The WASPI Debate


Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): I congratulate the WASPI campaign on the success of its e-petition, which has led directly to today’s debate. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on her speech, which made the case strongly on behalf of women born in the 1950s—she reminded us that, implausibly, she was too.

Today, we debate the WASPI e-petition and, in a sense, the consequences of it. I want to address in turn three separate parts of the e-petition: first, the changes to pensions for women born in the 1950s and the ask from the WASPI campaign; secondly, the communications to those women from the Government and in other ways, from 1995 onwards; and thirdly, the new state pension and the way in which information about that is being communicated. As I said, I will touch on each of those in turn, highlighting where I agree with the campaign and e-petition and where not.

Let me start at the heart of the WASPI e-petition. This is the third time that we have debated this issue in the House, and as we go around the course again today, I hope that we will focus as much on the facts of the ask and the consequences of that as on the understandable emotion of women born in the 1950s. By way of reassurance to those in the Chamber, let me say that that includes my wife and both my sisters.

Helen Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Richard Graham: May I make a little progress before giving way to the hon. Lady?

First, I agree that the changes in the Pensions Act 1995 and the Pensions Act 2011 will undoubtedly be difficult for women born in the 1950s. Indeed, those changes have been underway for some time and the pension age for women is already 63. But—this is a significant but, and a challenge that has to be made today—I do not accept the proposed WASPI solution, and I will explain why.

The e-petition states: “The Government must make fair transitional arrangements for all women born on or after 6th April 1951 who have unfairly borne the burden of the increase to the State Pension Age”.

The fair, transitional arrangement sought by the campaign is spelt out on the WASPI Facebook page, which reads: 
“What is our ask?… put all women born in the 50s, or after 6th April 1951 and affected by the changes to the state pension age in the same financial position they would have been in had they been born on or before 5th April 1950.”

One of the key WASPI campaigners, Anne Keen, who I imagine is here today, said in her evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee, “we feel this is a very fair ask”.

Now, the impact of the ask that appears on the WASPI Facebook page has been estimated at more than £30 billion. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us a little bit more clarity on that. The figure is a third more than the entire Transport budget, more than the entire budget of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and probably the same as—possibly more than—the entire budget for Scotland. What we are talking about today may be considered a very fair ask by some people, but others may consider it an enormous and wholly inappropriate ask.

The petition states that the WASPI campaign agrees with equalisation, but the implication of the ask on the Facebook page, and as repeated to the Women and Equalities Committee, is to unwind the 1995 Act, which was brought in specifically to bring about the equality of gender.

Ian Blackford (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (SNP) rose—

Richard Graham: If the spokesman for the Scottish National party wishes me to give way, I am happy to do so.

Ian Blackford: We recognise that equalisation has to take place, but this is about the pace of change and the desire to ensure that mitigation can take place. We talked about the pension age being 63. As it is, somebody born in February 1954 will not retire until July 2019—two and a half years after somebody born a year earlier. That cannot be acceptable. Also, £30-odd billion is not the spending in one year; it is the spending up to 2026. The hon. Gentleman should get his facts right.

Richard Graham: I am half grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The SNP’s position has always been interesting, because its Members are in the happy situation of being able to say—and, if need be, to promise—whatever they like without any danger of having to fulfil a commitment on the pension age. I notice that he did not try to commit himself to any transitional arrangement, let alone the full transitional arrangement proposed by the WASPI campaign. It is fine for hon. Members to posture in this debate, and I am in no doubt that we will see a great deal of that, but it is unkind and unfair to the WASPI campaigners for Members not to speak honestly about what they and their party would do.

Helen Jones: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way.

Mr George Howarth: On a point of order, Mr Stringer. Did I just hear the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) correctly in his accusation that some people were behaving dishonestly? Is that a parliamentary expression?

Graham Stringer (in the Chair): I did not hear the hon. Gentleman say that. I call Helen Jones to continue her intervention.

Helen Jones: The hon. Gentleman said earlier that the women protesting about the change were being emotional. That is quite often a label attached to women who exhibit behaviour different from that of a doormat. What I said to him about the injustices in this scheme was based on fact, not on emotion.

Richard Graham: I am semi-grateful for that intervention as well.

Mrs Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I am listening carefully to the debate, and I have heard a lot of warm words from the SNP and from the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), but I have not heard any solutions, let alone how those solutions may be paid for by any future Government.

Graham Stringer (in the Chair): I remind right hon. and hon. Members that interventions should be short. We are not doing very well at the moment.

