something similar if they stopped to fill in a food diary. Farming is integral to our day-to-day lives.

When we are down here in Westminster, farming might seem very far away—there is not a field in sight—but my constituency of North East Fife is rural and has a wide variety of agricultural businesses. Next month, the annual Fife Show will attract farming from across North East Fife and the surrounding areas, and bring that community very visibly together. It is therefore not surprising that I am here today talking about this issue, given the constituency I represent, but it affects even MPs representing urban constituencies: farming is quite literally the lifeblood of our very being. Without farmers, we would not have food. I say that at the start of a debate on universal credit to drive home the very important point that we must not lose sight of the needs of our farmers, and must do everything we can to support them. Surely that is what the Government’s Farm to Fork strategy is all about.

The state of our food supply chains mean that some farmers need benefits to boost their incomes, and that is deeply worrying. That is a debate for another day and another Department. The fact that some need support is why we are here today to ask the Minister and the Department to design a system that works with, and not against, farmers.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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The hon. Lady always brings subjects to Westminster Hall and the Chamber that are of particular interest to me. I declare an interest: I am a member of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, and we own a farm outside Greyabbey, so I understand the issues and the implications of what she is saying. Does she agree that farmers may have three good months of income—not necessarily profit—followed by nine months of hardship, so the monthly system is not appropriate for their seasonal work? Rather than making farming viable, the Government aid through the universal credit system may put people off and make farming untenable for families. That is incredibly concerning as it affects our food security, which this debate is also about—food security and delivering for the nation.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain
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The hon. Gentleman always gets straight to the key issues in his interventions. I will talk about a number of the things that he referenced. Indeed, the monthly aspect of universal credit is one of the key challenges.

Let me start with the basic point: the Government are asking the vast majority of farmers to go through the process of transitioning to universal credit from tax credits now, right in the middle of peak farming months. For example, it is the middle of lambing season. Let me be blunt: sheep farmers do not currently have the time to sort through accounts, visit the jobcentre or have interviews by phone. We all recognise that farming is not a 9 to 5 job where appointments can be scheduled. The sheep three fields down having a difficult birth will not be able to hold on just because the jobcentre is due to call. The farmer who cares deeply for their animals and also cannot afford to lose income if things go wrong will not be able to stay in the farmhouse to wait for that call. They will be down in the field with the sheep to keep an eye on things and intervene if need be. Even if there is a phone signal, which is not always guaranteed, a farmer can hardly talk through the viability of his or her business while elbow deep in that sheep.

I appreciate that that sounds slightly comical, but it is deeply frustrating for farmers and incredibly stressful when they are worried about losing their income. It shows a failure within the DWP system to understand how farming works, so I ask the Minister: what thought and consideration was given to farmers when the decision to roll out the transition to universal credit was made? I know the National Farmers Union raised concerns about the transition as early as 2018 in evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee. Did the Government pay any attention to that? Even if they are talking to the NFU, I cannot see the outcome in those policy decisions.

I recently tabled a written question asking for an impact assessment on how the roll-out of universal credit to farmers has been done. The response—I will be honest—did not exactly answer the question, so I will make the assumption that the answer is no. If I am wrong, I am happy to be corrected on that, and I hope the Minister will use her time to set out the findings from that assessment. But the response I received did point me to the latest findings from the “Move to Universal Credit”, in which there was only one paragraph relevant to farmers—an observation that additional checks on self-employed claimants may be a factor in the low take-up of universal credit. Obviously, that is a part of it, but it somewhat understates the issue, and it also conflates all self-employment businesses. Farming is very different to somebody, for example, running a shop, selling handmade products, or a tradesperson such as a joiner. Here we are: I am going to assume that the Minister has heard the warnings from the NFU, has seen correspondence from MPs, has spoken to farmers herself, has had her officials carry out research into the farming industry, and has seen the media coverage on the radio, specialist farming news and print media.

