Westminster Hall, House of Commons, 1 February 2016
Rachel Reeves (Leeds West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on securing the debate and, of course, I pay tribute to the superb campaigners who are here and who are watching today’s proceedings.
The women who are being forced to wait longer for their pension, and who have been hit twice—by the changes in 1995 and then again in 2011—have been done an injustice. In 2011, as shadow Pensions Minister, I was proud to work with Age UK, USDAW––the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers—and many women, including my mother, in calling on the Government to think again. We were pleased then that we won a partial concession so that no woman would have to wait for more than an additional 18 months before they could claim their pension. However, I said then, and say again today, that that does not go far enough in righting this wrong. There are still 2.6 million women who have lost out as a result of the Government rewriting the rules, and 300,000 will have to wait an extra 18 months before they can retire.
Last week, I caught up with Barbara Bates, who lives in County Durham, with whom I campaigned in 2011. Even after the Government’s concession, Barbara still faces working an extra 78 weeks before she will see her state pension. The osteoarthritis that affected her wrists and thumbs when I first got to know her five years ago has now spread to her hands, knees, neck and right foot. She said:
“no government can change the way our bodies age, and in particular those of us who started work at 15 in the 70s, a lifetime of menial and heavy jobs that are vital but un-noticed”.
Like other Members, I have also been contacted by constituents. This morning, Margaret Cutty phoned me during her office tea break. She works mostly on her feet, doing lots of lifting as well, and she has had three operations in the past year. Her husband has just had a triple heart bypass. She wants to be able to spend more time caring for him as he grows older but, because of these changes, she will not be able to do so. The experiences of Barbara and Margaret are just two examples of what we know are hundreds of thousands of stories.
Mrs Hodgson: I was also recently contacted by two constituents: Lorraine Derret and Evelyn Winstanley, who have worked for 42 years and 45 years respectively. Like others, they have said that they were not told at all by any letter that this was going to happen to them. The DWP has been negligent, so there should be some transitional arrangements.
Rachel Reeves: I absolutely agree. The reality is that the 300,000 women who are suffering the maximum 18-month delay have lost out on £12,000 of pension. Official statistics show that only six in 10 women aged 55 to 64 have any private pension at all. For those who do, the average size of their pension pot is only 57% of that of a man of the same age. Women such as Barbara, Margaret and others whom my hon. Friends have mentioned—women earning little more than the minimum wage who are often struggling to work full time because of their caring responsibilities, and who are desperately trying to conserve what savings they have to ensure at least a minimal standard of living during their retirement—are very worried. For those women, moving the goalposts for the second time, as the Government have done, can have a devastating impact on their finances, families and life plans. That is why I propose that, at the very least, the Government should offer some specific protection for those women.
My proposal would mean restoring the qualifying age for pension credit to the 2011 timetable for women’s state pension age, thus providing at least some buffer for those who are least able to cope financially with this unfair move. Previous Government costings suggest that that would be affordable, with the money being well targeted at those who have been hardest hit. Let me be clear that I would like the Government to go further, but at the very least they should provide that support to those who have the least. Given the wrong done to those women by the Government, that is the least we should ask for and the least we should expect.
I agree that the state pension age needs to be increased to keep it affordable, and I agree that men’s and women’s state pension ages must be equalised, but I also agree with the part of the 2010 coalition agreement that stated that women’s state pension age should not rise to 66 before 2020. I agree with the former Minister for Pensions—the former Member for Thornbury and Yate—who admitted last month that reneging on that commitment was a “bad decision”. That is an understatement, but at least he came late to the party. I also agree with the current Minister for Pensions who has said:
“Unfortunately, the Government has not given women enough time to change their plans. These women have already accepted an increase in their state pension age, but they were given time to adjust. Suddenly, these same women are being targeted again, but this time they are not being given enough notice as the changes start in just five years’ time. I believe the Government’s decision is unfair and disproportionately hits women who are now around 56 years old.”