Richard Graham: Thank you, Mr Stringer; I am doing my best to take interventions. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) made a very reasonable point. The previous Labour pensions spokesman said that, in the four months in which he was in the role, he was “grappling with how best to work out the transitional provisions.”

I hope that we hear more about what the Labour party intends to do in practice.

One of greatest difficulties in this debate is about the word “fair”. Over the weekend, a lot of WASPI campaigners were tweeting me back and forth about various issues regarding the debate and their e-petition. One of the most interesting views came from a woman born in early 1960 who made a point about what would happen were the main WASPI campaign ask to be given—that is, if everybody born in the 1950s were backdated as if they had been born before 1950. She asked why she and her contemporaries should bear the burden on behalf of those who would effectively be given an exemption from the changes, and who were born only a few months before her.

The problem is that whenever a change is made, some will always be relatively better off and some will be relatively worse off. I strongly support women born in the 1950s—as I hope I made clear from the fact that my wife and sisters are both girls of the 1950s—but to imply that somehow they must take preference over those born a few months before or after is a different kind of potential unfairness.

The second point of the debate is all about communication. Communication is at the heart of what many of the campaigners feel is unfair about the changes made in 1995 and 2011. However, it is simply not true that nobody knew, as the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) claimed in the debate in the main Chamber. In 2004 the then Labour Government estimated from their research in the Department for Work and Pensions that 75% of those affected had been told. A separate study by the DWP—not yet referred to in debate, but unearthed by the pensions correspondent at the Financial Times over the weekend—demonstrated that seven out of 10 people spoken to knew about the change in the pension age. The truth is that we will never know the precise figure. We will never know exactly how many people knew, did not know, and might have been told about it but ignored it because it was all a long way in the future—20 years away.

Mhairi Black (Paisley and Renfrewshire South) (SNP): I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing this intervention. Does he not find it strange that thousands upon thousands of women from different careers, different backgrounds and different classes are all coming together to claim exactly the same thing, which is that they were not told? The DWP has conflicting records on what letters were sent out and when, so we should be careful when addressing the point that people were told.

Richard Graham: The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we can be sure that not everybody knew and that not all of those who were told took the information to heart. We can be sure that some people were not told—there is no doubt about that. The pensions correspondent at the Financial Times told me:

“I dispute the evidence given to the Committee… by Lin Phillips, that ‘There was not much in the newspapers, only maybe a little bit in the business pages.’”

The correspondent has done a detailed study that will be presented as written evidence to the Select Committee, and she went on to say that she has looked at coverage from 1993, when the changes to equalise the state pension age for men and women was first mooted by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). She says that, from 1994 to 2006, there were hundreds of mentions of the state pension age in the news sections and the personal finance pages, as well as in the business pages.

Dr Philippa Whitford: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that, for such a drastic change as a change in the age of retirement, women had a right to expect to receive a direct letter, in the same way as they are given a pension statement on an almost annual basis?

Richard Graham: The hon. Lady is right. There are huge lessons to be learned, and I will come on to them because both parties that were in government between 1995 and 2010—predominantly the party that is now the main Opposition party—have to be able to explain, to look at themselves and say, “Could we have done more? Could we have communicated better?” The answer has to be yes, although there is a philosophical question that remains valid today. It is for Members, and indeed for the WASPI campaign, which has offered some thoughts, to come up with ideas about how that philosophical question can be addressed, because surely there is a balance of responsibility between what the Government must do to spell out change, what the wider world, including the media, must do to communicate that change—in today’s world that includes social media—and what the individual must do to take responsibility for finding out about major things that will affect their life.

Ruth Cadbury (Brentford and Isleworth) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on introducing this debate. Those of us who have had children have received child benefit. I have received an annual statement from the DWP about my entitlement to child benefit, so it would therefore not be too difficult for people to receive annual statements on their pension entitlement in the same way. If the DWP can do it for parents, surely it can do it for those approaching retirement age.

Richard Graham: The hon. Lady is correct. Indeed, people can get a pension statement from the DWP, and half a million people have done so. Of course, an individual has to ask for that statement, rather than it being automatically sent. She raises a question about whether the DWP could do more to communicate directly, which I am sure the Minister will address.

Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Richard Graham: I will make a little progress first.
I agree with the WASPI campaign that it is clear that more should and could have been done on communication and that a lot of women have had a lot of difficulty as a result of that failure in communication. As I have said, there is still the philosophical question to address. What matters now is whether lessons have been learned by everybody involved and whether changes will be made that help people in future. So long as longevity projections continue to move upwards, the likelihood must be that the state pension age will also move upwards.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Richard Graham: Let me finish my point, and I will come back to the hon. Lady.