In any case, I will explain why universal credit fails farmers. Universal credit does not account for variable incomes and does not allow for those incomes to be averaged out. The very nature of farming means that farming income varies significantly through the year, or even over multiple years. I want to go back to that sheep farmer who is busy saving their animals and bringing new ones into the world, rather than speaking to a work coach. That lamb will not be ready for sale until much later in the year, meanwhile the sheep and the lamb will require food, shelter, water, shearing and possibly extra hands on the farm to help out in the busy months. An animal farmer might in some cases try their hardest to grow crops to be harvested in each season, but often that is not practical. Not all areas are suitable for all produce, and even if they were, economies of scale mean that it can be more profitable to specialise. That does not mean there is no work that needs to be done until harvest and sale time; just that the work done by farmers does not get paid for many months. Meanwhile, seed, fertiliser and fuel costs are all going up. That is arguably one of the reasons why some farmers need extra support in the first instance.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
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Like my hon. Friend, I have had correspondence with the Government on this issue. The sheep farmer example is a very good one. That sheep farmer will have income, possibly in the autumn from the sale of the sheep, possibly from a basic payment, and possibly from something like the less favoured area support scheme. There might be a small wool cheque at some time in the late summer or early autumn, but apart from that, that is all the income, which then has to be spread and harvested throughout the rest of the year. That is the reality for the sheep farmers to which my hon. Friend refers, and it shows the virtual impossibility of shoehorning that into a universal credit scheme that looks at things on a monthly basis.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain
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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, and he has illustrated part of the challenge. We are finding that, when that income spike happens, that is the very point where farmers are losing the benefit to which they should be entitled. It is important to recognise that sometimes it all goes wrong: a really bad harvest; illness among livestock; a year of barely breaking even; or worse. Otherwise, in the main, hopefully all that hard work and waiting pays off and payments come in. After months of very little, there is a significant income boost, and a boost that—as I have just said—will write off universal credit for that month, even though that income boost will have to stretch over the many months until the next sale day.

Tax credits allowed farmers to average out their income over a multiple-year cycle to truly reflect their monthly income over time. Universal credit only takes a one-month snapshot, and I know that people have experienced difficulties with universal credit in occupations such as farming for that very reason. Given that work coaches are required to assess whether self-employment is gainful, there is a significant risk of months of loss being seen as not real work. Recently, on that very issue, a headline in the Telegraph stated: “Farmers claiming benefits told their farms are ‘hobbies’ and to get jobs”. Some work coaches might understand how farming works, but it is clear that others certainly will not and do not—it cannot be left to luck. I doubt the Department has spare funds to train all work coaches in farming practices, so a standard reform of how income is assessed would surely be a much fairer and efficient path to take.

Another related issue that I will highlight is the imposition of the minimum income floor after the 12-month transition period. I fully accept that there must be measures to stop people being able to potentially manipulate benefits to prop up an unsustainable small or hobby business. Applying a deemed minimum income when calculating universal credit works in those cases, but I seriously question why it is useful to take vital income support away from farming families in those months where their produce is being produced rather than sold. Farmers are not earning the minimum wage in those months, so why on earth are we pretending that they do?

The 12-month transition period is welcome, but the nature of farming will not change in the course of a year. Arguably, all that will do is push the problem down the road, so I urge the Minister to go away and review it. If she is genuinely concerned about farmers exploiting universal credit, there must be other anti-abuse provisions that we could be looking at. The minimum income floor is a blunt tool that is doing more harm than good.

My final point is similar to my first, because after the administrative burden of applying to universal credit, farmers must continue providing monthly income updates. Farmers are not accountants; they often operate in partnerships and, most importantly, they work full time doing the actual farming. Their definition of full time is different from others, because it means well over 12 hours per day, seven days a week. When exactly does the Minister think that farmers will have the time to meet those obligations?

I ask the Minister to not just repeat the same platitudes that have been signed off and sent in a standard letter, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and I have both received. I have seen that letter shared online many times, and I assure the Minister that it has done nothing to reassure anyone.

The good news for the Minister is that she needs only to look back to the tax credit system to find out what works; she does not need to reinvent the wheel. What farmers need is a system that allows for averaging income over multiple months and years, where benefits are paid during income spikes and where there is no assumed minimum income when it is low. They need a system without the administrative burden of monthly appointments and paperwork, and with an understanding of how farming works and the variety of set-ups, be that tenant farmers, those in partnerships, and everything in between.

It is not just farmers saying that. I have an example from a rural land and property agent, who has published a blog entitled “Why the Universal Credit System Isn’t Working for Farmers”. The Farming Forum threads on the change currently have nine pages of comments on one thread, while another thread has 24 pages. There is a Facebook support group for farming families that has been deliberately kept open so that MPs, journalists and others can see what farmers are saying about this change.

Yesterday, on that Facebook page, someone anonymously posted that because their family were so busy on the farm they could not get to the job centre, and their benefits had been stopped. The writer went on to say, in their own words, that they wanted to chuck themselves off a bridge as a result. A few days before that, someone wrote that they were able to feed their children but they could not afford to eat that day themselves. They used to get £700 in tax credits a month, but the assessment for universal credit does not take into account the difference between income paid to the family and income used to meet farming bills.

The system change means that someone who is producing our food cannot afford to eat. That is just not okay. Farmers are literally the reason why we are here in the Chamber with full stomachs, why our children have the energy to go to school and learn, why we can go to the supermarket and make our dinners tonight and why our restaurants are some of the best in the world. It is not an issue that will go away; it is a crisis for too many farming families. We must support them, and I hope that the Minister’s response recognises the gravity of the situation.

Child Maintenance Service

Wendy Chamberlain Excerpts
Tuesday 27th February 2024

(3 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
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Thank you, Sir Charles, for calling me to speak; I am very grateful. I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate.

There were two aspects of this issue that I wanted to raise. The first is domestic abuse cases about which many Members have spoken so eloquently. I have a particularly egregious case in my constituency. The children are now adults, but the coercive control is still being applied to the receiving parent by the withholding of money. I agree with the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) that we need to examine how we consider arrears in terms of debts and that people need to be pursued quickly, because the legacy of these issues is ongoing for these children into adulthood.

Secondly, we say that we want the system basically to work so that we do not make the situation worse when the CMS becomes involved. However, the reality is that even those parents who engage with the system in good faith are being let down.

I will just the case of my constituent, Kevin, who was medically discharged from the military 18 months ago. He reported his falling income to the CMS and continued to make payments for his children. However, the CMS then did everything wrong: it took overpayments; it wrongly moved him to the collect and pay route; and it pursued him for £12,000 of debt that never existed, because the systems work on the basis that there is a consistent salary and income going forward. The 12 weeks that was talked about earlier means that Kevin has gone through a huge amount of stress and anxiety, and we are left in a situation where those children have been negatively impacted as a result. It is clear that this issue is complex and difficult, but it is also clear that the Government need to do more.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Oral Answers to Questions

Wendy Chamberlain Excerpts
Monday 5th February 2024

(3 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
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The way that universal credit works means that work coaches can use their flexibility, but if a payment is short one month, the appropriate thing to do is to sort it the next.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
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T10. In his opening remarks, the Secretary of State mentioned the assessment period for cost of living payments, but people on four-weekly pay schedules miss out on support because they fall foul of the assessment period rules for universal credit. What assessment have the Government made of the number of people missing out, and what remedy do they have?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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Cost of living payments can be affected by when people are paid, and therefore by whether they are on universal credit and qualify at precisely that point. I do not have the figure to hand that the hon. Lady requests, but I will of course get back to her with it.

Pensions

Wendy Chamberlain Excerpts
Wednesday 31st January 2024

(3 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Alison McGovern Portrait Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab)
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Hopefully, the House will be relieved to know that I do not intend to repeat the explanation of this order that the Minister has just given. As he said, the statutory instrument addresses the needs of a specific group of pensioners. We support the measure and will therefore obviously support the order. I will just take a very short amount of time to raise a few other related issues.

Further to the debate that we had on the previous order, Madam Deputy Speaker, you will remember that under Labour we saw an historic fall in pensioner poverty. Unfortunately, that has been rising recently, which is alarming after nearly two decades of decline: one in six pensioners are now living in poverty, with the figure rising to one in four among those who are single. I hope the Minister agrees that Britain should be one of the best countries in the world in which to be a pensioner, so the fact that many are still spending their later years in poverty does not reflect well on us.

Labour in power introduced pension credit, ensuring that pensioners’ weekly income reaches a minimum guaranteed level while offering a whole host of benefits, such as free dental and optical treatment. However, as we have discussed many times across the Dispatch Box, despite highly publicised campaigns, statistics released in October show that 40% of those eligible to claim pension credit are still not doing so. Given that I am sure the Minister shares my concern about this matter, will he confirm what more the Government are doing within their powers to make people aware of their potential pension credit entitlements?

Since we have just rehearsed all of the arguments about the cost of living, I thought the Minister might like to take a moment to reflect on what more the Government can do. As we know, social security systems cannot perform their most basic function if entitlements are eroded by inflation or, worse, not taken up at all. Further to the debate that we have just had, we also need to end the speculation about uprating. Pensioners should not be put through that, any more than anyone else should.