I believe that the Government have now accepted three major points, and it would be good to hear from the Minister that that is the case. First, there will be a review of the state pension age every five years—I believe a review is planned for 2017, which perhaps he will confirm. Secondly, whatever is decided as a result of that review, which should have cross-party consensus as far as possible, everybody concerned will be given a minimum of 10 years’ notice. That will address the most difficult point for members of the WASPI campaign, which is the shortness of the time in which they knew about the changes. Thirdly, and this is also important, the basis on which the new state pension age will be calculated is that all of us, men and women alike, should have a maximum of a third of our life on the state pension. That is important for the one fairness that has not been mentioned today, intergenerational fairness, so that those who are paying for the pensions of their elders are paying for us to spend only a third of our life as pensioners.

Several hon. Members rose—

Richard Graham: I will come to questions in a moment.

I hope the Minister will confirm all my points, because they have important consequences for everyone, not least the 10 years’ notice of any change.

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Stringer. You asked us at the start of this debate to do the maths on the time needed to allow all 20 speakers to speak. I did the maths, and it was five to six minutes. The hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) might be having some difficulty.

Graham Stringer (in the Chair): That is not a point of order, but the point is well made.

Richard Graham: May I seek your guidance, Mr Stringer? I have tried to be as generous as I can in taking interventions.

Graham Stringer (in the Chair): You have the floor, but there are 20 people waiting to speak. When you sit down, I intend to impose a time limit.

Richard Graham: Thank you. I have got the message loud and clear, and I hope that Members will respond accordingly—[Hon. Members: “It’s you!”] I was trying to help colleagues on both sides of the Chamber who are standing up and trying to intervene.

The last point raised by the petition is on the new state pension, the way in which it has been communicated and the implied fairness, or unfairness, of it. It is time that we all recognised that the new state pension has huge benefits for many people, and particularly for women. For the first time in the history of pensions in this country, women who have spent years out of the workplace, either bringing up children or caring for their parents, will receive those years as contributions to national insurance, which will determine what their state pension is. [Interruption.] That is a revolutionary change, whether Members care to recognise it or not, and it is one that we should all support.

Secondly, the changes made to the composition of the state pension, particularly the triple lock, mean that the absolute amount of money received by people on the new state pension this April will already be £1,000 a year more than in 2010. Thirdly, it has been calculated that, in the first 10 years of the new state pension, some 650,000 women will receive £416 a year more than they would have received without the new state pension.

Mr George Howarth: On a point of order, Mr Stringer. As the hon. Gentleman moves into the 22nd minute of his speech, will he give us an indication of its likely future proportions, so that we can pace ourselves?

Graham Stringer (in the Chair): Again, that is not a point of order, but the point is made.

Catherine McKinnell: Further to that point of order, Mr Stringer. Can you guide me on whether you have any control over this issue? My concern is that it is deeply disrespectful to the many women here who are concerned about this subject.

Graham Stringer (in the Chair): Mr Graham has the floor. He has heard the points, and I intend to impose a time limit when he sits down.

Richard Graham: Thank you, Mr Stringer.

I have covered the three main points that I wanted to raise today, and it is worth recapping the implications—[Hon. Members: “No!”] I will be very brief. First, many people in this House—

Simon Hoare (North Dorset) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Stringer. This debate is being held in a way somewhat alien to what we are used to in the Chamber. The Public Gallery is full, and rightly so; it is an important issue. I invite you to remind all of us that this is a meeting being held in public, not a public meeting.

Graham Stringer (in the Chair): Again, that is not a point of order, but you have made your point, Mr Hoare, and I think Mr Graham has heard it.

Richard Graham: Thank you, Mr Stringer. In conclusion, the WASPI campaign has been well put together, and the e-petition has been a great success; that is why we are all here. I congratulate WASPI. All the points made by the campaign about communication in the past will have been noted and largely accepted by almost everybody in the House.

I have emphasised the lessons to be learned, in terms of what the DWP can take from this debate for any future changes made to the state pension age and how they are communicated, but WASPI’s central ask—changing the state pension received by people born in the 1950s—is not favoured by many of the campaign’s supporters, who understand that £30 billion or more is not an appropriate ask when there are so many other good causes on which money should be spent. On that basis, I do not believe that this House should support the e-petition’s call for fair transitional arrangements, which amount to that.