As we all know, the key to a good retirement starts in the workplace, when retirement can often seem like a distant concept. We need people to consider their future early on, which was the logic behind automatic enrolment —a massive policy success started under the last Labour Government, which has driven up the number of people saving. However, too many people are still falling through the net.

In September, the Pensions (Extension of Automatic Enrolment) Act 2023 received Royal Assent with cross-party support, giving Ministers the power to abolish the lower earnings limit for contributions, and reducing the age for being automatically enrolled from 22 to 18. At the time, the pensions Minister, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott), said:

“We will consult on the detailed implementation at the earliest opportunity”.

We have not had further information about that implementation, and I wanted to give the Minister the opportunity to share any information about what is happening with those powers. I hope that all Members across this House will agree that the extension of auto-enrolment is a good thing, and that we should crack on with it.

I will make one final point: the roll-out of collective defined-contribution schemes, which provide an income for later life while giving members greater certainty about retirement outcomes that they could achieve, is certainly to be welcomed. However, more needs to be done to ensure that the proper framework is in place for companies that express an interest in CDCs, while ensuring that those who can still join a defined-benefit scheme do so. I would be grateful if the Minister commented on that.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
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Very briefly, the Pensions Minister will know, because there was a Westminster Hall debate on this a couple of weeks ago, about some of the issues experienced with defined-benefit pension schemes with companies such as BP not applying the limits that have been recommended by the trustees. Does the shadow Minister agree that we need to ensure that companies that have made promises to pensioners actually pay out?

Alison McGovern Portrait Alison McGovern
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am not entirely sure whether that intervention was for me, so I will let the Minister respond when he winds up. However, on companies keeping their promises, that seems like one of the basics to me.

As I said before, we support these measures and will not oppose the Government’s proposals, but I would very much welcome the Minister’s comments on the questions I have raised.

Social Security

Wendy Chamberlain Excerpts
Wednesday 31st January 2024

(3 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
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Given the number of us in the Chamber, I do not think that this will be an afternoon of high drama. I, like others, do not intend to divide the House on the motion before us.

The Government made their decision on uprating last year. Pensioners around the country let out a collective sigh of relief that the triple lock had been kept. No one here today will vote down either this or the next statutory instrument. Clearly, we on the Opposition Benches would like the measures to go further, but we know that the harm from torpedoing them would be catastrophic, because it would prevent the proposed increases from taking place. None the less, as the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) said, there are different ways of doing this, and given that we have this opportunity to speak today, I will do so to allow the Minister to get a feel for the mood of the House—how we feel the Government are performing in this area, and, more importantly in an election year, how our constituents feel that they are performing.

It is quite clear that the outcomes of Government policy are hard to swallow. What we are seeing is women dying as they fight for compensation because of the Government’s maladministration of their state pensions, and that is clearly not acceptable. We see pensioners going hungry and risking illness because they cannot afford to either eat or stay warm, and that is not acceptable. I raised a number of these issues relating to pensioner poverty in my recent Adjournment debate, and I look forward to meeting the Minister, as was promised, to discuss some of them. As Members have already said, we know that one in three children are living in poverty, and that is not acceptable.

Madam Deputy Speaker, the report card is in, and it is a fail. Record numbers of families are relying on emergency food parcels. In April to September last year, 320,000 people turned to a food bank for the first time. The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) mentioned the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s essentials guarantee. I find it interesting that we are here debating how much the uprating to benefits is, but we never seem to debate what is the correct amount in the first place that can allow people to live in dignity and obtain their essentials. Perhaps if people had that certainty, they would be better placed to improve their health and often their employment opportunities.

Incidentally, the Trussell Trust is on the estate today—indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker, I think I saw you at the meeting—and I hope the Minister has had the time to visit its staff in the Churchill Room to hear directly from them. The Minister and I have worked together on the all-party parliamentary group on ending the need for food banks and our inquiry report into cash or food. There today I learned my own statistics for North East Fife. I have one main Trussell Trust food bank, in Cupar, which until recently was ably run by Joe Preece—he has just stepped down after a number of years in charge. Those statistics showed me that there has been a 25% increase in the use of the Cupar food bank since 2018. That is before covid; the Government give lots of reasons about people experiencing pressures due to the cost of living but we all know in this place that food bank use was increasing long before covid came along.

Child poverty costs the Government £39 billion each year through immediate additional public services and the delayed costs associated with the higher risk of unemployment in adults who grew up in poverty. That £39 billion per year is a huge amount of what is to some extent avoidable spending, and I find it hard to believe that we could find a voter who thought that letting a child live in poverty was acceptable if we could avoid it. Even if we could find that voter, I am pretty sure they would be horrified by the amount it is costing them, the taxpayer, to effectively do nothing. So I put it to the Minister and the Government that they are shooting themselves in the foot by uprating benefits with inflation while keeping the two-child limit and freezing the benefit cap. The Minister might say in his closing remarks that the cap was increased last year but that is disingenuous because it had been frozen since 2016, when it was actually lowered. Last year’s uprating was vital but totally insufficient in ending poverty.

When I was elected in December 2019 some 41,000 families across the UK were subject to the benefit cap and now there are over 75,000. The drop in numbers from the uprating last April will quickly vanish if the cap is frozen for another seven years. Indeed, these are the two policies which, if changed, would be the most effective and efficient means of lifting hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty. I do not know for how long the Minister will be in his current position—we do not know when the general election will be this year and the change that might bring—but what a legacy it would be to take hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty. I hope he agrees with me on that.

It would not be a DWP debate for me without raising the issue of unpaid carers and in particular carer’s allowance. Following this uprating, carer’s allowance will be £81.90 each week, claimable by the 1.3 million carers who do 35 hours of unpaid care each week—full-time work. That is just £15.75 per week more than when I was elected four years ago—for each hour of cooking, cleaning, bathing, appointments, admin and worrying, an extra 45p. So yes I am bringing it up again.

I am looking forward to meeting the Chief Treasury to the Secretary next month to discuss carer’s allowance, particularly the much-needed reforms of it, because I believe that carer’s allowance creates barriers to work. Almost half of carers receiving carer’s allowance report that they are struggling to make ends meet, and if they are struggling, the people they are caring for are struggling too.

I am going to end with a local gripe. Yesterday I received a letter from the DWP north-east Scotland service leader. This followed from the Department’s written statement six days ago about starting the next phase of the transition to universal credit. The letter was dated seven days ago and it told me that the move to universal credit expansion into North East Fife had been moved forward, to nine days ago—two days before the letter was written, three before the announcement was made by the Government, and over a week before I was actually told. MPs rely on timely communications to be able to do our job, to scrutinise Government activity and to support our constituents. I very much hope that that was a one-off error but I raise it here in the hope that future errors can be prevented.

These orders are a technical necessity, but when we look past that—when we look past the different ways of calculating inflation and the actuarial arguments—what we are talking about is what kind of society we want to live in. During covid many found out for the first time about the inadequacies of our social security system and for those remaining on it, it remains deeply inadequate.

Defined-Benefit Pension Schemes

Wendy Chamberlain Excerpts
Wednesday 17th January 2024

(4 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall
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Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Carmichael
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman strikes at the reasons why I brought forward this debate. We might benefit from a wider and longer ventilation of the issues at some later stage, but we have 30 minutes today, so let us use it. I had the opportunity to discuss the issues yesterday with the Minister, and he is alive to the concerns.

When it comes to regulating pensions, and indeed other similar financial provisions, the law of unintended consequences is never far away. The Government are right to be cautious, but they have to be alive to the fact that this is an emerging crisis. What happens to the beneficiaries of the BP and Shell pension schemes today could happen to just about any pensioner the future. As those pension funds come to a point of greater maturity, the concern that we hear from BP, Shell and other pensioners is that decisions are being taken not in relation to their best interests, which is the primary fiduciary duty of the trustees, but because of other concerns. There is a significant number of significant issues for the Government to look at in relation to pension regulation, not least of which is the balance between the companies that have created these pension funds in the first place and the independence of the trustees.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
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With 60,000 BP pensioners impacted, it is unsurprising that I too have been contacted by constituents. There is a wider debate about the fact that if multinational companies such as BP and Shell are making these decisions, smaller companies will end up making similar decisions if something is not done. My right hon. Friend mentioned appointed trustees. Does he agree that BP has a duty to take the advice of its appointed trustees to prevent real-terms cuts to pensions? Otherwise, what is the point in having trustees at all?

Cost of Living: Pensioners

Wendy Chamberlain Excerpts
Tuesday 16th January 2024

(4 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
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There are 2 million older people living in poverty—that is one in six—and another million are sitting just above the poverty line silently struggling to make ends meet. Together, a quarter of older people are in or at risk of being in poverty. In recent years, the phrase “heating or eating” has become shorthand for the cost of living crisis. It rhymes, and it is easy to say, but it is the reality facing too many of our pensioners. Age UK research found that 4.2 million people cut back on food or groceries last year, while a survey by this House’s Petitions Committee of those engaging in petitions on pension levels found that three quarters were worried about affording food.

Health statistics always worsen in the cold winter months, with mortality rising in all parts of the UK last year compared with previously. As we face an even colder winter —in my constituency we often reach minus temperatures overnight—there are real consequences when older people cannot afford to properly heat their homes. The reality is that heating or eating is not a catchphrase, but a decision about survival. It is our duty as policy makers in this place to ask why that is a reality for so many of our older people and to find solutions.

I welcomed the Government’s eventual decision to keep the triple lock this year, but the lack of clarity and uncertainty about that decision appeared to be electorally motivated, and I argue it caused a great deal of anxiety for many older constituents.

Richard Foord Portrait Richard Foord (Tiverton and Honiton) (LD)
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My hon. Friend is talking about the triple lock on pensions. I have heard it said in this House in recent months that the triple lock on pensions was a Conservative proposal, so I went to the Library to find out whether that was true. The 2010 Conservative manifesto talks about

“restoring the link between the basic state pension and average earnings”,

while the 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto states:

“We will uprate the state pension annually by whichever is the higher of growth in earnings, growth in prices or 2.5 per cent.”

Does she agree with me that the triple lock was a Lib Dem proposal?

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain
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I regularly meet Steve Webb, the former Lib Dem Pensions Minister from the coalition, and I know how hard he worked when in government on this policy, so I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and thank him for his intervention.

The triple lock is of no use to anyone if the Government cannot get their systems working to pay people what they are due. Repeatedly last year we learned of pensioners nearing or reaching pension age trying to top up their national insurance records and seeing their money disappear without a trace. It would appear again some weeks later, but often only after chasing by an MP, an adviser or due to media coverage. That was not just in one or two cases; what became apparent were systemic problems of jammed helplines and hundreds upon hundreds of people losing track of their savings as they paid them over to the Government. Will the Minister tell us what he is doing to resource properly the Future Pension Centre?

Christine Jardine Portrait Christine Jardine (Edinburgh West) (LD)
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My hon. Friend is making a strong point and an excellent speech. On savings and topping up national insurance, we hear that about two thirds of those over 64 are dipping into their savings just to keep going. They are cutting down on food, and eating less healthily. Apart from the cruelty shown to pensioners by forcing them into that position, are the Government not short-sighted in not seeing the implications of treating our pensioners so badly for the NHS, the welfare system and social care?

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain
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I think it is reflected across a number of policy areas that we should look in all our services at sufficiency of income, allowing people to live with dignity and respect and knowing that they can cover the essentials, and for pensioners as well as for other age groups.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Further to that point, will the hon. Lady give way?

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain
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I give way to the hon. Member—it is not an Adjournment debate without him.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I congratulate the hon. Lady, who always brings to the House and Westminster Hall bread-and-butter issues that I support. I am glad to come along and give my support to her tonight. The price of electricity in Northern Ireland is rising by 20%, but pensions are rising by only 8.5%. With similar increases in the cost of meat and veg, it is clear that those comfortable on their pension in 2020 will be substantially less comfortable now. Does she not agree that an investigation into energy prices must take place as people feel that they are being gouged every time they put on their light or gas and feel the pain of prioritising one necessity over another?

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain
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I am grateful to the hon. Member. I agree that many people feel they are being held hostage by the vagaries of energy prices and systems. Although the cap and other measures have gone some way to helping with that, there is no doubt that it is a huge challenge. It also demonstrates why the triple lock remains required.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
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While we are on energy prices, I am acutely aware that, as we speak, pensioners in my constituency are having to brave serious snow conditions and, because we have the highest level of fuel poverty anywhere in the country, they will feel literally and metaphorically out in the cold. Does my hon. Friend agree that Ofgem has a role to play in the creation of a social tariff, or even a geographically-based tariff?

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain
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One challenge in my right hon. Friend’s constituency is the number of his constituents who are off grid. We know that there is a lack of regulation in the sector off grid. One other challenge for the Government in responding to energy price fluctuations was getting a lot of money out to many people easily, and administrative issues materialised for those off grid. Many of them have still not seen the money to which they are entitled. We need to look at better regulation of our energy system.

I was talking about the Future Pension Centre and the challenges experienced by many constituents across the UK in topping up their pensions. I tabled a presentation Bill on the issue to extend the deadline and was glad that the Government took that up. In responding, will the Minister tell us what discussions he is having with His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs about making its systems align and function properly? If those systems were working as they should, many constituents would not have a gap to fill in the first instance. Will he consider implementing a proper receipting system so that older people have proof of payment as they do with any other transaction?

We know that errors by the Department for Work and Pensions are all too commonplace; we need only to look at the experience of the WASPI women—the Women Against State Pension Inequality—to see that. Those women, through no fault of their own, lost their ability to plan for their retirements. They lost their financial autonomy. Many of them continue to live in poverty, while others have sadly died without seeing any compensation.

I know that we are all awaiting the final report of the ombudsman setting out its recommendations for compensation for the WASPI women, but in the meantime will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss the next steps? He and I worked successfully together on the all-party parliamentary group on ending the need for food banks before he took on his current role, and I hope that we can do so again.

I return to pension income and want to raise pension credit with the Minister. This top-up benefit is the simplest tool at the Government’s disposal to lift pensioners out of poverty. It feels like every year we have a new attempt at increasing uptake with a fancy leaflet or other information campaign. I am sure we all go to the drop-ins, have our pictures taken and share them with our constituents, but pension credit take-up remains stuck at 63%, which suggests that the campaigns simply are not working. Pensioners either do not know about the benefit or do not realise they are eligible, or some struggle with the stigma of being seen to claim it.

I have been in this role for more than three years, and I have spent a lot of time having conversations about how to improve uptake. Clearly, an annual leaflet is not doing the trick. We need a long-term strategy on pension credit uptake with two key focuses: how we share data to identify people eligible for pension benefit, and how we target them efficiently and effectively so that they actually claim it and do not feel stigmatised?

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Lady makes a critical point. When I talk to pensioners in my constituency, I always ask what benefits they are on. I always mention carer’s allowance if they do not receive disability living allowance, and I always mention pension credit. In many cases, they are not on it. How do we make a better system? I suggest, with great respect, that maybe the Department needs to physically go to those people and introduce it to them. Many people are proud, independent and do not want to take it up because they think they should not, but they should. They worked hard all their days and paid their tax and national insurance, and it is time for payback.

--- Later in debate ---
Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain
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Stigma is definitely a part of it, but some think they do not qualify as they have a sufficiency of income that would result in their being rejected. I always say to them that even if it is only 50p, it is worth doing because of the passporting benefits. We have seen this challenge around child benefit. Having not seen an increase in the thresholds, we are in a ludicrous situation where if a single earner earns over £60,000, the household is not entitled to it. The challenge is that if the non-earning parent does not apply, they do not get their national insurance contributions for their pension. Why would people apply for something that they do not think they are entitled to? We must do more to make it easier for people to get what they are entitled to. They do not want to end up 20 years down the line finding out that they do not have full pension contributions, because we know that topping it up is quite challenging, as I have talked about.

Going back to pension credit, perhaps once the Minister’s Department has published the results of last summer’s trials of targeting recipients of housing benefit, he could give us an update on the outcome of the trial to see whether that might work for pension credit, and what lessons can be learned. Missing out on pension credit has serious implications beyond the credit itself. As I mentioned, it is the main passporting benefit for older people for cost of living payments. While we focus on a long-term strategy for pension credit, will the Minister consider extending entitlement to those payments to older people in receipt of housing benefit and council tax reduction, for example? I suspect that if they are eligible for those things, they are probably eligible for pension credit.

Before I move on to long-term strategies to tackle pension poverty, I want to raise one more benefit-related point. This is not strictly in his portfolio, but will the Minister commit to providing the House with an update on the future of the household support fund? I know from English colleagues that there is significant distress at the prospect of its not being renewed in March.

I dispute the claim of the Minister’s colleague, the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, the hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), in a written response to me yesterday, that pensioner poverty is falling. It is not. The claim was based on statistics before housing costs, which is distinctly disingenuous. Increasingly, pensioners face high housing costs, as more continue to rent privately into older age. Twice as many rent now than a decade ago—a trend set to continue as it is harder for young people to get on to the housing ladder.

We must tackle the poverty immediately in front of us, but we must look at long-term drivers of poverty among pensioners and stop this trend in its tracks. There are two parts to that: ensuring that people enter retirement sufficiently equipped, and ensuring that no one falls into poverty after ending their working life. Ultimately, our experience during our working life determines what happens to us when we retire. If someone has to take time out of work or only works part-time because of ill health, child rearing or caring, they will be substantially worse off in retirement. Those last two reasons are incredibly gendered, with women more likely to miss out on savings for their retirement.

Dan Poulter Portrait Dr Dan Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It was right earlier to highlight the benefits of the coalition Government introducing the triple lock, which this year will mean an uptick of between £650 and £1,000 for pensioners. The coalition Government also introduced mandatory pension contributions and pension pots from employers. Does hon. Lady not think that that is the sort of long-term planning that will make a difference to help this generation to be in a better place financially when they retire?

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain
- Hansard - -

I assume the hon. Gentleman is referring to automatic enrolment; if he waits, I will mention that. I will not let it go amiss.

Returning briefly to the gender pay gap, the Government’s own research puts the gender pensions gap at 35%. I would argue that we could call it the caring gender gap, because life is arguably more complicated for retirees with caring responsibilities. I am not just thinking about older couples who increasingly rely on each other as their health starts to deteriorate, but people who move into retirement while carrying on caring for their adult children or for other family members.

Constituents have written to me to protest about the injustice of having lost out on the opportunity to build up retirement savings and now, moving into pension age, losing their carers allowance but still continuing to provide unpaid care to their loved ones while others in their cohort settle into a more comfortable retirement. I would like to see a comprehensive plan from the Government, across Departments, to tackle that unfairness. Are there ways of bringing unpaid carers into auto-enrolment through a credit scheme? Could we increase the employer contribution to auto-enrolment to help to build the savings of those in low-paid work? How can we encourage more carers back into the workplace?

I was proud to pass the Carer’s Leave Act 2023, but that is not enough. We need policies on issues such as staying-in-touch days and we need a carer’s allowance that incentivises work. I look forward to meeting a colleague of the Minister on just that. There is definitely an education piece here. Auto-enrolment was an incredible policy, but it also means that people do not really think about their pensions. The Money and Pensions Service estimates that 22 million people say they do not know enough to plan for their retirement, while Department for Work and Pensions research last year found that attitudes to pensions are

“characterised by detachment, fear and complacency”.

I think that those views would be represented in this place, too, when I think about the different things I did before I came to this place and the different pension pots I have.

I understand that planning for retirement is difficult and complicated unless you are an actuary or a financial specialist. I can hear the response of my teenage children if I try to bring it up at home or see the eyes glaze over on the doorstep, but people do care about the result of not engaging. My challenge for the Minister is to bridge that gap and change our culture so that people knowing about their pension is normal, and not scary but a standard part of people’s financial planning and education.

I am interested to hear the Minister’s ideas, but I will put to him just one that keeps coming up when I speak with experts and stakeholders. Will he consider a trial to test the impact of automatically booking savers for pensions guidance appointments when they turn 50? Let us try to make it easy, because lots of things can happen in retirement: your health can change, you could be bereaved or divorced, you could become a carer. The economy could be crashed, causing a sustained cost of living crisis. To try to understand drivers of poverty among older people, Independent Age followed the outcomes for a cohort of pensioners who entered state pension age above the poverty line. Within 10 years almost half had fallen into poverty. Something else is clearly happening that we need to understand. I have talked about a lot of different moving parts in the overall pension and poverty landscape, but what we need—what older people need—is a comprehensive plan.

I will end by asking the Minister this: will he consider a cross-Government review of what support an older person needs to stay out of poverty? Will he bring Westminster up to the standards of other nations and support a Westminster commissioner for older people and ageing? I would like to get something done and I am sure that the Minister would too. I look forward to hearing his response.

Oral Answers to Questions

Wendy Chamberlain Excerpts
Monday 18th December 2023

(5 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
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The cost of living payments are a vital means of support during the cost of living crisis, but my constituent has lost out, through no fault of her own, because of the well-known issue whereby two of her work paydays fell within the assessment period used to assess eligibility. Will the Government review the eligibility process for the third cost of living payments to ensure that no one else misses out?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

This is a long-standing issue that crops up every few years. It is not something on which the Government intend to take specific action. We trust people to manage their finances, such that they can cope with the occasional eventuality where there is an additional year within any one calendar year.